Monday, August 27, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 4, How Design Begins

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Design guy here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Last episode we explored Graphic Design. We laid out a basic definition first by clarifying it's difference from fine art. In fine art, it's perfectly okay to be subjective and to allow for individual interpretation, or to have no message at all. But Graphic design is different in that it must support an objective typographic message. If it doesn't communicate something specific, we've failed at our mission. We also identified typography as the essential component of graphic design. Without typography, there is no message, and if there's no message, there is no graphic design.

Today, we'll talk a bit about process. More to the point, we'll ask HOW does this process begin? In short, it begins with listening.

New Media Designer, Hillman Curtis, gives us insight about listening. He says, Listening is an activity. It's a matter of asking the right questions in the right way. And then fine-tuning your reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)

Now, no matter what we're designing, whether it's a post card or a passenger ship, what we're listening for are requirements. It's the requirements that define our project. We want to know about dimensions and deadlines, we want to know about constraints and content. We want to gather all the all the guiding factors that will put us on a sure path to reaching our destination.

But before we can assemble all these requirements, we've got to get comfortable with this activity of listening. Sounds simple, right? The client tells us stuff, we right it down, we go to work. In practice, it's far more tricky. Clients sometimes don't tell us stuff, or they tell us the wrong stuff, based on well-meaning, but misguided preconceptions. Or they're not even in touch themselves with what they really want. This leaves gaps. And we've got to get skilled at filling those gaps. The way to do it is by getting good at asking questions. I know, it sounds simple right? But here, too, we often ask the wrong questions. We bring our own preconceived notions and start down the wrong path of inquiry. We funnel the client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. This whole area can be slippery. So, what's a designer to do?

Let's answer that by first understanding what our goals in listening are. Where should our line of inquiry take us? The short answer is: to the heart of the matter.We'll ask our client open ended questions, questions that won't elicit simple yes or no responses. We want to get them talking, we want to draw it out from them. And we want to give them a wide berth at first, rather than hem them in by tut-tutting over ideas that sound expensive.

It's like we're probing, digging, sifting through the real issues and the red herrings. And what we're trying to uncover, what we're trying to get to, is what our clients really WANT. We want to know what STORY they are trying to tell. We want to know what their true goals are, including the obstacles to those goals, we want to get to the heart of their message, including the subtext, the implied. All these elements can be summarized by the word THEME. If we know what our theme is, then we've got the seed out of which a project grows, the engine that drives it. And make no mistake: Your solutions will be organic when they grow out of theme. It's when we're unclear about theme, that our work becomes contrived, as we muck about with style or other things to compensate for our lack of understanding.

Now, This pursuit of understanding, and this questioning process may take place over more than one meeting with time in between for research and internal discussion. When we've gotten really clear on what our clients want, their story, which theme, this is when requirements start to come in to focus. And this is where we've got to remain vigilant with ourselves and the clients. It's so easy to get the right answers and then go wrong. I mentioned before that we can funnel a client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. Sometimes that's because we have a favorite tool. We have a hammer,so to speak, and everything looks like a nail. We've got to watch out for this by remaining open to ALL the possibilities, by not limiting ourselves to top of the head solutions..

We do this by turning the questions on ourselves. We point them in our own direction. We have to ask ourselves, as designers, a whole lot of things..
And we'll do time.

For now, let's just recognize that listening all takes practice. Clients are all different, with different styles of communication. It will take experience get good at this. Sometimes you have to labor through this. And labor is a good word. Labor as in childbirth. Socrates, likened himself to a midwife, who would squeeze others with questions, to give birth to knowledge.(2) Get comfortable with probing for the heart of the matter, with drilling down, with sifting and sorting and discerning. This is the key to laying the foundation of understanding that lead you to on-target solutions that will delight your clients.

Well, that's it for today. I'll be posting show notes on my blog, which may be found at

Thanks so much for listening. Until we meet again, this is design guy.


1. Curtis, Hillman, MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer, New Riders Press, 2002


Monday, August 20, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 3, On Graphic Design

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Design guy here. Welcome back.

This is the show that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Last episode we defined design as the act of creating order out of chaos. And whether we're talking graphic or interior or environmental design, the basic definition stands because we're all engaged in the same PROCESS. It's a process that STARTS with a number of unrelated pieces and ENDS with an ordered unit. (1)

Looking closer, Graphic design has its own set of concerns that distinguish it from other forms of design. And, I think, right from the start, we have to be clear about what graphic design is not. And that's Art. Oh, sure it is AN art. It's practitioners are artists. But it's not Art with a capital A in that it's not fine art. This is where people get confused. Especially when we see some of the stunning works of graphic design by luminaries like Paul Rand (2) or Milton Glaser.(3) Their work should be viewed in a gallery. They're models of artistic excellence. So, what's the difference? Are we splitting semantical hairs, or what?

The distinction... is a question of motivation or purpose. Fine art is something that can be done in a loft, which is to say, it can be done for highly individualized ends. It can be done with no conscious purpose. It can be highly SUBjective. You might do it for your own enjoyment. Or to get a certain technical effect or for any other reason in the world. Sometimes there's a statement being made. Other times, if there's meaning, we'll leave that to the eye of the beholder to interpret. In other words, it's subject to personal interpretation, and IF it's subject to interpretation, it can mean anything.

When we cast the issue in these terms, we begin to see that graphic design is different. It's inherently Objective. Sure, it INVOLVES art, and designers can leave room for some ambiguity or personal interpretation, after all, this generates questions in the viewer, which intensifies their interaction. But, ultimately, Graphic design is done with a clear, specific aim in mind. And what is that aim, but communication? Communication of what? The artist's inner feelings on the day of creation? No, it's not about that. It's not subjective, as we've said. Graphic design is linked to an objective, typographic message. We can communicate that message artistically, in a stylized way, there may even be a strong individual signature on the work that makes one aware of the artist behind it.

I mentioned Milton Glaser before, and I'm thinking of his famous, iconic Dylan poster.(4) It's distinctly Glaser. But, in the end, it's commercial art. It's meant for commerce, to support a music company's product. And we're usually trying to sell stuff, whether that's the advantages of a certain denture cleaner, or a socially conscious screed about the impacts of deforestation. Regardless of subject matter, we've got to transmit specified meaning. And if people HAVEN'T understood, for example, that the iPhone is the most advanced, hip, web-capable phone available, then we've failed at our mission. If our work is not tethered to an objective typographic message, then we might as well stay in our lofts, because we're doing fine art.

Massimo Vignelli (5) describes Graphic Design, in its purest form, as Information Design. As such, it doesn't even require imagery. It's about creating readable, ordered messages. In fact, type IS our primary imagery. Letterforms are symbols that create words which have power of themselves to produce pictures in the minds of our audience. If we set the word, "home," all by itself on a page, it evokes the most primal associations in all of us. There's no need to pay Corbis licensing fees for that photo of a house on a hill. Words are your best clip art.

Hence, the rise of the swiss graphic school of design (6), which placed a premium on functional objectivism. Josef Muller Brockman (7), a pioneer associated with grid systems (8) moved away from an illustrative style of advertising to an objective, typographic approach. When images were used, they were not sized arbitrarily, but according to their importance. The driver of his work was words. Pages were structured, not treated as a free form canvas. And the structure was based on the metrics of type. The measure of their leading, their point size. Typography is the primary discipline of graphic design. Without it, there is no graphic design.

I'll conclude by quoting a portion from Quentin Newark's great book, appropriately titled, What is Graphic Design? (9)

Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It is all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying, imposing meaning on the world. It is in the streets, in evertything we read, it is on our bodies. We engage with design in road signs, adverstisements, magazines, cigarette packets, headache pills, the logo on our tshirt, the washing label on our jacket. It is not just a modern or capitalistic phenomenon. Streets full of signs, emblems, prices, sale offers, official pronouncements and news would all have been just as familiar to ancient Egyptians, medieval italians or the poeple of Soviet Russia. Graphic design sorts and differentiates - it distinguishes one company or organization or nation from another. It informs - it tells us how to bone a duck or how to register a birth. It acts on our emotions, and helps to shape how we feel about the world around us. Imagine if graphic design was banned, or simply disappeared overnight. There would be no written word, no newspapers, no magazines, no internet, no science to speak of. We would enter another Dark Ages, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short lifespans. Rather than a frivolous extra, the uses and purposes of graphic design are so integral to our modern world - civilization - that Marshall McLuhan named us "typographic man."

There's much more to say about this topic. I'm tempted to start a series on it. But I won't. I think we can move to a lower tier of discussion and revisit the grand subject from time to time. We'll look at the trees, and sometimes look at the forest to maintain perspective.

Well, that concludes today's discussion. I'll post info on some of the references I made today, including links to related books at Amazon, because some of you will want to add these to your library. My blog is located at That's Music by

Thanks again for listening. Hope to have you back again.

1. White, Alex,
The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architechture, and Type, Allworth Press, 2002



4. (Scroll down to view the referenced poster.)




Muller Brockmann, Josef, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Arthur Niggli Publisher, 1996 Ed.

9. Newark, Quentin, What is Graphic Design,? Rotovision, 2007 Ed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 2, What is Design?

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Design Guy here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that explores timeless principles of design, and explain them simply.

Today, we'll tackle the fundamental question. The one that frames everything to follow. So, before we get too specific, to define, say, graphic design, we want to begin by asking, "What is design?" What is design, itself? Now, there's a number of ways to answer the question. But the definition that I believe really distills it down to its essence, is this one:

Design is the act of creating order out of chaos.(1)

And what is chaos, but a randomness. It's a senseless jumble of elements. It's an absence of rules, a complete breakdown from any scheme that would lend sense or reason, or purpose or meaning to anything. And as human beings, we all have a desire for this order, it's a drive that's in our individual and collective psyche. That need to move away from chaos is in all of us. And when we're engaged in design, that's what's going on under the surface. It's really what's driving our efforts and moving our hands as our minds are churning away on the problem.

Now, as a theme, this idea of order versus chaos runs really deep in our culture. It forms the foundation of our sacred books. Take the Bible for example, which starts right off, of course, with an account of creation. But what's even more interesting in light of our definition of design, is that it goes on to describe the earth being initially formless, and void, basically in a state of chaos, as if it's just raw material. And it's only after this Creator performs an act of Design by ordering it, that he can declare it "good." When it was chaos, it was not good or pleasing. But now that everything has been put into order, with purpose and function, it can be declared good. And the same account goes on to describe mankind as having been made in the image of a Creator/Designer. And, of course, man is ever ordering and designing his world. Some of us listening today would describe ourselves as creative professionals as we go about desiging the little worlds of our websites or posters or books, etc. So, we see this concept everywhere we look. It's all around us.

So as designers, we're constantly engaged in it as we do our work, which boils down to combining many elements into cohesive whole. The more successful we are at integrating elements, the better our design outcomes will be. I like the word "integrate", especially in light of it's opposite, which is "disintegrate," which basically means to fall apart. I think that's why we speak in terms of design problems. They're like puzzles to be put together, or strings to be unknotted. As visual designers, we help untangle the problem of communication for our clients. We give shape and form and hierarchy to their message. Without our help, things fall apart. There's less meaning or purpose or sense to things that are poorly designed.

So, if you call yourself a "designer", you want to realize that you're providing a true service to others in that you're helping them to order and make sense of their worlds: You just completed a website for some local musicians - well, you've just advanced how they perceive themselves, and how they want to communicate that idea to the world. You've created packaging for a new product - you've just given expression to something, you've somehow made it more tangible, so that people taking it off the shelf with their hands, can better grasp it with their minds, and assign meaning to it. This could be something mundane, a bottle of organic dandruff shampoo, but you've enhanced understanding and meaning so that others can better fit this new thing into the order of their lives, and be happier for it. And this kind of enhancement of order and purpose and meaning captures somewhat of the definition and high calling of design.

And that's it for today. If you'd like to check out show notes, theyr'e available at my web page, which is Music is by I thank you for listening, and hope to have you back again.


1. White, Alex, The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architechture, and Type, Allworth Press, 2002

Monday, August 6, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 1, Intro Episode

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show.

This is our premier episode, so, by way of introduction I'd like to explain what the show is about, and how you'll benefit.

We live in a design-driven age. We've witnessed a productivity revolution and the spawning of vast amounts of new products and services. Along side of that, we see the rise of design as the high ground or competitive advantage, the differentiator, really, that allows business to stake out and hold unique market positions longer.

The other amazing phenomenon that's occurred is this power-to-the-people shift that places creation tools in the hands of us all. Desktop publishing, of course, is old, old news by now. But across the board, whether your arena is the graphic arts or publishing or music or film, the cost of entry and the ease with which people from all walks of life can participate has become democratized. The tools just get better and cheaper every day. So, there's a sense in which everyone is a designer, or at least it feels that way. We're all design guys, and I mean that in a gender neutral way, of course. The impetus for this new program, therefore, is to recognize these facts, and help make the principles of design accessible to professionals and ordinary folks, alike.

Now, there's lots of stuff out there about design, including podcasts. So, why this one? Well, often, these programs focus on technique. Others keep us abreast of industry happenings. And, while these, indeed, are helpful, and while I'll probably refer you to these programs from time to time, that kind of information tends to have a short shelf life.

What I'll endeavor to do, instead, is point up the timeless stuff. I want to impart information that doesn't change. Ideas that don't expire with successive software releases or date themselves to current events. This way we can concern ourselves with principles that'll stick in our long term memory, rules we can recall when we've lost our way, creatively speaking.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,

If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods, but if you learnprinciples you can devise your own methods.

My own background is graphic design. And while I'll be speaking to it in particular, I think we'll find that many principles relate to design in general. So, whether you're engaged in print or web or film, or anything else, a lot of these concepts will apply because they transcend the media you're working in.

A few words about the format of the show....And I know some of you have got to be wondering - how are we supposed to discuss visual media in an audio format? I suppose it's a reasonable concern. But, what I intend to do, is to point to the pictures we've all got in our heads. The coca-cola logo. Or the proportions of a human being. And I think we'll do just fine. As far as length is concerned..My aim is to keep each episode brief, so that in mere minutes we can get a new concept under our belts. And hopefully, over the course of time, some lightbulbs will appear above your head and you'll have some new tools to apply to your craft and some markers to guide you on your way.

Until next time, this is design guy. Thanks for listening.

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