Monday, August 27, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 4, How Design Begins

Download Episode 4

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


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