Monday, September 17, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 7, Designer's Attributes Pt. 1

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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.

If you're just joining us, we're talking about the attributes of the designer. In the last episode, we established the idea that, as designers, we profoundly influence the work we do by the mere fact of who we are as individuals. Our unique way of thinking and solving problems, our personal style and perspective on the world, all have an impact on the product. Our fingerprints are all over our work, so to speak. You can I.D. a designer through their work sometimes. And this is obviously why certain designers are sought after. We tend to describe their work as unique or distinctive. So, it stands to reason that if we give one design problem to two different designers, we can expect somewhat different outcomes.

At the same time, though, there are certains traits that designers should have in common. Unique as we all are, there are certain stereotypes or generalizations that ought to hold up in order for graphic designers to qualify as graphic designers.

If your into movies, you'll know how it is to hear that a certain director is rumored to be helming a film project. When we hear the name Tim Burton or Steven Soderbergh or Guillermo Del Toro, we develop different expectations. At the same time, we're pretty confident that while they think divergently, and that they'll all emphasize different themes, that they've got some other things in common. They all know a thing or two about storytelling, and casting, and where to put the camera.

That's how it is with designers. Unique as we are, some things are the same.

So, in no particular order, I'd like to describe the traits we can expect.
And I'll just mention the first one today, which is this. A designer takes an interest in the world around them.

Adrian Shaughnessy, in his book, How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul, (1)writes: "Among the myriad definitions of graphic design, one of the most illuminating is by American designer and writer Jessica Helfand. According to Helfand, graphic design is a visual language uniting harmony and balance, color and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a langauge of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences that challenge both the intellect and the eye."

Commenting further on Helfand's definition, Shaugnessy says, "I like Helfand's definition. Her first sentence is a conventional summary of graphic design; few would argue with it. But the second part of Helfand's definition provides the key to producing meaningful and expressive graphic design, (when she refers to): 'cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences.' (These) are the elements that give work authority and resonance. And if you want to introduce these elements into your work, it means taking a interest in everything that goes on around you, and having curiosity about areas other than graphic design: politics, entertainment, business, technology, art, ten-pin bowling and mud wrestling.

This cultural awareness ranks higher than technical ability and academic qualifications in the designer's portfolio of attributes." (End of quotation)

James N. Frey, (2) author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, expresses the same sentiment in writing the following:

"You''ll need to be a general reader, because you need to know, well, a lot of stuff. (Be) a well read generalist, as opposed to a specialist, like a chiropractor or plumber or teacher. How can you create a Buddhist character if you don't know what meditation is for? How can you create a carpenter if you don't know what a T square and a level are for? A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole." (End of quotation)

Think of it this way, think in just general social terms. People who are well read and aware of many things can relate to more people. If you're an engineer and all you can talk about is engineering, you can't connect effectively to another person. But if you can talk about the news or fishing or the latest of episode of Heroes, in addition to engineering, then you build a more robust bridge to the other person. As graphic designers we want to tap into the culture or zeitgeist or ethos, as I mentioned last time, so we can be more effective. So start broadening your horizons. Watch TV shows you formerly shunned. If you read Rolling Stone, try reading McCalls. You'll be amazed at what you can bring into your world from someone else's.

And that's it for today. As usual, I'll post show notes at my webpage, which is Music is by Thank again for joining us, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. Shaughnessy, Adrian, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002

2. James N. Frey, The Ten Rules of Writing,

Monday, September 10, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 6, Harry Houdini and the Attributes of a Designer

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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.

If you've been following along, you'll know that we've been talking about the very beginning stages of the design process, and the skills we need to develop in order to gather the information that fuels our creative work.

So, moving right along, there are some practical process things we could talk about next, like brainstorming and how to get ideas, but before we do that, I think this is a good time for us to pause and consider the designer in all of this.

If we think about it, the designer is the first medium through which ideas pass. Before we choose a physical format or medium, we're it. And I realize this is a really obvious statement. But if "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan(1) famously declared, then I think it's worth stepping outside ourselves for a moment, to consider what kind of medium we are. What kind of attributes should we have as designers before we even get started on the work?

Let's consider the word medium for a moment. When we say something is immediate, it means there's nothing inbetween, there's a direct connection between two things. But when there's a medium, we mean to say that there's something inbetween, something that intervenes. Designers intervene. We take one thing, and pass it through the medium of ourselves, so it becomes a somewhat different thing. We're like prisms that receive the light and then refract it. We take our client's message and then split it apart, we break it all down. We perform a reductive work so we can identify the component parts. Then we build it back up again in just the right way, and communicate it. We basically perform a work of translation. We take ordinary language and convert it into visual language.

Medium is also the word used to describe individuals who claim to have psychic ability. People who claim to be conduits or channels to another world. I find this interesting because we're applying the word medium to an actual person.

If you've ever seen the old Tony Curtis film, Houdini,(2) you'll remember that he and his wife were obsessed with life after death. They made a pact that they would seek to make contact with each other if one should pass on to "the other side." So you may remember the scene where she visits a psychic medium, who conducts a seance. They're all in a dimly lit room. There was the typical mumbo jumbo and theatrics staged to convince Mrs. Houdini that she was communing with Harry himself. But, alas, this medium was a charlatin attempting to cash in on the poor widow's grief-driven compulsion to make contact. The point here, though, is that Mrs. Houdini was in search of a medium. She wanted to find a person who could bridge a gap that she could not cross by herself.

Our clients are like this. They look to us as channels or mediums to their marketplace, where they hope to connect with an audience. They can't cross this gulf all by themselves. They know that they need someone with special attributes. They need someone with specialized communication skills, who can send their message across in just the right way. And if we're really on our game, we might be able to channel ghosts of a different kind. I'm being a little bit cute here. But I'm referring to what's sometimes called the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Which is to say that wherever we can , we want to inform our work with a keen sense of the cultural context or our audience—their world, their ethos.

Now, in light of everything we've said, we can see why certain designers are sought after. They've got certain attributes that the client is looking for. They want these attributes to show through the final product.

We see this principle at work when we're evaluating a design piece. If we describe it as witty or traditional or sophisticated or minimalistic, then we're describing the designer to a great extent. These characteristics mirror the person behind the work. And if you give the same design problem to two different designers, you'll get two different results. They may both be valid, and indeed one design problem can be solved a thousand different ways. But, I believe there are certain characteristics that all designers ought to share in common. There are some common attributes that will show through in the work of even the most wildly divergent designers. And we'll talk about what some of those attributes are in the next episode.

For now, let's just establish that the designer is like the physical format we'll select to do our work within, because we profoundly influence the work. And, again, this is a really obvious statement. But, if we want our attributes to reflect well on the work, we'll give some consideration to ourselves. We'll want to make sure we've got certain characteristics in place, or that we're at least developing them. We want the right stuff. And we'll talk about that next time.

But that's all we have time for today. As always, show notes are available at Music is by I thank you again for listening and I hope to have you back again.




Monday, September 3, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 5, How Design Begins, Pt. 2

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Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that offers a pause from our technical manuals: all the keeping up we do with tools, technologies, the state of the art. Now, we've got to keep up, of course. It's essential we stay current. But it also can be overwhelming. There is so much to keep up with, it's like drinking from a firehose. We get cognitive overload. And it's hard to retain things that we know are going to continue to change.

On the other hand, we want to learn principles. The good news about principles is that they don't really change. We can learn them with confidence that our time investment is not wasted. We'll know that at least this part of our knowledge base will not erode. Software will come and go, but principles remain. And I think that sends a message to our brains that this is stuff we should latch on to, that we ought to retain. At least that's my theory, and my experience. And that's where this show comes in. Hopefully, we can offer a bit of white space or margin from other concerns, by setting aside the transient information, and speaking to timeless things - things we can commit to long term memory.

Now, we spoke last time about how design begins, and today I'd like to amplify those thoughts and add a few suggestions. We said that listening is key. Or as Hillman Curtis says, listening is an activity, wherein we ask the right questions in the right way, and then fine tune our reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)

In other words, we query our clients to learn what they really want. We want to excavate their core message, their story, so we can identify the thematic drivers of our project. But to do this effectively requires skill in the art of questioning. Questions are to this process, what picks and shovels are to archaealogical digs. To carry the analogy further, questions also act like sifters that filter sand and rock from the stuff we're after. And we want the bones. We want the DNA - the genetic blueprint of our project, so to speak.

The lazy thing to do is to just "get requirements." If we run with requirements we've gotten passively, rather than interactively probing, even challenging our client at times, then we risk informing our work with junk information. In our gusto to get going, we'll start off with a lot of zeal, but soon realize with a creeping dread that there is something rotten in Denmark. We'll find ourselves going back to the drawing board on things we thought were resolved. Or the client, sensing that something is amiss, will suggest too many changes at review milestones. The scenario is all too common. We can sidestep that messiness by laying the foundation of understanding. And, once again, we do that by carefully questioning, and then listening.

We ended the last show on a cautionary note. We said that once we've gotten the right answers, we've got to watch out that we don't go wrong. It's actually possible to make a proper diagnosis, then execute the wrong solution. We safeguard against this by asking ourselves, as designers, a number of questions. We've queried our client. Now we turn the line of inquiry on ourselves. And this ought to start as early as possible. It even runs parallel to the client inquiry. We just want to prevent ourselves from jumping to conclusions or to specific solutions too early.

The idea is to avoid being rash, by suspending our internal biases and avoiding the ruts that we naturally fall into. We all have comfort zones or favorite tools that, truth be told, may not be ideal for a project, and we need to be self-aware enough to realize this. We want to start with a blank slate. Just throw out assumptions as much as we can. It may not be appropriate to ask ourselves, right out of the gate, "What style of website should this be?" We've already assumed it's a website. Don't ask these presumptive questions. A better question is "Which format might address this design problem best?" And then think through the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of different approaches or formats. You want to broaden your horizons at this stage.

We want to do research. What is research but just another form of asking and answering your own questions. Camp out at a search engine for a while and gather information.
Learn what you can about your client and their industry. Try to discover their strengths, weaknesses, market opportunities, and market threats.

Find out what their competition is specifically doing. Look at who competitors are marketing to and how they've designed their products and supporting media. This will help you later on, as you consider ways you can differentiate your client from their competition.

In all of this, you're thinking expansively. You're casting a wide net for information. You're keeping your antenna up, and your eyes open. And because you are, you'll surprise yourself when you begin to search for solutions. You'll come up with fresher solutions. That's why it's important to remain in this mindset for a while before winnowing everything down to a solution.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. You want to avoid the paralysis of analysis. But gather as much information as you need right now. Just toss it all into the funnel, knowing you can narrow down and throw out what you don't need later.

A good analogy is an ice berg. It's a good way to visualize all of this. Think of an iceberg - there's a relatively small part that's revealed above the water, compared to the mass of ice below the surface. Likewise, there's a lot of listening and questioning and research that goes on below the surface to amass the information we need. But the final product, which is the tip of the iceberg, only reflects a small amount of this. Nevertheless, we need to gather that body of information before we can surface the stuff we'll use.

So, we've gotten really smart about the design problem and have gathered a lot of helpful information, all while we're broadening our horizons, and we're ready to approach the creative process. We've basically created fertile ground for problem solving and idea generation and brainstorming. And we'll get into all that good stuff in a future episode. Perhaps not the very next one, but soon.

And that's today's show. Let me remind you that show notes are available at my web page, which is I've included hyperlinked footnotes to references I've made. And if you want to study a topic further, the book references will take you directly to Amazon where you can get a copy for yourself. By the way, if you're enjoying this ongoing discussion about design, please cast your vote for Design Guy at podcast alley, or leave an encouraging word via the iTunes comment feature on my iTunes profile page. Until next time, this is design guy. Thanks for listening!


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