Monday, September 10, 2007

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

Download Episode 6

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.





Junorayyan said...

Great show! This is a good listen while i work on my final year project.. hopefully something in your podcast will help trigger those connections between my research and where i feel my vehicle design should go.
Id say keep it up, but you have been for awhile!

Design Guy said...

Thank you for listening! Glad this is helpful to you in your studies.