Monday, September 17, 2007

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

Download Episode 7

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,

No comments: