Design, in context

On the phone last week with Mordy Golding of lynda.com, I made the assertion that, of all the instructional fields that Lynda will ever cover, graphic design will be the most difficult to do well. That’s because, unlike operating Photoshop or painting a picture or building a house, graphic design does not exist unless something else exists first. Graphic design begins when someone has a story to tell; without that, there’s nothing — no type to set, no colors to mix, no layouts to arrange. You can’t create a generic “design” to hang on your wall.

With a story, however, comes a paradox: there is no preset way — no rule, no template, no roadmap — that tells us how to design it (“if it’s round, make it blue”). Every story, and every expression of it, is unique.

To learn graphic design, one must master the operating tools (a big job), the aesthetic arts of visual expression (bigger), and accurately blend these (complex) skills in ever-changing contexts, which always involve people in some way, so there’s a psychology part, too.

And here’s the big one. The foundational truth of graphic design is that the designer is not an objective observer. Rather, how we design a story colors it.

I’ll say that again. How we design a story colors it. The designer’s voice is always mixed in with the author’s voice.

If you understand that, you know the responsibility that’s involved.

How does it work? Usually when you say something is “good looking,” you mean it’s connecting with you. If designed with the appropriate weight and voice, what you appreciate is not so much the design but the thing itself, whatever it may be. This is ideal.

An idea, some knowledge, a point of view remain only in someone’s mind until a designer makes them visible. This is exciting.

A friend of mine whose startup was heading with its first product to its first trade show asked me on short notice to design a brochure. Midweek of the show, delighted with its success, he phoned and said simply, “Thank you for making us exist.”

He wasn’t kidding. Back home, their office looked like a college dorm — tangles of wires and speakers, used pizza boxes and coffee cups from endless all-nighters, workout clothes tossed on boxes or chairs or floors for lack of closets, all that. But to the world through their brochure, they were professional and polished, their presence confident and convincing. I could do that because I knew them, understood their product, felt their mojo. I created a mirror in which they could see themselves.

It can go the other way. When a stakeholder isn’t happy with a design, it may be because your design doesn’t match his vision. The voices aren’t the same, or at least harmonious. Sometimes the fault is communication, meaning that you don’t know each other. Remember that your job is not to deliver a product (x number of pages over x hours equals x dollars) — you’re not pouring concrete here — but rather to tell his story.

Sometimes the problem is lack of skill. Remember that you’re not in the decorating business; you’re in the communication business, and 10-pt Gotham Light speaks differently from 11-pt Mrs. Eaves — different tone, different inflection, different vibe. You need to know which does what. The choices aren’t arbitrary.

There’s a third way. Sometimes a design can overpower the product or person. I’ve had people say to me “wow, you’ve made me look incredible,” before they backed off and asked for something less to live up to, something more like they felt about themselves. My design was not truthful.

All of this is easy to forget. We like how something looks — how this typeface goes with that one, or how a layout has the special something that gives us goosebumps. And while we can pick up tips from this or that, we usually can’t duplicate a design and expect it to work. We can’t copy style, not really. It will look affected, inappropriate, fake. 

And entirely because of context. You and I can have the same kind of house or wear the same kind of  jeans or drive the same kind of car, and it works for both of us. Not so with design.

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Posted in Design, Editorial | 4 Comments

4 Responses to Design, in context

  1. David says:

    John:

    You nail what I struggle with each day – the blank canvas, and lack of ‘real’ graphic skills. But I don’t let either get in the way – iteration, squinting of eyes, and letting the story come through until I’m pleased, at least for awhile, I trudge on thankful for what sometimes blooms well. I am so thankful for your insights and pragmatic help over the years, especially in quantifying the indescribable. Thanks for the insights – greatly appreciated.

  2. Cyd says:

    That last point (the third way) is so important. Especially when a designer is known for a style. It won’t translate to everything. I once did a flyer for a wine and cheese that looked great, only to realize that it made it look like a 4-star event rather than a get together at someone’s house. It took the same amount of time to create the fancy one as the more appropriate one, but the “voice” made all the difference.

  3. Emiko says:

    Beautiful read!

    I really enjoyed going through this one as it does hit home for the creative “agent”. I wonder, how would you have approached the “client” if you had not known them? How would you have unwind-ed the hidden story in their minds? How are your interactions laid out?

    Really what I’m asking is, what basics does one need, in order to start creating a system on which they can base this philosophy on?

    The referenced case-study… will you be providing a full-blown case-study in the forum?

  4. Chuck Green says:

    “…10-pt Gotham Light speaks differently from 11-pt Mrs. Eaves — different tone, different inflection, different vibe. You need to know which does what. The choices aren’t arbitrary.”

    Not to put too fine a point in it, I tend to think, in many cases, that the choices are somewhat arbitrary–meaning they are “subject to individual judgment or preference.”

    The vast number of variables in the telling of any story and the context of where and to whom the story is being told, often alter “which does what.” Meaning, I can use a building block like a specific typeface and control the tone, inflection, and vibe by how I define the other pieces.

    I’m not saying there aren’t some general rules that can be followed to produce a somewhat predictable result, but design is, to a great degree, about being unpredictable.

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