Why we design


Dear readers: I recently pulled from my files a newsletter sent by a subscriber years ago. It inspired me at the time to write a publisher’s letter whose message has not changed today. I reprint it for you here.


Before & After has a pretty far-flung audience. We have readers in 50 states, but we’re also in 65 [now 131] different countries, and it’s always fun to receive mail from an exotic new place—Paris, Nairobi, Rio de Janiero, Mumbai. We sit at our desks while our words travel the world. Last week a letter arrived from a subscriber in Haiti — Haiti — along with a desktop published report.

John Currelly works for the U.S. Agency for International Development [today he works here] as officer of a monitoring unit that keeps the agency, local government and others up to date on the economic and health status of Haiti’s rural populations. Its work is published quarterly in the USAID Monitoring Report and sent free to interested parties.

His Report is like many other desktop-published reports — it’s plain, with pages of text, tables, charts and maps set mainly in Times, in black & white. But it is different in one way. The difference between Mr. Currelly’s report and yours is its content.

Page 4: “Total preschool-child malnutrition rates showed little average difference between January–August last year and the same period this year. In both periods, about 54 percent of children attending the monitored facilities were found to be underweight for their age, and close to 20 percent were moderately or severely affected.”

Page 5 is morbidity data.

Page 6 is low-birthweight data.

Page 16 shows that infant mortality — that’s deaths — is 1 in 10.

Page 17 is the price of food, and it isn’t Taco Bell kind of food; it’s plantain-and-millet kind of food.

Mr. Currelly writes, “I have to say that your publication gives me inspiration to continue on the path of discovery that is desktop publishing. Oddly enough, having been raised as a practical farmer, one of my biggest problems has been getting to believe that making something merely look better was worthy toil. I often justified hours spent on design (expensive hours, paid for by the U.S. taxpayer) by emphasizing the benefits of ‘clarity’ or ‘ease of understanding for busy folks’ that it gave to the production.

“I am coming to believe that pleasing design needs no apology, even, if not especially, in scientific publications. Our societies are now at the stage that a great number of us can not only appreciate the pleasures offered by good design, but almost demand that artistic expression be placed on the same level as informational expression. I’m not sure why, but it has much to do with why we are human.”

Such contrasts these are! Here is a reader, a farmer, who has worked 15 years in a nation where half the children are undernourished and 1 in 10 will die, 7 of 10 adults are illiterate, half the urban population has no access to safe water . . .

. . . pause here for a moment . . .

. . . writing to a magazine subtitled “How to design cool stuff”. . .

. . . inspired by what we do.

What accounts for this? How does design even exist in such an environment, much less inspire?

You might look again at what you do. You sit with a full tummy in your warm office at a blank screen with an ad to make, and you’re thinking, “Jeez, I have to come up with something original and clever and it better be soon.” That’s not how to think. As a designer you have a privilege, one that others do not. It is the privilege of making visible that which others can only imagine, feel or think. When you do this, you open a window through which your audience can see, know and understand.

Design is about communication.

To take a word or a thought and design it is to give it form and body, so others can see, too, and respond.

The more compelling the design, the deeper the response.

By more compelling, I don’t mean prettier, necessarily, or artsier. I mean richer, more complete, more efficient. The design I’m talking about isn’t about making something only look better, but actually function better. Design has to do with how a thing works.

It’s exciting.

So who will give form and body to your company’s name? Who will open the world’s window to your product?

Who will speak for the poor Haitians?

You will. You’ll work at it until it shouts.

You will because you can.

Design is worthy toil.


The print version of this article is in Before & After issue 26.

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24 Responses to Why we design

  1. Louise says:

    “As a designer you have a privilege, one that others do not. It is the privilege of making visible that which others can only imagine, feel or think. When you do this, you open a window through which your audience can see, know and understand.”

    What a lovely man with brilliant insight.

    These words have made my day.

  2. Judy Robertson says:

    The e-mail announcement arrived today before I had a chance to read the whole article, “Why we design.” Driving around in my ’71 VW convertible, I thought about why I design, and when it all started. I can’t remember much before kindergarten…that was 50 years ago. I do remember finding great satisfaction designing the block structures with balance and knowing just how to do it…and that is when it all began. I was born a designer, and my world, simple as a child and complex as an adult, is constantly challenged to find balance. Last week I designed some simple line illustrations showing how to administer morphine for a hospice patient flyer. Not big budget…it will probably be copied on the copier…but you should have heard the shouts of joy from the pharmacist….you’d think they struck gold…and you know what? They did, in a simple illustration to show hurting people and their families a quick reference guide to get them through a very difficult time. Design….simple things can change lives….that’s why I design.

  3. screamish says:

    This really moved me. What a powerful message and something I so deeply believe. I really needed to see this right now, unbelievable timing. I just became a member of this site, and I am really glad that I did.

  4. Alan G says:

    Brilliant, simple, wise and a good and timely reminder to us all (more so even than usual!). I referred to this post in my own blog: http://blog.gngcreative.com/archives/98

  5. Angie says:

    What a power message! I recently was approached to design a benefit flyer for a man who is suffering from small cell lung cancer. I was shared the details of the benefit and the patient’s favorite band that will play during the benefit. I checked out the band and based on their music began the design. I received rave reviews from the family members and found a printing company that is donating their services. This is why I design.

  6. Julie says:

    This is a wonderful article. I didn’t catch it the 1st time around, but I am glad I did this time. Very inspiring and timely. Thank you!

  7. Giulietta says:

    Great post!

    I design because it is a way to help people solve their problems.



  8. Kris says:

    As ‘screamish’ mentioned, I needed this right now. As I coach others to understand the need of design, and where to put it in the priority of their professional communications, I will use the words “The design I’m talking about isn’t about making something only look better, but actually function better. Design has to do with how a thing works.” Great article! Thank you.

  9. Louise, Too says:

    As a federal employee who does the equivalent of annual reports and quarterly activity reports, my creativity is sometimes limited to a specific format which our agency has decided on to give its publications the “one look” look. I have, however, done the best I can within those limitations to be as creative as possible without the creativity showing. We publish in b/w, and I turn my best color photos into the best b/w photos I can. I use them throughout the publications to draw attention to the programs they represent. I have also experimented with different internal layouts to help make the publications more readable. With the judicious use of charts and graphs in addition to the photos, I feel the tedium of straight text is challenged and presents a much more readable and accessible format.

    Like actors act and singers sing because they must, I design because I must. It’s who I am and what I do. And if it helps the public understand how their tax dollars are spent, then I’ve done my job.

  10. Kathi says:

    Thank you for a delightful perspective! It is a wonderful gift we have . . . to awaken the senses and give insight to thoughts and words, and each in our own distinct style.

    “Compelling” is the word I found challenging and thought-provoking . . . defined as “not able to be resisted.”

    It’s validating to know I have a “worthy” profession, but I find designing not to be toil but just plain fun!

  11. Lesley Beattie says:

    The function of design is to create something which will send a message to the audience and evoke an appropriate emotion and/or response.

    All too often, so much focus is placed on creating something aesthetically pleasing or artistic that function is neglected, and the message becomes unclear or gets lost altogether — in which case the designer has wasted their time, and the client has wasted their money.

    For our design work to be effective, we ourselves need to have a clear understanding of the message and keep our focus on this.

    John, thank you for sharing this story and for the all-important reminder that “Design is about communication.”

  12. This is a great posting from a marvelous person. It is great to hear such stories in those times. Keep the fingers crossed for making him succeed in this noble cause; the people of Haiti fully deserve it.

    With the best wishes,

  13. Shoo Rayner says:

    I too mentioned this on my blog http://shoorayner.com/wordpress/

    As I got towards the end of the article, I thought, what did that paragraph say? I had to read it again:

    “As a designer you have a privilege, one that others do not. It is the privilege of making visible that which others can only imagine, feel or think. When you do this, you open a window through which your audience can see, know and understand.”

    How clearly put . . . how succinct. This doesn’t just apply to a designer but to writers, poets, film makers and artists, too — as well as many others, I suspect.


  14. Katy Hammer says:

    This message is very powerful and something I feel others in my field (fundraising for higher education) need to hear. Does anyone know of someone in or near the midwest that may be able to discuss the importance and role of design at a conference?


  15. A wonderful reminder that it’s not about me, the awards, or the 15 minutes of fame.

    Thank you, John and John!

  16. glenda puhek says:

    Sometimes in the throes of trying to complete a project which often includes the frustrations inherent in this task, it is so easy to forget that there IS meaning in what we do. The audience benefits. Clients benefit. My soul benefits.

    Thank you — your comments make this sunny day even brighter.

  17. Kerry says:

    It’s good to remember that each gift we have is for a purpose bigger than ourselves. I am honored by what God has given me.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  18. Raed Hijjawi says:

    It’s really important what I read in this article; it motivates me to keep improving my designs to reach the target of design.

  19. Paul McEwan says:

    As a designer, I understand and thanks for explaining it in these words. Beautiful. I think so many still need the emotional connection of design. Not just design but that harmonization of who they are or what they are saying to resonate congruently. Something pre-purchased stock graphics can never supply. Thank you for helping.

  20. Robert Gordon says:

    I’m not really a “designer” in the traditional sense. I’m a mechanic by training and a tinkerer by nature, but since I have get a thrill out of making pretty things on my computer, I often am called upon to do some desktop publishing. Even at my low level, and with my unsophisticated clients, people appreciate and can recognized documents that are well-designed vs. those that are not. I echo the sentiment that good design is a problem-solving tool. Good design is essential to good communication.

  21. Droolcup says:

    Excellent article, even the second time around. Helped me focus: I design because I must communicate, and design is essential whether in photography, poetry, quilting, baking, teaching, or desktop publishing. (Really, in any endeavor.) Communication is a bridge others; to reach others, it must be done clearly, quickly, unambiguously, and often wordlessly.

  22. Randy says:

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve referenced your article on LinkedIn: Groups: Communication Arts

    I found it very inspiring and worth sharing.

    Thank you.

  23. Kathy says:

    John, thank you for sharing Mr. Currelly’s inspiring letter! It made me think about the gift of creativity and its purpose and value in the world.

    From designing doll clothes as a kid, singing in a band as a young adult, designing showrooms and now designing magazines, creativity is a gift that has served me and hopefully my clients well. It works its way into every aspect of life, solving not only aesthetic problems, but functional ones as well.

    Graduating from graphic design school decades ago, I remember thinking . . . “There is no way anyone will pay me to have this much fun.” Plenty of work went unpaid, but the money didn’t validate the creative gift. The gift itself was/is validation enough and works to fulfill the purpose of each assignment.

  24. I’ll go ahead and quote you in big, bold letters, printed in my office (and hammered in my skull) . . .

    “The design I’m talking about isn’t about making something only look better, but actually function better. Design has to do with how a thing works.” — that’s why I subscribed to this magazine.


    BTW: great “life story” of this person from Haiti. God bless!

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