“Art is work.” — Milton Glaser
18/11/2008 · Plano, TX · Too often, I hear design referred to in terms generally reserved for grade-school art classes. We, as professionals in this industry, are expected to throw out rules, eschew convention, and break down any barriers to our wild creative whims. Armed with this sentiment—their egos checked only by their client’s limited pocket books—many creatives brazenly tromp down the path less traveled, knee high in the formless mirth of their fantasies, with no regard for efficacy or financial return. If it’s cool: it must be successful. If it hasn’t been done: give it a design award. If it makes people angry: it must be working.
Believe me, I understand. I used to draw pictures of anything I wanted, and create stack of pages filled with any thought that flew through my fanciful head when I was ten. Now that I am grown up (mostly) and calling myself a professional, I must now plead the case for logic, conservatism, and rational thought in the process of designing effective solutions for our clients. They have trusted us with their hard-earned revenues, and it is our responsibility to apply it with constant regard for the results they will see from our creative output.
Effective Design is 90% Rational
As most designers, I begin each project with an in depth discovery process (better defined in Andy Rutledge’s article, “On Creativity”), which, while crafted to each individual client’s needs, generally follows a certain structure to insure that I get every bit of information that I need to accomplish the project goals. This research involves much focused thought, much more focused listening, and very little of my own whims in order to juggle client expectations, project deliverables, business needs, and the encompassing tone of a specific brand.
The next logical step of any creative process is a full exploration of all relevant possibilities. The keyword here is “relevant”. I will admit that at this point in the process, open-minds and a liberal application of thought brings about the most unexpected results, but even in this ambient step, there must be focus and structure based on the applicability of such ideas to the project strategies. There is no honor in pursuing ideas that stray too far. Jason Lynes, in his latest article, “The Designer’s Sixth Sense”, talks about a designer’s instinct helping them make decisions far faster than conscious thought. I would say that these instincts best serve to keep our filters in check when brainstorming, because even that “momentary influx”, as Jason puts it, is based on our own learned rationale.
From here, designers generally follow an iterative process, and by applying a filter of cross-hatching expertise and conservative thought, strain out the contrived, the inappropriate, and the whimsical, and find only those solutions that best serve all desired outcomes of the project. This is no time for impulsiveness. Only a deliberate and unflinching dose of logic will deliver the best concepts.
God, or the Devil, in the Details?
Once an idea has solidified, the execution phase of a project begins, and now, more than ever, the processes become more focused on the hard facts of effectiveness. Is this typeface readable? Do these colors fit the brand while evoking the correct emotion? Does this image communicate? These questions do have solid answers, based upon countless books of design theory, usability testing, and behavioral psychology. Preference and taste-specific decisions really must take a back seat here to allow the communication to be successful. The most effective designs allow these details to buttress an already logical structure of concept and execution. As it has already been stated so eloquently: form follows function, and so design must follow logic.
Policing a design to perfection is, again, a rational, conservative process of elimination. Even the most liberal, rule-breaking designer must buckle down and thoughtfully labor the details. As once said by Antoine De Saint-Exupery, and continually exemplified in the most successful of designs: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Politics aside, is that not the essence of conservatism?
The Irrational 10%
Sprinkled throughout any creative process, I concede, there must be some bit of whimsy. The occasional non-sequitor in discovery, the array of thumbnails that made you snicker, and the random thought that hit you in the shower all have their place in producing great creative product. But I fear that too often we find ourselves defining our profession by the 10% that is really our most consistent liability. Creativity that waits for muses will generally wind up late, contrived, and/or over budget.
The creative industry is notorious for awarding the irrational 10%, and while I agree that a design award should only focus on design, such awards have no bearing on the project or the designer’s efficacy. Somehow, though, these awards have misguided many professionals to focus on that which is least important: The small fraction of our creative processes that should be given to over to our imaginative fancies should not be the measure of our profession.
The pervasive sentiment of desiging for creativity’s sake has already degraded other industries’ perception of our value, and will continue to do so until we, as defenders of our livelihood, can begin explaining to ourselves and others that we do not summon creativity through some mystic ritual. We have rational processes, just as any other professional, that help us to reliably arrive at solutions that will best fit our client’s needs. Just as a carpenter has many tools, we too have our toolboxes that rarely fail us, so judge our output not by the way we use our hammer, but by the sturdiness of our eventual product. Only by logic can we continue to support and strengthen the effectiveness of our labor.