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There are Only Two Kinds of Design

I discovered a podcast called My Favorite Album that is about music critics, or other smarty pants-types in the industry, talking about albums that had a huge impact on their lives — the records they go back to time and time again. Being a self-proclaimed music snob, I’ve been choosey about which episodes I’ll listen to, but the other day I listened to the episode of Scott Sharrard discussing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Sharrard played in the Allman Brothers Band, and in his view, Kind of Blue had huge influence on the direction Gregg and Duane took the group.  What?

How do you get that? This southern jam band’s biggest influence is the modal, cool qualities of one of the most signifiant jazz recordings of all time? How is that possible?

Sharrard went on to explain how this cosmic duality is possible with an amazing quote from Duke Ellington. As Duke elegantly put it… There are only two kinds of music — good and bad. Let that soak in for a minute.

When I heard Sharrard relay the quote, a revelation hit me almost immediately. There are only two kinds of Design, good and bad. What’s the difference a print ad, a package, a sign system, an app, a website or anything else that a designer would make? The only differences are the tools used or skills needed to execute the design, but the underlying concepts and principles of greta design are fundamentally identical. For all you specialists out there, let that soak in.

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere in the site, extolled the virtues and praised the benefits of being a generalist. Looks like I have Duke Ellington to back me up on this one.

You Know You’re a Designer When…

In March, I went for an eye exam and after confirming that my vision was in fact getting worse, and went to select a frame to hold the new prescription. I’d been wearing these modern Oakley frames and wanted to go for a different look. Something more bookish is what I had in mind.

As I went with the optometrist’s assistant to choose some frames, I was instantly drawn to a pair (blindly of course because I did not have my glasses on), put them on and loved them.

Easy, but one problem.

Out of the hundreds of frames to choose from, I had selected what had to be the most expensive frames in the store – a frame by Prada that cost well over $700, and that is before I put prescription lenses in them. I put the Prada frames back and selected another pair that I could afford.

This ability to pick out the very best of the very best is something I am quite good at, only I wish I had the finances to support these choices. I have been known to walk into a store, find a sport coat I love, look at the price tag and see that it is a couple thousand dollars.  “Champagne tastes on a beer budget”, unfortunately for me.

So what does any of this have to do with knowing when you’re a designer? Everything.

It’s more than simply having good taste. You will know you’re a Designer when you can innately spot the best of the best, whether it is design excellence, spotting inherent talent in someone or seeing a problem along with the solution to solve it. You’re a Designer when you don’t have to even think about these things because you are in tune with the world enough that you can make sound choices. Often times these choices will lead to creating a positive impact on the world.

Some people can do this quickly, like while they are still in school or shortly thereafter, while others have to grow into it. Neither is right nor wrong, or better or worse, it is just the way people are. The key is this: That you develop the ability. Being able to discern the truly excellent from the good is a key element to helping give you a unique voice as a Designer.

In the end, I ditched the frames I bought in March for a pair of Ray Ban’s (pictured above) in early December. Very simple, lightweight and comfortable – all excellent qualities. Just wish I hadn’t been blinded by the Prada’s in the first place.

Writing is design.

The quote above is from Ms Chappell Ellison on her recent interview with Jarrett Fuller on the podcast Scratching the Surface. A fair amount of navel gazing in this episode, but there are some good nuggets of wisdom worth uncovering and definitely worth a listen.

Strangely enough, I’ve grown to think of writing as a design problem, only the difference being  that rather than using visuals, the carefully crafted words are used to create images in the readers’ minds. Isn’t that what all writers do? As noted before, I used a similar line of thinking to get me through college algebra.

The parallels are interesting. Drafts are like sketches. Rewrites become the design process. Both design and writing are all about conveying ideas, only attacking the problem with words alone is often the best choice to communicate abstract ideas not easily represented by images. Whatever works best.

To me, at least, this is design thinking.

Systems vs. Narratives

Another terrific podcast to listen to is Talking to Ourselves. I only recently stumbled onto it (thanks Twitter) and have been catching up on this year’s episodes. Alex Bogusky and David Droga were both great, but the first interview in the series with Nick Law was covered in pure gold.

In the discussion, Law’s ideas about Systems versus Narratives came up. I’ve been intrigued by Law’s Law since I first heard it earlier this year on Design Matters. I’ll paraphrase the idea: Designers fall into one of two camps. Systems designers are the creative types who obey the rules of good design and focus on the craft. They adhere to grids and fuss over all the delicate nuances of fine typography.

Then there are the Narratives. They see the stories in the work. They focus their energy not so much on making the “thing”, but instead focus on the audience and their  the experience. How they’ll relate to the design. They are focused on the journey, not the destination.

Systems Narratives
Digital UI UX
Print Graphic Designer

Art Director

There is one thing that Law left out in both the Talking to Ourselves and Design Matters interviews, though.

A really great designer is a combination of the two, carefully blending the craft with the customer always in mind. Systems can be boring and sterile. Modernist design and corporate identity can fall into this camp because the uniformity they design can often become predictable. I do not believe anyone ever was moved to action because the logo ALWAYS fell in the lower right hand corner of the page.

Narratives are more challenging but can become confusing, or the audience can get lost in the design if the story is too inwardly focused. Too much narrative, not enough craft. Sloppy, unimaginative stories are not worth their weight in salt if they are either difficult to experience or no one is intrigued enough to want to experience them.

I see both kinds of designers in people I have worked with over the years. Although both kinds of designers are necessary, not everyone can be both sides of the coin. Paul Rand was the obvious master who straddled the fence – a Modernist philosophy whose work conveyed a sense of playfulness and wonder.

That is Good Design.

Pablo Ferro

It has been a rough couple of weeks. Over the weekend, news came out that Pablo Ferro passed away.

He spoke at the MFA Houston a few years ago and I had the good fortune to meet him. Kind, humble, generous and still passionate about his work after all these years.

I swear an ad he did for Burlington Mills back in the mid 60s, that was still airing a decade later, had a huge impact on me. It was so striking, so different from everything else on TV at the time – the actual programming or the adverts – that 40 years later it still resonates with me.

I was able to speak with Mr Ferro for a few minutes after his presentation and told him how his work had had such an lasting effect on me. Made him smile.

God rest your beautiful soul, Mr Ferro.