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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.

The I’s Have It

As this site has been assembled over the years, it has lacked focus.

Although it is a personal website, being that I am one of those people who is strongly defined by their work, it has needed that glue to hold it all together. I’ve been stewing on this for a while and I am finally ready to move forward with a philosophy, a cohesive thought about what I do and what I had to offer the world as a Designer.

I used to think I made logos, ads, movies, websites and other sundry things. That is true. Along with that simplistic view on my work, I have also proclaimed that it’s the act making these things that gets me out of bed every morning — the challenges that keep me interested in the things I do. This has been truly a simplistic way of looking at things and entirely wrong.

So I dove into the deep end. Pulling a Simon Sinek, I asked myself “Why?” over and over again. Much like a scene out of Ant Man and the Wasp, I’ve gone deeper and deeper down inside and found an answer to all those why’s. I was looking for answers that were not about me, why design, and how I can help make the world a little better than before.

Over the past few weeks I have been working in earnest to compile work I’ve created over the years. It now populates this site. Not everything, but numerous pieces that represent this philosophy and shows the world what I actually design:

Identities, Information and Influence.

I’ve looked at a number of other words to describe what I do, but all those words merely describe things. For me, Identities, Information and Influence are not things, rather they are outcomes. These are what I strive for, toil over and pour myself into so that together with my clients we will  make the world a better place.

Not only are Identities, Information and Influence outcomes, this is also a flow. A way of looking at design in total.

Identities are the most basic building block of communication, the starting point to broadcast who you are to the world.

Information design helps people you are trying to reach make better decisions.

Influence is the goal — to encourage change and make it easy to take further action.

This is a simple yet rich view of Design, one which I will continue to explore conceptually within this site and practice with my clients for years to come.

Faking It

So I stumbled on to a really terrific podcast: 2Bobs. It hits my sweet spot for creative yet practical business advice and thinking. This morning on the way to the office, I was listening to the August 23rd show about the X-Factor, the qualities that set exceptional people apart from the pack. The discussion was quite good. The “Bobs” made good points made about what they believe qualifies as being/having an X-Factor, but that is not the point of this post. You can listen to the podcast to get their thoughts.

They discussed the idea of confidence being one of the predominant characteristics of a person’s X-Factor, and unfortunately you either have it or you don’t. That is not to say that you cannot develop confidence or have it become a bigger part of your character. But one comment during the discussion on confidence really hit me.

In a good way.

There is a common misconception that you can, or should, “fake it til you feel it.” Or the other variation, “fake it til you make it”. This got me to thinking about my own lack of confidence growing up, and how I have always attributed any successes in life to my ability to just keep on faking it. In retrospect, that is the farthest thing from the truth. In fact, this revelation has now given me a new mantra, an important one to share with students and young creative professionals:

As a creative person, the best way to become more confident in your abilities to produce good work is to push yourself. Plain and simple – work at it. Put in the time. Put in the extra effort when necessary. Do whatever you must, but continue to create. Make lots of stuff. All the time, in all aspects of your life.

I firmly believe that the more you make, the better you will get, Period. But if you don’t improve, you should consider a different line of work. Not to be mean here, just being practical.

Make it til you make it is about getting to the place where you will know you can solve the problem. You might not have the answers, but you know what questions to ask and what it takes to find the solution. You’ll have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

I suppose this is a reinterpretation of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which says it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to get good at it. I have been a believer. My only knock on that rule is it is time based, and no creative activity should ever be bound by such rigid structure. It should be more about the quality of time spent. I know plenty of designers who have put in well over 10,000 hours and their work is not much to speak of. (Maybe they should reconsider what they’re doing…)

I always thought the 10,000 hours rule was true because I noticed that after about 5 years in the business, you finally get it. You can competently maneuver through your work day and actually be productive. You might even do something really great by then. But until you have 10,000 hours under your belt, you’re still an apprentice in my eyes.

But I suppose the difference with the Make it til you Make it philosophy, you’re not bound by time. You’re only constraint is yourself. Are you getting better at your craft? Are you becoming thoughtful about your work? Are you becoming confident in your abilities to link disparate ideas?

There are lots of fancy ways to articulate this idea, and I like this one that popped into my head this morning while sitting in traffic. I am confident that this is a great idea.

I think it might make a good t-shirt.

Civility

About 20 years ago, I was at the bookstore and stumbled upon The Ice Palace That Melted Away: Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtues to Everyday Life by Bill Stumpf, the designer of Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. I quickly snatched up the book and could not wait to dig into it. Oh, the things I’d learn, peering into the mind of one of the world’s foremost designers.

Wait a minute.

This isn’t a book about design. All he talks about is civility, being nice to people and how the modern world is crashing down all around us because we’re so rude to each other.

What a load of malarky. Or is it?

Admittedly, I did not finish the book. (Truth be told, there are more books than I care to count that I have not finished, but they sure look good up on my shelf.) I did not learn a darn thing from this book. I didn’t get into the head of a genius, rather I spent my time on this crazy rant about manners. Phooey.

20 years later, and the lessons from the book resonate with me as much or more than just about any book I have read on design. Much in the same way Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World should be require reading for all design students, Mr Stumpf’s short treatise should be as well.

I wrote a short piece dealing with a lack of civility a few weeks ago and this is a follow up. Actually, that piece was more about courage than anything else, but a lack of understanding, manners, respect, courtesy and decency was the impetus for the story.

Today, being kind, thoughtful and polite is more important than ever. Especially in our modern civilization where those qualities are quickly falling by the wayside.

Any form of design — whether it be a product, a site, a piece of communication or whatever — basic manners should always be a top consideration. At all costs, make sure you are reaching the right people and treat them with the utmost respect. Always.

Charles Eames once quipped that the role of the designer was similar to that of the host of a dinner party (I paraphrase). Not only do you want your guests to have a wonderful meal, but you want them to feel comfortable and completely at ease, ready to soak up a good conversation and wonderful evening.

This should always be the same objective of every design brief.

UX, more than any other design discipline, should hold this rule as paramount. There is no faster way to disengage with a user than to irritate them, annoy them, talk down to them, make assumptions about them or make them feel anything less than important. The outcome of good UX should be totally engaging, or in a more civil world, welcoming.

The Pink Pussy movement last year was hailed as a triumph of branding because it rallied a huge women’s movement. Everyone has the right to voice their opinions and they should. But the branding and messaging they choose for the movement is not only offensive, it is just plain wrong. For anyone who disagrees with me, please explain the symbolism and point of the messaging to my 12 year old son. What they were projecting was not inclusiveness, it was for shock value and it was divisive. I also did not like seeing the way it made my two daughters feel. That, IMO, was counter to everything they stood for.

Stumpf’s book is more relevant than ever.

I do not think we are as polite as we once were. Maybe we never were all that polite. I’ve always contended that drivers in my part of town are rude, although over the past few years they do seem to have gotten much worse.

How can we change this?

It goes much more beyond a simple act of kindness to a stranger. We need civility on a much larger scale more than ever. As designers and professional communicators, it is our greatest responsibility to promote understanding, offer a friendly hand and speak in a kind voice.

What are steps we can take to help create a more civil world?