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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.