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Design Guy

The show that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply. We discuss graphic design in particular, and design in general, to equip you with lessons in process, practice, and inspiration. Get a new concept under your belt in mere minutes and unleash your creativity!

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Download Episode 5
Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.
This is the program that offers a pause from our technical manuals: all the keeping up we do with tools, technologies, the state of the art. Now, we've got to keep up, of course. It's essential we stay current. But it also can be overwhelming. There is so much to keep up with, it's like drinking from a firehose. We get cognitive overload. And it's hard to retain things that we know are going to continue to change.
On the other hand, we want to learn principles. The good news about principles is that they don't really change. We can learn them with confidence that our time investment is not wasted. We'll know that at least this part of our knowledge base will not erode. Software will come and go, but principles remain. And I think that sends a message to our brains that this is stuff we should latch on to, that we ought to retain. At least that's my theory, and my experience. And that's where this show comes in. Hopefully, we can offer a bit of white space or margin from other concerns, by setting aside the transient information, and speaking to timeless things - things we can commit to long term memory.
Now, we spoke last time about how design begins, and today I'd like to amplify those thoughts and add a few suggestions. We said that listening is key. Or as Hillman Curtis says, listening is an activity, wherein we ask the right questions in the right way, and then fine tune our reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)
In other words, we query our clients to learn what they really want. We want to excavate their core message, their story, so we can identify the thematic drivers of our project. But to do this effectively requires skill in the art of questioning. Questions are to this process, what picks and shovels are to archaealogical digs. To carry the analogy further, questions also act like sifters that filter sand and rock from the stuff we're after. And we want the bones. We want the DNA - the genetic blueprint of our project, so to speak.
The lazy thing to do is to just "get requirements." If we run with requirements we've gotten passively, rather than interactively probing, even challenging our client at times, then we risk informing our work with junk information. In our gusto to get going, we'll start off with a lot of zeal, but soon realize with a creeping dread that there is something rotten in Denmark. We'll find ourselves going back to the drawing board on things we thought were resolved. Or the client, sensing that something is amiss, will suggest too many changes at review milestones. The scenario is all too common. We can sidestep that messiness by laying the foundation of understanding. And, once again, we do that by carefully questioning, and then listening.
We ended the last show on a cautionary note. We said that once we've gotten the right answers, we've got to watch out that we don't go wrong. It's actually possible to make a proper diagnosis, then execute the wrong solution. We safeguard against this by asking ourselves, as designers, a number of questions. We've queried our client. Now we turn the line of inquiry on ourselves. And this ought to start as early as possible. It even runs parallel to the client inquiry. We just want to prevent ourselves from jumping to conclusions or to specific solutions too early.
The idea is to avoid being rash, by suspending our internal biases and avoiding the ruts that we naturally fall into. We all have comfort zones or favorite tools that, truth be told, may not be ideal for a project, and we need to be self-aware enough to realize this. We want to start with a blank slate. Just throw out assumptions as much as we can. It may not be appropriate to ask ourselves, right out of the gate, "What style of website should this be?" We've already assumed it's a website. Don't ask these presumptive questions. A better question is "Which format might address this design problem best?" And then think through the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of different approaches or formats. You want to broaden your horizons at this stage.
We want to do research. What is research but just another form of asking and answering your own questions. Camp out at a search engine for a while and gather information.
Learn what you can about your client and their industry. Try to discover their strengths, weaknesses, market opportunities, and market threats.
Find out what their competition is specifically doing. Look at who competitors are marketing to and how they've designed their products and supporting media. This will help you later on, as you consider ways you can differentiate your client from their competition.
In all of this, you're thinking expansively. You're casting a wide net for information. You're keeping your antenna up, and your eyes open. And because you are, you'll surprise y...
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Download Episode 6
Design Guy here, welcome to the show.
This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
If you've been following along, you'll know that we've been talking about the very beginning stages of the design process, and the skills we need to develop in order to gather the information that fuels our creative work.
So, moving right along, there are some practical process things we could talk about next, like brainstorming and how to get ideas, but before we do that, I think this is a good time for us to pause and consider the designer in all of this.
If we think about it, the designer is the first medium through which ideas pass. Before we choose a physical format or medium, we're it. And I realize this is a really obvious statement. But if "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan(1) famously declared, then I think it's worth stepping outside ourselves for a moment, to consider what kind of medium we are. What kind of attributes should we have as designers before we even get started on the work?
Let's consider the word medium for a moment. When we say something is immediate, it means there's nothing inbetween, there's a direct connection between two things. But when there's a medium, we mean to say that there's something inbetween, something that intervenes. Designers intervene. We take one thing, and pass it through the medium of ourselves, so it becomes a somewhat different thing. We're like prisms that receive the light and then refract it. We take our client's message and then split it apart, we break it all down. We perform a reductive work so we can identify the component parts. Then we build it back up again in just the right way, and communicate it. We basically perform a work of translation. We take ordinary language and convert it into visual language.
Medium is also the word used to describe individuals who claim to have psychic ability. People who claim to be conduits or channels to another world. I find this interesting because we're applying the word medium to an actual person.
If you've ever seen the old Tony Curtis film, Houdini,(2) you'll remember that he and his wife were obsessed with life after death. They made a pact that they would seek to make contact with each other if one should pass on to "the other side." So you may remember the scene where she visits a psychic medium, who conducts a seance. They're all in a dimly lit room. There was the typical mumbo jumbo and theatrics staged to convince Mrs. Houdini that she was communing with Harry himself. But, alas, this medium was a charlatin attempting to cash in on the poor widow's grief-driven compulsion to make contact. The point here, though, is that Mrs. Houdini was in search of a medium. She wanted to find a person who could bridge a gap that she could not cross by herself.
Our clients are like this. They look to us as channels or mediums to their marketplace, where they hope to connect with an audience. They can't cross this gulf all by themselves. They know that they need someone with special attributes. They need someone with specialized communication skills, who can send their message across in just the right way. And if we're really on our game, we might be able to channel ghosts of a different kind. I'm being a little bit cute here. But I'm referring to what's sometimes called the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Which is to say that wherever we can , we want to inform our work with a keen sense of the cultural context or our audience—their world, their ethos.
Now, in light of everything we've said, we can see why certain designers are sought after. They've got certain attributes that the client is looking for. They want these attributes to show through the final product.
We see this principle at work when we're evaluating a design piece. If we describe it as witty or traditional or sophisticated or minimalistic, then we're describing the designer to a great extent. These characteristics mirror the person behind the work. And if you give the same design problem to two different designers, you'll get two different results. They may both be valid, and indeed one design problem can be solved a thousand different ways. But, I believe there are certain characteristics that all designers ought to share in common. There are some common attributes that will show through in the work of even the most wildly divergent designers. And we'll talk about what some of those attributes are in the next episode.
For now, let's just establish that the designer is like the physical format we'll select to do our work within, because we profoundly influence the work. And, again, this is a really obvious statement. But, if we want our attributes to reflect well on the work, we'll give some consideration to ourselves. We'll want to make sure we've got c...
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Download Episode 7
Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
If you're just joining us, we're talking about the attributes of the designer. In the last episode, we established the idea that, as designers, we profoundly influence the work we do by the mere fact of who we are as individuals. Our unique way of thinking and solving problems, our personal style and perspective on the world, all have an impact on the product. Our fingerprints are all over our work, so to speak. You can I.D. a designer through their work sometimes. And this is obviously why certain designers are sought after. We tend to describe their work as unique or distinctive. So, it stands to reason that if we give one design problem to two different designers, we can expect somewhat different outcomes.
At the same time, though, there are certains traits that designers should have in common. Unique as we all are, there are certain stereotypes or generalizations that ought to hold up in order for graphic designers to qualify as graphic designers.
If your into movies, you'll know how it is to hear that a certain director is rumored to be helming a film project. When we hear the name Tim Burton or Steven Soderbergh or Guillermo Del Toro, we develop different expectations. At the same time, we're pretty confident that while they think divergently, and that they'll all emphasize different themes, that they've got some other things in common. They all know a thing or two about storytelling, and casting, and where to put the camera.
That's how it is with designers. Unique as we are, some things are the same.
So, in no particular order, I'd like to describe the traits we can expect.
And I'll just mention the first one today, which is this. A designer takes an interest in the world around them.
Adrian Shaughnessy, in his book, How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul, (1)writes: "Among the myriad definitions of graphic design, one of the most illuminating is by American designer and writer Jessica Helfand. According to Helfand, graphic design is a visual language uniting harmony and balance, color and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a langauge of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences that challenge both the intellect and the eye."
Commenting further on Helfand's definition, Shaugnessy says, "I like Helfand's definition. Her first sentence is a conventional summary of graphic design; few would argue with it. But the second part of Helfand's definition provides the key to producing meaningful and expressive graphic design, (when she refers to): 'cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences.' (These) are the elements that give work authority and resonance. And if you want to introduce these elements into your work, it means taking a interest in everything that goes on around you, and having curiosity about areas other than graphic design: politics, entertainment, business, technology, art, ten-pin bowling and mud wrestling.
This cultural awareness ranks higher than technical ability and academic qualifications in the designer's portfolio of attributes." (End of quotation)
James N. Frey, (2) author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, expresses the same sentiment in writing the following:
"You''ll need to be a general reader, because you need to know, well, a lot of stuff. (Be) a well read generalist, as opposed to a specialist, like a chiropractor or plumber or teacher. How can you create a Buddhist character if you don't know what meditation is for? How can you create a carpenter if you don't know what a T square and a level are for? A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole." (End of quotation)
Think of it this way, think in just general social terms. People who are well read and aware of many things can relate to more people. If you're an engineer and all you can talk about is engineering, you can't connect effectively to another person. But if you can talk about the news or fishing or the latest of episode of Heroes, in addition to engineering, then you build a more robust bridge to the other person. As graphic designers we want to tap into the culture or zeitgeist or ethos, as I mentioned last time, so we can be more effective. So start broadening your horizons. Watch TV shows you formerly shunned. If you read Rolling Stone, try reading McCalls. You'll be amazed at what you can bring into your world from someone else's.
And that's it for today. As usual, I'll post show notes at my webpage, which is Music is b...
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Download Episode 8
Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
We're talking about the attributes of the designer. And we began last time by asserting that graphic designers take an interest in the world around them. We said that it's preferable to be a generalist, rather than a specialist. And what we mean to say in this is that it's not a good thing to know your profession to the exclusion of other things. You want to cultivate a curiosity in many things. To that end, you should read widely and expose yourself to new things whenever you can. If you're musical tastes run toward the Smashing Pumpkins, go see an opera. You get the picture. The idea here is that we're supposed to help our clients make a connection with their audience. So, the more informed we are to the world of the client, the more effective we'll be at bridging that gap. In order to do this well, we want to be good at the next attribute. And that's COMMUNICATION.
Robin Landa, in her book Graphic Design Solutions, writes, Graphic designers use words (type), and pictures and other graphic elements (visuals) to communicate. Their art is a visual-verbal expression. The graphic designer mediates between a client with a message to send and the audience. Visuals and words are used by the designer on behalf of the client in order to inform, persuade, or sell." (end of quotation)
And that's a basic definition of graphic design. Visual communication. And as we get deeper into this podcast series we'll tackle all the various elements and principles of design that foster that visual form of communication. So, there's really not much more to say about this right now. To become a better visual communicator, you need to study this craft of graphic design. By learning about contrast or proportion, for example, you communications will improve visually.
Now, although it's obvious, I should point out that this visual communication that we call graphic design is all written and visual. There are no spoken words. But the verbal, spoken form of communication is also a skill that we've got to get better at. It's our verbal skill that will persuade a client to buy into our ideas and to hire us, it's our verbal skill that makes us more skillful at business, that persuade a client to pay us for services rendered. And, of course, the better we can exchange ideas between ourselves as team members on projects, the better our resulting graphic design will be, as we sharpen up our collective vision for the product.
Adrian Shaugnessy in his book, How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, writes, "The way designers present ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. When a good idea is being rejected, it is often the presentation of that idea that is being rejected, and not the idea itself....Spoken communication therefore is a vital component of the modern designer's kitbag. But there is a communication skill even more important than being able to talk convincingly about your work: listening. I'm talking about the acknowledgement that communication is a two-way street, and that your client has a point of view that you need to listen to carefully for clues and unspoken messages." (end of quotation)
Now, if you've been listening to earlier episodes, you'll be experiencing deja vu about now, because we spoke pointedly to the necessity of listening. If you've missed those shows, you can go back and review them, of course.
But I think we'll wrap things up here. And we'll summarize by saying that if the first attribute, which is an interest in the world around us, can be likened to input, then communication (both the visual and verbal kind) is the output. So, we need to recognize that they work together. Garbage in. Garbage out. Or diversified understanding of the world in, rich, layered communications out.
Well, I want to thank you again for listening. If you'd like to check out the show notes, you can find them at my web page, which is Music is by If you've been finding these shows helpful, I'd welcome your feedback in the form of a vote at podcast alley or perhaps a comment at iTunes. Until next time, this is Design Guy, hope you'll join us again.
1. Landa, Robin, Graphic Design Solutions, 2nd Ed., OnWord Press, 2000
2. Shaughnessy, Adrian, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002Subscribe in iTunes - it's free!
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Download Episode 9
Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores the timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Now, we've been talking about the attributes of the designer. And today, we'll conclude this little rabbit trail with one final observation or truism. And while I call this an attribute, there's a sense in which it's really an aspiration or ideal that encompasses everything we want to be as designers. So, here goes:
Designers have a love for The Craft.
And, when I say craft, I've got a couple of shades of meaning in mind. The first one refers to that affinity or reverence that we've got for the tools and techniques of our trade. Just as an iron smith loves the hammer and the glowing iron and the sparks that fly, we, as designers love the process that we're engaged in, and all the tools and techniques that we use in order to ply our trade.
But graphic designers are engaged in an amazing hybrid of art and craft. On the one hand, design is an art with all of that creative mystique to it. There's that intangible and evasive muse or magic that we seek in the form of inspiration. Mysteriously, an idea forms within us and then we fashion it with our tools, giving it form and substance. It really is a wondrous thing. It's as if we pull rabbits out of hats.
On the other hand, we're engaged in a practical craft. We're like traditional tradesmen - we resemble plumbers or bricklayers who just go to work every day. We use techniques. We obey rules for activities like setting type. And in that respect, we don't always need muses or magic. And, come to think of it, have you ever heard a plumber complain that he couldn't fix your toilet for lack of inspiration? Or a bricklayer complain that he was too creatively blocked to build your patio? But, as designers, we've got this duality or hybrid thing going on. We're creative craftsmen.
But I mentioned that there's a second shade of meaning to the word, craft. When I say that designers love "The Craft," I'm also using the word as a proper noun to describe the family or guild of designers. As designers, we're part of a community. And this community is on a shared path of discovery, wherein we benefit from each other's ideas and discoveries as we share thoughts and ideas among ourselves. And we've also got a love for this community that I call The Craft in a protective sense, because we want to elevate our profession and not see it erode or be cheapened. We want to promote certain ideals for The Craft. We want designers to be ethical and maintain good practices and reputations for fairness and integrity. We want The Craft to have a good name. The Graphic Arts Guild, or G.A.G., is a testament to this idea. And, by the way, if you're not familiar with their book, which comes out every so often, you should look it up. It gives guidance to graphic artists on all manner of best practices, including pricing. As members of The Craft, we become aware that we're not alone. We've got heritage and history and lineage. We're part of something bigger than ourselves. We're members of a tradition that we can honor and contribute to as we fill the world with good design.
So, in closing, I encourage you to cultivate this love of craft. In both senses of the word. I wish you satisfaction as you ply your trade, and I also remind you that you're part of a unique community of craftsmen.
Until next time, this is Design Guy, I thank you again for listening.
Graphic Arts Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, North Light Books, 2001Subscribe in iTunes - it's free!
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Download Episode 10
Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.
This is the program where we set aside the technical manuals and focus on the timeless aspects of design. Software versions come and go, and new forms of media emerge, but the principles behind our work stay pretty much the same. So, it's my hope that these brief discussions will be worth the time investment, since we can commit these principles to long term memory. Better yet, we can put them into practice, knowing they'll serve us throughout our careers. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods."
So, prior to the detour that we just concluded concerning the attributes of the designer, we were discussing the earliest stages of the design process. And we said this process of design begins with the work of data gathering. This is the first step in the sequence of practical things that we do as designers. By amassing a bunch of information, we basically prepare ourselves for all the creative work to come. In so doing, we're stocking our mental shelves, we're fueling the creative tank, fertilizing the ground - whatever anology you want to use. The key thing - is that we do it.
If you're kind of an impatient designer who wants to jump right into your favorite authoring environment and get going, you really need to resist that impulse early on. Newer designers may wonder if it's necessary to gather as much information as I was suggesting, but I'd say that, as a rule, it really is. Sometimes we can pull off good results with some pretty scant data, but, on the whole, and especially if the project is at all extensive, the more we know about the things that are important to our client, the better off we'll be. And while, we tend to gather more data than we'll eventually use, it's recommended that you capture a super abundance of stuff. When you have more than you need, you can make better decisions - you can have choices. And, trust me, it's a nice thing to have choices. When you have more than you need, you can cull the best and leave the rest. We can liken this to the way that writers discard pages they've written or the way filmmakers leave scenes on the cutting room floor. But, again, at this early stage, when you're just embarking on the creative journey of your project, you really don't know for sure what you'll keep or what you'll toss, so you want to hang on to all of it.
So we're sitting on this pile of information, and we're feeling pretty knowledgeable and all, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves, until we realize with a growing disquiet within us that we're facing this blank page. And it's not magically filling itself, either. For creatives, this can be the most intimidating sight in the world. It can actually be terrifying. And we realize at this point that it's one thing to have all this information, now what do we do with it? As Marty Neumeier said, "Design is easy. All you do is stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead." He was kidding, of course. Or, at least, he was exaggerating.
Sometimes it seem effortless - ideas come to us fully formed, like bulldogs barking at the garden gate. Other times, we can't come up with a thing, we can't produce one good idea, at least we can't think of any good ones. And, if we're not careful, we can psyche ourselves out. We get performance anxiety. We worry that we'll be exposed for the frauds that we are, that we've just been playing at all this design stuff and now everyone's going to know. In a word, we can panic. And if we panic, we can get into all sorts of trouble. So don't panic. If you're in this position today, even as we speak, don't worry. Help is on its way.
What I'd like for us to do for a few episodes is talk about the creative process. I want to talk about where the ideas come from. About mythical creatures called muses. The unconcious mind, and other things. This is territory that often seems shrouded in mystery, and in a certain sense it is. It's often hard to account for why and when a lightbulb suddenly decides to appear above our head. Why the solution to a puzzle dawns on us at the most unlikely time. So it's a curious thing, this creative process. But, on the other hand, there are things we can know about it that will reassure us. There are certain principles we can get a handle on, so that we don't have to panic when good solutions don't appear to be forthcoming. To a great extent, we can actively manage our creativity rather than feeling totally passive about it.
But I'll conclude today's discussion by offering the first rule of creativity, which is to relax. Don't panic. Relax. When we tense up and then try to produce in that state, it's really counterproductive. To strain and force matters just doesn't work very well. It reminds me of those chinese fing...
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Download Episode 11
Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Now, we're talking about the creative process. And in earlier episodes, we discussed the preparation that precedes creativity, which namely takes the form of information gathering. In graphic design, there's always a message at stake - one that we need to craft for an audience. So, we're concerned early on with doing our homework. And once we've laid the groundwork for our project in this way, we're ready to get creative. And, as we said last time, this can go well or poorly, depending on certain factors.
Sometimes creativity seems effortless and automatic. We come to our project bursting at the seams with ideas, and everything almost seems to build itself. We fly through the entire process with ease, and we finish our work exhilarated, knowing that our solutions and the execution of them were right on target. But as many of us know well, that's not always the case. The ideas that came fast and free last week aren't coming anymore. We find ourselves facing a barren page or a blank screen, and we wonder what's wrong. And, as the clock ticks toward our deadline, we begin to despair, or to tie ourselves up in knots of anxiety. It's those problem moments that catch our attention and cause us to wonder what's going on under the surface, what is this creative process, anyway? How does it work? Why does it seem that our best ideas come at random? And can we get some degree of control over our creativity?
I think the best way to get at all this is to start with some definitions. First off, we can rightly describe creativity as a process. Now, granted, it doesn't often feel like a process. In fact, it's frequently a messy, non-linear, and elusive affair, but it's a process nonetheless. And The Oxford American dictionary defines the word "process" as "a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end."(1) Which at least gives us some clue concerning our role in all this. The definition goes part-way to answering the questions, "Are we passive in this process?" "Do ideas just happen to us?" And the answer is "no," because it IS a process. And like any process, there are actions or steps that we can take to encourage creativity. So, we can take heart in the fact that there's a practical side to this, complete with methods and techniques, things we can busy our hands and minds with and DO. But let's home in on our definition of creativity a bit more.
Creativity is usually described as a work of imagination or as a mental process that yields ideas. Ideas, then, are an output of this process. And since we know that the success of our work greatly depends upon the strength of our ideas, we should take the trouble to attempt a definition of this word, also.
Now, it's tempting to think of ideas as something completely new. But that would only be part right. The trouble with thinking of ideas as something that's brand new is that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come up with something that the world has never laid eyes on before. And when we think in these terms the task of producing ideas suddenly becomes daunting and out of the reach of mere mortals. But the biggest problem I see is that it puts us completely on the wrong track. People sometimes become mystical about this pursuit of ideas because they think they're channeling something from another world, when the truth about ideas is that they're born out of the common and mundane things of the everyday world. And while it often feels as if we've plucked our ideas from the air, it's safe to say that they're plucked from this terrestrial air that we're all breathing. The truth is that when you break an idea down into its component parts, there's really nothing new or otherworldly about it. It's made out of common stuff.
What IS potentially new or unique about an idea lies in the combination of elements that it contains, and not the elements themselves. As James Webb Young pronounced in his advertising classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas: "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."(2) This is an important one, so let me state it again, "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."
This statement offers reassurance and solace to us because it lets us in on the secret about ideas, which is that the stuff of ideas is all around us. The trick, if it can be called a trick, is to put them together in a new way, which places us into another realm of discussion, which has to do with our lifelong and constant habit of observing the world around us. I mentioned in earlier episodes that a chief attribute of designers is that they take an interest in the world around them. And I'll go one better today by advising that you stand on your head while you do ...
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Download Episode 12
Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
We live in a create-on-demand world, and, whether you're a graphic designer or a college student working on a writing assignment, or a podcaster trying to come up with his next episode, the question is the same. How can we gain some control of the creative process, so that our minds and imaginations are productive when we need them to be?
As we established last time, creativity is a process. It's often slippery and disorderly, and we can make huges messes along the way, but it IS a process. And AS a process, it consists of steps and actions - practical things we can DO to encourage our productivity. And this ought to encourage us, since we can be proactive in our creativity, rather than passively wait around for ideas to just happen to us.
We also spoke about ideas, because we need ideas, large and small, to get us through our project. But we demystified the subject by explaining that ideas aren't of otherworldy origin, or the domain of the supercreative, but simply new combinations of old elements. Ideas feel fresh because we've made a new juxtaposition of things. So, the trick is to find relationships between these old elements, and put them together in interesting ways to create a new effect or perspective. This is a bit like our reaction when we see people get together. We know our friend, John. We know our friend, Susan. But then they hook up and become a new idea, called John-and-Susan, and it changes our perspective. There's a new dynamic, a combined effect that's different than when they were apart. In the realm of music, someone took rhythm and blues and put it together with country to create a new idea in music, which we know as rock 'n' roll. In the realm of graphic design, Saul Bass(1) took our old fashioned idea of what a movie poster was, and married it to a graphic, modernistic sensibility, and influenced generations of designers as a result. On an every day level, our design compositions are merely new arrangements of the familiar elements of design. It's their organization and layout, the combinations we come up with, that makes them feel like either a new idea or a cliche.
And just a word about cliches. In the realm of ideas, cliches represent the stale side of the spectrum. Cliches are trite, worn out ideas. We've seen or heard them so many times that they've lost their impact. Designers still embrace them, though, because they are so familiar and they communicate so instantly. But smart designers put a fresh spin on the cliche. They add a twist, they augment a cliche with another element, until they've cast the old idea in a new light, making it a somewhat new idea. So if you're frustrated by all the cliches you seem to generate, no need to fret. Just use them as a starting point toward something new.
But returning to the original question about how we sieze control of creativity, its helpful to understand a bit about how that thinking organ between our ears works. After all, creativity is a work of imagination, it's a process of the mind. So, if we can gain some insight into how our minds work, then we can work with it, rather than forcing matters.
Now, there are theories or models about how the mind works. One model describes the mind in terms of its conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious mind represents our wakeful state or level of awareness. But the unconscious mind operates below the level of our normal awareness. It is the part of us that dreams and sorts out the stimuli we receive on our conscious level.
But in the interest of keeping things straightforward and practical, we can think of it this way: As we receive stimuli from the world around us, and as we collect the raw materials of our project, our unconscious mind goes to work on them at a deeper level. It's like we're putting together a stew, and placing it on the backburner of our brains. In the course of time, we consciously toss more things into the pot, where they sit and simmer. What's interesting thing is that we can we can decide to stop thinking about our project, yet our unconcscious mind is still working on it. This should set us at ease in the knowledge that there's a solution waiting to emerge, we just need to gather materials and give it time. This technique is also called composting, which is a nice image for the way our mind converts raw materials into a rich and fertile source for us to draw from.
I believe this is why procrastination is common among creatives, and shouldn't necessarily be thought of us as a bad thing. Because if the unconscious requires to time to do its thing, then it stands to reason that a project can be started too early. Hence, that blank page syndrome I mentioned in the last episode. We may be creatively blocked because the ingredients...
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Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
We're talking about the nature of the creative process, and the things we can do to get a handle on it. Last time, we spoke about the creative mind. We described how the conscious and the unconscious parts of our minds work together to help us solve problems and combine elements into ideas. And we likened this mental partnership to making a stew, or building a compost heap. And this is to say that, in our normal, conscious state, we gather the raw materials of our project. Then, over the course of time, this stuff is processed by our unconscious mind. Eventually, this stew of materials will be useful to us. But we need time - time enough for our unconscious to do its work. Because it's on this deeper level, the part of us that dreams, that our mind forms the connections that lead to ideas.
The German Philosopher, Helmholtz,(1) summarized the process in three parts. First, a Preparation Phase, where we gather materials, followed by Incubation, when our unconscious does its unseen work, followed by Illumination, when (quote) "happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration" (unquote). Illumination is that pregnant moment when solutions come forth, the moment we here about in famous anecdotes: Archimedes Eureka moment.(2) Or J.K. Rowling(3) envisioning the entire basis for the Harry Potter books while riding on the train. And, obviously, this is the state we want to be in all the time, if we can help it. So, how can we?
Jack Foster, in How to Get Ideas, lays down the same basic process, but spends the bulk of his book offering ways to condition our minds for it. First and foremost, and above all else, his advice is to have fun. He writes, "It's not by chance that I list having fun as my first suggestion on how to get your mind into idea-condition. Indeed, in my experience it might well be the most important one. Here's why: Usually in creative departments of advertising agencies a writer and an art director work together as a team on a project. In some departments and occasionally in the ones that I headed, three or four teams work on the same project. When that happened in my departments, I always knew which team would come up with the best ideas, the best ads, the best television commercials, the best billboards. It was the team that was having the most fun. The ones with frowns and furrowed brows rarely got anything good. The ones smiling and laughing almost always did. Were they enjoying themselves because they were coming up with ideas? Or were they coming up with ideas because they were enjoying themselves? The latter. No question about it. After all, you know it's true with everything else - people who enjoy what they're doing, do it better. So why wouldn't it be true with people who have to come up with ideas?" (end of quotation). (4)
Or as Carl Jung said, "Creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves."(5)
So, my advice is that you should find ways to play and keep things light. We've got work to do, of course, but we can still adopt a playful seriousness. Or to think in terms of serious play. It's when we're uptight and anal, that we experience a kind of creative constipation. Maybe that accounts for the furrowed brow that Jack Foster was talking about. But, then again, I was just quoting Jung, not Freud, so I'll just move on to some practical suggestions.
1. Play with your materials.
Loosen up and relax and adopt an attitude of "it doesn't matter, I'm just playing." Give yourself permission to just noodle around with things, and see what happens, what shape things take. Forget about rules for a while and just play in the sandbox of ideas.
2. Play with co-workers.
Depending on your office culture, this doesn't have to mean three-legged races down the hallways. But engage in reparte, play with words, joke around, banter, send weird emails, all that stuff. When we ignite that goofy dynamic, and strive to up the ante with each other, we can come up with all kinds of good and unexpected stuff. But the big idea is that you're keeping it fun with each other. There's nothing more deadly to creativity than a miserable team.
3. Play with your subject matter.
Even make fun of the project, make a parody out of it, think of extreme things you would never really do. Pretend you're the creative team at Saturday Night Live and do a total mockery of a mock up. Will you be able to use any of this material? Maybe, Maybe not. It depends on how much irreverance your client can tolerate. But at least you're thinking outside the box. You're bracketing the subject with a broader spectrum of ideas, ranging from the conservative to the outright absurd.
There's lots of other suggestions I can make along these lines, but before it devolv...
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Download Episode 4
Design guy here. Welcome to the show.
This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Last episode we explored Graphic Design. We laid out a basic definition first by clarifying it's difference from fine art. In fine art, it's perfectly okay to be subjective and to allow for individual interpretation, or to have no message at all. But Graphic design is different in that it must support an objective typographic message. If it doesn't communicate something specific, we've failed at our mission. We also identified typography as the essential component of graphic design. Without typography, there is no message, and if there's no message, there is no graphic design.Today, we'll talk a bit about process. More to the point, we'll ask HOW does this process begin? In short, it begins with listening.
New Media Designer, Hillman Curtis, gives us insight about listening. He says, Listening is an activity. It's a matter of asking the right questions in the right way. And then fine-tuning your reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)
Now, no matter what we're designing, whether it's a post card or a passenger ship, what we're listening for are requirements. It's the requirements that define our project. We want to know about dimensions and deadlines, we want to know about constraints and content. We want to gather all the all the guiding factors that will put us on a sure path to reaching our destination.
But before we can assemble all these requirements, we've got to get comfortable with this activity of listening. Sounds simple, right? The client tells us stuff, we right it down, we go to work. In practice, it's far more tricky. Clients sometimes don't tell us stuff, or they tell us the wrong stuff, based on well-meaning, but misguided preconceptions. Or they're not even in touch themselves with what they really want. This leaves gaps. And we've got to get skilled at filling those gaps. The way to do it is by getting good at asking questions. I know, it sounds simple right? But here, too, we often ask the wrong questions. We bring our own preconceived notions and start down the wrong path of inquiry. We funnel the client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. This whole area can be slippery. So, what's a designer to do?
Let's answer that by first understanding what our goals in listening are. Where should our line of inquiry take us? The short answer is: to the heart of the matter.We'll ask our client open ended questions, questions that won't elicit simple yes or no responses. We want to get them talking, we want to draw it out from them. And we want to give them a wide berth at first, rather than hem them in by tut-tutting over ideas that sound expensive.
It's like we're probing, digging, sifting through the real issues and the red herrings. And what we're trying to uncover, what we're trying to get to, is what our clients really WANT. We want to know what STORY they are trying to tell. We want to know what their true goals are, including the obstacles to those goals, we want to get to the heart of their message, including the subtext, the implied. All these elements can be summarized by the word THEME. If we know what our theme is, then we've got the seed out of which a project grows, the engine that drives it. And make no mistake: Your solutions will be organic when they grow out of theme. It's when we're unclear about theme, that our work becomes contrived, as we muck about with style or other things to compensate for our lack of understanding.Now, This pursuit of understanding, and this questioning process may take place over more than one meeting with time in between for research and internal discussion. When we've gotten really clear on what our clients want, their story, which theme, this is when requirements start to come in to focus. And this is where we've got to remain vigilant with ourselves and the clients. It's so easy to get the right answers and then go wrong. I mentioned before that we can funnel a client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. Sometimes that's because we have a favorite tool. We have a hammer,so to speak, and everything looks like a nail. We've got to watch out for this by remaining open to ALL the possibilities, by not limiting ourselves to top of the head solutions..
We do this by turning the questions on ourselves. We point them in our own direction. We have to ask ourselves, as designers, a whole lot of things..
And we'll do time.
For now, let's just recognize that listening all takes practice. Clients are all different, with different styles of communication. It will take experience get good at this. Sometimes you have to labor through this. And labor...
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