Jonathan Harris posted a must-read essay on Farmer & Farmer during May. Modern Medicine covers the evolving impact of technology in our lives and the ethical implications of that evolution for people who create the applications with which we interact. True to form, Harris brings a fresh and uniquely human perspective to the discussion, reframing many of the ideas that are all-to-frequently bandied about in design discussions. A great read.
Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with designers who struggle to see the difference between substance and style. Now, I am not an expert, but the distinction between substance and style is often in the forefront of my mind. Substance is about essence. Why does something exist? Style, in turn, is the outward expression of substance. How is essence expressed in look-and-feel? The substance of a thing should ultimately inform its style.
In an ideal world, style elevates substance. Rather than being a limitation, this interdependency forces additional creativity. If you don’t have to design within a box, you’ll never figure out how to design your way out of the box.
You have to understand the substance of an book, tool, application, etc. before you can design a solution. Likewise, to direct a design solution, you need to have some sense of the substance. This dichotomy fades as you drive to a point of completion. In other words, when a project is complete, anyone should be able to look at the completed project and immediately understand the connection.
The final style of an object should say something about its substance. Yet, and this is important, style never replaces substance.
For example, many designers are being tasked with the design of information graphics. Information graphics should major in substance and minor in style, in my opinion. The final design solution for an information graphic should elevate the essence of the information. Achieving this goal will elevate the design solution and produce an information graphic of lasting value.
To make sure that you are effectively marrying substance an style, try to answer the following questions:
If you invest time in understanding the answers to these questions, you’ll produce stronger and smarter design solutions that live longer in the world.
This week, I met Krystal Persaud, an industrial designer and social change agent. Krystal started a project in Atlanta called CEO for Change. In Krystal’s words, “CEO for Change is about reaching out to CEOs of top consumer products companies in the US and convincing them that industrial designers can transform their products to be more sustainable and innovative.” If you have a free moment and want to support Krystal’s project, visit the CEO for Change web site, watch the video, and spread the word.
Over the weekend, I spent some time perusing the wares of various artists at MoCCA Fest, an event sponsored by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Not surprisingly, the venue was packed with zines, comics, and random illustrations exploring inner and outer angst, explicit euphoria, and untold mirth. These events are always great for designers, because the strongest work leverages a designers toolbox: good type, smart color choices, and a little restraint. I also saw the latest work by Greg Kletsel, a Brooklyn-based designer and independent illustrator. Greg’s got a great web site and tumblr, which everyone should check out. Do the Kletsel.
Ian Coyle recently launched a web site called Field Notes, where annotates some of his work with Duane King. If you aren’t familiar with Coyle, he and Duane King are behind some of my favorite web sites, including Thinking for a Living, which is pictured above, Nike Better World, and Nike Snowboarding. Together, in many ways, these web sites represent the future of the medium. They are innovative, well-designed stories that create a unique and memorable experience. They stick with you. And online, that’s something.
Recently, after picking up Vectorism by Victionary (you heard me correctly), I started to fall in love with the work of Craig & Karl. You’ve probably seen their portraits floating around the world wide web. Craig & Karl combine whimsy with unique and bold illustration to create wonderful art. Well worth a look.
Paula Scher recently wrote a scathing review of AIGA’s newest design competition, Justified. It’s an important read for any designer who cares about this divide. In response to a discussion at work, I summed up the article.
Paula goes on for a bit, and I am sure that I have missed something. However, these seemed like the salient points. If I was to engage her in a conversation, I might offer the following:
Graphic design, like every profession, is evolving. We want a seat at the table, like every profession. We want our creativity to be acknowledged, as well as our impact. Frankly, and I think everyone in the community agrees, we want to remain relevant and be paid for our work. Every profession is grappling with these issues. They aren’t germane to graphic design. Accountants are fighting for relevance. Marketeers are fighting for relevance. And, on and on.
We don’t need competitions to surface great work. We live in a digital age. Great work is emerging every day. This work comes from all over the world, and it is elevated by the global community. I don’t know if Justified, as a competition, will work. Personally, I’ve always been baffled by design competitions. In a digital age, they might be irrelevant. And, that’s fine.
The AIGA, to remain relevant, is trying to define new criteria for the profession. If we want to measure impact, we need to define the criteria. In order to represent its constituents, the AIGA is trying to lead this movement. Are the current criteria correct? Probably not. But, effort matters. Through this effort, the AIGA will learn and evolve. If they don’t define the criteria on our terms, someone else will, and the criteria will not be in our best interest.
In our search for relevance, we must always seek balance.We see it every day. A business loses sight of what matters, and it falls apart. The AIGA is no different. It must strive for balance. The AIGA needs to engage the heart and mind. And perhaps, that’s what I hear in Paula’s note. She is losing heart. If the AIGA ignores her, it does so at its own peril.
If the AIGA is smart, it will seek that balance. It will keep its community in focus. It will convene difference to create strength. It will measure success in new and bold ways, bringing its members along on the journey. And, it will never lose sight of what matters.
In the May 2012 issue of Wired Magazine, there is a great article on A/B testing, titled The A/B Test: Inside the Technology That’s Changing the Rules of Business. For me, this article paints a very clear picture of what design will become in the future. Designers will become creative scientists, who use creativity to test the boundaries of human interaction.
If you aren’t familiar with A/B testing, it’s essentially a way to test different design approaches in real time. You create multiple iterations of a web page or interactive feature, and using the power of analytics, you test which of the solutions is more effective. It’s essentially a way to remove guess work from the equation. Instead of making a gut-level decision, you test three versions and select the version that performs well.
For some time, I’ve argued that a brave new world is on the horizon. Technology is creating massive disruption. I expect the expected elements of design (good composition, typography, color, etc.) to be democratized in the foreseeable future. To engage with this future, we will need to invest ourselves in the experiment and muster the best of what makes design great. Mostly, a willingness to reinvent ourselves in the wake of massive change.
On April 18, Hillman Curtis passed away.
Although I hadn’t thought about Hillman in years, his passing immediately took me back to a different time and place, a time and place when I wasn’t a designer, when I was just considering the possibility of pursuing it as a career. During that period of time, Hillman was an inspiration to me. I was inspired by his work, monumental acts of web design that pushed the medium. I was inspired by his path, the circuitous travels of a rocker turned web designer. And, I was inspired by his dedication to reinventing himself. Over the years, I visited his web site a hundred times, loving the simplicity of the design, the faceted heart sitting in the corner.
When Hillman announced that he was becoming a digital filmmaker, I wasn’t surprised; I was inspired. And when he went on to create the Artist Series, I benefited from his work again, as I learned about the inner motivations of great designers. As Charles Eames once noted, “Everything is connected.” When I think of that quote, I can’t help but think about the ways that Hillman Curtis connected me to my present.
Rest well, Hillman. We’ll be seeing you on the other side.
On September 23, IBM opened the THINK exhibit in Lincoln Center. This one-of-a-kind experience realizes IBM’s commitment to making the world work better. If you are in New York between September 23 and October 23, when the exhibit closes, please make the trip. It’s a remarkable experience.
To quote Thomas Watson, “All of the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think.”
Finally, a set of mountain men action figures of which you can be proud. This fine set features Marx, Mao, Lenin and Thoreau. At the low low price of 145 euro, it almost seems like they are giving them away. In real life, I think that this camping trip would be fraught with ideological battles and smores. Good stuff.
This morning, I find myself in New York City, peering out a window and taking in the breadth of the horizon. Wooden water towers make the top of the cityscape seem like a long lost village, populated by invisible, reclusive beings. At any moment, I expect short men to emerge from there depths. I’ve always found the city magical, and although I resisted the call so many times, this time I simply stepped into the river.
I’ll apologize for the lack of activity, but the move, prologue and epilogue, was more time consuming than I could’ve imagined. I promise more activity in the future, as well as a few special projects. Next week, I step into a new role, and I’m looking forward to future challenges and opportunities.
If you reside in this great metropolis and read the blog from time-to-time, reach out to me. I’d love to hear from you.
The Edenspiekermann web site has been updated with big juicy images of their design work, including images from the TCHO chocolate project. TCHO has a unique flavor wheel that you can use to select a chocolate that is right for you. It’s a beautiful example of everything that can be done within great packaging design.
Every once in a great while, I wander into the IDEO site and see what’s happening. IDEO has a knack for capturing big thoughts in simple and elegant ways. In IDEO Patterns, you’ll find a variety of smart perspectives on various topics. Each idea is broken into digestible bits, which can be easily enjoyed. They have a great piece on caring and repairing your everyday objects, emphasizing the ideas of reduce, reuse, and recycle. So, if your mind hungers for a little intellectual inspiration, pay them a visit.