Crank Up Your Design Radar


No one understands the statement, “design is everywhere” better than us designers. But comprehension and integration are two totally separate acts. From food packaging, to billboards, to book covers, catalogs, websites, and everything in between, we spend the majority of our waking hours on our computers designing and/or looking at these designs through the portals of our monitors. But when the computer is shut down, does your “design radar” go off-line, as well?

For instance, when it’s time to grocery shop, are you in the get-in/get-out as fast as possible mindset? Or do you treat the experience as a journey through Design Mecca – with sources of inspiration lining the shelves from wall to wall? When you’re waiting on the unbearably slow line at the post office do you temper your impatience by burying your nose in your iPhone? Or do you make note of the ugly signage covering the walls and kill the time by redesigning it better in your head? “Cranking up your design radar” is about never turning off the designer in ourselves.

Crank Up Your Design Radar

In this article, we challenge even the most seasoned of designers to approach the most mundane of tasks (going to the bank, post office, grocery store, etc.) from a whole new designerly perspective.

How Good Is your DesignDar?

It’s not scientific. It’s not empirically validated. But it is the very official designdar test! So go ahead and find out how good your graphic design radar really is:

1. When you’re grocery shopping, do you:

  • completely zone out with just one single goal in mind: getting in and out as fast as humanly possible?
  • only notice design when you frustratingly can’t find your usual box of Wheaties because the company changed the box design once again?
  • get a little giddy being surrounded by such a vast amount of graphic design as your eyes dance around from salad dressing labels to cereal boxes to cookie packaging and everything in-between?“Screenshot/
    The cereal aisle of Whole Foods. Photo Courtesy Stephanie Orma

2. When you’re in the mall, do you:

  1. put all your focus on buying new shoes and tune out everything else that does not relate to feet?
  2. only notice design when you can’t find the food court on the confusing mall directory and proceed to curse people who do not understand how to create clear information design?
  3. find yourself evaluating the oodles of retail graphic design from Banana Republic’s classic logo,1 to Blommingdales’ tried-and-true big/medium/little brown shopping bags2, to Urban Outfitters ultra edgy shadow signage?3

3. When you’re in the airport, do you:

  1. feel so stressed-out that ugly airport signage is the farthest thing from your mind?
  2. only notice design when the airport security guard confiscates your water bottle while directing your attention (with his furiously wagging finger) to the lame graphics on the “no liquids beyond this point” warning sign?
  3. readily absorb the good, the bad, and the ugly design from SFO’s fantastic airport museum display of “Wright at Home: Modern Lifestyle Design 1930–1965”4 (via Terminal 3), to the digitized type on your airplane ticket, to the wholly uninspired layout on the airport parking lot/rental car signage?“Description
    SFO’s Parking/Rental Car Return sign. Photo Courtesy Stephanie Orma

Crank It Up!

If you answered anything other than “3” to the preceding questions, than you might want to seriously consider cranking up your DesignDar. Why? Because, to quote Whack on the Side of the Head author and professional creative consultant Roger von Oech, “wherever you go, there are ideas waiting to be discovered.” And since our livelihood is based on our ability to generate creative ideas, inspiration is literally (if we allow it to be) at our fingertips. Thus, paying attention to all the graphic design that exists around us on a daily basis (wherever we go), is a fantastic way of stoking our subconscious with ideas for current and future projects. The ultimate goal, of course, is to have a wellspring of ideas to tap into when brainstorming on just about anything.

But more than just playing the “I spy design” game (i.e. “I see design there and there and there…”), what do you think of it? Why is it good design? Why is it bad design? In essence, asking yourself these questions strengthens your visual acumen in evaluating why certain things work in design…and other things don’t. Likewise, constantly asking yourself “the why” is a means to further honing your personal preferences and individual voice as a designer. All of which culminates in giving you a far greater understanding of your craft, yourself, and ultimately enhances your skills as a designer.

As a side benefit, it’s pretty darn awesome to get back in touch with graphic design’s enormous impact on society, observing how folks interact with our creations every single day of their lives (even if they’re not aware of it). Remember what it was like walking outside after one or two of your first graphic design classes and seeing the world from a whole new designerly perspective?


But as the years pass and you’ve dealt with too many people wanting a “whole lot of something” for a “whole lot of nothing,” that newbie awe of graphic designs vital role in society begins to wane. Outside the world of our computers and our creative jobs, design starts to become silent again. By allowing ourselves to reconnect with that original passion (through observing design in context and not just on our glowing screens), we recharge the batteries to keep on sweating out more great work.

Off The Charts


So, the next time you go out for that one-hour lunch break, will your eyes still be glued to those electronic devices or buried in a magazine? Instead, why not make a conscious effort to spend the time observing all the graphic design you see around you: from pothole covers to food receipts and anything that catches your eye? Then notch up your DesignDar and do it again next time for a whole day; then a whole week. Pretty soon your DesignDar will be off the charts!

But do take heed: with such a tremendous amount of focus on the outside world, be sure you’re still listening to your inner voice too. If your head starts swimming with too much visual stimuli (to the point you feel you might burst!) allow your eyes and brain a little respite with a calming break from it all. As the quiet comes, so to will the ideas begin to bubble to fruition.


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Stephanie Orma is a San Francisco freelance writer, graphic designer, and illustrator. She’s principal/creative director of Orma Design, as well as the clever greeting card company She's SO Creative. Stephanie is a contributing writer for HOW Magazine and writes on graphic design, branding, and creativity for the SF Examiner.

  1. 1

    This has to be one of the stupidest articles I have ever read. It’s about on par with those “what blah blah are you?” quizzes on facebook.

  2. 52

    What the F**K. DesignDAR? It should be second nature for any designer – if it isn’t I’m sure walmart are hiring…

  3. 103

    Fourteen years ago, when I first got my job as a designer, I was taught to see the design in everything – signage, packaging. I don’t know when I stopped taking notice of these things, but I was reminded about a month ago when an intern in typesetting stated that he now took notice of fonts used on shop signs, vehicle wraps and packaging.

    It was a re-awakening for me, as was this article. Thanks. :-)

  4. 154

    hopefully i m on the road…more u observe more subtle things become prominent

  5. 205

    @BillG Yep! Hopefully, @SarahR is having a palm-to-forehead moment. ;-)

  6. 256

    I don’t know about you guys, but I take pictures of good design when I’m out. I see nice package design *snap*; I see a really good font I want to get *snap*. Even creative color palettes I tend to find get *snap*’d. :P

    Some ideas for good design inspiration:
    * Greeting cards – I could spend all day getting sparked by greeting cards
    * Graffiti – An art of passion and extreme creativity. I’ve been pulled out of a block a couple times by finding and capturing the essence of an element in a tag.
    * Random typography – Typography on the whole has been abused on the web. I can borrow a lot from seeing how products draw your to certain things without compromising the personality of the brand

    Good article. I like it.. Designdar. :P

  7. 307

    Thought I was the only one who thinks about design everywhere I go. It’s a gift and a curse lol

  8. 358

    Seeing design everywhere can be both fantastic and maddening. Turning it on can be difficult, but turning it off can be nearly impossible. For example, sometimes I’m so hyper conscious of designs around me that I have to force myself to think about something other than the fonts used on road signs during long drives. Don’t even get me started on billboards.

  9. 409

    Cool article ! I’ve been doing it without knowing some of the points that’s mentioned here in this article! Now i know a lot, & feel good!

  10. 460

    I seem to notice design most when I’m sitting in line at the bank. I hate watching whatever money channel is on TV, and the designs reveal a lot about the potential customers they’re trying to reach (varying languages, social groups in photos, etc.).

  11. 511

    fresh thoughts in this article. respect to Stephanie.
    expand your growth – inward and outward…
    sometimes it is quiet annoying in this graphic-shower of best – good and very bad ideas
    and creations / then just take a timeout and go for a walk in the woods – really helps…
    peace and paint on…

  12. 562

    I often go on vacation with my parents, and I like airports, only because of the design. Schiphol Airport looks great in my eyes. But when I arrive in Italy, the design sucks (I don’t say Italy sucks, instead I like it very well) and I get angry.

  13. 613

    Don’t know about my “designDar” but my inner grammar nazi knows that the “d” in your silly made up word that will never be heard again shouldn’t be capitalized.

  14. 664

    Inspiration is a must but sometimes it’s a turnoff because top executives makes the final cut in the decision process which kills design and creative merits. But I guess we can’t get discouraged by this. Keep designing even though the majority does not realize the importance of design.


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