You’ve heard the questions before. “The design looks great, but what are you trying to communicate?” “Where’s the message in your design?” “Did you use this texture here for a reason, or is it just design for design’s sake?”
Okay, enough with the questions. I’m supposed to be answering these, right? (Sorry, another question.) Well, our jobs as designers is to think of these questions before presenting something to our client, professor, peer or anyone with an opinion we value.
I’ll let you in on a little secret that really shouldn’t be much of a secret at all: content is king, and your design will never dethrone it. We live in a world where ideas sell, and everyone is buying.
Where’s the Good Stuff?
Because content is so crucial, here are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind:
- Start with something good, something that will make other people think, “I wish I had thought of that.”
- Follow this with a great concept or great idea. Having either of those is more than half the battle.
You see, products that are aesthetically engaging but that do not have engaging content are quickly forgotten. Products that are promoted far more than they should be will often run their course and fade out much more quickly than the time they took to spring to life. Take commercials. You see them every day, and sure, they’re often humorous—but wait: what is it they’re trying to sell me? Have you noticed that the funnier the commercial is, the duller the product? You need the best of both worlds: beauty and brains.
Finding Action Through Your Design
To follow through with a great concept, you must be passionate about your work. And you must be passionate not only about visual stimulation (we all like to look at nice things, after all), but about what will inspire people to remember you as a designer and, more importantly, to think and act. That’s what good design does: it gets people on their feet, sends them to stores and defines their lifestyle. Let’s look now at two pieces that have had a great influence on me as a designer.
First, CNN published an article a couple years back titled “Can Design Change the World?1” In it, journalist and author Warren Berger, who had just recently published his book Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life and Maybe Even The World, said:
When people talk about design changing the world, it tends to sound a little grand and ridiculous, because they think of design as, in one fell swoop, changing the world and solving our problems.
What design actually can do, it can solve problems on a case-by-case basis around the world. As it does that, it changes the world, because it changes the reality for people wherever the situation is happening. If design can change water delivery in a certain part of the world, then it changes that part of the world for those people. That’s the way design changes the world.
I’ll admit that I used to wonder about this. I often asked myself whether I was actually making a difference in people’s lives or whether people perceived designers merely to be the turtle-necked, hoity-toity types who made websites and fliers for pointless events. When I read Berger’s explanation of the case-by-case solutions around the world, it really made me appreciate what I had chosen to do for a living. It helped me understand that, although I was creatively answering my client’s questions, I was solving problems nonetheless. Do yourself a favor and read the article; some really thought-provoking ideas in it opened my mind to the cause-and-effect nature of “pushing pixels” all day at work.
The second piece is a small segment from one of my favorite books, The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher:
… Design is what happens between conceiving an idea and fashioning the means to carry it out. Whether big stuff like painting a picture, making a movie, creating a commercial enterprise, or small stuff like rearranging living room furniture. In short designing is what goes on in order to arrive at an intelligent equation between purpose and construction, thus converting a problem into an opportunity.
You see, it’s an opportunity for all of us to make the most of what we do, wherever we are. Whether you work at a large firm or are independent, every job you carry out is just as significant as the last. So, treat it that way. This is good design. It’s about finding the opportunity in someone else’s problem.
Here’s a little insight into how I go about finding answers to question—or rather, how I solve someone else’s problem2. Great solutions beget great ideas. I know this might sound a bit “red pill, blue pill”-ish, so let me explain.
A few points on straightening out your objectives:
- Analyze the job you’re working on. What’s the problem? What is intended to be accomplished?
- Create a mental catalog, a word matrix. What do I know about this? What can I link it to?
- Mix and match. Play with meanings. What’s old? What’s current? What does and doesn’t work?
- Review. Is it good? Does it fit? Does it do what it’s supposed to?
I’m sure a lot of us have learned the “Start at 100 and reduce” technique. It’s great for what it is, but if you’re familiar with the problem, why not start at 0 and add only the elements you need? I think you’ll find this to be not only faster and easier, but also more satisfying.
Add, don’t subtract.
It’s about using intuition to see what needs to be there and what doesn’t.
- 1 http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-06/tech/berger.qanda_1_design-prototyping-solving?_s=PM:TECH
- 2 http://designinformer.com/2011/design-solving-problems/