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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?

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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? Link

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?
    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,3 to Blommingdales’ tried-and-true big/medium/little brown shopping bags4, to Urban Outfitters ultra edgy shadow signage?5

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” (via Terminal 3), to the digitized type on your airplane ticket, to the wholly uninspired layout on the airport parking lot/rental car signage?
    SFO’s Parking/Rental Car Return sign. Photo Courtesy Stephanie Orma

Crank It Up! Link

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 Link


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.

Footnotes Link

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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

    Damian Bartosik

    July 11, 2009 12:00 pm

    Great, i’m first :) Very nice post, thanks !

  2. 2

    Wow, Nice article

  3. 3

    Stephan Lenting

    July 11, 2009 12:11 pm

    I see Helvetica everywhere, its crazy :)

  4. 4

    Craig Baldwin

    July 11, 2009 12:14 pm

    I guess I’m still at the designer newbie stage in my second year in University, I pick up loads of the different designs out there. Like the other day I noticed I really like the minimalist appearance of Waitrose’s new Essential range.

  5. 5

    I have to turn it off, or at least put a strong filter on it so as not to bore the life out of my poor wife!! I often rip to pieces designs that don’t seem to convey the appropriate impression, but do so when I can make it funny to make it amusing for others as opposed to boring! Those not into design do NOT want to hear about it all day. You’ll loose what friends you do have quite quickly otherwise!

  6. 6

    Wow! Very inspiring. Great writing style and illustrations, a little unusual for SM, nice!

  7. 7

    I do that in the grocery store too!

  8. 8


    July 11, 2009 12:27 pm

    Wow, i thought that i was thinking to much into things trying to be inspired but the truth is, there is horrible design everywhere i constantly notice the ups and downs of design when im not on the computer, everywhere from television to bus stop benches to local flyers there are horrible designers everywhere! but that only inspires me to make something more suithing to the eye, wow this is a really good post! im glad i came across this!

  9. 9

    Really? DesignDar? Please don’t try to coin a term for “noticing design”, or simply “seeing design”.

    Aside from the common sense tone of the subject, I think the article might do well prompting non-designers and neophytes to take notice of design in general.

  10. 10

    My DesignDar is running 24/7, I love it, it makes you realize the little things in everyday things. The typography on number plates. Contrast on kellogs packages etc.

  11. 11

    If you’re not noticing design everywhere and learning from it, then design isn’t a passion. Not to worry. If you become bored, you can always get a job on the assembly line somewhere.

  12. 12

    My desigendar did not go off seeing the main post image.

  13. 13

    I recently bought some Reese’s Pieces solely because of the design of the packaging. It wasn’t the normal design, it was this beautiful retro-but-not-too-retro design. I figured design that good should be rewarded.

  14. 14

    Hayes Potter

    July 11, 2009 4:38 pm

    Haha, very interesting article. I try and re-design ugly signs in my all the time.

  15. 15

    term DesignDar NEVER use again.

  16. 16

    Yea – let’s talk ‘DesignDar’ graphic with an off-center needle fulcrum, questionable text treatment (including an attempt at superscripted ‘old timey’ titling) and uninspired cliche color palette.


  17. 17


    At least I was not alone.

  18. 18

    Recently I just had that same thoughts on everything my eye touches. And mostly I felt sick! But as you said, it should inspire us to design.

  19. 19

    In response to 70watts: I really enjoyed the article and I think you missed the point entirely. Maybe you should shut off your condescendingDAR and your negativeDAR, because my insecurepersonDAR is going off. Maybe you can post some links to your more inspired, original, fulcrum-centered designs for all of us amateurs to learn and gaze at in awe.

    To Tripdragon: DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar DesignDar!!!!!!!

  20. 20


    Did you actually READ the article??? It was a really creative, intelligent, fun, and inspiring post. Your comment on the other hand had nothing positive, original, or creative to offer – anyone can be a critic – but you didn’t even do that well.

    I thought the article was GREAT!

  21. 21

    Raymond Selda

    July 11, 2009 9:32 pm

    Truly inspirational post! I used to bring a digicam whenever we go to the mall to take snapshots of various graphic designs. One thing I look out for is the color schemes because I really need to improve my color choices when designing websites. Thanks Stephanie and SM!

  22. 22

    Becky Bryant

    July 12, 2009 1:11 am

    What good timing, I was at a store earlier that sells “quaint” ciders, beers and preserves and took photos with my phone of the labels. :(

  23. 23

    Ronnie Ravelo

    July 12, 2009 3:47 am

    Glad there was a section to what’s next after being aware of designs around us. Cultivating an eye for spotting good from bad design and learning to articulate why they do, are important to developing our skills as designers. I’d like to add: always asking “How did they do that or come up with that” would also be a good practice.

  24. 24

    Will never be the same again when I go to the mall… & will take photo of every road signs I’m driving next to !
    A life changing mate, I’ll soon be dead in a car crash ;-)

  25. 25

    John Mindiola III

    July 12, 2009 5:46 am

    When I want to annoy my wife (like I really have to try), I’ll quietly start stating every single font I see on billboards as we drive along 394 into downtown Minneapolis.

  26. 26

    Mine is usually on all the time. When I’m at the grocery store, I tend to buy stuff with pretty packages. If the packaging is ugly, I don’t buy it. It’s all about pretty design. Great post. I love it and I also love finding Helvetica!

  27. 27

    As DesignDAR tracks visual elements, GrammarDAR tracks grammatical elements.

    The lead sentence of this story pegged my GrammarDAR into the “you gotta be kidding” range: “No one understands the statement, ‘design is everywhere’ better than us designers.” The sentence showcases the all-too-common, fingernails-on-chalkboard misuse of the nominative and objective cases. Worse yet, this common mistake dumbs down the rest of the story and diminishes its credibility.

    No one understands the statement “bad grammar is everywhere” better than we grammarians.

  28. 28

    Eric Swanson

    July 12, 2009 8:41 am

    I can’t help but critique everything I see constantly. One thing I like to do is count the number of effects, outter glows and strokes on food packaging. Food packaging is seriously its own entity when it comes to graphic design. I definitely wouldn’t be putting 7 strokes on a logo for anything other than food.

  29. 29

    Unwrap all packaging, try to guess fonts on all kinds of signage, notice pixel level differences in alignments, try and guess DPI’s of printed material, measure the distance from where I can spot bad photoshopping, imagine the lighting setup for a photoshoot… you get the picture.

  30. 30

    Thanks for all.

  31. 31


    Your GrammarDAR may be on…but it’s not working. As an experienced writer myself, not only is it grammatically OK for the first sentence of this article to use the phrase “us designers,” it sounds better too. And from a content standpoint, I think it sets up the article’s point perfectly: as designers, of course, we know design is everywhere – but do we really practice what we preach?

    Great article. Really well written and truly inspiring – thanks!

  32. 32

    at the start of the academic year – on one of my design modules, the teacher, more or less touched on some of the above points (though here they are much more convinsing – which i find ironic)

    so since then, i started to look at the things around me with a designers eye, and it does feel good.

    i also started keeping a “design diary” (again i got the idea from some blog). here i collect any print based designs that i see around the city, and sometimes comment on the reason y i chose to collect that poster.

    also (even though, i can not draw) i have started to keep a sketch book – where i draw any ideas that come in my head (as im not an artist) all my drawing have comment where ever i feel that my drawing did not get the point across

    i find this very helpful as it is hard to rely on the pc for quick ideas that “may” be usable in the future

    however, this idea of going “design shopping” – i think is a fantastic idea, this is the 3rd time that i read articles that suggest going window shopping to look at designs – and yes is something that i did try for about 2 hours last week, and it does work (and of course is a relaxing way of training your creativity).

    if i may suggest – it be nice if you (SM) could set some interviews with designers based around this topic

  33. 33


    The only context in which the phrase “us designers” would be grammatically correct would be as the object of a sentence, e.g. “The judges gave the award to us designers.”

    If you’re that concerned about how proper grammar “sounds” in the sentence at hand, don’t simply imply the predicate in the subordinate clause— spell it out. “No one understands the statement, ‘design is everywhere’ better than we designers understand it,” or “No one understands … better than we designers do.”

    By comparison, how does the phrase “us designers understand” sound to your ear?

  34. 34

    Well written article and very unique for SM, I like it. Only thing I really dont like is the the term DesignDar. Maybe because it makes me think of “gaydar” lol. Just think of another name, the concept it great though.

  35. 35

    I think this article is quite pathetic and reflects badly on the quality that usually comes from Smashing Magazine.

    To suggest that designers need a reminder to notice design everywhere (or ‘crank up their DesignDAR’) is ridiculous… any true designer is constantly aware of the design in everything around them, even at a subconscious level.

    We certainly don’t need to hear this drivel from a creative writer, or have terribly designed diagrams shoved in our face – diagrams so poorly designed that even a ‘good kick up the pants’ will not be enough to register them on the DesignDAR.

    Saying that, I’m sure the author is a great creative writer and illustrator – so keep up the good work in that area ;)

  36. 36

    I think this is such a relevant article. With so many “design inspiration” images posted on blogs daily…even hourly, I think it’s important to be reminded to look outside of our computers for a change. I for one appreciate it!

    And I thought Tim Jensen’s comment “any true designer is constantly aware of the design in everything around them, even at a subconscious level” was so off-the-mark. The whole point of the article is to make our awareness of design way more than just at the “subconscious level.” Plus, I dig the designs in the article – way better than SM’s usual stock photo crap.

  37. 37

    This is a very cool post. I currently live in Tokyo, Japan. There’s just too much stimuli up here. You have cutting edge and traditional design only a few blocks apart.

  38. 38

    Sean Ravenwood

    July 12, 2009 8:21 pm

    Designers can be an elitist bunch cant they. To say that you have to do this or do that to be a designer. Cut the crap… the self imposed awesomeness of being a designer, wank. 11. David A, take note.

  39. 39

    Empire Elements

    July 12, 2009 9:22 pm

    This article holds a very detailed insight on learning about designing of what we can see around us every day.

    Excellent work, keep it up!

  40. 40

    Heh, never realised but I do seem to analyze everything – And I really do apperciate good design even if its not something I do myself (packaging design for instance)

    Most of the time I’m on the look out for the hideous usage of Comic Sans in ‘professional’ places… Either that or annoy the hell out of my girlfriend with “That’s the same font as….”

  41. 41

    As a designer myself, there is always something in my subconscious that kicks me in the guts whenever I see something interesting. There is definitely a world of design out there beyond the computer and we should take inspiration from all mediums.

    However, this seems quite an obvious point to make. If you are passionate in any field, you should be constantly trying to push yourself in new and innovative ways, this is just human nature.

    I think though, that it is extremely important to know where the cut-off between work and play is. We should sometimes be able to switch off our work minds and leave them in the office.

  42. 42

    Ha Ha
    Everyone who lives the design world has this kind of “radar” The design radar is killing me sometimes. Buying food because packaging looks nice is really not on, yet i do it.

    Bit poor article really.

  43. 43

    Pareto’s Principle: I would go farther than 80:20 more likely 90:10, you can take the flip side to this, keep the guards and filters up, keep the mind clear of dross, poor quality in anything does not deserve your attention or respect it should be punished by ignoring it. Then when something sneaks in to your creative mind or blows the doors off, you know it is worthy of analysis. It is recognising the feeling and giving the attention it deserves, and it is often just a feeling, it makes you feel good you are drawn to it and do not know why. There are also those things we use and abuse in life, the things we just take for granted as they work so well.

  44. 44

    Ugh! What a load of faggy crap.

  45. 45

    Dar dar dar

    July 13, 2009 5:51 am

    Yeah, interesting article. Should be something taught to you by your design professors in school or they’re not doing their jobs.

    The ‘designdar’ is lame, but what else would you call it? Mindfulness perhaps? Being aware of your surroundings?

  46. 46

    I’m glad it’s not just me that can’t switch off. My mates won’t allow me out to dinner with them as I spend ages examining the design of the menu rather than choosing what to eat.
    It’s a wonder I have any friends left actually, what with their ears bleeding from endless rants about the inappropriate uses of Comic Sans everywhere..

  47. 47

    Really? “Faggy crap”? Your parents really shouldn’t have given you permission to use the internet.

  48. 48

    Scott Stafford

    July 13, 2009 9:50 am

    I find found this hilarious. Here I was thinking that I was the only one who scrutinized all things visual. Kerning (letterspacing) has to be one of the most overlooked design details today. Even in logos – from packaging to internet (graphic elements). Don’t trust ‘auto’ kern every!

  49. 49

    Chris Robinson

    July 13, 2009 1:44 pm

    I find myself always scrutinizing design that surrounds me, if you’re in the field and you don’t do this pursue something else cause your passion is gone…if there was any.

  50. 50


    July 13, 2009 1:58 pm

    i love the DesignDAR mini ads! fun times.

  51. 51

    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.

  52. 52

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

  53. 53

    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. :-)

  54. 54

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

  55. 55

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

  56. 56

    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

  57. 57

    Tom Bradshaw

    July 14, 2009 4:26 am

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

  58. 58

    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.

  59. 59

    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!

  60. 60

    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.).

  61. 61

    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…

  62. 62

    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.

  63. 63

    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.

  64. 64

    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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