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Crank Up Your Design Radar

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

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?“Description
    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?

Screenshot

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

Screenshot

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.


Smashing Book #5

Hold on tiger! Thank you for reading the article. Did you know that we also publish printed books and run friendly conferences – crafted for pros like you? For example, Smashing Book 5, packed with smart responsive design patterns and techniques.

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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.

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  1. 1

    Damian Bartosik

    July 11, 2009 12:00 pm

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

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  2. 2

    Wow, Nice article

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  3. 3

    Stephan Lenting

    July 11, 2009 12:11 pm

    I see Helvetica everywhere, its crazy :)

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  4. 4

    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.

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  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!

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  6. 6

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

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  7. 7

    I do that in the grocery store too!

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  8. 8

    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!

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  12. 12

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

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  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.

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  14. 14

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

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  15. 15

    term DesignDar NEVER use again.

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  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.

    *sigh*

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  17. 17

    @70watts

    At least I was not alone.

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  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.

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  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!!!!!!!

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  20. 20

    @70watts

    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!

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  21. 21

    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!

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  22. 22

    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. :(

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  23. 23

    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.

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  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 ;-)

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  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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  28. 28

    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.

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  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.

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  30. 30

    Thanks for all.

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