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Examining The Design Process: Clichés And Idea Generation

Where do good ideas come from? It’s a question that matters a great deal to designers, yet seems to be curiously discounted in the common perception of graphic design. Any time I talk with, say, an uncle at Thanksgiving about my work, I’m reminded that, in most people’s minds, the job of being a designer is mainly a matter of learning a set of computer applications — programs which, when properly operated, presumably do the work of generating ideas on their own. [Links checked February/11/2017]

If pressed further, most people will offer up some version of the Genius Theory: the idea that certain individuals are simply blessed with a force called ‘creativity’ that (as the theory goes) allows them to summon remarkable visual solutions to problems where the rest of us see only a blank canvas.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

In this article, we will look at four examples of successful visual solutions created by well-known designers, and examine the process by which each designer arrived at his final concept. In each case, we will see that the solution did not arrive as a sudden flash of inspiration from out of the blue; rather, a good idea emerged methodically out of a sensible analysis of readily-available ideas and impressions.

In particular, we will zero in on the dual role played by clichés in this process: while clichés can derail the creative process, for seasoned designers they can act as the building blocks for effective solutions by telling them what not to do. In the final balance, we will see that good ideas are not created by magic, nor are they generated by computers — the process of developing them is a skill that can be learned, taught and practiced, and, like a muscle, gets stronger the more it is used.

Exhibit A: Imaginary ‘Drive Safe’ Campaign for Teens Link

Suppose we are working together at a studio and we receive a job to design a poster for a public service campaign aimed at educating teenagers about the dangers posed by drinking and driving. We meet for our first internal review to critique our initial ideas, and I present the following proposal:

In this case, the problem with my work is painfully easy to diagnose: the image simply has no connection to the message. It may or may not be nicely illustrated… but this is somewhat beside the point: unless it’s trying to speak to eight-year-old girls, this poster is not going to make a meaningful impression on its audience. If we imagine a spectrum of all possible design solutions to this job ranging from ‘totally clear’ to ‘totally unclear’, this would rank pretty far in the latter direction:

‘Fine,’ I reply, tearfully storming back to my desk. A week later, I present a revised concept, confident that it speaks to the audience more directly:


This time, the problem is a little harder to put one’s finger on. The image communicates clearly… but it does so at the cost of boring us half to death, with no humor, inflection or engagement. Also disturbing is the fact that I’m using a pre-existing visual symbol from the urban environment — the stop sign — to do my communicating for me.

If we had never before seen a red eight-sided shape with the word ‘STOP’ inside, it might be a powerful and abstract creation; as things stand, however, the symbol has become so deadeningly familiar that it has lost all capability to impact us in a meaningful way. In my eagerness to communicate clearly, I’ve run headlong into the arms of a cliché — which, in the context of graphic design, can be defined as  ‘an image that may or may not have been memorable at one point, but has since been so overused that it has lost all ability to surprise.’

The Problem of Clichés Link

This imaginary case study demonstrates why clichés are such a stubborn problem for designers. In the example above, I didn’t arrive at a cliché because I’m a terrible or uncreative person; I arrived at it because I took the most readily-available solution from the environment around me, and stopped there.

Clichés are hard to banish from our thoughts because their sheer familiarity makes them appealing: they are always at hand, ready to be put into service; and — especially if we are working under pressure — their familiarity offers a certain amount of reassurance, a guarantee that we won’t be misunderstood. Design solutions that employ clichés are the hardest for me to critique in the feedback sessions that I run as a teacher: often, there is the frustrating sense that the student has done nothing wrong exactly, yet the overall design leaves us wanting more.

Most depressing of all is the fact that clients often prefer clichéd solutions to original ones. This is the syndrome of the Chinese restaurant owner who wants us to use the same tired chopstick lettering for her sign because ‘that way, people will know it’s a Chinese restaurant’. Wanting only to be correctly identified, the client is drawn to the universality of clichés: they have, after all, the same meaning for everybody within a particular culture, which — if only they weren’t so hackneyed — would make them an ideal communication tool for designers.

In the haste to fit in, the need to stand out has been forgotten. It is our responsibility as designers to make the case that design can serve both ends at once: it can speak plainly while still leaving a mark on its audience.

Every area of graphic design has its built-in clichés. But none more so than images that seek to convey a sense of ethnicity, where the same predictable type choices pop up again and again (shown left to right: Sunamy, Papyrus, Neuland). See Rob Giampierto’s indispensable article New Black Face for more on this topic.

Clichés, in short, are the empty calories of the design world: like junk food, they are available everywhere and easy to consume, but pass through us without leaving nutrition behind. Their prevalence arises from the shared nervousness with which designers often view their clients and their clients view design: satisfied merely to get to the point across in an obvious manner, both sides neglect to create a message that will live in a viewer’s memory and foster long-term recognition and loyalty.

If the above hypothetical campaign has given us examples of two flawed extremes — one too obvious and the first not obvious enough — what does it look like when a designer hits the sweet spot in between? And, more importantly, how did he or she get there?

Exhibit B: Craig Frazier Link

In 1987, the designer Craig Frazier did a poster for this very purpose, a public service campaign aimed at persuading kids to not drive home drunk from their senior high school prom. His poster:

Like Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge, this solution is just right: it communicates its message with appropriate urgency, but the weapon of surprise is also part of the attack. “It has an art quality that removes it from the realm of ordinary public service campaigns,” Frazier noted in a 1996 interview with Critique magazine, in which he also identified it as a personal best. “It presents a visual riddle that’s almost attractive at first glance, but gets more gruesome the more you study it.”

The unconventional presentation of the subject matter requires us to spend a split second visually decoding the image, discerning its story… and, in that moment of cognitive engagement, a connection is formed between viewer and image. The abstract and original treatment of the topic allows the poster to sneak past our defenses — in Frazier’s words, “it proves that you don’t have to be condescending to convey a deadly serious message.” Whereas the Stop Sign approach droned authoritatively at its viewer, this execution lures the onlooker into a perceptual dialogue, and refrains from talking down to its touchy teenage audience (note the quiet treatment of the tagline in the lower left corner).

In sum, by avoiding an overly obvious delivery, the designer cleared the way for a work that leaves a lasting impression: “I still get tingles when I think about the poor guy on the road,” Frazier commented nearly ten years later. “I have a visceral, emotional reaction.” Impactful? Check. Emotional? Check. Clear in meaning? Check. “What makes the poster work is the same thing that makes any good ad or brochure work,” Frazier concludes: “It’s engaging and memorable to its intended audience.”

So how did he get there? Not, as my uncle might assume, by virtue of being a creative genius who effortlessly vaults over commonplace ideas (nor simply by owning a computer). Rather, to judge from his own comments, Frazier arrived at his solution by taking accurate stock of the commonplace and determining in what direction the fresh territory lay:  “These kids had already been hit with plenty of preaching and scare tactics about drunk driving and drug abuse, not only from their parents, but also the media,” the designer recalled, explaining his thought process.

“I knew what I didn’t want to do — a poster that presented the consequences in such a grizzly fashion that the student could dismiss it as another image from a Highway Patrol film. Even though I knew these images could be effective — like the ads of that time by Fallon McElliot — I wanted this poster to be gripping, not scolding.” Put in the simplest possible terms, Frazier came up with his idea by identifying the resident cliché and then setting out in the opposite direction.

Simple as this approach might sound, the tangible benefits are worth taking note of:  “All reports indicated that the students received the poster well,” Frazier recalled, “and many students requested copies for their bedroom walls. The effectiveness of any poster is hard to measure, but the fact that they looked at it, and are still looking at it, makes it a success.” What the reaction to Frazier’s poster, and the process behind its making, point to is the surprisingly transparent nature of graphic design — the extent to which the creator’s subjective experience in making a piece bleeds over into the observer’s reaction to it.

Creative solutions that take no searching on the part of the designer rarely make a mark on the audience either. If the designer is willing to set out in a direction whose end point is not immediately apparent, on the other hand, the journey taken is relayed back to the viewer in the split second of perception, and this experience of distance — of having a message relayed to us in terms that are clear and yet outside the ordinary — can make the experience of seeing memorable. In the next section, we will look at another work whose dramatic impact derives from the fact that its author moved beyond his immediate first impressions in order to create it.

Exhibit C: Art Spiegelman Link

Best known as the creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman was working as a staff artist for the New Yorker magazine on September 11th,  2001. A resident of downtown Manhattan, he lived a short distance from Ground Zero and was grappling with the day’s events when a call came through from the New Yorker office explaining that, incredibly, the magazine would be putting out a special issue at the end of the week and needed a cover from him as soon as possible.

Settling down to a daunting task, Spiegelman started out by painting his most immediate visceral impressions of the day: the vivid blue sky that hung over New York on that day and its incongruity with the smoke, ruin and destruction that had transpired. After a while, he had created an illustration that looked something like this:

We know what this image looked like because Spiegelman later used it for the cover for an anthology of writing about the September 11th attacks called 110 Stories. But, for his magazine cover, Spiegelman rejected this direction. Why? “I was barking up the wrong tree,” he later told The Progressive magazine: “It had a blue sky and orange building; it was channeling [René] Magritte, with the thought bubble, ‘It’s such a nice day, what a bummer.’ It was a reasonable cover for a book that came out a year later, but it just wasn’t sufficient, because anything with a nice blue sky and pretty orange building was just too pretty. And pretty outweighed whatever meanings those shrouds had.”

Spiegelman’s use of blue sky here isn’t a cliché in the conventional sense… but in the context of his design process, it was functioning in much the same way that a cliché does: a too-readily-available impression that speaks too literally to its audience and thereby dulls the piece’s potential emotional charge.

Rather than trashing his canvas and starting from scratch, however, Spiegelman simply responded to what he didn’t like: “I kept trying to gray down and dim down the image, so, OK, a less blue sky, less orange buildings. […] Then I finally said to Francoise that it should just be a black-on-black cover because every time I was walking to my studio from my house I kept finding myself turning around to make sure the towers were not there, as though they were a kind of phantom limb”:

What binds both Frazier and Spiegelman’s accounts together is the evidence that neither artist could have visualized his final solution from the outset of the process. Both used (perhaps it’s even fair to say needed) the intermediary steps of (a) identifying cliché and (b) reacting to cliché to set them in the right direction.

Exhibit D: Ivan Chermayeff Link

Our fourth example involves a case where simple associations were not so much rejected as stitched together in an imaginative manner to create a complex and engaging message.

For decades, the office of Chermayeff & Geismar has managed to produce memorable images with a narrative capability, pieces that quickly tell a story in an engaging manner. One such work is Ivan Chermayeff’s poster for a television series called Between the Wars that covers the diplomatic efforts that transpired between 1914 and 1940. Even more overtly than Craig Frazier’s poster, this work deliberately presents a puzzle to the viewer, whose enjoyment of the piece lies in the process of assembling its visual clues:

The designer did not, however, set out with the intention of being clever. When I emailed Chermayeff to ask about the challenge of Between The Wars, he replied as follows: “A title which raises many questions. The process of illustrating such a title was the search for images that will immediately answer those questions. Together those images must connect as a coordinated and related whole image.”

“What are possible symbols of World War I and World War II that existed and that are immediately recognized in our time?” Note that, again, the process again begins with the gathering of simple, readily-apparent associations:  “Maps, armaments, tanks, nationalities and their physical characteristics, trends, battlefields — there are many, many things. Most of them too complex to be a simple, resonating image.” In response to the problem — complexity — the designer sets out looking for its opposite, simplicity: “One thinks and searches, one looks at the available visual records of two world wars, and what comes up —Helmets!”

“Helmets evolved and they changed over the years. But they are always there in the photographs. Once seen, they are seized. One can hold them in one’s hand, and everyone recognizes them. So what remains to fill the gap between 1918 and 1940? What is the image of the 22 years between to match the simplicity of the two helmets at either side? Talk and discourse and ambition all surround the nations engaged in these two conflicts. The common thread is diplomacy. What is like a helmet but not a part of war? A hat! A diplomatic hat of a statesman in the twenties and thirties is the homburg, and it fits between the wars on the head just like a helmet.”

In this case, the final design does not so much refute the clichés of the field as cleverly assemble them. But the thought process behind it works in the same way: it starts with the readily-available information and works methodically, step by step, to react to what is lacking in the first sweep of associations.

Exhibit E: Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain Link

It seems to be easier to talk about idea generation in the context of print than web. A designer’s success, or lack thereof, in coming up with a good idea shows itself more plainly when the medium is something like a poster (as in the Frazier and Chermayeff examples above) or a magazine cover (Spiegelman), which are only called upon to communicate a single visual message to the onlooker. A typical web interface, in contrast, must balance a host of competing priorities — navigational, functional, hierarchical — the sum of which can frequently obscure our understanding of how successful the designer was in one particular area.

Nevertheless, web design needs fresh thinking just as much as print design, and the role played by clichés can be every bit as detrimental. Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain’s account of redesigning the website for Steinway and Sons5 explains how a formulaic approach to one issue (in this case, layout) can deprive the design of strength in another key area (aesthetic/emotional impact). Bennett-Chamberlain has a nice write-up of this project in the Notebook section of his site, 31three.com6 — the following discussion is drawn from his account and from follow-up questions I posed to him by email.

Having never worked with the client before, Bennett-Chamberlain recounts that he “played it safe” in his initial process and “started off with a design that closely followed a wireframe that they provided”:


This wireframe suggests a classic template for usability — “a layout that was very typical,” Bennett-Chamberlain recalls, “and reminded me mostly of Apple”. (In fact, you can see that this layout is almost exactly that of Apple’s homepage). While there is nothing necessarily wrong with following the lead of an acclaimed site like Apple’s, in this case, the boxy, conventional guidelines proposed by the client’s wireframe led to an initial design that failed to do justice to the subject matter:

Not a bad design, by any means… and yet if you removed Lang Lang from his piano bench and placed him inside a luxury car, this could quickly become a site for Audi or Lexus. “I thought the initial design was okay,” Bennett-Chamberlain explains, “but it still didn’t feel ‘Steinway’ to me. It seemed a bit underdeveloped, too easy of a solution for such an elegant brand.”

Much of the problem lay with the cookie-cutter wireframe: “Although the image of Lang Lang was dynamic and had some energy, the layout of the site felt pretty linear, boxy, and well… boring.” Lost in the conventional presentation were the aspects of the grand piano that make it truly remarkable: its shape, its contours, and, of course, its sound. “I wanted the piano to be in the spotlight,” he recalls, “and not share the stage with anything else.” Bennett-Chamberlain presented a variant design that strayed a bit from the recommended wireframe by “placing the piano front and centre, and then building the site around it”:

In the final iteration, Lang Lang has been reluctantly whisked off the stage, and the instrument itself is the star of the show. The piano’s distinctive contours are emphasized by the graceful arc placed behind it, and by the decision to have its lid peek up above the designated promo area into the top nav. The background motif of piano strings has been ramped up to create a semi-abstract, radial representation of sound (indeed, you can almost hear the piano in the final design).

In the nav bar area, the usual ‘logo left’ convention has been discarded here for centered treatment that makes you feel like you’re sitting on the bench itself and gazing at the Steinway and Sons trademark sitting over middle C. Yet nothing has been lost in terms of ease-of-use compared with Bennett-Chamberlain’s original design — it simply took an effort of self-critique and problem-solving to do justice to both the functional and aesthetic possibilities of the project: “I figured that if these guys can spend a year making a single piano, I could probably spend an extra couple hours here and there on refining these details.”


Putting It Into Practice Link

These works by Frazier, Spiegelman, Chermayeff and Bennett-Chamberlain are classic examples of what designers like to call ‘process work’ or ‘methodology’, terms that refer to a method of drawing ideas, direction and inspiration from the process of working on the design itself, rather than simply having a fixed destination from the outset. No one can write step-by-step instructions on how to do this — the entire point, after all, is to react, rather than obeying fixed directives — but there are certain steps we can take at the outset of a project that help clear the way to let this process happen:

  • Start with a sketchbook, not a computer. There was a time when I once suspected that the teachers who tried to impress this point on me were just cranky technophobes… but over time, I came to appreciate the wisdom of this suggestion. The computer is a bad companion to start with because its particular toolset pushes us in certain directions (towards clearly defined shapes and hard edges) and because it tempts us to focus overly on execution (by offering up sexy drop shadows and whatnot) before our concept has really come together.
  • Using your sketchbook, start by drawing every association you come up with for the subject matter. Draw it quickly, and don’t be critical. At this stage, it’s not about making pretty pictures, and it’s not about evaluating your ideas (in fact, the ability to turn the critical part of your brain on and off is one of the most helpful tricks you can develop).
  • Don’t try to avoid clichés — let them happen. Trying not to think of clichés is like the old joke where someone says ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’ It’s best to get them down on paper and get them out of your system.
  • Once you’ve jotted down every association you can think of, take a break, come back and jot down a few more. Then, take a longer break…
  • Come back with fresh eyes and look at what you have in front of you. Now is the time to be critical, but also to be fair. Seeing our own work clearly for its merits, without bias and defensiveness, is one of the hardest things for graphic designers to do. George Orwell wasn’t thinking about graphic designers when he wrote, “To see clearly what is in front of one’s face requires constant struggle,” but he might as well have been.

Conclusion Link

There is no single answer to the question of where good ideas come from. Some designs actually do seem to come out of thin air, like the Citibank logo that Paula Scher infamously drew on a napkin during an early meeting with the client. But a great many more good ideas come about through the incremental process described in this article, of gathering and making decisions about readily-available information.

The viability of this approach suggests that coming up with good ideas is not a matter of genius, but rather simply a challenge of seeing clearly and thinking sensibly. The good news that this implies is, idea generation is a learnable skill that can be cultivated in many of us, not just in a chosen few. The only disappointing part is that you don’t get to feel like a genius while you’re doing it.

If idea generation is a process that is accessible to everyone, then what accounts for the fact that it can be so hard to pull off? Part of the answer lies in our inability to get out of our own way, a condition which stems largely from our ideas about what it means to be a ‘professional’. The term ‘professional’ is generally used to connote a person who is in control of their work process at all times… and, yet, as we’ve seen in this article, the condition of absolute control is rarely a place where exciting design comes from.

“What is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression,” Milton Glaser writes in his wonderful essay Ten Things I Have Learned. “Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success.” Graphic design is one of the few fields where it works to our advantage if we can let go of the reins from time to time, a feature that makes it to be an exhilarating place to work if we can manage not to find it unnerving.

Credits Link

I would like to thank Craig Frazier for his assistance in locating a copy of the Critique ‘My Best / My Worst’ interview used in this article, and also Ivan Chermayeff and Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain for taking the time to answer my questions.

Sources Link

  • Neumeier, Marty and Frazier, Craig (1996) ‘My Best / My Worst’, Critique, Summer 1996
  • Siegal, Nina (2005), ‘Art Spiegelman Interview’, The Progressive, January 2005
  • Unicorn illustration by Xploitme7, used under Creative Commons license

Other Resources Link

You may be interested in the following articles and related resources:

(ik) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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Dan Mayer's interest in graphic design began when he was five years old and visited a printing press on a 1979 episode of Sesame Street. Originally from the US, he recently spent five years in Prague teaching classes in design theory and history at Prague College and providing art direction for Dept. of Design. Dan currently freelances and splits his time between Prague and Berlin. His work and more examples of his writing can be found at

  1. 1

    Not a big fan of the Steinway design. Those little arrow buttons are completely lost and the text either side of the Piano is too floaty, it doesn’t seem tied to anything. The slider is also painfully slow and clunky. Excellent typography, though.

    • 2

      Michael- this is exactly what the article is about….leave it to the designers!
      Steinway- Great article… love the design!…the buttons look and work properly, the transition is perfect. Looks and works fine… im a designer who appreciates good designs!
      Not like the post above- what is wrong with some people.

    • 3

      I disliked it for a different reason. I don’t like that the human element was removed. I think that was an example of choosing style over substance, and concept over communications. I understand the thought process that led to that decision, but I don’t agree with the path they chose to take. From a communications perspective I think there is a much more compelling story to tell, but which was cast aside. It’s a shame.

      • 4

        That’s an interesting point of view. To my thinking, both the “substance” of the site and the basis of its communication is, in fact, the piano. So, the design without the person does a better job of communicating. To me, the inclusion of a person is kind of a cliche– a typical attempt to humanize an inanimate object. As a comparison: most everyone likes Apple’s product packaging because they feature what is beautiful about the form of the object (ipod, macbook, whatever)– they don’t feel the need to show some person joyously tinkering with it. I appreciate the final Steinway design for this same reason.

        But it’s interesting having dissenting points of view. @Nik: I’m glad you liked the case study… but there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with commenters who go against the flow of popular opinion.

      • 5

        I totally agree with you. I was really disappointed that the second design should be “better”. Emotionally it has lost its impact.

        • 6

          I agree that the first design is better. A piano – beautiful though it is, is nothing without a person to play it and bring it to life. The users of this website are likely to be pianists/musicians and would be captivated to play like Lang Lang – they would be inspired by his passion and enoyment of playing a Steinway. You can almost hear the piano being played. The second version is very static.

          • 7

            I actually agree too… to me, the second one actually felt more clichéd. While pretty I supposed, like Lucy said, in the end it felt more static to me. Static was a good word to use. In the end, it feels like a plain object pasted into the middle. It feels less grounded, less composed. Everything is centered and it lost the dynamism that the performer brought to the other piece.

            For me, the second one feels like it says “Hey, we sell good pianos.” But the first one says “Hello, we sell pieces of art.”

    • 8

      poo poo XD

  2. 9

    I am teaching tomorrow morning, and I was just thinking about how to push my students towards sketch more before grabing a mouse.
    I usually call cliches “your first idea”, and aks my pupils to step over it, make it smarter – as I intend to do so myself during my desing process.
    Thank you for the article! István Szép- Pesto design

    • 10

      If you figure out anything by tomorrow that gets your students drawing instead of mousing, let me know! Preferably in time for my afternoon class :)

      • 11

        Afford more marks to the visual diary process and offer the option of marking the diary in class prior to submission date. I actually show them where the marks for the diary are within the process of grading. They soon get the idea how important it is. :)

  3. 12

    What a great article! I loved reading concrete examples about the problems, and following the problem-solving thread. A very interesting and informative read. Thanks!

  4. 13

    Great article. Very thought provoking…

  5. 14

    Interesting article. Teaches so much about life as well – “Never follow the obvious crowd, make your own mark.”

    It is so awesome. Thanks, Dan! :)

  6. 15

    A very good article and some good tips there.

    When designing websites or print work the final design seems to take me about 5 minutes but that’s normally after days of frustration. But I have realised that these days (if not weeks) of frustration are actually part of the design process. Going through the motions of the obvious and ‘tried and tested’ cleanses the mind and it is at this point the inspiration seems to come quickly – well most of the time!

    • 16

      Ah, Steve, that’s the curse of designing. Or rather the curse of getting paid for good design.

      How do we get through to clients who have never created anything in their life that good design truly does take time? How do we quantify the time we spend boiling out the cliche and clutter in order to distill the essence of classic design?

      Having been a designer for 20 years, I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. And by that I mean the process and the accounting for it.

  7. 17

    Great article! I will link this in my facebook page

  8. 18

    Very valuable thank you!

  9. 19

    Andrei Gonzales

    February 21, 2011 11:06 am

    Chermayeff = legendary.

  10. 20

    This was a great article with a lot of valid points. Clichés are indeed hard to banish from our minds when developing ideas. Especially when were talking about concepts that have been done to death. Original thinking may very well be the highest commodity in this industry.

  11. 21

    Douglas Bonneville

    February 21, 2011 12:05 pm

    I find that inspiration always comes after a period of ambiguous and painful hard work. If you don’t put the hard work in, you won’t get the “easy” idea, which almost seems obvious after the fact. Sometimes, on lucky days, a vision seizes you and score on the first concept and never deviate from it. That works for concept driven pieces. But a good design is almost always iterative, and goes through that ambiguous stage where nothing seems to gel.

  12. 22


    What a great article. Refreshing and entertaining.

  13. 23

    Great article Dan! Developing an idea methodically is a skill that can take years to hone. This article reminds us that we need to approach design as a process and not as magic!

  14. 24

    Excellent article that gives me some additional perspective when looking at my own projects and others. As well as new starting points for deriving and getting to ideas.

    Thank you, was well written and I enjoyed it much.

  15. 25

    Daniel Florian

    February 21, 2011 2:35 pm

    Great post. This is the part of the process that I have the most trouble with – trying to think of the right concept in the first go rather than hashing out ideas on paper until I get to something worthwhile.

  16. 26

    nice share! I am very pleased to read the discussion of ideas and creativity from the perspective of logic.

  17. 27

    This is one of my favorite articles from Smashing thus far. I even felt compelled to comment, which is a rarity. I’m finishing out my senior year of college, and I’m starting as part of a design team, and these questions are constantly buzzing around my head. Unfortunately, at my lowly status of an entry level designer, tight deadlines are also killers to an effective design process. Hopefully I can resolve this issue soon, and start making things I’m really proud of. We’ll see.

    Thanks again for this article!

    • 28

      Time pressure would have been a good topic to touch on in this article. Indeed, it’s a killer of good ideas at every level of the industry– doesn’t matter how exalted and senior your position gets. The only approach I’ve ever managed is: if you find clients and situations that allow for good, idea-driven design, hold on to them for dear life… doesn’t matter if it’s for a multinational corporation or for the dog catcher down the street.

      Glad you liked the article, Jon.

  18. 29

    Thanks ! It was a wonderful read!! As Sean O said earlier, it’s very refreshing!!

    I loved the examples and their measurements in Graphs. Unclear and too obvious, and JUST RIGHT! This simplified what this article is all about very very clearly.

    Also, thanks for the wonderful details on the works “Craig Frazier, Ivan Chermayeff and Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain “, they were really interesting and very descriptive.

    Thanks again!

  19. 30

    Régis Kuckaertz

    February 21, 2011 11:56 pm

    What made this article a real enlightenment is perhaps less the (great) examples than the narrative. The tone is welcoming and never professoral, though I feel like I just followed a design class. You surely are a great teacher.

    There should be more articles like that on Smashing Magazine, I can’t remember the last time I read one thoroughly.

    I loved it from start to finish. Thank you Dan!

  20. 31

    I also waited for quite some time to read such an interesting article on design here on Smashing Magazine. I find it a lot more valuable and insightful than most of those articles on various photoshop or illustrator tips & tricks & special effects…

    Looking forward to reading more good articles like this one. Thank you!

  21. 32

    Swapnil Ghorpade

    February 22, 2011 1:34 am

    now i know way sometimes i dont like my own designs and why they lack those little details

    the best article

  22. 33

    Thanks for the kind comments.

    For my part, the most enjoyable part of putting together this article was the fact that the featured designers were willing to contribute time and commentary to a project that they basically received little tangible benefit from. From the start, I wanted to do a piece that makes use of direct testimonial, but wasn’t at all sure that I would be able to solicit it.

  23. 34

    The timing of this article is just perfect . One of the best articles on SM . Got me hooked up from the first para . Thank you Dan.

  24. 35

    Wow!! The unicorn add is genius!! The best ad i’ve seen in years!!

  25. 36

    Michel Bozgounov

    February 22, 2011 3:34 am


    Just wanted to thank you for the amazing piece of work you’ve done! This one of the best Smash Mag articles, in my (very) humble opinion!

    It’s thought-provoking, it can teach you some things (but not in an annoying “teaching” tone), it’s both interesting and fun to read, for designers and non-designers.


    Brilliant! Please, publish more articles of this high quality! :)

  26. 37

    Thank you for this well written article. Good timing, tbh!

  27. 38

    Mike Jongbloet

    February 22, 2011 5:44 am

    Great article – one of the best on Smashing Magazine and that is saying something.

  28. 39

    This was an excellent read. Enjoyable and well written. I have learned that the most enjoyable work situation is one where your client “trusts” your design sense and allows you to be creative in such ways. There are times when the scope of your project and the mindset of those who oversee it disallow you from being truly creative and effective as a designer. Navigating that is the bane of Graphic Artists everywhere…it’s the troll under our bridge.

  29. 40

    John Mindiola III

    February 22, 2011 6:59 am

    I’m sharing this with my students immediately.

  30. 41

    Great article, a true example of quality on SM.
    Creativity process some times can be a painful, sketching helps to diminish that pain and identifying cliches drawing them instead of avoiding them is a good recommendation on “Putting It Into Practice”. Thank you for this article, keep up the good work.

  31. 42

    Great article!

  32. 43

    Very interesting read!

  33. 44

    Alistair chisholm

    February 22, 2011 9:51 am

    This touches on something every designer must crave. I feel I am only beginning to discover how to be effective in my design thinking. This article helped a lot. Instapaper’d for later…

  34. 45

    Love “between the wars”…fantastic idea.

  35. 46

    Great article!

  36. 47

    Huge amazing article.

  37. 48

    I like it. Most of all, the explanation of what it is that makes clichés corny or cheap is what I liked. They’re so overused that they cease to be an effective tool for communication. Thanks!

  38. 49

    Never though to hard about till you said it. Now I feel like everything I do is too obvious.

  39. 50

    Thanks for the great article! I’m currently teaching about campaign, and this article arrive at the right moment :) I will definitely share this article with my students. Very insightful.

  40. 51

    Dave Grimes II

    February 22, 2011 8:56 pm

    I think drunk driving would be greatly reduced by more buoyant unicorns. Just sayin’.

  41. 52

    I often have ” the cliches” discussion with many of my clients at the beginning of the process. Many start out believing that it’s useful to have these acknowledged shortcuts into recognition and acceptance. By the end of “the cliches” they usually come around to the idea that the plan is to stand out rather than blend in.

    I do say usually…some truly believe that they must fit it with everyone else.

  42. 53

    It’s articles like these that make Smashing Magazine one of the Best online magazines out there. :) quite lengthy for me i’d admit but, once i went thru the first paragraph, i was hooked.

    amazing work Dan :) keep it up! :)

  43. 54

    Does anyone know of any books with a similar theme to this article? I’d love to read more about the creative process of famous designer. Not specifically about Cliches, but this was a great post.


    • 55

      I think there should be something on

    • 56

      It’s a good question. I think books by individual, outspoken designers would be best bet– Make It Bigger by Paula Scher, Made You Look by Stefan Sagmeister, for example. (Problem is, I haven’t read those books in so many years that I can’t remember exactly what’s in them anymore.)

  44. 57

    Denise Iordache- Briefix

    February 23, 2011 1:19 am

    I find your approach about chliches very interesting. I think that having a cliche in your mind breaks the flow of your creativity. I guess that through exercise you can let cliches go and unleash your creativity

  45. 58

    ritika srivastava

    February 23, 2011 3:33 am

    One of the best articles I have read on smashing magazine. Very inspiring! Thanks for the article. Hope to read few more articles from you…

  46. 59

    Frantisek Kusovsky

    February 23, 2011 5:31 am

    After reading the whole article i found out that you are my teacher and i missed today´s class :S

    But to excuse myself i was working on some good designs!

    • 60

      Frantisek Kusovsky

      February 23, 2011 8:33 am

      i saw your reply! So thats the way how we will be forced to learn in school…hmm :)

  47. 61

    That was an interesting and enjoyable article. Thanks, Dan.

  48. 62

    this was great. thanks.

  49. 63

    Excellent article man

  50. 64

    awesome article. i definitely need the reminder that i dont’ necessarily get it right the first time, because i know i feel pressured to solve the problem with my first design. clearly shown in the article, you have to reach the less than perfect solution first to get to the perfect one.

  51. 65

    The “Between the wars” case is great..

  52. 66

    Best read in a long time and very thought provoking.

    As far as sketching goes one could also do these rough mockups with a pen tablet thus saving the paper expense. I guess that’s pretty individual though.

  53. 67

    An excellent article. I even came back for a second read so I could refresh myself on some of the points. The thoroughness of your article is almost a testament to the topic itself; so many design articles out there are hastily written, just like the designer being satisfied with a cliche.
    Like other designers commenting here, I often fall victim to the pressure of time constraints and can’t push a design as far as I’d like. Your article provides some much needed inspiration to keep challenging myself.
    Thank you for sharing, and I hope to see more of your work here!

  54. 68

    Nishant Kothary

    February 24, 2011 3:54 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Dan. Found myself nodding through all of it. Look forward to more.

  55. 69

    Steve Grieshaber

    February 25, 2011 9:49 am

    Big fan of your work. Really enjoyed the article.

  56. 70

    This turned up in my feeds days ago, and I knew I wanted to wait until I had time to sit and read it thoroughly. I’m so glad I did! This is an elegant little article that addresses one of the most frustrating problems designers of all experience levels face. I wish I’d had something this conscise to read years ago! My younger self would have appreciated seeing the examples you’ve provided of very well-known and respected designers feeling out the nuances of a design, rather than the (sometimes daunting) parade of exemplary finished products we usually see. I also agree with your suggestion to ‘get the obvious out of the way, right away’. Acknowledging the obvious gives you the freedom to play with it and bend it to your purposes. Thanks for a great read!

  57. 71

    This was a very helpful refresher to bring into the light. It becomes such a natural, sometimes subconscious part of our workflows that we often don’t surface this philosophy in our critiques.

  58. 72

    Travis Holliday

    March 2, 2011 1:33 pm

    Excellent article. Would love to see more of this type of thing in the future!

  59. 73

    I took my time reading this article and am very glad to have done so. I’m always curious about other designer’s methods and appreciate the examples, explanations and insight. Previously it had seemed as though creativity is a gift people are born with, but now rather is a skill to practice. Thanks for the great piece!

  60. 74

    This has has some good points, and yet there is something to be said for using conventions in order to convey a message quickly. The amount of time a user will likely be viewing the subject needs to be taken into consideration. Also, I have to say that I like the Lang Lang mockup as well, but for different reasons mentioned in previous comments. When I look at the two side by side, to me, the second one feels like a cheaper brand, and yet one of the main messages of the site is “the world’s finest pianos”. Perhaps there is a better solution for the main image, but not at the risk of destroying precious branding.

  61. 75

    Thank you very much, nice article

  62. 76

    great article……..vl be of great help…………..

  63. 77

    Brett Widmann

    April 18, 2011 11:39 am

    This was a fun article to read! Thanks for all this information.

  64. 78

    du lich da lat

    April 19, 2011 8:30 pm

    I like this! no inspiration for my work in the near future!

  65. 79

    usually i don’t comment on any articles. This is the second article i read, written by you.
    In my oppinion the way you write (clear, yet smart and sharp) it is an exemple of how design should be and there are a few people hwo can explain it in such a great way.

    I’m looking forward to your next articles.

  66. 80

    i necessary that, another excellent read. thx, you might have made my day:)

  67. 81

    Very nice article. Design work is very time consuming and creative job. You are good teacher, I see.

  68. 82

    Hi Dan,
    I feel somehow that you say cliche, but you mean symbolism. Just like retro, vintage and antique has a common meaning, the cliche comes very close to a symbol just by accepting it, but cliche has a totally other meaning when it comes to the creative process. I can accept it as a tool, but not as a whole. The creative part eliminates the cliche, makes it acceptable, creating new results with the same tools is fine by me. In fact, in the examples above you name cliches visual elements that already are irreversible accepted in the general conscience (the blue, the color and shape of the traffic sign etc.). Teenagers call their parents by mistake a cliche, when they actually mean typical. A very close word, but over time we labeled it as negative (another universal thought).
    I believe symbolism is part of the visual art evolution, that’s why the avantgarde is rarely accepted, because they skip a few steps and don’t wait for the general public to be aware of every symbol created along the way. This process resembles a bit with the web coding, when new codes integrate older ones. The design is based on these elements / symbols almost exclusively (it can work with or without images, just by shapes, colors and lines that reproduces a feeling or thought) and the talent is to use these ordinary, typical, cliche symbols as tools to tell your story in a nice way. Just like poetry.

    Love your writing, I enjoyed every word.
    Thank you,

  69. 83

    bubbles are pretty


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