some old thoughts on design

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About ten years ago I had the urge to—felt the compulsion—to put some pithy comments about my field of professional practice on my then website. Here they are, largely unedited.


Find out everything about the social and cultural context the final design will have to inhabit. This means delving into prevailing attitudes towards and expectations of the client/organization and getting to understand the milieu within which they opperate. It also means gaining an understanding of existing precedents and the design product of competitors. The research must take into account medium / technology, image, and language.


Graphic design is about making things. The skill and craftsmanship applied to the making of design objects–be they objects made of paper or pixel–goes a long way in assuring the success of a project. Care must be taken in both the concept and production stages of every project. You've got to know the history and 'rules' of grahic design and how to break them when necessary. You've got to know the possibilities and limitations of any production process you might want to use (or know how to ask when you don't know).


Innate formal sensibilities play a key role in the design process. A good designer can intuitively bring type and image into harmonious formal compositions. The exact approach taken by individual designers is, of course, infinitely variable. For this reason, there can be many 'correct' responses to a given brief; but far fewer 'correct' responses for a given client.


Thorough design exploration almost always produces a few unplanned outcomes; and there's often room for the unexpected or unintended to be incorporated into a final design. Happy accidents do occur; the key is to know when to run with them and when to run away from them. 'Good accidents' can usually be understood and rationalized in formal or intellectual terms 'after the fact. Institutional


Whatever research reveals about the broad context a design will inhabit, it's just as important to understand the client's immediate context. Step into the client's shoes. The internal politics of any organization always play a role in the design process. If your work-product is perfectly suited to the larger context, but is untenable inside your clients organization for whatever reason; you've done nobody any favors.


Money is ugly, and awkward, and feels like the antithesis of 'creativity.' But money is here to stay and has a role play in every project; even 'pro-bono' projects have to be balanced out as an opportunity cost relative to paying work. Internalize the constraints of any budget at the outset of a project, then get creative maximizing the budget. It's much easier to accomplish great things with unlimited resources. Where's the challenge in that?


Design projects are amost always the result of a collaborative process. The collaboration might involve only the designer and the client, or it might also involve writers, photographers, developers, printers, and other specialists. The designer is usually in the center of the storm and must keep their eye on the ball at all times.


Some projects appear more interesting and exciting than others, but every project is an opportunity, and every project has the potential to be the best in some manner or context. Wether it be an opportunity to set perfect type, an exercise in working within an existing graphic standard, the potential for high financial reward, or the first tentative step in a new client relationship, every project has potential. If there is no potential, why take on the project?