September 9, 2016

A Series of Punctuated Thoughts

This bit of something-or-other was originally composed as a series of tweets, but as the length of it grew I decided that I would spare my followers the pain of a 20-odd tweet storm. I think that this format ultimately makes more sense, though the intended staccato rhythm has been maintained. It is conceptually related to this post from last week.

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Ok, I’m about to get unsatisfyingly pragmatic about something, and you know how much I hate being pragmatic.

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I have a very general observation about (some) of the fresh(er)-out-of-school designers whose portfolios I have perused recently:

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Lots of cool thinking, lots of brave attempts at critical theory,

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…lots of bad typography and lack of demonstrated understanding re: basic principles of form.

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Lots of talk of “pushing the field.”

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I love seeing a dedication to “pushing the field,” but you can’t plant that flag if normal person clients don’t want to pay for your work.

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I have been reading a lot of essays lately, many of them decrying the "old guard" of graphic design,

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many of them expressing how we need more “critical practice” in design.

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Yes, of course we do. 100% believe that. Super big no brainer. BUT

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...it’s well and good to decry the old guard, but you're unqualified to do that if your understanding of popular cultural aesthetics is garbage.

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I declare that it is not allowed. Once again, don’t mistake personal frustration at the taste of others for critical analysis.

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A unique “process of inquiry” is not an excuse for ignoring your technical development as a designer. You can't reject formalism until you understand how form works.

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We can't all design to our taste. My personal taste in graphic design is decidedly inaccessible, and weirdly, clients won’t pay me to make that stuff  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Too bad, so sad.

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Or as my daughter likes to say, "so sorry, congratulations!"

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That doesn’t mean I don’t explore that stuff on my own, but it diverges from my client work. That’s fine and healthy.

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Critical practice can (and should) happen, but it’s a personal/ insular pursuit that provokes growth.

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It’s a conversation you have with your peers, (probably, unless your situation is very unusual) not your clients.

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I can say this as a (technically) professional academic who reads critical theory on his lunch break (oh god he’s so annoying):

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All that stuff coming out of Yale, CCA, et. al? Love it. Right up my alley. I devour it. I wanna make it. However, it’s designed into a mirror.

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As designers we must be willing to understand that we must ride that middle line between our subculture and the Everyman,

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…and if we drift too far into either, we’re doing no one a service.

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Explore? Yes, do it! Be progressive! Don’t be boring! But a huge part of our job is understanding how to use the common vernacular.

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If you can’t speak to the Everyman, if you can’t operate in the present, then you’re unequipped to communicate where you live,

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…and if you can’t communicate where you live, then what’s the point? You’re in danger of becoming a speculative expressionist.

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(Which sounds cool and is fine, but doesn’t really give you room to complain about the state of commercial graphic design. It becomes an academic question.)

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Don’t design down, design across, and don’t mistake your critical inquiry into your discipline for what clients inerrantly need. Most people don’t live in the mirror.

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And keep practicing your typography, please and thank you. Experiment within your expertise. That's secretly what I've been getting at this whole time.

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fin.

May 26, 2016

Head, Hands, Heart & Voice

I gave this talk on May 20, 2016 at a meeting of the Dallas chapter of Creative Mornings. I'm glad I was given this opportunity, as it allowed me to synthesize several disparate ideas that I've explored in my grad school and personal writing into a more cohesive format. You can download the slides here, and a complete transcript is below.

You can view a video of the talk here.

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Today I’ll be considering how we, as designers, work with technology as humans. How we keep our processes human-focused, both in concept and execution.

I want to consider the inherent advantage that we have over machines, that is, the uniquely human potential to care strongly about the things we make, and to constantly strive to view the world in new ways.

In a sense I will be addressing a topic that is popular these days, “human-centered design.” However, while this phrase usually refers to considering the individual impulses of users, I’ll be approaching it today as a consideration of the individual impulses of creators.

It’s worth acknowledging that I am personally approaching this topic from the perspective of a graphic designer, specifically an interactive designer, and so a fair amount of my verbiage and references will probably relate most literally to that field.

But when I say “designer” or refer to “design”, I want you to understand that I am talking about design as the discipline of creating things with purpose, on purpose. The deliberate building of things that did not exist before.

This definition, from my perspective, extends to everyone here today.

As they say, “design is a behavior, not a department”

First, let us briefly consider The Machine.

I’d like to read a brief excerpt from E. M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops:

"I want to see you not through the Machine," said Kuno. "I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine."

"Oh, hush!" said his mother, vaguely shocked. "You mustn't say anything against the Machine."

"Why not?"

"One mustn't."

"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other.

E. M. Forster
The Machine Stops

In Forster’s chilling narrative we grapple with what it means to live a life that is largely facilitated by technology. In this 1909 tale, the characters are largely limited to communicating through impassive technological conduits, rarely seeing other people, content to be served by the technology that they created.

What is the purpose of striving if you can be served?

What is the inherent value of pushing beyond contentment? These are the questions that Forster presents to us, and even now we struggle every day with looking into the mirror of technology and evaluating if we like what we see.

In interactive design, for example, these struggles are no less apparent than they are in other areas of life. What exactly do we do that could not be done by a machine?

Are we not, in the end, merely engineers of natural law?

Experts at both creating problems and automating their solutions?

For example, in the context of web design, our naturalistic design abilities are challenged by web services such as The Grid and Squarespace, tools that largely automate the web design process for modern users.

While The Grid has in recent months failed to realize the automative potential that its creators originally proclaimed, when the product was first launched its creators declared,

“The Grid harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to take everything you throw at it - videos, images, text, URLs and more - and automatically shape them into a custom website unique to you.”

The examples are impressive: face recognition, layout automation, and “mood” elements (is this website serious? Is it fun?) do seem, in unison, to create a relatively functional iteration of a modern website.

And that’s just it; the websites created by The Grid’s AI engine seem to be eerily good,

…at least in the context of the popular web vernacular of today.

However, on some level this speaks not necessarily to the quality of the AI’s work, but instead to the stagnation of our own imagination as it relates to the web as a design medium.

As happens with all areas of design eventually, we find ourselves in a period of “standardized unoriginality” online, a web of ubiquity that can be reproduced ad-hoc by a bunch of code in a computer.

We like to have arguments about “flat” things. “Bootstraps.” Video backgrounds of people typing on MacBooks. This is our own stagnation of modernism, and the entire designed web is our Helvetica.

So, what are we going to do about it? What value do we as designers have, now that the modern encapsulation of popular aesthetic can be reproduced by an iPad?

If design is actually human-centered, it’s time for us to be shaken from our reverie and start to think again about what we, as humans, are capable of.

But how do we even begin to do this?

We can start, as I referenced before, by recognizing that we, as designers, are capable of caring deeply about the things we create. We are capable of obsession, frustration, and conversation. Of iteration. Of exploration.

Design can be a universal language, but it can also be a trap if a designer falls into the same patterns and solutions over and over again.

The iconic graphic designer Neville Brody once stated, “I want to make people more aware, not less aware.”

This is our task.

While I personally tend to thrive in the questions and abstractions, since you all came to Uptown and parked and are perhaps being bitten by a mosquito or two I thought I should come up with a few action items, maybe some ideas to consider as you move through your creative processes in the near future. I know what you’re thinking: It’s great to remember from time to time that we are human, that we can care, but then what?

And so, what I’d like to present to you is my brief list of the callings that we have as designers. I specifically chose the term callings instead of responsibilities, because no one is going to hold you accountable to these things. These are all about you, your process, and your perspective.

These are the impulses I desire from my design staff, my interns, students, etc.,, the things I love talking about with anyone, really whoever is willing to listen to me blather on for any amount of time. The attributes that I personally value in other creators, the things that I think make those people particularly inspiring and effective.

In simple terms, these callings can be broken down into four categories: Head, Hands, Heart, and Voice.

First, let us consider the Head.

Calling #1: A designer should seek out new perspectives. While design is inherently a communication discipline, or in some instances simply a functional one, it does no one any good to continually communicate the same messages in familiar ways. Designers must constantly bend their minds, along with the minds of their audience, in new directions.

In simpler terms: A designer should be curious. You should be curious. I believe that there is so much value in being driven by the things you don’t know instead of by the things you do.

Michael Beirut, the legendary graphic designer, stated that “Every designer I know has a real curiosity about what they’re doing. With that, it doesn’t feel like work.”

In fact, I’ve gone so far as to describe designers as being the “professionally curious.” Our job, essentially, is to connect unexpected ideas to each other in a brand new way.

Once we can transcend the algorithms, the patterns, the status quo, the expected, then that’s when we can stop being limited by reality and start creating reality. That’s how we keep riding the bleeding edge of culture.

In short, always walk with your eyes looking upwards. Pay attention to your world.

Second, let us consider the Hands.

Calling #2: Designers should be “anti-disciplinary.” This term “anti-disciplinary” was originally coined at the MIT media lab, and is defined as going against the accepted wisdom of a discipline. To me, being anti-disciplinary is going one step beyond being multi-disciplinary.

In essence, I believe in striving to avoid specialization in the interest of always learning. This is counter-cultural in a field that has gradually become more and more specialized.

There are user experience designers, user interface designers, interaction designers, publication designers, developers, designer/developers, and typographers (not to mention photographers, architects, playwrights, and poets.)

However, I personally, believe that cross-disciplinary exploration is the best way to truly grow as a designer.

As Walter Gropius, founder of the iconic Bauhaus design school once put it, “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual or material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”

The stuff of life. Life is multi-disciplinary.

Specialization can breed stagnation. But how can you strive to avoid this stagnation? This once again goes back to being curious, but this is an applied curiosity. This is a question of process, and then of practice, and then of being open to new conversations and opportunities.

How can we guarantee that our unique perspectives, our human perspectives, remain sharp and continuing developing?

My admonition to you would be to focus on refining your own creative process. Develop a way of working that cannot be replicated. Find exploratory niches where you can continue to hone your craft. Create a way of exploring your work that is uniquely your own.

Continually refining your craft through practice, repetition, love and mistakes.

We can learn from our mistakes: this is a uniquely human attribute in some sense, or at least strictly biological attribute. Machines cannot intuitively learn from their mistakes. You can.

As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.”

Refine your skill set. Learn design history. Learn to recognize the details and nuances in the tactile aspects of what you are doing.

Try to treasure the unpredictability.

Third, let us consider the Heart.

Calling #3: Designers should “seek the good.” The good causes. The good clients. The good messages. The good technique. The good typefaces. The good materials. The good people.

This is one I get kickback on regularly. What does “good” even mean? Why can’t you be more specific?

My reason is this: our calling is not necessarily to align ourselves to one objective definition of good, but instead to recognize that as designers we have the responsibility to have an opinion.

So often we emphasize the service aspect of our business, the client perspective (which of course is important, and a key part of our disciplines), but it’s also important to remember that as designers we are not a neutral force.

We are the purveyors of ideas, the professional propagandists.

Even those designers who condemn the expressive tendencies of other designers can have some pretty strong opinions.

“When you center Helvetica you have a massacre.”
- Massimo Vignelli

So, while what is considered “good” might vary from designer to designer, the important thing is for each professional to be true to his or her perspective. Taking this into account will result in honest, engaging, relevant work.

 

This leads us to our last point.

Finally, let us consider the Voice.

Calling 3b: A designer must be Human (and not just in the biological sense.)

I think this as 3b because of how intimately it’s tied to the heart. The voice is merely the expression of the heart. This is where we tie everything back to where we started, back to the Machine, back to flipping the lever.

As we have discussed, modern technology in many instances has reached the point where mindless algorithms can accomplish much of what was originally in the realm of human designers, or at least graphic and interactive designers. Grids, layouts, and typography can all be systemized and standardized to the point that a computer is able to “design” things that are quite appealing.

However, as designers, we have that “passion advantage.” The power to care. The ability to constantly strive for unpredictable, individual, human-centered solutions.

The ability to find the connections and commonalities that we have with our fellow humans on this Earth. The freedom to use our head, our hands, and our heart to design the built world.

As the famous educator Rudolf Steiner noted, we have the freedom to not only focus on what we do, but on who we are.

That’s our reality.

So, in conclusion, I’ll leave you with this question:

What drives humankind to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world? What propels our need to design the things we use?

These are the big questions that drive my passion for the craft. Design isn’t simply a vocation or a question of composition and visual aesthetic, but is instead a lens through which we can view life and human interaction.

The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since it is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our pursuit of good design is a noble one.

This is what I believe design to be, after all: to design is to be human. It is the optimistically obstinate belief that we can build our own world, and through that, understand our own place in it just a little bit more than we did yesterday.

This, in short, is my reality.

August 29, 2015

The Eternal Knot

In Dallas, the local news outlets are all abuzz with a recent proposal to change the city’s official logo (the renowned Triple D, which was designed in 1972) to a logo currently being used by the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. Naturally, there are passionate champions on both sides of the issue. In the current logo’s corner we find preservationists, traditionalists, and rationalists who either remain emotionally attached to the current logo for personal reasons or who simply believe that the inevitable aftermath of adopting a new logo is a waste of public funds. However, those who support the idea of a “new” logo decry the supposedly dated look of the current mark, and declare that the city needs an “identifiable brand”.

triple-d

This conversation raises some interesting questions. First of all, can a city have a designed “brand?” If so, what is the city of Dallas’ brand? Who is the city’s brand targeting? Finally, how does the city’s logo fit into that?

It must be noted first of all that branding and logo design aren't the same thing. Logo design is a part of the branding process, and in most cases should be one of the last elements that is developed. It is the culmination of an idea. The cherry on the top of the sundae. An iconic stamp of approval at the end of a thorough exploration of an organization’s character.

Branding, however ubiquitous and watered-down that term has become in the public forum, is at its core the exploration of that character. “Branding” is an active verb. It is a process. A “brand” is not something you create from nothing, it is something that already exists in one state or another that designers can help define for a wider audience. It can be poked and prodded and molded into something specific to meet certain goals, of course, but in order for a pot to be fired and glazed it first has be be crafted from raw materials. Most often in my own design practice, those raw materials come in the form of a person or a few people who have values, strengths and goals that can be made into something tangible. That’s a brand.

The question then becomes, is it possible to truly “brand” a city? The population of Dallas is around 1,200,000. While the city might have an inherent brand, it’s so complex and constantly roiling that untangling this eternal knot would be a pretty herculean task. Perhaps the brand exists, but is it attainable?

Now, let's talk about this thing for a minute:

star-d

Admittedly, from a critique standpoint, the logo (perhaps unfairly extracted from the context of its original campaign, though that does fit with the proposal) is low-hanging fruit. Toss a Reunion Tower silhouette in there and you have an all-star lineup of overused and ultimately shallow visual tropes. The logo says nothing about the character of the city, and is merely an echo of the patterns we've been seeing since a certain pro football team came onto the scene a few decades ago.

Like I said, low hanging fruit. But that’s not the point.

The point (as I tweeted in reply to Wilonsky’s joke-y and yet oh-so-painful “design contest” suggestion) is that the Big Things Happen Here campaign is not the city’s brand. It is too broad and undefined. It is focused outward, not inward toward the population as a city’s brand probably should be. Because of this fact it isn’t even an appropriate replacement for our current municipal branding, as noted by my good friend Robbie.

As Ellen Lupton (via Mark Lamster) reinforced herself later that week, Big Things Happen Here is an advertising campaign. It was created to promote a very specific entity, the DCVB. It is aspirational. It is inherently promotional. That’s fine, as long as you understand that its fundamental purpose is to attract corporate entities looking for a place to hold a conference. When viewed in that context, the "big things" that happen here could literally be "big conferences," so all of a sudden the campaign starts to make more sense.

But if the question is “how do we brand the city,” we need to start with “who is the city?” Who is the brand representing? Who are we? What are our values, strengths and goals? How do we communicate those honestly? The process of exploring that question should be daunting. It should be hard. It should take time and energy and involve a lot of people. If the city wants to engage in that process, they should engage in it fully instead of co-opting an advertising slogan from a tourism entity. If we want to create another advertising campaign for the city then that’s fine, but it’s a different conversation altogether.

This brings me back to our old friend the Triple D. While the technical issues are obvious (poor balance, weird counterform spacing, etc. etc.) the fact that it has simply been there during a complicated time in the city’s history might be worth something. Maybe the fact that every citizen of the city since 1972 has encountered the symbol has allowed it to absorb some of the individual character of those people who make up the hopes, dreams and even failures of Dallas itself.

Maybe that’s enough.

I don’t know, perhaps that’s too romantic. I know it’s just a logo, a bunch of lines put together to make a rough little picture. But the fact that so many people feel like that little picture is embedded in their own stories mean that if we want to consider replacing it, we need approach the issue with the gravity it deserves.

Maybe for now, though we should fix some potholes or fund our libraries instead.

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(I also couldn't resist taking some time to give our Triple D a little TLC*. Consider this freebie a token of my enduring and sometimes confusing affection for you, Dallas.)


*Note: I obviously do not own the trademark to the City of Dallas logo, am not using it commercially, did this as a personal exercise, it is not official and was not contracted or condoned by anyone at City Hall, blah blah legal legal blah. If I get cease-and-desisted I'm going to be so disappointed.

August 2, 2015

A Vague Philosophy

This piece was originally written as the first draft of any essay for one of my MFA classes, in which I was supposed to write my “Philosophy of Design.” Apparently this version was too observational and impersonal. Whoops.

What drives man to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world?

What drew us out of the caves and forests into gatherings of our own kind, living in structures we built with our own hands, eating from vessels we meticulously crafted, sleeping in beds of our own construction? What is this insatiable voice that leads us to believe that we have the power to make something from nothing?

What drives our need to design the things we use?

I believe that Design is our key to understanding the world

Cave paintings. Clay pots. Smoke signals. Adobe dwellings. Hieroglyphs. Aqueducts. Morse code. The automobile. The iPhone. Everything in history that we’ve ever used to push the human race forward was the result of a careful plan that was executed to solve a particular problem. Whether we were trying to construct a better smoke dissipation system for our cave or are trying to conceive of a car that runs on hydrogen gas, our basic motivation is the same; we are not satisfied with the status quo. We believe that we can, and should, solve problems. Design, in the end, creates a context for understanding our world. I believe that we can’t understand our place in it until we understand how we can make our own place in it.

I believe that Design is a universal language

In the simplest terms, design is the making of things by humans for humans. It is the exchange of knowledge and experience through created objects. While graphic design as a specific discipline is often tied directly to written language, other design disciplines transverse these cultural barriers. A beautiful home is comfortable whether you speak English or French. A lawnmower works just as well in Cambridge or Sydney. In a lot of ways, our designed objects are what bridge these cultural divides and bind us together as the human race. From my perspective, design is a language of love; we believe that we have something to offer to our fellow men that will improve their lives.

I believe that Designers are the professionally curious

Designers reside in the awkward realm of being expected to justify themselves as experts in a field that in the end cannot be objectively quantified. As the field is by necessity fraught with risk and huge amounts of experimentation, the financial prospects of the design frontier are rarely substantial. So, there must be another motivation. One that is more powerful than financial need alone. For some designers this could be the search for beauty, for some it might be a quest for truly elegant function. In the end, we are all driven by our insatiable need to explore, to tweak, to know. Personally, I am driven by the daunting, unshakable belief that I need to learn something about everything. There is nothing that I do not want to know. Design is the path to that interaction with the human mind-scape that I desire.

I believe that Design is a noble pursuit

The ability to recognize a problem and create tools to solve that problem is a uniquely human attribute. While some primates are able to utilize rocks and sticks to break coconuts and gather food, they can’t construct a vision for these objects beyond their original form. They can’t conceive of evolution. Only humans can look at the clouds and say “I want to make a building that touches those. I know I can figure out how to build it.” The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since design is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our belief in design is a noble one.

This does not mean that every object we design needs to be noble in itself. It’s undeniably useful to have clearly-designed bathroom signage or a toothpaste tube that dispenses its product properly. What it does mean, however, is that when we design, we need to always remember the gravity of our capacity for design. We need to make sure that our intent and motivation as practitioners of design live up to this singularity of the human spirit.

While it’s easy to argue points of style and taste when it comes to made objects (Dieter Rams vs. Neville Brody, early Frank Lloyd Wright vs. late Frank Lloyd Wright) these arguments miss the point entirely; what we need to be concerned with when it comes to design is why was it designed, not how was it designed. I believe that the key to a successful piece is to create something with the honest intention to advance the human race in some way, whether that be from a micro perspective (a small-business website) or a macro perspective (Biodomes to regrow the rain forests). Design that is crafted with the appropriate gravity, depth, and passion has a great chance to resonate within the human consciousness and be effective, regardless of stylistic tropes.

This is what I believe design to be, after all: to design is to be human. It is the optimistically obstinate belief that we can build our own world, and through that, understand our own place in it just a little bit more than we did yesterday.

justin@justinchildress.co

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