Thursday, January 5th, 2006

Competently okay

Competently okay
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Ads are good. Design is good. Typography is good. Films are good. Music is good. Everything is really, really good. Image quality and sound fidelity is awe inspiring. Technology is amazingly efficient and exciting. And still, everything is good. Little is great, some is awful, but most is good. Good. Yay. Yee-haw. Good.

There’s a great deal of competent work out there. It looks good, and for the most part, it gets the job done. Although I often admire it, little of it makes me horny with excitement. It isn’t too often that I leave something screaming, “Holy shit! That’s such a good idea I can’t believe it!” Perhaps that’s a tall order, but I still think it’s fair to desire it.

This proliferation of competent output is rarely inspiring.

What happened to invention?
A piece of paper, a pencil, and an idea.

I’ll tell you what happened: Awards annuals, Google image search, and online portfolios. No longer do we need to question or think. We can simply do some research and find out how everyone else does it. It’s so handy–the bar is set, and we can just check-in to see what’s the standard. Once that’s set, at our best, we discuss how we can improve upon it. The question we seem to ask is one of, “How could I make this a little better?” instead of, “What would I make this like, if I had no limitations?”

While we are so busy being good, we rarely get great, for fear of falling down. I would like to see some efforts that fail. I’d like to take on more projects that are willing to push this far. I think that as a result, we’d all experience more powerful and moving work, while being part of a more interesting world.

Brian Eno once noted about music, that it “…is an area where you can crash your plane and walk away from it. You can make the mistakes you can’t make in real life.” I’d like to believe that this same thought could be applied to many aspects of our work and lives. Of course, there’s a responsibility to our clients, but perhaps part of that responsibility is to push for better work. As Tibor Kalman said, “Think dangerously, act safely.” This may be a respectable goal for any designer.

We live in a world filled with culinary delights; nevertheless, we’re all eating at McDonald’s. This may be a sound analogy for how we experience culture as well. It’s all perfectly put together, efficiently delivered, but void of anything real.

A stylist and a designer walk into a bar…

Around the office, we often talk about the difference between stylists and designers. I don’t know if the term “stylist” means anything to the outside world, so let me quickly elaborate on what we mean with this moniker.

Stylists have fun jobs. They make things look cool. They believe they are designers and do many things that designers do. They apply treatments to projects, and beautify them. Some of them are really good at what they do; however, they are not really designers.

Designers solve problems. Where style is concerned with aesthetics, as they relate to a particular cultural context, design treats this as a secondary concern. Design can be beautiful, ugly, or banal–it doesn’t matter. Aesthetics are simply a device that designers use to deliver the message and concept. It is secondary. Style is fun. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a good few steps removed from design.

To truly solve problems, we have to look at a situation closely, and personally. We can’t just apply new, fashionable, treatments. Instead, we must explore, fight, and get messy, in order to find appropriate and powerful solutions. Put simply, we have to think.

This is hard. Ideas that solve problems are rarely easy to come by. There is no set process or recipe for great ideas.

You thought the hard stuff was over, right?

With all of the effort that they require, you’d think coming up with ideas would be the most challenging part of the process. You wrestle and debate to solve a problem, and perhaps even stumble upon a brilliant and effective solution. Then the next challenge emerges. You have to sell this idea. In my experience new ideas are as hard to sell as a Pontiac Aztec. (But much more worth the effort.)

It’s no secret that most clients want a stylist when they ask for a designer. It’s what they really believe they are buying: colour, fonts, layout, etc. To many, designers make things look good, and they certainly don’t want “the guy who picks the colours” to start talking about strategy or differentiation.

Try pitching a client on a project that’s powerful but ugly, and you are in for one rough road. One of the strongest concepts we have ever delivered is still wading through “meeting-hell.” I think they are going to go for it, but it’s taking a lot of work to convince this client that there’s a gem of a concept waiting for them, if they can just get past doing something beautiful.

While many appreciate the complexity in making something look good, they rarely feel that ideas are as elusive as they in fact are. As such, many clients will come to designers with half-baked ideas, and want them magically transformed into works of art. Some will want you to polish a turd.

Style is generally pretty achievable, but good ideas take a lot of work and critical thinking.

Is my opinion really worth counting?

Maybe I’m full of crap. I really like a lot of the work out there. When I look at the output of companies like Pentagram, or Second Story, or Epoxy, I wish we had more work that was as innovative and well realized as what they present in their portfolios.

Plus, for all of my criticism of stylists, I can’t honestly say that we’re that much better a lot of the time. Many of the projects we’ve put out are passable, or competent, but the ones that really shine are still the minority. That bugs me, but you can bet that we’re working like hell on that.

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