Monday, March 27th, 2006

Designers must write

Designers must write
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Early in my career, I was involved in a strange and completely unnecessary rivalry with one of my coworkers. She and I were like oil and water. After years of chilly interaction we actually managed to engage in something that had the semblance of a civil conversation. During this chat, she somewhat reluctantly noted that she held no drawing skills. To state it candidly, I was aghast. How could a professional not have a handle on what I perceived as the absolute basics?

Even that early on, I knew that design was about more than getting funky glasses and flipping through type magazines–It had everything to do with the idea. How could you effectively explore or begin to develop an idea without first scratching down some thumbnails and messing about?

No one asks us to be Bruegel

Strangely, upon entering the industry, I learned that a large number of designers had decided that the pencil was simply a relic. As such, they were limiting themselves to creating comps and developing ideas solely on a computer. I’d often end up in arguments about the idea that avoiding the process of putting pencil to paper simply resulted in weaker work.

My conviction in this is unwavering. A whole generation of designers compromises the strength of their ideas by jumping to a computer too quickly. I’m certainly not promoting the idea that we have to aspire towards being remarkable illustrators; however, we do have to be capable of getting our ideas down on paper, both to explore effectively and to help convey unripe ideas and directions.

Earlier this month a young student considering a career in design asked me if drawing was a necessary skill for a designer. I emphatically responded, “Yes.” It was sort of confounding to think that one could seriously ask the question, kind of like, “If I join the NBA, will I have to run?”

There’s no shortcut or excuse. To be a designer, your hand must posses the necessary chops to practice your craft. Let’s all get this one off the table and be done with it. Drawing is a prerequisite. If you can’t do it, learn to.

What does our job require?

I think we generally limit the scope of our work as designers and see only partial aspects of the job as part of our responsibility. For example, we know that we’ll have to select typefaces and correct photographs; however, the amount of time most of us end up spending on these tasks is in my mind relatively unequal to the effort we expend on tasks not acknowledged as part of the job.

I believe that my true job description would begin with this phrase, “Write and respond to email.” That’s what I do all day. I send notes to designers, clients, and suppliers, and then I task manage the fallout from these messages. I send persuasive emails, abrupt emails, congratulatory emails, friendly emails, and so many others. In fact, I’m even composing this blog article in… You guessed it, my email application. Although I may not open Photoshop on a given day, my email application is never inactive.

At our studio, we spend a great deal of time creating plans, researching both concepts and execution methods, and in preparing documentation. We talk a lot, discuss concepts, make sales calls, organize folders, and try to refine our method of working. We also empty the trash and take turns at sweeping up the place.

I often wish that my job was like those designers in the movies–they pick colours from swatch books, go to big meetings in fancy boardrooms, and are invited to nice parties. What a happy life! At smashLAB, we seem to be stuck in the real world, and simply can’t get out.

Words are a part of our arsenal

As much as email has become one of my primary communication venues, it has also become the place where I often design. I use this tool to give direction to our designers, convey ideas to clients, and often sort ideas in written form: making lists, sequences, and plans.

When we worked on a website for a law firm in Vancouver, we began with a series of stakeholder feedback meetings. They understood this, and this part of the process seemed to be embraced; however, they were almost baffled when we arrived for our first creative meeting without comps. They asked whether we needed a projector or wanted to show print-outs of our work. We explained that before we’d even build a wireframe, we would have to share and discuss the observations, insights, questions, and challenges we had documented.

When we finally did reach the stage when visual exploration was presented, we had their buy-in, as we had already addressed their needs, and solved some of their challenges in a format they understood: written language. Our ability to articulate ideas in both a verbal and written fashion allows us to earn the buy-in of clients, on projects that may be out of their realm of expectations. And really, how often does a client receive exactly what they would have expected prior to entering the design process?

Language = Power

Sometimes I feel as though the right selection of words coupled with careful enunciation and timing is as graceful as a surgeon’s hands keenly manipulating life as though it were not complex in the slightest. Well, perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I don’t expect that many would argue that even a few well chosen words can wield more power than our most brutal weapons.

I did not make a conscious choice to write as much as I do. It was something I learned to do out of necessity. When you run a firm, there’s never a shortage of situations in which one must write. I spend a large part of my day either writing briefs, rationales, proposals, general correspondence, or even copy for one of our projects. I will likely never be a writer, but at very least, I am not afraid of using language as my work demands.

I find that as my ability to shape both written and oral communication improves, I am better equipped to direct the work of others. I can uncover a verbal method of responding to what I feel emotionally when I view a project. Additionally, I find that these skills allow me to better explore and sort ideas.

I’m finding that ideas run on many of the same principles, whether in the form of word or image. It’s interesting to learn that a task which I perceived as a nuisance at times has in fact made me a better designer.

We should never squander this gift

Not using language efficiently is negligent and wasteful. It’s something a professional designer should never willingly do; nevertheless, I find that many of us shy away from these tasks, as we don’t feel that they are pure design. It’s sort of that attitude of, “that’s not in my job description”, that seems to keep us from strengthening this capability.

I expect that in a number of studios, the Creative Director writes the brief and passes this on to the design team. We first did this; however, at one point it seemed so contradictory in nature. Why were we taking this part of the process away from a designer, who could own the project from the beginning? Although most of those who work with us find this quite overwhelming at first, after a few campaigns they generally find it a logical and straight-forward part of the process; nevertheless, some have felt very differently.

One of our past designers felt almost slighted that he had to waste his time writing briefs for projects. He often reminded me that he wasn’t a writer, and that this was far out of the realm of a Senior Designer’s duties. I must say that I found this horribly frustrating and difficult to comprehend. In my mind the greatest benefit a designer earns with experience, is the opportunity to be more highly involved and responsible for a project. That’s where the choices are made and the fun seems to begin.

A higher-level designer

Our designers are accountable for their ideas. The applications they use are simply their tools. They know this, and are aware of my disdain for a “fix it with software” perspective. They go home with headaches, because we demand so much. They also are the kind of people who are becoming the kind of designers we all dreamed about being, way back in art school: Those who develop functional design that truly solves the problem at hand.

In my mind, designers fall into one of two categories. The first is a craftsperson. These individuals can utilize the specific tools of their practice with precise skill, and enjoy a very highly specialized knowledge of their craft. I would classify type designers as part of this category. I have the utmost respect for their craft. It is fraught with complex challenges and requires a master’s eye to command.

The next, and in my mind more powerful (by this I do not mean relevant, but rather as one commanding greater influence) category of designer, is one that sees her/his role as a communicator and will go to any length to convey a message or idea.

Design is not solely visual. Those who believe it is, make an unconscious decision to confine themselves solely to craft. This limits these individuals from growing and taking on more complex and broad challenges. If one chooses to do so consciously, due to a love of a particular aspect of design, I applaud their decision and clarity of vision; however, those who slip into being a software operator due to mental laziness are, in my mind, not the most remarkable practitioners our industry has to offer.

Pilates for design

Perhaps what we do is much like an athlete, and we all just need to exercise more. Maybe drawing is the “design equivalent” of stretching, while page layout is on par with strength training, and writing is like cardiovascular work. Although the analogy may seem a little thin, we need to take a holistic approach to our craft and gain a command of all of these aspects in order to practice efficiently. No athlete would say, “I only do sit-ups”; rather, we find that many athletes cross-train in order to build a better overall command of their body.

This is part of our evolution as an industry. If we want to be taken seriously, we had best approach all forms of language with the same reverence we bring to visual literacy.

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