Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Fuck style

Fuck style
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Design is such a multi-layered practice that it’s often difficult to define. That being said, I believe that the word “design” is increasingly confused with “style”. For example, to most “I like the way it’s designed” means that they like the way that something looks.

The visual aspect of what we do is highly important, and style has a place in that. For example, if we want to connect with a particular audience, employing a style can sometimes be helpful. That being said, it seems that style often leads efforts. We have to break this habit.

Searching for the next cool new thing

This season we have “glowy” vector/bitmap collages and rather cute hand-drawn patterns. The following season will inevitably bring something equally novel on first sight, which we will quickly tire of as we are inundated by it. In the pre-web world, things rolled-out more slowly, and as such didn’t hit with the same force; however, better distribution systems allow this eye-candy to be dispersed rapidly. As soon as a particular style is hot, legions of designers reverse-engineer the treatment, and imitate it until it’s everywhere.

The challenge here is that as we are bombarded by these styles, designers, by their own accord and that of their clients and peers, gravitate towards reiterating whatever the style-du-jour happens to be. (Think of the swoosh logos of the late 1990s.) It’s easy to do, the pay-off is immediate, and for a short while, one’s portfolio seems deceptively strong. Most times though, this work is void of the research, strategy, and logic that are necessary to do something effective. As a result, it’s in fact a big pile of shiny bullshit.

In turn, we’re left with scads of generic work that doesn’t hold-up for any length of time. There’s no design there, just polish that quickly tarnishes requiring another coat. In the meanwhile, budgets are exhausted, clients are left to with an out-of-date “look”, and designers are seen as stylists: kooky kids who like to do fun, pointless things. At the risk of being melodramatic, I believe that this approach diminishes the value of our industry and limits our opportunity to contribute to higher-level discussions.


I’m a believer in what I like to call “hardcore” design. This is design focused on results. It can employ any of a multitude of treatments. It’s not personal in nature, unless this is in fact necessary. Hardcore design is driven by insight, strategy and purpose.

This kind of design forces us to see ourselves as intermediaries, who facilitate defined outcomes. To do this, we consider and weigh business, marketing, communications (and other) challenges, and work to resolve them through design. The end-result doesn’t have to look good, even though it might, but it absolutely must work.

For hardcore designers, “does it work?” is the one question that must be obsessed over. Really, this should be the case for any designer anyways; not whether it looks cool, and not if it can win awards. Hardcore design is about taking away the cute, fluffy stuff, and concentrating on what is actually accomplished.

This kind of design typically doesn’t get its due. Many call this work “corporate” (in the pejorative sense), implying that anything “corporate” must be soul-less, bland and the polar-opposite of what we like to think of as creative. This perspective is simplistic and out-of-date. Apple’s marketing is highly corporate and perhaps one of the most stand-out examples of using design to connect with an audience.

The challenge in establishing an effective design solution that reaches a broad audience is in no way less difficult or creative than making work that is personal in nature. In fact, I’d argue that it’s typically much more challenging, as it requires one to dissociate with personal perspectives, in an effort to understand the situation from a more pluralistic standpoint.

Not doing so is, in my mind, what derails so many design efforts. Clients and designers equally fall into the trap of bringing personal aesthetics (that have nothing to do with the task at hand) to projects. As a result, we see lots of pretty, ineffective “design” out there.

We’d better have a bloody good explanation

I realize that I’m kind of passionate about this topic whenever I review portfolios. (Recently we’ve been looking to hire an Interaction Designer.) A part of me finds some allure in the fun, quirky, random styles that some designers present in their work. Inevitably, however, I weed these books out, as they start to look the same. As I narrow the list of potential candidates I find myself with a handful of books that look aesthetically different from one to the next, but share certain characteristics. These characteristics include work that feels rational, informed, effective and appropriate to the effort. I’m looking for people who craft solutions to address and impact a specific challenge.

“Like”, as in “I like using Pantone 021” should be scrubbed from our collective vocabularies. “Like” is in the realm of the subjective; it is the designer’s enemy. It clouds the situation, becoming an obstacle in pin-pointing requirements and uncovering potential solutions. We have to elevate our language to better incorporate the accuracy and objective nature that’s so present in business and marketing.

As an industry, we have to continually assess and refine our planning, processes, and measurement techniques. We have to demand greater roles in projects, and naturally, we must become increasingly accountable for the directions and strategies we suggest.

At smashLAB, we’ve been style-agnostic from the very beginning. Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more “stab myself repeatedly in the eye with a blunt plastic fork” boring than doling-out the hippest new style. At smashLAB, designers are free to deliver any creative solution, so long as it in-fact solves the problem. No treatment is unacceptable, so long as it can be backed-up with intelligent and plausible reasoning.

A few months ago I suggested using Comic Sans in a project, and yes, I do hear the gasps of horror. Do I like Comic Sans? No. Is it one of the ugliest examples of type created? Most definitely. But it really didn’t matter. In this instance, we needed to employ a clumsy and unpolished typeface. Ultimately, another, equally crude typeface solved the problem, but my point is this: nothing should be “off limits” so long as it gets us where we need to go.

Fiercely pragmatic

Style will always be there, and it’s for us to employ, just as we would any color, typeface, written approach or photographic direction. And that is just it: it’s a device, and we too often let it drive the effort. You may disagree with me here. You could (rightly) point to a number of groups and individuals who place the same premium on pragmatic design as I; nevertheless, I argue that these groups are in the minority, and that this represents an imbalance in the quality of design actually being delivered.

We have to get our collective heads out of the sand. Everything we do must be held to a higher-standard. Perhaps we have to see design less like art (which is how I fear it is still classified by many), and more like engineering. The data and ability to measure results exists. We simply have to put hard analysis ahead of our personal impulses. This is a great opportunity for us as designers to make a leap. In doing so, we can earn a seat at the table and provide the unique kind of reasoning that our practice can afford.

With increasing regularity, I hear of organizations instituting CCOs (Chief Creative Officers) in their executive teams. Clearly, those in the boardroom see creative strategies as on-par with any other critical aspect of their operations. The question now is how many of us are really up to the task.

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