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 In the meanwhile, budgets are exhausted, clients are left to with an out-of-date “look”, and designers are seen as stylists: kooky kids who like to do fun, pointless things.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.

Hardcore

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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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Ryan Currier says:

    Could not agree more. Thank you for the time and effort to put it all out into words.

  2. Andy says:

    I couldn't have said it better myself. NO Really I couldn't have, you nailed it... Bravo!

  3. photoken says:

    As design is the product of mixing knowledge (remember Principles & Elements), process, and creative problem solving; style is a result that can be characterized by the particular principles used. When enough such work is produced to be able to collectively refer to it by these descriptive terms, it becomes a Style (or School, etc.). Used as a verb, design implies the use of this process. Since style is the formally described result, it can be copied and will therefore will dictate appearance (art nouveau or urban grunge for example). There are numerous examples of such trends, take for one, the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries. Certainly there were leaders and followers, some that are identified yet today, and others not.
    I absolutely agree with you that function should be paramount. However, I politely disagree with your view that "No treatment is unacceptable, so long as it can be backed up with intelligent and plausible reasoning." This logic implies that as long as the product can be explained, it is a good solution. Good design should be transparent. If it needs to explained or rationalized, then it hasn't accomplished the task.

  4. Britt says:

    Thank you for putting into words an issue I've long had a hard time communicating to designers, particularly the ones who use the word "like." I do strategy and content development, so it's essential that I provide logical, thought out reasoning for my recommendations and a way to measure the results. However, when I've tried to communicate this need to some of the designers on my projects, I get the response that borders on design as art and how do you measure the value of art?

    I have great respect for designers. They have skills and talent for things I'll never be able to do. However, if you can't tell me why your solution does more than make you "like" it or mimics the latest trends...well, I'm doing a disservice to my client if I encourage them to accept that design direction. It's refreshing to hear someone talk about design as something other than an all or nothing experience.

  5. Hi photoken,

    I understand your comment, but I believe you took my sentence somewhat out of context. I start that train of thought with the words, “At smashLAB, designers are…”

    My logic isn’t founded on the notion that anything explainable is good; rather, it’s part of the mind-set of our studio, in which designers are free to explore new ideas and methods of engaging the audience. (This is what helps us steer clear of simply repeating popular styles.)

    Internally, we do feel it necessary to explain and rationalize our decisions. This allows for dialogue and sober analysis. Not doing so would likely result in us making quick, “gut” decisions, which I’m sure you’ll agree, can be dangerous.

    As we move through the process we have a number of checks and balances in place -- even in the form of simple checklists -- to ensure that we’re still meeting project goals.

    I hope this helps clarify my point, and thanks for reading!

    Eric

  6. The title of this article reinforces what I have believed, and taught my own students all along: style sucks, if you want to succeed and do relevant work, be style-less. Thanks for writing this.

  7. here's a video of Joshua Prince-Ramus, principal architect at REX, talking about his teams 'hyper rational' process.
    TedTalks

  8. J Maxfield says:

    Great article; I think it's spot on. Too bad about the title, though.

  9. Hi J.,

    Sorry about that; I didn't mean to offend. It did seem like a bold way to spur some discussion though. ;-)

    Cheers!

    Eric

  10. Evan Meagher says:

    Here here! I completely agree that design should be more often equated to engineering, as opposed to art, especially in interaction design. The questions "does it work" and "does it serve its purpose effectively" should at all times be at the forefront of all designers minds.

  11. Jeremy says:

    Although I still fall in that trap once in a while (boo me...), I completely agree with you. Designing something "cuz it looks cool, dude!" is what I hear all the time, but when you ask for arguments for doing this or that way, well, "cuz' I like that style"... =\

    Can we take this article and Elliot Jay Stocks' "Kill the web 2.0 style" and give it to every student designer please?

  12. Navin Harish says:

    Spot on with design not being "art". This is what I keep telling various people involved in projects. Design is a tool to communicate a message and how effectively a message is communicated should define how good a design is and not how pretty it is.

  13. domino says:

    Are artists bad for design?

  14. Great article.

    However. I think that the scope of the design can be stretched even further.

    I have a background in design where is found it common to act as the expert in telling the client what to do. What is best for him. There is nothing wrong with that.
    But. A year ago I've teamed up with a new-media stategist and started a Servicedesign company.
    What I've learned is that design can be used to design new services by using design-tools in getting in dept insights in people. Customers.

    To comment on: "As a result, we see lots of pretty, ineffective “design” out there." I can't agree more. This is what I notice a lot around me. Fortunately there is a change going on. Our customers do realise that, in order to get the best results, it's paramount that their clients need to participate in the design proses.

    For example. When we were asked to design a concept-design for a 'Innovation-Cafe', we invited the future users to co-design this with us. In this proses we are the facilitators, rather than experts, making sure that there will be no styling going on! No favorite colors, no 'I like this', no ' I saw this, loved it and want it to'.

    Working with concepts, with design-tools and the creative thinking methodes is, and will be even more, is what the job as a designer is all about.

    Cheers, Marcel

  15. Jamie says:

    Great article...said what I've believed myself for a lng time!

  16. nick says:

    I guess _Style vs Design_ would be appropriate here:

    http://www.adobe.com/designcenter/dialogbox/stylevsdesign/

  17. Chris says:

    Eric,

    Well, it has to be said, doesn't it? I appreciated this passage very much:

    "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."

    I'm sure any designer that is paying attention notices this often. I noticed it when the "ephemera/colonial far east" aesthetic appeared everywhere as stylists wanted to use it to give products that mystery and intrigue that the images evoke (not designers, stylists). I noticed it when every website stylist suddenly wanted to convince users that the site they were interacting with was made from three-dimensional shiny buttons and objects (not designers, stylists). I also noticed it when suddenly a bird became the designer's "it's finished" punctuation. You get the point. I'm generally not a fan of anything that has been "stamped" with these kinds of styles because there is almost always an alternative that has actually been designed, not styled.

    Sometimes I'd like to just get a clean slate and go back to solid color t-shirts, plain paper, screens with colors and text (no animation effects, thank you), etc., but I know that is not really a solution.

    Thanks for a good rant.

  18. Adrian says:

    A good article, but your title is really dumb. It actually goes against what you are trying to say. It isn't "bold" it is intentionally offensive. That is the opposite of what good communication should try to do. The "if I offend enough people maybe someone will listen to me" mentality is just as unproductive as the "if I make something really cool looking (style) someone will appreciate it."

  19. Hi Adrian,

    Although I understand your point, I disagree. I use that word a fair deal and as such, it is indicative of how I speak. I'll admit that it does sometimes become a bit of a crutch; however, it can be a powerful tool. I find that it can quickly activate a topic and sometimes cut the pretense out of an overly stuffy discussion.

    In the first 15 hours of posting, the topic has seen 18 comments, and a great deal of traffic. I would say that in this setting, the word proved to be an incredibly effective device. It served as a hook that led visitors to a meaty article. In my mind this was am appropriate way to set-up the article as it offered a reasonable pay-off for the reader. Believe me; I wouldn't just toss about words for shock value. I hardly see the point.

    Nevertheless, I'm of the belief that it's a word like any other. If it helps me get where I need to go, it's fair game. :-)

    Cheers!

    Eric

  20. Thank you for this post, I couldn't agree more.

    I sometimes feel guilty or left behind because I'm not doing the "coolest, most current work in the most awesome of styles", but then look back at what I AM doing and the profits our clients are getting because of the on-target, focused work we're doing, and smile proudly.

    Like my idol Paul Rand says: "Don’t try to be original, just try to be good".

  21. Adrian says:

    My personal belief is that you can't communicate without profanity then you really aren't a good communicator. But if that's your style, then keep it up. Too bad you can't put pictures of naked girls in your title. I bet that would up the comments, too.

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  23. Chris says:

    Woah! Ok, I agree that attention grabbing gimmicks are lame, and that maybe this title falls into that category. But, Eric admits that his daily lexicon is peppered with this kind of language, so maybe the title is more about a lack of restraint rather than a deliberate technique to get a response (no offense, Eric...). In any case, let's get over the title and discuss the post itself, shall we?

  24. Hi Adrian,

    That's a fair belief; it's not one I hold, but it is certainly a sentiment that many share.

    I feel that a wide vocabulary allows me greater ability to communicate. If I were a musician, I'd want access to every note, in order to craft just the tone I intended to achieve. (Imagine someone saying, "you can play any note but C-sharp; if you use C-sharp you really aren't a good musician!")

    I'm just not willing to arbitrarily limit myself from using any words, due to social constraints. (Although there are ones I chose to avoid, as they are harmful to others.)

    I think that what you are pointing to is when people use profanity as a substitute to clearly articulating their thoughts. In doing so, their discourse does weaken, but I'd hope that the effort I put into distilling my ideas prevents me from falling into such a trap.

    The challenge with profanity is that people often imbue it with a moral lens. Such a perspective is challenging to debate, as morals and values are so subjective that it's hard to get a footing on this ground.

    I think it's an interesting debate, and one that I have with my friend Hans quite often. That being said, I wonder if we're perhaps losing the focus of the post. ;-)

    Best,

    Eric

  25. Even though I firmly believe about what this article talks about, i think design should be innovative enough to be considered "artistic". It's the melding of the "art" & "engineering" that makes design such a special profession.

  26. Ralphy says:

    Fuck yes. About time design put its nose to the grindstone and tried to up the bar. Design isn't a game; don't play at it.

    "we can earn a seat at the table"

    Yes, designers who want to earn their keep and collaborate at the table - a refreshing antidote to the attitude (1) that clients' demands/requirements should quit interfering with the 'creative process' and simultaneously (2) that clients owe endless gratitude to designers for bestowing their works upon them

  27. Ritz says:

    Eric,

    Holy crap-skates! That hit the nail on the head. I would like to add something if I may... I like riding coattails. :)

    The strategies and constraints of solving problems and creating real value are not "taking the creativity out of the project". The more constraints and obstacles there are, the more ways there are to demonstrate creativity with your solution.

    When someone says that, I almost immediately take it as if they don't care about the client and aren't that creative. They're just good at making things pretty.

    Which isn't design, like you so awesomely portrayed.

    PS. If showing emotion and meaning with brevity makes the "f word" the best choice, than use that crutch! Word.

  28. AtomicGuy says:

    Well put indeed.
    This issue is a constant challenge.
    How often do you find yourself trying to illustrate the difference between design and style? me...often.
    great design often dictates great style. Our sense of style is drawn naturally to things that are designed well.
    Nature is a great example of this. Who can't appreciate the beauty of a flower? amazing design that produces consistent results.
    It's not accidental what kinds of aesthetic we're drawn to. Science, nature, history all show us gleaming examples of what works and what doesn't. Most of our style can be referenced to the elements of the functioning natural world around us!
    Great article!

  29. Jonathan says:

    Probably by far the most insightful blog/post I've read in some time pertaining to the issue of design.

    For me, I think the fallacy lies in the word "design" itself. It implicates the response of "style" that you discussed and although it's a term that will probably forever stay with practicing "designers", it might be worthwhile to start changing our titles to "Graphical Communicators" or something of the sort.

    On another note, whether or not this perception is relevant or not to the public at large, it is a great wake-up call for all designers alike.

    Style vs. Design (as designers understand design) could be a debate that lasts until both parties turn blue in the face. There are far too many gray areas that occur when anyone uses the word "style". Also, the perception and functionality of design vary greatly from one hemisphere of the world to another.

    Take Japanese packaging for example; the amount of stylization/design in their products make most products in North America look like Kindergarten scribbles. In many instances, it is over-designed (if we're talking about a balance of function vs. style). It is however, without a doubt, all the reason why the Japanese are such consumer giants. Not limiting to Japanese, their products are sold and well received by almost all Asians.

    If you brought an equivalent version of the packaging into the English language, one could definitely then argue whether or not it served its purpose or not. Obviously, global design is dependent on the locality of the market, but if you do that, it might prove the designs true functional vs. style purpose.

    Anyway, I'm terrible at writing responses or anything for that matter. My mind just loves going on tangents, in which case I'll stop now. ^_^

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  31. Greg Formager says:

    I get tired of hearing the same arguments year after year from people claiming they have defined how people should view design. Yes, there is a lot of fluff out there. But I don't think the answer needs to be so dogmatic.

  32. megan says:

    this is a great blog, and I agree should be handed out to new students (as was mentioned by one of the posts). i struggled with using design elements that i couldn't validate when i was a student. i picked the brains of my fellow students who had 'modern' designs and were idolized by the teachers. all they would tell me when i eagerly asked 'why are you using those drop shadows and reversed characters' (thinking i'd get some insight into the minds of the design 'geniouses' who surrounded me) was, 'because it looks cool'. LAME. i wrote them off as a bunch of ass kissers and decided i'd just have to work harder at understanding design.

    later i worked in a law firm where i learned to communicate really clearly through design (since lawyers have a tendency to be idiots and incapable of conceptual thinking) and was labeled as a 'corporate' designer everywhere i went after that. luckily i'm over being effected by comments like this and embrace my ability to design with functionality in mind, while pushing my creative ideas.

    i think it's important to remember that sometimes it's not how inventively the text is layered on itself, it's how clear the message is within that composition that matters. one of the most fun and rewarding parts of design is listening to the needs of the customer and successfully making something that looks great while communicating their message.

    and yes, if comic sans fits the bill then take a deep breath and use it!

  33. I don't get it. You say "Fuck Style", then you say, or at least strongly imply, that style is something we all can and should utilize deliberately. For products that are all about style (fashion, music, advertising) style is, in fact, the ultimate and primary goal. The basic design of a shirt has not changed in a thousand years. The only change, the ONLY change, has been style. Nothing wrong with that.

    This extends to product design. The iPod, for example, is not any easier to use or more efficient than most other MP3 players (it really isn't). But it feels great to use because it delights us on a level that has to do with our socially-constructed sense of style. Would you buy an iPod if the UI were the same but it was decorated with butterflies or Donald Duck?

    It is foolish to argue that style doesn't matter in light of the fact that billions of dollars are made each year selling products that are nothing whatsoever but design. But I don't think you are saying that. It seems you are saying "don't let style drive the design", which is saying that style is secondary to something else. This is 100% correct if you are designing an airplane cockpit, and it is 100% totally wrong if you are designing a birthday card or a hat. Nothing wrong with that.

    I would even submit that almost every time you choose a font you are making a decision that is exclusively one based on style. There is always another font you could have used that is just as functional, but you chose X over Y because you are thinking like a stylist. Nothing wrong with that.

    It's not a either-or. It's not a battle. Style is just the way things are. If you go through history, you will find that almost all major art, music, and design movements have been at least 50% about style, with functionality coming in second in nearly every case. Many of the greatest icons of functionalist design are actually failures at their functions (the Rietveld chair, for example), The greatest so-called master of "form following function", Le Corbusier, was a hypocrite of the highest magnitude. Not one of his residences proved to be a happy place to actually live in, many of them fell apart weeks after being occupied, and all required constant upkeep to maintain, yes, the clean modernist style. Definitely something wrong with that.

    Ask yourself this: Is a smooth white cube any less a product of some person's idea of style than a Baroque chair with gilt filigree and rich illustrative embroidery?

  34. andrej says:

    I agree on the point that "does it work" or function-oriented, problem-solving is the core part to design.

    However aesthetics or as you call it "style" are also a function of any product. They serve the function of getting the owner/customer/user of the product do several things:

    -individualize (be part of certain group)
    -feel good/bad/funny, etc.
    -match with their taste, their other products and lifestyle

    This is why style, even when changing faster than the seasons, is nothing which is less important for the user than the question if the product works (which it sure has to, in the first order).

    That's why I would suggest you consider: "Fuck Art" as a title :)
    Which has been my credo on the topic for quite a while, because art is completely function-free.

  35. Carla says:

    fine, but shouldn't you have been honest and stuck up the middle finger on your fist there?

  36. Bullshit! You can't "Fuck Style". "Style" is always inherent in anything and everything man-made and is always a reflection of the times. Frankly, it doesn't matter if something "lasts" or not. Only that it sells. The goal of design is to sell more stuff. Period. That's how you answer "does it work?" If that means concentrating on "fluffy stuff," big deal. Unless your concern is creating museum pieces, in which case you are really more of an artist and your clients are more like patrons.

    I think what you are really abdicating is the conscious use of style. Knowing when and why to use Comic Sans. You may be "style-agnostic" but you can't be style-less. There is a time and place for a wide variety of approaches to design. The marketplace determines what "works."

    It's unfortunate that "Stylist" is considered by some to be a dirty word. All designers are stylists, like it or not. And it's an equally important component of design as you yourself admit.

    You are right to filter out portfolios as you see fit for your firm, but don't think that you are passing judgement on some higher level. If something "feels rational" (oxymoron anyone?) then it might just be duping you with its "style."

    Your example of Apple inhibits your point. They are as much about style as they are about "substance". Just contrast the original iPod+iTunes commercials with the latest one featuring Mary J. Blige.

    And sometimes "doling-out the hippest new style" is what is required. There are companies with good marketing strategies, but whose style is out of date and thus is not communicating an appropriate market position, who simply need an infusion of an up-to-date style.

    In fact, if I were giving advice to a designer who wanted to strike out on his own, it would be to cultivate a distinct style, as it helps greatly in attracting clients because they know what they are getting and the designer gets to deliver what he wants instead of begrudgingly using Comic Sans because he feels it is right for the project.

    Designers can't live in a bubble, disconnected from the majority of consumers. In case you have forgotten your design history, there is a much longer history of ornate design than there is of the minimal, reductivist objects some designers espouse. Don't act as if you have a lock on the "right" approach. There are as many approaches as there are problems. Humans have a need for self-expression and that takes many forms, including the addition of stylistic flourishes that nourish the soul as well as sell products.

    This 'habit' which you say we have to break is what life is all about. The constant ebb and flow of ideas, including ideas about how things should look. Everything is a reaction to something else. Your ideas are as much a reaction their opposite as vice-versa. Yin/Yang. Every generation wants to differentiate itself from the one before it and that includes "superficial" changes in style. I could write a book about this. Hey, I am writing a book about this! In the meantime, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of David Pye's excellent "The Nature and Aesthetics of Design" originally published in 1968.

  37. kevadamson says:

    Lovely stuff. Designer's who create stuff in a way they 'like' should be kicked in the balls (or female equivalent) until they realise that, just because they may not hang it on the wall of their "trying-too-hard-to-look-cool-overly-fussy-studio" wall, doesn't mean it's not 'good design'. Twats.

  38. kevadamson says:

    P.S. Sorry about the repetition of the word 'wall'. I got over excited whilst typing.

  39. ChrisC says:

    Designers have preferences. Pretending you can have a totally objective, detached view of a project is futile. Being aware of your predilections is the best you can hope for. Some people set type too loose. They think I set it too tight. Who knows who is right?

    Clients also have preferences. 'Hardcore' design made in spite of your clients' wishes is just arrogance dressed up as intellectual rigour.

    The only problem with giving your work some 'personality' is when you're doing it for your own sake, not the client's. Style is fine, just make it theirs, not yours.

  40. Josh says:

    I'm sure you knew you we're gonna get some push back from the "style defenders".

    What Eric is talking about maybe more personal to his office and I think is a valid mentality. He's not dismissing that style exists but that it can possibly be inappropriate or overwhelm a message.

    Honestly as a consumer and designer, i'm more intrigued by messages that aren't clouded by "flair". Am i envious of some of the work...sure, but that's what great about clients is that not all of them need a mullet wearing spokesman on a Cub Cadet Flash site when all they needed was some white space on their website and a kick in the pants about creating a dialog with their customers.

    I do have to agree that you have to carve a niche out for yourself like Greg said. This doesn't have to be a style niche, it can be a quality of service or knowledge level that coupled with an ability to design can achieve great results for a client. Being stylish is neither inclusive or exclusive in the end.

    Just like me. Always taking the middle of the road.

  41. Hey, Greg Hinzmann: Great points. The idea that one can design anything without being utterly drenched in stylistic thinking is a delusion. If you're not thinking about style when you're designing something, you're not thinking thoroughly about your design and you're letting the style part just happen. We're better off keeping style in mind and taking deliberate control over it -- rather than trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

    I'm not yet writing a book about this, but I can suggest my slideshow about it:
    http://tinyurl.com/2dp3pg

    Also, I strongly suggest reading Mr. Keedy's essay on the illusions of Modernism:
    http://www.emigre.com/Editorial.php?sect=1&id=20

  42. Paul says:

    Great topic, article, expression delivery.

    Thanks.

    Refreshing reading all the comments too.

    As with a lot of points made ... it's all a little from column A a little from column B.

  43. shope says:

    Sometimes I design things I like. Sometimes I design things I don't like, but its the right thing for the client. Liking something, in and of itself, isn't wrong. The key is acknowledging your biases and knowing when to let them go.

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  45. Excellent article. I agree 100%. I unfortunately, in my line of work, have to sometimes surrender my ideas or problem solving skills to the needs of clients who want a specific look. I struggle with it on a daily basis sometimes. There are great opportunities within the minutia of a project for me to add a little bit of wit to something and that is what keeps me going. I applaud your post and I only hope more “designers” in my industry read it.

  46. Thanks for the article. The road to good design is an hard one...

  47. vic says:

    Interesting thoughts but I'd disagree with the notion that 'we have to see design less like art (which is how I fear it is still classified by many), and more like engineering'.'

    Surely this would depend on what values your are subjectively placing on 'art' as well as 'engineering'. I dont belive 'art' is as simple as pretty clever things in a gallery and 'engineering' something functional and german. Art and design are historical companions, mixed sides of the same leaf. And rather than make pragmatic distinction between the practice or meaning of 'art' or 'design', its rather more interesting to discuss the role of 'artist' and 'designer'. Which ties back into the core of your discussion; the creative persons practice and modus operandi.

  48. mosha says:

    I definitely see that styles get copied faster in nower days and we much faster get fed up with things. But we have just much more visual trash out in the world today then it ever was before. Advertisement everywhere. I believe all the visual impressions our eyes are forced to soak, just can't all be good and well designed. And if they were, wouldn't they then all be bad?
    Another thing I personally just always stumble across is that we get taught about "hardcore" design everywhere, in university on all all kind of webblogs. Even art has to be kind of "hardcore". The problem I have with this, is the reasons. You always have to explain your designs. Should be able to name the reasons. That leads to a lot of stuff that is argued right and thus reasonable design, but still ugly. Then I see a lot of good design filled up with reasons and explanations, which I can't see. Such design then seems wrong to me, too, because I have the feeling that the reasons are made up.
    I rather have a nice looking style, which transports a mood, then an "überconceptional" work, where you can not get a grasp on.

    This comment is not that objective and probably a bit beside the topic. (I just suffer this pressure of creating with an 'hardcore' approach, and think lost a lot of my childish playfulness tho)

  49. RayMcK says:

    @Greg Hinzmann

    From where I sit you basically sang the same song Eric did. The two of you should collaborate ; )

  50. RayMcK says:

    Oh ya, least anyone confuse my meaning. Very good article Eric! Spot on imo.

  51. Mia says:

    Thank you for finally saying what I have been thinking since I left design college, a place where I was made to feel like a boring dork for getting excited about a pair of scissors. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    It has to be said also that trend focussed designers often seem to have a weird superiority complex. It's as if they think they are better and more creative than the 'general population' (their words) because they have 'good taste'. Fascile wankers. That's right! I said it!

  52. Paul Mison says:

    I saw the title and immediately thought of the classic A List Apart article The Bathing Ape Has No Clothes, which also distinguishes between style and design. That's not to say this post didn't need writing; the same fast cycles the web seems to be causing also seem to be leading to an almost wilful forgetfulness about the past.

  53. Chad says:

    say no more....

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  55. Ritz says:

    This is a tough thing to talk about since everyone wants a black and white, spoon fed answer and you can't have that without a lot of conflict. So if you say style isn't what's important, everyone freaks about things looking stupid...

    The catch is design, like the awesome Andy Rutledge put it, requires a serious art background to understand color theory, composition, depth, texture, and so on... But it can't be used in a subjective, personal opinion sort of way.

    Which I'm guessing is what Eric is referring to as "style". I can't take someone's money to create a website under my own ideas of what "cool" is... That's not design, that's being an artist.

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  58. TMac says:

    Forgive me for this pitiful reduction, but I have difficulty holding the argument in my thick skull all at once:

    Style = Superficial Indulgence
    Design = Problem Solving

    Thus, the measure of success of any design is if the problem described at the start can be proven to be solved at the end (with emphasis on "proven").

    Eric, can you give some examples of style vs. design? Comparing apples to apples?

    E.g. New "head-chopper" trolley buses = style
    Old "cram-'em-in" trollies = design

    Not sure this is the perfect example.

  59. Hi TMac,

    Sure, I see where you are going with this.

    I, like some others, tend to see design as the practice of problem solving. As you can imagine, this opens it up to a relatively broad description. Style I characterize as a set of cues (visual or otherwise) or manner that evoke(s) a certain tone, affiliation, response, et cetera. (I speak personally here, as I appreciate that others hold somewhat different descriptions of these two words.)

    Now, a transit map would be a good example of an object that needs design in order to work well and can do so without any particular style being employed. The designer of the map would likely concentrate more on the notion of legibility, ease of use, familiarity of symbols employed, and so on. On the flip side, we have acid wash jeans, which (for those who are old enough to remember them) had little to do with function, and everything to do with style.

    As some have pointed out, style may in itself solve a problem. For instance, a business may find that their phones aren't selling well to a desired market segment. Applying a style that appeals to this group may in fact solve this problem. I see nothing wrong with this; in fact, this is largely what I'm arguing for: using style as a device.

    Where I have a problem, is perhaps best illustrated by my meeting with a client who asked for, "that look with the blue dots." Upon asking why he wanted to apply this style, he commented that it "looked good." Now, you may laugh at this, and think it's simply indicative of a misdirected individual, however, I argue that a great number of designers fall into this exact same trap.

    According to Forrester Research, the number one reason that B2C websites fail, is in the type being too small. Nevertheless, upon asking many designers why they don't select larger type, they remark that they simply "like the way small type looks." This is where even designers' personal feelings get in the way of things working. To me this is a problem.

    As I've stated in this article, I'm not inherently opposed to style. I am, however, highly critical of the use of style without intention.

    Cheers!

    Eric

  60. cynicdesign says:

    I enjoy the post. It seems thoughtful and you definitely appear to be in a position of authority but I wonder what you make of successful "designers" in pop culture that make obvious use of a consistent style, yet produce highly successful information design.
    The work of Shepard Fairey comes to mind.

    I suppose it's similar to the question Photoken raised:
    Such artists use a consistent design approach and in so doing seem to come up with visually consistent "style" no matter the client. Yet the work appears, to me at least, to be successful communication.

    I'm a young designer and I tend to work with clients that are admittedly style biased. Am I missing something?

    btw:
    Thank you for hosting this hub in the design community. Access to these sorts of discussions enriches all of our experiences as designers and creatives.

  61. Hi cynicdesign,

    There are a number of creative people who make use of a consistent style, and I admire much of this work. That being said, I feel that they have more in common with illustrators than designers, as they create similar solutions, regardless of the problem.

    Those who are most successful at this create a personal style and shop it around to art directors, who might find a good fit for the work in a specific project.

    The biggest challenge for the person who takes this route, may come when boredom sets in. Once you're known for one thing, it's hard for anyone to ever accept you doing anything else. Some people think this is an acceptable compromise, for having work that is immediately identifiable as theirs. Fair enough; I just think you have to decide whether it works for you. :-)

    Cheers!

    Eric

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  63. As I’ve stated in this article, I’m not inherently opposed to style.

    I think the majority of your commenters, and the voice in your head that suggested this article's title to you, failed to clearly receive that message.

    A great many design challenges involve using style as the primary "tool" for solving the design problem (everything from designing clothing to creating a logo to art directing a magazine). And another great many will require the use of style as a humongous secondary characteristic (the industrial design of electronic devices,

    The number of design challenges which don't require the employment of style at all (such as an airplane cockpit), or that require it only minimally (such as a subway map), is so small, and the need to fight the urge to deploy style so rare, that I fail to see the need to rail so strongly against designers leaning on style as a design solution.

    The real problem, the one that underlies your example of font sizes being too small (and I daresay this site does employ a smallish font! :-) ), is not an over-reliance on style, but a *lack* of understanding of function. You don't need to cut down the importance of one to improve the importance of the other. Designers don't need to curb their skills or instincts as stylists -- these are valuable skills that will, as I've pointed out, come in handy throughout their design careers in a broad variety of contexts. Designers who over-rely on style simply need to hone their skills as functionalists -- learning to do user research, understanding human factors and ergonomics, understanding the business constraints of their clients, etc. And the first step towards that understanding is to accept that the functional constraints will, in many important ways, trump their design instincts, forcing designers to jack up their font sizes. I believe you'd agree with this, but your aggressive approach, IMHO, encourages designers to deliberately suppress their abilities as stylists, or to avoid design decisions that cannot be backed up with usability arguments. But the hard truth is that many of the greatest design decisions of all time involve almost no other conceptual foundation besides "I thought it looked good that way" from a designer with brilliant and well-honed skills as a stylist.

    I'll posit that companies with Chief Creative Officers (or those with powerful but not-quite-C-level directors of design) hire those individuals in large part for their gut-level abilities to understand how the fickle phenomenon of style works.

  64. Hi Christoper,

    Thanks for sharing your insights, and my apologies for not responding to your earlier post. Comments have been coming in rather rapidly, and I sometimes think it best that I step back and let the discussion run without my interference.

    You could be right; perhaps I should have titled this post, "Designers must make style secondary to function, unless the style employed is in fact the end goal." My feeling is that although such an approach may have been more accurate, it would have been overly pedantic.

    I suppose I'm running with the notion that most visitors will take the time to read through the post in its entirety, and see that there is balance to my argument. This may be best evidenced in the last passage, where I note, "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."

    The point I make, which most readers seem to have found sensible, is that style too often drives efforts. The reason that I framed it in such a strong manner is that there's an imbalance that I think we have to call out. Many begin their projects with a "look" in mind, instead of considering the problem and working back from there.

    You note, "But the hard truth is that many of the greatest design decisions of all time involve almost no other conceptual foundation besides “I thought it looked good that way” from a designer with brilliant and well-honed skills as a stylist."

    I'm not sure what basis you have for this assertion, but I sincerely hope you're wrong.

    Designers are professionals, and as such, must work deliberately. We may from time to time accidentally stumble upon something fitting for an effort; but, even these solutions need to be backed up with meaningful explanations.

    The "gut-level abilities” that you speak of are most often the result of years of deliberate practice. I'd argue that those who have cultivated such skills have reached a stage in their practice at which they also have the ability to verbally articulate them as effectively.

    Best,

    Eric

    BTW - You are right about the type size on this site; we've noted this as well. It has been remedied, and you'll see this in the new version of ideasonideas, which goes live next week. :-)

  65. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the reply. I know you're not disparaging style with a broad brush, but you are claiming that functionalism and utility play a role in design decisions where, IMHO, they simply do not.

    You note, “But the hard truth is that many of the greatest design decisions of all time involve almost no other conceptual foundation besides “I thought it looked good that way” from a designer with brilliant and well-honed skills as a stylist.”

    I’m not sure what basis you have for this assertion, but I sincerely hope you’re wrong.

    Okay, I didn't phrase that too well. I intended to say that the conceptual foundation for many great designs often rests, ultimately, on an appeal to *someone's* taste and style, not on any empirical measure whatsoever of efficiency and utility. The "someone" whose tastes are being appealed to may be the designer herself, or the designer's boss/client, but more appropriately the taste being appealed to will be that of the target audience.

    With that in mind, I will counter-challenge you to name a great corporate logo whose conceptual foundations rely for the most part on measures of utility and functionality and not on an intangible appeal to taste and style.

    A possible response would be the FedEx logo, so please forgive me as I use that example as a strawman:

    One could argue that the FedEx logo's colors suggest strength, the font suggests function over form an a no-frills approach to efficiency, and that the "hidden arrow" element suggests motion and speed. Presumably, these are all considered and rational decisions, not arbitrary appeals to random personal taste.

    But behind each of these excellent arguments in favor of the logo's design lies a stylistic imperative:

    The font suggests form-over-function because the font's sans-serif style clearly originates from 20th-century Modernism's "form-follows-function" philosophy and history, -- not because it is inherently more readable than, say, Garamond. The aesthetics of Modernism often serve as an easy way for a designer to claim that their design favors function over form, but I (and many others) contend that much of Modernism's visual language -- sans serif fonts, lack of ornament and texture, exposure of structure, grids and regularity, etc -- do not, in fact, present any improvement of efficiency over any other style, but that instead these supposedly-efficient elements simply comprise a culturally-specific and highly emotionally resonant style that appeals to people who find futurism and technology appealing (and that many other people find ugly, boring, and repellent, I should note).

    The FedEx logo's colors suggest strength perhaps because dark blue is a color style associated with business in our era, maybe because it looks like a police or mail carrier uniform... but really, who knows why it suggests strength? And what does the orange do? I would guess, in any event, that it's not because the human brain automatically associates blue or orange with anything particularly favorable to FedEx's brand perception, and that there is no purely rational argument as to why FedEx couldn't instead be red & yellow (like DHL) or brown (like UPS).

    The arrow suggests motion, sure enough. And it's compelling as hell. But can anyone prove that suggesting motion is a good thing for FedEx? Can you prove that it doesn't suggest something else, something negative? How many customers can even perceive the hidden arrow at all, either consciously or subconsciously? Is it just a nifty hat-tip to graphic design geeks? We simply cannot say for sure.

    These are all clever design decisions, and I would never dispute that the FedEx logo isn't one of the best logos ever designed. But they are largely decisions of style and taste because they take into account the style and taste preferences of the target audience. So I contend that the FedEx logo, and indeed all corporate logos, are almost entirely decisions based on the designer's abilities as a stylist.

  66. Matt Knutsen says:

    Well said - "Style" as we know it behaves like a virus, as Andy R. put it. Unfortunately, it doesn't just apply to the Web. Look at cars. Look at clothes, hair styles, wall papers, sofas... Bling and lame replicants everywhere - and don't tell me anything of that is driven by anything but "fashion".

    Trouble is - we all make these choises when buying based on emotions. Why do I like a Peugeot or a Ford, and loathe Audis and BMWs? Theres no logic to this. They are all more or less equally good (or kack). I like stuff, therefore I buy. And so do my clients, and therefore we design sites properly and make sure the eye candy can be redone in a whiff when it's lost its WOW. Shame this can't be done to cars....

  67. Hi Christopher,

    You see, I think you've in fact made my point without me. Although the designer may have had aesthetic preferences (realistically, all us do), the FedEx wordmark functions well, and that’s what matters.

    The weight of the letterforms, its legibility from a distance, how flexible it is in varied uses, all make it an effective tool. Of course, I'm only voicing external perspectives, which are undoubtedly lacking in depth. It would be really interesting to understand what challenges FedEx was facing when this was designed. I would imagine that it was designed to imbue a certain corporate culture or sensibility, but I'm not able to speak to this without more specific understanding of their organization.

    I think where you and I are perhaps struggling a little, is in the delineation of style versus aesthetics, which are clearly two very different things. I'm not an advocate of stripping aesthetics out of design; rather, I'm suggesting that they should always be employed intentionally, instead of haphazardly tossing a popular treatment at any project that comes one's way.

    Best,

    Eric

  68. AngeloD says:

    Great discussion here. A lot of issues, concepts and semantics that we designers seem to always debate. I just want to add that my takeaway from this is a call-to-action for Design to make a real and effective difference in the world.

    Of course it will "look cool." We're designers! But what we need to really ask is "What good did it do?" - What's the point? Did you make a contribution?

    I think that today more than ever before, Design can really make a difference. We designers need to focus on not just making design, but making GOOD Design.

    I'm reminded of Bruce Mao (http://www.brucemaudesign.com/)

    Good job, Eric.

    Angelo

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  75. Wow. Well said. So very very well said.

    Style is something that has plagued me in my career. I have wrestled with being the hottest new kid on the block to doing without question what absolutely has to be done for the client. Of course, ironically the oh-so-hot stylistically-saturated work I do often gains the most favor from the young people from my site. The sections of my portfolio that are heavy on style often get way more traffic than the other sections where I was absolutely straight as an arrow on solving the problem for the client. Most of this work I do at the agencies that employ me. Chiefly because that is what they are paying me to do and that is how you measure your success in this business. As much as people in advertising and design like to kid themselves, the solution is to increase the success of the client. Your success as a Designer or Agency is secondary to that goal. The client is entrusting you with their money for something they can't see, touch and often do not understand. That is a special relationship that you don't see happening in many other forms of business. There is a responsibility there that I think a lot of designers fail to see.

    A lot of people who don't know me say I don't have a discernable style. They say it like it is a detriment. I have changed and adjusted style over the years as to what is en vogue and what clients feel they need to obtain their goals. That is why my 'style' is always changing.

    Anyway, as you can see, you forced a lot of self-analyzation upon me here. It was cathartic and I thank you.

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  78. Great article...the relationship between style and design is something that gets glossed over in the same way people just fuse art and design. I wonder, though, about the affective quality of design, in addition to obvious necessary obsession with function. How does a client/consumer's relationship with beauty/feeling effect the "functional" aspect-- I think the relationship is complicated... I'd love to hear your thoughts...
    Thanks again for the lovely piece!

  79. Hi "Curated",

    Thanks for the note. :-)

    My feeling is that the affective quality of design is in fact a function of it. Think of the objects we choose to surround ourselves with, and how often they represent emotional choices we've made.

    I think this post might address this question in part:
    http://www.ideasonideas.com/2008/01/the-heart-of-the-matter/

    Best,

    Eric

  80. I think Paul Rand would be proud :) I always think of his ABC logo, how it is still used today, how it has held up over the years and I think that's due to his committment to make it work. It's nothing remotely like the stylish "Web 2.0" logos with their cartoonish white strokes and trendy transparency, which means it will probably keep being used for a long time to come.

    I love reading your articles like this because it makes not worry so much about the way I design. Many think my work is simple, but I hope the message is never lost. I struggle with wanting to be able to produce those pretty styles, but ultimately I find many times that strangles my creative efforts. It's good to hear that such an accomplished designer says it's ok not to be trendy! I rather envy your designers as I'm sure I could learn so much from working with you. In lieu of that, I'll just keep reading.

  81. Schnitzlwirt says:

    all good thoughts. what it means in the end: design - is the wrong word.

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  89. Naomi Niles says:

    "shiny bullshit" - Wow, I don't know how you could be so precise and yet so explanatory in just 2 words. You are right on the mark, as always.

    I was just thinking of this today when I did a design with exactly 4 images for the whole page and design. The client's audience is mostly still on dial-up and it's necessary. While it won't be featured in galleries anytime soon because it's not "shiny" enough, I feel proud it and the fact that it will likely be an effective website for them.

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  93. Briana says:

    Great article. I admit it's a bit self-validating since I've always seen my work as more "corporate" and less edgy. In fact, in the last few months I've tried to sponge-up every trend out there to try to incorporate more current style into my designs, but not I'm going to have to rethink that direction. One thing that I do love about this field as that there's always room for personal growth.

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  96. Typegeek says:

    Nice article Eric. I'm interested enough to check your other articles.

    I'm interested on seeing your thoughts on what makes Comic Sans a such a horrible font as well :)

    http://typegeek.blogspot.com/2008/11/design-vs-style-fuck-style.html

  97. Ben Ivey says:

    "...designers are seen as stylists: kooky kids who like to do fun, pointless things. " I really liked this line! -Rock on!

  98. Nice article, I've discussed this same topic with my business partner recently. It seems to me that designing an interface and designing graphics are a very different skill set. Designing an interface requires knowledge of psychology, human factors, ergonomics and usability and is more like engineering. Graphics require a knowledge of color composition, shape and form, and a variety of other artistic capabilities. Both are extremely important to the success of a product.

    A lot of interaction designers I've come across are expected to do both. The challenge I've seen is it takes a truly talented person to excel at being both engineer and artist. I think it might be worth consideration to get a good engineer and a good graphic artist to work together to design an interface.

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  111. Chris Moezzi says:

    Thank you for this - I couldn't agree with you more! My experience with this involved a haiku that was developed into a motion graphic. I had a month to do it: I spent 3 weeks researching the haiku, japanese culture, iconography, etc and spent the last week doing pre-production, production and sound design. It completely paid off. I had a better sense of what I was doing, I felt the piece was focused, had a lot of fun doing it, and learned a lot about facets of Japanese culture that goes beyond Anime and Manga. Not to mention, most important of all, I avoided huge faux pas that plagued my peers' work, such as incorporating "yin & yang" and other CHINESE iconography into a JAPANESE themed project.

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