Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Weak designers believe they are artists. They eschew rules, believing them to be unnecessary constraints that serve only to stifle their visual “genius.” Such perspectives are overwhelmingly endemic amongst amateurs. Their thinking is analogous to musicians saying they don’t need to stay in time, because they just “feel” the music. Sure you do, hack-o.

Of all the design missteps to be made, the one I believe to be most problematic is a disregard for (or inability to implement) rules. Part of this relates to the fallacy that those who work in a creative setting should treat their work casually, letting their mojo hang out. As any mature designer knows, such notions are absolute bunk.

I bring this topic up today, as rules rarely come up in industry chatter. This is in spite of the fact that they’re pivotal in what we do at smashLAB—and at many other agencies/studios, I suspect.

Guide Rails

Visual invention is a funny thing. While functional considerations often need to be maintained, the number of variables involved in our work can become overwhelming. This forces us to figure out which items are fixed, or, what to use as pivot points. In a context in which one’s footing is unsure, such guide rails prove awfully helpful.

When I speak of rules or guidelines in this capacity, I’m not meaning standard design conventions, typographic best practices, or anything of the like. Instead, I’m speaking to the rules each of us (individually or as part of a team) needs to define, or adhere to, on the brands/projects we work on.

While a great many are looking for a novel approach to a visual problem, I’m generally of the mind that the real design challenge is one of establishing the rules. Once these are in place, everything gets easier, as adhering to these parameters makes future choices clearer.

Conceptual Rules

At altitude, rules tend to be more “broad stroke” considerations that are generally aspirational or tonal. They also have a direct effect on every subsequent decision made in an organization’s operations, communications, marketing, design, and so on.

In short, conceptual rules address issues of alignment. If they aren’t sorted out decisively (and early) groups tend to fall into communications tail-spins that are hard to pull out of. The tell-tale signs are found in circular discussions, in which a group will struggle with even the most mundane of questions (e.g. “What kind of message should we put in our Christmas cards?”). Equally problematic, we find groups engaging in knee-jerk “me too” marketing, in which they will—generally unsuccessfully—imitate what works for their others (e.g. “If the Wienermobile is good for Oscar Meyer, why not get one to promote our erectile dysfunction remedy?”).

When a company runs an ad that raves about its exemplary customer service, but doesn’t actually speak to customers, their conceptual framework is broken. Similarly, when I visit a hotel that markets itself as high-end, only to find barfy 70s decor in the rooms, they illustrate a deep-seated misalignment between their aspirations and actuality.

The first step in remedying such problems necessitates the establishment of organizational values, mission statements, vision documents, and brand strategies. Further down the line, conceptual rules are fleshed out through tools like content strategies, social media policies/guidelines, staff manuals, asset inventories… you catch my drift.

Implementation (Visual) Rules

Although we get our bearings through a clearly defined conceptual framework, implementation is where the rubber meets the road. I argue that anyone can get to 80% pretty easily, therefore, it’s the last 20% that becomes the real kicker. For most brands, this small but pivotal difference is often achieved through good design—particularly the details that most people only experience emotionally.

Details are a messy business, though. This is because there are so goddamn many of them. As such, any designer worth his or her salt will work to minimize variables early in the process; a system with overly many variations and exceptions is just too difficult to manage.

Visual rules involve such seemingly banal points like: determining common placement between images and type; using a consistent paradigm in navigation states (e.g. on rollover, all of our buttons will appear to be pressed down and also increase in contrast); establishing safe zones around visual elements; nailing down standard radius/radii (e.g. 5 pixels, 10 pixels, 15 pixels) on rounded elements or boxes; implementing grid systems that can be employed identity-wide; and, selecting a small number of type treatments to do most of the work.

While this may sound tedious, this sort of clarity and rigor results in brands, even at seemingly inconsequential levels, feeling “right.” A suitable example of this is found in the tools IKEA sells: from the functional ideology employed in their creation, to the consistent logo placement, to the intuitive injection molded packaging container (allowing you to see exactly where the drill goes), to the lack of any frivolous styling, right through to the faux-Swedish “Fixa” name. IKEA’s products and brand assets always feel like IKEA because the rules are stitched right into the DNA of everything they do.

A Wake-up Call

Rules allow for consistent alignment of elements and stronger brand recognition; meanwhile, they allow efficiencies to be found, from faster decision making as a result of clearer guidelines, to easier coding for developers, due to fewer exceptions.

Although rules are in no way limited to the web, their influence is particularly noticeable in this context, due to how many working pieces are found in a website (i.e. language, interaction elements, photography, metadata, forms, illustrations). I learned this lesson the hard way in designing our site, MakeFive.

Decisions I made early on impacted everything that followed, and some of them made things difficult as time passed. I learned that using magenta as a key color resulted in warnings and alerts being harder to identify as they would typically use red; not defining the base colors carefully enough meant lots of manual labor to later bring them into alignment; additionally, conventions that worked on the first pages I designed weren’t as effective when we needed to create things like modules that would be inserted into other social networks.

Many skirt the process of establishing guidelines because they mostly work on small projects and they simply haven’t thought through as broad a set of potentialities. Nevertheless, as one’s projects become more exhaustive, something becomes clear: the more complex the system, the more you will need to create rules.

From Top to Bottom

We recently completed a relatively exhaustive design process for the people at OpenRoad, for their ThoughtFarmer product. The new approach hasn’t been released yet, but when it is, you’ll see just how the rules we established tie the system together. (You can get a sneak peek of a few elements in ThoughtFarmer’s Flickr photo pool.)

We began their redesign with an exhaustive Discovery process that helped us determine a clear strategy/direction and defensible position; this informed brand values, core messaging, an elevator pitch, content strategy, visual direction, and tonal guidelines. We then established a conceptual framework centered on an agrarian construct. This informed image and language selection and led us to rely on seasonal and thematic constructs that shaped treatments.

At the most granular level, we isolated our core visual tools to a roughly drawn seed and line. Together, these two shapes became the building blocks of the entire identity. With these in place, we had effectively established the system with a big idea and approach, right down to the smallest of elements. From there, the rules simply became easier: from the proximity of image to text, right through to the voice and demeanor found in website copy.

Admittedly, this isn’t an easy process; rules take time to establish, and as you work through a project, some can become limiting, requiring reconsideration. The beauty in setting such a thing up is found in the depth and strength of the finished work. While most lean overly heavily on type, color, or a logo, failing to establish a sufficient number of rules, a well-developed system spreads the load to a broader number of elements.

For a brand like ThoughtFarmer, this will result in a presentation that evokes strong reactions with potential customers, while conveying a single cohesive message to users. By creating a rule-driven system, their brand will become increasingly “ThoughtFarmer” as time passes, whether it’s found in a ThoughtFarmer email newsletter, their mobile application, or even the umbrellas and t-shirts they’re using as promo items.

Do yourself a favor; make some rules.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Jeff says:

    Early in my career I rejected rules because I thought they were stupid and arbitrary. Turns out they just weren't clearly tied to any project goals. I needed the "why" just as much as the "what" in order to use the rule.

    But when rules are mapped directly to goals, they're pretty much irrefutible.

  2. Eduardo says:

    While reading this post a number of adages ran through my mind such as: "you need to know the rules to break them", "master your method so well it looks like don't have one", and so forth.

    It's everything so very true and sadly, most of it, more than true, should be obvious and inherent to the very definition of the word 'design'.

    To be honest, worse than an amateur that regards design as an art form of self-expression is a client that thinks I am an artist. And what is worse: one that he needs to watch out and tame. A client that doesn't understand the value of a logic and process that leads to consistent results. A client that hires some other 'expert' to do the 'thinking' and expects you to pour the eye candy at the push of a button. That is by far more limiting and damaging in my struggle to contribute to a better communicating world. No matter what, some clients will stick to think that you are a cheap second rate artist with some kind of knack that is not supposed to do the thinking and strategic stuff. Anything that you might try in the direction of a logic, a process, a system will come across as complicating at best, plain bullshit at worse.

    Where the hell are the clients and aspiring designers getting their ideas from?! What are their references and models? How do they get away with it?

    Not being rhetorical here, notice. I am genuinely asking myself while at the same time wishing I was a lumberjack instead.

  3. Rules and constraints are essential to the creative process. Working within a set of limitations makes great ideas possible and focus on a well-defined goal allows them to materialize. Saying you are an artist is not an excuse for refusing to adhere to standards or limitations. Great artists will work within a set of self-imposed constraints -- though they may be more abstract and probably more generally defined. Chuck Close gives himself a very strict set of rules but even less methodical artists like Monet and VanGogh imposed limitations on themselves. People who claim artistic freedom in order to escape constraints are simply looking to justify their lack of discipline and/or impulsiveness, and as long as they do they will never produce anything of artistic value.

  4. Billy says:

    Eric, you are now my hero. I just discovered your blog with this post and will now go and read all the others. If I were a religious man, I would just simply say... Amen!

  5. That's an awfully nice thing to say--thanks Billy!

  6. Kiki says:

    You bring up a very good discussion and I agree with a lot of your thoughts on the importance of rules. You speak mainly about setting rules in order to ease the design process which ultimately betters the workplace (that is mainly what i got from the post).

    However, I disagree with what you say about young designers thinking they are artists - but I do too extremely dislike when a client calls designers, artists. There are now and continue to be designers out there that are hybrids (having formal design training), that are not only designing, but creating original art such as illustration and lettering too. A couple examples are Jessica Hische (a young Designer, Illustrator, Letterer - a commercial artist); same as Milton Glaser, he sketches, paints, etc. and he is one of the God Father's of graphic design. Graphic Design is a commercial art and I do not believe that weak designers believe they are artists, weak designers don't have enough passion to be artists. I think this statement you made is completely overgeneralized!

    However, it seems like all of your work is very "exhausting." Do you like what you do? I think it is important to like your job as we spend most of our life at work...

  7. Some designers make art too, just like some singers can also act. Still, they remain very different pursuits.

    To answer your question: the work I do can at times be tiring; nevertheless, I still find it quite captivating.

  8. Kiki says:

    I agree and disagree that art and design are different pursuits: art is a very different pursuit than design, but they also complement each other very much so. And actually, most of the designers I know are also amazing artists. There are specific skills (and rules - as you mentioned) that a designer holds (by formal training) which disables an illustrator to become a designer without formal training. However, any designer can be an illustrator because there are no "rules" there. So, if a designer is also an artist, I'd say its a complement - they work very, very well together and apart.

  9. You're certainly entitled to your opinion, nevertheless, you're wrong. Design and art share some similarities, but remain fundamentally different pursuits.

    You note that most of the designers you know are also amazing artists. It's more likely that you know some designers who seem to have a knack for their creative hobbies. (Odds are that they aren't actually *amazing.*)

    Yes, there are a few exceptions, in which one is really, truly spectacular at two things. Sports folks might cite Bo Jackson, who was apparently quite radical at both baseball and football. Most of the time, however, those who work in two distinct areas are either mediocre at both, or quite deficient in one and propped up by their reputation in the other (take Tony Bennett's paintings).

    This isn't a slight directed at your friends--I'm sure they're fine, talented folks. That being said, I can't think of many one can rightly call a master in both pursuits.

    On the other hand, I do meet a great many young people who make the claims you're making. In a way, I admire these hubris-informed daydreams: that there are no limits to creativity; that one can sprinkle their own special magic on anything they touch; and, that one can have their cake and eat it to.

    Sadly, I'm getting older, and with age, such myths tend to fade, just like the those of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.

    Odds are that Christo doesn't give a shit about letter-spacing--because he's got his hands full making massive, mind-blowing installations. Meanwhile, the Hoefler & Frere-Jones folks likely don't worry too much about how to get the required city permits/agreements to assemble 7,000 tangerine gates in Central Park--because they've got their hands full with those time consuming letterform things.

    My argument isn't intended to disparage the work of designers or artists; both do important work. It's to help destroy the harmful illusions that many are under surrounding these professions.

    There's nothing wrong with having a hobby. Confusing it with your profession can be hazardous to your career, capabilities, and finances, though.

    Design and art are both difficult pursuits. Being good at just one of them is a life's work for any of us.

  10. Eduardo says:

    Funny enough we seem to live some kind of 'startup' age where the myth of the renaissance man is coming into fashion again.

    Sticking with Karl's opinion is sticking with common sense.

    Since the 1400's a hell lot of stuff happened. People and agencies like to say they have a '360 approach' these days and drop the "master of none" from the "jack of all trades" saying. Unfortunately to me this is bollocks. The degree of specialisation and amount of knowledge required to accomplish something in any field has never been so overwhelming. So I am afraid that the days of the renaissance man are long gone.

    I do believe though that what is happening these days is the hybridisation so to speak. And this is by far much more interesting. Which is a kind of cross-breeding specialisation. What I see more and more happening is people mixing skills and education and end up devoting all their focus to a life project or even new field.

    Astrobiology is the paradigmatic example of this.

    A lot of interesting things are happening where art, design and technology meets (think of London's Troika team for instance).

    But that is not the same to say that they are master both fields. Not even close. What they do is incorporate bits of the practice of each discipline and devote to the new thing they are doing with all their focus and hard work. And in many cases without pretensions of being 'something'. But it's a risky business and demanding.

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  13. Adrian Livesley says:

    @ Kiki,

    I think you missed Eric's point: "Weak designers think they are artists". He is just saying (and it has zero to do with passion) that weak designers feel that in order to be "creative" they need to shed constraints and discipline. Beginning art students often feel that filling their heads with knowledge and "rules" will constrain or limit them. The opposite is true.

    If Milton Glaser wants to call himself an "artist" because he paints on the weekend, that might make him feel better about himself. So be it--it is just a label. Calling yourself an artist does not confer honorific status. Milton might be a godfather of design, but as a painter, compared to, say, Degas or Rubens, he sucks.

    Having said that, there are many examples of good artists who have dabbled in both design and "pure" art. Hockney, Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard. It strikes me as joyless to suggest that such overlaps are somehow in the arena of fantasy. But I do believe that excelling at two demanding, full- time professions (i.e. doctor and architect) is unlikely if not impossible.

  14. Kiki says:

    Ok, yes I do agree that fine art and design are completely different pursuits, it is very rare to make a living from 2 completely different fields (unless you are, for example, a business owner and communication designer or perhaps someone was an Olympian and now a successful lawyer). I think that everything is not black and white. I guess I initially was referring to commercial arts - one can pursue illustration and graphic design (this is very common), but yes fine art is a different world than design.

    Also, many illustrators come from a fine art background, but are working commercially because they are ultimately making their work around what an art director tells them to - is there work not fine art (even though they used oil paints to execute it) because an art director gave direction? Yes, there fine oil painting may ultimately be digitized, shrunk down to act as an editorial piece, but the original piece that was created is fine art; the way it is consumed is by commercial use. But then there is the commercial side to fine art to, for example, Picasso was consistently commissioned to paint like his famous Guernica - I find this to be extremely similar to the art director giving the illustrator direction. Also, another argument would be, "yes" Picasso painted one Guernica, but when he became famous, the precious painting was reproduced on postcards, coffee mugs, posters, etc. to be sold commercially.

  15. Nick Dobson says:

    It's so refreshing to see this take on design. So many people assume that because I'm an aspiring designer (in my 5th year of Graphic Design at Central Michigan University), that I'm "artsy" and "creative." I don't consider myself any of those. I've always felt that I limit myself with rules, and that this was a bad thing in the creative design world. I can't help it; you can call it Type A, OCD, or whatever. A good example of this is when I was in an entry level 2d design class and we were given the assignment of creating a painted color wheel. Well, after 3 full hours of class time, 95% of the class had a fully painted color wheel and I had spent the whole time, with a compass, ruler, and a multitude of math problems, drawing a perfect (down to millimeters) divided and subdivided circle, and let me tell you, it looked good. My attention to detail is over the top. I've often felt as though I have it backwards, I should start with creativity and then start being bound by rules. This is why I'm primarily drawn towards page design (secondary would be logo and identity design), as in no other area of design (at least that I have found) is it so dependent on rules; with the grid structures and such. As it is, I don't draw as a hobby, nor do I really create just for the sake of creating and I am constantly belittling myself and questioning my choice of a career. I literally try to doodle and all that comes out is basic lines and shapes relating to each other. I’ve heard the idea that the typical “artistic” creativity needs to developed and practiced, just like any other thing, but I just don’t know.

    Have I been completely dominated by rules?

    And Eric, I really must say your statement “Design and art share some similarities, but remain fundamentally different pursuits,” really gave me hope for the worthiness of what I am pursuing.

  16. Thanks—glad it resonated with you. :-)