Friday, December 28, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 17, Embracing Constraints

Download Episode 17

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we've spent some time trekking through that terrain known as the creative process, and on our way we've looked at a few ideas that will help us to gear up for the challenges we can expect to face as we traverse our projects. Today, we'll bring this series to an end today with some parting thoughts. But since this little excursion has been by no means exhaustive, you can expect that we'll dip into the general subject matter of creativity from time to time.

And I encourage you to continue doing your own study in this area. At my webpage, which you can find at, I've posted shownotes, which include a bibliography of all the books I've referenced during these programs. And at the end of today's talk, I'll recommend a few of the programs that I enjoy and highly recommend for real world insight into creativity.

If you've been with us from the start of the show, you'll remember that before we launched into this series, we discussed how design begins. Along those lines, we explored requirements gathering, and the discovery process that we undertake with out clients. And in those programs, I recommended that you keep your horizons broad as you prepare for the creative phase of your projects. And this provided a natural segue into the series we're wrapping up now, because the big idea is that we want to approach creative without a heightened sense of constraints pressing down on us. The early part of our project should be characterized by an open-minded brainstorming sensibility, where no idea is a bad idea. And this meanas that, at least for a little while, we can indulge ourselves in a bit of fantasy. To use a filmmaker's analogy, we can allow ourselves to think like Steven Spielberg for a while, even if we've only got a Kevin Smith budget. And this exercise in thinking big safeguards us from aiming too low on our projects, or assuming that we can't pull off great results with very little resources. And if you remember the design adage, Less is More, this makes even more sense, and should encourage us to make the most of our little projects by always thinking big.

Now, as we get deeper into the design phase, we necessarily have to allow reality to inform our open-ended brainstorming. The facts of life being what they are, we're going to have to design in a way that jibes with the resources we've got to work with. Which brings up the subject of constraints.

And what are constraints? Constraints, simply put, are limitations. Like the picket fences in our yards, constraints are the boundaries we've got to live within. The good news, though is that we navigate constraints, we adapt to constraints all the time, with minimum thought or energy expended. This holiday season, I doubt many of us will buy a 13 foot Christmas tree if we've only got an 8 foot ceiling in your living room. On New Year's Eve, we can hope that our celebration will be constrained by a personal drinking limit, so we can all drive home safely after the party.

In our projects, there are all kinds of limitations that we need to factor in. Some limitations are intuitive, and don't require much thought. Others, require detailed attention and planning. Of course, the one constraint we all face is time. There's a limit to how long we can work on our project if there's a paying customer waiting.And so, we'll likely draw up some kind of schedule to measure and mete out the time that we do have. And if we're to be profitable, we've got to stay withing a budget, so clearly there's a money limit, too.

The other broad area of constraint we must be cognizant of is that of our media. If we're print designers, there's only so many colors we can reproduce with CMYK process inks. And there's only so much quality we can expect out of uncoated papers, so maybe we should use our one-color logo for that newspaper ad.

If we're new media designers, we have to content ourselves with limited typographic control. At least for this present age of limited screen resolution, inconsistent browser support, and other limitations, we have to content ourselves with macro-typography, instead of the micro-typographic control we've enjoyed in the realm of print. Or we're going to have to compress our media assets more than we like to in order to fit them within bandwidth limits.

So, constraints are limits. Constraints confine us. Constraints are the ceilings we bump our heads on. At least, this is one way to think about constraints.

On the other hand, we can make our peace with constraints. We can look for opportunities within our limitations. In one of Hillman Curtis'(1) books on Flash design, written at the dawn of the Flash Web Design era, he speaks to the transcendant principle of embracing constraints. Rather than bemoaning the fact that you can't fit 100 lbs of design into a 10 lb. design bag, you can change your perspective. You can embrace your constraints.(2) You can look at the possibilities of your chosen format and medium and plan accordingly. And when you do this, a wonderful thing happens. You stop making the mistakes that all the hacks make. You stop trying to make your format do things it was never intended to do. You stop trying to push your medium so far that all the user sees are its weaknesses.

A timely example of this principle are the movies that attempt to recreate authentic looking human beings using CGI. The more they push for this goal, the more they risk falling into what some have coined the "uncanny valley"(3) - which is that point where 3D models look pretty human, but creepily unreal at the same time. This is an example of pushing a medium too far. Of not living withing your means, so to speak.

So, go for economy. Remember that Less is More. That you can have more impact with fewer things. Oftentimes, the more you add to your work in the way of design elements, the more you begin to dilute the piece. The more you introduce what designers refer to as "extraneous elements." But if you embrace constraints by putting 8 lbs. of design in your 10 lb. design bag, you'll have room left over. You'll have breathing room for your work so that it can live and be vital and effective. So, make friends with those limits, scale your design accordingly, and you won't have a sense of confiment anymore. You'll just have good design.

Well, as I mentioned before, we'll move on from this creativity series. But that doesn't mean our study has to end. Here are three programs that I highly recommend you subscribe and listen to, because they explore creativity in the real world, where the best and brightest tell the tale of their own journeys into creativity.

The first is KCRW's The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell (4), which focuses mainly on filmmakers and writers, and the design and thematic drivers of their projects. The second is PRI's Studio 360. (5) The third is The Accidental Creative. (6) Like this program, these shows avoid focusing exclusively on any one design discipline, but, rather, they speak to design in general, as they explore the universal and timeless aspects of design that every creative encounters.

Well, that's it for today. I want to thank you again for listening and look forward to having you back again. But before I go, I'd like to plug my new voice mail number once more, which you can use in order to add your voice to the discussion. I'd love to hear from you, and to add your recorded remarks to a future show. But you've got to make that call, at 206-350-6748. Until next time, this is Design Guy. Be well.


1. - Curtis' books are always embued with timeless principles of design. I recommend you get your hands on MTIV: Making the Invisible Invisible: Principles, Practice and Inspiration for the New Media Designer.

2. More on the philosophy and principle of embracing constraints from the folks at 37signals, one of the most innovative web application developers today.





Monday, December 17, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 16, The Eleventh Draft

Download Episode 16

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design, and explains them simply.

We've talking about creativity in recent episodes. And, continuing this line of thought, I'd like to start today's episode with a quotation.

It's by Saul Bass, who remarked in an interview about a problem encountered by young designers and students: "They are not privy to process," he noted. "They have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have a go at it... They redo.... It gets better... It slips... It gets worse... it comes back ... It comes together. And maybe it's something that's pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, "Gee, it comes hard and it's so difficult. Am I really suited for this?" (1) (end of quotation)

Bass is speaking to the subject we've been exploring - the ofttimes arduous journey of the creative process - and how we've got to correct our misconception that great design comes forth in a fully realized state. Let's face it, we're conditioned by an instant gratification world. So, it's understandable if we expect remarkable things to be handed to us by our minds, fully formed, as effortlessly as a Mocha Frappuccino from across the counter at Starbucks. If the creative process teaches us anything, it's that anything worthwhile takes effort. Sometimes we've got to pursue what eludes us for a while, like one chasing a dropped dollar on a windy day. We need to experience the discomfort of something being just out of reach. We need to endure setbacks before we truly advance. One step forward, two steps back.

Picasso did many versions of a painting, and destroyed many a canvas until he realized the ideal he was pursuing. Even prolific authors like Stephen King need at least a few drafts to get their work into final shape(2). Hemingway declared that the first draft of anything is garbage(3). Actually, he used a stronger word, but this is a family show, folks. Likewise, as designers we have to condition ourselves to a "draft mentality". Paul Rand produced a piece that featured an abucus(4), which he meant as a metaphor for the design process, especially the late stage, in which we go through a period of arrangement and rearrangement, shifting the beads of our design elements around continuously, doing and undoing and redoing, until things finally "settle out."

We need to train our expectations differently. We're not going to have instant gratification all the time when it comes to creativity. We'll have lots of little rewards along our path, to be sure. This is the joy of creativity. But it's rare indeed that we get the whole thing in its entirety the first time. That we bag the elephant. And for the thoughtful among us, neither will we be satisfied with our merely competent first efforts. So, just as Paul Masson would sell no wine before its time, we need to afford ourselves time, and we need to permit ourselves space in order for our project to come together. And I'm not talking about perfectionism - a syndrome that has us working far passed the point of diminishing returns. That's one extreme. I'm talking about giving yourself a break, giving yourself permission to lay down a crummy, ugly, smelly, malformed version of whatever it is you're working on. And then patiently sticking with it through the stages til it's done. This normally happens over a succession of drafts.

Now, if you'll recall our definition from an earlier episode, design is a progression from chaos to order. Of combining a number of disparate elements into an ordered unit. Puzzles like this don't get solved at a glance, unless you're some kind of savant, a Rain Man. As a rule, we need to take our work through a succession of versions or iterations until we get it right. And this teaches us that great design only looks easy. And this is what Saul Bass was getting at in that quotation. Anything great is usually a don't-try-this-at-home affair. Because you've got to be willing to fail and fail again before you succeed. When working on-screen, the undo command is your friend. Better yet, you can think of it as failing forward. You've learned what doesn't work. Edison didn't think of all those exploded light bulbs around his feet as failures, he viewed them as discoveries of the myriad ways in which a lightbulb won't work.(5)

So, excellence in any endeavor is often hard-won. But you'll also recall from an earlier episode, this doesn't have to translate into agony. We want to have fun. We need to be patient and train our expectations that we'll be traversing a number of drafts, but we should be enjoying ourselves, because creativity is the natural state for creatives. So, please discard the image of the tortured artist, and forget the furrowed brow. You'll only look constipated to your friends. And if you're really, truly creatively constipated, maybe you should leave that project alone for a while. Why work on it if you can't do it in your natural state? Or maybe you need to feed that unconscious mind a bit more before commencing again.

Adopting a draft mentality is really quite liberating because it means that, in the world of our project, every draft is a second chance to fix mistakes and get things right. We don't always get second chances in life, out there in the real world. So, we can stop beating ourselves up for being so talentless and stupid, because we're not the only ones that can't get it right the first time. If Hemingway wrote bad first drafts, and if Saul Bass complained that design is hard and difficult, then we've got every reason to cut ourselves some slack, don't you agree?

Well that'll do for today. As is my custom, I'll make shownotes available at my webpage, which is

I also want to make you aware of my new voicemail number, where you can call and leave a message, and add your thoughts to the discussion. I'll even add your recorded message to future episodes. But you've got to give me a call at 206-350-6748.

Well, I thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


Note: The title of this episode, The Eleventh Draft, comes from a wonderful book of the same title. An Amazon customer-reviewer says of this book, "The title, The Eleventh Draft, is a gentle nudge to the rest of us that God is in the revisions; that no one--not even the best (and these writers are good)--writes easily or quickly, and that the process of writing is just as meaningful as the result (even if nobody ever sees your 11th draft but you)." Get The Eleventh Draft here.

1. Robyn Marsack, Essays On Design 1: AGI's Designers of Influence, London, Booth-Clibborn Eidtions, 1997 (as referenced by Adrian Shaugnessy in How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)

2. To be precise, it's "two drafts and a polish." Read more in his excellent, On Writing, Pocket Books, 2002, available at Amazon.



5. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 15, Flow vs. Edit

Download Episode 15

Flow vs. Edit

Design guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply. If you're just joining us, our motto here is "Principles First." Or to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods." Which is why we don't spend time on specific software tips or methods. Now, there are excellent shows that cover those things, and, of course, we all need to keep up our technical knowledge up to date, but it's out of scope for this program, where are goal is to offer information that doesn't change. And that's why we emphasize the timeless principles - because can safely commit them to long term memory.

Now, we're in the midst of a series on creativity, with the most recent shows focusing on the creative mind. In the last show, we introduced the subject of left brain / right brain theory. And while scientists today have a more nuanced understanding of all of this than was popularly presented in the past, the model still stands as a good metaphor for the mental dynamics we experience in our creativity. We also pointed out some similarities to Freud's teaching about the id, ego, and superego.(1) And we melded it all together to say that there's a side of us that acts like an inner critic or adult. We can liken this to Freud's ego and superego, and we can also liken it to the logical left hemishphere. This is the analytical part of us that complements and sometimes conflicts with the creative side of us, or the inner child, as represented by the right side of the brain, or the unconscious id. I'm mixing up these overlapping theories a bit to reinforce the point that these dynamics really exist. Which is that we need to recognize that there's a left and right brain dynamic, a rational and emotional side, logic and feelings, intellect and intuition. And in the case of creativity, they've go to be coordinated rather than conflicted.

So, we said that we've got a part of us that want to run with reckless abandon and create - that inner wild child or right side of the brain. The part of us that can be very productive. And we said that we ought to just allow it to do so, as much as we can. We may generate a lot of crazy stuff that we'll need to rein in later, but at least we're laying down a lot of raw material. We're starting to manifest the raw material that our unconsious mind has been working on. And by laying it down in a frenzied rush, we're quickly giving ourselves physical material to play with and shape and structure.

Writers tend to think of this process as two modes of production. The first mode, which we've just described is called "Flow." And, like the word suggests, we allow our ideas to spill out of us for a while, so that we can get a complete, if imperfect, set of thoughts down. If we're designers, we'll be playing with type and color or other elements, until things start to take shape. If we're writers, we making a mad dash to the end of our first version of a manuscript. And since, we're unleashing that inner, crazy child, we know up front that we're going to throw down a lot of material, only to throw it out later. But, as I mentioned a couple of episodes ago in a somewhat different context, this is when we should be thinking quantity first, not quality. We've got to fill the bucket before we can skim off the cream. There will be time later to subject this material to critical thought and fix it, but for now, we can allow ourselves to let it flow, without any concern to who is going to see this hodge podge we're creating.

And this bring us to our second mode, which is "Edit". The part of us that wants to nitpick and criticize, and immediately set to fixing things is that logical, rational, analytical part of us, which we associate with the left brain. This is that super-ego, or finger wagging inner adult. This is what writers tend to think of as the inner critic or Editor. The key to productivity is knowing when to gag this inner critic. When to tell him to shut up. When to ignore him or put duct tape on his mouth or lock him up in the closet. If we can allow ourselves to be in "Flow" mode until we get a version of whatever we're working on down, then we'll supply ourselves with plenty of fodder for that inner critic to work with later. And we need this inner critic. We want to have polished work. We want to subject our early drafts to scrutiny. We want to revise our work in light of all of the design principles that we've taken the trouble to learnn about. But we need to suspend that "Edit" mode in order to get something down on the page first. Otherwise, we'll be afraid to make a move, we'll be paralyzed by the voice of that inner critic.

Now, the separation between these modes will tend to characterize your personal work habits or style of production. If you can discipline yourself to tear off a crazy first version before going in to edit mode, you may tend to finish faster. If you revert between flow and edit very rapidly, you'll tend to go slower. The writer, Dean Koontz,(2) admits to being one of those writers who has to perfect one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time, before moving on to the next. He doesn't revisit those pages much, because he's done. He's flowed and edited almost simultaneously. They're not really distinct and separate modes to someone like this. Other writers and creatives tend to be able to get that wild, unruly draft down without a lot of interruption from the inner critic, and then fix it in later passes. In my own experience, I find that my habits change depending on the nature of the project and mood. But I do find it helpful to be aware of this left brain / right brain model, this flow and edit model, because I can remind myself to work a little less inhibited for a while, knowing I can fix it later. And with this awareness of flow versus edit in mind, I hope you'll be helped also, as you strategically muzzle your inner critic and let the ideas flow.

Well that'll do for today. As usual, I'll have show notes at my webpage, which is located at Music is by I thank you again for tuning in, and hope to have back next time.




Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 14, The Mind at Odds

Download Episode 14

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the creative process. The last couple of shows, we gave attention to the creative mind. We spoke about the mental patnership of our conscious and unconscious levels of awareness, and also about the priority of loosening up and having fun. Along these lines, we reasoned that if creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves, then we need to seek out ways to have fun. First, as a means of conditioning ours minds for idea-production, and, second, as a way to noodle around and to sandbox our project and uncover possibilities. Creative play allows us to wrap our heads around the subject matter and continue to feed those mental partners.

Today, we'll speak some more about the creative mind by introducing some related concepts.

Now, most of us have heard at least a little bit about the whole left brain vs. right brain thing. This is a theory or model that says that there are differences in cognition between the left and right hemispheres of our brains. And, in fact, there is a physical separation, called the longitudinal fissure, if we must know, which creates two hemispheres, joined together by the corpus callosum. And this accounts for that walnut-like appearance, where we plainly see two halves making up the whole. And while they're physically very similar in appearance, ostensibly just mirror images of each other, they've actually got some distinct functions. And so we've come to associate the hemishperes with different mental tasks. This is called lateralization. And it tells us that mental tasks are not shared equally, but that they're handled by one hemisphere or the other, whereas others appear to be bi-lateral, or a shared.

But in keeping with the broad statements that have influenced creative theory, the left brain is said to be adept at logical, linear, analytical tasks, while the right brain is the hemisphere of creativity, intuition, the ability to discern shapes and patterns, among other things. When this mind model first came to the fore, it immediately became popular with creativity theorists because it seemed to provide a scientific explanation for the problems that artists and other creatives encounter. Popular books, like Betty Edwards's Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain, are good examples of teaching that's latched on to this concept, promising us methods to harness the hemispheres and control creativity.

It's safe to say that early presentations of the model are now considered somewhat quaint or overly broad in their simplicity and have since been updated with more nuanced explanations. But the basic idea is not in dispute.There are differences between the hemispheres. We know this from research and from brain scans and the study of stroke victims, and the like. So, for creatives, it's still useful to think in terms of left brain / right brain, at least as a helpful metaphor. It's a model that reminds us that there are complementary parts of our mind that we've got to coordinate, so that we minimize conflict, and so that we don't short circuit our productivity.

This hemisphere stuff is similar in some ways to that Freudian business about id, and ego, and super-ego, which says that ideas are produced by the unconscious id and then screened by the ego and superego. Our id or creative unconscious is like an uninhibited child within us, a source of raw creativity, akin to the creative, right hemisphere function. But it's counter-balanced by the rational, finger-wagging, "adult" part of us, which is more in line with that logical left brain function. Now, I've made a mixed up soup of these theories, but there is this bit of overlap. And our experience affirms the basic truth of it all. We get frustrated with our spouse for not being "spontaneous," always having to be the practical one. Or maybe we're the practical, logical one, carping about the other being frivolous and never planning for tomorrow. But even closer to home is that we've got this dialogue going on in our own heads. We hear two voices, debating whether to purchase that little "extra" or not. In our projects, it shows up as the paralysis of analysis stifling our creative impulses. Sometimes we even hear people who are hip to the theories say things like, "I'm very left brained," or "she's so right-brained."

But I think we can sort of meld these ideas together and use them like this: If there's a part of us that can be likened to a creative wild-child within us, then why not let it loose for a while and see what happens? If we're graphic designers, why not allow ourselves to lay down a lot of visual ideas all at once? If we're novelists, why not do that 60,000-word dash, never looking back, to a completed first draft? If we permit ourselves to loosen up and run in this way, we know we're going to produce a lot of material. So, how come we have so much trouble doing this? Why do we say, like Oscar Wilde, "I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out."? The answer should be obvious by now. It's because we're short circuting ourselves. That inner child is being silenced by the inner adult, whose motto apparently is "children should be seen and not heard." Or we've got the left brain conflicting with the right brain. The id doing battle with the super ego. Pick your metaphor.

To quote Anne Lamott, "The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, 'Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten by more rational, grown up means.

Likewise, as a designer, you want to loosen up and have fun, as we suggested in the last episode. Adopt the attitude, "It doesn't matter, I'm just playing," and noodle around. Let yourself go. Ban thoughts of "But this isn't any good" before you cripple yourself with your own logic.

But we'll pick up on more of this subject in the next show. If you'd like to check out some of the references I made today, please look up the shownotes at, where I've included hyperlinked footnotes. Music is by Thanks again for listening. I look forward to having you back next time.


(In the interest of time, I've posted the transcript only. Hyperlinked footnotes coming soon.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 13, The Mind at Play

Download Episode 13

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the nature of the creative process, and the things we can do to get a handle on it. Last time, we spoke about the creative mind. We described how the conscious and the unconscious parts of our minds work together to help us solve problems and combine elements into ideas. And we likened this mental partnership to making a stew, or building a compost heap. And this is to say that, in our normal, conscious state, we gather the raw materials of our project. Then, over the course of time, this stuff is processed by our unconscious mind. Eventually, this stew of materials will be useful to us. But we need time - time enough for our unconscious to do its work. Because it's on this deeper level, the part of us that dreams, that our mind forms the connections that lead to ideas.

The German Philosopher, Helmholtz,(1) summarized the process in three parts. First, a Preparation Phase, where we gather materials, followed by Incubation, when our unconscious does its unseen work, followed by Illumination, when (quote) "happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration" (unquote). Illumination is that pregnant moment when solutions come forth, the moment we here about in famous anecdotes: Archimedes Eureka moment.(2) Or J.K. Rowling(3) envisioning the entire basis for the Harry Potter books while riding on the train. And, obviously, this is the state we want to be in all the time, if we can help it. So, how can we?

Jack Foster, in How to Get Ideas, lays down the same basic process, but spends the bulk of his book offering ways to condition our minds for it. First and foremost, and above all else, his advice is to have fun. He writes, "It's not by chance that I list having fun as my first suggestion on how to get your mind into idea-condition. Indeed, in my experience it might well be the most important one. Here's why: Usually in creative departments of advertising agencies a writer and an art director work together as a team on a project. In some departments and occasionally in the ones that I headed, three or four teams work on the same project. When that happened in my departments, I always knew which team would come up with the best ideas, the best ads, the best television commercials, the best billboards. It was the team that was having the most fun. The ones with frowns and furrowed brows rarely got anything good. The ones smiling and laughing almost always did. Were they enjoying themselves because they were coming up with ideas? Or were they coming up with ideas because they were enjoying themselves? The latter. No question about it. After all, you know it's true with everything else - people who enjoy what they're doing, do it better. So why wouldn't it be true with people who have to come up with ideas?" (end of quotation). (4)

Or as Carl Jung said, "Creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves."(5)

So, my advice is that you should find ways to play and keep things light. We've got work to do, of course, but we can still adopt a playful seriousness. Or to think in terms of serious play. It's when we're uptight and anal, that we experience a kind of creative constipation. Maybe that accounts for the furrowed brow that Jack Foster was talking about. But, then again, I was just quoting Jung, not Freud, so I'll just move on to some practical suggestions.

1. Play with your materials.
Loosen up and relax and adopt an attitude of "it doesn't matter, I'm just playing." Give yourself permission to just noodle around with things, and see what happens, what shape things take. Forget about rules for a while and just play in the sandbox of ideas.

2. Play with co-workers.
Depending on your office culture, this doesn't have to mean three-legged races down the hallways. But engage in reparte, play with words, joke around, banter, send weird emails, all that stuff. When we ignite that goofy dynamic, and strive to up the ante with each other, we can come up with all kinds of good and unexpected stuff. But the big idea is that you're keeping it fun with each other. There's nothing more deadly to creativity than a miserable team.

3. Play with your subject matter.
Even make fun of the project, make a parody out of it, think of extreme things you would never really do. Pretend you're the creative team at Saturday Night Live and do a total mockery of a mock up. Will you be able to use any of this material? Maybe, Maybe not. It depends on how much irreverance your client can tolerate. But at least you're thinking outside the box. You're bracketing the subject with a broader spectrum of ideas, ranging from the conservative to the outright absurd.

There's lots of other suggestions I can make along these lines, but before it devolves into stuff like holding pajama day at the office, I'll offer one last point.

4. Having fun with ideas means not getting precious about ideas.
As much as we've been giving attention to the subject, we shouldn't think of ideas as precious or rare. True, some are stronger than others, and truly world shaking ideas don't come along every day, but it's not this class of ideas that we work with every day. And there's a difference between defending a core idea and building a temple around them.(6) If you're getting too precious and protective about ideas, it's probably because you're not coming up with enough of them. Especially, in a team setting, you want to be willing to throw your idea way if someone's got a better one. Think quantity, not quality at first. The quality will come. The cream will rise to the top. But only if you fill the bucket first.

Well, that'll have to do for today. I want to thank you again for tuning in and especially for the encouraging feedback I've received. And if you're just joining us, and you're enjoing this series, please consider letting your voice be heard in the form of a vote at podcast alley, or a comment at iTunes. And don't forget to click that subscribe button. The show is free, and you'll be automatically be alerted to new episodes. But, again I truly thank you for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.





4. Foster, Jack, How to Get Ideas, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996


6. This phraseology of "building a temple around ideas" comes from a recent episode of KCRW's The Treatment, in which Elvis Mitchell interviews Tony Gilroy. Gilroy speaks about collaborating with film directors and "trading up" to better ideas by exchanging them with each other. Get the episode here.

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-8dd9ca9a3dc9ca1b7041f4bef69e47ad}

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 12, The Creative Mind

Download Episode 12

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We live in a create-on-demand world, and, whether you're a graphic designer or a college student working on a writing assignment, or a podcaster trying to come up with his next episode, the question is the same. How can we gain some control of the creative process, so that our minds and imaginations are productive when we need them to be?

As we established last time, creativity is a process. It's often slippery and disorderly, and we can make huges messes along the way, but it IS a process. And AS a process, it consists of steps and actions - practical things we can DO to encourage our productivity. And this ought to encourage us, since we can be proactive in our creativity, rather than passively wait around for ideas to just happen to us.

We also spoke about ideas, because we need ideas, large and small, to get us through our project. But we demystified the subject by explaining that ideas aren't of otherworldy origin, or the domain of the supercreative, but simply new combinations of old elements. Ideas feel fresh because we've made a new juxtaposition of things. So, the trick is to find relationships between these old elements, and put them together in interesting ways to create a new effect or perspective. This is a bit like our reaction when we see people get together. We know our friend, John. We know our friend, Susan. But then they hook up and become a new idea, called John-and-Susan, and it changes our perspective. There's a new dynamic, a combined effect that's different than when they were apart. In the realm of music, someone took rhythm and blues and put it together with country to create a new idea in music, which we know as rock 'n' roll. In the realm of graphic design, Saul Bass(1) took our old fashioned idea of what a movie poster was, and married it to a graphic, modernistic sensibility, and influenced generations of designers as a result. On an every day level, our design compositions are merely new arrangements of the familiar elements of design. It's their organization and layout, the combinations we come up with, that makes them feel like either a new idea or a cliche.

And just a word about cliches. In the realm of ideas, cliches represent the stale side of the spectrum. Cliches are trite, worn out ideas. We've seen or heard them so many times that they've lost their impact. Designers still embrace them, though, because they are so familiar and they communicate so instantly. But smart designers put a fresh spin on the cliche. They add a twist, they augment a cliche with another element, until they've cast the old idea in a new light, making it a somewhat new idea. So if you're frustrated by all the cliches you seem to generate, no need to fret. Just use them as a starting point toward something new.

But returning to the original question about how we sieze control of creativity, its helpful to understand a bit about how that thinking organ between our ears works. After all, creativity is a work of imagination, it's a process of the mind. So, if we can gain some insight into how our minds work, then we can work with it, rather than forcing matters.

Now, there are theories or models about how the mind works. One model describes the mind in terms of its conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious mind represents our wakeful state or level of awareness. But the unconscious mind operates below the level of our normal awareness. It is the part of us that dreams and sorts out the stimuli we receive on our conscious level.

But in the interest of keeping things straightforward and practical, we can think of it this way: As we receive stimuli from the world around us, and as we collect the raw materials of our project, our unconscious mind goes to work on them at a deeper level. It's like we're putting together a stew, and placing it on the backburner of our brains. In the course of time, we consciously toss more things into the pot, where they sit and simmer. What's interesting thing is that we can we can decide to stop thinking about our project, yet our unconcscious mind is still working on it. This should set us at ease in the knowledge that there's a solution waiting to emerge, we just need to gather materials and give it time. This technique is also called composting, which is a nice image for the way our mind converts raw materials into a rich and fertile source for us to draw from.

I believe this is why procrastination is common among creatives, and shouldn't necessarily be thought of us as a bad thing. Because if the unconscious requires to time to do its thing, then it stands to reason that a project can be started too early. Hence, that blank page syndrome I mentioned in the last episode. We may be creatively blocked because the ingredients in our mental stew pot need time to coalesce. The compost heap needs to go through the chemical changes that will make those raw materials useful to us.

But to wrap things up for today, we've identified the first practical thing we can do. And that's to collect those raw materials. We do this in addition to the information gathering we've done with our client. These raw materials are what James Webb Young describes as "specific knowledge about products and people, and general knowledge about life and events."(2) And in light of this discussion about how our minds work, we've got excellent motivation to do so, because we realize that it's not a dry research exercise. It's a strategic, creative tactic. It's a way to set our unconscious mind on the problem early, so it can do its unseen work, sorting out elements and forming connections, so it can supply us with the ideas and solutions that we'll need later.

But that's it for today. I'll be posting show notes and references at my webpage, which is Music is by If you're finding this series helpful, I welcome your feedback in the form of a comment at iTunes or a vote at podcast alley. Well, I thank you again for your support, and for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. Saul Bass On The Web

2. James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, McGraw-Hill, 2003

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-8dd9ca9a3dc9ca1b7041f4bef69e47ad}

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 11, Getting A Handle on Creativity

Download Episode 11

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we're talking about the creative process. And in earlier episodes, we discussed the preparation that precedes creativity, which namely takes the form of information gathering. In graphic design, there's always a message at stake - one that we need to craft for an audience. So, we're concerned early on with doing our homework. And once we've laid the groundwork for our project in this way, we're ready to get creative. And, as we said last time, this can go well or poorly, depending on certain factors.

Sometimes creativity seems effortless and automatic. We come to our project bursting at the seams with ideas, and everything almost seems to build itself. We fly through the entire process with ease, and we finish our work exhilarated, knowing that our solutions and the execution of them were right on target. But as many of us know well, that's not always the case. The ideas that came fast and free last week aren't coming anymore. We find ourselves facing a barren page or a blank screen, and we wonder what's wrong. And, as the clock ticks toward our deadline, we begin to despair, or to tie ourselves up in knots of anxiety. It's those problem moments that catch our attention and cause us to wonder what's going on under the surface, what is this creative process, anyway? How does it work? Why does it seem that our best ideas come at random? And can we get some degree of control over our creativity?

I think the best way to get at all this is to start with some definitions. First off, we can rightly describe creativity as a process. Now, granted, it doesn't often feel like a process. In fact, it's frequently a messy, non-linear, and elusive affair, but it's a process nonetheless. And The Oxford American dictionary defines the word "process" as "a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end."(1) Which at least gives us some clue concerning our role in all this. The definition goes part-way to answering the questions, "Are we passive in this process?" "Do ideas just happen to us?" And the answer is "no," because it IS a process. And like any process, there are actions or steps that we can take to encourage creativity. So, we can take heart in the fact that there's a practical side to this, complete with methods and techniques, things we can busy our hands and minds with and DO. But let's home in on our definition of creativity a bit more.

Creativity is usually described as a work of imagination or as a mental process that yields ideas. Ideas, then, are an output of this process. And since we know that the success of our work greatly depends upon the strength of our ideas, we should take the trouble to attempt a definition of this word, also.

Now, it's tempting to think of ideas as something completely new. But that would only be part right. The trouble with thinking of ideas as something that's brand new is that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come up with something that the world has never laid eyes on before. And when we think in these terms the task of producing ideas suddenly becomes daunting and out of the reach of mere mortals. But the biggest problem I see is that it puts us completely on the wrong track. People sometimes become mystical about this pursuit of ideas because they think they're channeling something from another world, when the truth about ideas is that they're born out of the common and mundane things of the everyday world. And while it often feels as if we've plucked our ideas from the air, it's safe to say that they're plucked from this terrestrial air that we're all breathing. The truth is that when you break an idea down into its component parts, there's really nothing new or otherworldly about it. It's made out of common stuff.

What IS potentially new or unique about an idea lies in the combination of elements that it contains, and not the elements themselves. As James Webb Young pronounced in his advertising classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas: "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."(2) This is an important one, so let me state it again, "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."

This statement offers reassurance and solace to us because it lets us in on the secret about ideas, which is that the stuff of ideas is all around us. The trick, if it can be called a trick, is to put them together in a new way, which places us into another realm of discussion, which has to do with our lifelong and constant habit of observing the world around us. I mentioned in earlier episodes that a chief attribute of designers is that they take an interest in the world around them. And I'll go one better today by advising that you stand on your head while you do it. Learn how to really see and learn how to see differently. Don't just look at the positive space of things around you, look at their negative space. If you don't know what negative space is, not to worry, I'll get to that discussion one of these days, too. What we're after are new associations. If ideas are new combinations of old things, then we want to look for relationships. We want to marry things together to produce something different and unique. And we'll talk more about how do that next time.

But that'll have to do for today. Hopefully, this provides us with an initial toe-hold on the creative process.

As usual, show notes are posted at my web page, which is Music is by Thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


The New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press, USA, 2005

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, McGraw-Hill, 2003

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-8dd9ca9a3dc9ca1b7041f4bef69e47ad}

Friday, October 19, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 10, Getting Creative

Download Episode 10

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program where we set aside the technical manuals and focus on the timeless aspects of design. Software versions come and go, and new forms of media emerge, but the principles behind our work stay pretty much the same. So, it's my hope that these brief discussions will be worth the time investment, since we can commit these principles to long term memory. Better yet, we can put them into practice, knowing they'll serve us throughout our careers. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods."

So, prior to the detour that we just concluded concerning the attributes of the designer, we were discussing the earliest stages of the design process. And we said this process of design begins with the work of data gathering. This is the first step in the sequence of practical things that we do as designers. By amassing a bunch of information, we basically prepare ourselves for all the creative work to come. In so doing, we're stocking our mental shelves, we're fueling the creative tank, fertilizing the ground - whatever anology you want to use. The key thing - is that we do it.

If you're kind of an impatient designer who wants to jump right into your favorite authoring environment and get going, you really need to resist that impulse early on. Newer designers may wonder if it's necessary to gather as much information as I was suggesting, but I'd say that, as a rule, it really is. Sometimes we can pull off good results with some pretty scant data, but, on the whole, and especially if the project is at all extensive, the more we know about the things that are important to our client, the better off we'll be. And while, we tend to gather more data than we'll eventually use, it's recommended that you capture a super abundance of stuff. When you have more than you need, you can make better decisions - you can have choices. And, trust me, it's a nice thing to have choices. When you have more than you need, you can cull the best and leave the rest. We can liken this to the way that writers discard pages they've written or the way filmmakers leave scenes on the cutting room floor. But, again, at this early stage, when you're just embarking on the creative journey of your project, you really don't know for sure what you'll keep or what you'll toss, so you want to hang on to all of it.

So we're sitting on this pile of information, and we're feeling pretty knowledgeable and all, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves, until we realize with a growing disquiet within us that we're facing this blank page. And it's not magically filling itself, either. For creatives, this can be the most intimidating sight in the world. It can actually be terrifying. And we realize at this point that it's one thing to have all this information, now what do we do with it? As Marty Neumeier said, "Design is easy. All you do is stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead." He was kidding, of course. Or, at least, he was exaggerating.

Sometimes it seem effortless - ideas come to us fully formed, like bulldogs barking at the garden gate. Other times, we can't come up with a thing, we can't produce one good idea, at least we can't think of any good ones. And, if we're not careful, we can psyche ourselves out. We get performance anxiety. We worry that we'll be exposed for the frauds that we are, that we've just been playing at all this design stuff and now everyone's going to know. In a word, we can panic. And if we panic, we can get into all sorts of trouble. So don't panic. If you're in this position today, even as we speak, don't worry. Help is on its way.

What I'd like for us to do for a few episodes is talk about the creative process. I want to talk about where the ideas come from. About mythical creatures called muses. The unconcious mind, and other things. This is territory that often seems shrouded in mystery, and in a certain sense it is. It's often hard to account for why and when a lightbulb suddenly decides to appear above our head. Why the solution to a puzzle dawns on us at the most unlikely time. So it's a curious thing, this creative process. But, on the other hand, there are things we can know about it that will reassure us. There are certain principles we can get a handle on, so that we don't have to panic when good solutions don't appear to be forthcoming. To a great extent, we can actively manage our creativity rather than feeling totally passive about it.

But I'll conclude today's discussion by offering the first rule of creativity, which is to relax. Don't panic. Relax. When we tense up and then try to produce in that state, it's really counterproductive. To strain and force matters just doesn't work very well. It reminds me of those chinese finger-cuff toys. You may have had them as a kid. They're these little doodads made of woven straw that you slip your friend's index fingers into. When they struggle to pull their fingers apart, they wind up pulling the weave tighter and their fingers get really stuck. It's only when they relax, and stop forcing matters, that the cuff loosens up and they can remove their fingers. And that's what the creative mind is like. We can gently coax ideas, but we can't really force them.

But that's it for today. As always, s how notes are available at my web page, which is Music is by Thanks again for listening, I hope you'll join us next time.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 9, Designer's Attributes Pt. 3

Download Episode 9

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores the timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we've been talking about the attributes of the designer. And today, we'll conclude this little rabbit trail with one final observation or truism. And while I call this an attribute, there's a sense in which it's really an aspiration or ideal that encompasses everything we want to be as designers. So, here goes:

Designers have a love for The Craft.

And, when I say craft, I've got a couple of shades of meaning in mind. The first one refers to that affinity or reverence that we've got for the tools and techniques of our trade. Just as an iron smith loves the hammer and the glowing iron and the sparks that fly, we, as designers love the process that we're engaged in, and all the tools and techniques that we use in order to ply our trade.

But graphic designers are engaged in an amazing hybrid of art and craft. On the one hand, design is an art with all of that creative mystique to it. There's that intangible and evasive muse or magic that we seek in the form of inspiration. Mysteriously, an idea forms within us and then we fashion it with our tools, giving it form and substance. It really is a wondrous thing. It's as if we pull rabbits out of hats.

On the other hand, we're engaged in a practical craft. We're like traditional tradesmen - we resemble plumbers or bricklayers who just go to work every day. We use techniques. We obey rules for activities like setting type. And in that respect, we don't always need muses or magic. And, come to think of it, have you ever heard a plumber complain that he couldn't fix your toilet for lack of inspiration? Or a bricklayer complain that he was too creatively blocked to build your patio? But, as designers, we've got this duality or hybrid thing going on. We're creative craftsmen.

But I mentioned that there's a second shade of meaning to the word, craft. When I say that designers love "The Craft," I'm also using the word as a proper noun to describe the family or guild of designers. As designers, we're part of a community. And this community is on a shared path of discovery, wherein we benefit from each other's ideas and discoveries as we share thoughts and ideas among ourselves. And we've also got a love for this community that I call The Craft in a protective sense, because we want to elevate our profession and not see it erode or be cheapened. We want to promote certain ideals for The Craft. We want designers to be ethical and maintain good practices and reputations for fairness and integrity. We want The Craft to have a good name. The Graphic Arts Guild, or G.A.G., is a testament to this idea. And, by the way, if you're not familiar with their book, which comes out every so often, you should look it up. It gives guidance to graphic artists on all manner of best practices, including pricing. As members of The Craft, we become aware that we're not alone. We've got heritage and history and lineage. We're part of something bigger than ourselves. We're members of a tradition that we can honor and contribute to as we fill the world with good design.

So, in closing, I encourage you to cultivate this love of craft. In both senses of the word. I wish you satisfaction as you ply your trade, and I also remind you that you're part of a unique community of craftsmen.

Until next time, this is Design Guy, I thank you again for listening.


Graphic Arts Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, North Light Books, 2001

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 8, Designer's Attributes Pt. 2

Download Episode 8

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the attributes of the designer. And we began last time by asserting that graphic designers take an interest in the world around them. We said that it's preferable to be a generalist, rather than a specialist. And what we mean to say in this is that it's not a good thing to know your profession to the exclusion of other things. You want to cultivate a curiosity in many things. To that end, you should read widely and expose yourself to new things whenever you can. If you're musical tastes run toward the Smashing Pumpkins, go see an opera. You get the picture. The idea here is that we're supposed to help our clients make a connection with their audience. So, the more informed we are to the world of the client, the more effective we'll be at bridging that gap. In order to do this well, we want to be good at the next attribute. And that's COMMUNICATION.

Robin Landa, in her book Graphic Design Solutions, writes, Graphic designers use words (type), and pictures and other graphic elements (visuals) to communicate. Their art is a visual-verbal expression. The graphic designer mediates between a client with a message to send and the audience. Visuals and words are used by the designer on behalf of the client in order to inform, persuade, or sell." (end of quotation)

And that's a basic definition of graphic design. Visual communication. And as we get deeper into this podcast series we'll tackle all the various elements and principles of design that foster that visual form of communication. So, there's really not much more to say about this right now. To become a better visual communicator, you need to study this craft of graphic design. By learning about contrast or proportion, for example, you communications will improve visually.

Now, although it's obvious, I should point out that this visual communication that we call graphic design is all written and visual. There are no spoken words. But the verbal, spoken form of communication is also a skill that we've got to get better at. It's our verbal skill that will persuade a client to buy into our ideas and to hire us, it's our verbal skill that makes us more skillful at business, that persuade a client to pay us for services rendered. And, of course, the better we can exchange ideas between ourselves as team members on projects, the better our resulting graphic design will be, as we sharpen up our collective vision for the product.

Adrian Shaugnessy in his book, How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, writes, "The way designers present ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. When a good idea is being rejected, it is often the presentation of that idea that is being rejected, and not the idea itself....Spoken communication therefore is a vital component of the modern designer's kitbag. But there is a communication skill even more important than being able to talk convincingly about your work: listening. I'm talking about the acknowledgement that communication is a two-way street, and that your client has a point of view that you need to listen to carefully for clues and unspoken messages." (end of quotation)

Now, if you've been listening to earlier episodes, you'll be experiencing deja vu about now, because we spoke pointedly to the necessity of listening. If you've missed those shows, you can go back and review them, of course.

But I think we'll wrap things up here. And we'll summarize by saying that if the first attribute, which is an interest in the world around us, can be likened to input, then communication (both the visual and verbal kind) is the output. So, we need to recognize that they work together. Garbage in. Garbage out. Or diversified understanding of the world in, rich, layered communications out.

Well, I want to thank you again for listening. If you'd like to check out the show notes, you can find them at my web page, which is Music is by If you've been finding these shows helpful, I'd welcome your feedback in the form of a vote at podcast alley or perhaps a comment at iTunes. Until next time, this is Design Guy, hope you'll join us again.


1. Landa, Robin, Graphic Design Solutions, 2nd Ed., OnWord Press, 2000

2. Shaughnessy, Adrian, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002

Monday, September 17, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 7, Designer's Attributes Pt. 1

Download Episode 7

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

If you're just joining us, we're talking about the attributes of the designer. In the last episode, we established the idea that, as designers, we profoundly influence the work we do by the mere fact of who we are as individuals. Our unique way of thinking and solving problems, our personal style and perspective on the world, all have an impact on the product. Our fingerprints are all over our work, so to speak. You can I.D. a designer through their work sometimes. And this is obviously why certain designers are sought after. We tend to describe their work as unique or distinctive. So, it stands to reason that if we give one design problem to two different designers, we can expect somewhat different outcomes.

At the same time, though, there are certains traits that designers should have in common. Unique as we all are, there are certain stereotypes or generalizations that ought to hold up in order for graphic designers to qualify as graphic designers.

If your into movies, you'll know how it is to hear that a certain director is rumored to be helming a film project. When we hear the name Tim Burton or Steven Soderbergh or Guillermo Del Toro, we develop different expectations. At the same time, we're pretty confident that while they think divergently, and that they'll all emphasize different themes, that they've got some other things in common. They all know a thing or two about storytelling, and casting, and where to put the camera.

That's how it is with designers. Unique as we are, some things are the same.

So, in no particular order, I'd like to describe the traits we can expect.
And I'll just mention the first one today, which is this. A designer takes an interest in the world around them.

Adrian Shaughnessy, in his book, How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul, (1)writes: "Among the myriad definitions of graphic design, one of the most illuminating is by American designer and writer Jessica Helfand. According to Helfand, graphic design is a visual language uniting harmony and balance, color and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a langauge of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences that challenge both the intellect and the eye."

Commenting further on Helfand's definition, Shaugnessy says, "I like Helfand's definition. Her first sentence is a conventional summary of graphic design; few would argue with it. But the second part of Helfand's definition provides the key to producing meaningful and expressive graphic design, (when she refers to): 'cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences.' (These) are the elements that give work authority and resonance. And if you want to introduce these elements into your work, it means taking a interest in everything that goes on around you, and having curiosity about areas other than graphic design: politics, entertainment, business, technology, art, ten-pin bowling and mud wrestling.

This cultural awareness ranks higher than technical ability and academic qualifications in the designer's portfolio of attributes." (End of quotation)

James N. Frey, (2) author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, expresses the same sentiment in writing the following:

"You''ll need to be a general reader, because you need to know, well, a lot of stuff. (Be) a well read generalist, as opposed to a specialist, like a chiropractor or plumber or teacher. How can you create a Buddhist character if you don't know what meditation is for? How can you create a carpenter if you don't know what a T square and a level are for? A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole." (End of quotation)

Think of it this way, think in just general social terms. People who are well read and aware of many things can relate to more people. If you're an engineer and all you can talk about is engineering, you can't connect effectively to another person. But if you can talk about the news or fishing or the latest of episode of Heroes, in addition to engineering, then you build a more robust bridge to the other person. As graphic designers we want to tap into the culture or zeitgeist or ethos, as I mentioned last time, so we can be more effective. So start broadening your horizons. Watch TV shows you formerly shunned. If you read Rolling Stone, try reading McCalls. You'll be amazed at what you can bring into your world from someone else's.

And that's it for today. As usual, I'll post show notes at my webpage, which is Music is by Thank again for joining us, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. Shaughnessy, Adrian, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002

2. James N. Frey, The Ten Rules of Writing,

Monday, September 10, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 6, Harry Houdini and the Attributes of a Designer

Download Episode 6

Design Guy here, welcome to the show.

This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

If you've been following along, you'll know that we've been talking about the very beginning stages of the design process, and the skills we need to develop in order to gather the information that fuels our creative work.

So, moving right along, there are some practical process things we could talk about next, like brainstorming and how to get ideas, but before we do that, I think this is a good time for us to pause and consider the designer in all of this.

If we think about it, the designer is the first medium through which ideas pass. Before we choose a physical format or medium, we're it. And I realize this is a really obvious statement. But if "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan(1) famously declared, then I think it's worth stepping outside ourselves for a moment, to consider what kind of medium we are. What kind of attributes should we have as designers before we even get started on the work?

Let's consider the word medium for a moment. When we say something is immediate, it means there's nothing inbetween, there's a direct connection between two things. But when there's a medium, we mean to say that there's something inbetween, something that intervenes. Designers intervene. We take one thing, and pass it through the medium of ourselves, so it becomes a somewhat different thing. We're like prisms that receive the light and then refract it. We take our client's message and then split it apart, we break it all down. We perform a reductive work so we can identify the component parts. Then we build it back up again in just the right way, and communicate it. We basically perform a work of translation. We take ordinary language and convert it into visual language.

Medium is also the word used to describe individuals who claim to have psychic ability. People who claim to be conduits or channels to another world. I find this interesting because we're applying the word medium to an actual person.

If you've ever seen the old Tony Curtis film, Houdini,(2) you'll remember that he and his wife were obsessed with life after death. They made a pact that they would seek to make contact with each other if one should pass on to "the other side." So you may remember the scene where she visits a psychic medium, who conducts a seance. They're all in a dimly lit room. There was the typical mumbo jumbo and theatrics staged to convince Mrs. Houdini that she was communing with Harry himself. But, alas, this medium was a charlatin attempting to cash in on the poor widow's grief-driven compulsion to make contact. The point here, though, is that Mrs. Houdini was in search of a medium. She wanted to find a person who could bridge a gap that she could not cross by herself.

Our clients are like this. They look to us as channels or mediums to their marketplace, where they hope to connect with an audience. They can't cross this gulf all by themselves. They know that they need someone with special attributes. They need someone with specialized communication skills, who can send their message across in just the right way. And if we're really on our game, we might be able to channel ghosts of a different kind. I'm being a little bit cute here. But I'm referring to what's sometimes called the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Which is to say that wherever we can , we want to inform our work with a keen sense of the cultural context or our audience—their world, their ethos.

Now, in light of everything we've said, we can see why certain designers are sought after. They've got certain attributes that the client is looking for. They want these attributes to show through the final product.

We see this principle at work when we're evaluating a design piece. If we describe it as witty or traditional or sophisticated or minimalistic, then we're describing the designer to a great extent. These characteristics mirror the person behind the work. And if you give the same design problem to two different designers, you'll get two different results. They may both be valid, and indeed one design problem can be solved a thousand different ways. But, I believe there are certain characteristics that all designers ought to share in common. There are some common attributes that will show through in the work of even the most wildly divergent designers. And we'll talk about what some of those attributes are in the next episode.

For now, let's just establish that the designer is like the physical format we'll select to do our work within, because we profoundly influence the work. And, again, this is a really obvious statement. But, if we want our attributes to reflect well on the work, we'll give some consideration to ourselves. We'll want to make sure we've got certain characteristics in place, or that we're at least developing them. We want the right stuff. And we'll talk about that next time.

But that's all we have time for today. As always, show notes are available at Music is by I thank you again for listening and I hope to have you back again.




Monday, September 3, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 5, How Design Begins, Pt. 2

Download Episode 5

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that offers a pause from our technical manuals: all the keeping up we do with tools, technologies, the state of the art. Now, we've got to keep up, of course. It's essential we stay current. But it also can be overwhelming. There is so much to keep up with, it's like drinking from a firehose. We get cognitive overload. And it's hard to retain things that we know are going to continue to change.

On the other hand, we want to learn principles. The good news about principles is that they don't really change. We can learn them with confidence that our time investment is not wasted. We'll know that at least this part of our knowledge base will not erode. Software will come and go, but principles remain. And I think that sends a message to our brains that this is stuff we should latch on to, that we ought to retain. At least that's my theory, and my experience. And that's where this show comes in. Hopefully, we can offer a bit of white space or margin from other concerns, by setting aside the transient information, and speaking to timeless things - things we can commit to long term memory.

Now, we spoke last time about how design begins, and today I'd like to amplify those thoughts and add a few suggestions. We said that listening is key. Or as Hillman Curtis says, listening is an activity, wherein we ask the right questions in the right way, and then fine tune our reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)

In other words, we query our clients to learn what they really want. We want to excavate their core message, their story, so we can identify the thematic drivers of our project. But to do this effectively requires skill in the art of questioning. Questions are to this process, what picks and shovels are to archaealogical digs. To carry the analogy further, questions also act like sifters that filter sand and rock from the stuff we're after. And we want the bones. We want the DNA - the genetic blueprint of our project, so to speak.

The lazy thing to do is to just "get requirements." If we run with requirements we've gotten passively, rather than interactively probing, even challenging our client at times, then we risk informing our work with junk information. In our gusto to get going, we'll start off with a lot of zeal, but soon realize with a creeping dread that there is something rotten in Denmark. We'll find ourselves going back to the drawing board on things we thought were resolved. Or the client, sensing that something is amiss, will suggest too many changes at review milestones. The scenario is all too common. We can sidestep that messiness by laying the foundation of understanding. And, once again, we do that by carefully questioning, and then listening.

We ended the last show on a cautionary note. We said that once we've gotten the right answers, we've got to watch out that we don't go wrong. It's actually possible to make a proper diagnosis, then execute the wrong solution. We safeguard against this by asking ourselves, as designers, a number of questions. We've queried our client. Now we turn the line of inquiry on ourselves. And this ought to start as early as possible. It even runs parallel to the client inquiry. We just want to prevent ourselves from jumping to conclusions or to specific solutions too early.

The idea is to avoid being rash, by suspending our internal biases and avoiding the ruts that we naturally fall into. We all have comfort zones or favorite tools that, truth be told, may not be ideal for a project, and we need to be self-aware enough to realize this. We want to start with a blank slate. Just throw out assumptions as much as we can. It may not be appropriate to ask ourselves, right out of the gate, "What style of website should this be?" We've already assumed it's a website. Don't ask these presumptive questions. A better question is "Which format might address this design problem best?" And then think through the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of different approaches or formats. You want to broaden your horizons at this stage.

We want to do research. What is research but just another form of asking and answering your own questions. Camp out at a search engine for a while and gather information.
Learn what you can about your client and their industry. Try to discover their strengths, weaknesses, market opportunities, and market threats.

Find out what their competition is specifically doing. Look at who competitors are marketing to and how they've designed their products and supporting media. This will help you later on, as you consider ways you can differentiate your client from their competition.

In all of this, you're thinking expansively. You're casting a wide net for information. You're keeping your antenna up, and your eyes open. And because you are, you'll surprise yourself when you begin to search for solutions. You'll come up with fresher solutions. That's why it's important to remain in this mindset for a while before winnowing everything down to a solution.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. You want to avoid the paralysis of analysis. But gather as much information as you need right now. Just toss it all into the funnel, knowing you can narrow down and throw out what you don't need later.

A good analogy is an ice berg. It's a good way to visualize all of this. Think of an iceberg - there's a relatively small part that's revealed above the water, compared to the mass of ice below the surface. Likewise, there's a lot of listening and questioning and research that goes on below the surface to amass the information we need. But the final product, which is the tip of the iceberg, only reflects a small amount of this. Nevertheless, we need to gather that body of information before we can surface the stuff we'll use.

So, we've gotten really smart about the design problem and have gathered a lot of helpful information, all while we're broadening our horizons, and we're ready to approach the creative process. We've basically created fertile ground for problem solving and idea generation and brainstorming. And we'll get into all that good stuff in a future episode. Perhaps not the very next one, but soon.

And that's today's show. Let me remind you that show notes are available at my web page, which is I've included hyperlinked footnotes to references I've made. And if you want to study a topic further, the book references will take you directly to Amazon where you can get a copy for yourself. By the way, if you're enjoying this ongoing discussion about design, please cast your vote for Design Guy at podcast alley, or leave an encouraging word via the iTunes comment feature on my iTunes profile page. Until next time, this is design guy. Thanks for listening!


1. Curtis, Hillman, MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer, New Riders Press, 2002

Monday, August 27, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 4, How Design Begins

Download Episode 4

Design guy here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Last episode we explored Graphic Design. We laid out a basic definition first by clarifying it's difference from fine art. In fine art, it's perfectly okay to be subjective and to allow for individual interpretation, or to have no message at all. But Graphic design is different in that it must support an objective typographic message. If it doesn't communicate something specific, we've failed at our mission. We also identified typography as the essential component of graphic design. Without typography, there is no message, and if there's no message, there is no graphic design.

Today, we'll talk a bit about process. More to the point, we'll ask HOW does this process begin? In short, it begins with listening.

New Media Designer, Hillman Curtis, gives us insight about listening. He says, Listening is an activity. It's a matter of asking the right questions in the right way. And then fine-tuning your reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)

Now, no matter what we're designing, whether it's a post card or a passenger ship, what we're listening for are requirements. It's the requirements that define our project. We want to know about dimensions and deadlines, we want to know about constraints and content. We want to gather all the all the guiding factors that will put us on a sure path to reaching our destination.

But before we can assemble all these requirements, we've got to get comfortable with this activity of listening. Sounds simple, right? The client tells us stuff, we right it down, we go to work. In practice, it's far more tricky. Clients sometimes don't tell us stuff, or they tell us the wrong stuff, based on well-meaning, but misguided preconceptions. Or they're not even in touch themselves with what they really want. This leaves gaps. And we've got to get skilled at filling those gaps. The way to do it is by getting good at asking questions. I know, it sounds simple right? But here, too, we often ask the wrong questions. We bring our own preconceived notions and start down the wrong path of inquiry. We funnel the client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. This whole area can be slippery. So, what's a designer to do?

Let's answer that by first understanding what our goals in listening are. Where should our line of inquiry take us? The short answer is: to the heart of the matter.We'll ask our client open ended questions, questions that won't elicit simple yes or no responses. We want to get them talking, we want to draw it out from them. And we want to give them a wide berth at first, rather than hem them in by tut-tutting over ideas that sound expensive.

It's like we're probing, digging, sifting through the real issues and the red herrings. And what we're trying to uncover, what we're trying to get to, is what our clients really WANT. We want to know what STORY they are trying to tell. We want to know what their true goals are, including the obstacles to those goals, we want to get to the heart of their message, including the subtext, the implied. All these elements can be summarized by the word THEME. If we know what our theme is, then we've got the seed out of which a project grows, the engine that drives it. And make no mistake: Your solutions will be organic when they grow out of theme. It's when we're unclear about theme, that our work becomes contrived, as we muck about with style or other things to compensate for our lack of understanding.

Now, This pursuit of understanding, and this questioning process may take place over more than one meeting with time in between for research and internal discussion. When we've gotten really clear on what our clients want, their story, which theme, this is when requirements start to come in to focus. And this is where we've got to remain vigilant with ourselves and the clients. It's so easy to get the right answers and then go wrong. I mentioned before that we can funnel a client toward a solution that suits our capability and comfort zone, more than it addresses their needs. Sometimes that's because we have a favorite tool. We have a hammer,so to speak, and everything looks like a nail. We've got to watch out for this by remaining open to ALL the possibilities, by not limiting ourselves to top of the head solutions..

We do this by turning the questions on ourselves. We point them in our own direction. We have to ask ourselves, as designers, a whole lot of things..
And we'll do time.

For now, let's just recognize that listening all takes practice. Clients are all different, with different styles of communication. It will take experience get good at this. Sometimes you have to labor through this. And labor is a good word. Labor as in childbirth. Socrates, likened himself to a midwife, who would squeeze others with questions, to give birth to knowledge.(2) Get comfortable with probing for the heart of the matter, with drilling down, with sifting and sorting and discerning. This is the key to laying the foundation of understanding that lead you to on-target solutions that will delight your clients.

Well, that's it for today. I'll be posting show notes on my blog, which may be found at

Thanks so much for listening. Until we meet again, this is design guy.


1. Curtis, Hillman, MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer, New Riders Press, 2002


Monday, August 20, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 3, On Graphic Design

Download Episode 3

Design guy here. Welcome back.

This is the show that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Last episode we defined design as the act of creating order out of chaos. And whether we're talking graphic or interior or environmental design, the basic definition stands because we're all engaged in the same PROCESS. It's a process that STARTS with a number of unrelated pieces and ENDS with an ordered unit. (1)

Looking closer, Graphic design has its own set of concerns that distinguish it from other forms of design. And, I think, right from the start, we have to be clear about what graphic design is not. And that's Art. Oh, sure it is AN art. It's practitioners are artists. But it's not Art with a capital A in that it's not fine art. This is where people get confused. Especially when we see some of the stunning works of graphic design by luminaries like Paul Rand (2) or Milton Glaser.(3) Their work should be viewed in a gallery. They're models of artistic excellence. So, what's the difference? Are we splitting semantical hairs, or what?

The distinction... is a question of motivation or purpose. Fine art is something that can be done in a loft, which is to say, it can be done for highly individualized ends. It can be done with no conscious purpose. It can be highly SUBjective. You might do it for your own enjoyment. Or to get a certain technical effect or for any other reason in the world. Sometimes there's a statement being made. Other times, if there's meaning, we'll leave that to the eye of the beholder to interpret. In other words, it's subject to personal interpretation, and IF it's subject to interpretation, it can mean anything.

When we cast the issue in these terms, we begin to see that graphic design is different. It's inherently Objective. Sure, it INVOLVES art, and designers can leave room for some ambiguity or personal interpretation, after all, this generates questions in the viewer, which intensifies their interaction. But, ultimately, Graphic design is done with a clear, specific aim in mind. And what is that aim, but communication? Communication of what? The artist's inner feelings on the day of creation? No, it's not about that. It's not subjective, as we've said. Graphic design is linked to an objective, typographic message. We can communicate that message artistically, in a stylized way, there may even be a strong individual signature on the work that makes one aware of the artist behind it.

I mentioned Milton Glaser before, and I'm thinking of his famous, iconic Dylan poster.(4) It's distinctly Glaser. But, in the end, it's commercial art. It's meant for commerce, to support a music company's product. And we're usually trying to sell stuff, whether that's the advantages of a certain denture cleaner, or a socially conscious screed about the impacts of deforestation. Regardless of subject matter, we've got to transmit specified meaning. And if people HAVEN'T understood, for example, that the iPhone is the most advanced, hip, web-capable phone available, then we've failed at our mission. If our work is not tethered to an objective typographic message, then we might as well stay in our lofts, because we're doing fine art.

Massimo Vignelli (5) describes Graphic Design, in its purest form, as Information Design. As such, it doesn't even require imagery. It's about creating readable, ordered messages. In fact, type IS our primary imagery. Letterforms are symbols that create words which have power of themselves to produce pictures in the minds of our audience. If we set the word, "home," all by itself on a page, it evokes the most primal associations in all of us. There's no need to pay Corbis licensing fees for that photo of a house on a hill. Words are your best clip art.

Hence, the rise of the swiss graphic school of design (6), which placed a premium on functional objectivism. Josef Muller Brockman (7), a pioneer associated with grid systems (8) moved away from an illustrative style of advertising to an objective, typographic approach. When images were used, they were not sized arbitrarily, but according to their importance. The driver of his work was words. Pages were structured, not treated as a free form canvas. And the structure was based on the metrics of type. The measure of their leading, their point size. Typography is the primary discipline of graphic design. Without it, there is no graphic design.

I'll conclude by quoting a portion from Quentin Newark's great book, appropriately titled, What is Graphic Design? (9)

Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It is all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying, imposing meaning on the world. It is in the streets, in evertything we read, it is on our bodies. We engage with design in road signs, adverstisements, magazines, cigarette packets, headache pills, the logo on our tshirt, the washing label on our jacket. It is not just a modern or capitalistic phenomenon. Streets full of signs, emblems, prices, sale offers, official pronouncements and news would all have been just as familiar to ancient Egyptians, medieval italians or the poeple of Soviet Russia. Graphic design sorts and differentiates - it distinguishes one company or organization or nation from another. It informs - it tells us how to bone a duck or how to register a birth. It acts on our emotions, and helps to shape how we feel about the world around us. Imagine if graphic design was banned, or simply disappeared overnight. There would be no written word, no newspapers, no magazines, no internet, no science to speak of. We would enter another Dark Ages, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short lifespans. Rather than a frivolous extra, the uses and purposes of graphic design are so integral to our modern world - civilization - that Marshall McLuhan named us "typographic man."

There's much more to say about this topic. I'm tempted to start a series on it. But I won't. I think we can move to a lower tier of discussion and revisit the grand subject from time to time. We'll look at the trees, and sometimes look at the forest to maintain perspective.

Well, that concludes today's discussion. I'll post info on some of the references I made today, including links to related books at Amazon, because some of you will want to add these to your library. My blog is located at That's Music by

Thanks again for listening. Hope to have you back again.

1. White, Alex,
The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architechture, and Type, Allworth Press, 2002



4. (Scroll down to view the referenced poster.)




Muller Brockmann, Josef, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Arthur Niggli Publisher, 1996 Ed.

9. Newark, Quentin, What is Graphic Design,? Rotovision, 2007 Ed.