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