Good design involves little actual designing and more engagement with a subject than anything else.
Think for example Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign campaign logo. A simple letter H with an arrow through it.
This design can take less than a minute to sketch out. But what warrants it as “good design,” let alone the high price tag Michael Bierut placed on its production?
What compelled the Clinton campaign to trust in the branding from Pentagram comes from the fact that to develop an entire identity system, imbue a meaningfulness in that system, and produce voters because of that system requires an active engagement and interaction with the subject which Pentagram sought to design for.
That task is certainly quite difficult to perform but undoubtedly required Bierut to approach it firstly through an extensive and thorough engagement with their subject before any actual designing. How else would justify a high price tag if all you were doing was scribbling down a letter H and arrow?
Only the greatest designers have performed this necessary task effectively and their execution has essentially shaped the cultural landscape of many societies.
Withdrawing the ego of a designer
But while we can say that designers contribute towards fostering the cultural health of a population, it would be unwise to accept blindly that designers alone are the sole creditors of the work they involve themselves in.
Paraphrasing design master Josef Müller-Brockmann:
The withdrawal of one’s [ego] behind the idea, theme, enterprise, or product is what the best minds in design strive to achieve.
Removing trust from the people or subject at hand and exclusively assigning oneself as the sole proprietor of all creative contribution is not only unethical but inefficient in producing any design.
It makes sense why our professors in design school implore us to go out and engage, get our boots on the ground, and interact directly with the subject material we are designing on. It makes sense why the accomplishment of great projects do not owe their success to knowing exactly the final product but rather their investment in the process which reflects it.
It follows the idea that designing itself is the last item on the list of priorities when developing a design. Instead, it is the direct human connection between designer and subject that informs, inspires, and creates the end result, not the designer themselves.
No one is arguing that the dishwashers are unimportant and undeserving of the credit which would allow a restaurant a Michelin star decoration. Why should a junior designer or design intern be treated any less?
Or another question to ask is, are we adequately extending the label of “stakeholder” to the peoples and cultures we appropriate from towards our design production?
I would argue that the removal of a hierarchy in which stakeholders are considered unequal in a creative process and replaced with a system where all subjects involved are equal contributors to the final product is not only an incredibly valuable approach for any project but holds increasing urgency to design practice going forward.
Through engagement, removal of any prior knowledge, and learning from scratch the subject at hand, we are capable of producing a more informed, ethical, and successful design that we otherwise would not have achieved.
Putting subject first before designer is fundamental to this practice and has remained incredibly relevant today. The implications of such a democratized design culture are far-reaching.
Extending the contributions of design to everyone and all aspects of life brings to the forefront of mainstream culture and education the importance of having a highly scrutinized design theory that holds a criticism which sees all human interaction and humans involved as stakeholders to design practice.
The designer does not design alone.
I want to share an experience from my last fall quarter as an undergrad at UCLA that helped cement this concept in my practice. Ever since I started designing in high school, the idea never held as much weight to my practice as it does now and I believe the implications realized from this experience bring to light a more serious conversation on design culture and education.
Designing by Engagement
I discovered contemporary chamber music, or more accurately learned the name of the genre, fall quarter 2018 designing a poster series for the uclaFLUX Chamber Ensemble Recital.
One of my professors, Willem Henri Lucas, in the Design | Media Arts department here at UCLA connected me to Gloria Cheng. A Grammy-winning, renowned pianist and one of the professors in the Herb Alpert School of Music, I was to work with Gloria and her students to develop a poster and web graphics for that recital. The first item on our checklist was simply sitting in on one of their rehearsals.
Designing through essential experience
Gloria hoped that by observing as an outsider, I could get a clearer picture on what it was we were designing. That while she can easily describe the sound of Elliott Carter by imagining “being at a party with multiple, incoherent conversations taking place,” being present during that party is the only way to internalize the experience and understand the sound of contemporary chamber music.
It can be easy for me as a student to take for granted the value of engagement with your subject material. Papers here, projects there, and exams near, it can be difficult to prioritize off-site interaction. But as instructed I went to their rehearsal on a Friday noon, sat across from the performers, took up my notebook and pen, and began to think and write about all I observed.
The first piece was Violin Sonata by James Matheson performed in a piano and violin duo. Disruptive and maddening, the mysterious introduction exploded into a beautiful frenzy between the piano and violin. It felt as if two entities were racing downward toward an irreparable madness.
A beautiful tragedy, what was communicated to me was done so not through the vocalizations of a mad man, rather the musical expression of an accomplished composer. It was fascinating. I knew there was more to learn, more to discover on what it was that I am developing.
Designing through simple conversation
Having a conversation with the actual people involved would be the next step. I reached out to Gloria’s students Will, Irina, and Aiko, whom were my point of contact and asked what it was that is uclaFLUX, and what it was that defined chamber music.
We talked about the dynamism of music in Los Angeles, the integration of orchestral music in new media, and even their postgrad plans after they graduate. Our conversation went everywhere. Music was being redrawn for me in a whole new perspective, allowing the conception of new ideas for the poster series and in general a stronger appreciation of music as new media art.
It was astonishing hearing the recent developments and achievements in music not only at UCLA but both in Los Angeles and the greater music industry.
Who would have guessed that machine learning is currently taking an active role in augmenting musical ability and expression? That synthesizers are now being used and still fall under the category of chamber music? That orchestral music is more relevant today in the age of new and mixed media than it has ever been before?
In retrospect, more work was done in just talking with Will, Irina, and Aiko than in any of the actual designing that I would do in the following weeks. And yet this interesting conversation alone was enough to effectively contextualize what it was that I was working with and how the recital’s image needs to be communicated.
This is not just some classical music recital, this is a statement to the future of orchestral music.
Producing a Reflecting Design System
All that I thought I knew about orchestral music, I learned anew. There’s an approach in design that my professor Henri always reminds his students. That when designing something, one must remove all prior knowledge of the subject in order to effectively produce from it. That more work comes in having a drink over the subject rather than the actual design at play.
Coming into this assignment with that genuine interest to learn and simply hear from those three allowed me to begin sketching and make quicker, better design decisions.
Assigning the correct typography
This prior experience with Gloria and her students easily led me to the judgment that only a sans serif typeface would best represent the recital.
So which sans serif do I choose? I can’t use Neue Haas Grotesk since it is proprietary and I don’t want to choose Akzidenz-Grotesk since graphic design history has seen already many concert posters done in that unflinching typeface. But these typefaces in their nature would not make as much sense anyways when you consider instead the connotations and culture that are packaged with an open-source typeface.
In an age of both technological innovation and new media, the evolution of the human mind has been accelerated because of the Internet as well as from the freedom of information and resources which followed. Open-source culture and contribution was an inevitable feature that the Information Age was bound to inherit.
So I chose Fluxisch Else. Described as an experiment “to escape the post ’80 era of geometrical purity,” Fluxisch Else was an attempt undertaken by the OSP-Foundry to make digital the intricate practice of early type design.
A beautiful marriage between the traditional and the modern, Fluxisch Else was a fitting design choice to represent the roots of chamber music as well as reinforce its contemporary essence. And besides its relationship to this specific project, alone it is a beautiful revival of the Univers typeface and a well-suited visual marker for the melancholic, maddening sound of the recital through its visible imperfections and erratic kerning.
Reflecting content through composition
As I worked on composition, I jokingly thought of Doc Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) introducing to Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) the “Flux Capacitor” from Back to the Future. How easy it seemed to connect this image to this recital!
This visualization of the “Flux Capacitor” however is not far from the truth. In fact, the infographic on Wikipedia for the “Flux” article is literally forces springing forth from a plane, reminiscent of Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor.
If then by definition Flux is a quantity that passes a surface or substance, can this not also be thought of as a force/movement (contemporary chamber music) rupturing from a facade (traditional orchestral music)?
What I heard that Friday noon was disruptive, chaotic, and revolutionary. Its composition broke free from convention. This was not “classical” music, why should its visual composition be any different?
I then abstracted the visual representation of the flux phenomenon through typography, having the artists and their matching pieces extend outward from a central point which would be the primary information of the recital.
To deepen this metaphor, I contrast the chaotic typography of the musicians against that recital information both literally by placing the latter in somewhat odds with the former being a seemingly structured block of content next to the out-extending musicians.
But again the eccentric nature of Fluxisch Else render them both imperfect regardless. If one looks into the poster long enough, it is quite easy to feel frustrated at the imperfections apparent even with the document grid I implemented to guide my composition.
Lastly, I took advantage of small caps to help accentuate that odd disposition of the typeface in all-caps, which would be less effective had the typography followed the standard uppercase for the first letter of words followed by lowercase. The small caps acted as a subtle yet demanding visual component that communicated effectively an instability in any certain convention.
Using color as an conceptual extension
With the series ready, I went ahead and printed from a normal laser printer we have in our print lab. The budget only afforded cheap prints and since the poster was only in black and white, the result should be satisfactory. Unfortunately the result was not at all satisfactory as I hoped.
For one, the blacks were dampened and the paper itself produced a neatness that was too perfect for what this poster represented. To remedy this problem, I opted instead for an off-white lightly roughed grain paper and considering it within budget I used a risograph printer to produce a more rich and authentic coloring.
Taking from previous experience, I further conceptualize the disorienting sound of contemporary chamber music through offset printing of multiple riso colors. What emerged was a beautiful variety of posters that inherited a different color and individuality that radiated the recital in various ways.
Into the world, a new story is shared
Will, Aiko, and I went over final prints. They were pleasantly surprised in the numerous ways the poster came to life and I was glad it suited them. But aside from the nice remarks, knowing that my visual understanding and translation of what this recital is, brought more satisfaction to me than any “Bravissimo!” I received.
It was knowing I had represented the music students and their recital in an appropriate, meaningful way that got me excited. My visual interpretation was just a way to bring a new dimension to their musicianship that I humbly built upon.
To reiterate, I was not the only one designing.
The conversation, the interaction, the engagement that come hand-in-hand in this process was just as much “designer” as myself. The musicians, conductors, and people present in my process were all stakeholders in producing this poster series. Everyone was designing this poster. Everyone was contributing to its production.
The poster was put up across the School of Music and found its way in emails and listservs all over campus and beyond. A design had now been sent off into the world and a new story is told; a story of graphic design in conjunction with music, the increasingly integrated future of artistic expression and new technologies, and the imperativeness of having engaged with the subject to represent a more appropriate visual marker of the culture being appropriated.
Democratizing Design Practice and Education
Two fundamental principles became cemented from this experience:
- The final product is merely a reflection of the process, research, and relationships developed regarding a subject.
- The practice of active engagement and inclusion of the subject precedes successful and effective design.
An inclusive and meaningful appropriation in design
Music obviously expresses through the medium of sound but that should not mean a designer cannot appropriate that medium to develop a visual design. Take for example the emergence of motion graphics and video animation: the artists behind these creations investigate the traditional understandings of typography, experiment with those rules, and in some cases break them.
I say this because good design, again, never relies on the intuition of the designer themselves. This emergence of new specializations within the field of graphic design is a result of the interdisciplinary and inclusive practice of appropriation of the many other arts and cultures which conceived them.
But to be clear, appropriation extends its appropriateness only so far. We have seen the harm done in mindless cultural theft. I am regretfully reminded of early 20th century America during the birth of cinema when minstrel shows done in blackface were unabashedly commonplace. The misrepresentation of Black culture in these instances were examples of appropriation that refused the incorporation of actual Black people as stakeholders.
By excluding the subject in the production, we bring harm and distaste to the creative work we decide to produce. Aside from the unacceptable decisions made to appropriate a subject, designs themselves lack depth, clarity, and expression, compounding to make an awful design.
But this has been said before and is a given when approaching a design challenge. What makes for an effective and appropriate solution, is an appropriation that consults, includes, and engages the subject mindfully.
I look towards Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and his appropriation of queer culture. As a Black heterosexual male, there comes a lot of question as to how accurate Jenkins’ portrayal to queer reality is, but the fact of the matter is that his direction relied heavily through engagement with the original screenwriter Tarell-Alvin McCraney. Had it not been for this relationship in the film’s production we would have seen something rather inaccurate, similar to Park Chan-wook’s heteroerotic film The Handmaiden.
In the context of design, the judgment for appropriation is no different. That is not to say it is discouraged, but rather encouraged provided the designer has the capacity and genuine desire to learn and understand the subject.
So when we look towards crossing traditional boundaries of different disciplines and their cultures, we receive an opportunity to engage audiences through a multifaceted, multilayered experience.
The medium of sound and sight, the culture of the other and the familiar, the designer now inherits new tools that help encapsulate all aspects that most would miss. And again this inclusion of who acts as a “stakeholder” brings to life a more meaningful and effective end result that would have otherwise been marred singlehandedly by the ego of an arrogant designer.
So while Josef Müller-Brockmann excelled at visualizing motion and music in print, it is the generation of today that evolved graphic design from what was once a static visual medium into a multidisciplinary practice through the appropriation of new and different disciplines.
As a result, anyone from any profession becomes a designer. And for all the Anton Egos in design, what fulfillment is even gained in life if it is spent on gatekeeping this profession?
We should be developing as many great designers as possible and while a musician or an engineer or a dishwasher might seem far-flung to consider as one, by including these people in a design process they become valued contributors in making great work.
And from personal experience, to feel included, heard, and understood in a design process pushes me even more to produce good work. Wouldn’t this be a desired outcome for studios and companies to have on their design teams?
Good design practice requires risk and failure
It’s a disservice to oneself if instead of engaging and including, one decides to keep with the comfortable and take from conventional wisdom.
Sticking only to the traditional spheres of the art and culture we involve ourselves in and keeping away from the unfamiliar subjects at hand limit us from the wide scope that not only a thorough discovery and consulting phase provides but also limits us to the utility a multidisciplinary design practice offers.
It makes sense then as to why the full potential of a designer thus becomes incredibly difficult to achieve and why instead of the classroom as an opportunity for design discourse, criticism, and development, it devolves into a chore that design students must attend to complete a degree rather than receiving an education.
As a design student regularly in these spaces, I would argue that this reluctance to take risks, seeking the unknown and uncomfortable in designing stems from mainstream education being primarily institutional before being organic and decentralized.
But I am not an angel either and I too have found myself performing at the risk of a grade rather than genuine interest to seek and discover answers or solutions. Because at the end of the day my scholarship can only tolerate so many unsatisfactory grades and for other students, their jobs can only tolerate so many days off.
So how can we better consolidate the conflicts of receiving an education and balancing the obligations that tie us down? Of course the problematic nature of institutional education factors into our own individual judgment, but in my experience it again comes down to one’s willingness to sacrifice, learn beyond expected, and take risks in order to advance one’s self-development.
How much are you willing to give in order to get? How can you quantify the risk involved in order to achieve that desired outcome? How do you prioritize between developing oneself by exploring that unknown and putting bread on the table?
Good design acts in service to others
I am grateful to have even been given the opportunity to explore the inner machinations of a different art form and culture unknown to me and actually absorb the ways in which musicians perform. Unlike me, however, not everyone has that privilege.
Not everyone is afforded the chance to explore new ways of thinking or the chance to inherit new tools to further their practice. Some do not even have the knowledge on how to pursue a career as a designer (as I once was) and so what could even prompt them to seek the uncharted and engage with the unknown if they do not even have a bike to attach training wheels to?
I found one solution that isn’t terribly complicated. It really is just to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to you, learn as much as you possibly can, and make accessible this education of yours by way of teaching, mentoring, discussion, and interaction with those who do not have these opportunities.
We can complain all we want in our ivory towers the lack of meaningful design today and the proliferation of mindless design through social media but unless we actively seek that unknown and unfamiliar, we again not only limit the full scope of our practice but also miss out on the cultivation of a proper design culture by way of developing students and leading them towards success.
If we cannot take risks by including non-designers or inexperienced practitioners in the greater design process, how can we achieve a progressive and evolving design culture that stays relevant in a rapidly developing world?
How can we still tout the term “human-centered design” when we refuse to include the actual human subject and all its intricacies into the design process?
And how can we assume a design program as “educational” when students create work at the threat of a grade rather than with genuine interest, fascination, and desire to be exceptional designers?
I want to conclude by peering into the culture of programming and the Internet and how aspects in these areas advance the practice of design.
I mentioned earlier in my choice for the poster’s typeface Fluxisch Else was because of its open-source nature and the culture it represents. But think about if OSP-Foundry decided to make the typeface proprietary. You not only exclude access from me to design but you also remove the ability for other young, aspiring designers to test, experiment, and produce good work.
I read last month in a community Slack channel someone bringing to the discussion the contrast between programming culture’s fundamental practice of collaborative contribution and design’s awkward position today towards creative ownership.
It’s an important idea to think about. Because while designers find themselves in the cultural arena where ownership can become fiercely fought over, programmers do not necessarily face this same situation.
If we were to adopt a more democratic and collaborative culture for this profession (similar to programming culture), what might that mean for the future of this practice?
To be clear, I am not entertaining an idea of free labor and not paying designers for their work. I am bringing to the forefront the urgent conversation on making more accessible design practice and enabling all whom want to pursue such a career.
And to be clear, programming culture as a whole is not free from the many harms it has caused but the prevalence of open-source culture has allowed fruitful results and contribution is an essential component to its success but can we say the same for design?
How can we enable a new generation of designers if we stick to a traditional mindset of bureaucratic, unflinching proprietorship? If we don’t allow those who are not designers to design?
Again, designers never work on their own, and by developing a dialogue and inclusivity of a subject, our own work expands and deepens.
The least we can do towards advancing design culture and education is by rethinking the “stakeholder” label, adopting a more democratic, collaborative cultural standard, and extending access for learning to non-designers and inexperienced practitioners.
All it takes is honest engagement with people in these different disciplines and cultures, and take initiative to seek from them productive dialogue and discussion, learning anew from the conversation and relationships formed.
Designing in the end is really just an extended conversation.