WhooHoo Design

A drawing of a fig on a plate with watercolour

A fig on a plate

The client, maybe they took an art course in college or high school. They like art. They like design. They read magazines. They like looking at the labels on soup cans while grocery shopping. They have an eye for things, and a thrill of making things. Putting things on paper. Creating web pages. It’s a lot less complicated than their real job.

With luck you are presented with their enthusiasum right at the beginning. Here. Here is a sketch of what I want. I was having lunch. It came to me and I scribbled it on the napkin. No, that's the arithmetic — figuring out who was paying what. This bit is the design...I’m not sure the heading is in the right place...do you think the swoosh should be a little more swooshy?

Perhaps you presented with a list of expectations. Use this blue. I took it on his first birthday. Not that blue, this blue, the blue of my infant son’s eyes.

“I’m not sure exactly what we want, but I will know it when I see it.”

Or maybe you may hear those dreaded words, “I’m not sure exactly what we want, but I will know it when I see it.”

How to harness the enthusiasum while not tripping over the plethora of expectations, directions that have already been pinioned into the project like so many stakes on the rock face of visual communication?

Personally, I blame designers. If you have attended many presentations by those eminent in the design field, I suspect you have you heard the description of the process of designing a new logo, new web initiative that goes something like this:

“We met with the suits. The suits told us that they needed a new logo. The suits left. We drank. We played ping-pong. We worked 26 hours a day for three weeks. We crisscrossed the city taking iPhone photos of the insides of phone booths and found a retro soda fountain at a used furniture shop around the block. The suits came. We presented them with this (gestures toward amazing logo on screen). The suits wept and bowed down and we all went out for a great lunch. Three months later the company had six bazillion followers on Twitter.”

Brain surgery and car repair are very similar. They require professionals. Professionals who have tools and knowledge. The surgeon and the mechanic both listen to a recitation of symptoms. They do tests — sometimes with very expensive equipment — and then they approach the problem with a mixture of guile and skill and experience. Often in the middle of the process, something new appears that wasn’t in the brief, and they rely on their reserves of education, practical knowledge and natural intelligence to take an inspired leap. We don’t regard either brain surgeons or car mechanics as artists.

Our brains and our cars are too important to leave in the hands of someone with only as much skill and experience as we possess.

If we thought we could do the job better than a brain surgeon or mechanic, we would. Our brains and our cars are too important to leave in the hands of someone with only as much skill and experience as we possess. We go to a mechanic or brain surgeon who is smarter, more well-versed than we are in their particular field. We pay them the homage of trust because we know they know more than we do and have more experience.

With art everybody is an expert. There are no rights and wrongs except the ones we propose. Van Gogh is crap. I hate his clumpy sunflowers. Rothko is crap. He just got up occassionally and scraped some colour on a canvas. Francis Bacon, he’s, he’s whatever he is, he can’t draw light bulbs. Everybody has an opinion about art.

Artists sit in cafés. They may even work in cafés. Especially since the mid-twentieth century, no one asks a archetypical artist for directions, certainly not in the conventional sense. Artists are our priestess’, our medicine men, our shaman in a faith community that has few fixed guideposts. What we expect from them is not practical help, but leaps of faith and the ability to surprise us.

Designers would like to be seen as artists and popular culture would like to put us in that category — but not quite.

Designers would like to be seen as artists and popular culture would like to put us in that category — but not quite. Not as great maestri, grand artistes, but more like tame performers, petite creatives. Because the designers do, in the end, what the client tells them to, they can be regarded as something akin to jugglers or sword swallowers or very good jesters. Entertainers at an event someone else has planned. People with a mysterious grasp of something we all can sort of do, with a little practice.

Great graphic design, like all great communication, makes dramatic intuitive leaps that look both magical and self evident. But, until graphic designers treat the practice of graphic design less as an art and more as an occupation comparable to brain surgery or car repair, they will be expected to pull rabbits out of the client’s hat and it will need to be wearing a tutu similar to their daughter’s or their competitor’s — only better.

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