Say Hello to Your Design Demons

Based upon more than a decade in graphic design education I have a working theory called “Design demons” to explain the psychology behind the design process. In a previous post I looked at how design schools grades matched particular designers. Design demons more specifically looks at how the personality of the designer relates to the design process and therefore acts as a basis for giving individualised advice for designers to develop themselves.

There are three primary demons in the designer’s mind that each battle for attention. These are the Creative, the Critic and the Pragmatist. The label demon was chosen because these are powerful forces that can both help and overwhelm. Each demon has a different level of loudness, ability and affinity for a stage of the design process.

The Creative demon is the divergent thinker. Full of enthusiasm, curiosity and ideas this demon always has a positive attitude: “Wouldn’t it be cool if .... “ The Creative demon is the wellspring of new ideas. The Creative demon is at their best during the early “Concepting” stages of the design process though the Creative demon can have a role to play in later stages for problem solving. However, if the Creative demon is always coming up with new ideas then the project will neither be polished nor finished on time.

The Critic demon evaluates ideas and judges them. A strong Critic demon enables the designer to choose their best concepts and refine them further. The Critic demon decides when an idea is good enough to pursue further. Therefore the Critic demon relates to the Development and Refinement stages of the design process. An overly negative Critic demon will trap a designer into constantly going back to the drawing board. A poorly developed critic is unable to make decisions.

The Pragmatist demon is the taskmaster. This demon watches the clock, the budget, the ability of the designer and other available resources. The demon tells the Critic demon to stop being so picky and to move on because the deadline is looming. A weak Pragmatist demon will miss milestones. An overly safe Pragmatist demon will only allow easy to produce, safe ideas to progress. The Pragmatist is most useful in the feasibility and production stages of the design process.

Developing ability in each demon is part of a good design education. For beginning designers they will learn to listen to each demon in turn as they progress through the design process. More experienced designers can allow all the demons to speak at once.

Example of Design Demons 1: Often highly creative people struggle in graphic design programs because their Critic demon is too weak to rank concepts and the Pragmatist demon is not strong enough to keep an eye on the clock. Right up to the last minute their loud Creative demon will be feeding them with crazy off-the-wall and impractical ideas. These people can become successful designers by reigning in the Creative demon and allowing the other demons room to develop.

Example of Design Demons 2: Sometimes a designer can get stuck in a loop where the Creative demon cannot come up with anything to satisfy the Critic demon. This is either a sign that the Critic demon is too loud and the Pragmatist demon needs to make the Critic demon choose something that is “good enough”. Or, it could be a sign that the designer needs additional help in developing ability in the Creative demon.

My hope is that thinking in terms of Design Demons helps educating designers and gives a framework for designers to self-evaluate their strengths.


Future Design Careers: Getting started in Infographics

This article follows up the post on Information Visualization Design careers with some practical tips to get started. Some of you gave feedback that this was an area of design that interested you and wanted to know how to get started.

Like any area of design a portfolio is everything. Start by building up a infographic pieces and add these to the general design portfolio. Use some publically available statistics on an interesting topic – perhaps something that is currently in the news. Approach a charity and pitch to do an info graphic for them pro bono. Once the portfolio contains a few infographic pieces then the designer can add infographic to their list of skills.

At present there are few jobs that are infographic only positions. Most will be design jobs where you may get the opportunity for infographic work. For now, an in-house designer in a progressive communications department probably has more opportunity to create infographics than a studio designer. An in-house designer could approach the Information System department an offer to work with them to produce infographics.

While infographics will be a big part of our future, the current state of affairs means that infographic designers must create opportunities for themselves by selling the idea of infographics to their clients. Current clients just do not understand what an infographic is or how it can be useful in decision making.

Current infographics are flat 2d pieces that are generally posters. There is opportunity to produce data visualizations that are in other formats like on web sites or large displays. However these will require some coding ability on the part of the designer. A designer who already has ability to code could utilize their skills to produce live data visualization graphics.

Finally, aspiring infographic designers should participate in the growing infographic community in order to stay up with latest trends, get inspiration and build an understanding of what good infographics are. Some website links follow.


Future Design Software: The ExerciseUI

Recent research (see Men’s Health, NPR & NYTimes) has shown that sedentary office jobs, like those of designers, shorten lives, increase heart disease and increase weight. Since the research is conclusive and given the numbers of sedentary computer users about to enter their 50’s in the next decade the risk of Health and Safety lawsuits for employers increases. Designers are particularly at risk due to the addition of deadline hyper-focus and overstress. Sedentary jobs could become the next biggest wave of health lawsuits since the OOS/RSI lawsuits of the 1990s. If this happens then work place computer usage will need to change to be less sedentary.

At first employers will provide subsidized gym memberships, but these will be of limited use because gym attendance needs extra hours in the day. Employers will mandate exercise breaks but stressed users will not take these when under deadline pressure. The solution will be to include more movement in the actual everyday usage of computers.

There already is a growing awareness of the fitness potential of gesture based user interfaces. Nintendo already sell exercise related games that are entirely gesture based under the Wii Fit name. PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect are Sony's and Microsoft’s answers to gesture based gaming. Since the exercise potential of gestural user interfaces is obvious then it will make sense to build exercise into the office computer user interfaces of the future. Imagine controlling your computer and getting a work-out at the same time. An ExerciseUI is the cross over between gestural user interfaces and physical fitness.

Since we already have widely available consumer gestural technology then the only barrier to adoption is social and cultural.

Widespread adoption of ExerciseUIs will cause gym memberships to fall. However, personal trainers can find new roles on user interface design teams where they will consult on safe and good mixtures of movement for users. Since exercise is a very individualized thing, offices will have consultant personal trainers who will work with users to customize their ExerciseUIs for their health and ability needs.

At first people will complain about the extra physical effort needed to drive the ExerciseUI but their fitness levels will gradually increase. Short-term productivity may decrease compared to current mouse GUIs but longer term productivity and morale should increase for many tasks. The reason is that more exercise will improve physical health, mental health and give happy endorphin boosts.

During periods of deadline stress the extra physical movements and speed to drive the computer faster will help burn off deadly overstress hormones. Stressful periods that overwork the body into anaerobic stiffness will physically force users to rest between tasks. This will help them mentally balance stressful work better as they learn to take breaks when their body forces them and rest their brains.

Workplaces will need to change dress codes to allow for more exercise friendly clothing. Showering facilities will also be needed. ExerciseUIs will also require a bit more space per user compared to current office cubicles.

Provided ExerciseUIs give good productivity for common office computing tasks then there are few downsides and many benefits to adopting them. Lawsuit pressure might force this to occur sooner rather than later.

(Read more articles in the Future Design Software series.)
(Read about the first ExerciseUI project: WorkOut Poker Episode 1


Body Care for Designers: Design Makes You Fat

Previous Body Care for Designers articles discussed the importance of exercise and good nutrition for designers from the point of view of controlling OOS. Despite having access to this information many designers find exercise and nutrition difficult to control. Weight becomes an issue for designers and the effects are more than just from lack of exercise. The health of designers is at risk from self-reinforcing factors the spiral health downwards. This article explores those factors.

Designers typically work long hours in fixed positions over computers with little physical activity. There is the ever present pressure of the deadline and sleep is often seen as weakness. Designers also tend to be perfectionists and design generally has no clear measurements for success. This means that designers create a constant performance anxiety stress for themselves.

The right amount of stress is good for active humans needing a temporary boost in physical performance. Stress releases hormones; adrenaline which increases heart-rate to supply fuel to the body and cortisol which increases blood sugar for fuel, increases brain consumption of glucose prepares the body for healing. Adrenaline and cortisol are very useful for humans about to face a physical confrontation but potentially dangerous to a sedentary desk jockey. Stress hormones naturally flush from the body over about three days once stress has passed.

Over stress is very bad – this happens when stress occurs more often and with greater intensity than the body has the ability to flush the stress hormones. Prolonged over stress can cause many problems such as: Heart disease, insomnia, digestive problems, weight gain, memory issues, skin problems, depression and ADD. The consequent loss in performance from overstress can have a compounding effect as the designer gets more concerned about not meeting deadlines.

The hyperfocus on deadlines means that designers often neglect healthy routines and the circadian rhythms that government healthy sleep-wake-alertness cycles can get out of kilter. Pushing aside everything for the deadline means that designers will often forget to exercise. Exercise is important to help flush stress hormones to prevent over stress.

Focus on deadlines will have designers forget to keep good eating patterns. Mental fatigue tends to make the body crave easy calories like sugars and processed carbohydrates. Sleep deprivation can have much the same effect on craving. For some designers snacking will working can become compulsive. Stress does stop digestion so stress for prolonged periods starves the body of fuel so it begins to crave the sugars and carbohydrates to provide a quick energy boost. Stressed and sleep deprived people tend to consume more calories.

All this contributes to a spiraling worsening of designer health. The most telling sign for most will be weight gain. All the extra calories combined with little exercise means the risk of obesity is high. Other effects will be insomnia. Extreme cases will suffer depression, ADD and have severely impacted mental performance. These health effects all feed upon each other.

Designers must learn to manage stress. Everybody responds differently to stress and it is often about personal attitude towards a situation. Changing the attitude can go a long way towards lowering stress levels. Be more realistic about deadlines and if one might slip then talk to the client – often it might not be such a problem. Above all, maintain good sleep-wake-meal routines, eat good food, avoid energy dense snacks and exercise regularly. The more stressed, the more exercise is needed. Staying healthy and at good weights is just going to be that much harder for designers.


Future Design Careers: Information Visualization Designer

The future design jobs will be a series of articles that look at jobs that designers could be doing in the future. The intent is to give graphic designers a heads up on potential directions in their own careers. This first article is on data visualization designers.

Information visualization is where design and statistics meet. The information visualization designer’s job is to make data digestible. The intended audience should be able to interpret a good information visualization to understand key things about the under lying data. A data visualization designer works with a source of data and tries to find the important and interesting facts that lie within data. Data visualization is about visually interpreting data in order to produce good stories.

Information visualization designers will need solid layout illustration skills. It will help to have a background in statistics – though initially designers will work alongside statisticians eventually the role of information visualization designer will specialize to include a need for statistics too. The designer will also need good empathy with their target audiences to know what information they will want to know.

A person considering a career in information visualization should train as a designer and illustrator first and minor in statistics. Learning interactive design and programming (like Processing and Flash) will help the information visualization designer produce live data visualizations that can be run on demand. Animation and storytelling related subjects will help the information visualization designer learn how to produce information visualization animations. Journalism could be another useful supporting subject to learn about the standards and ethics associated with interpreting data for consumption by others.

There is a related field called “interactive data visualization” that provides interfaces for users to view the data in any way they choose. This is not information visualization because there is no interpretation of the data into information and stories. Interactive data visualization is most useful for those who are able to interpret the data for themselves. General and non-expert audiences will benefit most from having information interpreted for them.

Data visualization will become more important as our culture becomes increasingly visual. Viewers will be drawn to the simple explanations that visualization offers. In particular visualization can make scale comparisons and quantities easier to understand than words can. The discourse of the future will be increasingly visual as better access to data means we look for better ways to express that data in ways useful to viewers.

Data visualization will be used within organizations to help make better sense of the data they are already capturing. Data visualization will be used by organization seeking to make a point based on quantitative research: political groups, charities, lobbyists, advertisers. As information brokers the information visualization designer will play a central role future communications. The information visualization designer better have a keen sense of ethics.


Body Care for Designers – Exercise

Designers spend long hours at their computers in fixed positions. Their overall workload is sedentary and involves no great strenuous physical effort. The mental loads of designers tend to have them crave sugars and carbohydrates to feed their brains. Designers often have poor posture. A previous eturnerx article explored how to avoid OOS in these situations. In addition to exercise breaks, that article also suggested background fitness and exercise. This article discusses what form those exercises should take. Disclaimer: consult your healthcare professional – their advice trumps mine.

Consult the professionals before beginning any new exercise routine. This starts with a quick check up from your doctor then talk to a personal trainer. Many gyms will include a personal trainer consultation with any new membership – but it pays to ask. Let the personal trainer know that you work long hours at a computer, any areas of pain you have and what goals you have for your exercise regime. If you already have particular areas of pain then a doctor might suggest consulting a physio (physical therapist) who will prescribe remedial exercises.

In general, designers need a well rounded fitness routine – one that does not rely too much on just one of strength, flexibility, speed or cardio-vascular exercises. The exercises should be tailored to improving how the designer handles their daily work tasks.

One issue with sedentary lifestyles like design is that metabolic rate can slow and thus reduce the rate at which toxins are eliminated from the body. The static workloads of designers mean that lactic acid builds in muscles – particularly in the neck, shoulders, arms and hands. Most exercise routines will boost metabolism and a faster metabolism helps the body eliminate lactic acid quicker.

Cardio-vascular exercise gets the heart pumping for at least 20 minutes three to five times per week. This form of exercise is important to promote good blood circulation which will help flush lactic acid from the muscles where it may cause damage. Cardio also produces endorphins that helps combat the nervous stress of working to deadlines. Too much deadline stress builds up adrenaline in the system which can ultimately disturb sleep and shorten life expectancy. Strenuous cardio exercise can work off that adrenalin.

Designers should avoid too much anaerobic exercise – particularly in the arms and shoulders – because anaerobic exercise builds up lactic acid. Designers already have problems with lactic build up so anaerobic exercise should only be done if extensive warm up and warm down exercises are done to fully flush any lactic build up.

Stretching is an important part of the designer’s exercise regime. The daily static workloads mean that joints are rarely moved through a full range of motion so flexibility will be lost over time. Incorporating stretches into the exercise routine will help combat the loss of flexibility and promote better mobility as the designer ages.

Strength training to build (or maintain) muscle mass is important. Muscles are necessary to support the weight of the body and also have a background calorie burning effect. There is no need to become an body builder but do some strength training. A particular area to focus on is the core abdominal muscles that hold the upper body erect. A strong core can promote good posture and avoid back pain. Exercise systems like Pilates can promote good core strength.

Take care of those bodies designers, they need to last a career well enough to have a long and enjoyable retirement.

(The article on OOS discusses why lactic acid build up is such a problem for designers)


Productivity in User Interfaces

A recent poll on Lifehacker asked if an intuitive user interface was more important than functionality. The default answer is that content is king – therefore functionality wins. An intuitive user interface that does nothing useful serves little purpose. However the question is too short-sighted because it does not examine the relationship between intuitive and functional.

Firstly the question implies that there is a tradeoff between functionality and intuitive. This is not true because an interface can be both intuitive and functional at the same time. The two attributes are only rarely mutually exclusive. Good knowledge of the target audience (users) enables a designer to create user interfaces that are intuitively tuned to that audience in ways that provide the most functionality in the simplest possible way.

Consider productivity which is calculated as outputs divided by inputs. An interface’s outputs are the functionality it enables. The inputs are the costs of achieving those outputs which in interface terms is crudely the human time taken to achieve the outputs. This means that an intuitive user interface has higher productivity because outputs can be achieved in less time than with a less intuitive interface.

User Experience designers also consider the connotative side of productivity. They consider the feelings that the experience of using the interface will produce. These emotions are an important part of the overall message of the interface and should be support the brand message of the user interface’s creator. Feelings such as a sense of control, delight, ease, efficiency are all things that an interface can engender. Interaction is therefore must be considered strongly for its semiotic content alongside the traditional static visual communication based on composition that designers are used to. In static compositions perhaps color carries the most connotative meaning, but in a user interface interaction can surpass color in terms of the amount of meaning carried.

Accuracy is an important part of productivity. Even trained users make fewer mistakes when using an intuitive interface. Each mistake reduces productivity because it either takes time to fix when noticed or creates a negative output when not noticed.

Technological progress goes hand in hand with productivity. Functionality alone is not a good measure of progress because while functionality dictates what technology makes possible, productivity dictates what technology makes pragmatically probable. For example much of what jQuery does today for web designers has been functionally possible for over a decade however it took toolkits like jQuery to simplify things so that the time (and skill level) required to produce those outputs was reduced enough to tip the productivity equation in favor of more interaction on web pages. Also, computers have become cheap enough, fast enough and capable enough that they have almost completely surpassed traditional forms of doing graphic design in terms of productivity.

There are many more examples where convenience (reduced input) of technology has tipped the productivity equation in favor of greater adoption of that technology. As we expand our use of technology we see gain the view from a new creative horizon so therefore can look for even more ways to improve productivity.

If a user interface is just too difficult to use then the productivity equation swings away from convenient usage of the interface because the outputs are not worth the inputs. Therefore a user interface that has high productivity i.e. both functional and intuitive is more likely to achieve greater usage.


Future Design Software: Design Anywhere, Anytime

Mobile computing and cloud computing are big trends in computing at the moment. Mobile computing (and tablet computing) is the push for smaller devices that travel with us. Cloud computing is the push for computing to happen in large data centers connected to over the internet instead of on local machines. Graphic design has resisted these trends because it requires flexible and powerful workstations but it is undeniable that these two trends will have an impact on future design software.

There is an saying that “The best camera is the one that’s with you” (Chase Jarvis). This could also be applied to the idea that the best computing device is the one that’s with you. As mobile devices increase in capability it is inevitable that we will be doing more and more design work on them. Today, capable mobile devices can update websites, color correct photographs, edit videos and sketch concepts. While the productivity does not yet match desktop computers with more powerful processors and larger screens, it might be quicker to just do something on a mobile device in the moment than travel back to a more capable computer.

This is highlights an inherent weakness with desktop workstations – they are not easily portable and thus remain fixed in location. The trend is for people to spend less time at a personal non-portable computer and get out and about more. This means that personal computing becomes less important and mobile computing increases in importance.

Laptop computers are not really ideal. They are somewhat portable but battery charge life is still too short, the device too heavy for casual just-in-case carrying and the screen and trackpad combination not ideal for interaction. Laptops lack the always-on property of other mobile devices. Laptops will live on as slightly more portable versions of personal desktop computers but will generally lose out to other mobile devices like tablets.

At present most cloud based services work on data-storage with a web-application front end and maybe some custom software installed on local machines. In the future more applications with better interaction than current web-application silos will live in the cloud also. Computing will also be pushed into the cloud. This means that when the local device encounters a task that overwhelms it then that processing task can be seamlessly performed on the cloud. Seamless means with no user intervention required. Imagine if videos and complex 3D material rendered faster than realtime because of the economies of scale that large cloud computing datacenters can achieve.

The future will have more public kiosk computers and less laptops. When a mobile device is not enough then a designer can login to another other computer (such as a kiosk) and have their data, applications and processing power immediately available in a secure fashion. This can happen on a computer borrowed in a client company or a kiosk computer in a coffee shop/library. Desktops and laptops will become less numerous as more portable mobile devices become more prevalent and designers can rely on access to convenient access to computing kiosks.

Designers will then be freed to travel more – networking, visiting clients, getting in touch with their inspiration, discovering their target audiences. Journeys like this will enrich the design process rather than be seen as unwelcome distractions from productivity. Design might become more human again.

(Read more articles in the Future Design Software series.)


Designer Loyalty is Compromised

Ideally designers should create works that best suit the needs of communicating a message to a target audience. The reality is that the target audience is never a paying member so the designer’s loyalty is compromised by contractual relationships to act in the best interests of their employer or client. How does a designer resolve the tension between the competing interests of employer, client and audience?

In the long-term, the best interests of the employer are best met by serving the interests of clients. Clients whose needs are met show positive business results and can afford to become repeat customers. Repeat clients are cheaper for the employer so retaining clients and helping clients thrive is good for the employer. However, sometimes an employer will not necessarily act in the best interest of a client, for example by scheduling too much work, or knowingly taking on work that will not add much value to the client’s business. The employed designer is contracted to their employer not the client so may not always be able to act in their client’s best interests.

Freelance designers have the luxury of no employer relationship to complicate matters. By contracting directly with clients the freelancer need only resolve the tensions between the client and the target audience.

In the long-term, the best interests of the client are best met when the client’s offerings add benefit to their target audience. The role of the designer is to communicate the client’s message to this audience. Often though, in the interest of keeping the client happy and retaining their business, the designer will accept instructions from the client that run counter to their best interests.

So, to describe the chain of responsibility, the designer acts in the best interests of their employer by acting in the best interests of employer’s clients. The designer acts in the best interests of the clients by acting in the interest of the client’s target audience. This means that by satisfying the needs of the target audience both the client and employer’s long-term interests are met.

There are two problems with this chain. The designer has no contractual responsibilities to the target audience and thus can act for short-term gain at the expense of the audience. Secondly each link in the chain introduces a political element where the interests of the audience can become forgotten.

The way to resolve the tension is for the designer to advocate for the target audience to the client, and advocate for the client to their employer. In situations where the client gives instructions that run counter to their best interests then it is the designer’s duty to inform the client but the client still has the right to decide. In situations where client’s best interests are being compromised by employer actions the designer should inform their employer but recognize that the designer is contracted to their employer first so the employer gets the right to decide.


Poster Design Tips

An effective poster has both visuals and content that shines. This article gives tips for poster design aimed at the novice designer. As always, the experienced designer might benefit from the revision.

Viewers first engage with a poster at quite some distance. At first most of the poster’s details will not be in visible. As the viewer moves closer to the poster the visual elements uncover cleanly one by one rewarding the viewer with more to see.

Content needs three things. These are the hook, the body and the call to action. These things work together to form the textual content of the poster.

The content hook is a piece of enticing text designed to grab and hold the attention of the viewer. It is usually a clever tagline. A tagline does not need to inform so much as it needs to invite the viewer to continue viewing the poster. These should be short and snappy.

The content body is the main textual information of the poster. At this point the user has digested the visual hook and is ready for real content. Tell them enough to encourage acting upon the call to action.

The call to action tells the audience the preferred behavior desired of them. It is strongest if explicitly stated with a verb. Avoid implying the call to action – say it directly. If the both is good then the poster will contain enough information for the viewer to decided where to take the suggestion in the call to action. Example calls to action are: visit our website at… book online at…. Phone today for a free health check.

There are also three things to consider for the visual arrangement of a poster. These are the visual hook, the hierarchy and good eye flow.

The visual hook is an extremely dominant design element that is interesting enough to attract viewer interest from a distance. It will be the first thing that viewers notice.

Hierarchy is the visual dominance order of the design elements in a composition. The visual hook will be overwhelmingly the most dominant item. The next most visual dominant item is second in the visual hierarchy and so on. A good visual hierarchy has clear contrast in dominance between elements because there are problems when elements are close together in dominance.

Eye-flow is the two dimensional journey the eye takes over the surface of the poster. Typically eye-flow starts at the most dominant element in the visual hierarchy then progresses to the next most dominant element and so on. Good eye-paths are smooth and avoid the eye jumping around the composition. A good eye-path will have the viewer encountering the most important information first, followed the second most important information and so on. Eye-flow can be disturbed by gestalt continuations that throw it off course by indicating a different direction.

There are many successful posters that are set entirely on a centered top-down eye-flow – but this is the default solution and might be too boring. There is a western tendency to like eye-paths that move left-to-right, top-bottom so if the eye-flow moves in a counter-direction then the designer must make extra effort to ensure that each element in the hierarchy has enough contrast in dominance.


Make a Great Portfolio Website

Designers need a portfolio. The reality is that a degree alone is not enough to secure work. A portfolio is proof of what the designer is capable. It is fashionable nowadays for all designers to have a portfolio website to showcase their work and abilities. There are some do’s and don’ts that are useful to know.

A portfolio website is part of the designer’s personal brand. That brand should be properly unified across all the media it appears in: the portfolio website, the printer portfolio, the CV, the business card and even the any covering letters sent. This attention to brand detail not only fixes the brand in the viewer’s mind, but it also shows potential employers that you have a keen eye for detail and can work well with cross-media design projects.

Brand around the designer’s real name. There is no better representation for an individual. Designers should not dilute the power of their name by trying to introduce a brand for something they are not. Do not use a cutesy name for the portfolio and say “work by X”. Name the portfolio as X then simply name “collections” within that overall portfolio. Naming with something other than the designer’s name dilutes personal brand further by making the site appear as representing a small studio.

Be upfront about what the designer is looking for. If the designer is looking for work in Delhi then they should say that: “looking for freelance opportunities or full-time employment in Delhi”. This helps viewers understand how they might relate to the designer.

Ensure that work is front and center on the portfolio. Design work should the main focus of the portfolio so do not bury it under layers of navigation. Have work on the first page of the website. Feature design collections in the first level of navigation. Have a brief text statement contextualizing each piece of work.

Contact details and a CV are good to have online but be careful how much personal information is being offered for free. A good portfolio website should help others decide that the designer fits their needs, decide that they like the work and decide to contact the designer.

The design of the website portfolio itself says a lot about the designer themselves. A good portfolio should be functional and easy to use. Ensure that any interaction is simple and each to use. Make sure that load times are snappy and quick. Consider avoiding flash and using HTML/CSS with perhaps some jQuery to add polish. Definitely do not have a splash pages.

Use a custom domain name and website for the portfolio. While many on-line communities have great portfolio abilities (e.g. Flickr, Behance, DeviantArt) these websites include too many other things that distract from the designers work.

(Another related eturnerx article is: Use the Internet to get a Design Job)


Spot Problem Clients - Have Positive Projects

This article explores common warning signs from things clients say and discusses how to resolve these in a positive manner.

“I need this urgently!” – If this client’s expectation is met then they will think the designer will act with urgency on their future work. Ensure that the client is made fully aware that urgency is extra and not normal effort. Provide two quotes – one for the extra effort required for the rush job and one for an ordinary non-urgent job. Explain that over-time is charged extra, bumping other in-progress jobs costs extra. Seeing the financial difference their disorganization makes to their bottom line could bring the client in line.

“I’ve got lots of future work planned and friends who’ll give you more work too so give me a discount.” – This client wants the large project discount on their small job. They are trying to make themselves a more attractive client in order to extract more from the designer. The reality is that future work rarely happens. The client will expect the same cheap rate on all future work. If they do refer any of their friends then they expect their friends will also get the same cheap rate. The client might also expect additional benefits for the referrals. Suggest building a relationship with the new client first by working on the first couple of projects then reassessing the situation. Suggest that if the relationship is working well then future work can be dealt with by placing the designer on a retainer. Explain that retainer has the advantage of letting them budget easier.

“I’ll know what I want when I see it” – This client lacks a clear idea of what they are want. Expect this client to want a lot of revisions. They will be unhappy and will refuse to pay more on a fixed price job until they have exactly what they want. Uncover the client’s true needs through more discussion. The client might have difficulty finding the words to describe what they mean so make suggestions. Try and get on their wavelength. Contain the amount of revision rounds by being clear in the brief that the quote only covers two rounds of revisions and that further revisions will be charged for at a particularly hourly rate. Most clients will reign in the revisions because they are become aware that it’s not worth the extra money. Some clients will be happy to pay more.

“I can see what I want in my head” – This client will art direct the designer to death and complain when the concept does not match their vision. The positive way to handle this client is to suggest they sketch as much as they can to guide the designer. Discuss with the client that the designer can only interpret what they are told and that will look different to what the client has in mind. Reassure the client that the work will represent the message to the audience. Ensure that the brief is clear about the number of revisions included in the quoted price.

“It’s great, but it doesn’t express me!” – This client has mistaken their own persona as the message that should be delivered to their audience. Be careful because their ego is at stake here. Focus them on the real message their business is trying to represent and hopefully they will see how their persona might distract from that message.

Spotting the warning signs early means project can become positive experiences.

(If you like this article then you may also enjoy: The Client is NOT Always Right)


What do design school grades mean?

Over my teaching career I have seen identifiable patterns that match grades to the personality of the design student. This article is intended for the recent or current student and those who are hiring. These are generalizations so take care applying to individuals. Note: The grading system in this article ends in A+ so subtract half a letter grade for grading systems that end at A.

The Straight A/A+ Superstar has excellent design aesthetic backed up with strong concepting ability and good software skills. They are able to execute solid work with memorable flair. Works very hard and listens without appearing to take critique personally. There are good communicators with outgoing personality and charisma. The two negatives are that they might have an ego – especially if they don’t listen and they tend to be perfectionists that can drive themselves into mid-career health issues if they do not adjust to the deadline realities of the commercial world. These are the design superstars that will need room in grow in their careers.

The Performer has grades that range from B+ to A but predominantly has A-. This person produces polished work that lacks flair. Very keen to learn and can be trained to improve flair by focusing on creativity, contrast and a visual quirk. They are reliable and hard workers with good finishing skills. They are also perfectionists but have not yet developed their “designer eye” to the point where they can recognize great design and produce it themselves. These people can develop into superstars if they learn what makes great design great. These performers make good workers that have potential for improvement if their employer invests in them.

The Worker Bee students get grades in the B/B+ range. Typically they are solid reliable people who take direction well but are not the design superstars. They will put a lot of effort and can be counted on to pull long hours. They are also able to make compromises to get their work in by deadline. Aesthetically their work is good but not award winning. Typically some creative spark is missing - the flair is not there. Often the work is shallow style without a strong connection to concept or message despite the polish of the finishing. They are best suited for junior design roles, production roles and even project management or other design administration jobs. Without significant growth opportunity the worker bee will have a slow career trajectory but are probably happy with that.

The Creative has grades typically around C+/B- with a dash of A grades and the occasional D. This is the sign of somebody with more of an artist personality than a designer personality. They generally spend a lot of time thinking deeply about concept but the finishing and final aesthetic are rough. Typically they are the illustrators, painters and photographers who had a hard time adjusting to the discipline of layout, typography and design theory. They are easily distracted and have a cavalier attitude to deadlines. If they concentrate on finishing skills, deadlines and design aesthetics they have the potential to become future superstars but ambition is not in their nature. The creative is often highly intelligent, philosophical and engaging. They work well when teamed with a performer or worker bee because their concepting ability and risk-taking flair complement the finishing skills of their partner. Consider hiring as part of a large team or using as a freelancer on special projects.

The Dud: has grades in the D/C+ range and should look for a non-design career.

(If you liked this article then you might also like: The Designer Personality)


Body care for Designers – Occupational Overuse Syndrome

Designers these days spend a lot of time in front of the computer and this can have a negative impact on the human body if not managed well. Occupations Overuse Syndrome (OOS) occurs when damage to soft tissues goes beyond the point the body can naturally heal. If a designer wants their body to last for a career then they need to know how to prevent OOS.

The effects of OOS start with mild pains or weakness that passes quickly, then pain and weakness that has disappeared by the next day. At its worst, the pain is severe, debilitating and constant. The worst effects of OOS can be prevented if treatment and change happens early enough.

The early symptoms of OOS are muscle soreness, aches and pains, fatigue, hot and cold feelings, stiffness, numbing and tingling, muscle weakness. Not all of these symptoms need be present for OOS to occur, but some care is needed in diagnosis because they can be the sign of something else. Always consult your doctor. OOS develops over time so this list is early warning signs.

OOS is caused by tense muscles restricting blood flow and this allows lactic acid to build up in muscles and start to break down the soft tissues. As blood flow to muscles is reduced, not enough oxygen gets to muscle for energy so the body switches to non-oxygen methods to supply energy. The by product of this is lactic acid. Muscles tense up when held in the same position for long-periods of time without movement. Stress can also cause an inability to relax which increases muscle tension.

The best prevention is to avoid doing the same type of task for longer than 40 minutes. After 40 minutes either take a ten minute break or switch to another task. Try pausing every few minutes and use stretches and other exercises to restore blood flow to stiff areas. Maintain a good body temperature to maintain good blood flow to extremities.

Good general health and fitness also helps. Eat well and remain hydrated to aid blood circulation and improve the bodies ability to process lactic acid.

Designers are particularly at risk from OOS. They have the stress of deadlines, consume dehydrating amounts of caffeine, sit with bad posture for extended periods and often don’t take breaks or vary their workloads. The singular focus on deadline often means designers will ignore pain and discomfort and push through instead of short exercise and rest. Designers need to be more aware of their bodies and realize that a designer career is a marathon not a never-ending series of sprints.


Finding Design Jobs During a Recession

Recessions are difficult times for designers. Less money is spent by business meaning that design studios close. Fewer design firms are hiring and those that are have their pick of experienced designers. It is not easy for the recent design graduate who lacks commercial experience. What can they do?

Can the job seeker relocate? Being flexible about the city they live in will open more job opportunities. Some people cannot relocate and they become restricted in their choices because they are limited to the opportunities available locally. Some cities and regions might not have many design jobs. Design jobs are typically found more in larger centers.

Consider finding any job to help cover the bills in the meantime (e.g. retail). Some work experience at anything establishes a track record of punctuality, reliability, professionalism and trust. A job might also provide networking opportunities where design ability can be shown. A job with limited hours leaves excess capacity that can be used to continue looking for design jobs.

Network with business people. Use social connections to let people know that this designer is looking for work. This might lead to freelance opportunities (which count as commercial experience) which might lead onto job leads. Other designers might be able to help out with freelance jobs and job leads but typically this will be limited to the crumbs that fall from their tables – and those crumbs become less during recessions. Therefore, spend more time networking with the non-designer contacts. Go to social events and occasions. Talk to people. Find the bars where businesses have their Friday drinks.

Use the Internet to help find a design job, but do not rely exclusively on the net because it is a supplemental tool only. Build an online presence that includes a portfolio. Use social networking sites to find jobs and leverage your networks. The internet is also a good source of tutorials for designers to expand their skillsets.

Build both commercial experience and portfolio: Studio work equals paid freelance which is better than charity work which is better than school work which is equal to hobby work. Build the portfolio via whatever means possible. Each piece should build commercial experience and/or improve the designer’s skillset.

Consider asking for internships in design studios. Friends who are designers might be able to help with leads for internship placements. Internships are usually unpaid but can be a networking opportunity and a chance to gain some real experience. Even a few days or a day or two a week around another job can be helpful.

Do not wait until conditions are perfect. Procrastination allows opportunities to slip past. It is not necessary to have the perfect portfolio or the perfect CV. Often these things are only finalized in response to a job lead.


Future Design Software: Streamlining Critique

Critique is important for designers to judge the appropriateness of their designs and to progress in their craft. Unfortunately for the working designer the pressures of budget and time and the difficulty of finding people to critique work mean that critique rarely happens. Future design software could change that.

Ideally designers should get critique from designer peers, clients and the target audience. Each brings a different perspective to the work that is important for different reasons. Client critique is usually built into the design process because it is the easiest to do – there is often a single client representative who critiques before they signoff work.

Critique from peer designers is more difficult to come by. There are design communities like Behance and DeviantArt that will critique but those communities are too public for pre-release design and the level of critique is often not high – despite being enthusiastic. Design critique should come from experienced people whose opinions you trust. These people are probably already in your social network (like Facebook).

Research I co-supervised for Kerrin Meek’s Honours work looked at how social media could be used for designer critique. While in the early stages, many good ideas were explored. The central idea is that by extending critique notifications into the activity stream of others and making those critiques easy to accomplish, peer designer critique might become more successful.

Facebook already allows for posting images and collecting comments. This can functionality can be extended by adding semantic differentials, alternative image voting, and critiques where hotspots can be highlighted for comment. This can be done via a third-part website that integrates tightly into the Facebook experience using the existing Facebook API.

Target audience critique is a more difficult to organize – especially with the speed demanded by many design projects. Market research companies already have large databases of willing participants sorted by demographics that are used to working online. The missing piece of future design software is a website where designers can place their work for critique in standard forms (comments, votes, surveys, questionnaire, semantic differentials), assign a budget, and have that targeted towards a particular demographic. If the process was thus streamlined through future design software then costs could come down and turn-around times improved. As costs and time decrease then the feasibility of adding user critique to a project increases.

Future design software has the potential to revolutionize designer peer critique and make target audience critique more affordable both in terms of time and money. Would you consider expanding critique in your projects?

(This is another article in the Future Design Software series.)


Research and the Design Process

Good design process starts with research. Designers have learned to research from a variety of sources and things like Google and Google image search have made research easier than before. This article covers why designers should research, what they should research, how to research and some tips on gaining the most from research.

Research has two purposes. The first is to inform designers on what they need to know for a particular project that they do not already know – or at least to remind them. Secondly research should inspire designers by pointing out areas where the designer can improve upon the status quo in order to create a true point of difference to their work.

Research for a design project should research anything where the designer is deficient in knowledge. This will usually be around the client, their business, the design works used by the competition and the messages the client wants to communicate. Target audience research is also important where the designer does not already know them well. Finally, if the designer is unfamiliar with a particular medium then the social and technical aspects of that medium will need research too.

Clients can supply answers to many of the research questions relating to themselves and their business. Larger clients may also have good research relating to their target audiences available from their marketing departments. Research into the design in use by competitors can be found either online, in the yellow pages or by visiting competitors and taking ephemera. Research into medium can also be done online and designers should consider trialing technical media skills before using them for real in a project.

While the internet has revolutionized the availability of research information, don’t forget that books, libraries, newspapers, trade shows, television and site visits are also great sources of information. While online research is fast it is not as thorough and does not necessarily gather examples of how a competitor’s brand was applied across more than just the online medium.

Designers research the design works used by competitors to get ideas on the visual signs that are used to denote particular segments of industry. For example courier companies and fast food outlets like to use red and seafood outlets use blue. This knowledge enables the designer to produce work that communicates the relevant industry segment, but does not come too close to competition’s design. Competitive research should also give the designer ideas on where they can improve the status quo because being just as good is not good enough.

The tangible outputs of research are pages of information and visual examples. The visual material may be eventually formed into mood boards. Good research should be properly completed by being summarized then having recommendations drawn from the summary. Many designers do this step in their head but for larger projects that potentially cover many designers, the summary and recommendations should be explicitly put onto paper to cover make them more communicable to the rest of the design team.

Good research does not need to take much time on smaller projects. It can be done quickly and not only informs a strong concepting round but can also avoid the embarrassment of producing a design solution that looks too much like a competitor’s.


The Client is NOT Always Right

Too often designers see clients make poor decisions. We are familiar with the phrase “the customer is always right”. This phrase is never to be taken literally – even in the medical profession where the customer can make a medically stupid decision, the right to decide is still theirs. The phrase is probably better reworded as “the customer has the right to decide”, “the customer should never be made to feel they are wrong”, and “the customer signs the cheque so they are in effect right or you’re fired!”

The purist form of graphic design communication is where both the client and designer are removed from the equation and the work becomes the delivery of a message via a medium in a way that it is clearly understood by the target audience. Ideally all decisions should be made based upon what works best for the purist equation. The selfless designer knows to remove themselves from the equation, but it can be difficult to have the client remove themselves. Clients add a whole new political dimension to the design process.

The client might have strong aesthetic preferences that do not match the purist equation. The client might see design as a chance to express themselves in ways that make no sense to the audience or add no value for the audience.

Sometimes clients are motivated by the desire to art direct designers thinking that the client makes the aesthetic decisions while the designer drives the computer. Such clients see the design process as a chance for them to be creative – often with no understanding of what creativity means in graphic design. If the client art-directs by continually making aesthetic comments about the work then try to change the conversation back to the purist equation. Get them talking about how the design enhances communication to the audience.

Respond to client suggestions positively. Show the client that you have considered their idea and have something better to show them – even if that’s still your original idea. Dismissing client suggestions outright can make them hostile and put future work with them in doubt.

The common phrases “educate the client” and “sell the design” are useful but this is best done indirectly by focusing on how your proposed design best serves communicating to the target audience. Convincing clients is easier once you have gained their trust in your abilities as a designer. This might mean backing up your opinions with research and the authority that comes from experience – but don’t be arrogant about it.

The client does know more than the designer in some areas so always listen to their opinions and reasoning. The client generally knows more about the target audience, the competition, the business environment and the unique value proposition they bring to their customers. Take advantage of their greater knowledge by directing the feedback you ask for from them. Where the designer generally has stronger knowledge is in the tactical decision of using aesthetics and media savvy to communicate the client’s message. Inexperienced designers do need to be careful here.

In the end, if you can’t convince the client then you either do what they say or you fire them. The choices are that stark. A client who orders you about is probably not likely to give much repeat business because they do not respect your abilities to make aesthetic and communication judgements. Bring all your interpersonal skills to bear to build a positive relationship where trust grows.

In summary, try to make the conversation about the purist equation and not about the aesthetics. Talk about how the design improves communication of the message to the target audience.


Style is the Message

Stylistic trends in design surround us. Shallow is a criticism that is leveled at lazy design where the underlying ethos of the style is forgotten and the forms merely emulated – often for inappropriate things. But style, used correctly, can be powerful. Just as much as “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan), style changes the message too.

Style is emergent – that is style emerges from the decisions of people creating things in the visual realm of a sub-culture. There is rarely a conscious decision to create a style, the creation of style is grassroots not top-down. Even top-down styles are proposals that must gain acceptance from the grassroots creators of visual ephemera. There is not a one-to-one relationship between styles and a sub-culture. Just as sub-cultures do not have black and white boundaries, neither does style.

Fashion is the style that is in now. Fashion comes about because of the human need for novelty and newness. That means styles that are overused become tired. But style can have a phoenix like life cycle where an out style is recycled with a modern twist as “retro”.

The stages that style moves through are: emerging, now, cliché, kitsch, forgotten, retro. Emerging styles are those that are beginning to gain traction but are not yet main-stream within their sub-culture. Now are the current main-stream accepted styles. Once a now style starts to become over-used it loses the power of its ethos and newness as it becomes cliché. Eventually the cliché becomes kitsch – something humorous to poke fun at then the style is forgotten. Style can remain forgotten for quite some time before it becomes the now retro style. Retro is a nostalgic nod to the past that re-interprets the old ethos of the sub-culture in the terms of now.

As the sub-culture changes the style needs to evolve also or it risks becoming out of date. The clothing fashion industry as long understood that creators must always look forward. Creations have a life-time that extends from creation into the future. A good design will stay “now”, or “in fashion” throughout its intended life-time. Simply copying the “now” style of today means that it will become cliché sooner.

Why does style work? Style is familiarity. Style contains the visual cultural markers that help an audience determine if the message is for them. It is the uniform or the tribal dress that betrays outsiders in disguise to the sub-culture insiders. Style contains the visual passwords that determine the authenticity of the message’s voice. Style is the “spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down” (Mary Poppins).

Provided the style is authentic then it can ease a message’s passage to a target audience. By referencing the works of other creations in the visual sub-culture a new creation can place itself loyally within that sub-culture.

More than just easing the acceptance of a message, style also abbreviates the ethos and messages of a sub-culture. Therefore, style is a constant reinforcement of sub-cultural values

Shallow style results from inauthentic misinterpretations of the visual codes. A good designer should seek to understand a style, the ethos it represents, and the relationship it has with its sub-culture before attempting to create in that style.


The Designer Personality

Design is a curious activity that mixes many disciplines, modes of thinking and personal traits and focuses them towards achieving an outcome. The designers mind can process different modes of thought each with different value systems. Pro-designers do not even switch between thinking modes – their minds just think multiple ways in parallel. Previously eturnerx has explored how to spot a potential designer early. As an extension this article explores the personality traits that make the designer successful.

The designer is both creative and critical. Creating and to critiquing are in constant conflict within a designer. The trick is to let the creative run free and the critic come in later to provide the reality check. If the critic is too strong then the designer will become paralysed. The systematic design process even instructs designers when to be creative and when to critique (e.g. during concepting).

Design is a pragmatic activity that must balance many factors to ensure good outcomes. As well as considering budgets, deadlines and personal skill levels, designers must also consider the message, the medium and the target audience. Because design solutions are ultimately born into the real fancy theories count and elegant production count for nothing compared to just making it work. Designers first concentrate on getting it done, then (if time permits) on doing it right.

Good designers are deadline focused. They manage their time / task allocations with a keen eye on that deadline. This deadline thing is so innate that designers easily become frustrated with those with more lax attitudes to deadlines.

Designers are inherently results focused. They can sometimes become so tunnel visioned about result they want that they do not care about the journey towards producing that result. This unfortunately includes neglecting personal relationships with co-workers, friends and even family.

Designers have an obsessive attention to details. Little things annoy them. Designers have strong emotive reactions to even tiny niggles they see in the visual world around them. They will use up all available amount of time adjusting something over and over until it is just right. This behavior confuses outsiders who cannot see what the fuss is about because they do not understand the aesthetic considerations at play. One area novice designers can improve their productivity is to avoid endlessly adjusting something: just decide and move on.

In order to pragmatically weigh up the attention to detail with the deadline urge successful designers have learned to “let it go”. That is, once time is up, the work is complete. Yes, the work would be with more time – but the needs of the next job soon consume them and any regrets are soon forgotten away.

Designers selflessly remove themselves from the equation. They facilitate a client’s message via a media so that it is clearly understood by the audience. That leaves little room for artistic self expression. Designers also understand that creativity for them is not about the most original outcome but about the most appropriate outcome.

A designer is confident enough that they can take critique of their work in a positive manner. They know that while they should "sell" their design and educate the client, critique is not about automatically defending their work, the critique is usually motivated by an honest desire to improve the work. They have long since learned to deal with the emotions that go with having work critiqued.

(If you liked this article then you might also like: What do Design School Grades Mean?)


Concepting: A how to guide

Creating concepts (or concepting) is the most creative part of the design process. During this phase designers will explore widely looking for a diverse range of potential solutions. Done properly, good concepts lay the foundation for great work at the end of the process. Good concepts executed well are the ultimate aim. Poor concepts will fail even if the final execution is good.

Experienced designers will abbreviate the concepting phase – sometimes skipping concepts altogether and going straight into refinement. An experienced designer may also concept directly in their minds. Doing this successfully depends on the creative skill and experience of the designer and is something new designers will trouble doing. One reason for skipping paper concepting is the pressure to deliver to tight deadlines – though proper concepting need not take much time. When an experienced designer feels uninspired they can fall back into using a more methodical approach to concepting.

Concepting should be preceeded by research. The more familiar the designer is with the client, their industry and the target audience then the less research is needed.

Work on paper. Stay off the computer during initial concepting because the computer is not fast enough. The computer screen is low resolution compared to paper so often stacking concepts side by side is difficult and takes effort. Even with a drawing tablet there are just too many distractions.

Draw ideas quickly as they come. Hold the positive aims of the project in your head. Switch off critical thinking and do not worry about the project’s constraints and boundaries for now. Good concepting lets the poor ideas, the clichés, the unoriginal and the mistakes out onto paper so that they don’t mentally block the designer. This allows the designer to break through into the truly original ideas. Quantity of concepts has a better chance of producing some quality concepts then over-thinking during this phase so focus on drawing any idea that comes. Let the hand and subconscious be creative.

If the designer maintains the constraints/boundaries in their minds during concepting then they will concept ideas that fit too comfortably within those boundaries. This will result in small ideas that are unambitious and safe to the point of uselessness. It is better to have a big idea and then modify it to fit the boundaries then it is to try grow small ideas into big ideas. Find the concepts most appropriate for the audience and tweak them to fit the boundaries later. (see Pushing Boundaries)

Once intial concepts are on paper then they can be critically looked at to eliminate the poor concepts and select the best ideas. Most jobs will require selecting a few concepts for the client to choose from. In this case select the strongest different ideas – not the ideas that look the best. If the ideas are not strong enough then it might be necessary to rewind the process: more freeform concepting or even more research.

Concepting need not take long. It can be done in minutes on a napkin. Ideally concepting should end when the designer has strong concepts but there is never an unlimited amount of time in the budget. What elevates a designer’s creativity above that of the average person is being able to come up with high quality ideas in a limited time-span. This is something that improves with experience.

In summary: research, concept on paper, suspend critical thinking, focus on quantity, select the strongest ideas.

(Read other eturnerx articles on the Design Process and Creativity)


Creativity needs Imagination and Execution

The importance of creativity in design cannot be under estimated. Without creativity design becomes shallow copying that produces solutions that do not fit the problem. Creativity is both originality and appropriateness. But how does creativity relate to execution?

Another word commonly used for creativity is imagination. Imagination is both the ability to come up with original thought and the ability to think if a particular solution will be an appropriate solution to a design problem. The thing that links imagination to reality – the actual production of a piece of design – is execution.

Execution is the ability to take an idea and produce it for real. Good execution utilizes skills that are developed and honed over many years. The uninitiated will call somebody creative if they have an ability to execute ideas (great at drawing, good at Photoshop, good at painting). Often a person gets the “creative” label even if their imagination is low.

It is possible to be highly imaginative but have poor skills to execute. An idea is useless without execution but the imaginative-high/execution-low person can still be successful if they can find others to complement their weakness. For example, junior designers can provide high-execution ability to an imagination-high art director. The relationship is synergistic because both art director and junior designer create better design solutions than if they each worked alone.

The most successful design is that which is both a highly creative concept and is executed well. Audiences these days are so used to good design that poor execution (even with good concepts) are generally dismissed so both concept and execution must be good. A designer who is weak at execution mix for a particular project (e.g. not a web-coder) should consider employing somebody who is good, or accept that they must take longer to learn the skills necessary to execute well.

So far, this article has implied that imagination comes first then execution follows. However it works in a more synergistic fashion. Often creativity occurs when execution is underway – that is once an idea has been realised then the designer’s imagination sees further possibilities (the creative horizon extends). The systematic design process has parts that use intuitive rather than rational thinking. This suits designers with ability to execute because they can devote more time to the idea and less to the muscle mechanics of executing the idea, so therefore the idea can be bigger. An example of this is that someone skilled at executing web design will often do their concepting work directly in HTML/CSS code.

Always start with highly creative concepts and worry about the ability to execute later. Fitting a design to execution will result in small ideas that do not challenge (and thus extend) the designer’s technical ability to execute. Think of execution ability as a pragmatic boundary that should be pushed.


Design is Decision Making

Design is a decision making process. It is a search for possible solutions then deciding which of the solutions to execute. The design process gives a broad range of possible solutions that can then be agreed upon and then refined into the best solution.

A broad range of possible solutions is good in design projects for many reasons. The designer might not fully understand what the client wants or the target audience needs. There is difficultly in communicating design goal nuances and so the best way to deal with this is by proposing potential prototype solutions (“concepts”). The aesthetic needs of a project might also need exploration to avoid unoriginal clichés. A situation (the total of the boundaries) might be so unique and outside the experience of the designer that extra care must be taken in finding the best solution. Also, the creative thinking of a designer is usually done through the action of pen to paper, mouse to screen.

The design process is meant to come to the “best” (most appropriate) solution. This is great when a designer has the luxury of time. Systematic decision making, such as the design process, become less and less useful as time becomes pressured.

Fire Commanders work in a very time pressured situation where the criteria for decision making is “safely and quickly”. They know that a decision that gets the job done safely (which implies quickly before the fire spreads) is better than waiting around for the “best” solution. Fire Commanders make decisions by initially assessing a situation, coming up with a plan, checking the plan for likely failures then executing the plan. During execution they will constantly reassess the situation and tweak the plan. Fire Commanders do not have the luxury of time to consider many alternative plans. So how do they make the right decision? Experience.

Interestingly, a proposal for Fire Commander training looks very similar to the educational models used in atelier design schools. Design schools (e.g. mine) train both systematic process and experience - and so equip students well for a variety of decision making in their future design careers.

Many graphic design industry professionals I’ve spoken to work in time pressured situations so their decision making abbreviates the systematic design process until it resembles the decision making model of the Fire Commander. This does risk “best” for “expedient” – but often expedient is good enough. Again, expedient decision making is most successful when the decision maker is experienced.

The best way to learn to make good decisions is through experience. It is even better if that experience is guided by a mentor. The best way to gain experience is through doing then reflecting upon what was done. Understanding the work of other great designers can also teach a new designer how things can be done. Just looking at a design work is not enough. Understanding a design means connecting the design to its proper context by decoding the message, the medium the target audience, the client and how these all affected the work.

So, the default rule is to always follow the full systematic design process. Realistically this rule will be broken often. Rule breaking is most successfully done by those with experience. When a designer is not confident in their experience for a situation (or just simply uninspired) they should expect to spend more time and follow the full systematic design process.


Future Design Software: Ranged Imaging Cameras

Ranged image cameras are a recent technology that capture distance information as well as light. As software support develops these cameras may come to have a big impact on the way that photos are taken and manipulated for use in graphic design compositions.

A single 2D photograph that includes distance information becomes 2.5D. This is not full 3D because the camera has only captured light and distance information from a single perspective. However future photo manipulation tools can take advantage of depth information. Depth information will help software determine more naturally the objects contained within a scene so that pixel masking will become easier. Simply every adjacent pixel at a similar depth is probably part of the same object. Combining existing 2D edge detection with the distance information will make automatic object selection much more accurate and faster. So objects can be moved, moved or replaced much easier.

Depth information will allow for stretching in the Z dimension to create interesting perspective effects. By manipulating the depth information directly and recasting the perspective into 2D space rooms could appear longer, a car on a road accelerates and a scene can be flatten like an old cartoon.

The most interesting possibilities come when multiple ranged image cameras are used. A simple rig of two (or more) cameras starts to give 3D capabilities. The rotation of objects could be tweaked, the angle of the viewport could be tweaked or the position of the camera changed. Such data could be fed into 3D software or 3D painting programs with a little conversion.

If objects are moved in 3D space then the lighting will look wrong. Fortunately, in 3D with pixels and ranges, it could be possible to guess the light sources and perhaps even automatically modify the pixels as they are rotated to fix lighting effects. Or the designer could leave the lighting incorrect on purpose – relying on the near undetectable incongruity of “wrong” lighting to have an attracting effect on the viewer.

Technologies like QuickTimeVR would move in a far more life-like manner if ranged image information is taken into account. Presently zooming in QuickTimeVR tends to stretch objects that are near to the camera, but off centre from the zoom. Utilizing distance information would let QuickTimeVR handle these objects in a more natural way.

The possibilities for prosumer level ranged imaging are enormous and could have a big impact on the way we edit images in future.

(Read more articles in the Future Design Software series)


Inspiration: The how to guide

Designers work best when inspired. The muse myth externalizes the source of inspiration as something divine and therefore something at the whim of the gods/the universe and thus beyond the control of the individual. This mythic viewpoint also assumes that inspiration is beyond teaching and training. This attitude is just wrong.

Inspiration for designers is the motivation to create. A designer who is feeling uninspired feels both unmotivated and uncreative. Things that are inspirational both motivate us to create and make us think creatively. Inspirational things give us the imagination to see original possibilities and the motivation to realize those ideas.

In low-inspiration situations the systematic designer can fall back on the design process and hope that jump starts inspiration. Just forcing themselves through the process can unlock creativity and create the momentum to motivation. However the design process benefits from inspirational flair, so what if the inspiration block remains?

Focus on fixing the motivation first. Low-energy levels will reduce motivation so fix that by sleeping, eating, going for a walk or waiting for illness to pass. Do whatever it takes to get the brain active again. Deal with any negative emotional issues and distractions. Then focus on the benefits of completing the task at hand. Motivation is about positivity so visualize what completing the task will enable you to do. Complete a goal? Afford a night out with friends? A new toy?

Sparking creativity is about working the imagination. Reboot imagination by playing “what if” scenarios in your head. Think of two seemingly ridiculous ideas together and imagine how they could be related together. Look at images and pick parts of them and think how they could apply to your project. Technically inspiration can be found anywhere, but designers often find inspiration in nature, the surrounding environment (take walk), the fine arts and the work of other great designers. Being around other creative people can help you get into the right modes of thinking.

Inspiration is the mindset of curiosity, imagination and wonder. It is a space where all things are possible and all ideas have great outcomes. Expose yourself to new things, explore your imagination and wonder “what if”. Cultivate these things and inspiration will come.


Future Design Software: Studio+ Project Workflow Tools

Our current software enables us to work at the level of documents but has very little to help with the wider issues of managing a project and the associated work flows. While there is software that solves parts of this problem the real power comes when the pieces come together as an integrated whole. What might such a piece of software look like? Let’s call this hypothetical software Studio+.

At the beginning of a project client details and project details could be input into Studio+. Projects can be based on project templates from a library (or an existing project). Once all deliverables, deadlines and other parameters are known then a full contract can be generated for the client and briefs for the design teams. Studio+ will track the status of such project and alert if something is taking too long. Studio+ will also create appropriate disk directories for projects and schedule appropriate backups.

Studio+ can also create briefs for outsourcing parts of the work to freelancers. Briefs can be sent to certain people or published to an online marketplace for bids. Studio+ has tools to help project managers select from freelance bids, send out briefs, send out source files and integrate completed files into the overall project. Freelancers can temporarily be given shared access to project files.

Once the project is underway Studio+ can automatically associate files and folders with a project. This means that time-based billing can occur automatically when a designer opens a file for work – of course this can be manually modified if the designer leaves the file open while they go for lunch. While time-based billing might not be in use, studio managers will want to know how long designers are spending on tasks to better plan their future human resource needs.

Studio+ has knowledge of the files necessary to create milestone outputs. Once the project reaches a milestone then the files can be assembled and converted for delivery to the client for sign off. Perhaps a studio manager will want to do a final approval before the milestone material is sent to the client. The signoff process can be fully automated via return email.

Studio+ can also communicate status updates to clients and report both the overall progress of a project and when the client is expected to do something (sign off approval or provide content). By integrating project management tools Studio+ is able to estimate the expected finish date of a project. Perhaps clients can engage better with the design process when their role is known.

Studio+ also knows the relationship between a rendered file and the source file that created it. When a source file is changed the designer is asked if they would automatically like to update the rendered file. This applies to JPEGs, Videos, Animations and PDFs.

Once a project is completed Studio+ can archive files for the future and change the file backup policy. Internal reflective reviews can be incorporated to help designers feedback process improvement ideas to management. The account managers will also be signalled to suggest when to do follow up calls to the client.

Better project management and workflow tools can help make the studio more efficient and provide valuable metrics for the proper allocation of resources.

(This is the third article in Future Design Software series.)


Beauty is not in the individual eye of the beholder

The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (BIITEOTB) is often misused to justify poor design – situations where somebody tries to justify poor taste by judging according to their individual preference. The actual meaning of the phrase goes further than individual taste and shared understandings of aesthetics.

One way of interpreting the phrase BIITEOTB is quite simply that an object is not innately beautiful in of itself – it is that perception of that object by a viewer that makes it beautiful or not. In a similar vein Roland Barthes proclaimed that the author is dead meaning that the reader/viewer decides on the meaning and by extension makes aesthetic judgments of beauty. The creator of an object does not make imbue an object with beauty but the creator can make an object that is likely to be perceived as beautiful.

Another way of looking at BIITEOTB is that there is individual judgment involved. Humans are not actually as different as we might suppose because many of our aesthetic experiences are very similar to other humans. Because of it is useful to divide the eye into three aesthetic judgments. These are universal aesthetics, cultural aesthetics and individual aesthetics.

Universal aesthetics are generally shared by all other human beings (see an Absolutist Theory of Beauty PDF). For example: humans are commonly drawn to symmetry and order. There is fMRI research that scanned the brains of people who looked at images and ranked them for beauty. The images with the highest beauty rankings were the ones that cause the least brain activity. This suggests that the roots of universal aesthetics are in things that are “easy on the eye.” Interestingly the Chinese word for ugly is难看(pinyin: nankan) which literally translates as “difficult to see”. Evolutionary research suggests that our love of aesthetics is rooted in judging healthy partners to create strong offspring.

Cultural aesthetics are aesthetic tastes that are shared amongst sub-sections of the human population. It’s unclear whether these are nature or nurture – that is in the DNA or learned. More likely these are learned preferences and things that a person likes because they have become used to them and have strong emotional associations with them. Cultural aesthetics encompasses things from modern tribes such as music genres or strong brands. Most target audience research in graphic design tries to uncover the cultural aesthetics of our audience.

Individual aesthetics are where individual taste comes into the equation. The effect of this is probably much smaller in normally well adjusted humans than the effect of universal and cultural aesthetics. One situation where individual aesthetics becomes powerful is in the faces of family. Repeated viewings of family faces with strong emotional ties creates a familiarity that resonates deeply within an individual and overrides the universal aesthetic. Again there is a survival evolutionary basis for favoring family over others.

Graphic Designers will study universal aesthetics and master these. Much of the teaching in typography, design principles, grid systems and colour theory are based on universal aesthetics. Further education of the designer has them explore cultural aesthetics so that they can better communicate to their target audiences. Graphic designers usually leave exploration of individual aesthetics to the fine artists, the fashion designers, the illustrators and photographers.

So next time somebody says “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” remember that eye has aesthetic judgments that are universal, cultural and individual.


MAYA and Creative Horizons Theory

Industrial designer Raymond Loewy pioneered the concept of the best solution being the Most Advanced Yet Most Acceptable (MAYA). The concept looks at appropriateness from two angles – the first being how advanced the idea was then limiting that by what the target audience would find acceptable. Loewy said “The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”
The best designers exercise high MAYA, that is they have their advanced ideas but know when to allow acceptability to limit that idea. Once an idea was in the public space then what is acceptable to the public expands because they have been exposed to new ideas. A famous example is the Beatles who started by releasing fairly safe popular music but became increasingly experimental as their fame allowed.
As always, when concepting ideas always start with creating the most advanced ideas first. During concepting boundaries” (and “Yet Acceptable” is a boundary) must be relaxed or overly safe ideas will happen. Once the concepts are created then the “Yet Acceptable” constraint can then be used to filter the concepts. The essence of the MAYA ideal is to be touching the “Yet Acceptable” boundary, not to remain safely within it.
Creative Horizons Theory (CHT) suggests that most people can only see a single horizon away from their present set of ideas. CHT also proposes a set of creativity labels for each horizon step away from the status quo (Copy, Derivative, Cool, Visionary, Crackpot). Both MAYA and CHT say that a solution too advanced will be unacceptable to its audience. CHT further suggests that an idea too far from the status quo is based on conjectures and assumptions about the solution that are more likely to be wrong the further from the status quo they are.
When you have your next wild idea consider using the lessons of MAYA to making the idea more immediately acceptable by walking it back a few Creative Horizons. Once the revised idea has been accepted then the true vision will have a better chance.


Use the Internet to get a design job

There are many tools on the Internet that can help you find and get design jobs. Nothing beats real life networking and knocking on doors with the CV and Portfolio but using this in combination with the Internet will help your efforts.

Many employers will Google your name. Try this yourself and if the results are not flattering then consider increasing your digital footprint on good websites and increasing the privacy settings on your personal life related accounts (such as Facebook). If you have a portfolio website and it is not coming up highly in the search results then ensure that the site follows basic SEO principles and submit it to Google.

A personal portfolio website can be a good tool – but it must be kept up to date. Make sure that your name and employment status is up to date. Make your work the focus of the website and avoid long runs of text. Keep the navigation simple and straight forward. Go for flair on these websites because you want to make a memorable impression. Traffic will not magically find your website – they will discover a link to your site in other places like business cards and places you have gone online.

Portfolio websites such as Behance and DeviantArt are excellent for getting work online quickly but the community nature of these things means that attention is taken off you and your work very easily. Interacting with these communities is good but remember that most of the people there are also competing for the same work that you are.

LinkedIn is a great website for professional networking. Update your profile with a resume of your experience and add a small portfolio of work. Link people to your personal website. Join Design related groups and get involved in the discussions there. These groups often have job postings and the members are usually helpful if you are prepared to fully engage with the community instead of drive-by spamming.

Twitter is another great tool for job-seekers. Follow as many local studios as possible because often job openings will go out via their twitter feed first. The same applies for Facebook pages – follow as many studios as possible. It also helps in getting an inside look into a studio that you can leverage if you get an interview there.

Do not underestimate the power of old-fashioned networking. The more people you know and converse with, then more likely one of them knows of a job or has freelance job that needs doing. Widen your circle beyond design friends because they only pass things on to you that they do not want. Make contacts in the wider business community. Ask people you know (even relatives) for introductions. Ask to be taken to social occasions where possible – just get out there.

Always try to contact potential employers by phone or in person. Email is just too easy for them to ignore. A voice on a phone makes you a real person and allows your personality to come through in ways that email cannot.

Good luck it is tough out there.


Pushing Boundaries

Graphic designers are always encouraged to push the boundaries. What does this mean and how do we do this successfully? Pushing a boundary means testing a pre-conceived limitation on the design project with ideas that ignore (or modify) that limitation. Any constraint or boundary may be pushed provided that it increases the appropriateness of the work.

A graphic designer must understand the boundaries of the project. Boundaries include: client preferences, budget, time, designer skills, what is appropriate for the target audience. Some boundaries can be quantified (deadline and budget) while others are more nebulous (client preference). Most boundaries will require client buy-in to change. A change in budget or a deadline could have legal ramifications if not agreed to by the client.

Beware the lenient boundary – this is where a client has given more rope than they are honestly prepared to accept. For example: The client says “we don’t want to look like other widget companies” then starts critiques with “doesn’t look enough like a widget company”. If this happens then note how your understanding of the boundary has shifted or be prepared for many rounds of revisions.

Another boundary is the limitations of visual thought in the designer. Initial concepts are often cliché and follow the trends of the day. Visual research is great to inform a designer but inform does not equal copying or direct derivation. Following the design process helps designers break free from the boundaries of initial thoughts.

Concept ideas that are bigger than the constraints set by the boundaries. Targeting a design for the boundaries results in work that is too safe. It is much better to have to scale a big idea downwards to fit boundaries than to scale a small idea upwards. At a minimum a scaled big idea will still contain a suggestion or vision of the bigger idea. Usually the process of scaling the idea will help a designer just which of the boundaries can be pushed. “Status quo plus one plus one” thinking can be useful in imagining concepts to become larger.

A tip in pushing visual boundaries is to temporarily relax boundaries one at a time then try concepting with each relaxed boundary in mind. Concepting becomes a matter of asking “What if that boundary was further out? What ideas are now possible?” Relaxing boundaries is a brute force way for out of the box thinking because it makes room for the designer to challenge the box itself.

Related articles: Creative Horizons Theory, The Wow Factor