Design became part of the English language in the 1930s. In English, the word is both a noun and verb. As a noun, it means intention, aim, plan, scheme, plot—all alluding to someone being cunning and clever for the plan to exist. As a verb, it means to draft, sketch, or fashion. The word design is derived from the Latin word signum, meaning "sign".
To have any design, Intention, Innovation, and Technology are often required. Intention requires creatives to first consider how human needs need to be served and how to make experiences better. Technology requires creatives to understand materials, hardware, and software for a design to exist and function. Innovation requires creatives to think about context, creativity, and strategy to develop an original design.
Individual Vs Collaborative
Individual Design originates from one person drawing, writing, and experimenting, where the individual is the sole proprietor. This is the classical way of understanding a creative, which is more akin to how artists are identified. Examples of these types of designers include Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Frank Lloyd Wright. While these designers are known to employ teams and collaborators, their individual vision is always comes first.
Collaborative Design happens when groups of people with different expertise design together. This means people in the fields of business, human resources, urban planning, engineering, and marketing can collectively contribute to a design. A formal process for the group to work through on a single interface contributes to collective focus. Inclusivity and diversity are strengths as a breadth and depth of perspectives provide a check and balance for bias.
The premise of all design is discovery. People who’ve discovered new ways of doing things are often trusted to lead this process due to their inherent courage, discipline, humaneness, intelligence, and vision Communicating with confidence and from experience through a wide range of situations sustains this trust, but to solidify it, uniting teams who produce excellent results ethically is essential.
Designing begins with people and people seeking to understand each other. Having credible knowledge of the needs, motives, and behaviors of people obtained through observation, conversation, and research is a good place to start. Design as an iterative process, one that invites failure to arrive at successes. Exploring the development, acceptance, refinement, and rejection of designs allows designs to be tested against their own merit. The experience of designing is a deeply immersive experience requiring creatives to imagine, re-imagine, and play without boundaries to discover what’s possible. A culture and environment that is comfortable for people to fail in and encourages healthy growth and development makes the designing experience better for everyone.
In 1942, amid World War II, Edward Hopper painted one of his most celebrated masterpieces, titled “Nighthawks”. A rectangular 5-foot wide canvas presents a corner diner in an urban environment frozen in the dark hours of the night, a scene lit by ceiling fluorescents eclipsed by long flat lines of a horizontal roof balanced on thin beams between tall, wide glass windows. We're voyeurs to the diner’s world, witnessing four figures dressed in black, blue, red, and white, commanding our attention against the vacant street outside. Warm yellow walls of the room illuminate against the cool dark blues and muddled greens outside; dancing facets of architecture leading us to the woman in red studying a green object in her upturned hand.
Upon closer inspection, we enter a small world of the urban dwellers, gazing. Their sightlines intersect in different depths of field toward what appears to be money being inspected in the woman’s hand, yet we can’t be sure -- the lack of inscription leaves the viewer trapped in a paralleled questioning observation. The style of their crisp clothes, clean and flatly colored is echoed by angular walls that close them in. The light casts shadows on their faces accentuating cheekbones; the man’s eyes shaded by a fedora's brim. A smokeless cigarette points from his hand in front of hers, almost touching hers, but the depth of space reveals they aren't, a dramatic suggestion of romance. Her coffee cup exhales steam; his only a reflection against the counter. Across the long wooden surface that loops toward us, a lone empty glass sits next to a napkin holder with salt & pepper shakers, offering symbols for the waiter, couple drinking coffee, and perhaps the viewer... Then, we notice a man in a dark suit and fedora with his back against us, apart from the main focal point of the painting yet directly in the center of the composition. Edward Hopper was known for wearing a wide-brimmed fedora, so the suggestion of the artist present is plausible. Looking closer, he lifts a glass above his shadow on the counter with a newspaper folded flat beneath his left elbow.
The rhythmic geometric planes of folded newspaper and dollar bills, dramatically lit architecture, and crisp fashion contrast the detailed stoic faces which hold a pause of introspection. Hopper’s masterpiece presents a moment of wrinkled stillness against the melodrama of WWII across the ocean in Europe, reminding us the quiet night is never simple.
Hopper, Edward, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111628
When we're innovating and creating, there's always a reference, typically drawn from research and experience. From abstract to realistic, form to function, or usability to accessibility, it's important to consider our points of reference for the work we're doing. This drives reason, purpose, taste, and innovation.
When we get our hands into the work, it's easy to get wrapped up in the details and technicalities. After all, this is the work that gets the job done. But, starting with the customer or audience experience and working backward to the details and technology that makes it possible is the right way to move forward. This perspective causes more problems and failures, but true innovation happens from solving these problems and learning about said failures produce discovery. In a sense, staying in the unknown is where the unexpected happens and while the ambiguity of being there may feel uncomfortable, it's also the most exciting place to be.
When we're working through these problems, it's wise to consider nature and science as sources for inspiration. Mick Pierce, an architect working in Zimbabwe designed the largest building in Harare without air conditioning by researching termite mounds in Africa and Australia, resulting in a building that uses 90% less energy than all those around it. This shows us that when we strive to understand the complexities of nature and science, we can draw out principles that lead to innovation.
While research is typically associated with the sciences, it can readily be applied to any creative process. At the dawn of industrialization, solving new problems related to production techniques, efficiency, and performance, so people studies these subjects to answer problems in society and business. Today, people are researching human behavior and the brain to analyzing problems differently and questioning existing solutions.
Ultimately, the inspiration for innovation can come from anywhere at any time. Fazlur Khan was inspired by a pack of cigarettes held by rubber bands when he designed the 108-story Willis Tower in Chicago. This is to say, being open to unexpected sources of inspiration could prove most important. The question is always whether we have the right sources to work with.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the introduction to "Mother Night":
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
This is similar to what it means to get better at something. We're all students in our fields in some capacity, which recognizes we'll get better over time. If being an artist or designer provides a power of sorts, we've made a degree of commitment to the desire of that power to some end. As students first, we owe it to ourselves to understand the importance of our context in history, as we relate to other fields and the audience we serve. Our understanding of our audience can influence the work we do more than anything else.
The part I enjoy most about Vonnegut's quote is the word careful; there are two meanings:
- making sure of avoiding potential danger, mishap, or harm; cautious.
- done with or showing thought and attention.
The first is the most associated meaning, one avoiding risk. The second expresses thought and attention.
If we are to be artists and designers, we should be those who are not afraid of taking risks; who understand the context of our work, especially as it relates to our bias and audience. If we are to create at such a capacity and shape the future of the field, the responsibility is not just a power, but a gift and a weight that should humble us. Anyone who abuses power can easily be recognized as arrogant. Our duty is to serve our audience and our field at our greatest capacity, just as we believe people in their respective fields do the same.
If we care not only for how our work addresses our audience, the form of our lens must comprehend history, be capable of being reformed through self-reflection, understand the present clearly, and be capable of projecting a contribution for the future.
If we care, that care will make us better at what we do over time. If anything, caring is more important than power because it shows respect for others, ourselves, and our field. The potential for doing our best work is still ahead of us. If we are to contribute, our thought and attention should be aimed toward the responsibility of becoming the best we can be; not the power that comes from getting there.
I've always enjoyed studying the work of Marcel Duchamp. As an artist, he played riddles, jokes, and moves with his audience. He was an excellent chess player; he played professionally. When I compare these roles he played, I imagine the chessboard chess opponent are metaphors for the artwork and viewer... the similarities are striking, except his moves as an artist are hidden unless we trace his logic, which leads us to an eventual "checkmate" in each of his artworks.
So, who are all the players in art and design? It's important to anticipate these 4 stages and 12 players of any innovation:
- Designer or Artist - creator
- Client - person or company paying the designer or artist
- Manufacturer - materializes the design or artwork into the physical world
- Business - markets and sells the design or artwork
- Target Audience - audience the artwork or design is marketed to or intended for
- User / Viewer - actually uses and/or experiences the artwork or design
- Disposer - person or company disposing or recycling the artwork or design
- Archiver - person or institution preserving artwork or design
- Scholar - person or institution researching, writing about, or exhibiting the artwork or design
- Appropriator - person or animal that uses the product for another purpose
- Student - person who studies the creation for deeper understandings, historical context, and appreciation
- Thief - person who steals the idea of the creation and passes it off as their own
All references of race, worldviews, languages, bodies, minds, emotions, animals, and aliens are intended as satire. I personally hold no prejudice toward anyone.
When I took out my sketchbook purchased at a big box store that’s 8 1/2 x 11", I did so because it’s the only size everyone uses. I used a Bic pen because it’s universal. It fits perfectly into all of our four-fingered; one-thumbed hands and contrasts so against our light skin so we can see it better. We read the English branding on the pen just like everyone else in the world. When I click it against the wedding ring on my ring finger — sized for everyone—I feel a sense of relief, evaporated from all anxieties of discomfort.
Then, I began to design. I looked through my unisex glasses designed for everyone to see better with and when I wrote, my handwriting was legible for everyone, including those who read and write in Arabic, Mandarin, and Braille. The ink was chosen so even my colorblind dog can read it. I’m so happy in my stretchy t-shirt fitted for every child, woman, and man paired with a matching baseball cap with a plastic fitting mechanism on the back so it fits babies and those with pituitary adenoma. My design is liked by everyone in the world, including the blind, illiterate, and dyslexic. It was inspired by our environment. I live in Chicago, a city of glass, steel, and concrete—rich variations of gray… so, when I think of friends in rural Oregon, who have some of the greenest nature in the United States, I know they feel the design could’ve been created by someone who understands their aesthetic sensibilities most.
When I think of my clients, they’re all the same. Just a pocket of money asking me for the same design I sell to everyone. I don’t see a reason to revise it because it’s worked for 25 years now. 25 years is all it takes to know. I don’t use computers because tangible designs last longer than digital designs. If you want to use it, you’ll have to buy it from me in person. No shipping. It’s been presented on billboards, in virtual reality worlds, and used to represent every product and service ever offered, revealing the inside joke of vector graphics. Every artificial intelligence that’s tried to recreate it just jammed up.
I’m a purist, so the design will last forever. It is and will always be better and more relevant than everything else ever designed. It’s divine. All perfect things are divine. If your worldview doesn’t align with divinity or perfection, it’s okay because it’s still designed for you. It’s simultaneously designed for every individual and organization. It’s designed for every extraterrestrial being, including those in parallel universes. Time-travelers agree — it’s the best there is, ever was, and ever will be.
So, we’ve decided to close down the field of Graphic Design because everyone in the field has either become depressed or changed professions. Fortunately, my design is bringing people out of depression because it stimulates every feeling, dwarfing depression to a cakewalk.
One design for everyone, forever.
"When I first started working, I had this kind of vision that around the world there was this kind of thin filament and around that world, there were particles in that filament, very widely dispersed... and those particles were people who were looking for me. You know, they didn't realize it, but they needed me and I was certainly looking for them. And, I realized there were people out there who saw the world the way that I did and I had to somehow get in touch with them — to find them. In order to do that, I had to work that was very pure so that I could put out a pure signal so that eventually that signal would pass through that thin filament and that one person in Rotterdam would see it, hear it, and find me. And, in order to do that you have to live very modestly. If you want to do the work that is really your work so that you have the freedom to do the right thing."
Bruce Mau said this in an interview with Michael Renaud for a talk I attended in 2014 during the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Humanities Festival. At the time, I wasn't consciously engaged with the field of design like Mau, but I experienced his Massive Change exhibit in 2006 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, so I was thrilled to be in the audience.
Mau's way of working purely connected with the ethos I've had throughout my career. When we work, having a client, user, viewer, or audience provides empathy throughout the creative process. Beyond and more broadly, the way we work is an infinite game, one where ethics and purpose drive us to do work that matters; work that helps us contribute to making our world a better place.
How do we keep this infinite game in perspective on a daily basis?
Stay modest, seek high-quality learning experiences, don't chase short and fast rewards, and according to Bruce Mau, stay pure to maintain your freedom.
A cup is the most intimate object. Embracing it with our hands, we raise it to our face to consume its contents with the senses of smell, taste, and touch.
Imagine two cups: one is a mass-produced machine-made diner mug — one we've all seen or used countless times. Its handle is large enough for one, two, and sometimes three fingers, aware of multiple preferences. The white, neutral glaze is consistent and helps us see the contents easily, which seem more important than the mug itself. Its white surface needs to be maintained for cleanliness, for the future.
The other is a one-of-a-kind mug made by ceramicist, Matthew Schiemann. Its handle is only large enough for one finger, curving toward the shoulder of the mug, a curve that echoes at the bottom side of the body where the opposite hand, when cupped, fits in its embrace. A modest foot reminds us it also belongs on the tabletop. The dark glaze on the inside contrasts with the speckled green and brown gloss on the outside that appears spontaneously uncontrolled, yet consistently covers the surface of the stoneware clay. This mug is made for the present moment, for the observant individual.
Modern design emphasizes systems, geometry, and grid structures that control a future-oriented approach. Its precision, autonomy, and openness consider its audience broadly and economically.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term, opposite of modernism. It emphasizes imperfection, natural materials, one-of-a-kindness, and personal experiences.
In the modern to wabi-sabi spectrum, where do you drink from?
After finishing breakfast this morning, I picked up my keys, opened and closed the front door behind me, opened up the car door, sat down, closed the door, and realized I left my lunch on the kitchen counter. It was so easy to walk through those doors because the designs of these doors and complex locks are so elegant and reliable, I was able to thoughtlessly change my environment. This is good design.
When Elon Musk invented and patented Tesla’s sleek, automatic door handles, he encouraged a more elegant and joyful relationship between a person and a car.
When we think about relationships, we often think about the spaces between people, environments, products, and interfaces. How can we connect people more elegantly, seamlessly, and joyfully to what we make?
Humans are endlessly complicated, as studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine. Within and around such complexity, we design systems and products to manage and serve our needs.
Raymond Loewy, who helped establish industrial design as a profession made the drawings below in 1933, which communicate how simplification happens over time:
With such radical complexity in our lives, a simple design that addresses direct needs is better than a complex design that tries to do too much. When something is reliable, it appears elegant and unstoppable. So, when a design is complex, refine towards simplicity to test reliability.
"Becoming is better than being."
― Carol Dweck
"He not busy being born is busy dying."
― Bob Dylan
"Becoming is superior to being."
― Paul Klee
“What you’re thinking is what you’re becoming.”
― Muhammad Ali
"I am that which I am becoming."
― Maxine Green
The origins of the phrase "Where Ideas Sing" comes from a song of the same name written by Saba, a hip-hop artist who was born and raised in Chicago. Among the signs, logos, and advertisements on Michigan Avenue (known as the Magnificent Mile), this design is painted on the south wall of the new Apple store that faces the Chicago River. The new phrase celebrates Apple's brand, which has long celebrated creativity, innovation, and those of us who "think different". The large letters are centered, handwritten, and cursive without capitalization, punctuation, or any typographical emphasis other than how it contrasts against the white wall and the flashy "Chicago Tribune" and "Trump" logos surrounding the store, marking a new age of branding.
Matthew Hoffman, who designed the display is most known in Chicago for his "You Are Beautiful" campaign, built on the premise of delivering an uplifting message directed toward the individual in public spaces. This design on Apple's new flagship store identifies a place where the individual can celebrate and bring their ideas to life using the technology Apple sells.
The premise Apple is marketing here is technology should no longer be thought of as a tool to help our brains think differently — it's an extension of the body to express ourselves, providing an amplifier for our voice.
Politics aside, these prints present three women of different ethnicities with four symbols appropriated within. The first is the usage of red, white, and blue, colors: red symbolizing valor and bravery, white symbolizing purity and innocence, and blue symbolizing vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The second appropriation is the American flag on the center (and most well known) poster, a fabric flag wrapped around the face of a middle-eastern woman. The third being the Bald Eagle eating a serpent on the woman on the right's t-shirt, the symbol representing the battle of the present and the past. Finally, the fourth appropriation being the words "We the People", the first three words of the Constitution of the United States.
As designed objects, these were utilized during protests in January of 2017. The digital files were published for free downloading with prints being given to those who donated to the Amplifier Foundation. This meant the posters quickly became icons for the nationwide Woman's March on January 21st, 2017. Socially, these designs became symbols for ideas about feminism, diversity, and patriotism for individuals and groups across the United States.
Good design requires an experience that makes us feel good.
But, who markets the design, who will educate users on how to utilize the design, who will fix the design, and how will the design be retired after its lifetime has ended? Every design has a life and users experience each phase of that life, so considering the entire ecosystem surrounding a design is paramount to how it makes them feel.
Furthermore, how will the design be experienced over time? Learning how to use the design, mastering the use of the design, enjoying the design, and sharing the design with communities contributes to how we feel independently and in our at work, home, and learning environments.
Designed experiences can be readily found in some of our culture's most successful businesses:
Each of these companies offer an experience that makes us feel good time after time, building our trust, confidence, and mastery with using their designs.
It's easy to get in the rhythm of getting better at something. After all, it feels good to be competent. But, context changes. Instead of getting better, consider the broader system and community to understand where you connect. Learn where others are struggling and where you can improve the overall work being done.
We're in this together. Ask why to get to the bottom. Bring others with you and work together from the ground up to build something better, something more collaborative. Chances are, your team will be more motivated, engaged, and invested. Money can't buy that kind of commitment.
The concept of “empathy” was born in 1873, when the German philosopher Robert Vischer wrote a dissertation on aesthetics. Vischer coined the word "Einfühlung" to explore a human's capacity to enter into a piece of art or literature and feel the emotions of the artist or author's work through the work itself or its characters. Einfühlung can be broken into two parts, "Ein", which means "into" and "fühlung", which means "feeling". When combined, it translates to “feeling-in.”
In 1908, Edward Titchener introduced the word “empathy” to the English vocabulary by combining “em” (Greek for “in”) and “pathos” (Greek for “feeling”), and the word stuck. Empathy has taken a ride through the fields of philosophy and psychology, elevating its importance in academics, but more importantly when we create and design for an audience or user in mind.
After a 100 years, empathy has become a driving force in creative processes in the arts, design, and business. Bringing the word to the front of our conversations raises our awareness of others and keeps the work we do from serving ourselves to the those around us.
It's Martin Luther King Jr. day and I've been researching a variety of signs from the civil rights movement this morning. There's a sign containing "I AM A MAN" with "AM" underlined, which is the only part of the sign that contains a major typographical difference aside from the condensed typeface of the second line. There are only 4 words, seven letters, and 2 colors in this sign, yet "am" holds great power over how the words are said aloud during a march and what the sentence means. The poster harks back to another poster designed in 1837 by Josiah Wedgwood for the American Anti-Slavery Society, containing the words "AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?" written on a banner below a chained slave begging upward toward God or perhaps another person standing. Those words are from John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains", written in 1834.
This fusion of design, poetry, and history forms the culture we experience and inevitably contributes to our empirical understanding of the world around us.