Michael Bierut | Essays

Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content

A few weeks ago, my colleague Jessica Helfand posted an article on this site about the possible introduction of a national identification card here in the United States. Within an hour came the first comment: "What does this have to do with design? If you have a political agenda please keep it to other pages. I am not sure of your leaning but I come here for design."

I come here for design. Lawrence Weschler's recent article got some similar responses. ("Obscure references...trying to impress each other...please, can we start talking some sense?") In these cases, our visitors react like diners who just got served penne alla vodka in a Mexican restaurant: it's not the kind of dish they came for, and they doubt the proprietors have the expertise required to serve it up.

Guys, I know how you feel. I used to feel the same way.

More than twenty years ago, I served on a committee that had been formed to explore the possibilities of setting up a New York chapter of the AIGA. Almost all of the other committee members were older, well-known — and in some cases, legendary — designers. I was there to be a worker bee.

I had only been in New York for a year or so. Back in design school in 1970s Cincinnati, I had been starved for design. It would be hard for a student today to imagine a world so isolated. No email, no blogs. Only one (fairly inaccessible) design conference that no one I knew had ever attended. Because there were no AIGA chapters, there were no AIGA student groups. Few of us could afford subscriptions to the only design magazines I knew about, CA, Print and Graphis. Those few copies we got our hands on were passed around with the fervor of girlie magazines after lights out at a Boy Scout jamboree. No How, no Step, and of course no Emigre or dot dot dot. We studied the theory of graphic design day in and day out, but the real practice of graphic design was something mysterious that happened somewhere else. It wasn't even a subject for the history books: Phil Meggs wouldn't publish his monumental History of Graphic Design until 1983.

In New York, I was suddenly in — what seemed to me then, at least — the center of the design universe. There was already so much to see and do, but I wanted more. I was ravenous. Establishing a New York chapter for the AIGA would mean more lectures, more events, more graphic design. For the committee's first meeting, I had made a list of all designers I would love to see speak, and I volunteered to share it with the group.

A few names in, one of the well-known designers in the group cut me off with a bored wave. "Oh God, not more show and tell portfolio crap." To my surprise, the others began nodding in agreement. "Yeah, instead of wallowing in graphic design stuff, we should have something like...a Betty Boop film festival." A Betty Boop film festival? I wanted to hear a lecture from Josef Muller-Brockmann, not watch cartoons. I assumed my senior committee members were pretentious and jaded, considering themselves — bizarrely — too sophisticated to admit they cared about the one thing I cared about most: design. I was confused and crestfallen. Please, I wanted to say, can we start talking some sense?

I thought I was a pretty darned good designer back then. A few years before, in my senior year, I had designed something I was still quite proud of: a catalog for Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center on the work of visionary theater designer Robert Wilson. The CAC didn't hire me because I knew anything about Robert Wilson. I had never heard of him. More likely they liked my price: $1,000, all in, for a 112-page book, cheap even by 1980 standards.

The CAC's director, Robert Stearns, invited me to his house one evening to see the material that needed to be included in the catalog: about 75 photographs, captions, and a major essay by New York Times critic John Rockwell. I had never heard of John Rockwell. To get us in the mood, Stearns put on some music that he said had been composed by Wilson's latest collaborator. It was called Einstein on the Beach and it was weird and repetitive. The composer was Philip Glass. I had never heard of Einstein on the Beach or Philip Glass. Stearns gave me the album cover to look at. I noticed with almost tearful relief that it had been designed by Milton Glaser. I had heard of Milton Glaser.

I was completely unfazed by the fact I knew nothing about Robert Wilson, John Rockwell, Einstein on the Beach,or Philip Glass. In my mind, they were all tangential to the real work ahead, which would simply be to lay out 75 photographs and 8,000 words of text over 112 pages in a way that would impress the likes of Milton Glaser. With single-minded obliviousness, I plunged ahead, got the job done, and was quite pleased with the results.

About a year after my disappointing meeting with the planners of the AIGA New York chapter, I finally saw my first Robert Wilson production. It was the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. And sitting there in the audience, utterly transported, it came crashing down on me: I had completely screwed up that catalog. Seen live, Wilson's work was epic, miraculous, hypnotic, transcendent. My stupid layouts were none of those things. They weren't even pale, dim echoes of any of those things. They were simply no more and no less than a whole lot of empty-headed graphic design. And graphic design wasn't enough. It never is.

Over the years, I came to realize that my best work has always involved subjects that interested me, or — even better — subjects about which I've become interested, and even passionate about, through the very process of doing design work. I believe I'm still passionate about graphic design. But the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can't get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing good work as a designer. To me, the conclusion is inescapable: the more things you're interested in, the better your work will be.

In that spirit, I like to think that Design Observer is a place for people to read and talk about graphic design. But I also like to think that it's a place where someone might accidentally discover some other things, things that seem to have nothing to do with design: Ethiopian grave markers, Passover tales, 50-year-old experimental novels, cold war diplomacy. Hell, I wouldn't even mind a post on Betty Boop.

Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism

Comments [62]

Hear hear! Everything is design. It's kind of weird to think that anything isn't. I'm a 3rd year Communication Design student @ ECIAD and I feel like we're being taught the "everything is design" way, which is super-interesting and super-fun. It's like NBC tells us: The more you know... I've never understood the "I come here for design" mindset. It's all relative. Fill your toolbox, people.
Phil W.

With ya phil. We should try to understand as much as possible so we have a better basis to design when that problem comes up. I think design is interesting because we hardly ever design for designers.

There are a lot of people working in design doing pedestrian work - maybe they are young, or maybe they have lost their passion, or maybe never had it in the first place - they are content to be technicians executing someone else's plans. If you want to do "big" design, your world has to be big and you have to have a voracious design appetite. (Granted, it's hard to keep up sometimes.)

That said, if I may play devil's advocate for a moment - of course you can write about whatever you want, but on a blog entitled Design Observer, expect non-design pieces to attract some flak.

The ID card piece in particular was good, but it would have been more of interest to this audience if it had also touched on the design issues surrounding it - the design of the system, the card itself, designing against fraud and misuse, comparing other national ID card designs...

I understand where these commenters are coming from, to some extent. For many, sites like this are a bit of a lifeline - and by many, I mean, the majority of designers working today, most likely self-taught desktop publishers, living in non-glamourous places barely eking out a living. We love design, but didn't or couldn't go to design school, and thus turn to books, magazines, and the Web.

By dismissing the concerns of loyal readers - who wouldn't comment if they didn't feel attached to this site, part of a community - I'm sure they feel now as you did in that first AIGA NY committee...Except they're not even in New York City, nor are they invited to the meeting.

The cry for design-oriented content may seem parochial from some contributors' lofty perches in the American design establishment, but dismiss the yawp of the "booboisie" at your peril. If we didn't read this blog and comment on it - if we didn't link to it and heighten its Google rank - then it wouldn't have quite so high a profile, its contributors' blue-chip name value notwithstanding.

In fact, the one thing that anonymous, "downmarket" design magazines do miles better than Print, Graphis and HOW is actually teach effective graphic design techniques. HOW, in particular, should be renamed WHO, as it's got maybe 2 articles on technique vs. maybe 6-8 articles about designers and usually one article about the wacky interior design of their workspace, too. As Architectural Digest is to CAD drafting, so these are to InDesign and Illustrator techniques.

By contrast, the Web design community seems much more willing to share tips and techniques. Design Observer's counterpart in the Web universe is A List Apart, and it's almost always focused on how to solve practical problems that all Web workers face - while being quite design-oriented and stylish as well. (I personally find it easier to read, too.)

Web stars are anointed by their peers, and the field in general seems flatter, less hierarchical, with very public events like SXSW Interactive that anyone can attend. It's like punk rock...just pick up a mouse and bash at it till you learn. There's plenty of free Web design instruction with sites like w3schools.com, Learning Movable Type, and the like. By contrast - unless I'm missing something - there's very little in the way of free graphic design instruction on the Web. We take what we can get...

Maybe this reflects a philosophical difference between the two camps: open source vs. a private club. A good Web designer can live anywhere and get work from anywhere (the team behind 37signals live in no fewer than four different cities), but as you note, a good graphic designer has to live where the action is and entrench yourself in the internal politics and star-system of its scene.

So, what happened with the Betty Boop film festivals? AIGA never sends me postcards for those....
Jordan Winick


I'm sorry to have been perceived as dismissive of anyone looking for more design content on this site. I may have made a mistake by identifying my younger self with a similar desire, and then calling my younger self stupid.

I can only speak for myself, but if there's a shortage of information about "effective graphic design techniques" here at Design Observer, it's not because I know them and am reluctant to divulge them. Rather it's because the last design software program I spent any serious time with must have been PageMaker 2.0. It's hard to believe there isn't a really practical site out there for today's working designer: doesn't Speak Up at least partly fit the bill?

On the other hand, if there's an audience out there for tips and secrets of perfectly ruling mechanical boards with non-repro blue pens, I am ready to tell all.
Michael Bierut

It seems important to note the word Observer in the title of this site, not Instructor. It's educational value lies in exposure and question, not technique and answer.

Michael, I realize DesignObserver's mission is different than what some portion of its audience perceives it to be...and for the record, I *agree* with your points!

as I said, I'm just playing devil's advocate to maybe articulate those users' position a little clearer - not to point fingers or start some sort of class war / flamewar. really :)

Speak Up is good, but it's not really an instructional site, either, it's more of a group weblog, with more focus on opinion, history, philosophy and "the biz" than technique per se - it's much closer to DesignObserver than say, Layers Magazine or Computer Arts - who have a great sister magazine, Computer Arts Projects, as well.

I'm with you, if anyone wants to start a great how-to, Q+A, "how did you get this effect" blog / magazine, I'm ready and willing to contribute as well.
aj kandy

Why do we need Design Observer to be something it isn't?

A "how did you get this effect" blog... AJ you are truly looking in the wrong place for that kind of discussion. This blog will not please everyone, and I greatly thank the writers here for not trying to do such a thing. Design is hardly about how you got "this effect".

But I would try places like Adobe forums, or something like this maybe? Usually forums on design stick to more technical discussion. And you shouldn't have any trouble finding discussion about web design if you're looking for that too.

DO Authors: Just curious (and I'm not saying it's a great idea, but)...have you considered this?
JT Helms

JT, just to clarify, I meant starting a new, separate website with technique as a focus. Certainly the acknowledged masters here at DO have lifetimes of experience they can share, as Michael just mentioned. There are common layout pitfalls, secrets of type, effective use of white space...what one can do on budget X...etc.

I don't want DO to be something it isn't - I was pointing out that there will always be a portion of the audience that comes to the site with a certain frame of mind, which I tried to explain...and they need to be acknowledged as much as the authors' intent does - maybe not in the same piece.

The problem is that the design world is completely diametrically opposed - we are living in two schools of thought. One of which who desires the discussion for understanding the design world, learning technique, and theory, and the other trying to dissect the philosophical underpinnings of design and how it operates in our culture. I understand Aj's concern over the lifeline of sites like Design Observer into the community as a practical and receptive ground for the many people who hope to learn for themselves and love design the way that everyone here cherishes and treasures it, but I must play devils advocate to your comment.

Design plays an amazing roll in the world in which we live. Inspiration can be culled from anywhere; « Ethiopian grave markers, Passover tales, 50-year-old experimental novels, cold war diplomacy » Even when we talk about politics, and business, design plays an integral part in facilitating globalization (McDonald's and Coke) and can influences policy and incite change (Russian Constructivists and the 1917 Russian Revolution).

The Design Observer writers are not «dismissing the concerns of loyal readers - who wouldn't comment if they didn't feel attached to this site, part of a community» but I believe are trying to push beyond the boundaries of magazines like How, Print, CMYK. This has more to do with investigating design beyond many of the the other outlets available. They specializing in dissecting the underpinning of design; print, brand, web or otherwise.

« What does this have to do with design? If you have a political agenda please keep it to other pages. I am not sure of your leaning but I come here for design. » What does this have to do with design, everything. We are not so much discussing politics, as we are discussing the world in which we live, feeding the profession in which we love.

Kieran Lynn

Having built as many of these sites as I have and watched them grow, it seems to me that one of the greatest failings of weblogs is that they tend to foster an overweening sense of ownership in the audience. Blogger, Movable Type, et al. can make anybody and everybody a publisher, but for some reason people in the audience simultaneously decide to become editors. I partially blame the "format" itself, but that's another discussion.

[AJ, most of the following is directed at "you," to be read as the advocate, not, well, you.]
For one, "dismissing the booboisie" is a lot more inflammatory than what's really being said here. Nobody's being dismissed. If anything, I see this post as trying to teach some people that they're being too narrowminded in their expectations. As to the question of topic, I'll just point at my previous comment. The problem is that no matter what people put in their site titles and headers, it doesn't work anyway. The reader comes in with an expectation and when it isn't met, heads will roll. Oh, yeah: they'll also crap all over the comments rather than just move along. You referenced the 37Signals blog; you should know exactly what I'm talking about. The problem here is that blogs are not, generally speaking, a service industry. Suffice it to say I doubt this site is going to be renamed "Mike and Jess and Bill Talk about Stuff" anytime soon just for the sake of making it clear other things will be covered. The audience will have to deal for a few days until the next post comes up, or stop reading and ideally start their own blog where their every utterance can be publicly shredded for syntax rather than content.

The suggestion that DO is at the mercy of its readers is valid only to the extent that some readership is needed. That readership does not necessarily dictate the content presented; that's what Metafilter is for. Here we also reach a distinction: The fact that you are reading something does not make you the person it was written for. Example: No, the magazines you cite don't generally run tutorials. Okay, but what ever made you think that was their focus? That's what those other unnamed magazines are for. And notice I said other. "Downmarket" is debatable, if they're even in the same market in the first place. If Design Observer ever gave the impression they'd be running how-to's at some point, please provide a link. If you want them now, I've learned more than a few things from Photoshop 911, and a host of other sites. You do seem to be missing something. One camp may argue for more free "practical" content; I'm sure we could find people who'd argue for more free "academic" content. I'm here to tell you the reality is probably that neither camp is looking hard enough.

Your example of A List Apart is rather appropriate, as they've also been criticized for overly theoretical content themselves. The linked comments are only the beginning.

It should be noted that calling the web open source just because you can generally see the source is largely a fallacy. It's simply a technical fact that it's near-impossible to truly prevent someone from getting at your source code. The ultimate goal of this, however, was to leave the content accessible to everyone. Don't believe for one second that if people could hide their techniques, they wouldn't. There are obfuscators out there for any language you can think of, but they're generally not worth the effort and sometimes introduce problems of their own. People often make the mistake of equating XML with open source, for example, but one look at the Safari bookmark file format will show you just how wrong that assumption is.

Su - just keeping it quick:

I agree with your assessment, mostly - again, of the arguments I presented in the 'devil's advocate' mode.

- I didn't mean to imply they *were* dismissing anyone, but I could see how someone could *feel* they were being dismissed.
- Yes, the sense of ownership is overweening at times; in extremis, that's what tools like comment moderation are for. Still, it is part of the territory. It is good to acknowledge it, engage it. You often learn things from having your opinions challenged...one can keep it from boiling over by letting the community thrash things out amongst themselves...real trollers tend to be ostracized by the regulars. Or turn comments off with a polite note as to why.
- I would think that HOW's focus might be implied in its name, and that's all I'm gonna say about that.
- I guess we work different sides of the Web - the mindset amongst my colleagues is more about sharing than hoarding. It seems (from casual observation, anyway) that very proprietary things - unless they have a fabulous value proposition - become obsolete quicker. So iPod and iTunes Music Store are successful, but maybe Safari bookmarks aren't (compared to OPML export). Something with an open API succeeds over one that's closed. Etc.

Re How: Yeah, I know. And I think that at one time that was true. But names have inertia, for better or wose. As amusing as it would probably be, it's part of why we're not heading down to the local Starbucks Coffee & Tea & Music & Board Games & Tchotchke.

The openness of the web is probably out of scope here. Maybe I'll mail you about it. But I probably left that one way too open, to be honest.

Thanks Michael, this is probably my favorite post on Design Observer since I started reading a few years ago. This really hit home: And sitting there in the audience, utterly transported, it came crashing down on me: I had completely screwed up that catalog.

Reaching the end of my first year as a professional designer, the best work that I've done so far is the stuff where I was most invisible -- the times when I cared so much about the content that I was able to use my skills to amplify it rather than get in the way.
Ryan Nee

taking a break from the devils vs. advocates...

Michael! I love this posting. (I can now rationalize my countless and sundry pursuits as part of this quest to understand, and be prepared for... anything:)

You say: "the more things you're interested in, the better your work will be."

I feel the same way about people. The more diverse the set of people you know and understand, the more relevant your work becomes to the rest of the world.

I know I'm guiltier than the next of having too many design friends, but the others help me keep things in perspective. I was at a party recently, when I realized that most of the people there weren't college educated. No wonder the conversation revolved around things I wasn't used to talking about. They had a totally different world-view than I, but one that I, as a designer, should be aware of. Usually we are designing for people with different perspectives. Rarely are we designing for designers.

Beyond being "the center of the design universe" I love New York for the proximity of diverse people. I can know young, old, crazy, sane, rich, poor, skatin', breakin', hatin', lovin' people just by participating in daily life.

In the same way I appreciate Design Observer making a diverse offering, including guest observer Lawrence Weschler, that helps me see how other people view the world.

Thank you:)
Kristin Johnson

This site helps me put the 'design hat' on when looking at the world. So if D.O. mentions 'National ID Cards' I'll take off my political hat and look at it as a designer... Let's say that an article on "different pizza styles" came out on D.O. I'm not going to complain, it's just going to turn the gears in my head to connect design and pizza; maybe about how it's evolved over the years and the iterations it took to get there, how it varies from culture to culture, or how they were customizing it for customers way before Nike ID or iMacs with multiple color choices. Even if the topics seem disjointed to design at first, when I've got that design hat on, I can start to see the parallel or the intersection. The authors don't have to outright connect the dots for me; they're giving me a pencil.


Sometimes, it all depends on who got to the student first.

I just finished a day of applicant interviews to our undergraduate program. At the "welcome talk" at the beginning, I told the applicants that they should take up as many courses as possible outside of graphic design during the course of their education. Specifically, I told them that I recommended film studies, philosophy, women's studies, comparative literature and culture studies. I explained that these courses may not have an immediate impact on the making of design work, but the will have an impact on learning how to think (not what to think, which has no place in higher learning). The disciplines I suggested are analytically based. A discipline such as comparative literature makes connections between concepts: it seeks out possibilities and produces new knowledge and concepts where such thoughts were once latent. It sparks creativity. These disciplines analyze others and in so doing, they teach the skills to produce a better thinker—and ultimately, a person who has self critical skills will be a better designer. The applicants listened in earnestness and a number of them took notes.

A few months earlier, I said essentially the same thing to a group of our MDes students. At this talk, my comments elicited a number of guffaws.

I think it is fair to say that one group of students will end up being curious about the world while the other group already feels that they know the answers.
David Cabianca

I agree with Ko, it is not as if the post that started this had *nothing* to do with design. Saying the article was off the point of design (for better or worse) is implying that an I.D. card has nothing to do with design. To me, the article didn't seem out of place as a post on this site at all.
mykal white

I resonated with this very much - I am a complete untrained "graphic designer". I was interested in and practiced a relatively unknown martial art and started a website about it seven years ago. It grew to a point I decided to go to print in a bi-annual publication. It took me about six weeks to learn Quark and photoshop to let me do what I wanted to do, but I had a deep deep love for what I do and wanted to convey the motion and energy of what I felt onto the printed page. I agonized over the right type, photography, illustraion - learned all about functional stuff as I went (thank god for hte internet and great sites like this one). I looked at other martial art magazines (ug - really bad design aesthetics) and looked at other mags that featured more extreme sports - the energy onveyed on the page suited the subject, augmented the stories.. By the time I published the 2nd issue It looked pretty darn good - good enough that Graphic Design students I knew asked me where I learned, who I studied with..and they got annoyed that I said I learned it all on my own in about a few months. My technical knowledge is next to nil and it's a learning process with a steep curve, but my love for the subject produces the work. I learn only what I need to learn to get the results I want. Maybe that's heresy, i don't know..And I end up getting into conversations with "9-5 working designers" and they show me lifeless brochures and business cards and portfolios and say they make a joyless living at it..I don't get it...the whole point of learning the techniques of modern design was for me to tell a story. What else is there?

Well said, indeed.

Thanks Michael for your biograpisode. It would appear we are about the same age. Many of the touchstones in your experience rendered art school memories of my own. I marvel at your gifted pen and return regularly to swoon at your narrative. The designers I know do value divergent forms of thinking - as a means of priming their creative pump. I would encourage the observer to forge on, and provide a broader confluence of content - as if to speak for them.

Suddenly the topic of identity is [designer's] to help make sense of. And perhaps the post from which this thread was spawned has been uncloaked as relevant for designers to observe. More closely.

aj's argument seems as important to that claim as is Michael's essay. Making it worthy of better debate by this 'community'.

The 'private club' is indeed the social model of the design industry whether you are at its top, middle or bottom. Undeniably blogs by their own architecture seek to flatten such tiered structures. Where the two meet we will continue to see tension. A tension that will not be glossed over, by urging she/he to go elsewhere. [For software tips, or help with the use of non-repro pens for that matter.]

I would invite all to give it a second read. And to substitute the term 'techniques' with either of the following: principles, histories or future scenarios.

It is not a sin that Design is not for designers. Design works in the service of affect. Pugin and Ruskin wrestled high-minded notions of design from royalty around 1850. Giving us license to explore it more fully today. It has been shared with the 'booboisie' over a century and a half.

I would offer this quote from DQ McInerny's book, Being Logical. "A truth that is merely theoretical and to which we do not have access, is for all practical purposes non-existent."

michael davis.burchat

Over two years into Design Observer's existence, it's interesting that there is still so much discussion about what is appropriate on this site. There was much conversation among our original participants about the name of the site, and Design Observer was an implicit compromise. All of the founders were, to varying degrees, interested in a broader conception of a site than simply graphic design: "Design Observer" allowed us to conceptually operate in a sphere where we were designers or design writers looking at broader issues of visual culture. Graphic design is a frequent topic because it is what we know best, but the site was intentionally never defined as being primarily, or only, about graphic design. It was never intended to be a place when designers could learn tools and techniques about design: there are so many other sites for such information. Thus, there are our many forays into architecture, commerce, literature, politics, art, etc. I wish we knew enough to "observe" intelligently about fashion and network systems and other modes of design. Hopefully, these will come too.

What is interesting about the comments here is the frequent assumption that those that comment are our audience. While the discussion around every post is clearly interesting to many readers, the readers that comment are lucky if they represent 1% of our audience.

Design Observer has close to 150,000 site visits a week. We've had 60 impassioned comments in the past week from perhaps 40 readers. There is a huge, and inaccurate, assumption of the part of many folks that comment that they represent the average reader of this site. Comments are welcome. But there is arrogance in the assumption by a few who comment that you, as a reader who comments, represent the primary audience for this site, or any other site. 99% of our readers do not comment.

The discussions on this site by many passionate and intelligent readers make the site more interesting. But do not assume that the site is only for you. In commenting, please remember that there are thousands of readers, many not designers, who come to Design Observer for its particular, personal and idiosyncratic subject matter and viewpoints — politics and literature and culture, among them.

I was recently inspired by a scientist who posted a comment on our post about George Bush, the rug designer. It seems that a number of Nobel Prize winners have gone to the White House and had a tour of the White House rug collection by the President. The author notes that, "I'm going to have to respectfully differ on that." This is not a reader coming to Design Observer as a designer — which is what made her comment so interesting.
William Drenttel

Design for design's sake isn't design. Subject matter should drive your whole process. I agree. And if you're passionate about something, ..wow it makes all the difference.

I remember being an art/design major in college, and wanting to work on something great, just for the sake of it being great design, with no thought to what it was about. ..and it showed in my work. It was only after enrolling in a few creative nonfiction courses; and writing about experiences, people and events close to me, etc, that my stories started to drive my design work. Design for design's sake, without any level of interest in the subject matter, isn't "design".

The photojournalist Benjamin Krain, whose work I really enjoy, has an interesting exchange about how his level of education on subject matter drives his photography.

Click on "hype" and then "interview audio clips"

i have actually enjoyed DO's past few posts quite a bit.

much is made around the web of the "how" of design—practical skills, tutorials, that sort of thing—but very little is written (and even less written well) on the "why" of design.

it's good to see how others look around their subjects to get further inside them.

That the title of this blog refers more to 'looking at' than 'telling how' means something. I guess I like the reflective implication? I was reminded of story I liked from Peter Downton's book Design Research....

"In an early lecture I gave at RMIT in about 1977, with Greg Missingham, we asked some fifty part-time architecture students who were all engaged in daily practice to describe how they went about designing. Answers were written and collected. Quick scrutiny showed us that nearly everyone claimed to perform some variation on the collect data-analyse-synthesise model. We asked for anyone who had ever sketched some idea prior to proper data collection, perhaps with a client at an initial meeting or on first having the design problem put to them, to raise their hands. Every hand went up. We asked them why there was such a lack of honesty given that we had asked them how they designed, not how they were supposed to design according to some prescribed view."
[page 44]
Design Wolf

I'm a fairly new reader of D.O. and when I first clicked on to the site I didn't know what it was. After looking into the background of the authors it dawned on me that it was Graphic Designers who were writing.

I wondered if it had any relevance for med as I'm a student of Human Centered Industrial Engineering design? However, i've continued reading ever since because the contents of the site is seen from a broader perspective than Graphic Design. I percieve the contents as an intelligent questioning of what design is and should be, which is very interesting to me...
The R

This is a fantastic post. Designers need to be reminded more often that while we influence culture, we also need to be influenced by it. Thankyou.

As a devils advocate I understand where you are coming from. It seems like you are catching a lot of flack for playing such a role. If I may join you, I'd like to help describe the problem that is causing so much debate.

It seems to me that what differentiates this blog from the thousands of other blog sites is that when I visit here I expect to read about and discuss design. So, if someone makes a post, and he/she fails to make the connection I (and apparently a few of you) feel jaded, tricked, or just confused.

The problem, as I see it, is that authors are posting articles that are seemingly unrelated to design, and then fail in helping us make the relevant connection. When this happens, personally, I feel as if I am left to guess at what those connections, if any, might be. Please authors, keep this in mind, as it well help to anchor the discourse.

Mr. B's most recent post sets a wonderful standard for all future posters.

The more aware we are of the world and other industries the less we will be thought of as "exotic menials" who only use software programs.

Variety is the spice of life. Yes?

Having operated in different careers before becoming a designer, I feel that it's important, no make that vital, for all designers to be cognizant of the world outside design.

While you can work your way through annuals trying to come up with that really new idea for your client, the best solutions usually come from just listening and learning about your client and their business. And the same goes for life.

DO for me is primarily a place to learn from people I've idolized and admired as both designers and human beings. I welcome their sharing their points of view of the world around us and the issues that most of us all face.

I'm with you Michael. I think the world is full of how to techniques on design. In fact writing on design generally falls into 3 camps: there are the technique writings which are things like how to make rollover buttons in Ajax, or Alpha channels in Photoshop. I taughts such things for years and came to the realization that they are generally devoid of design. They are merely tools. Great tools to be sure, but tools.

The second are (and I agree with AJ here) the personality worship retrospectives, complete with how cool their office space is. Viewing portfolios is nice, and it's nice to see what others are doing but while I get some inspiration out of them, I don't get a lot of insight into either the designer or the design. And, in a way, I find those retrospectives somewhat depressing: there are a lot of people in this world cooler than you, they seem to say.

The third group is much rarer and much more valuable. These are books that really are about the HOW of design: how the designer thought about it, how the design evolved. It's this sort of writing I crave. You find gems here and there...does anybody remember Critique magazine? Oh, I do miss it. That book on Pentagram...Profile Pentagram I think, was one of the few books on design firms I really got something out of, because it went in some depth on how Pentagram was structured and how people live within that structure. And there weren't many pictures of the cool office spaces.

Awhile back I assembled my interaction design reading list, and what was interesting is of the most influential books, very very few of them were written by designers. It's out there somewhere on Amazon's Listmania, if anyone is interested. Psychologists, philosophers, typographers, architectural theorists, even politicians and fighter pilots all have important lessons to teach us about design.

I wish there were a rule: you can't show me your cool rebranding/corporate ID (in a design magazine or retrospective) without showing me your sketchbooks and your process. What didn't work? Where did you find the inspiration? How did it evolve? show me the napkin, show me the influencers. Teach me to design. Show me your process and mine will get better.

Please don't change a thing about D.O. Design is about understanding life and its patterns. Learning about the things that inspire folks like Michael and Adrian and Jessica is very valuable information to those who want to understand their work and contribution to the practice. To those who call for D.O. to "stick to design and leave politics out of it" (I'm paraphrasing) I respectfully say, quiet down and keep reading and you may yet learn something about design.
Eric Diamond

Can we agree to ignore the issue of people objecting to the "truly" non-design posts? As diplomatically as it might eventually be phrased, the ultimate, irrefutable answer to that is and should be, "It's my site. I'll write about what I want." (With optional, "Don't let the door hit you.")

A question for the editors: These people are obviously telling you what isn't design(-related). Have any of them bothered telling you what is? To them, I mean. Have you ever gotten requests for posts?

I found this interesting:

So, if someone makes a post, and he/she fails to make the connection I (and apparently a few of you) feel jaded, tricked, or just confused. [...] Please authors, keep this in mind, as it well help to anchor the discourse.

I want to explore the central topic(anchor) concept a bit. It's rather near-sighted.
Let's reframe things as...a solar system? With some Platonic concept of DESIGN in position of our sun. Some planets are further out than others. We also have the recently-discovered Sedna, which sparked debate as to whether it's really a planet at all. Starting to sound familiar?
Now let's stand on the moon which is orbiting Earth. If you can't see that you're still also orbiting the sun(design), that's a failure of perspective on your part. And I'm not sure that this site's intent is so instructive that the authors should be expected to retrace that connection for you every time. Besides, what if you make a different connection? I'd want to hear about that. If you don't see it at all, then go ahead and just talk about what you think of the National ID card idea(for example); the option was left wide open.

(Of course, our entire solar system as a unit is orbiting around something else, which is orbiting around something else, and it's turtles all the way down.)

After reading Michael's post, I was left with a sense of satisfaction, and towards the end, inspiration. Being a young graphic designer, I am constantly reading about design and the latest issues concerning it. However, as designers, it is important to be aware of issues going on outside of our practice and interests. To me, the most successful designers are the ones who are worldly and who have interests in other disciplines. We are citizens of the world, and should be aware of the events and issues happening before our eyes. As creatives, we have the power to reach a lot of people. Most of these people are not in our field, so it is our job to learn about them, their environments, and their interests. And along the way, you will surprisingly find that everything is, in a way, designed. It might not be GOOD, but then again if everything in the world was well-designed, we would either be job-less, or very inspired.

I went to Carnegie Mellon for my undergraduate education in design. The reason why I chose to not go to an art or design school was because Carnegie Mellon offered options outside of my design education. I could take French classes, to Creative Writing, and if I was good at math, I would even consider taking a Calculus class. The point is, even though I came here to be a designer, the classes that I took, and the people that I met outside of my major have made me a more well-rounded person, and designer. I've learned so much about other disciplines, and for that I am thankful and prepared for my career as a professional graphic designer.
Jessica Rosenberg

After reading Michael's post, I was left with a sense of satisfaction, and towards the end, inspiration. Being a young graphic designer, I am constantly reading about design and the latest issues concerning it. However, as designers, it is important to be aware of issues going on outside of our practice and interests. To me, the most successful designers are the ones who are worldly and who have interests in other disciplines. We are citizens of the world, and should be aware of the events and issues happening before our eyes. As creatives, we have the power to reach a lot of people. Most of these people are not in our field, so it is our job to learn about them, their environments, and their interests. And along the way, you will surprisingly find that everything is, in a way, designed. It might not be GOOD, but then again if everything in the world was well-designed, we would either be job-less, or very inspired.

I went to Carnegie Mellon for my undergraduate education in design. The reason why I chose to not go to an art or design school was because Carnegie Mellon offered options outside of my design education. I could take French classes, to Creative Writing, and if I was good at math, I would even consider taking a Calculus class. The point is, even though I came here to be a designer, the classes that I took, and the people that I met outside of my major have made me a more well-rounded person, and designer. I've learned so much about other disciplines, and for that I am thankful and prepared for my career as a professional graphic designer.

Although we collectively get misty-eyed at a beautiful piece of typography now and again, context is everything. We tend to be masters of uncommon knowledge because we not only have eclectic interests of our own, but are required to delve into our client's world as well. Its true that design is not everything, but everything that piques our curiosity makes design great.

Ideas flow from all corners of our psyche, design related or not. I, as with most of the professionals I know, have other lives outside of design which give us balance and keep us refreshed for the next problem to solve. It keeps the mind sharp and focused.
James D Nesbitt

For a quick example to complement MB's eloquent post:

Remember that redesign of the August 2001 PDB ("Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US") that was going around a year or so ago (or was it longer?). On the one hand, being a Tufte fan, I appreciated the mindset that led to the redesign. I wish memos around my office looked like that. I wish people put more thought into communicating well.

On the other hand, the redesign missed the problem entirely. The US was caught flat-footed on September 11, not because the memo was badly designed, but because it was Harriet Miers handing it to George W. Bush. It was because not enough people cared enough about the threat the memo described to worry about it.

Knowing that is what a concern for politics and other "non-design issues" gets you as a designer, IMHO.
Maurice Meilleur

I don't think that the poster's cited in the article were necessarily decrying that they only want "design" content or "how to" articles, but that DO is sometimes so obvious in their politics that it white-washes the bigger issue of "Design" in the post. I think there are some that can do without the political cheap shots. No, I don't blindly support this administration nor have I any other.

I come here for diverse views on design topics (even if it includes political or other seemingly "off topic" topics) and get my education from all aspects of life and living. I don't see how anyone can effectively design without knowledge of the world around them and the industries they are designing for. No arguments there.

However, I don't subscribe to the idea that one must participate in every aspect of society to "understand" it anymore than I need to "smoke" to "get" smoking (unless I'm designing cig packaging for RJR, which I'm not). James, I like your last paragraph. A great summation.

The reason that web building tips are all over the internet is because web building is easily explained: "type in this code, get this result." But design is a completely different thing than web building. Design (including web design) is about solving problems, not following a series of steps as someone would follow a recipe.

Designers need to know how to use their tools, but it should be a given that a designer knows how to do this. To put InDesign tips on a design website would be like putting tips on how to type faster on a website for writers: totally beside the point.

Graphic design is not like "punk rock." You're not going learn to do it by bashing away at it until you get it. If you want to make a musical analogy, design is like jazz. You need years of study and practice in order to improvise.

The best "technique" for being a good designer (provided you've had the necessary training and practice) is to be as visually aware as possible, and anything that relates to the visual world is a relevant topic for a design blog.

So now that that's settled, can we please get back to talking about design? :)
David E.

I've started a few internet lists for New Urbanists. Four, to be exact. At the first two we had similar issues. List number one was plagued by a constantly refreshing group of "newbies" who had the incredible insight that "urbanism is about more than picket fences." This was usually accompanied by the belief that New Urbanism has no other thought than making picket fences.

I left that group to its own devices (it still has over 400 subscribers), and moved on to one that was specifically a place where New Urbanists could hang out and talk to each other. As this grew to almost 700 subscribers, there were increasing complaints that a) All you designers want to talk about is design, and b) Why are we talking about politics (or cars, or travel, or philosophy or sociology) -- what does that have to do with New Urbanism? Many people started saying it should be like "a graduate level seminar in New Urbanism."

That list still has over 600 subscribers. But after a long discussion of what could and could not be posted, I started "the free discussion list for the New Urbanism," with 37 subscribers who like each other.

Andres Duany and others forwarded so many posts from this list to other lists that over a hundred people asked to join, and we started a list with 227 subscribers with no rules other than that it's a list for New Urbanists to talk about whatever they want. I'm starting to think of it like a bar where New Urbanists know they can run into their friends.

Recently New Urbanism has been a bit of a whipping boy on this list, so let me add one more thing. Lizz Plater-Zyberk, the wonderful Dean of the University of Miami architecture school, always makes sure the Congress for the New Urbanism doesn't leave behind the idea that "design offers solutions" as it moves from 200 members / 85% architects to 3,500 members, with perhaps 8% architects.

Thus the CNU offers "form-based codes" instead of the abstract, auto-based zoning we've grown up with, "walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods" as one of the solutions for our problems of community, etc. We even got the Secretary of HUD to show slides of good buildings and neighborhoods at all his talks.

"..Design is about everything...".This is so true. ..Like Ellen Lupton said, " the moment we wake up in the beginning of day, it's all about design.." What cloth should we wear? What color should we match? When we go to work,we want to buy The New York Times rather than some other newspapers. Why? Better design? Better content? Design is everywhere in every moment.It's all about making decision. There are so many things to learn to absorb in order to design. I think it's also the beauty of it becasue we should never stop learning.

Spot on, I liked this very much... For me graphic design is all about communicating something (whatever required), and you can't establish quality communication without having the necessary knowledge on the subject. The grid and the nice fonts are just there to help you tell the story better...

Graphic design is not like "punk rock." You're not going learn to do it by bashing away at it until you get it.

As this is a succinct description of how I learned graphic design, I'll have to disagree. I know I'm not alone.

If you want to make a musical analogy, design is like jazz.

No, design is more like being in a wedding band. You want to rock out but it's time to play the "Hokey Pokey" again.
Kenneth FitzGerald

I can't think of anything worse than a world that just looks at itself. Design has for too many years pre-occupied itself with itself. We should be sponges that continue to soak up everything around ourselves - only then can we really understand the issues that surround us. Whilst at college (in the early 80s!) the most illuminating part of my course was not the typography or colour lessons but the Complimentary Studies tutorials. Here we listened and argued about every subject. Once we had a lecture and discussion around Pure Maths. The same question was raised - "what has this to do with design". Everything was the response. The objective was to make us use our brains and to think - surely the most important design tool we have. We all read new books, watch new shows , listen to new music, eat new foods, smell new smells so keep feeding the brain. If we don't broaden the design debate we will regress to discussing wonderfully exciting issues like which is the best typeface - Akzidenz or Helvetica (the former obviously by the way!). I'm surprised that the posting of Jessica's article is even being debated!
Domenic Lippa

When we go to work,we want to buy The New York Times rather than some other newspapers. Why? Better design? Better content?

A couple of years ago, I thought The (London) Times was the best looking newspaper, and I even used to buy it in New York sometimes (and always in London, where I was every year for a while).

Now they've switched to a tabloid, and I can hardly bear to look at it. I've switched to the Daily Telegraph, even though I don't like the Tory party.

which is the best typeface - Akzidenz or Helvetica

none of the above, obviously

No, design is more like being in a wedding band. You want to rock out but it's time to play the "Hokey Pokey" again.

I think that the majority of Art Center and SVA design graduates, who are able to find fulfilling careers, would disagree.

I think that the majority of Art Center and SVA design graduates, who are able to find fulfilling careers, would disagree.

And good for them. But that's about 1% of designers (if that) out there. What about everyone else?

BTW, when you say "design is like jazz," I assume you mean this and not this. Or is it something else?
Kenneth FitzGerald

Some quick replies to things upthread:

Eric Diamond - you said what I forgot to say. The "cooler than thou" aspect is depressing, especially when you see people doing award-winning design work who are half your age.
(And on another point, where do they find the time (and money) to go to eleventeen different design colleges and postgrad schools? I think there's an unspoken class issue behind all this, but that's a subject for another thread and another time.)

It's cold comfort to say "look how inspirational" all that stuff is, when you might live in a non-design-mecca city (say, Cincinnati) working for a Pointy Haired Boss at a 9-5 job designing takeout menus, advertising circulars and other forms of junk mail, which leaves you too drained at the end of the day to do "artful" stuff and advance your career. Frankly, quitting to work at a Wal-Mart might be a step up. It very much is "doing the Hokey Pokey," only sometimes less well paid.

Which brings me to David E - I must disagree with your point about Art Center and other design-school grads doing well straight out of school, because I know a few that are not doing well. In fact I know at least one who's in exactly the situation I described above; she's an absolute genius illustrator who ought to have companies beating down her door to hire her, but she doesn't have money or contacts to make that happen.

In fact, not even Carnegie-Mellon grads necessarily do well straight out of school.

As a punk-rock, self-taught, no-Kenny-G-allowed designer, I don't have the Cranbrookian formal design process etched into my brain; to second Eric's comment, seeing the process in action teaches me a lot about the "how," and that's all too rare, in print or on the Web. A book of napkin sketches would do me more good than any number of Print Regional Design Annuals.

And again, DO does what it does really well and I'm infinitely glad it's here - i'm just saying I understand where the haters are coming from.

Design is what you want it to be. Some are happy making lifeless brochures because they prefer to invest in relationships. Others will have less strong relationships because they are focused on making really strong work. It's a difficult balance.

aj: have a look on amazon, there are some good books on design that will have what your looking for. Good point about the class issues, but if you have good work and a good reputation, the vast majority of clients will value that above degrees. Design is what you make of it.
Ben Weeks

Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one who felt like this! Sometimes I feel like those around me don't seem to understand that we should be submersing ourselves in our work. And by saying this I don't mean just the design but the client, the product or even the culture ... but they never do. I will continue to do so because I know this will be reflected in the work that I do.
Diane Witman

Sorry, but I haven't read all the replies so may be repeating what someone else has said but I think the critical thing to realise here is that all design is a political act. Every time we make a design decision we are making a choice based on hidden and visible agendas, ideologies and assumptions that will affect peoples lives. That is politics, that is what we do - the key problem is that most of us are never aware of it.
Mike Wilson

Design is the amalgamation of our lusts, prejudices, hopes, fears, experiences, loves, and predispositions. Design is everything because design is us.
James D Nesbitt

I'm about 5 months from graduating Art Center and let me tell you that maybe 8 years ago, the majority of the graduates in Graphic Design did well immediately, having been to another design school & four year university prior to Art Center I can safely say that the majority of students struggle with process just as much as AJ seems to.

Thats what's so great about DesignObserver, it informs our process regardless of who, what or where we learned what we have.

I think, especially in creative industries, the necessity of formal education is a false pretense. Educate yourself, like you said you have, and I'm sure you can bring something wholly different to the table, and in healthy contrast. Keep in mind, I speak from a specific place.

Frankly, at ArtCenter right now, I struggle with 99.999% of the students and faculty referring to what we do as Graphics, nothing irks me more. I'll be in the Enrollment Services or Department Chairs office being asked, "Are you graphics?" and I'll say "Graphic Design, you mean?" They won't understand how they're undermining an industry struggling to redefine itself as meaningful but they are etching in students minds that its about the Graphics not the design...its happening without anybody questioning it.

I mention this about ACCD because I think these institutions struggle with their own issues...in this case a sort of complacency and lack of awareness for the state of graphic design, protected by this big black modern building in the hills of Pasadena only to see kids making things about the environment with oil based inks and vellum. (chuckle)

I think its easy to get caught up in all of this, what I like to keep in mind and something Michael touched on was that were living in the age of information and sites like this one are relatively new to the game; Its a gem, though, because...

nothing informs process more than our own experience and this is where we can share it.

Science is about everything too. Would Jessica Helfand's article on the national identification card seem like an appropriate fit for the "Science Observer" blog?

I looked around Design Observer and didn't find much in the way of identity other than a title and some inferred information. Perhaps more definition would help. Is it Design Observer or Designer Observations?

God forbid we participate in something that is only vaguely defined. There are enough rules and regulations in our world as it is. Let's try not to add to the din.

i used to come to design observer for both interesting articles and commentary by posters whose insights i found relevant. in the last year, as design observer's profile has grown, more often than not popular threads like this one grow into either asskiss fests for the high profile designer/writers, or flamewars not too dissimilar from the ones found on more 'low rent' blogs. the beauty of the web is its accesibility; the ugliness of it is the annoying buzz of banality it produces. fortunately, like television, it is easy to move from one website to another, or, easier than television, to start your own. unfortunately, like television, its difficult to turn it off once youve tuned in.

i think william drentell's post is very relevant. people tend to think the internet=democracy and that anyone who participates on a blog is a vital member of a community simply because they have an internet connection and can type in a URL and know how to submit comments. i think the way articles are written on DO invite commentary, and that is fitting to the format of the weblog medium. it also allows for a kind of writing that is truly essay-like, as they are more sketches and observations and half-attempts at ideas that dont necessarily have to come completely together. thankfully, even tho they dont always come together, they are generally well written, which is a lot more to be said than the posts that generally follow those articles (mine included). but one should only speak about 'design' and not politics? thats a failure to see how design, the human made, is embedded in the very human world of politics. design for the U.S. military, whose funding very much relates to the political climate, has produced many innovations including this one we are using right now.

regarding the subject matter of this thread, i think being a graphic designer is a profession that puts you into a very wide network of things, including not only the people you design for, like writers, museums, corporations, and publishing houses, but also the people from other professions you design with, such as architects or film directors, and the people you work with to realize your designs, like printers, programmers, and photographers. the goal of a humanist education, which david cabianca seems to pushing for, is to create a more well-rounded individual so that not only do you think better, but you are also prepared for the diversity of the world in which you play only a part. on the other hand, i think its important to not forget the part you play, to become 'invisible', or a second violin. its feel-goody but its not doing much for yourself or your discipline. i think its important to stick to a point of view about graphic design itself that you operate and practice from.
manuel miranda

i think its important to stick to a point of view about graphic design itself that you operate and practice from.

I couldn't have said it better myself. But I would like to add, don't be afraid of change.

This is why I think Gel is such an important event - it's not just about design, like many design-industry events are about - but by being about many things, it becomes an excellent design event. But I'm biased :)
Mark Hurst

But "Political" also isn't an add-on feature. And isn't the role of editorial insight to establish a conceptual identity out of the different voices that holds together in some way as an agenda - and along the way to steer clear of a bias, like, so just because it is an American I.D. card issue, it becomes an issue?

When DO had in a quite earlier post, I guess last year, on the "beautiful" billboards placed in Iraq for convincing them to vote in this new democracy, no analysis there of what is going on, who is commissioning this one-sided view, the role of such imagery in one-way communication to the occupied, etc. it was aesthetics. No wonder readers can be thrown off by the "position" they come to expect?

I am more for the messy search pattern than excluding so-called "improper" material, but in the case of DO I can understand the reactions of other readers not like me. It is important for the editors and authors to be clear as to what they expected in their production as a perspective, and did they establish that clearly to their readership — that is if the readership is to be also a kind of 'thought community', or community-of-interests, or just engaged even.

That said, DO is really good at showing how it is always asking questions along the way about itself and its readership, which is in many ways how one can also view a certain politics at work.

Inspiring article, thanks.

As a designer, and new teacher, I completely agree - design (and society) needs a spirit of inclusivity in order to make those creative connections between issues, theories and techniques.

Check out the documentary "Death by Design" for an interesting take on these issues.

Michael, thank you, thank you. Over the weekend (late, I know) I found a humorous image which makes for an interesting visual accompaniment to your words. Wrote a short post on it here.

I appear to be a few years too late to this discussion – nonetheless, I still wanted to share my gratitude towards this article.

I was awarded as an ADC Young Gun last year and have politely been asked to give a talk, share my work, etc ... on any theme I choose. I wanted to share the thoughts around being a human sponge and the wonderful life of a designer who can live vicariously through others. In doing some research I came across this article – how inspiration and to the point. Thank you Micheal for just .. well, sharing :)
Ivana Martinovic

Design thinking can be -- and probably should be -- applied to almost any emotional work.

Great article. Great motivation.
Glenn Friesen

Jobs | July 18