Popular lies about graphic design

— is the title of a new book by designer Craig Ward exploring the proscriptions and truisms of the creative industry. The following extracts are published here exclusively by Creative Review

Design is an undeniably broad and – crucially – non-denominational church. There are the purists, the minimalists (and the maximalists), the avant-garde, the punks and the fetishists, all of whom congregate in offices and studios the world over to create the great visual melting pot that is graphic design.

Together, we work on everything from corporate annual reviews to skateboard decks. This breadth of style and content ensures that, for the most part, design remains entirely subjective. It inspires everything from lively, informed debate to hate-filled, emotionally charged blog posts accompanied by reams of comments defaming this logo or that typeface. One designer’s grid is another’s skulls and spray-paint and, ultimately, you’re going to find your own way through it.

There are, however, a few pearls of wisdom that one hears from time to time that somehow gain groundswell until graphic designers from every walk of life repeat them without even thinking about what they’re saying. This is design as a religion. Blind adherence to a mindset or school of thought without ever questioning it. Unfortunately, a lot like religion, many of these mantras and maxims tend to be misconceptions, half-truths and, in some cases, outright lies. The aim of this book is simply an attempt to debunk these topics, clarify where appropriate and to give an opposing point of view. Instead of design as religion, this is more like design as science – examining other possibilities when it may be easier to side with something tried and tested. I hope you find it a worthwhile read.

Popular Lies About Graphic Design, by Craig Ward, is published in December by Actar; $15

Having a fetish for design makes me a good designer

Congratulations! You have an exceptionally well observed graphic design blog – maybe even several – that are updated multiple times a week. You have a heaving and yet carefully curated collection of other people’s work on your Tumblr page and a blossoming Twitter account with several hundred followers who lap up your opinions. You Digg stuff regularly, you were amongst the first few hundred on Ffffound. You ‘Like’ groups like ‘Typography is Hot’ on Facebook and you’re fully LinkedIn with over 600 connections in industry, (90% of whom you’ve never even met). Your formidable Flickr stream is kept up to the moment, you’re Pinterest-ed in everything from interiors to Swiss poster design and you listen to every design related podcast going. Your bookshelf sags in the middle from weighty, authoritative design tomes, you have a collection of beautifully crafted vinyl toys from Kid Robot, a wardrobe swollen with graphic print t-shirts, an enviable selection of scanned vintage type samples from the 1800’s and you attend design related talks, seminars, mornings and festivals the world over.

And not one of these things makes you a better designer. Do some work.

The internet has changed the way we interact with design in many ways and, over the last few years, has brought with it a new breed of people with an interest in – nay, a fetish for – design. People who really, really love design and yet, are essentially incapable of creating anything themselves, so mired are they in consuming other people’s work and opinions. They talk about it, blog about it and engage with it in all of the ways I mentioned above but the one thing they forget to do is to actually find time to be a designer. Naming no names, there are hubs for design that perpetuate this. Former design studios that now do nothing more than curate their blogs showing other people’s work and sell ad space to make a living. It all feels very strange to me.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. Perhaps there’s just not enough work to go around. But there are now so  many ways to procrastinate in the name of design – particularly online – that it amazes me how anything gets done at all anymore. The community of design is important – exceptionally so – and it’s possible that nepotism will get you further in life than any amount of talent, so I’m certainly not about to deny the importance of remaining connected to the industry at large. Maintaining your online presence is vital today, but not a week goes by without me getting invited to another portfolio hosting site or an offer of ‘connecting with others’ in some new, previously unforeseen way, and this expectation that every designer keeps up with every form of online media is simply unsustainable; the whole arena, completely over-saturated.
Just remember, at the end of the day, no designer ever got hired for a job because they had a good Tumblr stream. Or not to my knowledge at least. I’m serious. Jump in. Do some work.

Open plan office = collaboration & better work

There’s a problem here, and you’re made to feel and sound like a dinosaur if you disagree with it.

At some point in the early 21st century, virtually every agency in the world decided to tear down its walls, democratise their space and drag senior partners, kicking and screaming from their offices to sit amongst the proletariat.

Now, here we are. In the cold light of day. Stranded in the middle of white, call centre like spaces, looking at each other. And we are ugly. We’re able to see exactly who is working on what, taking lunch when, leaving at what time and talking to whom at all times.

The idea was pure and sound: without walls we will collaborate more. We will talk to people that we didn’t before and we will share our ideas and thoughts. A creative Utopia.

The reality, however, is that you now get to hear what everyone got up to at the weekend. You get to enjoy tinny versions of other people’s music from their earphones (or worse, their speakers). You hear every desk phone that rings, every text message that comes in, every vibrating cellphone, every tapping keyboard, every pair of heels walking around the office, every bad joke. Every time you look up you see other people’s screens. Their work. Their Facebook pages. Their screen-savers. Their cats and children. In small companies that can be inconvenient but scale it up and the large, modern agency is now so full of distractions that, for me at least, it became almost impossible to work efficiently in these spaces. Worse now than living in your office, you live within your screen. Not wanting to look away for fear of distraction. I never had an office. I arrived too late for that party but I really did miss it without ever experiencing it.

At least half of your job as a designer is to think. Perhaps I doth protest too much, but Hemingway didn’t write whilst listening to other people’s music. Da Vinci didn’t sit three feet along a shared desk from someone eating their Pret A Manger sandwich or watching cat videos on YouTube. Your best thinking is done when it is quiet, when there are no distractions and when you are relaxed. When you remove those elements from the equation, the work   immediately suffers.

Add to this mix the fact that many designers are often very shy about showing their work and are conscious that people don’t see it before they’re ready to share. For my part, most of my work looks very ugly before it looks any good. In an open environment, this is simply not tolerated and your work – unless you sit so close to your screen as to shield it from passers by – is on view to everyone who chooses to look. The problem being that self conscious designers don’t take risks. They only put on their screen what they’re sure will work lest a creative director walk behind them and comment, unprovoked. A designer that doesn’t take risks is one that should retire or be put down.

Worse still is the idea that people can come and talk to you at any point. How many times must an idea be de-railed just as you’re closing in on a solution to a brief when someone stops by for a chat?

And now I sound old.

An education in design is pointless

As college and university fees continue to rise, this is something I hear more and more and am often asked to comment on for students’ theses, dissertations and magazine articles. This, coupled with the ease of availability of design tools in the home, has led to a rise in the self-taught designer.

Remember I said that this was a book full of opinions? Well, I’m fully aware that I’m wading in murky and subjective waters here, but while it may be slightly inflammatory and un-trendy (both good things, by the way), I don’t mind being the one to say that the main reason I believe that there’s so much ‘ugly’ design in the world comes down to the fact that anybody with access to a computer and desktop publishing software assumes they can create a flyer, a sign or whatever. And they can. And they are welcome to. And they can print it on shiny silver paper. They really can. And that is the beauty of democratic design and this landscape of which we’re all part. Hear me out. I am no design snob and would never consider myself a part of ‘the establishment’. Properly educated, gainfully employed designers are perfectly capable of creating something hideous too.

Let me say this: just because I can draw a house, it does not make me an architect. I can cook a pretty mean bolognese, but that does not make me a chef. Being taught how to draw a house; learning about space, studying light, social needs, load-bearing structures, materials, energy efficiency, texture, rhythm of line and form… These things make you an architect, and it’s much the same with design.

It’s true that you can learn a lot from on the job experience and reading the right books. In fact, I think I learnt more in my first six months in industry than I did in the previous three years at university – mostly about reality and expectations from industry it has to be said. And I agree, that a formal education is NOT necessary for those gifted few with a natural ability to lay out information well. Those rare prodigies that are born with a knowledge of grid systems, visual hierarchy, kerning and leading type, appropriate font selection and the history of the design practice. I’m not even being facetious; they’re out there and I’ve met them. In fact I’ve met 15-year-olds who know more about design than I did at 21. The poster boy for most arguments regarding the pointlessness of design education is David Carson – of whom I am a huge fan. A self taught designer who went onto define a decade’s aesthetic. Only, that was twenty years ago, and begs the question, how many David Carsons have there been since David Carson?

There are those that say a qualification in design doesn’t guarantee you anything, and that much is true, but an education in any field counts for something, and to dismiss it entirely is insulting to those who choose to study and to those who have studied before them. Likely, your future employers. For my part, I took a one year foundation course and went on to university to study design at degree level over the course of the next three years and would recommend it to anyone – not least of all for social reasons.

I went to university as green as they come. And yes, I emerged broke – seriously, bailiff-provokingly broke. This was in spite of my working the entire four years that I studied (a video store clerk, a bartender, a store assistant and finally – and weirdly – a security guard if you’re interested). But, the time I spent focussing on that one discipline was invaluable. I learnt about my personal strengths, my weaknesses and made friends and contacts in the industry that I was about to emerge into. I gained my Honours by writing a 17,000 word thesis that gave me a legitimate reason to study an area of the field in real depth and to contact and meet with people whose work I admired and whose opinions I respected. I learnt new techniques, about former practitioners, new ways of thinking and of approaching problems. I tried working with letterpress for the first time and learnt how to screenprint and etch. I learnt about colour theory, typography, deadlines and how to critique my own work and that of other people. I attended lectures by those in industry and, damn it, I even met my future wife at university. I was lucky enough to have a couple of great and inspirational tutors along the way – not all of them I hasten to add – and my portfolio was strong enough that I was offered work before I had properly graduated.

With that said, a degree does not guarantee you a job when you do finally graduate, but nor should it – you still need to show good work at the end of it. The degree or qualification is for the love of it. It shows a willingness to learn, to struggle, a commitment to the industry and a belief in the importance of process and in the passing on of knowledge.

An education in design is not always necessary, I agree, but it is most definitely not pointless.

The rules are there to be broken

This loaded and overused phrase both insinuates and assumes a lot of things; one being that design requires rules to be successful. There are a large number of practitioners who see design as being more successful and expressive when it is loose and when rules are not adhered to. For my part, I see it as more of a half-truth, as opposed to an outright lie. Once you know what the rules are in the first place (see ‘An Education in Design is Pointless’) and you have a very good reason for breaking them, then and only then, should you consider going outside of ‘the law’.

A disregard for accepted practices can provide an exciting – even thrilling – piece of communication, but equally, being some kind of design enfant terrible just for the sake of it, can often lead to a disjointed, awkward and ultimately unsatisfying portfolio or piece of work. A magazine where every page is different with no continuity may have been cutting edge once but now, with hindsight, you realise that it’s just difficult/annoying to read.

A better tactic is to be smart and come at things from a different angle – exploit the rules that are there. How can you make them best benefit your project? The rules of design are surprisingly forgiving. By learning them, as you evolve as a designer, a lot of minor decisions will already be subconsciously made for you. You’ll instinctively know, for example, that you should’t set more than 13 words on one line of text and you’ll know why placing elements in certain places looks better than in others. As this happens, you’ll find making decisions about which rules to follow much easier, and when you do go off-piste, you’ll have a very good reason to do so.

Nothing is original any more

I’ve heard it said that it used to be easier to be original and I have so many problems with this statement that I barely know where to start.
The human brain is a wondrous and infinitely complex organ. We apparently only use one third of our brain’s capacity in our entire lifetime. When fed with the correct inspiration, a well educated, well read, hydrated and healthy brain will come up with original idea after original idea. As far as it is concerned. And therein lies the rub.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) a quick search online will soon reveal just how original your idea is. But the desire always to be original can be an extremely stifling and creatively limiting way of working. It clouds your thinking and the pursuit of originality becomes an obsession that gets in the way of clear thought.

All you can do is try to come up with your best idea and realise it as well as you can, too much time is wasted thinking about other people’s work. Picasso was a painter. He didn’t invent painting but he did do something new with it.

Equally, of course, the onus is on you as a designer not to seek to intentionally replicate someone’s work and roll out the ‘nothing is original’ argument in your defence. Because that simply won’t wash and you need to be honest with yourself.

Let’s face facts; no-one exists in a vacuum. You are and will continue to be inspired by other people’s work but you are more than the sum of your parts and, hopefully, you will create new work that will go on to inspire others.

Craig Ward is a designer and typographer. See more of his work at wordsarepictures.co.uk

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