Three Lessons About Design

July 20, 2018


Put your hand up if you know – and therefore LOVE – Olivia, the little pig created by Ian Falconer for his best-selling illustrated books for children.

Olivia is a piglet extraordinaire. “Absolutely perfect,” says The Christian Science Monitor. A “piglet with self-esteem”, notes Gloria Steinem. "Even a match for Eloise," declares Hilary Knight (whoever she is.)

Olivia is “good at lots of things”: running, jumping, dancing, cooking, hammering nails, skipping rope, dressing up, singing, making sand castles, scaring her little brother…the list goes on and on.

In the first book in Falconer’s series, Olivia visits New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with her mother. She heads straight for her favourite picture, Ballet Rehearsal on the Set, by Edgar Degas. Olivia is mesmerized by this picture; she looks at it for a very long time, dreaming and imagining herself on stage in a tutu and tiara. (As you do, if you happen to be Olivia.)

But the painting that truly captures the attention of our plucky little porcine heroine is Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm #30. You probably know the one – on a huge rectangular canvas, Pollack has created an overlapping web of looping, squiggly, seemingly random white, brown, and black lines. It’s considered the most notable of his famous “drip” paintings.

Olivia isn’t so much impressed as, well…. inspired: “I could do that in about five minutes,” she says to her mother.

And so she does! As soon as she gets home, Olivia channels her inner Pollock and sets about transforming one full wall of her bedroom (and herself) into a chaotic red, black and white abstract composition. As you can imagine, this produces shock and awe in Mama pig, as well as a time-out and an early-to-bed for little Olivia. (But of course, Olivia is so lovable that she manages to finagle not one, but three, bedtime stories out of her mother, despite her punishment.)

Although Olivia is nothing if not creative, she learns a valuable lesson: merely having a brush and a set of paints does not make her an artist. Or at least one allowed to paint her bedroom walls.

The same thing goes for graphic design. Having Microsoft Word, some stock images, and a handful of fonts (Comic Sans, anyone?) does not – repeat after me – does not make you a designer. Graphic design is an art and a science, and, like any other specialized profession, it is best left to the experts.  

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with some extraordinary designers. They’ve been generous with their talent and their time, and through them, I’ve learned much. Here are my top three lessons.

1. “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.”
--- Paul Rand, American Designer & Art Director (1914-1996)  

No, I never worked with Paul Rand – or any of the other noted designers quoted here – but Rand is widely considered the grandfather of modern American design so he’s a good place to start. Among other things, Rand created a lot of famous logos still in use today, including IBM, ABC and Westinghouse.

Rand also wrote extensively on design. If you want to learn the basics from one of the greatest, check out any of these titles: Thoughts on Design; Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art; Design, Form and Chaos; From Lascaux to Brooklyn.

Another great book on design is: The Great New York Subway Map about the creation in 1972 of NYC’s iconic subway map. This is also very accessible, since it was written for children.

And speaking of kids, here’s one more: Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd.

What becomes abundantly clear from even the most cursory dip into any of these texts is that design is indeed complicated. It involves several interconnected elements and a host of decisions about:

  • Form: This includes size, scale, orientation, colour, shading, image selection, image quality, image cropping, symmetry/asymmetry, simplicity/complexity, positive space/negative space, repetition/pattern, focus/out of focus/juxtaposition;
  • Typography: Type styles, points and picas, "kerning", "leading", typographic colour, proportions & textures; and
  • Concept: Is it literal/suggestive? Will you use metaphor? Sincerity/irony? What about images: photograph/illustration/cartoon/pictogram?

Do you see? Definitely not child’s play, this design stuff.

2. “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
--- Jeffrey Zeldman, Web Designer, Creative & Founder of Studio Zeldman

Whereas art can – and, some would say, should – stand on its own, I don’t believe in design for design’s sake. If art is primarily about expression – the artist and her view – then design is about communication – the audience and his view.

The key question is: What are you trying to communicate?

To that end, the design must support the content, not the other way around. In other words, (the 1896 words of American architect Louis Sullivan, actually): “Form follows function.”

Start with your purpose. Figure out what you are trying to do, then create the words and images to achieve it.

3. “Design is the tie that binds.”
--- Charlotte Davis, Founder, Verve Communications    

Lest you think design is just for big, important projects like billboards, brochures or websites, think again.
Every communication – even a simple letter or an email – can be improved by thinking about the principles of good design. For example, how long will your paragraphs be (usually, the shorter, the better); will you apply a ragged right edge or fully-justify the text (I tend to advocate for rag); will you use headings, bolding or italics to emphasize certain things (yes, please) – all of these are design decisions that affect how approachable, how engaging and, ultimately, how readable your piece is.

So, looping back to those books on design I referred to above, my point here is that while you don't need to actually become a designer, it is definitely useful to have a basic understanding of design.

Let me leave you with one final thought, from Irene Au, former Global Head of User Experience at Google and VP User Experience and Design at Yahoo:  
“Good design is like a refrigerator—when it works, no one notices, but when it doesn’t, it sure stinks.”

I think even Olivia would agree with that.