A List Apart


Impulses and Outcomes

A couple of years ago while I was working on a project with Kevin M. Hoffman, he related a story to me about his consulting work with an agency on improving presentations to clients. The story centers around a designer who was asked to change his mode of dress. This designer was fond of the goth look, but the agency considered it inappropriate for some client meetings.

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Long story short, Kevin told the staff member that he could wear whatever he wanted to, but to consider the situation in terms of his desired outcomes. Clients’ opinions about clothing and personal expression aside, what was more important to the designer: dressing a certain way, or successfully pitching the design direction he was the most excited to work on? The “what to wear” decision then becomes less about the designer’s pride or interest in retaining control, and more about getting what he wants in the situation; acting in his own self-interest to the best of his ability.

Recently, as I worked on an extended project for a client at Bearded, these ideas started percolating through my brain again, but this time with regard to design. Every designer (and really everyone involved in a design) has tendencies and predilections that, like it or not, will be guiding the design process.

Of course we make our best efforts to ground the creative process in research, interviews, and egalitarian decision-making activities (sticky notes and card sorts, anyone?). But no matter what we do, our entire process is filtered through the very fallible, very subjective minds of people.

Let’s talk about your childhood

For a moment, we’ll zoom in from our mile-high view and consider a single person. Let’s imagine a child who grows up under the care of well-meaning but disorganized parents. The parents’ plans and decisions are unpredictable. The child, never knowing what will happen next, grows into a bright, talented young person with an unresolved longing for structure and order.

We might even imagine that this need to bring order from chaos, to sort out the unpredictable, messy parts of the world, is what draws them into a career as a designer.

Responsible adults

As they find their professional legs, they mature into not so much the David Carson, Stefan Sagmeister, James Victore, anything goes sort of designer — more of an Erik Spiekermann, Willi Kunz, or Sylvia Harris. They’re not out to tear the design world a new one. To the contrary, they’re focused on sorting out the garbled information before them; smoothing over the rough patches, and slowly rotating their subject’s gleaming, flawless, chrome surface towards the world.

And there’s nothing wrong with this orderly sort of design. In fact, it’s very, very useful to the world. Perhaps even necessary.

Likewise there’s nothing wrong with that wild-eyed sort of design, either. One might imagine (as many do) these types of design as poles on a spectrum of useful approaches. Poles between the qualities of Consistency and Variety.

Non-binary systems

As it turns out, every project demands to be somewhere on this scale. And it’s essential during the first part of every project (the research, the interviews, even the sticky notes) to figure out which spot on the spectrum is best suited to the project.

Now the extremes of this range are rarely appropriate for any project. An unwaveringly consistent design approach will often seem generic and boring. On the other hand, a design that is entirely committed to variety will make the audience struggle at every turn to orient themselves and parse the information before them.

So it seems fair to say that most designs benefit from being somewhere in the middle zone, balancing between the unhappy extremes of boredom and chaos.

Advanced calibration

But what happens when our imagined designer – the one who is drawn to systems of order and control – determines through their research that their project requires a design approach that is on the more varied side of center? When the organization, in fact, will benefit from a less rigidly ordered design? This organization, it turns out, needs an approach that may not sing with as much immediate and obvious clarity, but will bring more surprise and thrill to the audience.

And so we find ourselves with a mismatch between impulses (bring order!) and outcomes (show us surprises!). The problem is that the designer’s approach is not in a conversation with the project and its goals; it’s stuck in a very old dialog with the designer’s childhood. If left unaddressed, a successful project outcome will depend on whether or not those old desires happen to match up with the project’s requirements.

If we don’t want to leave things up to chance, this situation requires the identification of both the designer’s impulses and the project’s desired outcomes, and a conscious assessment of their overlap and contradictions.

When I was in a critique at design school, one of my classmates commented on another’s work that they “really seemed to be developing a style.” My professor became suddenly incensed (a rare thing for her), and declared “you’re designers, you don’t have a style! Your style is whatever is appropriate to the project!” In that way design is very different than art. Art stems primarily from the artist’s internal world. But design does not. Design aims to solve problems outside of the designer. Whereas the artist might be seen as a sort of oracle speaking to the world, the designer is more of a tool that is useful in solving problems.

Which is why, in the cases where a designer’s internal impulses and the project’s desired outcomes are not in alignment, the designer must consider adjusting. To be a useful tool, we must recognize that some of our impulses work against the needs of the organization that is employing us, and compensate.

This is no easy task. It’s a process that requires knowing oneself, and questioning our own nature and subjectivity. But it’s only through this sort of rigorous self-assessment and awareness that we can grow beyond our limitations–becoming better designers, and perhaps if we’re lucky, more sensitive and thoughtful people in the process.

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