Written on Monday,
June 27th, 2011
It starts with a box — four sides and negative space between. A tool — a paintbrush, a chisel, a pencil (maybe your own blood if you’re into shock and harming yourself), a typewriter, a mouse. And an idea — a concept of what is needed. A piece of paper, a monitor screen, a cutting board, a viewfinder, a canvas, a block of wood. Creation starts with parameters, a loosely cobbled together framework. Whether you’re trying to write or cook or paint or design, it starts with context – or the “what”, “how” and “why” of creating. As a designer, I feel as if my fellow colleagues are more (self) interested in the how they design and has all but lost the why they design.
It’s fairly obvious that what you create will determine the tools you use. You can’t make a salad with a pencil and you can’t cook a steak with a mouse (well, a rodent, sure, but why would you do that? Why I ask? Why?). The medium used is the expression of the creativity. For a designer in 2011 that tool — though it might start with a pencil to paper — in the end, is almost always a computer.
Fifty years ago design was practiced with (what we think of now as) antiquated tools used to facilitate the vision of the designer. While the craft of design was (and always will be) subjected to the tools, the primary focus of design was why. Why am I using this typeface? Why am I using these linear graphical elements on this specific grid on this paper finish and size? Why am I choosing this text as the most important visual on the page? Why is this text considered less important? Why am I using these colors on these elements? Why am I placing these photos or illustrations in this area, and cropping in, and rotating? The concept and execution are then filtered through the tools at your disposal. Design started with a purpose and an intent (and let’s be honest, a solid foundation on which to defend your visual choices). Not much has changed in theory — the tools have gotten more sophisticated, the process quicker — but have have we lost the art of why? Have we lost the high regard designers of the past had for concept and purpose?
Today it seems we seem very preoccupied, nearly obsessed, with how we design. How are you making this mobile app or web page? Are you using CSS3? Are you using standards compliant HTML5 markup? Is it a responsive design layout? Are you using robust SEO practices? Does your work display correctly in IE (and by default, the answer is no; nothing works in IE)? How are you using the available font-face libraries to create a more print-looking design? What CMS are using to generate and manage your content — is it ExpressionEngine? Or WordPress? Or Django? Or PHPNuke (because you’re still stuck in 1998)? We’re so preoccupied with our tools and technology that we forgot the very “art” of creation. Did Picasso obsess over the many types of brushes and canvases he could use? Did he travel the world giving speeches and panels on why a specific brand and type of brush was the best way to paint? No. He created with what he had to execute the vision and message in his head.
Great design is a rarity; and as much luck and the perfect alignment of client, project, time and collaboration as it is planning and purpose. But great design has purpose. Great design has a message. Great design has thought and execution. Great design isn’t great because it was done with Illustrator or CSS3 or ExpressionEngine. Great design is great because it’s about the why, not the how.