The Process of Design
For every project, the purpose of the communication must be first established, and a conceptual framework created. With these in place, typographic principles and the nature of the information provide the basis from which to explore different visual approaches.
The difficulty is not only creating the concept but also in realizing it. This objective becomes increasingly elusive as the number of persons involved increases, each bringing his or her own objectives and biases to the problem. In evaluating designs, reasoning and judgment often become intertwined with emotion, making it difficult to reach consensus. A concept with an intellectual premise can make the process easier by offering a rationale that can be understood by everyone involved, including the intended audience. The argument for any design should be based on communication goals rather than aesthetics – which of course does not mean that aesthetics are unimportant.
Typographic principles lay the groundwork for any good design. All processes depend on a set of principles, rules, or guidelines in order to function. Traffic without laws is chaos; games cannot be played without rules. Typo- graphic communication, as well, requires that certain basic grammatical and visual standards be followed, and that all parties share the same visual and verbal vocabulary.
Guidelines do not have to be stifling, however. Children playing games follow the rules with serious attention, but at the same time interpret them creatively. To work on a tightly defined problem is more challenging, and more exciting, than working on a problem without constraints. What initially appear to be constraints can also lead to unexpected solutions. For instance, a poster may be required to contain an unwieldy amount of disparate information, but this disparity might create an interesting visual structure.
When problems are too open-ended, the dazzling array of possibilities often leads to confused or chaotic results. A program, such as a grid system, a series of carefully selected type sizes and weights, or self-imposed technical or economic limitations helps channel the design process into a more productive and interesting course. The challenge is how to determine the best program for the particular situation: how much freedom, creativity, and intuition to allow. In many cases, this is determined by considerations of practicality, budget, and audience; the designer’s level of experience; and whether the designer is working alone or as part of a team.
Useful as a program is, however, it alone cannot guarantee a successful outcome. Intelligence, talent, inspiration, and hard work are also necessary, as is a thorough under- standing of the information to be represented. To allow for a coherent structure, the information must be carefully analyzed. The resulting hierarchy remains fixed, but lends itself to a variety of visual representations.
To realize the concept and meet the project’s objectives, different visual approaches may be explored. This exploration gives shape to the macroaesthetics of the design, turning raw information into visual communication. Once a particular approach is chosen, further refinements take place at the microaesthetic level.
The final stages of the design process hone the aesthetic aspects. The microaesthetic level of a design can be con- tinually refined and affords the greatest opportunity for improving the quality and expressiveness of a visual composition. The microaesthetic level also gives the designer a certain degree of freedom to go beyond resolving only the task at hand, to express his or her own sensibilities. Ideally, the combination of macro- and microaesthetic components forms a synthesis – a con- vincing design solution for a specific problem.
Every project is an interplay of a myriad of ideas, opinions, requirements, and economic and technical constraints. While it is often impossible to precisely identify all the factors that shape a solution, one thing is certain: a good concept is always vital.
After many years of working with the computer, I still find pencil sketches the most efficient means of developing conceptual studies. Rather than transcribing an idea through the keyboard, computer, and printer, it seems to me much more natural and direct to capture my thoughts on a sheet of paper with a pencil. At the start of a project it is extremely important to spend some quality time focusing on objectives instead of getting distracted by what the computer can or must do.
The computer, however, is invaluable once the project is past the basic conceptual stage. Many design variations can be developed and edited without the waste of materials. Unintentional commands may lead to unexpected new directions. In realizing the original idea, the macro- and microaesthetics can be infinitely refined as the visual expression evolves to meet the objectives. Whatever tools are used, a successful solution must ultimately communicate its message and evoke the desired emotional response.
First published in Typography: Formation and Transformation, 2003