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Posted 3 November 2012

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As I was perusing the Internet for additional thoughts on graphic design as a profession, I stumbled across an interesting article entitled Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? In this article, the author states his belief that design thinking, while a good idea in some instances, has done more harm than good to the business and design communities alike, and that it is time to look ahead to the next big idea (which, in his mind, is called CQ, or Creative Intelligence).

I was curious to understand why, in the author’s mind, Design Thinking has done more harm than good and upon reading his rationale, I can see where he is going – and in some instances, I even agree. For example, he mentions that big business sought to implement Design Thinking as an efficiency process (much like Six Sigma) thinking that it would have deep “cultural and organizational change.” The problem is that by trying to strictly define and regulate Design Thinking, one of the most critical parts of this ideology is lost — the journey.

You see, Design Thinking is not merely a series of steps that when performed one after another, is guaranteed to create innovation and creativity. And this was precisely what the C-Level folks thought they could do. They figured that they could simply cut out the middle-man (the designers), and follow the steps to achieve their goals. In most cases, they have failed to understand that what Design Thinking truly means, is that designers (D-Level) should sit at the strategic sessions to facilitate this process.

So the author suggests that as a big company experiment, Design Thinking has failed. Instead, he suggests big company focus on their creative output. Making truly exceptional, creative products and services – and be willing to scrap the unsuccessful projects even if they are at the end of their development process. He explains that he would like to see Creativity take a bigger role in our decision making processes…an idea I can certainly agree with.

Another vocal proponent of a shift in focus on creativity is Sir. Ken Robinson, who explains that in his view, schools are instrumental in crippling creativity in a child.

Posted 2 November 2012

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In this unit, we are introduced to three process books documenting the creative methods, processes, research, strategies, concepts and final executions of three individuals.

How does each process book communicate the designer’s ideation process?
In all three cases the process is communicated as a series of notes, sketches and visual reference materials. They all seem to document the process in first-person, informal narrative which I believe is very appropriate and congruent with the nature of the piece. I did find it intriguing that all three books were created by female students because I have always felt that females are far better at taking notes than we (males) are. That was a gross generalization if there ever was one, but it did help me realize just how much documenting every step and interaction helps the process along.

Are there specific communication tactics that any of the designers use that you may want to integrate into how you present your own process?
There are several tactics I will begin to implement in my own process. First and foremost, I will make a much more concerted effort of documenting my thoughts and putting them down on paper. I have been designing for a long time now, and a lot of that process happens in my head, but my wife would concur that I am hopelessly forgetful, so why I think that keeping things in my head is a good idea is beyond me (and her). So documenting things on paper will be a key take-away for me.

I also noted Biss’s quick engagement of her target audience and willingness to ask questions of others. I do okay in this regard, but could obviously do much, much more. I truly enjoy the new connections that happen whenever other people are involved in my process. I thrive on understanding how the intended audience actually interacts with my work, not just how I think they should interact with it. I got ‘hooked’ on this kind of audience research when I first saw a user interact with a website I had designed. Boy, that was a rough experience – but I have learned so much from it. I need to continue to apply this thinking on all my projects, not just the interactive ones.

Posted 29 October 2012

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My desk in it's current state. Cables everywhere!

Ugh. For years now I have wondered how to simplify — truly simplify — my surrounding space and possessions. Today, I stumbled across this wonderfully simple, yet powerful TED talk by Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger.com. (As a side note, I also love the simplicity of his presentation.)

This idea of simplifying your surroundings and editing ruthlessly reminds me of a wonderful video entitled The Desk, by Imaginary Forces. In it, we are afforded a little glimpse into a very famous desk, that of Massimo Vignelli. I have long admired Vignelli’s desk (is that weird?) and his insistence upon clearing it off every night so he can start fresh the next morning. There is something so refreshing — even inspiring – about this idea to me.

I suspect we all have our rituals before starting a big project. Mine is to clear off and organize my desk. I do it thoroughly — often spending up to an hour making sure that everything has a proper place. In many ways, it is my attempt at “editing ruthlessly” – or more likely – a ritual cleansing before the creative gods.

Less truly is more.

My refined process now includes playing

In last unit’s post about the creative process, I explained that I follow a modified waterfall process. I should have referred to it as a modified 4D process instead.

During this week’s readings, I discovered that the process I follow continues to appeal to me, however, I made some important distinctions and refinements to the stages I follow. For example, in this new and improved diagram, I have attempted to clarify several of the steps. Perhaps the most significant modifications are calling out the prototyping and feedback loops more specifically. I also included the term play in step three. If I were to point out a step that I continuously overlook in my process, it is playing. Too often, my process is so focused on the final outcome that I forget to truly play and allow that important step to guide the outcomes more often. This is something I will keep in mind as I continue to develop.

On a related note, this particular diagram from Dubberly’s book did resonate greatly with me. I have often called my process a modified waterfall mainly because the transition from one step to the next does not have a clear stopping/starting point. It is far more fluid than that. This diagram does a much better job of showing the underlying transition from step one (research/define) to step five (develop/produce).

Posted 23 October 2012

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Posters created for Minnesota Public Radio's alternative music station. An example of "flow."

In his book, Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” as the “state of effortless concentration and enjoyment” that individuals experience when they are working towards achieving a particular task or goal. This state is often referred to as “being in the zone” and it is often experienced in our most enjoyable, rewarding and fulfilling moments of life.

In my creative work, I have enjoyed many such moments of blissful lucidity which I would describe as perfect examples of “flow.” These moments often happen whenever I approach design problems in a “playful” manner – not necessarily concerning myself with the final outcome, but instead, allowing the creative process to dictate the outcome. These projects often feel like I’m painting on the canvas, rather than designing on it. The ‘rules’ of good typography, proper grid structures, and engaging color harmonies are still very much a part of these projects, but they are loose interpretations rather than strict mandates. Things like rhythm, visual texture, color and balance become the driving factors and the communication happens almost serendipitously. The message feels like a part of the piece rather than the purpose of it – if that makes any sense.

I’m not certain how to constantly achieve this state of flow in my work, but I suspect that approaching the design problem with a playful attitude is key to getting there. By that, I mean that instead of approaching the design problem in a more systematic and prescribed or formulaic manner, allowing myself to approach it with feeling. What feels good? What resonates? Perhaps, in a word, to create art, rather than design.

Posted 18 October 2012

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My personal creative process is a fairly straight-forward, slightly-modified waterfall process, and is probably quite common in our field. This is likely because it is an easily scalable process which effectively breaks down a design problem into smaller, more digestible chunks.

To better illustrate the process I typically follow, I will describe how the process applies to a larger project, like the development of a new brand and visual system:
Read More…

Posted 15 October 2012

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Our mid-term assignment for this course was to put together a five to seven minute audio-visual presentation describing our research findings on our topics. My research and presentation are on Graphic Design as a Profession, a topic which has interested me for some time now.

We are to self-assess our efforts using the following criteria to benchmark our performance: topic introduction, tone, vocabulary, visual design, presentation flow and timing. It is always difficult and awkward to self-assess your assignments, so all I can do is provide my own perspective of how the presentation came to be.

Initially, I was pretty unsure of how the flow of the presentation would unfold, so I decided to answer three simple questions: 1. what is graphic design? 2. what is a profession? and 3. is graphic design a profession? As I move to taking a personal position on the topic, I will undoubtedly need to add a fourth and possibly even a fifth question, but for the purposes of this assignment, these three questions allowed me to focus on some of the research conducted so far.

With the primary questions in place, I then proceeded to explain several of my findings, but I quickly realized that seven minutes was simply not enough time to go into any amount of detail on the topics. I was forced to greatly limit the amount of information presented, and instead opted to touch only on a couple of highlights.

The tone of my presentation is casual and comfortable. Presenting in front of an audience has never been a challenge when I truly know the material, so I made sure that the material was fresh in my mind as I started recording. I discovered, however, that my pacing needed to get faster to meet the time constraints, so I re-recorded the presentation several times until I was able to present the material in under seven minutes.

As far as the visual presentation, I wanted it to be engaging and helpful in reinforcing the message, rather than re-stating it, and I feel that I was able to accomplish just that.

All in all, I feel the presentation was successful – if not a bit rushed. But I guess, in the end, seven minutes really is plenty of time.

The first assignment of this course was to define graphic design in our own words, without doing any research or digging through other materials. While the idea of defining an entire profession is a bit daunting, I came up with the following definition:

graphic design is a vocational discipline in which a designer visually informs and/or persuades a viewer, often in relation to specific communication efforts (marketing-related or otherwise).

Five weeks later we are to re-address the original definition we posted now that we have had the opportunity to focus a little more on research, and have had some more background as to what other conversations have discussed on the topic. Going back to my original definition, I see several parts I would like to re-address.

First, I would like to narrow my focus a bit from the previous attempt. When coming up with the previous definition, I defined graphic design in broader terms, almost devoid of my own personal biases and opinions on what it is. I would now like to refine the words ‘vocational discipline’ to ‘profession.’

Now this simple change can prove to be controversial, since by the strictest definitions of what constitutes a profession, graphic design doesn’t exactly qualify. Not to mention that this very debate has been going on for years, without any real resolution. But, for my own definition, I think it is appropriate to call it a profession.

Secondly, I would change ‘informs and/or persuades’ to ‘communicates, informs and persuades’ as I think informing/persuading feels too narrow.

Thirdly, I’d change the word ‘viewer’ to ‘audience,’ as I now understand that there are different types of audience for the communication a designer produces.

And finally, I’d like to completely re-address the last portion of my definition, currently stated as ‘often in relation to specific communication efforts (marketing-related or otherwise)’ and instead focus on what graphic design is meant to do. So, the updated definition looks more like this:

graphic design is a profession in which a designer communicates, informs and persuades an audience by adding context, clarity and insight to business and social communications challenges.

In many ways, I believe this new definition captures a slightly narrower view of what graphic design is, though it still remains broad in the practical applications of the profession. I’m sure it will change yet again in the next five weeks. Stay tuned.

Posted 9 October 2012

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While doing some research on design education, I stumbled across a TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson from 2006 in which he argues that education systems worldwide are effectively and ‘ruthlessly’ killing creativity. In this wonderfully engaging and intelligent discussion, Sir Robinson states that the world’s education systems do not teach students how to be wrong, and argues that “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” He expresses his concern that creativity and ‘the arts’ are always the subjects held in the lowest regard and importance, particularly when compared to math, science and other liberal arts. He further proposes that it is now time for creativity to have the same status, importance and regard as literacy.

I feel like Sir Robinson’s observations are spot-on. One of the most intriguing things I observe in children is their complete lack of self-censoring when it comes to drawing. If you hand a toddler a crayon and ask that toddler to draw a portrait of their mother, the toddler will immediately scribble something on the paper with no preconceptions or preoccupation that the portrait may not be perfect. They will just draw, uncensored, un-emcumbered by the notion of correct or incorrect. In contrast, if you hand a crayon to an adult and ask for a portrait, it is extremely likely that you will hear an excuse like “oh, I don’t know how to draw.” Or, “oh boy, all you’re gonna get is a stick figure.” To me, this is a perfect example of what being afraid to make a mistake looks like, and it is something that we are trained to do. As Sir Robinson says “children don’t grow out of creativity, they are educated out of it.”

Posted 4 October 2012

In: 701 Methodologies Seminar

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Saturate and Group Method
This method of design thinking focuses on transforming a physical space and saturating it with visuals, thoughts and ideas pertaining to the question being researched. This saturation of ideas can help uncover new and unexpected connections and associations between concepts, which may, in turn, become unique solutions to the problem at hand. This method could be considered a type of physical (and collaborative) concept map where grouped ideas can reveal direct or indirect links with other idea groups.

I have experienced a handful of times where a similar method was used to explore extended branding and marketing campaigns with multiple media components, though the method was not used for research purposes, but rather for idea generation and consistency in brand message. By saturating our walls with ideas and visual explorations, the team was encouraged to provide feedback, critiques and ideas throughout an extended period of time (vs. a one hour ideation session, for example). It also encouraged other co-workers who were not in the team to offer feedback, and in many instances, inconsistencies and missed opportunities often rose to the surface.

I am eager, however, to implement this method to research the design problem instead of just for ideation, as I can see how it can provide great value and answers much earlier in the creative process. It seems like it would be a really good way of taking into account more of the surrounding context to a design problem, which could enrich the solution by helping the designer empathize with the user more easily.

Composite Character Profile
This method is a collection of characteristics, behaviors, features and traits from a number of individuals that are then synthesized into a single, fictional character (a stereotype of sorts) to better understand a particular user segment. These character profiles (a.k.a. personas) are often given a name, a face and even a story describing what a day in the life of this person could look like. Multiple personas are often created, each detailing a particular user segment, which helps researchers gain a quick (though generalized) understanding of the audience.

In my own career, I have used this method multiple times to keep the design problem focused on the user, and not the client’s or our own perspective. It is a great tool to gain a better understanding of the surrounding factors that may affect an individual’s decision directly or indirectly, and I find it particularly useful when designing for interactive experiences (i.e. websites).

The process (at least in my case) starts with a series of individual and group interviews of the people we believe will use the product. These include the main stakeholders (usually executives), various internal groups or departments (e.g. hr, sales, distribution), current customers, past customers, potential customers and sometimes even vendors. The interviews focus on understanding a ‘day-in-the-life’ of the interviewee more so than on the design problem we are asked to solve. We then take the notes and findings of those interviews and find common patterns of behavior, which we use to guide the creation of the persona document. Each persona will be given a name and ‘identity’ of sorts, so that when we are discussing a particular challenge, we can remember that we are designing for “Bob,” a real human being with real needs.

In my experience, it is a fantastic tool – though costly to implement (as is any research component). However the benefits of going through the process far outweighs any cons.

Posted 1 October 2012

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As I’ve been gather sources for my paper on what the graphic design profession looks like today, Professor Abadie suggested I look into Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts on medium. It didn’t take long to find articles, essays and videos on McLuhan’s theories – and it especially didn’t take long to discover that his views were not always understood or well-received. So, naturally, I had to dig a little deeper to get a better understanding of why this figure’s ideas would influence the graphic design profession today.

It is in his most influential book, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1964), that McLuhan first coins the phrase “the medium is the message,” which at first glance is both deceiving and profound. It takes a bit more study (and I have a lot of studying to do on the subject) to get a more clear understanding of what he means.

In essence, and as far as I have managed to understand so far, McLuhan places a great deal of importance on the medium, with seemingly little regard for ‘content’ or ‘message.’ He goes as far as saying that the message is unimportant, inconsequential even – at least in relation to the medium. But what does he mean by all this? I believe that what McLuhan was referring to is that the medium (i.e. television, radio, print, computers) should be our main focus of research, because our understanding of the consequences and effects of media on society as a whole is much too limited and under-valued. McLuhan was convinced that the medium would so greatly change and affect society, that the message(s) it delivers are inconsequential in comparison – and, frankly, I agree with his assertion (to a degree, but that’s for another post).

What does all of this have to do with the graphic design profession? I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts enough around this to express them here in any manner of cohesiveness, but I can see how taking a much broader view of graphic design as a medium and its effects on society, would open up a whole new realm of interesting avenues to explore and research. I am eager to learn more about McLuhan and his work.

Posted 26 September 2012

In: 701 Methodologies Seminar

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Can the typeface used in a car dashboard reduce the amount of time a driver takes to read it? A new collaborative study between MIT’s AgeLab and Monotype is researching that very question and opening the door to new opportunities in user interface research in cars.

Among the findings, the research determined that something as simple as the choice of typeface (humanist vs. grotesque) could reduce the amount of ‘driver distraction’ significantly:

In both studies, the humanist font significantly reduced the amount of time participants glanced away from the road. It’s an extremely subtle change that could have far-reaching effects: Reducing glance time by just 10.6 percent represents 50 feet of highway travel, which could be the difference between a rear-end collision and a close call.

Even more interesting, however, is the surprising data indicating that different typefaces may affect the glance times in males, but not necessarily in females.

While the article only mentions the use of Eurostile (grotesque) and Frutiger (humanist) typefaces, I would be curious to know how other data points may affect legibility as well (i.e. uppercase vs. lowercase, amount of tracking and leading, sans serif vs. serif). It is also important to note the call for car manufacturers and regulatory agencies to “use science to inform their designs” and increase our general understanding of causes for distractions while driving.

I just stumbled across a great article on Forbes titled Creative Leadership, Humility and Being Wrong. From the article:

Creative leadership is built on the idea that everyone at every level in the organization is a leader; that leaders must know themselves, alert to their failings and graces, to better serve the organization; and that only by mastering complexity – both human and organizational – will leaders be able to achieve alignment.

In a profession that is so driven by egos, we are particularly susceptible to wanting to hide our weaknesses, yet acknowledging these shortcomings truly is a strength, for why do we have weaknesses if not to teach us how to turn them into strengths? I have had the great opportunity of working with and learning from leaders who have been quick to acknowledge their unfamiliarity with certain interactive media. I truly respected their input and insights as creative professionals, and more often than not, their insights made the work better in every way. On the other hand, I have also had the misfortune of working with ‘leaders’ that felt threatened by their lack of understanding of how websites, for example, function and are created. They often presented their opinions more forcefully, which only made their ignorance more pronounced, and our teams and quality of work suffered significantly because of it.

A good friend and mentor once told me that “leadership is earned, not given.” I believe that an important character trait of every leader is their ability to embrace other people’s opinions and expertise, and to be smart enough to rely on other people’s knowledge in areas where his or her own are not as strong. It is this kind of leader that will inevitably promote creativity in a work environment, because as the old adage says “two heads work better than one.”

Posted 20 September 2012

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Apple has long been considered a pioneer in user interface design, but lately there has been an interesting debate going on about their increased use of skeuomorphic design on some of their applications and whether or not it is an appropriate practice for digital media.

“Skeuomorphism is when a product imitates design elements functionally necessary in the original product design, but that becomes ornamental in the new product design.” — Wikipedia. So by definition, you can easily understand why so many (primarily designers) are opposed to it – it is design as decoration – something that we are trained to avoid wherever and whenever possible. However the question remains, is it such a terrible thing?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I completely dislike the skeuomorphic designs in Apple’s interfaces. With that out of the way, I think it is only fair to try to look at the other side of the coin on this. I recently read an article/interview with a former UI designer at Apple that shed some additional insights into how and why these designs came to be, and while I found myself disagreeing with many of the points he made, I did agree with some of his answers. For example, it is easy to forget that skeuomorphism applies to both how things look, and how things behave – so his clarification that skeuomorphism is very important in determining an application’s behavior resonated very well with me.

But, I digress. The question at hand is, is skeuomorphism as applied to how something looks a bad idea? To answer that, I think it is important to remember the age-old question of form over function. While my opinion is that form should always follow function, I can see where in this case, form may very well educate function. Let me explain:

Many years ago I attended a keynote speech by Cameron Moll, a prominent interactive designer. He told a story about how one day when he was visiting his father, he saw that his father’s computer desktop was cluttered with icons. He explains that they were in random piles across the screen, but piles nonetheless. When Cameron saw this, he immediately assumed that his father didn’t know how to store things in folders, so, like any good son would do, he helped his dad out by clicking on the “Clean Up Icons By Name” feature and in one simple action, re-organized the desktop so things would be easier to find. Well, he proceeded to explain the look of sheer terror and disbelief on his dad’s face when he saw what had just happened. His dad then asked him “why did you do that?! Do you know how long it took me to organize those files?!” Cameron said it wasn’t until that point that he realized that to his father, the desktop of his computer resembled a physical desk top, where papers do live in piles.

Cameron’s story is, in my opinion, a perfect case for skeuomorphic design. There is a very large number of users of new applications that benefit from the familiarity of a leather calendar, or the turning of a page in a book. And for these users, those visual cues may be critical in educating them on the function of the software.

Now, it is important to note that while few software is taking such pronounced visual cues from the analog world as Apple’s, it does not mean that they are the only ones. For example, when was the last time you saw or used a floppy disk? Or a rotary phone for that matter? Or how about the last time that you wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and mailed it? And yet, we see these visual references almost daily in today’s software.

So in conclusion, while I would very much prefer a less analog look to the software I use, I can at least see some benefits to keeping some things rooted in the past still. That said, I am also quite intrigued by Microsoft’s fresh approach to their Windows 8 UI…but it remains a mystery on whether or not it will actually be intuitive enough for its users. We shall see.

Posted 13 September 2012

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Mr. Dubberly’s “Design In the Age of Biology” presents a compelling argument that there is a significant paradigm shift in the world of design, and more particularly in how design thinking is evolving. The postulation that design is moving from a more technical model to a more organic, collaborative and service oriented model resonates clearly with me. In particular, I have seen this kind of thinking in interactive media projects where collective design thinking and problem-solving is typically encouraged, and the success of a particular website or software is not determined by a designer or designers working in a vacuum, but rather by a group of individuals of diverse talents and backgrounds coming together as a collective.

The shift, however, is gradual and ongoing. There is plenty of strictly mechanical work taking place on a day-to-day basis. There are also plenty of forward-thinking individuals who have embraced design thinking and sustainable design practices in multiple industries. And as the graphic design industry continues to mature, the day will come when it will evolve from a trade to a profession. This evolution can only happen as more critical thinking takes place around the larger role that design plays in our society and our responsibility as designers to understand the consequences of our design decisions.

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