14 Feb How We Approach Design
How We Design, is as Important as What We Design
An Art Director I used to work with back in Los Angeles had a small, kitchy coffee mug that his mother-in-law had given him for Christmas one year. On the side of the mug it read; “Don’t just be a designer, be a good one.” Just like that, with the “be” and “good” all in bold italics, like we wouldn’t read it correctly if those words weren’t highlighted. I used to stare at that mug all day long as it sat on his desk, the words rattling around in my brain so often they had no real meaning, just a sort of cheesy humor about them, like when you see a “World’s Best Dad” mug or an “I (heart) NY” t-shirt.
This particular Art Director (we will call him Fritz for the purposes of this story) was very talented, but an extreme control freak. Fritz was so methodical in how he would approach projects, it used to drive me crazy. Everything had to be done in a particular order, everything we created had to be stored in a particular way, in a particular place. If anyone failed to follow his system, it could mean a lot of trouble from Fritz, or worse, that you had to start all over again.
Fritz was one of those professionals whose careers had spanned a length of time where the technology and tools he worked with at the start of his career had 100% completely changed to the tools he used now toward the end of his career. Needing to be able to adapt and keep working, he had to learn to straddle both a non-digital and digital working environment. To put it more simply, when Fritz started working as a designer in the 1970’s he worked without the aid of a computer, and working as a designer in 2007 he was required to work almost completely on a computer. I could go on and on about all Fritz, his mug and his amazing career spanning 4 decades, but I will summarize by saying this, the inadvertent timing of his career and its partial overlap with a digital revolution was actually a huge asset to Fritz, or more importantly, to me as a student of his work.
In approaching design, Fritz required that we begin our work in the physical world, before we even dreamed of beginning to craft in the digital one. He taught us methodologies used by designers long before computers were able to fit neatly on the top of your desk. He told me once about how he’d taught a graphic design class one semester at NYU in which the students would also learn Adobe Photoshop. He said on the first assignment, before he had even finished explaining the parameters of the project, he realized students were already playing around with fonts, adding effects and filters to them to see what would happen if they made them look like stained glass. He said to me, “just because you have all those options at your fingertips, doesn’t make you a better designer. What good are all those effects if you don’t have the first clue what you’re doing?”
Full disclosure. Fritz does not work here at The BETA Agency. Neither does his mug. But his influence is in a way a very large part of how we work. He wasn’t the only designer I worked with over the years. I’ve had the good fortune of working with many, all with different habits, different approaches, different styles. The most important lesson I take away from my time with Fritz is his belief that digital tools, are just that, tools. I took a film editing course once where the teacher used a Steenbeck (an old flat-bed machine that would cut the actual film, and splice it back together again) not a computer to edit with and I am going to tell you right now that guy was just as talented, fast and efficient an editor as I have ever seen, and I have been watched Academy Award winning digital editors work. In the end, computers are just tools. They are only as efficient as the humans who operate them.
It doesn’t matter what we are designing here at BETA. A poster, an advertisement, a website, a live event. The first thing we do is start in the physical world. We write, we draw, we talk, we sketch. We look at other peoples work. We use words like message, identity, feel, and style. Once we have a direction on an idea, then and only then do we touch a computer and begin to create.
Some of our best work has come out of this process and it has even lead to some unintended results. On a recent project for a client, I handed the design team a box of old magazines and made them each create a collage to represent the direction they would go in for this particular marketing campaign. One design (although not the winning entry) was clever enough to lead us into the creation of a new web-based project, a result we might not have achieved using an alternate process.
Every individual who works with us here at BETA is a designer in their own way whether they code websites, take photographs, design artwork, edit videos, write copy for social media, etc. And all of them work by the code inscribed on the side of Fritz’s coffee mug.