So here we are, yet another year, exactly 1-11-11 by my calendar. All those ones must be signaling something? After 30 years of graphic design maybe it's time to think about the direction the business of design is taking — and do we like where it's going? Over the next few issues I'm going to take a look at various aspects of graphic design. Sort of an inventory of where we've been and where we're going. If I start wandering down strange paths just be sure to send me a note to point me back in the right direction. I promise I won't make this a nostalgia trip.
One topic that's been bantered about around here quite a lot the past few weeks is the idea — or should I say the fact — that design is not decoration.
By definition, design means "to construct." We are graphic designers and that means that we construct graphically. At one time that was an appropriate term because most of what we did all day was mechanical in nature, typesetting with lead characters, drafting with T-squares and organizing bits of illustration and copy on a board with knives, glue and rulers. Today we think of ourselves more as "communication artists." If we swap the word artists (which tends to lean toward brush on canvas) with "illustrators" (which implies creating a drawing to explain something) we could call ourselves "communication illustrators." The definition of illustration is to "tell the story," and communicating through storytelling is a pretty accurate way of describing what we do. (I wish I had thought of this formula when my Mom first asked what it is I do for a living.) We may not work with a brush or pen, but we create compositions, we lead the eye and tell the reader where to look and how to read a magazine, a roadway sign or a website. Good design is well-thought-out placement of a few elements that together effectively and easily tell a story (form follows function).
"Decoration," on the other hand, is comprised of bells and whistles like drop shadows, glow effects, starbursts and rainbows or other extraneous elements that can easily get in the way of the desired message. I like a drop shadow every now and then as much as the next guy, but if it ruins the functionality of a website homepage by distracting the viewer from where they should be looking, or if it gets in the way of a clean and simple message, it shouldn't be there. Sometimes the best story is the one that asks the viewer to do a little work, fill in the blank, close the gap or imagine the next scene. Like a good book that ends a chapter with the hero dangling over a cliff, good design presents a simple message that leaves the reader hungry for more. Apple has always done a brilliant job of this with their minimalist approach to storytelling. Take a look at this video to see what can happen when decoration steps firmly into the path of good design....watch the video.