Utility versus Futility

I’m standing in line at the mall across from a Talbots store window. In it, a large sign is hanging by wires that reads ‘the red hanger sale.’ The type is in a brownish red color and what appears to be Times New Roman. Above the stacked text is a fashion illustration of a hanger. I don’t fine it very attractive, but I realized after being forced to stare at it for 5 min in line that… it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t UNattractive, it just IS. And ultimately, it gets the job done.

I sometimes run into the disheartening realization, when making random design observations to friends, that 99% of the world’s population does not care two wits about what might be considered ‘good’ design. I won’t get into the age old discussion of what is ‘good’ work in such a subjective field, because that’s not the point. The point is that no matter what the design world might decide has merit as design, the majority of our audience has a very different opinion on “good,” one that usually borders on indifference.┬áThe point is that when designing, we need to keep utility in mind. Too often I find myself drawn to the ads and layouts and concepts that probably lost 70% of viewers because they appealed too much to me- to a graphic designer.

Obviously you need to keep your audience in mind when designing but if you are, in fact, creating something for a general public audience then you might want to keep in mind that 99% of humanity doesn’t know ‘good’ design from a hole in the wall. I know I make the mistake… when designing, I try to create something lofty and original and forget that ultimately I’m just shaping a visual communication that has a more important job to do. The real challenge lies in creating work so effective, that it captures the intended viewer while also standing out as a piece of truly “good” design. So ‘red hanger sale’ sign, I apologize for being pretentious. Keep up the good work!

Ways of Seeing

In Adrian Shaughnessy’s book, How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul, the page usually reserved in books for a dedication to one’s mother or parents or closest friends is blank save for one short quote.

Seeing comes before words.
John Berger
Ways of Seeing

Ultimately, those four words are the battle cry of graphic designers everywhere. They are the slogan of the entire profession, the motivation for the entire concept of visual design. For some reason I don’t think of them as a scientific perspective or a sort of observation; they are, to me, an argument. They serve as evidence. Evidence that what a graphic designer does is meaningful – invaluable, even – and they seem to justify just how much money I’m planning to spend on graduate school.

I’m not sure why I always feel the need to defend my choice to pursue graphic design, but I do, and John Berger makes a damn good argument for me. Seeing comes before words. Therefore it’s necessary to shape what is seen so that the words mean anything at all. Not vice versa. By the time someone has seen something, words can only do so much to change their mind.

First there come seeing.

Then comes the explanation, the back up information, the concept, the mission statement, the copy, the content– everything else that an artist or company or brand or individual uses to support the initial visual offering. But no matter what you put into words, seeing comes first.