Archive for June 12th, 2004

How Ordinary People See Design

Saturday, June 12th, 2004

I went on a date today – very nice girl, very nice day all round. There was even paddling in the sea.

We met outside Brighton Museum, somewhere I’m ashamed to say I’d never been, and went inside for tea. On the way out we passed by some of the exhibits and there, near the entrance were some chairs. There was the famous baseball glove chair “Joe”, and the Mae West’s lips chair by Salvador Dali. I pointed them out to the girl I was with and she shrugged her shoulders and said they looked uncomfortable, then pointed at another one, far less famous, and said “I like that though”.

That, you see, is how design is perceived by real people. “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. It works or it doesn’t work. I can vote using this slip, or I can’t. I am comfortable in this chair or I’m not.

That something was designed by someone famous doesn’t immediately elevate it to being any better than something designed by someone anonymous.

Why do we worship heroes? Is a famous designer automatically a good designer? Is a designer not good until he is famous? I wonder if our profession and our subject has become self-obsessed and narcissistic – incestuous even.

There were exhibits in the museum (which is quite small, but worth visiting, even if only virtually) that are simply nice and decorative. Examples of functional and beautiful artefacts. And there, among them, are the “famous” pieces that aren’t functional, and probably aren’t even beautiful. They draw attention to themselves – no, not even themselves, their designers – in ways that the tea sets and the costumes don’t.

And it’s partly because we hold these examples up as being “great design” that our profession becomes devalued. No one looks at the china dinner service and says “I can do that” but everyone looks at the Dali sofa and thinks “I could have done that”.

Who puts these people on the pedestals? I didn’t vote for them. Where do I stand for election to the canon of the great and the good? Is it like the Catholic notables who need two verified miracles to their name before they are even considered for sainthood?

Every designer should walk around a museum or gallery with an “ordinary” person and attempt to understand how they react to what they see. And they should certainly sit in a shopping mall and observe how “ordinary” people react to the “ordinary” design around them. It is an educational experience.

Should we stop worshipping heroes and instead start understanding design?

Half a million ballot papers declared void – bad design to blame

Saturday, June 12th, 2004

Designers shouldn’t chase after “prestige” work like large corporate web sites and annual shareholders’ reports. Instead we should be turning our attention to things that matter. The last US general election was marred by badly designed ballot papers and systems, and last week when I voted in the European elections I had to think long and hard just to figure out where to put my cross. And now, in the London mayoral elections, badly designed ballot papers have led to half a million papers being spoilt. People who wanted to vote tried their best but were beaten by poor design.

These are the things that matter. We have so much power at our disposal to make people’s lives easier, to make small changes that have huge repercussions for us, our neighbours, and our neighbourhood. These are the areas designers should be focussing on, not cake decorating.

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Results delayed as half a million ballot papers declared void: “Hundreds of thousands of ballot papers were rejected in the London mayoral and assembly elections, amid claims that they were badly designed and voters were confused.

The results for London’s 25 assembly seats were delayed because of a significant number of spoiled papers. Around 167,000 of the voting forms relating to the assembly were rejected. Another 385,000 mayoral voting forms were also declared void.

Voters in the most complex election ever held in Britain struggled to record their five votes, with many placing two crosses for their first preference in the mayoral category, instead of one. There were also problems with the bar codes at the top of the ballot sheets. Many were torn as election tellers ripped the sheets from the book of voting forms. Each of them had to be scrutinised and a decision made about whether they could be regarded as valid.”

Cowboys and Indians

Saturday, June 12th, 2004

Armin Vit writes:

: : Speak Up > Is that a Graphic Designer with your Client, or are you just Happy to See me? : :: “My constant worry is that this fragmentation has given way to a slew of practitioners, under the guise of creativity, that lack the understanding or knowledge of the very basics of graphic design: From the formal and technical, like the craft of typography and theory of color; to the intangible, like the ability to conceptualize abstract ideas; to the non-teachable, like talent. I am not talking about the creation of cheaply printed menus with tacky clip art of shrimp and chicken at neighborhood restaurants, I am referring to sound businesses being serviced by unqualified individuals who indiscriminately develop inadequately researched, poorly executed and ineffectively implemented logos, packaging, brochures, web sites or annual reports.”

It is frustrating when you see poorly executed design, or are undercut for a job by a “non-designer” with a cheap computer and a shareware DTP program, or undervalued in a norganisation because you are perceived as a Mac operator or a technician, that it is the computer that does the work.

But we shouldn’t feel too affronted. Design is like a lot of other professions in that most people misunderstand it and think they can do better, and sometimes will try to.
Let me ask you this: how many of us have attempted some sort of minor building work ourselves? Like tiling a bathroom, for example, or laying some flooring. Doing some electrical work, maybe, or tackling a major bit of gardening? Fixing a leaking washing machine or installing a new shower?

I mean, how difficult can it be to do a bit of plumbing/gardening/building/flooring?

Most, if not all of us have tried our hand at things that really are jobs for the “experts”, and if you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of the company of one of these experts in your home tutting about the shoddy amateurism of your work (while you simply blame the tenant or owner before you) you will know that they don’t like it when people do it themselves.

But whereas we might say that’s because they don’t like the competition, and pride ourselves on saving a lot of money, when it comes to our own professional tutting at non-designers muscling in on our territory we get all defensive about our arty little profession.
All professions have cowboys, and all suffer from DIY-ers. I think part of the problem is that we tend to dress graphic design up in an air of mystery and obscure terminology, fail to communicate with our clients in plain English, and assume a posture of artistic integrity which really doesn’t fit with 99% of what we do: designing menus for pizza restaurants, 20% off stickers for supermarket chains and tourist leaflets for villages with the good fortune to be sited near an ancient ruin. No wonder people get fed up with us and think they can do it themselves, or get in the cheapest designer they can find.

We also have to remember that “good” design is not, as Armin originally thought after leaving college, “making things look cool”, but facilitating communication. The cool bit comes after, and even then it’s not necessary except as a point of differentiation. A tonne of fast food flyers come through my letterbox every year. Most look awful from my point of view, but they work. It wouldn’t matter if a menu had been put together by the spotty teenage son of a friend of the owner, or by Milton Glaiser. The only people who bemoan the fact that the spotty teenager is somehow innocently claiming the sort of sainthood we bestow on Milton are “Designers” with a capital D.

99% of designers aren’t famous, never will be. They get on with the job.

Design, in communication theory terms, is “redundant” – it aids communication but it isn’t necessary to it. And the mark of redundancy in communication is familiarity. In other words, the moment someone starts talking about the “wowee” design of a menu rather than the choice of pizza toppings, the designer has failed.

No, I don’t like bad design either. But more than that I don’t like the tendency some designers have to talk about what we do like it matters more than the thing it serves. Far more urgent than protecting our profession from amateurs is the need to protect it from ourselves.