Why do we design stuff? No really, why do we do that?
Well, stuff need to be designed, in the same way food needs to be cooked and roads need to be paved. There is a basic necessity of arranging and ordering things so they can be understood and experienced by other human beings out there.
Problem is that during this process, in between rough materials and finished work, there’s our craftsmanship at work, and inevitably, our ego. This is something I have been thinking a lot about recently. Of course there is nothing wrong in having an ego, everybody has one, and there is nothing wrong in trying to please people. Ultimately, one of the reasons I chose this career is because I really – really! – like it when people tell me “good job Carlo” (there must be some parental issue at play here, relationship with mom & dad and stuff but I don’t want to investigate further).
The fact that we want to be appreciated and relevant can be a very powerful driving force – in a positive way – but it easily distances ourselves from the original purpose of what we are doing. We want to do beautiful design, get compliments and even awards, and we easily forget about the people who are going to pay for what we have done, the public, the readers, who have no interest in who have done what, in why the type is like this or like that, in your grid and so on. They just want to read the damn story.
So, most of the time my work is to try to balance the irresistible tendency to showing off and begging for attention with the ultimate goal of presenting a story in an engaging, readable and enjoyable way.
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A practical example is what recently happened when I was asked to do a story about Knoxville, Tennessee for the good folks of American Craft magazine. I was over the moon reading the headline: “Mountain Meets Modern”. Oh-My-God, I have to do something with all those M’s, what a great opportunity for a luxurious type treatment, maybe three big M’s all across the spread and this and that. I doodled around for hours trying to find a brilliant solution, something that would get me a big applause or at least a couple of retweets. I was – again! – in designer mode. Designing design for designers. I can’t imagine anything more boring and useless.
The only way out here is to get back to the story, the only thing that really matters. I scaled down my ego a bit, I reduced type size to a more approachable level, and placed the headline in a way that was respectful of the picture chosen for the opening and that could actually be read by people. So (1) first is the picture, (2) second comes the headline which has to be readable and comfortable, and then, just then, (3) I put my twist in it. This sequence is very important and it’s exactly the opposite of what I was doing before. Once everything was set, I could throw a Futura M in the mix, just because it looks like mountains and then place chunks of text as peaks here and there, so that everything is balanced but not too much. I know, it’s not that Jantschicholdish (which, btw, I deeply love) but I can have some fun, right?
So what I am trying to say is that ultimately we design for the people out there and not for ourselves, and this is very important. When we design we’re just arranging things so people can access them. Our job is humble, more a service, behind the scenes, invisible, and one of the greatest accomplishments for a designer is to trigger a little smile and/or some (visual) pleasure without interfering in the reading experience. It’s simple, but not easy.