Whether you're using a camera, Adobe CS3, or a stone tablet with an awl, you need tools to make a designed artifact. Those tools could be anything physical beyond your brain and hands, really: torn paper, a sponge, an 8-color Heidelberg press, or code that will be compiled into a Flash SWF.
Knowing which tools to select and when you apply those tools while you're making a design can have massive implications on how long it takes to execute a project. Beyond coming up with a strong idea and knowing how to manage your design role and tasks, improper tool selection can hurt you more than any other decision in the design process.
And when you're working in a team of designers collaboratively, not clarifying what tools will be applied in advance can be deadly. This is why in agency settings, we default to whiteboards, pencil and paper, and other simple methods of working through design problems.
This post will talk through some of the reasons why we stay low-fi so far into the design process, and what rewards you can reap from the result.
The difference between mediums, media, and tools
If you began your journey into design from being an artist, then you're very familiar with the specific mediums that make up the genre of visual art.
Usually when we talk about tools in the creation of art, we're discussing the things we use to create a piece of art in a specific medium. For example, if the medium is oil painting, there are specific tools that you need to create your finished work. The canvas, the oils, the palette, the brushes, and your turpentine are all tools that cohere into your finished artifact.
Design isn't a medium. It's a process of making. The application of design making encompasses any genre or medium of visual art that you can muster. The end result, a designed artifact as opposed to a piece of art, is crafted to be mass-produced. Design's closest analogue in the art world is conceptual art. If you want to dig deeper into this subject, this piece from last year unpacks some of what I'm getting at.
Because of design's all-encompassing domain, we spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating how we'll use tools (which may be derived from the specific mediums of visual art) to implement ideas in specific media. Most often, we need to choose media that allows mass production. We may generate an oil painting as part of a brochure we're designing, but in the final delivery of our design, the medium becomes part of the final printed media. For that printing to be successful, we need the tools of a camera or scanner to capture the painting into a digital medium, a computer that can translate the raw scan into a Postscript file that can then be "RIPed" and burned into a printing plate that will allow ink to be impressed in specific patterns on a sheet of clean white paper. Once you select your tools and start working through how to use them on a project, things get hella complicated.
Planning how you choose and use your tools is design
We've spent a lot of time in class talking, sketching, and realizing ideas. Our design tools in that venture have been pencils, Sharpies, whiteboard markers, and sometimes some scissors, crayons, and glue. Instead of being limiting, this palette of materials has afforded us some freedom from the wide array of tools that would be required to execute those ideas. We can say, "This package would be perfect if it was made of glass," and voila, in our minds, the package is made of glass. We don't need to worry yet about the machines and processes necessary to actually make the glass package.
Planning how you use and apply your tools is a design activity. It doesn't need to happen with Adobe CS and a Mac. Some designers that have spent their whole life with computers, cell phones, and other technologies assume that the computer is the tool of choice for getting nitty-gritty with your design work. I argue the opposite tack: the computer is very useful in realizing final designs with tools of mass production, but it is hobbling when you're trying to solve fundamental design problems.
Did you choose the computer, or did the computer choose you?
Opting to use a computer instead of a pencil can have dramatic consequences on the amount of time necessary to shape a strong idea. Not a great visual design, mind you. Even if you don't have a strong idea, a good span of uninterrupted time in the computer will always yield a somewhat attractive result. But the most powerful design making most often emerges from having a solid core of an idea, around which you wrap the appropriate visual language to yield a beautiful artifact. Great design often happens in an organic fashion, but if you're totally under the gun, organic design methods will always take longer than if you did some cursory planning. And you can't scale those methods onto a team without something breaking down in the process.
Now, moving from the idea to a polished comp or mechanical... The computer has become the number one timesaver in bringing an idea to full execution, compared to the good old days of manual typesetting and pasteup. Is this truth or illusion?
This is a beautiful illusion. The computer provides a luxury of options for making, and furnishes the illusion of polish through each iteration of your design. But it isn't quite configured to solve specific issues quickly that underpin your final artifact. Even the most adept Photoshop artists and Illustrator whiz kids need to do some form of preplanning when under deadline. They work through specific types of layout, type, and surface concerns that can always be iterated more quickly on paper. I've agonized hours over creating a texture in Photoshop, and then defaulted to throwing together a hand-painted background that I've realized with a paintbrush and acrylics in a few minutes. Then again, there are specific executions that can only happen within a computer. If you're choosing to go down that road, you simply need to know how much time it will take to work the problem out (and what your Plan B is if the techniques you apply don't work.)
Design fundamentals require drawingIt goes without saying that when concepting an idea, the quickest method to find a high-level solution is working with pencil and paper. We've spent the past month in class using pencils and our minds to come up with strong ideas to solve design problems. I've observed all of you getting a little faster in getting to execution as a result. You've also been able to work in groups to reach this goal.
Now, what happens past the concept? There are a number of other visual problems you can solve more than halfway before you even get into software. You can solve the problems of overall layout and grid, selection of type style and application, art direction of photography and/or illustration, and tone of voice for copy before you even touch the computer. The computer then becomes the place where you iterate the possibilities to create polish.
This becomes even more critical when designing for interaction. Since visual design is removed from coding/building an online experience, any missteps along the way can have a drastic impact on how your design is implemented.
Once you get into the computer, there are some practical considerations that you should take into account if you're working in a collaborative manner, such as:
- Using the right program for the right deliverable (i.e. You wouldn't use InDesign to mock up a Web site UI)
- Scanning sketches and other materials in and placing them on the pasteboard, if there are tons of reference sketches
- Labeling layers in your files ("Woman | Getty Images J2018101", not Layer 271)
- Naming your files in a consistent manner, so you can manage version control
- Keeping file folders tidy, and sweeping unused files into your archive
Pencil on paper = you + idea + plan
I know a number of talented designers that use the computer as their thought process -- it's a tool to enable their design execution. If they aren't working in a collaborative setting, they can "lose themselves" in the flow of being creative. The final result can be quite polished. I know I delight in having a few hours of uninterrupted time with a design. But a pencil and paper has always brought me my best work, and helped me plan out how I'd finally realize each idea in a final execution. Perhaps the humble pencil will be your tool of choice too.
There are tools out there that let you collaborate in real time with design comps, and perhaps you'll sample some of them before we get to the end of this class. But all of them are meant to recreate the collaborative working environment we're looking to establish in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond. There really is no substitute for the world outside of the machine.