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12 posts from November 2008

True Tests of Your Design Process

Scantron Pong

My design process obsession began in the sixth grade, with a late morning pop quiz.

Directions: Read all the directions before beginning. Take out one sheet of lined paper. Write the number of siblings you have with a purple crayon. On line three, draw a picture of your favorite food...

In order to save time and be more efficient, I started carrying out the instructions as I went, until I reached the final directive:

Ignore directions one through twenty-five and enjoy watching everyone do this activity wrong.

A heavy rock sank down into my gut. I was probably the only kid in the room who had diligently plodded his way through illustrations of flowers, scrawling stars in the page corners, and folding up my sheet of paper in all sorts of intriguing ways, only to realize at the end that he should have stopped at the beginning. And it didn't help that my teacher and my classmates were watching me, wondering when I'd figure it out. Yes, I was the one keeping them from going out to the playground.

I'm not a linear thinker, okay? No wonder I ended up in this profession. Besides, doing great design work isn't this diagrammatic. Most designers can't quite articulate how they get the work done, other than to say that they iterate towards a result. You can't write that process down on a sheet of paper, hand it to someone else, and have them easily cough up a killer logo.

But when you're working in a group larger than you, that's exactly what you need to do, over and over again. We can't jog around our offices talking about how we're paid problem solvers, then go solve the wrong problems in a roundabout fashion, bearing the cost of wasted time, effort, and emotional turmoil. Those kinds of situations burn away at our patience until we snap. We don't want to get to the end of a project only to discover we took the wrong path at the beginning.

Here, I've tried to tease out some of the critical questions that need to be asked as part of your overall design process -- whether when dealing with clients, working your way to a design solution, or negotiating client feedbck.

Continue reading "True Tests of Your Design Process" »

80 Works for Designers: Class Starting in January!

80 Works for Designers at the Creative Academy at Seattle Central Community College

Over the past few months, I've written about a class I've been developing called 80 Works for Designers. Now it's real!

The Creative Academy at Seattle Central Community College has agreed to host this class from the Winter Quarter onwards. They are one of the best design programs in Puget Sound region and have a gorgeous new facility that we will use for class time. The class will be limited to 12 designers to ensure each person's work gets maximum attention. Students will also get the opportunity for their work to be considered for inclusion in a forthcoming design book (details coming soon!).

Here's the full course description. If you're interested in participating, please contact me at dksherwin at

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


80 Works for Designers
A new non-credit course offered at Seattle Central Community College
Winter Quarter (11 weeks)
Starting Thursday, January 8th
Meets every Thursday at 6:30 - 9:30 PM
Instructor: David Sherwin
12 people maximum
$350 + materials

80 Works for Designers is an intensive 11-week course for designers looking to make the leap from a design education into a fast-paced, professional design practice.

Course participants will take part in eight conceptual projects a week -- both in collaborative class exercises and through take-home assignments -- under constraints that match the pace of a professional creative agency. As a result of this time compression, course participants will quickly discover where their innate talents exist as a designer, and they’ll be guided by other students and their instructor in order to further tap those gifts. And, of course, we'll have fun along the way!

In 80 Works for Designers, we'll focus on gaining experience with regards to:

How to reach a breadth of innovative design solutions, in various media, more quickly

A deeper understanding of the complementary skill of learning how to properly frame a design problem before it can be solved (and sold to a client)

An exploration of the range of one’s talent by attempting projects along the full continuum of design disciplines, from the bread and butter of branding and collateral to the wild world of advertising to the user-centered practices of creating interactive projects, with brief forays into wayfinding, editorial design, video and motion graphics, and more.

Ideally, students will leave the class with a series of strong, outside-the-box concepts that can be refined post-class into portfolio material.

This class will be limited to 12 participants to ensure that each designer receives the proper care and attention necessary. The work created by all class participants will be considered for inclusion in an upcoming book and may be featured, with student permission, on the soon-to-be-launched

Required: Permission of instructor / portfolio review for participation. To sign up, send samples or a link to your portfolio to dksherwin at

About the Instructor: David Sherwin is a Seattle-based designer and art director with a depth of expertise in developing fresh creative solutions for challenging business problems. He has worked for both big creative agencies and boutique design firms and has serviced such clients as Holland America Line, AT&T, Xeko, Audi Bank USA, T-Mobile, and many others. Currently, David is Senior Art Director at Worktank Brand Storytellers in Seattle, Washington, where he leads highly collaborative, multidisciplinary teams for large-scale print and interactive projects.

[EDIT, 11/30/08: The class is filling up fast! Please contact me as soon as you can if you'd like to participate.]

You Need a Mark to Miss

Please Try Again

Please read the following client email and see how it makes you feel:

After we sign the contract, can we just cut right to the concepts? Can I see something after the weekend? Won't we save some money if we cut a corner here or there? I mean, I don't really know what I want, but I'll know it when I see it. We should just have something to shoot at.

I made only a little of that paragraph up, and it was making me naueseous. When clients speak like this, there are so many alarm bells going off in your head it's hard to think of how to react.

Let's tear these oft-spoken sentences apart and see how we should respond.

Continue reading "You Need a Mark to Miss" »

Tripping Over the Waterfall


Many designers, when they get a strong business process around their studio practice, like to stick to the waterfall. There are clear boundaries for how each deliverable is presented, the client has a set amount of time to respond with feedback, and everything hums along on its merry way until the final piece is printed, goes live, etc. For trivial projects, the waterfall is just fine.

Then there are the rest of your projects: the ones that seem to veer off cliff after cliff of unconsidered demands. The projects that strain, and very often break, the carefully laid schedules and plans that protect you and your client from late work and overbilled projects. Waiter, did I order the scope creep du jour?

Most often, I've been watching these situations arise because the actual deliverables -- the Web site we were tasked to create -- was simplified into a list of pages. Such an itemized list showed a fundamental misunderstanding about what we were tasked to create. Not a Web site. A Web system.

Continue reading "Tripping Over the Waterfall" »

Beyond Reason: Getting Clients to Care About Your Concepts

Feel. Think. Ignore.

It's a blustery fall day, and you're set to meet with a new, exciting technology client. You sit down at the table, trade business cards, and sip away at your cup of chai tea, preparing for a download on the strategy that will help underpin your creative brief. However, much to your surprise, the client pulls out a thick stack of papers and begins describing all the great product features that will wow customers and make it easy to sell their Widget9000. You put down your pencil and stop taking notes. The client frowns. "This is the kind of information you were looking for, right?"

We spend a great deal of time listening to our clients rattle off these kinds of lists. Maybe we should spend more time explaining why, if they put that kind of information in front of their customers, they probably won't care.

Customers care, then they find reasons to support how they feel. The kind of client I noted above wants a reason for customers to care, which is then supported by how they feel. The latter seems less nebulous, less squishy... but it isn't quite how customers (a.k.a. humans) view marketing materials.

This disconnect has massive implications. It not only means that you'll have to shovel through the details to find a jewel of insight, the centerpiece of your creative strategy. It means that you'll probably have to surmount a rationalistic mindset when you present your concepts.

Continue reading "Beyond Reason: Getting Clients to Care About Your Concepts" »

Spotted in Japan: Graniph


One of the most fascinating thing about observing Japanese design culture is the use of the English language for pure aesthetic concerns, usually without regard for proper use. I can't recall seeing a single Japanese person wearing a t-shirt without Roman text on it, usually arranged in a haphazard sort of grammar that made half-sense to my rigid American ear.

At first, it almost hurt to see such illogical sentences paraded down Omote-sando in the name of fashion. But in time I found them endearing and ended up buying a few out of sheer whimsy, such as this one:

"Fragment: Many times of the life seem to have come to lose its way. It was you in such a case that I encouraged me anytime, and watched easily. Though I picked up the piece of the conventional life and gathered you, I have become it withou any unity. But I think that it is the life. There is not it in the straight road imagining, and the incline is intense, and the way winds."

Multiply this by 5,000, and you get the idea of what you'd experience shopping in downtown Tokyo.

Graniph, whose stores I had seen all around Japan, I had initially assumed to be a purveyor of t-shirts such as these -- especially because their Helvetica-based logo had echoes of American Apparel in it (or vice-versa). Boy, was I wrong. I had 5 hours to kill in Tokyo-Narita Airport and 10,000 yen burning a hole in my pocket, and when I finally went into their store there, I wanted to buy the whole place. My wife and I probably spent forty-five minutes tearing through every shirt that they had, finally settling on these two. (We couldn't fit any more in our carry-ons.)

Continue reading "Spotted in Japan: Graniph" »

The Philosopher's Wife

The Philosophers Wife

The painting sits above two bookshelves in our living room, sandwiched between a purple potted orchid named Sven and an old Bell and Howell film projector. Every morning, sitting at the kitchen table, it catches my eye. Four years ago, it arrived in a large unmarked box from my wife's father and stepmother. They volunteer at a thrift shop in Cape Coral, Florida, and often surprise us with antique cameras, clocks, and other bric-a-brac that mesh with our penchant for hand-worn technology. After shoveling through a swath of bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, we found a handwritten note regarding the painting: it was titled "The Philosopher's Wife."

For a few weeks, it sat leaning against the wall with a set of unused picture frames. We weren't quite sure what to make of it, or even if we liked it. It seemed so plainspoken, in a homespun American style that had no congruity whatsoever with our artistic sensibility. The way the painter chose to leave the scene in medias res, the woman's face completely out of view yet her body showing focused intent, the half-askew placemat in the foreground, the cupboard with dishes arrayed in a perfectly measured form: each element is mindfully arranged and yet completely bare of explicit meaning.

After yoga, eating breakfast slowly, I would stare at it, pretending I knew what was happening in the world within the painting:

The philosopher's wife was washing the dishes, luxuriating in the feel of their chipped bone china beneath her soap-soaked hands. Nothing else was in her mind except the mindful task of washing. She was so tired of those late nights, her husband with his wire-rimmed glasses, lost in the complete works of Wittgenstein. She would finish the dishes before she fed the cat for what seemed like the eighth time that day, change into something a little more presentable, and leave home to buy the week's groceries.

Or, another morning's story:

Her husband has just left to work at the university. He had been sitting in the red chair, which he'd dragged from the dining room. While she was kneading dough for biscuits, he was explaining to her the filigree of an idea from Plato. As she was rolling the dough out onto a floured board, she imagined that her makeshift Mason jar would make each dough become "a biscuit." The paws of her black cat against her dress, begging. Her food bowl was empty. Again. Why couldn't she just feed herself?

And so on, for many weeks, it seemed that I would never run out of stories, but none of them seemed particularly satisfying, and I couldn't figure out why. Many years later, I feel like I might have the vague shape of an answer.

Continue reading "The Philosopher's Wife" »

What Are You Really Good At?

Clear All That Don't Apply

Quick: Tell me what you're best at as a designer.

No, you can't say you're really good at print. Can't you narrow it down to packaging or collateral, branding or advertising?

No, you can't say you're really good at creating Web sites. Do you focus on blogs, big dynamic sites with thousands of pages, non-linear Flash experiences, IM chatbots?

This may all sound a little facile, but every designer struggles with how they brand themselves. We know that having a design process can often yield great results, no matter what the tangible deliverable. And as we gain experience, we gain knowledge of more disciplines and tangibles. But we can't master them all.

The above exercise is humbling. And it serves great purpose, because when you're looking for work, clients ask you this sort of question all the time, and in many different ways. They want to know where your sweet spot lies when it comes to tactics. This is something you need to know now, not when you're on the spot.

So, I propose the following simple rule of thumb for working designers: Do three things well, and one thing better than anyone else. At least on paper. We can try to be good at applying design to everything that we see, often with terrific results, but the age of the generalist is slowly waning. We need to prepare for it.

Continue reading "What Are You Really Good At?" »

Concepting: Why You Should Foster a Collaborative Practice

From Point A to Point B

The new design project just kicked off -- maybe a logo, say, or a fancy brochure for an upcoming event -- and you're just itching to take a copy of the creative brief, run off to a quiet place, and start sketching out some ideas. Since the deadline is weeks and weeks away, and there's nothing else on your plate, this gives you uninterrupted time to meditate on the design problem, luxuriating in the process for days on end...

I can't remember the last time that happened, even for something like a show poster for a friend's band. They still needed it yesterday.

Besides, those "let's concept forever" situations seem like a pipe dream when you're working in a big, busy company. Your boss wants you to bill productively. That means sitting at your desk, or at least within close reach, and carrying at least four to five various projects that keep you at least 85% utilized (a.k.a. profitable). It also means working in close collaboration with other designers, copywriters, your creative director, the account managers and project managers, and last, but not least, your clients.

This is one of the reasons why it's always difficult to concept in the midst of a large company, where everyone needs to keep reminding you of what needs to be done, when, and how. I know that my best ideas come in the shower, or right after doing yoga, but that doesn't scale at work. I'm usually asked to come up with great ideas in a conference room, under a very tight deadline, and sometimes even in front of clients. Many designers react to the business-end of corporate life by enclosing their creative process in a black box and running it in secret, shutting out others. When I started working with large teams, about six years ago, this was intensely difficult. Today it isn't even a possibility. This has totally spun my head about what makes concepting possible.

Part of what makes a designer "professional" is not only their ability to produce superlative work under time constraint, but also to do it in a way that is inclusive. You need to foster a lack of attachment to your ideas if you're going to grow as a designer.

Why would you want to let go of your ideas and let the team own them? Here are a few reasons why.

Continue reading "Concepting: Why You Should Foster a Collaborative Practice" »

Spotted in Japan: ONTO Headphones by Audio-Technica

ONTO Headphones

Like most designers, I spend a lot of time with my headphones on, rocking out while I'm putting together layouts. I can't wear earbuds. Through some quirk of my ear canals, they just won't stay in my ears.

As a result, I've burned through a number of headphones, both with headbands as well as the behind-the-ear variety. But I've always been on the lookout for a pair of headphones that balance audio quality, affordability, and real design style.

You can't easily find a pair of headphones like that in America. But in Japan, sure you can!

Continue reading "Spotted in Japan: ONTO Headphones by Audio-Technica" »