Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Looking in the Mirror and Flexing

There’s no doubt that sometimes, only designers can really appreciate certain aspects of our craft; not too many people know what a pica is, fewer still can recognize when something on the page is off-balance by a single point or less, or if the leading differs from page to page. Designers have an extraordinary ability to see how things fit together, how to improve composition, but more importantly, they know how to communicate the right ideas at the right volume to the right audience. Like any creative field, from music to photography to painting, a highly esoteric component exists because of the complexities involved in the endeavor…far from being pointless, this aspect helps to define the profession, turn it from an activity into an art.

Even merely competent design relies on the designer’s command of subtle nuances, and often the best designers slip their brilliance in like an Emily Dickinson slant rhyme—clearly there, but totally silent and invisible, puzzling and challenging but every drip of it beautiful. To design well, you have to have the attention to detail of a surgeon (well, maybe that’s extreme, but…), and most designers find a certain joy in looking deeper, longer and harder, always searching for something they haven’t seen before, trying to catch the details everyone misses. The more designers look at their own work and that of others with a critical eye, the further the profession is pushed and the better the collection of work from year to year gets; all the details we’d prefer to forget on 9pm Friday evening, desperately trying to make a FedEx deadline, actually do matter. I hear a lot of people say in regards to something “minute,” that “they’ll never know the difference.” I disagree, and while yes, design is a bit exotic at times, that’s often fine and actually really good. But there are times when I think its a bit too exotic.

Some of my first introductions to what graphic design was all about came in the form of a series of paper promotions designed for Strathmore—they were loaded with all this insight into color that I had never considered before and certainly wasn’t taught. My father’s agency had a collection of paper promos piling up in a corner room somewhere, which I raided frequently, if only to indulge in cool looking stuff and unique textures. It was rather intoxicating.

Naturally I started shortly thereafter perusing the various publications and books associated with the design profession, and for awhile much of my reading consisted of looking at awards annuals and shows and the like. In addition to the stacks of famously unread annual reports and impossibly expensive letterheads, one thing always, always stuck with me—many of the awarded pieces, many of the pieces I saw from book to book to book were for…Calls for Entries posters or mailers for one competition or another.

Enough sightings of this and I started thinking a bit harder about what was before me, what it meant and where it was going. Paper promotions and some of these call for entries packages were really cool, but…who did they speak to outside of other designers? Suddenly I found myself quite perplexed by the whole notion of it, confused by what compelled designers to lavishly create these pieces with limited runs and perhaps limited value for such a limited audience that was essentially themselves. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I discovered that most clients think profit well before they think creative quality, and sadly the two aren’t often linked, so expending your best efforts on paper promotions started making some sense. The companies depended on designers specifying them, and what better way to seduce designers than something gorgeous. But I still wonder about it. Why are these projects so envied when they’re really only going to give the creator recognition among people who are competitors and not potential clients? Why is that attention so valuable? Is it ego or something else? While it’s nice to get the stroking from people who understand all those minute details that you inject into your work, who can intelligently critique a composition and an idea and a style, it’s not everything. For a profession that has always bitched and moaned about being misunderstood by everyone else, things like these seem to be a primary culprit for that—I’ve seen numerous firms who do their best work for microscopic clients, yet the work that goes out to the masses, into the real world where no one understands kerning or assumes that leading is pronounced “leeding,” pales in comparison. Maybe its my point of view from an advertising agency that’s prompted the attitude, but I strongly believe that the truest test of creativity is taking a really difficult client (like…an HVAC manufacturer, maybe a medical seating fabricator, or how about a standard 4-door sedan?) and doing something brilliant. When you design for designers, the bullseye is most of the dart board, it’s hard to miss. Designers frequently focus on weird things, they spend hours on the stuff an ordinary person usually misses, but I think that’s important and worthwhile for the reasons mentioned earlier. What I don’t understand is designing for designers—I think we have better things to do. I think there are greater challenges out there, ones that can still advance this profession while playing a critical role in commerce, culture and society.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON May.29.2004 BY bradley
Gerardo Reyes Jr’s comment is:

If designers are the audience then there’s nothing wrong with doing work they can appreciate. Maybe HVAC manufaturers and the like elicit a certain kind of design treatment, or the client resists fresh, creative work and just wants things to be simple. But if you can do great work for some of these unlikely open clients then more power to you and go with your bad self Mr. Designer!

On May.29.2004 at 04:45 PM
Maya Drozdz’s comment is:

this aspect helps to define the profession, turn it from an activity into an art.

Maybe this aspect helps to turn it into design?

On May.29.2004 at 05:27 PM
Danielle’s comment is:

This reminds me of a self-promo piece I made with someone I used to share a studio with in LA. We were looking at all the clients we had worked with, from small art galleries to Ford. We realized that we could easily divide up the clients into three categories: Cultural Content, Creative Freedom, and Production Budget. Sometimes Cultural Content and Creative Freedom overlapped with each other, but rarely with Production Budget.

We ended up creating a graph that plotted out how each client stood in relation to each other based on the three criteria I mentioned. It was a kind-of critique of our clients, and it also showed the range of our work. Luckily, most new clients saw the humor in the statement we were trying to make.

When there's a lot of money involved, clients are loathe to take risks. In almost every working environment, I find I can get away with a lot more when the piece is low profile. As soon as I start working on a big project with a lot of potential, I find that there are too many cooks in the kitchen... too many opinions... there's often just too much at stake for the [other] people involved.

I also find that clients that pay the least will often give you the most creative freedom, because presumably they owe you something if not money.

On May.29.2004 at 06:47 PM
Michael Bouchard’s comment is:

I think that everybody, at some time or another, has stood in front of a mirror and flexed. It’s part of self discovery, or something. We have this need to see how we compare against our peers — and it's fun.

Looking through any awards annual is a treat. There is a lot of great work to see and be inspired by. Naturally, most of us may wonder “Is my work good enough to get published?” Getting published is a bit like winning an award. It’s proof that you are as good as them.

But to design something with the intention of winning an award — adding the bells and whistles and all that cool stuff — then try to sell a client on something they don't really need is wrong. I�d like to believe that none of us would be so cunning, but I know some of us are.

In the end, I say why not. Flexing is fun (it used to be anyway).

On May.30.2004 at 12:02 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:

like…an HVAC manufacturer

Interesting you should mention that. I'm in the middle of designing a brochure for one that is making some rather innovative use of existing technology. There was no room in the budget for new photography. My clever use of stock photography was "great for the architects, but the contractors wouldn't get it." So what I'm doing is ALL type, but it tells the company's story in a visually compelling way. (And it uses flourescent green ink.)

My point:

I've never had a chance to do it, but Flexing does look like great fun. I think actually using the design muscle to accomplish something is even more fun, at least more satisfying. Strict limitations should be catalysts for greater creativity.


I also find that clients that pay the least will often give you the most creative freedom

I keep an extreme sports shop client that can't afford me for this very reason. They keep me because what I do for them is effective. There's the satisfaction.

On May.30.2004 at 04:42 PM
K. Mills’s comment is:

When I leaf through those annuals, most of the winners make me roll my eyes back in my head.

To design something that serves no function other than to say "look how very cool and creative I am, and yes I do wear no underwear under my cutting-edge fashionable black" (which all too many of those illegible and deliberately obscure winning entries do) is, in the end, nothing more than masturbation.

It is no longer serving the function of design, which is, or should be, practical -- to communicate, to speak, in the most effective and at the same time most "beautiful" (whatever "beauty" may mean in context) means possible.

On May.31.2004 at 07:50 AM
tim’s comment is:

Right on, K. Mills!

My job as a designer happens to be in-house for a refrigerated display case and systems manufacturer... not exactly the most compelling products on the market.

While it is limiting in regard to way-cool flexing kind of things, it has stood me in good stead, learning how to generate creative design solutions within budget-limited corporate good-ol-boy thinking business. Nothing I do would be contest-worthy; however, my work has been good enough to keep me employed for seven years in one place, and creative enough that I don't feel like I'm simply a prostitute.

On many projects I sweat those little details, and I'm often told that no one will notice but me. But as Bradley points out in his essay, the little things do make a difference, even if non-designers can't articulate it. Oddly enough, I've recently seen pieces from other refrigeration companies employing a design technique I use frequently. So I guess that means I've had some small impact on other designers.

I find I can get away with a lot more when the piece is low profile. As soon as I start working on a big project with a lot of potential... there's often just too much at stake for the [other] people involved.

I thoroughly agree. Here, if I want to do cool "designy" stuff, I do it for posters for Human Resources events, or cards announcing office wedding or baby showers.

On Jun.01.2004 at 08:13 AM
Schmitty’s comment is:

This point has been eluded to, but I think job restrictions (budget, 2 color vs 4 color etc etc) are what is needed to truely be creative.

I think this is why it is hard for most of us to do self promotion. We don't set up any rules or parameters for ourselves other than "it has to be cool and unique and get the attention of potential clients".

Maybe I am just following the herd, but I enjoy seeing what others do in design annuals and paper sample books. It is a way for me to open up to different solutions. They are like "fashion shows" for our industry, intentionally outrageous to spark some new ideas (if there are any). I also enjoy the simple cleverness that some of the ads have.

On Jun.01.2004 at 10:40 AM
erica’s comment is:

i think the crazy things designers do for paper samples books and such is less for showing off value, and more for the designer's own self gratification and fun. as many people have already stated, what we do for clients isn't always as exciting as we may wish it could be. we can't do the illegible type treatments for our hvac clients, so we do it for the "fun" projects where only other designers will see us, and will hopefully understand that we were finally allowed to let loose and be impractical.

less "flexing for the mirror" which implies a certain amount of narcissism, and more "playing dress-up in front of the mirror" which is basically just having fun.

On Jun.01.2004 at 01:10 PM
Gerardo Reyes Jr’s comment is:

I could see the green pasture on both sides from where I sit, which is on the fence. I can see that much of the stuff in annuals and the like is ahem, masturbatory, or design for it’s own sake, while also believing that designers have a right to let go once in a while to strut their stuff and do cool work. (We all agree that “creative” is an accepted and universal word in our profession right?)

Let’s not forget that the “cool” work was done for something other than the designer with a real audience in mind. The only place where I can think of where I see personal projects is in design monographs or old issues of Emigré. (No offense Rudy)

The problem lies within the format of the annuals and our fashion shows, is that they do become mostly about presenting form, providing no context other than the client’s name and title of the piece. The judges don't provide any caption or description about why that piece was chosen. So the only choice we have is to simply judge it by its absolute face value. Even if we had a context about the work I doubt it would make a significant difference because most designers don’t read; much less think critically.

It’s a common trait for designers to want to differentiate themselves. As long as we have these yearly orgies there will always be designers fighting for a piece of the action.

On Jun.01.2004 at 01:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Designing for designers has one major advantage: it forces us to exercise (and flex) the craft aspect of the profession to its fullest. You have to impress the most snobbish of target audiences. Some do it with wit (i.e. Tibor Kalman) others do it with graphic prowess (i.e. CSA Design). Calls for entries, lecture posters, event invititations, paper promos, etc. provide a "canvas" with high entertainment and wowing expectations.

They are coveted projects because it's an opportunity to show off what we can do. And I really don't think that is such a bad thing. That's why we do personal projects (be it little sketch books, web sites, calendars, whatevers). So why not do it in a more public project where other designers can go Hey, that's cool?

It becomes a problem when we use these projects as a measuring tool for what is "good" in graphic design and is what leads to designers griping about the "silly" restrictions that clients, budgets and deadlines put on us. If time after time design annuals include paper promos over and over it becomes a vicious cycle where designers want those projects because they assume they will win awards and be recognized for it. The thing is that a few of the designers/firms doing these cool projects is because they have done similar-quality work for clients… others just know the "right" people.

On Jun.01.2004 at 05:14 PM
Michael H’s comment is:

Seems to me that it's not the fact that these designers are masturbating that gets some of us riled up, but rather that they are being applauded for it. Why should they win awards for accomplishing their goals any more than an HVAC piece does?

The purpose of our jobs, as designers, is to get the message across to the audience in the most effective way possible while also pleasing the eye. Finding a creative way to do this is a designers' daily routine. I work for an international semiconductor company whose target audience is, 90% of the time, engineers! It's a complete uphill battle to inject a spice of creatvity in my work, but for one to design a Call for Entry with the target audience being designers... I would hope it's not strictly for masturbating but rather a situation that requires an abundance of said spice.

Are we also being a bit envious because, sure it's easy to cut loose and create a kick-ass Call for Entry, but try creating a compeling piece for HVAC's! Hooboy!

For the record, I love flipping through the annuals and winning pieces to see what else is being done out there, and what's pushing the envelope.

On Jun.01.2004 at 06:38 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Do other professions have the equivalent to designing for designers? Let's start with our favorite: Plumbing for plumbers? "Man check out this pipes!"

How about accounting for accountants? Can you imagine accountants getting together after some other accountant did their books and saying "check this out, this is fucking cool, this accountant in New York did this"?

Doctoring for doctors? Yeah, maybe.

Lumberjacking for lumberjacks? Nothing clever to say here, I've just had this on my head all day.

Point not clearly being that contrary to many professions we do happen to be the ones doing the stuff that informs us. We design our invitations, our calls for entries, our monographs and our annuals. It's a strange symbiosis in which we work. Our close neighbors, industrial designers, don't send each others chairs to promote their chair events. Arquitects don't make up quick, cool buildings to promote their buildings.

Am I just being to silly? I think I'm not making my point clear…

I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK

I sleep all night and I work all day

On Jun.02.2004 at 06:57 PM
Mr. Reyes’s comment is:

Worry not, Armin. I think your point is lucid enough, and funny.

So, what I’m saying is:

What’s really wrong with it?

It is what it is. It is design for designers. To run a tangent from Armin’s point: You won’t ask an architect to design a graphic design lecture invitation because you fear that your invitation would just be too graphic designerish, slightly over the top. Yeah, some crazy tricks are pulled a la “just because you can”. (I’m envisioning freestyle BMX right now. Don’t ask why.)

Having cake?

So what would be better, to just stick to the basics and keep it like the work you would do for a client? How many times have we heard of designers complaining about not having more fun projects than they would like or something similar. Bitchin’ ’bout clients is almost a pastime when we get together. I think most would agree: the more creative control the better.

Their ass is mine!

This industry is cutthroat and as such we are always aware of what’s going on so as to keep ourselves competitive. I’ll be the first to admit envy when first seeing some of the work in question, either because it is a good idea and probably would not have arrived at as good of a solution, or because of the amount of creative control (or, how much they “got away with”).

We speak languages with visuals and graphic designers have one too. No matter what, these indulgences will never cease in a creative field. Just as we would answer to comments regarding offensive material we might answer to those that are repulsed by said indulgences.

Don’t buy the album.

On Jun.05.2004 at 01:24 PM