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Beyond the Looking Glass

Design isn’t that hard. All you have to do is read the creative brief, do a day’s worth of research, sketch out a few “concepts” (those are an increasing rarity these days), flip through a couple books and magazines to find a look that seems to work out well, slap it all together in photoshop, quark and illustrator, and boom! Completion. Insta-design. Maybe the “instant” part takes a couple months but really, what does time matter when you’re essentially churning out the same crap time and time again, dressing it up in different clothes applying a layer of foundation to cover the wrinkles. Somehow though, everything still looks so old.

We all rubberstamp things. In terms of profit, its not necessarily the worst idea in the world and without some amount of financial consistency we’d have to give up design altogether and become welders or waiters. Complacency and the frustration dancing with it is nothing new, people frequently question if “design is in a rut,” it’s a common topic of conversation, both casual and involved. “Are we hitting a wall?” seems to be the calling card, however silently, to many designers young and old, and like any other obstacle, sometimes the failed efforts to break it apart render one too fatigued even to work around it. And so it goes.

Back to Flatland we go, where comfort reigns supreme and an all too frequent response is either to justify the regression—because, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards, nothing sits still—with tales of exhaustion or uncontrollable circumstances, or procrastination masking promises to forge ahead boldly some other day. Because for all the 60-hour weeks and melodramatic journal entries or late night phone calls or desperate emails, shouting alone to fill our personal creative vacancies, deep down we know that design need not be so difficult. All you have to do is go through the motions, open up your bag of tricks, borrow from someone else’s if need be, and repeat the same basic processes that figure into every project.

It’s easy to wonder what the point of doing anything new really is. And, truly, what point is there? What value does that serve? Why does it matter if you design a brochure with a message that no one ever articulated, visualized it as no one had ever dreamed?

I firmly believe that whenever an artist or philosopher discovers something new or reimagines the familiar in a way never before conceived, the rest of the world advances with that thinking. The collective bar for all of us is raised; that moment of brilliance can never be revisited, never be used again to move us from one point to the next. This has fascinated me for years and it continues to motivate me to this day…sometimes the struggle is hopeless, sometimes I prefer to rubberstamp and regurgitate, but for some reason, for some seriously unknown reason I think, I press on. Applaud others when they succeed. Challenge myself, challenge my friends and colleagues. What motivates you to discover the new? How do you deal with the obstacles that invariably step in to ruin your day?

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.30.2004 BY bradley
Brian’s comment is:

I think someone needs a vacation.

On Jul.30.2004 at 02:11 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

The inevitable:

On Jul.30.2004 at 02:30 PM
Nary’s comment is:

*see Graham's comment from "Never Good Enough" (it's the 3rd one from the top). sounds good to me. but i'd watch Moulin Rouge instead. and sing along, of course...

On Jul.30.2004 at 02:40 PM
Steven’s comment is:

It’s easy to wonder what the point of doing anything new really is. And, truly, what point is there?

Ah yes, the old creative existential crisis!

What motivates you to discover the new? How do you deal with the obstacles that invariably step in to ruin your day?

Every situation is unique. Every moment in time provides its own options for action. Therefore, each new project, with all of its related twists, turns, and challenges to overcome, provides an opportunity for something new and different.

I try to approach the design process as an opportunity for creative, intellectual, and even interpersonal growth. I try to push myself forward with creative challenges, to maybe see things in a new or diffrent way. Even when I'm reaching into my trusty old "bag of tricks," I try to use it in a new way, that adds a new level of value or meaning to it.

I am also very conscious of trying to not have a "house style." I try to give design solutions that are germane to the individual context of the project. I cringe at the thought of someone saying, "Oh that looks like Steven's work." I don't want to be stylistically "packaged" or "branded." Even when I am given the opportunity for personal expression, I want to creatively emote in a manner that adds value to a design solution, rather than to a personal agenda.

However, I don't think that everything needs to be totally new and fresh and I am skeptical of designers who value novelty over appropriateness. "Regurgitation" or incremental creative change is perfectly fine if it is the best solution within the context of the problem, as long as this doesn't become the norm.

Finally, I think its important to embrace change. Once you stop being open to new ideas and different perspectives, once you start wanting everything to be safe and stay the same, you are doomed for stagnation. All living systems must adapt and evolve in order to survive. This process is intrinsic to the definition of Life. Learning and growth, finding the subtle meaning and insight that lies around every corner, riding and adapting to the waves and tidal changes that comes upon us, these are the ways that we celebrate being live.

On Jul.30.2004 at 04:17 PM
Michael’s comment is:

In school, one of my instructors was Gene Slaughter. Not very well know nationally but made a big impression on me when I realized he created the Pulse logo.

He said (paraphrasing here) one day, "As students I know you will be trying to create something that's original and never been seen before... but that's an impossible quest. It's impossible because if you actually create something that's never been seen before, how will anyone recognize it?"

I was bummed after hearing this. The drive to be original was inside of all of us, it's what kept some of us going. But after a little bit of time, I finally began to understand what he meant. Taking inspirations from existing design is okay, and making it your own is acceptable. It's actually your influence on that creation that you can strive for.

And I also understood that he was a little bit wrong. It is possible to do something that no one has seen before. It doesn't happen everyday which is why such ambition is either admired or laughed at, but the bottom line is that it's okay to have that ambition.

On Jul.30.2004 at 04:51 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> What motivates you to discover the new?

Just one quick thought before going home… It motivates me to know that I have let go of the "discovering something new" quest. Not that I have given up, but if I look for it, I ain't going to find it. And seriously, how hard can you look in everyday things like postcards or brochures? I look forward to that moment when I go "Fuck, will you look at that? I think just made me something new!" Drudgingly looking for the new only leads to unauthentic solutions. Let the flow lead you… yes, I need to let the flow take me home now.

Something more coherent might come over the weekend.

On Jul.30.2004 at 04:53 PM
Greg’s comment is:

if you actually create something that's never been seen before, how will anyone recognize it?

I really liked this, and I think it gets at the heart of the problem here. And I think the word "recognize" shouldn't be read as the "I know what that is" definition, but the definition that means "to bestow an award." Think about it. Award winning design doesn't necessarily push any envelopes, does it? There's nothing original or new that wasn't built on something else, because designers don't like "new" or "different" or "original." We wouldn't have to spend four or five years getting "design" hammered into us if there was something inherently wonderful about newness. You all probably started college with the same creative, quirky style that I did, and probably got told that it was "bad" or "unrefined," and that it needed work. Those that didn't go to college probably crafted a sense of what was "good design" from peers, or from a mentor of some sort. And then we were molded into designers, with concepts like "appropriate style" and "design principles" swimming around in our heads, not realizing we were all being cut from the same mold. It doesn't matter where you learned, or what your individual style is, "new" can only be extrapolated from "old." Hence regurgitation.

On Jul.30.2004 at 05:33 PM
Christine’s comment is:

The idea of creating a new design is only relevant if you reduce design to a series of visual facelifts on already existing content. Yes, it's practically impossible to do it, because style-wise we've been there and back again. Moreover, having "newness" as a goal isn't really clear enough to be a positive design parameter. What's new? The style? The message? Or the combination of both?

The idea of the new is at best inspirational, and at worst hindering and subjective. Rather than make bold attempts to discover the new, I look for surprise instead. Pursuing a design that surprises tends to make me view old material in a new way, and reveals assumptions about a project I may have not known I had - essentially, achieving the same outcome as a "new" design, but evaluated on a personal level.

On Jul.30.2004 at 07:15 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Your thread reminded me of a couple of poignant statements from Mau's manifesto.

4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.

11. Harvest ideas. Edit applications. Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life. Applications, on the other hand, benefit from critical rigor. Produce a high ratio of ideas to applications.

35. Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.


Number 11 reminds me that generating ideas is a separate part of the process than applying them. If you feel your solutions are stagnant, well then the problem may not lie in your inability to think new things, but your process in translating them to paper or pixel.

And I love number 35. It's so true. And it has a little smacking of Einstein's theory of quantum uncertainty. Nothing can ever be truly duplicated—so in the difference you can always find a new thing. It's a very optimistic way to look at the act of creation.

On Jul.31.2004 at 12:40 AM
Luke’s comment is:

This Jan Michl text "On seeing design as redesign" is very good for anyone interested in the notion originality . . . www.designaddict.com/essais/michl.html

On Jul.31.2004 at 07:29 AM
Luke again’s comment is:

Transform The World! Poetry Must be Made By All!

On Jul.31.2004 at 07:35 AM
justin m’s comment is:

Discovering new things in graphic design and design in general is next to impossible. Sadly, everything is a rehash of something else that has already been made or thought of.

For me personally it is not so much the desire to discover something new as it is learn and try new things that I have not done before. Want really inspires me to try new things is watching videos of other people's work and interviews with them. It gives me a more direct perspective into their work.

On Jul.31.2004 at 09:47 AM
Rob ’s comment is:

What motivates you to discover the new? How do you deal with the obstacles that invariably step in to ruin your day?

In all seriousness, there's nothing better for seeing the world in a different way then seeing it through the eyes of your kids. They have a fresh, open-minded view of everything in the world and if you can learn to relax your preconceived notions, your own personal biases and just listen, a whole new view of the world awaits. That to me is inspiration enough.

As for my work, certainly it at times becomes formulaic based on need more than anything else. I don't have the luxury of weeks to work on a great concept and what used to be done in four weeks no questions asked, is not expected by the end of the week and it better be just as good. For my own needs, I've tried to refresh the old by slightly changing the angles. Taking an individual element and exploring where it might take me or the piece I'm working on. And most critically, I seek out the thoughts of others, designers and non-designers, to help me see as many views as possible.

On Aug.02.2004 at 09:33 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Tan - good reference to Mau's list. For this thread, I would also include #21: Repeat yourself. If you like it, do it again. If you don't like it, do it again.

While it is tempting to dip into our bag of tricks out of laziness, there is nothing wrong with revisiting an approach if there is something more we can bring to it and learn from it. I think it was Alan Fletcher who pointed out that Monet revisited the same subject many times, but each time with something new to see, and something new to offer.

On Aug.05.2004 at 12:17 PM
kris’s comment is:

How do you deal with the obstacles that invariably step in to ruin your day?

vodka. and plenty of it.

On Aug.08.2004 at 02:59 PM