Play close to the context 

Getting Real for Graphic Designers 


Playing close to the context makes you more empathetic to the user/viewer/reader of your work. You’re not just designing something and hoping for the best, instead you’re trying to understand the situation as thoroughly as possible and take advantage of its limitations—space, time, attention.”

About 5 years ago I got really sick of the surprises that I would find when I received printed samples of a finished project. They weren’t big surprises but often I’d see that a font that I thought was too small throughout the design process was actually too big in the final product and it weakened the overall hierarchy and contrast. So I started producing full-size mock-ups of everything instead of relying on my instincts or memories of similar projects. This was great because I could hang it up and have a more realistic relationship with the piece (it also turned out to be a good sales strategy—people loved getting an 16 x 20" full-bleed poster to look at instead of an 11 x 17" print-out with the art scaled down to 60% or even worse, a PDF).

The total opposite of real: using thumbnail prints of book spreads for sequencing is helpful but a full-size mock-up should happen as soon as the changes are made. No reader will ever see the book in this light. (Project: “DIY Album Art”. Designers: The MVA Studio)
“New Skateboard Graphics” book being proofed. A helpful tool to evaluate consistency but should be replace quickly with a readable prototype. (Designers: The MVA Studio)

The full-size prototypes were a start but it wasn’t good enough. I read 37signals’ book about web app development, Getting Real, in 2011 and it changed how I designed. As the name says the book is about getting real: moving beyond abstraction and words to making things. For 37signals—originally a web design firm—getting real meant stripping away much of the accepted process of web design—spec sheets, wireframes, and Photoshop mock-ups—in favor of asking questions like “What is the visitor trying to get done?”, making sketches with sharpies (to avoid detail and stay focused on the big picture), and building real clickable pages quickly.

The basic principle is this—any sketch, note, technical spec, or comp—is an abstraction of the real thing and the minute you build the real thing it will be different than everything you’ve done up to that point.

For a print designer this “real thing” versus abstraction is less pronounced—there is no code, everything is WYSIWYG—but its no less important. Students working on a print project using digital tools from start to finish often have no real understanding of margins because their screen has no edge. So if they put some type too close to the side of the document its buffered by both the edge of the application and the hardware surrounding it; it always has a healthy margin. But the minute they print the piece and cut it down to size they discover that there is a great deal of unwanted visual tension between that type and the paper’s edge—its disconcerting and puts the reader’s focus in the wrong place. But there is also the abstraction of context—where we produce and evaluate the piece is totally different than the place where our audience views the final product.

How we used to proof books in my classes: disconnected spreads and an unnatural distance between reader and text. What can this tell you about actually reading the book? (Project shown: “Afro Futuristic Stereo Typography”. Designer: Witt Siasoco)

I took a position as Interim Director of MCAD DesignWorks—a fully functioning design studio staffed by by Minneapolis College of Art & Design students and recent alumni—for the summer of 2011 and I couldn’t have read Getting Real at a better time. In some ways design school is the worst place ever to learn design because its all abstraction all the time. The “real thing” is only seen once or twice in crits or maybe an exhibition (excluding the role that online portfolios play), and you may design with an audience in mind but you only ever show it to the same audience that has evaluated it thus far—your classmates and professors. It never “gets real” unless you choose only to communicate to the same group that is evaluating your work, which would be short-sighted to say the least.

Getting Real with the same book: full-size roughly-bound *book* (not a series of informational flyers) that students critique the book by reading in a natural position and using sticky notes to make comments. A second set of prints with full-color thumbnails allows the critic to see how color works without making each mock-up a $100 project. (Project shown: “Afro Futuristic Stereo Typography”. Designer: Witt Siasoco)

During my time at DesignWorks, we tried our best to get real as quickly as possible. For book designs and exhibitions, we’d hit the broad strokes quickly—what are we trying to say and what does it look like in general (fonts, color, composition)? We would get the client to sign off on that so that we could have permission to make real things—we looked at full-size prints of posters, and we’d produce roughly bound exhibition catalogs so that we could experience them as books. I would often take a catalog proof and sit somewhere comfortable and read the entire thing from acknowledgements to captions so that I could judge the product fairly and I’d ask students to do the same before they gave me the book to review. It occurred to me that summer that I had never done that with my own books! I wrote and proofed them but I never sat down and gave them a good solid read. Of course, I read chunks of them to make sure the type sizes seemed right but I never sat down on the couch or at the kitchen table and just enjoyed the book for real.

We couldn’t always get as real as I’d like. A major project during that time was an exhibition for the Hennepin County Library. Ideally we could have hung up cheap, black & white mock-ups of the whole exhibition before we installed anything. Or even better had a mobile design office at the Library where we could work, print, and appraise prototypes in situ and then revise immediately. So we had to find ways to cut down on the abstraction—we’d print out full-size black & white laser prints to judge specifics and we’d comp the posters into photos of the space to judge the big picture.

Because we’re rarely “getting real” in the 37signals sense I usually refer to it as “playing close to the context.” What is the situation that the work will be experienced within and how close can I get to it? It will never be real but the closer I get the better informed my decisions will be.
“For Use” exhibition. A process involving frequent printing of full-size black & white prints and Photoshop comps allowed MCAD DesignWorks to avoid major surprises in the final installation of this exhibition. (Designers: Brian Walbergh, Alex Roche, Ted Guerrero, & Emily Reile; Creative Director: Namdev Hardisty. Photograph: Rik Sferra)

One of the things I find about playing close to the context is that a lot of design decisions get made for me. Is the type too small on this poster? Well, can I read it from 8 feet away? No? Then, yeah, its too small.

I was working on some banner ads recently. I had been thinking all week about what I might do for them. But then I sat down and started building the presentation deck. I had a neat little lay-out of all the different sizes I would need. I realized that this would make a nice page of coherent ideas but it wouldn’t be real. So before I designed the ads, I grabbed screenshots of where we would run them and placed white boxes over those. Instead of designing (perhaps over-designing) some killer visuals and then seeing how they worked, I was looking at the installation site and asking “What will stand out? What will grab my audience’s attention? Do they need to see a message, a photo, or a name?” I would quickly design in Illustrator then bounce over to Indesign so that I could see my ad in its context (yes, I know its “sorta” its context). This may seem obvious but its not how I was trained. I was taught that you visualize designs to help the work seem real in order to sell it to the client more easily (and to be clear, I do think this is a valid reason to do so) but not because it will make you a better designer.

Playing close to the context means acknowledging that the context is ever-changing. It means optimizing for whatever situation you find yourself in. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find the best solution for a given condition if you’re doing a poor job communicating that to a client. Your poster could be skillfully designed to have maximum impact for its busy cluttered environment but if you show it to the client on a pristine white page it might just look boring or raise questions like “There’s also this space right here, can’t we add some more descriptive copy?” The worst thing you can do is say “I thought about that already but trust me, this is right.”

Screw trust. The context changed. You already established the real context—the space the poster will live in—but you have a new one: the presentation. You don’t want to convince people that you’re making the best decisions, you want to show them.

There are myriad ways of doing this—you could take photographs of the places where the poster will be put up and comp your design into them; install full-size print-outs and then make a video of the environment showing just how busy it is, and even better, capturing people as they stop to look at the poster. If its going on a bus stop shelter, shoot video from traffic. Show that it is possible to stop at a light, see the poster, and understand what it is for.

Tim Ferriss has a great story about playing close to the context when it was time to pick a name for the book that became the mega-bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek. He tested out a number of names by mocking up different book-covers and observing how they were received by customers in a Barnes & Noble. He described the experiment like this:

“I found a book that was the same size and I printed out a number of the prospective covers. And I just went to a bookstore and sat there for an afternoon.... Put them up on a high traffic day, and counted the number of times in an hour that the book was picked up. The 4-Hour Workweek got picked up... 40% to 300% more than the other covers.”

All too often we wait until we’re 100% happy with the abstraction before we get real. If Tim Ferriss and his publisher waited until he was 100% happy it would’ve been too late to use a different name and the 4-Hour Workweek might have never became the best-seller that it did.

Every project gets real whether you stay close to the context or not. The book gets printed. The website goes live. The poster gets hung. The signage gets installed. And then its real. And every problem is suddenly obvious. The book is beautiful but boring. The website is fundamentally broken. The packaging is hated by the public. The signage that was so easy to read for the 22 year-old that designed it is a low-contrast blur for the 62 year-old that needs to use it. All problems that could have been avoided by getting real.

Namdev Hardisty is creative director of The MVA Studio, a design and marketing agency in Minneapolis.