On Visual Design
In March 2014 I was invited to speak about the state of Visual Design at an internal @frogdesign event held in Seattle. It turned out I wasn’t able to travel that specific week, so I sent a video instead.
“Hi. My name is Andreas and I’m a Principal Designer working at frog in Milan. I’m communicating to all of you through the means of a modern computer system. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with you. I hope I will be there next time. Fingers crossed.
Here are a few thoughts on visual design. I’ll begin with a thought on impact.
There’s this thing about the impact of design that I find fascinating. The science of first impressions and of impact over time. When you design for impact, you can’t fake it. You can’t dress it in pretty words or hide it behind an intellectual curtain. No one cares about frameworks, systems or languages when they experience something in real life. It’s of binary nature.
Your design has impact, or it has not. Sometimes it’s gently caressing you, other times it’s a fist to the face. The context of every situation dictates what’s true.
Impact is about quality and about emotion, it speaks to something deep inside of a human being; of dreams, aspirations, memories, cultural belonging, senses and sensations.
I love that very first moment, when design is stripped of all the jargon and the bull-shit and all that remains is a human being responding to something with their gut.
That’s where Visual Design takes off.
Our work as visual designers is neatly pegged in between the two driving forces that shape design, two forces that continuously contrast and contradict each other. On the left hand we have the rational and the pragmatic, the stuff we can speak to our clients about and use when defining frameworks for our decision-making. It’s the kind of stuff that makes sense, the kind of stuff that guarantees success and a safe journey ahead.
On the right hand we have the big black box of uncertainty. Of creativity, madness, spontaneity, chaos and disorder. Of happy accidents, fuck-ups, failures and all those scary moments in-between. It’s on that side we tend to find poetry, moments of genius and our most disastrous shipwrecks.
I love this polarizing struggle. As a visual designer you walk the fine line between Jakob Nielsen and David Lynch. You need to understand and master the left and the right as a VD, they are equally important.
Visual design is really quite simple. Great visual design is simplistic; it makes the complex look effortless. It utilizes the same patterns we see in nature, in space, in art and in architecture. Whether designing for communication or interaction visual design can always be translated into and traced back to a very basic set of concepts and principles.
Harmony. Balance. Rhythm. Repetition. Scale. Proportion. Contrast. Movement. Alignment. Hierarchy. Dominance.
UX paradigms and interaction patterns will come and go. This stuff will never go out of fashion and these ideas will always ensure beauty.
I also wanted to speak about understanding, insight and discovery. It’s where I believe visual design can make a great difference for frog moving forward and where I feel that we aren’t fully exploiting our potential when it comes to VD. Massimo Vignelli often talks about Semantics, Syntactics and Pragmatics in design, the three intangibles that define the contextual framework of a design solution. These are pillars to understanding what the design should communicate upon completion. They define the meaning of the work. Crucial stuff, right?
Visual design is so very powerful in this sense, it’s an expression of culture, of history, of personality, of soul and of meaning. All of these abstract things that won’t show in the pixels but you feel are there when it’s done right. It’s not something generic. It’s a statement. It means something and it feels like something.
Bob Ross, whom you can see here in the background, was an artist turned tv-show host in America during the 80s and 90s, most of you probably know him better than I do. When I look at Bob I see two things: 1) a fantastic haircut. Bob has those kind of perfectly friendly curls that make you warm inside. I always wanted to have curly hair I must admit, and last night my wife told me she always fancied guys with curly hair, so I feel a little bit jealous. The second thing I see is art without any meaning. Pretty pictures and perfected techniques without a subject matter. A hollow surface. Paint-by-numbers or Make-up.
As frog is re-calibrating and thinking anew of processes, methodologies and team compositions I want you to think about Bob Ross. The next time you scope a project where the visual designer gets no exposure to stakeholders, research or creative discovery in the beginning of the process, you’re essentially commissioning Bob Ross to join your team. Bob Ross won’t miss the deadline, he won’t provoke you or piss you off and he will surely paint the pretty painting you want him to paint. But he won’t produce relevant work. He won’t make an impact.
We need to ask for more of our visual designers in these days, to contribute further and you all, will need to give more back to them. They are not the painters of your solutions; they are the co-creators of them.
This is the one thing I ask from you all: get visual designers into the discovery phase, into research and let them contribute earlier.
It’s taken digital design about 20 years to get sophisticated.
We’re starting to get a pretty good idea of how to design for screens. We’re currently doing a good job. Stuff scales. It responds to screen sizes. Type reads decently and you can choose from more than 4 fonts when designing a web site. We’re starting to scrape the surface of digital storytelling, of going beyond the idea of the page. We’re bringing in animation and motion to make our concepts come to life, to juxtapose expressions. Our grid designs have left the ideas of absolute proportion and macro alignment behind, and shifted towards a component driven direction for designing systems. That means that the smaller guides the bigger and ultimately the end of the waterfall process. We design systems that are coherent in spirit but that exploit the positives of each given touch-point. We think languages over singular expressions. We speak a language that can be translated to code, to live products, to growing organisms that will scale over time. Most of this has happened in the last few years.
So, visual design today is better than ever but it’s also more predictable, more automated and more generic than ever. It’s boring. It lacks character and soul. This is the paradox. We’ve perfected the craft of visual design to a point where you can’t write more articles about it. We’re kind of done there. To me, I think these first 15–20 years have been the warm-up to something really amazing; a phase of re-definition of what visual design is and what it can do.
The combination of new technologies and platforms, along with the growing need for design innovation for our clients… it will force us to up the game for VD. It will force us to push the boundaries for our work, to go beyond what’s expected of us. It’s happening right now. I think overall that’s why I’m excited about visual design these days, we’re about to enter a new phase and it’s going to be an amazing journey for everyone involved.
I hope you guys will have a great time over in Seattle. Easy on the booze! Send me an e-mail if you want to discuss further.
The examples of web sites shown at 07.50 and onward aren’t meant to represent “boring” or poor designs. Quite the opposite. They are meant to illustrate the concept of “perfected craft”, where “good design” (whatever that means) has become a commodity. I apologise to SitesWeLike (an excellent resource for high-quality web design) in advance if this seems to be the case; I love your site and the stuff you showcase.
The idea of using the computer voice came to me at the last minute, mainly due to time constraint. I certainly wasn’t the first person to try this; I remember Siggi Eggertsson doing a talk a few years ago, using only Text to Speech. Outside of the design industry it’s been done a million times. There are a bunch of cool automation scripts out there if you want to try it yourself.
In the video you’ll find dedicated shots of Frank Chimero’s “What Screens Want”, Mark Boulton’s “A New Canon” and NY Times “Snow Fall — The Avanlanche at Tunnel Creek”. You can also see featured selections from ButDoesItFloat. The clip uses videos by Dan Rubottom, KORB, and pate50n. Contact me directly if you’re offended by the use of your videos. Thanks to @frogdesign for letting me publish this!
Final shout out to Bob Ross.