Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a student asking about style — the trendy, visceral nucleus around which design often seems to orbit, a characteristic so central to visual culture that it has single-handedly defined the careers of countless designers, writers, musicians and filmmakers. In the student’s message, he was particularly curious if I thought maintaining a personal “look & feel” was a necessary consideration for one to create truly great work. He mentioned his professors’ insistence that working repeatedly within a singular style ultimately limits the creative potential of your work—a point with which I agreed.
More emphatically, though, was my encouragement to expand his definition of the word beyond “how things look.” It’s an easy trait to simplify, and one that we handily employ when discussing aesthetic qualities — but there’s a deeper complexity at play. Yes, style can refer to the way something looks. But, tilt your head and view it through a process lens, and it can be methodological, suddenly referring not only to the colors on the surface, but the thinking within — the manner of decision-making that determines why there should be any color at all.
I often hear designers say things like “my stuff is vintage,” or “my style is minimalist.” And while there’s obviously no harm in describing your work that way, those traits are ultimately just expressions—the paint on the outside of the car, if you will. Concealed beneath the finish is a layered web, buried evidence of the process within: primer, sheet metal, hoses, bolts, fans, and, at the very center, an engine quietly growling under the hood. The engine’s where the thinking is. If someone told you they drove a red car, you’d have discerned next to nothing about the vehicle. But if someone told you they drove a ‘68 drop top with a bored-out V8 hemi that smokes Maseratis off the line, you might think, “Nice—I’ll bet it’s red, isn’t it?” It just makes sense: the style isn’t red, the style is raw power. Red, in turn, just fits. And, in learning a little something about the car, you’ve learned a little something about the driver. You’ve developed an impression of what to expect in the future, whether you’re in the garage, on the street or at the track.
There’s a memorable line from the 2005 film Thank You For Smoking, where Aaron Eckhart’s character is explaining to his son that, “If your job is to be right, then you’re never wrong.” Style boils down similarly. If you think of style as a conceptual procedure you explore in the beginning — rather than an aesthetic veneer you apply at the end — then the idea and look will always connect, always fit. Jackson Pollock didn’t scatter paint across a canvas because he wanted something that looked like he’d scattered paint across a canvas; he wanted to record the gesture of his hand. That thinking, that process — that was his true style. Scattering paint across a canvas just happened to be a pretty effective way of expressing it. It’s fair to note that yes, Pollock was an artist, not a designer, and thus was driven by a different set of motivations. But, that distinction notwithstanding, designers face a challenge tantamount to one Pollock surely grappled with: how can we best express our ideas, and is there necessarily a correct way?
So, the next time you’re faced with asking yourself what your brand or app or painting or thing should look like, just take a step back. Examine your own designed exterior, your own procedural methodologies. Why are you wearing what you’re wearing? Process is process—whether it’s a choice between a Metallica t-shirt and a button-down, or between serif and sans, the decision-making processes operates in service of a similar goal: stylistic integrity. What does your brand watch on TV? What does your app wear on a date? What does your painting listen to at the gym? What does your thing want to be?
You’ll have the answer in no time.