Being a designer is just a job (but it’s important)

Design is a great way to make a living. It can be fulfilling, helpful, and your work can have impact on people and culture. But it’s worth remembering it’s still just a job. These are some notes from a five-minute Bettakultcha talk I did in October 2015, to some Arts & Humanities students at Leeds University.

Being a designer is a job. For me, it’s not a vocation, nor a way of life. I love design, but if I wasn’t allowed to be a designer anymore, I wouldn’t melt like the baddies from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’d just find another job.

John Madin’s stunning Birmingham Central Library (1974), sadly scheduled for demolition.

Graphic design wasn’t my ‘calling’. I originally wanted to be an architect. I grew up in Birmingham, where you’re surrounded by huge, hulking, awesome things like John Madin’s Central Library. They had a profound effect on me. However, a seven-year stint at university to become an architect, wasn’t financially viable for me or my family. So I ended up studying graphic design.

Awakenings

I grew up surrounded by visual information. Books, TV, adverts, comics, toys. But looking back, the first time I think I understood the power of graphic design, was the opening credits for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. They were beautiful — glamorous, mysterious, very stylised. They said something about the show, without just showing clips from it, and set up your expectations for what the programme would be like. They still look fantastic:

But enough about me. What does a designer do? Well, as I said in an earlier article, I use colours, letters and pictures, to help people understanding things. We’ll look into that a little more later, but for now, it’s worth remembering:

Designers are powerful

Wield the Hammer of Design with great care.

This might sound like I’m overstating things, but I’m not. Skilled designers wield great power, and you need to know what you’re using it for. We help people understand things, but here’s the reason why:

We use design to influence people’s behaviour.

That’s it. Whether you’re encouraging someone to choose a specific brand of washing powder, find the right department at the hospital, or vote for a certain political party, everything you do is intended to make people do things. Remember this.

So, now you know how important it is, let’s look at what tools you have at your disposal:

Colours

Colours help communicate meaning, and make people feel things. We use red for the hot tap, because we associate it with warm things — the sun, our blood, lava, etc.

Letters

The way in which we present words, affects how people read and translate them. Meaning can be inferred from the typeface chosen. Look at the typography of Lindon Leader’s FedEx logo. It’s bold, solid, reliable. All the elements are connected. Just what you need for a global courier! But wait, there’s also a delightful visual trick, where the negative space creates an arrow, giving the whole design forward movement. Mind: blown.

Woah.

Pictures

Obviously you can use imagery to communicate information. Look at this ace Blue Note jazz sleeve. There’s a series of basic rectangles across the sleeve, then: BAM – there’s Freddie Hubbard, standing out from the crowd. Note how it looks like a trumpet valve being pressed down, too. This stuff isn’t necessarily immediately obvious, but there’s an idea there, that tells you something about the content.

Combining all three

Of course, the above examples are fairly isolated, but these tools are very powerful when combined. A great example is Margaret Calvert & Jock Kinneir’s British road signs. It’s so clear and flexible — green for roads; blue for motorways. Round signs for instructions, triangular for warnings. Think of how British culture has been influenced by this piece of work!

Solving problems

So: colours, letters and pictures are all awesome, but you have to use them to solve problems. That is what a designer does. Anyone saying it’s a designer’s job to make things look nice, is wrong. Something that is pleasing to the eye, is a coincidental outcome of the design process. Work often needs to be attractive, to get people to notice it in the first place, and it needs a style to maintain interest. But every design decision has to be there, to support the aim of the project.

Here’s a quote from the fictional character Winter Sorbeck, from Chip Kidd’s wonderful book, The Cheese Monkeys:

But Graphic Design for its own sake will never happen, because the concept cancels itself out — a poster about nothing other than itself is not Graphic Design, it’s… makin’ ART.

Other tools

Of course, designers have other tools at their disposal, for example if they’re working on a digital product, or a service of some kind. We can consider things like sound, motion and flow. Flow’s an important one, when considering the tasks people are trying to accomplish, say on a website, with an app, or a more complex task that goes between the physical environment and a digital one (for example, posting a parcel, and tracking its status online). You need to consider people’s environment, capabilities, devices, mood (are they worried, busy, distracted, etc?), time available, and much more, to maintain a smooth flow during a task.

I sometimes refer to Instagram as a simple example of good user experience design. When you’re in an area with no network, Instagram doesn’t stop you from using it — you can still take photos, fiddle with filters, add your comments and hit send. It just holds your posts until later when you’re back online, for you to post then. It’s an obvious thing, but clearly a design decision was made at some point not to make the whole thing fall apart because you weren’t online.

Never stop asking, ‘why?’

But of all the tools at a designer’s disposal, the most important is the word, ‘why’. You’ll need to keep asking it at the beginning of projects, to make sure that [A] what a client is asking for, is actually what they need, [B] that the end users are being considered throughout, and [C] that you know exactly what you’re doing. You need to keep asking it through the life of a project too — requirements can change, scope can creep, markets can change. You need to be sure that the reasons you started the project are still valid. It’s not always easy to be the awkward one who isn’t just getting on with it, but it’s in your remit to question. So act like a three-year-old!

What are you gonna do with your job?

There’s a huge spectrum of work you can undertake as a designer, in pretty much any industry. So it’s up to you, to decide what you might do:

You could design cigarette packaging, or you could design materials that help people quit.

You could work for agencies dedicated to helping people in danger, or you could work for parties that trade on fear and ignorance to win support.

These are deliberately polar options, but it’s important to remember that as a designer, you need to know where your boundaries are, and whether there’s anything you wouldn’t want to use your services for. Whether you have objections based on religion, morals, taste, or anything else, it’s OK to say, ‘no’. Designers have to care about what they’re working on. You have to want the work to succeed, or everyone suffers — you resent the project, the client doesn’t get value for money, and the work suffers. Lose/lose/lose.

You might even consider working for government. The above shot of the Gov.UK homepage might not look like the most glamorous work in the world, but it’s seriously important design. As programmer James Darling pointed out in this article, they increased the number of people signing up for the organ donor register, by 10,000 a month, just by redesigning a flipping web form! Think of the lives your work could save!

Time to calm down a little

OK, I’m getting a bit excited now, and hopefully you are too. But it’s worth remembering, not everything in the world needs designing. That flyer for the church fete that’s rendered in Comic Sans? Probably fine to let that go. That piece of wasteland down the road? Probably doesn’t necessarily need landscaping; let some wild flowers grow, and allow kids to build some ramps for their bikes. Another important skill a designer must develop is to recognise when and where they’re needed. Look for the opportunities. Where can you have impact? The local bakery might think they need a new shop sign designing, when actually they just need to clean their windows and smile at the customers a bit more. Over time, you will develop that instinct.

We need fresh ideas

Design thrives on new ideas and new perspectives, so if you’re young and considering design, great! Jump in, there’s plenty of room. Design also desperately needs a more diverse workforce — as a white dude with questionable facial hair, I should know. So please, whoever you are, get involved.

So: design is just a job, but it’s a brilliant one. It’s fun, hard, sometimes demoralising, sometimes thrilling, and very often rewarding. Come and solve some problems! There are plenty left :-)