I had a lecture class in college that, honestly, I cannot even remember the name of (wow, great start, Garet!). In a nutshell, though, the purpose of this course was to educate our 4th-year design class – a mix of several disciplines – about the wide variety of design opportunities “out there.”
One of my most vivid memories is of a guest presenter (let’s call him Frank) who visited and talked about his efforts in the world of permaculture. I hadn’t heard much about his field of environmental/ecological design before and was amazed at his story of working alongside other like-minded designers and environmentalists in the desert to build nearly 100% sustainable, closed-circuit living systems.
Frank shared photos of houses that he’d helped build from recycled materials like car tires and glass bottles. He taught us how solar panels and rain collection systems contribute to self-sustained living and plant growth.
This guy was dropping some serious knowledge on us.
When class ended, I left the auditorium fascinated; it’s refreshing to get your mind blown every now and then. But as I exited the auditorium, another classmate’s tone of voice cut through my new-found excitement like a flag on the field after an overtime touchdown.
Designer 1: “Holy crap, that presentation was sooo embarrassing. That guy cleeearly had no idea how to lay something out in InDesign”
Designer 2: “Oh my gawd, I knoww. Like, I think he was using Comic Sans. Like srysly…? In Powerpoint too…”
Designer 1: “Totally was Comic Sans. Eww. And it was lime green text on ORANGE. Like, does he not know what design is? Is he color blind?”
Designer 2: And his fecking dreadlocks. I bet he didn’t even shower like all week or something…”
I don’t get angry that much. But when I do, it’s typically when someone is too short-sighted to consider something important. Or when someone is just plain rude. These designers were being both of those. But what made me the most frustrated was set a bit deeper in the context of their conversation.
As designers, we’re often quick to judge the things we see. And with obvious reason; we’re trained to! From that moment when we hang up our first color theory exercise in freshman critique and a professor reprimands us, not for the main content we labored over for a week, but for the piece of tape that is poking out maybe a millimeter from the back of the art board.
We’re trained, over the course of a few years, to be detail-oriented. Beyond detail-oriented, in fact. We see details that literally no one else sees. The difference between 13 pt and 13.5 pt copy. The subtle shift in cyan amount from Pantone Teal 1 to Pantone Teal 2. The pure act of kerning, itself. It goes on and on. And don’t get me wrong, these skills are necessary! Those details can make or break a design. They can.
But when we get into the weeds of discretionary details and pixel-perfection, it can be very easy to completely lose perspective on what actually matters.
First and foremost, we are communicators and problem solvers. From the artsy craftswoman to the research-driven UX guru, our goal is – more or less – to help someone “get it.” To make someone learn, feel, appreciate, and come back for more.
So, back to Frank…
Frank wasn’t a graphic designer. Frank didn’t go to school for that. He probably studied geography in college, ended up on a trip to the desert one summer, and realized he loved building eco-friendly houses.
Frank represents the majority of the planet; let’s call them non-designers.
No wait, let’s just call them people.
People don’t give a shit about our opinions on Comic Sans; they think it’s friendly and playful. People don’t understand that lime green isn’t great on top of an orange background, because they think it really “livens things up!” People don’t care about the drop-shadows that Microsoft Powerpoint adds to imported photos by default. And why in the hell should they?
People have more important shit to worry about. Frank has more important shit to worry about. Like trying to convince a college auditorium that there are awesome ways to contribute to a sustainable future. Like trying to convince our class that if designers don’t give a shit about the planet, then we’re all screwed. Frank wasn’t hoping to inspire us via his text design or color palette. Frank just wanted somebody to “get it.”
Yes, it’s our job as designers to help Frank with his presentation issues; but it’s not our job to judge him. We can help by advising that the font should match the tone of his content…maybe something a bit more sophisticated than Comic Sans. We can suggest that he change his color palette to increase legibility. Those details can make a difference in the end, when they reinforce the content.
But how in the hell are we going to start helping people if we don’t start listening to what they’re saying? If all we see as designers is what’s wrong, we might never actually hear what’s right.
Sure, this post could have been about how important design principles are when you’re presenting information (aka from the perspective of my observant classmates). But if we designers can see detail issues initially, we should also be able to look past them, to focus on the opportunities instead of the problems.
“Woah that page layout totally sucks.”
What if it was:
“Woah, I love what he said there. This layout could reflect that so much better.”
When you learn the whole story, it’s much more likely that you’ll come up with a better long-term solution than you would by judging only its cover. My classmates were focused so intently on the details, that they missed the entire purpose of Frank’s presentation. Imagine the rad things we might not miss if we stop viewing the world through a magnifying glass.