The Most Influential Assignment of my Design Education

Change is good. Beware of the old dog that won’t learn new tricks. But change isn’t necessarily good. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Mike Houghton
Oct 8 · 5 min read

During my senior year as a visual communications major at Florida State University, Andrew Blauvelt had just received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and as a precursor to his distinguished career he travelled from Michigan down to Tallahassee to teach graphic design.

Each project Andrew assigned offered a conceptual stretch. We rendered the spirit of an age as “zeitgeist cubes,” and we designed posters that depicted elemental aspects of life ranging from non-verbal body language to the joys and fears of growing up. We also packaged proverbs.

The Assignment

The instructions were simple — design a package inspired by a proverb. The execution, however, led me down an existential rabbit hole, and while my design for this particular assignment was a mess at best, the root question that I found myself exploring remains with me to this day — how might I know when it is time for change and that the change I make will be better?

I was a naive design student about to begin a career largely motivated by an idealistic desire to make the world a better place, yet I felt a tension within the inherent assumptions of progress. Change can be good, but it isn’t necessarily better. I chose to express my proverb as a reversible book that juxtaposed two proverbs against each other, wrapped around the more fundamental question like slices of bread around peanut butter and jelly.

Proverb 1: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Change can be scary. Change can be complicated. Change can be painful. Change can also be necessary. Keeping things as they are feels safer than making changes. Beauty fades and things break. What we make can become fragile and tarnished. It can lose resiliency and vibrancy over time. There is good in innovation and revolution. It is good to look forward. If we lose sight of the fundamental elements that breathe life into a thing, resistance to change can be harmful.

The life of a designer is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design. ~ Massimo Vignelli

There is a time for… revolution, advancement, restoration, revival, renewal, surprise, and innovation. New things and course corrections can be very good. Older isn’t necessarily better. Things break and need to be fixed.

Proverb 2: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Change isn’t always necessary. When I make something, whether it is a user interface for a mobile app, a logo for a startup, a style guide for web application, or an article for Medium, my hope is that it will have a very long shelf-life — that it will be useful and delightful for a long time. It seems fair to assume that whoever made the things I am about to remake had a similar desire for sustained relevance. So a helpful question to ask before remaking anything is whether the thing in question is actually broken.

In some cases, the rationale for “better” is actually a desire for “different” in disguise. When I think of trends, this distinction comes to mind. Something becomes outdated because somebody with influence says so. Out with the old, and in with the new. Maybe the arbitrary difference between “Living Coral 16–1546” and “Ultra Violet 18–3838” is fun fun and exciting. Maybe we just get bored too easily.

We like design to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless. ~ Massimo Vignelli

There is a time for… peace, contentment, satisfaction, rest, waiting, protecting, and patience. Old things and staying on course can be very good. Newer isn’t necessarily better. Old dogs don’t always need to learn new tricks.

The Question: Is it Better?

Design is a solution to a problem. The design process begins with people and needs and a desire for change — for better. It begins with seeking a deeper understanding of an assumed burden or opportunity and empathizing with those affected by it. And it includes interpreting problems and solutions through a framework of goals, principles, and taste.

Form and function. The rendering of intent. Remembering well. Determining “better” through the lens of goals achieved and delight created over time — determining “better” as usable things made in beautiful and sustainable ways. My idealistic desire to make the world a better place remains.

If you are looking to make a difference in the world, you are already in the place you need to be. You don’t need to go anywhere else. ~ Mike Monteiro (full post)

It is always time to ask where the work is headed as well as how it is being made, and the lens through which we attempt to determine “better” is in need of regular cultivation. In addition to remaining curious about underlying design elements and principles, I want to remain curious about the way in which I approach the work at hand, and I want to remain curious about the effect of the work over time.

At the end of the day, our measure of “better,” both in terms of the things we make and the way in which we make them, is framed by our values. Perhaps the next time I find myself among colleagues drinking a pint, I might dig a little deeper and open up a bit wider. I invite you to do the same. In the meantime, here’s a list of words I keep posted under my monitor to help guide my response to the fundamental question.


Thanks for the assignment, Andrew.

Mike Houghton

Written by

UX Architect at Kyra Solutions, Founder of Refresh Tallahassee — https://mycotn.com/

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