PART 1:THE FIRST ESSENTIAL QUESTION EVERY DESIGNER
SHOULD BE ABLE TO ANSWER:
Is What I Am Doing Craft, Art or Design?
In order to make better artistic and design choices, the Fluent and Empowered Designer should have answers to 5 essential questions. In this article, I present the first essential question: Is What I Am Doing Craft, Art, or Design?
Jane landed her first real client. She had designed websites and social marketing campaigns for some friends and family. But this was the first real contract. She was excited, as you would expect, and could not wait to begin.
The client was a furniture manufacturing company. They wanted to promote themselves by holding a contest online. It was to take the form of a sweepstakes and furniture give-away. This company had been online for several years, but this was the first contest they had ever done. They wanted this effort to have a huge marketing impact.
The first task was to design a Landing Page for this contest. The page was to coordinate with general look and feel of the company’s website. It should generate excitement about the contest, and persuade people to register their email addresses for future company marketing. It needed to be completed within 6 weeks.
Jane began outlining and sketching some things to share with the client.
· She felt the colors in the client’s logo did not completely work as a harmonious color scheme. So, for the Landing Page, she tweaked them a bit.
· She had posted her draft page on her own website, using her own domain name. She understood that this would be temporary.
· She researched a set of 25 key words relevant to furniture sales. She used these key words to develop three descriptive paragraphs.
· She located the email text-box on the left side of the web-page, and the submit button on the right side, parallel on the page with the text box. The submit button text was SUBMIT.
· She was unfamiliar with responsive web page design, so she did not consider any implications for various browsers and screen sizes.
At the 3-week mark, she met with the client, and presented her work to them. They were not happy. The tweaking of the logo colors did not go over well. They were confused about the domain name. The key words, and subsequent descriptions, did not resonate with them. The look of the Landing Page on a cell phone was very disjointed, and the submit button ended up about 4” below the email text box — not visible without scrolling down.
Jane was at a loss. She did not know what she should do next.
Designers, like Jane, need to learn to think like designers. They need to become fluent in the disciplinary way of defining problems, developing solutions, anticipating the client’s understandings, and introducing these solutions publicly. They need strategies to adapt to changing or unfamiliar circumstances.
However, what all this specifically means, and how all this plays out, gets a bit muddled. There is a lot of advice to sift through. Designers learn what they do from several sources, including teachers to books to online videos. It turns out that what perspective the advisor, teacher, how-to author is coming from affects what they suggest you do. Because of this, and especially because of this, every designer must get straight in their heads that to think like a craftsperson or to think like an artist is not the same as thinking like a designer.
There are three competing perspectives (or what are called paradigms) for how designers should be taught and practice — (1) The Craft Approach, (2) The Art Tradition, and (3) The Art and Design Perspective. Each provides a different set of advice for telling the designer what to do. Each uses different criteria for judging success.
Had Jane been able to answer the question: Craft, Art or Design?, she may have managed the design process much better. She probably would not have hit this wall with the client. She could have come up with ideas to fix and overcome the problems.
Fluency and Empowerment
The fluent designer is able to think like a designer. The designer is more than a craftsperson and more than an artist. The designer must learn a specialized language, and specialized way of balancing the needs for appeal with the needs for functionality. The designer must intimately recognize and understand the roles design plays for individuals as well as the society as a whole. The designer must learn how art, architecture, physical mechanics, engineering, sociology, psychology, context, even party planning, all must come together and get expressed at the point where the design meets the boundary of the individual.
And to gain that fluency, the designer must commit to learning a lot of vocabulary, ideas and terms, and how these imply content and meaning through expression. The designer will need to be very aware of personal thoughts and thinking as these get reflected in all the choices made in design. The designer will have to be good at anticipating the understandings and judgements of many different audiences, including the user and all the user’s own clients.
With fluency comes empowerment. The empowered designer has a confidence that whatever needs to be done, or whatever must come next, the designer can get through it. Empowerment is about making and managing choices. These choices could be as simple as whether to finish a piece or project or not. Or whether to begin a second piece or project. The designer will make choices about how to draw someone’s attention to the work, or present the work to a larger audience. She or he may decide to submit the work to a magazine or contest. She or he may want to sell the work and market it. The designer will make choices about how the work might be used, or who use it, or when it might be used, in what context.
And for all these choices, the designer might need to overcome a sense of fear, doubt, boredom, or resistance. The designer might need to overcome anxiety, a sense of giving up, having designer’s block, feeling unchallenged, and even laziness.
This makes it critical for any designer, in order to flourish and succeed, to be able to answer these 5 essential questions, beginning with question 1.
Question 1: Should Design work be considered ART or CRAFT or DESIGN?
All designers, whether making jewelry, building buildings, creating interiors, putting together websites and digital marketing plans, confront a world which is unsure whether design is “craft” or “art” or its own special thing I’ll call “design”. This can get very confusing and unsettling. Each approach has its own separate ideas about how the designer should work, and how he or she should be judged.
CRAFT: When defined as “craft,” design is seen as something that anyone can do — no special powers are needed to be a designer. Design is seen as a step-by-step process, almost like paint-by-number. Designers color within the lines. The craft piece or project has functional value but limited aesthetic value.
If following the Craft Approach, the designer would learn a lot of techniques and applications in a step-by-step fashion. The designer, based on their professional socialization into Craft, would assume that:
a) The outlines and the goals of any piece or project can be specified in a clear, defined way.
b) Anyone can do these techniques.
c) There is no specialized knowledge that a designer needs to know beyond how to do these step-by-step techniques and applications.
d) If a particular designer has a strong sense of design, this is something innate and cannot be learned or taught.
e) There is little need to vary or adapt these techniques and applications.
f) The primary goal is functionality.
g) There are no consequences if you have followed the steps correctly.
As “craft”, we still recognize the interplay of the artist’s hand with the piece and the storytelling underlying it. We honor the technical prowess. People love to bring art into their personal worlds, and the craftsperson offers them functional objects which have some artistic sensibilities.
ART: When defined as “art”, design is seen as something which transcends itself and its design. It is not something that anyone can do without special insights and training. The goal of any project would be harmony with a little variety, and some satisfaction and approval.
“Design as art” evokes an emotional response. Functionality should play no role at all, or, if an object has some functional purpose, then its functional reason-for-being should merely be supplemental to the art. For example, the strap on a necklace is comparable to the frame around a painting, or the pedestal for a sculpture. They supplement the art. The borders, and perhaps the footer and side navigation bars, on a website home page would also be understood as supplemental to the design. As supplemental components, these would not be included with nor judged as part of the design work. In an extreme example, from the art perspective, the beauty, balance and harmony of a website’s appearance should be unencumbered by any considerations of user experience and navigatability.
If following the Art Tradition, the designer would learn a lot of art theories and rules about the manipulation of design elements, such as color, movement, perspective, within the piece or project. Then, the designer would keep rehearsing these until their application becomes very intuitive. The designer, based on their professional socialization into Art, would assume that:
a) Whether the piece or project outlines are clear from the beginning, or emergent or process-like, what is most important is that art theories and rules be applied at each little increment along the way.
b) The designer as artist must learn some specialized knowledge — art theories and rules — in order to be successful.
c) The outcomes — either pieces or projects — would be judged on visual and art criteria alone, as if they were paintings and sculptures on display.
d) While everyone has within them the creative abilities to design as an artist, for most people, this must be learned.
e) The primary goals are beauty and appeal. Beauty and appeal are typically judged in terms of harmony and variety.
f) If you have not applied the theories and rules optimally, the piece or project would be judged as incomplete and unsuccessful.
What is nice about the Art Tradition, is that the goal is Beauty. Beauty is achieved through smart choices and decisions. The designer as artist is not encumbered by having to follow specific steps or patterns. Nor is the designer encumbered by the structural and functional properties of all the pieces or elements she or he uses — only their beauty. The designer does not have to compromise Beauty for Functionality.
DESIGN: When defined as “design”, you begin to focus more on construction and functionality issues. You often find yourself making tradeoffs between appeal and functionality. You incorporate situational relevance into your designs. You anticipate what the client (and the various audiences of the client) understands as something which is finished and successful. You see “choice” as more multidimensional and contingent. You define success only in reference to the design as it is worn, placed, constructed or used.
If following the Art and Design Perspective, the designer would have to learn a lot of things. These would include things in art, architecture, engineering, social science, psychology, behavioral science, and anthropology. The designer would develop those professional skills and insights, what we might call disciplinary literacy, so that she or he could bring a lot of disparate ideas and applications to the fore, depending on what the situation warranted.
The designer, based on their professional socialization into Art and Design, would assume that:
a) Whether the piece or project outlines are clear or emergent, what is most important is the ability to bring a wide range of design principles and applications to the situation.
b) The designer must learn a lot of specialized knowledge, some related to art, and some related to several other disciplines, such as architecture and social science.
c) The outcomes — either pieces or projects — must find the best fit between considerations about appeal with concerns about functionality. Functionality is not an add-on. It is an equal, competing partner with beauty and appeal.
d) The designer does not design in a vacuum. She or he must anticipate the shared understandings among self, client and the various audiences of the client about what might be seen as finished and successful. These anticipations must be incorporated into the design process and how it is managed.
e) Anyone can learn to be a designer, but fluency and literacy in the profession involves development of skills and insights over a period of time.
f) The primary goal is to find the best fit between appeal and functionality.
g) The consequences for not finding that best fit is some level of client dissatisfaction.
The Art and Design Perspective is very relevant for the education and training of designers. Here, the designer is seen as a multi-functional professional. The designer must bring a lot of very different kinds of skills and abilities to bear, when constructing a piece or developing a project. The professional has to be able to manage artistic design, functionality, and the interaction of the piece or project with the client as well as that client’s environment. This approach also believes that “Design” should be appreciated as its own discipline — not a subset of sculpture or painting. And that a piece or project as designed can only be understood as these are placed in use.
How you define your work as ART or CRAFT or DESIGN (or some mix) will determine what skills you learn, how you apply them, and how you introduce your pieces to a wider audience. The Craft Approach ignores the need to learn a specialized knowledge and approach. The Art Tradition focuses solely on the artistic merits of the project, and assumes the client will have more passive relationship to it, as if the client were standing in front of the project in a museum. The Art and Design Perspective focuses on how to anticipate shared understandings and incorporate these into how best to make tradeoffs between appeal and functionality.
So, returning to the situation with Jane, she had not yet become fluent in design thinking. She tried to apply art theory to balance the colors in the logo, and that’s not what the client wanted. She had applied the techniques she knew, but did not arrive at an acceptable place. She became stumped about the next steps she needed to take after the client expressed reservations. She was unable to delineate a learning plan for herself so that she could make the web-page responsive. She researched key words without putting them to some kind of reality test with the client.
Many people begin to explore design as a hobby, avocation, business or career. This requires, not only strong creativity skills, but also persistence and perseverance. A lot of the success in this pursuit comes down to an ability to make and follow through on many artistic and design decisions within a particular context or situation. Developing this ability — a fluency, flexibility and originality in design — means that the designer has to become empowered to answer these 5 essential questions: (1) whether creating something is a craft, an art or design, (2) how they think creatively, (3) how they leverage the strengths of various materials and techniques, and minimize weaknesses, (4) how the choices they make in any one design evoke emotions and resonate, and (5) how they know their piece is finished and successful.
Design is more than the application of a set of techniques. It is a mind-set. This fluency and empowerment enable the designer to think and speak like a designer. With fluency comes empowerment, confidence and success.
Continue reading about the Second Essential Question every designer should be able to answer: What Should I Create?
The 5 Essential Questions:
1. Is What I Am Doing Craft, Art or Design?
2. What Should I Create?
3. What Materials (And Techniques) Work The Best?
4. How Do I Evoke A Resonant Response To My Work?
5. How Do I Know My Piece Is Finished?
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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Feld, Warren. Jewelry Design: A Managed Process. (2020)
Feld, Warren. Teaching Disciplinary Literacy. (2020)
Feld, Warren. Backward-Design Is Forward Thinking. (2020)
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