December 11th, 2008

Surprise + Clarity

By Shane Bzdok

One of the more magical components of the design process is the individual expression each designer brings to a solution. Consider it the creator’s DNA woven into the final design. Although it’s one abstract part of a whole, a designer’s expression is the result of a complex recipe that might include (but is certainly not limited to); practical training and mentorship, life experience, natural talent, book knowledge, passion, cultural awareness, trends, whim, and even serendipity. This complex assortment of elements provides a designer with his or her creative perspective. And yet with all of these factors involved, most designers tend to gravitate towards one of two core forms of graphic design. One is based in structure while the other is derived from emotion.

In Craig Oldham’s recent publication of 12 IN 12, he touches on the topic of logical vs. emotional design and lists the following creatives and studios under each camp:

Granted, the designations are somewhat subjective, but comparing the work from each list, you can clearly see a difference between the two sides. Where do you fall?

From a 1998 interview with Massimo Vignelli in Design Dialogues by Steven Heller and Elinor Pettit, Vignelli is asked, “Over the years you have carried the torch of what Richard Saul Wurman has dubbed ‘information architecture.’ What is the difference between this and other forms of graphic design?”

Vignelli responds, “One is rooted in history and semiotics and problem solving. The other is more rooted in the liberal arts — painting, figurative arts, advertising, trends, and fashion. These are really two different avenues. The first kind is more interested in looking to the nature of the problem and organizing information. That’s our kind of graphic design. To me, graphic design is the organization of information. The other kind is interested in the look and wants to change things all the time. It wants to be up-to-date, beautiful, trendy. David Carson is a perfect example of the other kind. I have tremendous respect for guys like Carson. I don’t think he’s a graphic designer, but he’s an articulator, he’s clever, and he’s a terrific self-promoter. His work is fascinating. There really are two channels, completely different from each other: one side is the structured side, the other is the emotional side.”

Vignelli also states, “I think there’s a place for both, and they could benefit from some integration.” This is where I completely agree. Why not take advantage of the best of both worlds? Utilize the formality of structure to define the sandbox we play in. The walls of the sandbox define it’s form while the boundless possibilities of the sand within beckon to our inner child. Structure is important, but don’t forget to play.

I do believe the design of information should be rooted in structure for clarity’s sake, but elements of style, surprise and the unexpected are what, as we always say at BBDK, can bring delight to the viewer. Yes, structure can make your design functional but emotion can make your design memorable. So whether you’re a left-justifying, sans-serif wielding grid monger or a hand-crafting, randomizing, rule-breaking expressionist, know that merging the two sides can be a powerful combination and potential next step in the evolution of your own work.

Illustration: Frank Chimero

Shane Bzdok is an art director and designer at BBDK, Inc. From our home office in Santa Fe, New Mexico we collaborate with a network of graphic and product designers, programmers and photographers worldwide.