July 12th, 2009

Design Guidelines

By Craig Oldham

I’m a passionate person. And not just the usual things—like when I scream at Barnsley F.C. for riding their luck one too many times on the pitch—but certain things in my life and my career (if you’d call it that). I can’t help it, certain things just really mean a lot to me.

I always knew I was a passionate person. Everyone knows in themselves when something is occurring that they simply don’t agree with, but not everyone acts upon these passions. Some are happy to let them go—for the greater good, maybe—where as others dig-in like an Alabama tick, and go for gold.

Until recently I believed I was the former, not so much a pushover but I didn’t feel I’d quite found the bravery to voice my opinions. That was until one recent airing in the studio was heard to be the last straw and I was handed the scribbled list you see below: the appetisingly titled ‘Craig’s Beef List’* (and more beautifully illustrated above—Luke, my boy).

As the list was handed to me, it came with the instruction to write upon it everything that I passionately disagreed with, or disliked. It was soon filled in.

However banterful the Beef List was, it did provoke the thought about principles within Design and Design principles (that along with my choice of reading material at the time: A to Z by the passionate and value-driven (and quite amazing) Designer, Massimo Vignelli). And I couldn’t help but realise that, front-facing, Design consultancies, agencies, companies and groups (pick whatever else you want to call them) are—to be brutally honest—quite misty, and often, spineless in expressing their beliefs on Design and the Industry.

A brief click through many of the ‘creatively-led’, ‘design and communication passionate’ agencies websites will highlight this, as they try to express their beliefs to their ‘wide and varied client list’. The fact is they end up saying something so safe, and resultantly bland, or something so saturated with convoluted terminology, that it’s borderline ridiculous. And as business-safe as this option may seem, I can do nothing but wonder if this actually helps or hinders the business. OK, it doesn’t hurt it, but maybe it does something far worse—nothing.

Of course, not everyone opts for the safe option.

Some Designers, and Design agencies, publish their beliefs—their Do’s-and-Don’ts—upfront for everyone to see, whether ethical and moral stances or personal beliefs in Design. Below are a few examples, that I know of:

Thomas Matthews
Wim Crouwel
Massimo Vignelli
John McConnell
And the great Milton Glaser

Sure, looking up at the list, the rot can set in, and Designers can begin to doubt themselves. “Oh, that’s easy for So-and-So to say—they’re amazing—but I’d like to see them do that with my client. They won’t let you.” But what I’d ask these Designers is have you tried? Have you ever expressed your passion and principles so, well, passionately, to convince your client that you’re a consultant, not just a processor, and what you’ve designed is right—for all involved?

This, is something I believe should be applauded, and is something that the Design Industry, its educators and students, can learn from.

Almost every Designer enters the Industry with their own charged passions, optimism and visions. That drive to do something different, to challenge the norm, and uphold their integrity on their principles and what they believe to be right. But where does all of this go? Why do we not keep these desires and beliefs and translate them with our gathered knowledge and experience and allow that momentum to build into our commercial Design work? Why compromise our Design, sometimes beyond all recognition, to produce work to promote a cause, or a product, we often don’t believe in? Why do we Design something to bend the truth or intentionally deceive the public? Why do we make the type bigger, unbalance layouts, change the colour to blue from red and make the logo bigger? Why don’t we stick to our guns?

More often than not, in the end, we bend† (and often break) falling back on the belief that we can take pride from our good service rather than working with (and possibly educating) our clients on our beliefs on good Design and how truly effective it can be for them.

Standing strong on your principles can be beneficial for all involved. In the beginning, publishing exactly where you stand will deter many a client that you wouldn’t want to be working with anyway (as they don’t agree, or would ask for a certain something that you believe to be wrong) and attract a like-minded client that could lead to great opportunities. Whilst educating current clients on what you’re ‘all about’ will develop your relationship on your approach and workings, giving them clearer, more honest expectations of you, and in return giving you better, clearer, more honest briefs. Thus improving the dialogue, and more importantly, creating more of a partnership than a dictatorship. Allowing for work that serves yourselves better, your client better and above all the intended audience and society, better.

Accredited Designer Mike Dempsey speaks of similar things. In his address to the Royal Society of Arts in 2005 he spoke of the importance of Design in business and it’s relationships. Noting that Design should be ‘part of the fabric’ of a company and Designers should be given their place at, effectively, board level so that it can be ‘genuinely respected’. The legendary Paul Rand has echoed, on numerous occasion, similar sentiments albeit with the direct honesty that only he had.

So if we stand by our beliefs and principles in good Design rather than make something uglier, or a bit more stupider, than we believe to be right, just for the sake of money, experience or by ‘servicing’ our clients, we might, just might, be able to make that bit of a difference to ourselves, our work, our clients (and our relationship with them) and improve the visual literacy of society.

I’m not aiming for that “How many Designers does it take to change a light bulb? Change? I’m not changing anything.” existence, because I don’t believe in that. Everyone has an opinion and mine happens to be that if I believe a change to be fundamentally wrong then I should question why it should be made.

And of course we have to be grown-up about all of this, and I’ll be the first to admit this is a little pie in the sky but I really believe in having principles and defining them out in the open. Honestly and for all to see. As others, far greater, and wiser, than I, have so poignantly expressed.

Massimo Vignelli (in that book I mentioned a moment ago) describes his profession as ‘a continuous struggle against vulgarity. A battle against the ugliness.’ He draws similarities in a Designer’s task to those of a doctor, much in a similar way to Paul Rand. ‘The doctor analyses you and gives you a diagnosis of the situation and then a cure to make you better. And as Designers we do the same thing, but we cure the disease for the ugliness.’

But a Designer / Client relationship is very different to that of a doctor and patient. When my doctor gives me a cure, I take it. There’s no negotiation. I wouldn’t expect him to back down on his decision, to change his mind, to compromise his dose or schedule if I didn’t like what he said. As Designers, shouldn’t we expect the same from our ‘patients’? Perhaps if we are clearer on our principles at the start and were prepared to stick to them no matter what, we might earn the same kind of respect in return?

*Beef as in “What’s your Beef?” (Rough translation—Excuse me, but what seems to be the problem?) rather than butchers shop. Cheers Mike.

† Rhyme crime—poetry not intended.

Creative Review

This is an extension of an original article by Craig Oldham that appeared in the May issue of Creative Review in 2009. Craig is a designer at Music, a Manchester-based studio.

Although The Beef list is predominantly populated by my own ‘beefs’ there are two strays on there from the commentary of others. Number 8. goes to Li Rui who decided my constant verbal onslaughts towards Facebook warranted a position, and Number 9. goes to Mike, the founder of the Beef List, and the owner of the razor-sharp initiative that concluded when I’m overcome with a terrible, skull-splitting, bed-keeping migrane, and can’t make it to work for the morning, they deserve a place on the leader board. Top marks.

The illustration that accompanied the article is by Luke Stenzhorn —a good and dear friend of mine.