Behind the Design

May 29th, 2013 by Mat Dolphin

As you may have noticed from previous blog posts, we’re quite interested in design. We like looking at it, we like talking about it and questioning it. We like learning and discovering new things about it. It’s a constantly expanding and changing subject that will never cease to throw up new and challenging concepts.

Aside from observing design from a purely visual perspective, finding out about the approach and thinking behind certain projects can be as fascinating (in some cases more so) than the work itself. For us, the age-old ‘ideas vs style’ debate is a no-brainer – it has to be a combination of both. A competent piece of design needs to look the part – this goes without saying – but the overall concept and thinking that went into the work is something that, as designers, we’re really interested in. Simply looking great isn’t enough.

It’s not always particularly easy putting creative work into words, but explaining why we’ve done what we’ve done is just another part of the the job and, like many other designers, we’ve done our fair share of explaining and justifying.

The explanations designers give to accompany projects can be hugely interesting, eye-opening and sometimes just plain funny. Post-rationalising design decisions and using ridiculous waffle tends to set off ‘style over substance’ alarm bells. At the other end of the scale, an intelligent and well considered rationale can make the details in a piece of design work that much more interesting and engaging.

One could argue that the work should ‘speak for itself’ but unfortunately clients (and the design press) will understandably want some kind of insight into the though process that went into the work.

A recent example of this got us thinking; Amsterdam-based Experimental Jetset recently unveiled their new identity for the Whitney Museum of American Art. The result of more than a year’s work is presented alongside a lengthy discourse which goes into the inspirations, motives and intentions of the work. It’s an in-depth, detailed and thought provoking read.

One of the thoughts it provoked was ‘Does a piece of design really need a 4,500 word essay to explain it?’

We’re not here to critique the quality of the work and we fully appreciate the huge amount of effort, time and thought that has gone into the project. But if one can only understand the rationale behind a piece of work by reading about it, does that rationale become in some way redundant?

As an example, there are numerous reasons given for the decision to use an adaptable ‘W’ for the basis of the identity, including ‘It could also symbolize the signature of the artist; or the waves of the nearby Hudson; or the waves produced by sound and vision.’ Perhaps it’s a little unfair to pick these lines out of their wider context, however they’re surely not reasons anyone could be expected to conclude on their own? Regardless of their validity? Surely the principal reason the Whitney Museum has a ‘W’ for it’s logo is because it’s first letter of Whitney? Anything else is circumstantial – even if it is an interesting way of expanding on an idea.

An example which further explains the point is the recent Pentagram identity for MUSE, a new museum of science in Trento, Italy.

The identity is based around a number of things, one in particular being the angle applied to the logotype, which came from the architectural structure of the building itself. See the image below.

An interesting way to make a design decision, but would anyone have clocked it if it wasn’t explained with a descriptive illustration? Is an angle based on such reasoning ‘better’ than simply picking an arbitrary angle?

We’re certainly not suggesting that a piece of design has to be immediately obvious to work. Giving the audience credit for being able to work things out for themselves is something we strongly believe in. But if certain elements of a design are based on details or references outside of the audience’s knowledge – it does raise questions about their relevance.

As mentioned earlier, this post isn’t about debating whether these projects are good or not. And there are countless other examples we could have used. This post is more about asking questions such as; should a piece of design be ‘understandable’ without a supporting explanation? If the thinking behind a design isn’t clear from looking at it, is that thinking redundant? If the thinking is based on a reference too obscure to be recognisable, does it matter?

Chip in with a comment below and let’s debate.

Thanks for reading,

Phil and Tom


12 Responses to “Behind the Design”

  1. I totally see where you’re coming from, but you know as well as I do that often the simplest/clearest ideas need to most rationalising (Paula Sher’s Citi logo is a good example) to appease all the stakeholders involved in the process. That’s why it took Experimental Jetset over a year to nail down the W rule book. There is still — in places — the view that if it looks “simple” its not smart or not worth the budget (“I could have done this”). And especially with branding projects it helps to justify the rationale, or rather the story that underpins the brand in one mark.

    Comment by Tom Muller — May 29th, 2013 @ 11:46 am |
  2. I think there is something that you missed out in terms of reasoning behind why designers write rationales in the first place: pointing out how clever we are.

    I don’t mean that in a negative way in the slightest, and I do it myself frequently. Designers love to boast without sounding like they’re boasting, so by explaining our thoughts behind a project in a way that appeals to other designers and design writers we can talk in a frank way about how smart we are. It’s a brilliant way of saying ‘This is why we’re good at design’ without sounding arrogant.

    Whenever I write a blog post explaining why and how I designed something, the main aim is to get potential clients to realise that what I do is more than make pretty pictures, and show that I in fact consider and think about why and how I approached a particular project. Hopefully explaining this to clients will make them consider me for a project over someone else, because they know that I think things through and the idea goes beyond the surface.

    The Muse example used above is a great one. It’s a good looking logo that’s effective and immediately gives a sense of what the museum is about, and I liked it without knowing anything about the rationale behind it. My reaction when reading about why the angle in the logo exists was “heeeey, that’s pretty smart!” which I imagine is exactly the reaction Pentagram were hoping for. It almost doesn’t matter where the angle comes from because it works as a logo regardless, and, as pointed out in the article, using that angle doesn’t necessarily make it a ‘better’ piece of design, but the fact that it relates to the building gives the whole thing a stronger meaning and shows that they have some smart designers working for them.

    Comment by Joe Stone — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:01 pm |
  3. Thanks for your comment Joe, I think your point about ‘hidden’ references (such as the angle of the building = the angle used in the logo) being a nice way for designers to prove our cleverness is interesting but still does make me wonder if it’s of any real benefit to the client or, for that matter, their audience?

    Using appropriate references in a piece of design is great, but if no one can see it without having it blatantly spelled out for them, does it really ‘give the whole thing a stronger meaning?’

    Comment by Mat Dolphin — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:11 pm |
  4. I think a concept is like a good joke, if you have to explain it then it’s lost that something something. That’s not to say it has to be obvious, sometimes people have that little sense of feeling clever when they notice something in a design or a logo for themselves… the first time you spot the measuring spoon and arrow in the FedEx logo for example.

    Finding the reason behind something and using that to instruct the design/concept will make something memorable and that’s what being commercially minded is all about. (Not the be all and end all but will make a difference and give substance).

    Comment by Sian — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:19 pm |
  5. I think the main point I took from this post is the use of the word ‘need’, ‘Does a piece of design really need a 4,500 word essay to explain it?’.

    From that point alone the answer is always no. If a design ‘needs’ all of that explanation then I totoally agree that the design has failed, as it should appeal to it’s audience aesthetically with the rationale acting as a supportive reasoning. A reasoning that ideally would be concise to convey the main thought process.

    However, I do agree with Joe. I also liked the Muse logo before knowing the logic behind the angle and now that I know I like it even more. But the importance I feel lies with the fact that I didn’t ‘need’ to know that to like it.

    In short. (I’m aware of the irony of using the word concise and then writing a novel.) I think rationale is great to accompany a project as it gives the audience and the rest of the creative community the opportunity to look ‘behind the design’, and like Joe also said, see how much work goes into something that general audiences may take for granted. However, I don’t think any design should ‘need’ it’s rationale to work.

    I also liked the Whitney identity without reading any of its rationale.

    Comment by Gordon Bonnar — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:30 pm |
  6. Thanks Gordon. I think you’re completely right that the an important part of this lies with not needing to know the rationale to like the work. The vast majority of people are going to form opinions (good or bad) on a piece of design before knowing the rationale is and this is how it should be.

    The point we were trying to make was that surely the little ‘I see what they did there’ details are slightly redundant if they need to be pointed out?

    The arrow in the FedEx logo as mentioned by Sian for example – a lot of people might miss it, but it’s there for all to see and doesn’t need any kind of explanation when it does get spotted.

    Comment by Mat Dolphin — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:40 pm |
  7. Going off of what Gordon Bonnar says…

    I feel that, not all works should consist of an “ah-ha” moment. I think back stories are necessary and a great learning tool for recent graduates like myself ( I would like to acknowledge teehan+lax for their great back story on Medium). But explanations are not typically searched for by a majority of people. George Perino, a now deceased professor from SUNY Purchase Art+Design, used to hold critics where the students could not talk about their work and was graded on the critic given by fellow students. I believe this was a method of getting artists and designers thinking about their work outside of their own rational thoughts. It was also a great way to replicate a situation in which a designer/artists will not always accompany their work to give an explanation. Audiences are not always going to look for the reasoning behind the design, but we shouldn’t undermine our audience. Dumbing things down, just make them uninteresting. If it is not clear to an audience, would that not make it intriguing?

    Comment by kmrado — May 29th, 2013 @ 12:55 pm |
  8. Great piece. I think you’ve identified some of the shortfalls of solely relying on design rationale—making sense of the design decision—compared to design strategy—using design as a tool to communicate an idea. While it’s an interesting design decision to use the same angle as the building elevation in the MUSE logo, in terms of how this reinforces the overall communication strategy of MUSE and what it’s all about remains a mystery. I believe you are correct to point out that rationalizing design decisions in hindsight is kind of a pointless exercise. Design is its own language. It’s a way of communicating ideas without using words. I usually find the most successful design artfully blends rationale and strategy, most often in unexpected ways.

    Comment by John McHugh — May 29th, 2013 @ 2:39 pm |
  9. Thanks for your comments guys – really appreciated you all getting involved

    Comment by Mat Dolphin — May 29th, 2013 @ 4:59 pm |
  10. Good piece (and comment thread).

    Rationales fill the void between brief and solution. The bigger the void, the longer the rationale.

    By this logic it could be argued that the best designs needs no rationale. I think this is true. As has been implied above, at its best design speaks for itself. In an ideal world no rationale should ever be required, but very few designs are created in that ideal world where the brief is a clearly defined question with only one possible answer. Hearing Michael Johnson’s belief in pluralism might even convince you that such an ideal world cannot actually exist.

    The only way that ideal world could exist is if design were a science, when in practice it often tends to feel more of an art. I’d bet even the most logic driven, systems obsessed among us (the Massimos and the Eriks perhaps) would accept there are times when intuition informs their direction. That intuition can’t be quantified, we can’t see it coming nor plan for it in advance. We can only try to justify it once it has happened.

    The day designers stop offering rationales is the day someone has finally managed to reduce the design process to a simple algorithm. When Adobe buys 99designs it’s time to start worrying. Until that point the output of a designer will continue to exist somewhere in that grey area where research, logic, experience, emotion and human intuition meet. I would say any designer who dismisses emotion and human intuition entirely should struggle to call themselves ‘creative’.

    I suppose rationales are the designer’s attempt to answer those questions the artist is free to ignore.

    There are probably very few times when a designer’s talent is such that their intuition consistently needs no rationale. Bob Gill does it remarkably well, and looking at Alan Fletcher’s work I sometimes wonder if he actually legitimised the role of applied intuition within our industry.

    Comment by sprungseven — May 29th, 2013 @ 5:07 pm |
  11. Ah, I see your point guys.

    In that instance then I would probably tend to agree with you, that if something is so obscure that a general audience would never get it, then perhaps it’s there more for the designers as opposed to the brand.

    This could be applied to the Muse logo. I would doubt anyone would ever make the connection of the angle, so then it serves more purpose being a ‘see what I did there’ element for the designer than relating the brand to its audience.

    The question then is, is there anything wrong with including these hidden and ‘see what I did there’ elements? But perhaps not including them in the main rationale behind the brand or identities creation.

    Then it can be saved for a ‘look how clever I am’ blog post once the brand is established.

    Comment by Gordon Bonnar — May 30th, 2013 @ 9:06 am |
  12. I’m a little late for the party but this is a subject I’ve debated internally for years and never quite reached a conclusion on. I agree that as designers it’s important to show our thinking in some way or another – and as Joe (second comment) said, it’s often a little trick to show prospective clients (and peers) how clever we are – nothing really wrong with that I don’t think. It comes down to each project by its own merits. Some ideas ARE self explanatory and others aren’t. Some jobs need more depth of concept than others. Some people enjoy reading the rationale, others think it’s a bunch of unnecessary abstract waffle! It’s all subjective but I think pointing out background to our projects is a good thing and helps us learn. It’s probably a case of restraint and judging carefully how far to take the ‘waffle’.

    Comment by Owen — June 3rd, 2013 @ 8:44 am |