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