Steve J. Moore

Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

In collaboration, Design on March 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm

by Matthew Stublefield

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.

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Designing a Path to Identity

In collaboration, Design, identity, Writing on March 20, 2009 at 11:22 am

Steve J. Moore

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

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Design begs for authenticity

Today, you hear a lot about the importance of branding, in the online world. Whether you’re selling T-shirts for your band, writing Op-Eds for a periodical, or mocking up websites for photographers, you are aware of the idea of brand control and its potential impact. Business owners need to be sure that the products they put out are consistent with their plans for objectives as a company. It is the same in education; a teacher needs to be consistent in his or her message to the class about his lessons. If the rules appear to change for no reason, then you lose credibility. You lose your audience. Such is the purpose of design, to help you communicate your brand’s message clearly. But how does good design contribute to your objective? Isn’t such a thing as ephemeral as “design” only a subjective screen covering a person’s idea? How does good design help define who you are as a professional?

These are all questions with dangerously simple answers. They are questions specific to expression, that we all think we understand. The truth is, the ideas of design and expression boil your idea, your product, or your company down to one thing: Identity.

Being the good little scholar of literary concepts that I am, I naturally connect this concept which some may see as strictly economic, like “branding,” or rooted in art, like “design,” as a question of narrative importance. Design is all about who you are; it’s all about building, maintaining, and sharing your identity. So design becomes much less murky if you know who you are (or who/what you are representing). That’s simple, right!? Dang, that’s two posts in a row an interrobang could have come in handy. Sure it’s simple. Just open your chest up and look inside. Pop the hood. Crack open the server case. Read your old book-jacket cover. Well, if only life came with instr–resisting the urge to use cliche–if only, people were so simple, so static…

If design is inherently connected to identity, then marketers had better get on the couch and start self-discovering. Building web pages, you hear a lot about optimization through the use of “meta tags” that mark your domain with keywords. Looking at the word  “meta,” (which is really more of a prefix) we find that it means  “in reference to,” “about,” or “from within.” So websites and their designers need to do a little soul searching before their designs are complete. If you don’t understand the “within” for a particular job (web designers), then you most likely won’t be able to meet the needs of your client. Business owners, on the other hand, need to understand themselves before having new design implemented.

What questions can I ask myself related to establishing identity?

What language do I speak?

This is not as simple as it sounds; language is as deep and pervasive as any aspect of our identities. Furthermore, this question goes beyond what geographical tongue you use, but makes you describe who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach? Design, by definition, should fit a pre-determined purpose. Your website should be designed to fit a group or type of person with specific objectives. Maybe you are a blogger yourself and so, in considering design, you can access your own metacognitive habits and thoughts. Considering that I have a lot of readers who are, themselves, bloggers, web designers, and writers, I do my best to casually tailor my posts to fit their lexicons. I have an education blog too; I use different language off-the-cuff there than I would here.

For example, I may very easily dip into the educational “alphabet soup,” as one of my professors called it, and confuse readers if I am not careful. I wouldn’t dare write this sentence here without explanation:

“While NCLB may be considered to drive more action-based WFSGs and PDCs, there is  only correlative data to support this claim.”

Most people in the field of education (or very active parents) would understand that I’m writing about No Child Left Behind, Whole Faculty Study Groups, and Professional Development Communities, but a web designer would be rather perplexed most likely. On the same hand, I wouldn’t want to write this sentence in an education blog post:

“While pervasive in the development world, recursive acronyms like PHP, GNU, and TIP are humorous in ways often not understood by those outside of the field.”

What is your history?

Knowing where you have been is crucial to knowing where you are and where you want to go. So understanding the origins of your ideas is very helpful in forming a dialogue with your audience. If your readers perceive that you have an appropriate level of authority, then it will be much more likely for them to subscribe to your ideas. Being able to express where you are coming from is key to building a base upon which to prop your design (whatever it may be). Consider the classic frame of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell describes it:

Is your design heroic?

Is your design heroic?

Inception: the hero’s call to action (expressing the origins of your idea)

Trial by fire: the hero’s challenge (show your work and experience)

Return: the hero finds his/her way home, changed (explain how you are unique)

I have always understood the basic plan for design to be rooted in this information. Maybe it’s your updated business plan, your master’s thesis, or an autobiographical reflection; find useful ways to incorporate this information, and your design will be more authentic for it.

If you’d like to contribute an article to our conversation,  comment here, on RyanBurrell.com or at SilverPenPub.net. We’re also all active on Twitter:

Steve, Ryan, and Matthew.

The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design

In collaboration, Design, The Web on March 11, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Ryan Burrell

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

To say that “design” is all around us would be a supreme understatement. It impacts the very nature of our perceptions, and does so most of the time without our conscious thought or notice. It is a subtle tool, often altering our opinions in ways we can’t really explain or quantify, yet will strongly defend if pressed. Design is a sword with many edges – it can cut deeply, deflect blows, or lead a charge. But, to ask the obvious lead-in question: What is design? Is it art, theory, math, philosophy, or some unholy combination of these areas and more? Is design purely visual, or does it hide a much deeper algorithmic structure?

An Underlying Order

The common view of design, in generalized terms, is to make “something” look “nice”, or “better”, or “pretty”, or [insert ambiguous subjective visual terminology here]. A designer makes shirts, or business cards, or websites, or… branded coffee mugs or something. Newsletters and brochures – that type of thing comes to mind immediately. Yet this is a very narrow viewpoint of what design is and of what the duties of a designer are. While design’s final products typically inhabit the visual world, a designer is not by nature possessed of a purely aesthetic skill set. The title Designer can better be equated with Problem Solver, specifically within the realm of how information is presented. Design strives to be as much an analytical set of tasks as an encompassing set of visual trends. A graphic designer does not simply make a t-shirt “look nice.” Instead, they deal with a complex set of mental algorithms and practices to determine the best placement of their visual components on the palette, taking advantage of the use of space, color, line, shape, and form to produce the most effective visual result. What the end result appears as is simply a piece of clothing, but to the designer it is a set of guidelines, wrapped in equations, coated in emotions, and finally covered in their own creative spin. Art and design are similar, yet fundamentally different, areas of expression. Art relies heavily on emotion, highly abstract ideas, and an intense desire to reflect the world around you from an individual viewpoint. Design, while using aspects that make up the nature of pure art, merges these with analytical ideals more in line with science or math. The foundation of all design relies on standards, conformity, rules, grids, and numbers. Margins, measurements, columns, padding, spacing, clearance; these are the elements that make up the essence of design.

An Overarching Chaos

Yet, while the foundations for design are firmly entrenched in the realm of numbers and grids, it is the more ethereal aspects that make it so unique. An intimate understanding of spacing will only work so far; a designer must also understand their audience, the goals of their project, and emotive methods to achieve their intended results. Once the framework of a task has been determined, a designer develops his or her “in the box” thinking. The borders and restrictions have been defined, and this can open up as much or more creative potential than having a boundless field to work in. A designer’s task is to use the guidelines that have been set and take them to the limits of creativity, while still keeping a sharp eye on how the final result will be usable. It is a frenetic juggling act of limitless creativity within a walled garden. The more artistic core of the designer emerges, yet must be restrained by the warden of practicality that remains in the back of their mind at all times. Visual appeal means nothing without functionality, but usefulness can be dulled if aesthetics are ignored. A designer must be mad – a Jekyll & Hyde combination of control and raw potential.

A Wider Path

Practically, there are many names and titles for designers. Commonly, we think of those that practice design as the people who create calendars, cards, and promotional products. But design is so vast and applicable to so many fields, that the job descriptions are almost as limitless. Interior designers deal with the feel of three dimensional space in architecture – with lighting, mood, and balance. Industrial designers concern themselves with the visual appeal of products as well as their functionality, ergonomics, and practicality. Web designers and interaction designers focus on creating visually appealing Internet interfaces, but all under the aegis of superb usability, accessibility, and optimization. Database designers work only in charts and arrows, but are responsible for laying out the interaction between the vast methods of storage that are now so commonplace. Nearly any sort of planning that concerns not only the visual output, but how that output is best presented and used involves design. It is a constant and integral part of our lives, evidenced by the fact that we don’t even notice it most of the time. The hallmark of good design is when it slips beneath our conscious radar, instead allowing the user of its final product to easily adapt to its requirements and efficiently bend them to their needs. Poor design is easily noticeable, taking the form of unreadable text, confusing interfaces, uncomfortable chairs, breakable parts, and unexpected reactions. Few professions require such a variety of skills, interests, knowledge, and the drive to use them effectively. Because of this, design is not typically thought of as a job by those who do it. A job is something you do to pay the bills – design is a way of life, a way of quantifying what we see around us, and still allowing for the vast creative potential that fuels the human spirit.