Superfluous

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Image Copyright Ford Motor Company

su·per·flu·ous

adjective

unnecessary, esp. through being more than enough.

You’re on Pinterest looking at product designs.  The kind of design that makes it onto Pinterest is usually the eye candy—the stuff that looks really intriguing at first glance.  But when you go down to the local box store, you suddenly have an epiphany: “Nothing even close to what I just saw online is on these shelves.”

There’s a huge gap between the concept design and what actually ends up in the marketplace.  This used to bother me when I was younger.  I would think, “How come I can’t buy all this cool stuff?”  Now I understand, and agree with, why these often bizarre concepts never make it to shelves.

Design is not all about “looking good” as much as people want to make it that way.  Good design has to serve a genuine purpose; it has to be an actual solution for an actual problem.  Making an attractively designed light bulb that emits the exact same amount of light in much the same way as the average light bulb isn’t a good design solution.  The only real “problem” it solves is commonality.  Only minimally innovative.  It steps outside the box, but only in appearance, and with substantial extra cost.  These sorts of things belong in the houses of those who can afford to appreciate appearance over function; and that equates to the smallest percentile of consumers.

There’s a reason why, when you see an epic sketch of a concept car creating a lot of buzz in the media, 90% of that car will be whittled away and a mere 10% will be left to purchase by the consumer (assuming any part of it survives).  It’s because 90% of that car was totally unnecessary, the manufacturer did not want to invest money in useless features and the price tag—were it to reach dealers’ lots—would be exorbitant!

Good design is a delicate balance between what’s aesthetically pleasing (yes, that is definitely a consideration) and what’s realistic and genuinely practical.

That’s why there’s a difference between being an artist and being a designer.  Artists make the sorts of things that are hung as decorations on people’s walls.  There is essentially no utility to wall art, sculptures and the like, and that’s completely fine if you just want something nice to look at.  But with design, in all fields, there is the need to solve problems: inventing things that work and adding the beautifying elements wherever they complement the functioning elements.

Needless to say, in order for me to truly appreciate a product design at this point in my life, I have to be able to see its function right away, or at least be led in a short time to see how it can be of good use.  Some things aren’t as self-explanatory and that’s alright, as long as their functions are evident within a few seconds of explanation.

Life’s too short and dollars too fleeting for buying things that really don’t serve a useful purpose.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of considering Deiter Rams’ list of 10 principles of good design.  If you’re a designer in any area, take the time to see how these things can apply to your field; you may be surprised what you can learn from an industrial designer.

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One Key Principle of Logo Design

Although showing visual hints is acceptable, never should a logo show exactly what it’s representing; doing this shows ignorance on the part of the designer.  A logo should have a connection to what it’s representing, but not entirely reveal what that thing is; this gives it the quality of being an invitation to discover exactly what’s lying just around the bend.

If the whole brand is being shown in the logo this reveals that a designer is unskilled in visual communication.  If he or she can’t show an impression of something and is only able to portray the thing itself, can’t everyone else do that as well?  Business isn’t about same-ness.  It’s about distinction.

But the biggest failure is the disservice this sort of design does to a brand.  Besides cheapening the whole brand for the reasons mentioned above, it gives the potential customer no incentive to search out the brand more.  If everything is revealed upfront, why look any further than the logo?

The logo isn’t designed to do everything; it’s a visual element that should be created to act as a leading line from point A (introduction to a brand) to point B (becoming acquainted with the brand).

Surround Yourself with Creative Stimuli

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Creativity doesn’t ever have to go to sleep so don’t try to make it.

The “work” of creativity is usually that which is enjoyable so it’s not taxing to be a 24 hour creative.  An influx of ideas isn’t burdensome, so don’t make it be.

There are a lot of jobs that require no creativity whatsoever.  But there are a lot of other jobs that do.  So, what do you do when your income depends upon your creativity?  The natural tendency would be to try to make it happen.  But here’s the problem:

Creativity is something that can’t be forced—and that’s by its definition.  It has to do with imaginative, original ideas.  If I said, “Think of the next million dollar idea; you’ve got until 3:00” you wouldn’t be able to make it happen;  as the deadline got closer, you’d start to panic and more of your time would be spent telling yourself, “I HAVE to think of something” than actually thinking of something.  Sort of like trying to go to sleep when you keep informing yourself how late it is.  Doesn’t work.  So being creative means taking pressure out of the equation.

You’ll probably be able to think of something completely random under obligation to do so, but it won’t be your best idea.  It might not even be worth pursuing.  It’s probably not going to be profitable as a business.  It most likely won’t make your boss happy.

The best ideas happen when you’re as John Cleese states, “in the open mode.”  According to Cleese, backed by a great deal of psychological research, the open mode is where ideas are allowed to flow freely.  The obvious alternative is the “closed mode” where you’re ready to execute the ideas you’ve come up with.  The open mode is all about freedom of thought; the closed is obviously quite the opposite.  When we’re devoting time to open thought we can’t focus on executing anything.  When we’re executing ideas we’re too preoccupied to think of new ones.  His lecture on creativity is definitely worth a look.

With open and closed modes realized, I’ll submit that it’s also possible to find yourself halfway in between.  Hovering in limbo means you may be thinking of a lot of ideas but none or only a few are working.  But if you’re completely in the open mode, it’s very possible to come up with the best solution within a very short period of time.

Graphic designers often press the issue of time involved in a project.  But usually the length of time is due to two independent minds (creative and client) trying to reach consensus on the best design.  Whatever time is spent actually coming up with ideas can be shortened significantly if a designer surrounds him or herself with creative stimuli at all times, being open to any and all ideas, shunning none initially, no pressure whatsoever.

In 1998, Citigroup merged with Travelers—the largest merger in the world at the time—and eventually adopted the logo design Paula Scher came up with; the thing is, she created it in just a few seconds, literally scribbling it on a napkin.  According to Pentagram, it took Citi nearly nine years to implement the design; but ultimately that’s irrelevant.  The winning idea was realized in just a few seconds.

Thinking of creative ideas should be like observational comedy.  It doesn’t take much to notice the hilarity of everyday life.  Observational comedians are essentially just clever life commentators; and in my opinion, they’re the funniest.  Really all they do is look at the world around them with an eye for the humorous.  If they want material, they just go about living life and watching others do the same.  If something’s funny, add it to the list and use it as material for the next gig.

I am convinced that the more time we spend, day or night, just existing in a state of open-mindedness, ready to simply consider and use anything that we experience throughout the day,  the more quickly and efficiently we’ll arrive at the best creative solutions when it’s time to deliver.  When you decide to be creative in the way I’m sharing with you here, it becomes more of a lifestyle than a business practice.  And the full-time creative is going to be much more adept than the 9-5 creative.

Consider Specializing

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Designers who cover the full gamut don’t have the time to specialize in any one area of graphic design.  That’s just the way it is: if you’re a jack of all trades, you are also a master of none.  It’s not bad to have a general knowledge of a lot of things; it can be very useful.  But the quality is definitely going to take a hit the more you stretch your services.

We may like lots of things, but what we really enjoy doing is usually one-track; and that’s where we’ll be most committed to delivering the best results.

Designers often offer many services because they’re afraid they won’t get enough business to sustain themselves if they try to tap into a niche market where the clients are scarcer.  But this actually can put them at a disadvantage because a lot (maybe the majority) of other designers are thinking the same thing.

The goal with a niche is not necessarily to have a large market.  It’s to own as much of the small market as possible.

Remember, it’s not all about numbers.  You can have hundreds of people browsing your website each day with little to show for it.  Or you can have one or two very profitable transactions per week—even per month—from a lesser audience.  Yes, less can be more.

Finally, specialization isn’t limiting yourself; it’s actually maximizing your abilities and concentrating them into one area.

Matt Kixmoeller of Pure Storage said of Graham Smith who crafted their logo,

Graham only does one thing, but he does it really, really well.

Designing Under the Radar

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Graphic designer David Airey recently wrote a bit for the BBC about why Helvetica has stood the test of time and become a staple for designers all around the world.  His words, especially those he paraphrased from German industrial designer Dieter Rams, really inspired me to write on the subject as I’d been thinking about the same things as of late.

According to David, Dieter has stated that good design is unobtrusive and long lasting.

Interesting words aren’t they?  It’s a bit strange to think that being a good designer means your designs should not attract attention.  But I agree.  Obviously he doesn’t mean going completely unnoticed.  He’s saying that good design doesn’t have to vaunt itself.  It doesn’t force itself on anyone.  Those who appreciate good design appreciate unobtrusive design; those who are otherwise minded don’t take notice.

Design that’s more discreet usually stands the test of time and therefore proves its own worth despite seeming to slip under the radar.  It outlasts design that, for lack of a better expression, strays too far to the left or to the right.  Such design might be wildly popular due to sheer novelty.  But novelty intrinsically wears off and loses attention; and when it does lose its steam, it tends to go completely by the wayside.  It’s sort of like the goofy articles of clothing we wore in the past; we get out the photo album and can only laugh, saying, “I can’t believe I used to wear that!

Inconspicuous design may not take the world by storm; but when the glitzy alternatives have withered away, it abides.  This ultimately makes subtle design more useful because one of the chief fundamentals of utility is long service life—which equates to a good return on your money.  It’s like that stone dishware you use every day.  There’s really nothing special about it, you don’t make it a point to admire it every five seconds, but it serves its purpose well and you’ve had it for twenty years.  Therefore, it’s valuable.

It seems like people can only handle the loud, “look at me” things for so long.  This is seen in genres of music and styles within the fashion industry for example.  Such fads seem only to last a decade at most, only to be recycled and repackaged later on.

As designers, we should be focusing on making things memorable rather than showy.  Shock value is of little value.  But the design that is simple, clean and instantly recognizable—despite however “bland” critics may paint it to be—is what we should aim for.  Sort of like the Samsung logo.

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Nothing very special; the only real accent is the cross piece missing from the A.  But it’s instantly recognizable and serves its purpose.  That’s why companies oftentimes opt for simple wordmarks.

Avoid the superfluous.  Trim the fat.  Focus on function.  There’s a recipe for longevity; and that’s advice you can apply in almost any field.