Through Process

Every designer has a design process they use to create every single thing they make, every visual entity they formulate and every idea that either becomes manifested into reality, or fades into nothingness. Design is about a lot of things, but between the layers of iterations, clients, communications, making, efficacy, thinking, deliverables, typography, imagery, grids, code, and so forth lies the process. Process is what makes design, design. Through process designers take abstract, unformed thoughts and snippets of ideas and create meaning. Through the design process we orchestrate ideas and meaning into communication others can engage with and understand. Robert Bringhurst has said that “typography is the solid form of language.” I believe that process is the solid form of design.

For me, the design process is not simply a means to an end, the way to get from a nebulous thought to a paying deliverable. It is not a line from A to B with a few divergences here and there. I do not use my process to get to the end. I do not work with process to help me ideate visually. I work through process to discover what I am doing. The design process is design, and the relationship I have with this process is the core of my thesis: through process, how do we discover that which we make? Through process we define a grammar and an attitude towards that which we make and think. Through process we clarify what we care about and disregard what we do not.

My examination of process began during my undergraduate education at the Rhode Island School of Design. This experience was an intellectual awakening, and despite my tremendous growth, at RISD I realized just how little I knew about design. Although being at RISD opened more doors than I could ever walk through, there were two important things that happened during my BFA studies that would forever change my relationship with design. First, I discovered new ways to use the camera as a part of the design process, and I was hooked immediately—design studio classes with Franz Werner, Thomas Wedell and Nancy Skolos made me rethink what a camera is and could do in the hands of a designer. I began using photography as a tool within my design process not to simply take pictures, but as a key component of how I was making design decisions—the camera became the catalyst for my process. This exposure to using the camera as a impetus of making—rather than just a tool of recording—irrevocably expanded my visual vocabulary and gave me a radically new perspective that opened up what I thought design could be, far beyond what I had always assumed it was.

Secondly, within a year of graduating with my BFA, I was invited to teach a senior level graphic design class. I had been a teaching assistant many times while I was a student, and I had taught a section of a History of Graphic Design workshop. This was the big time—my own course teaching senior undergraduate design students. The experience solidified how important teaching is to me, and since then I have been teaching graphic design for seven years as adjunct faculty at various institutions. Teaching design is in itself an act of designing, and it has become an important parallel to my own work. In many ways it is a place for me to apply and experiment with the things I am curious about?—?a place where my ideas and questions about the designer/process relationship expand beyond myself.

In 2007 my spouse, Anne Jordan and I, opened a design studio, Hypothesis, Ltd. We chose the name Hypothesis because we believe that design is an experiment and each project a new starting point. From the beginning, we have tried to work on what we are interested in doing and allow that to lead to clients—a strategy that lets us work with people we like and respect, and on projects we find interesting and rewarding. We believe that everything counts, from exploratory projects without clients, to lectures, to other non-design related hobbies. Activities outside of the design studio are just as important as billable client work, because Anne and I share the belief that everything we do makes us better designers and thinkers.

The most significant discovery I made during my time at RISD and Hypothesis is that a designer can work from form to content. This is contrary to virtually everything we are taught in design education, where there is an expectation of a brief or assignment and a deliverable. From the beginning the size, budget and audience—perhaps even typeface and color—and certainly the due date and manner of evaluation have already been determined. Having learned from and worked with Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell, I began to understand that it can go the other way—we can make simply to make because making is fun and interesting. Tom and Nancy tend to use collage as their muse for form, and from these collages—and there are thousands of them—they discover what content best associates with their form. Their design process is discovery, and that is something I hold tightly to my chest like a protective parent—through process we can discover what we are designing.

Reoccurring again and again in my own process are methodologies that allow me to discover what I am doing. I work gesturally. This idea of gesture parallels foundation drawing classes, where gesture drawings are a common exercise—fast, reactive drawings of figures and still lifes. The gesture drawing was a way to not think, to not worry, but to just shut off the rational and judgmental part of your mind and just make. Gesture is about doing, not thinking; it is about the form happening because it just happened, not because you preplanned and had an outline and picked just the right pencil and got perfectly comfortable. Another way to think of gesture is by the modern acronym fildi, which stands for “fuck it, let’s do it.” While the language may be worthy of a smirk, there is a very important idea here, which is basically shut up and make something. Working gesturally allows me the freedom to stop worrying and just make.

Gesture happens not just as the beginning of the process, but also in the middle and even at the end. I work iteratively and often with photography, and that means I tend to make lots of things. The editing process becomes an important gestural activity when I work. What I do not do is look carefully at every single image. I do not do exhaustive comparisons of ten images at a time to find just the right one. I do not examine the histograms and compare the RGB values to each other. I do a fast, intuitive edit into a select few that simply feel right. Instead of worrying and overthinking, I allow my innate sense of form and composition to tell me which images to pick. I work improvisationally with my process, were I play off the results I get and then use them to move forward.

Improvisational theatre offers an interesting parallel to the design process. In the theatrical environment there is the golden rule of “yes, and…” This means that an idea, situation, element, or concept made by one actor is immediately accepted and added to by the other actors. In design, this means that I am co-creating with the process—instead of simply trying to get to the end of the project, I react to the process and then add to it over and over again. This improvisation is allowed to flourish because of the kinds of tools I tend to work with—specifically optical devices like cameras and scanners. These tools of optical visualization have a lot of characteristics that I exploit constantly as I work—photography and video tend to embrace chance and fortuity, allowing the camera to capture the unexpected and the unplanned in the frame. There is a level of translation that happens completely out of my control when I am taking a photo, or layering items on top of each other on the scanner.

Working through process to discovery is something I feel strongly about as a designer, and something I believe should play a more prominent role in the practice of design and especially design education. There is a real joy to discovery that can happen when the investigation is not tied down to expectations of outcomes or usefulness. Creating design is both a proactive and a reactive act of making and thinking, and educating new designers should happen the same way. How we teach and how we learn about design is intimately tied to how a student relates to their process. The practical realities of being a design professional are something that must be a key part of any design education experience—students must know the tools and technologies of graphic design in the 21st century. They need to understand how to conceive, ideate, translate and create design from a design brief given by the teacher or client into visual communication that is effective and meaningful. However, they also need to understand the joy of discovery, and the delight that happens when their process goes awry.

Students need to understand that through process design can happen when they least expect it. There is a balance between the pragmatic and the expressive, between the useful and the ridiculous, and between the serious and the silly. When we only teach designers to be servants to clients we are not teaching them to be designers, we are teaching them to be employees.

My thesis examines everything above, but at its most reductive, asks this question: through process, is design the journey or the destination? To me, the fun part is the making, not the finishing. The activity of being a designer is being asked to make interesting things every day. The joy is in not knowing what those interesting things are going to be until after they are done.

The joy of design is that through process, design is discovery.