"And I wanna know
The same thing
We all wanna know
How's it gonna end?"
- Tom Waits
A designer is constantly enticed to mentally "fast-forward" to that magical moment when the design emerges wholly formed as an object to be worshipped by all. The designer envisions this holy relic, the perfect design, as granting her the respect of her peers, at last. The design client is in awe, or at least subdued, by the rightness of this image the designer has produced. An adoring public understands this pristine visual, the radiant pinnacle of communicative imagery, deeply and implicitly.
Writing it out this way reveals that the quest for a final, perfect "object" of design is highly illusory. Our mainstream culture, however, is driven by consumerism, media, politics, instant access and instant gratification, phenomenon that promote the product over the process. This is practically a given. What it means for the designer is a nagging temptation to focus on the outcome rather than the inputs.
Over the course of my design career, I have learned and continued to re-learn, that the core of what I do is found in the pleasure I take in the slow and steady pace of practicing my craft. At the micro level, I enjoy the sketching and thinking that occurs at the outset of a new design project. I value the spontaneous leaps that happen as a design challenge begins to reveal a solution. I look forward to meticulously honing the imagery into forms that best reflect my design thinking. At the macro level, I have learned to reflect on and appreciate the twists and turns introduced into a project because the client is learning alongside me. Since I have become a design teacher, it has become much easier to put myself in the client's position, to empathize with their fears and frustrations with the creative process and to try to address those concerns honestly, directly and patiently. The client is not my student, but he or she is a person with legitimate reactions to the visual work we are doing together.
Just as design practice can be "fast-forwarded" to focus on the product, critical writing about design often naturally gravitates toward the object side of the story, as well. After a design is produced, the critical thinker or observer introduces it to a wider audience by writing about its significance, its value and appeal. Such writing naturally leaves out the twists and turns, zigs and zags, a design project takes on its way to being finished. It would be difficult, at best, for the design writer to investigate every nook and cranny of the process a completed design took on its way to finalization. The designer herself may have forgotten the various smaller inputs that lead to a particular solution (or mercifully blocked the low points from her memory).
This is not offered as a criticism of design writing. It's generally a necessity of the form, and perhaps the attentions of the reader, to shortcut to an analysis of the finished work and its significance in context. My description here is offered to point out how easy it is to succumb to a "fast-forward" mindset about graphic design. Design education is similarly vulnerable to such thinking. Students are inculcated in grade-based thinking by the entirety of their school existence. While we focus on process work in the classroom, a student is seduced by the summary of their work that arrives at the end, the grade. A student is very prone to wondering "Will this project get me an A?" or somewhat more humorously "Will this be the project that finally gets me an A?" Students are at times shocked when I reveal to them a "strange" secret—I give them grades as a university-required way to summarize my evaluation of their work and progress. They will not have, or even start, a successful design career because they have good grades. They will start and have a successful design career because they internalized the design processes and habits that help them solve design problems. In the end, the process wins out over the product.
I want to close these thoughts by suggesting how an event like DesignInquiry might fit into the "fast-forward" picture I describe. DesignInquiry is a week-long gathering of presentations and workshops around a particular design topic that takes place every summer on the remote Maine island of Vinalhaven, as well as in other locations at other times. Summer 2012's topic is "Fast-Forward."
I have attended one DesignInquiry event, the first week-long DesignCity event, which was held in Montréal. I have had a few other opportunities to talk to DesignInquiry staff and board members. The Montréal event saw the participants living in the ground floor of a nunnery and sharing a small kitchen. We cooked, ate, worked, talked, walked, bicycled, laughed, whispered, argued, listened and generally exhausted ourselves in constant contact throughout the week. At the end of an intense, productive day, I realized that I had begun thinking and living with my fellow participants at 7:30 that morning and had wrapped up official sessions at 10:30 that evening. The day had flown by in a measured maelstrom of ideas, images and inspiration. We explored the city, we explored design ideas, we explored philosophies, we explored non-design disciplines, we explored new recipes, we explored diverse music, we explored different cultures.
Such an event might strike some as maddening. And it was, at times. But that maddening sensation often lead, in my case, to a sense of my own humbling. Whatever ideas and talents I might bring to the table were met many times over by all of the other participants. As a member of the community we created that week, I was one part of a multi-faceted whole.
DesignInquiry crafts a "fast-forward" view of design and its practitioners in part through this intensity. Few conference experiences will likely ever match the thorough-going, even transformative, nature of DesignInquiry live-in, work-in events. In this view, participating designers can aspire, at least for a week, to a level of commitment to and immersion in the process and ideas of design that is impossible to achieve in the work-a-day world. This kind of "fast-forwarding" is a process that enriches and energizes the individual designer, as one is exposed to a pulsating range of images, ideas and inputs during a DesignInquiry event. This flow of stimulation can crackle like a live wire.
The constant contact and exchange transforms the way thoughts and ideas are examined as well. Here, DesignInquiry provides the reverse of the "fast-forward" experience : the "slow-motion" experience. In our day-to-day lives, an idea is proffered and a brief conversation may or may not ensue. At DesignInquiry all participants are connected by the twin threads of design and overlapping contact. In this environment, ideas don't merely emerge and float off; ideas are dug up. Everyone gathers around to see what has been found. The strange body of the idea is poked and turned over. It is wrapped in a blanket to sit by the fire. Periodically different parties come over to check on it, to see how it is doing, but also, perhaps secretly, to look at in a different light. In this environment, ideas are polished like rocks on the road to precious stones.
DesignInquiry, through both its "fast-forward" and "slow-motion" aspects, elevates those parts of our practice that are left behind when we focus on the endpoint of the static design solution. DesignInquiry brings forward design as thinking, design as talking, design as a community, design as an attitude, design as a habit.
In the end, I might offer some words of advice to the participants of DesignInquiry 2012 : FastForward. Don't "fast-forward" through the event itself. Let the tide wash over you.
>> FastForward >>
June 17 - 23
About Bobby Campbell
Bobby Campbell is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At UNCC, he teaches Typography, Communications Design and Senior Projects. Bobby began his career in 1999 as a full-time graphic designer and creative director. In 2003, he returned to school and completed an MFA in Studio Art & Design at the University of Michigan. He traveled to Dublin, Ireland for a year-long residency at the National College of Art & Design as part of a Fulbright Fellowship for 2006-07. Bobby exhibits work, produces client-based graphic design and writes critically on design as part of a blended practice.
About Design Inquiry
DesignInquiry is a non-profit educational organization devoted to researching design issues in intensive team-based gatherings. An alternative to the design conference, it brings together practitioners from fields in and out of design to generate new work and ideas around a single topic. Each DesignInquiry event hosts a range of presentations, discussions, and workshops from professionals, educators and students. These responses are shared, while working toward a publication that binds the outcome: a free-to-download boost of information, meant to inspire and inform its readers.