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Demythologising design methodology

June 1, 2017 by
Demythologising design methodology

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating

—John Cleese

Back in Design School, 20 years ago a teacher opened his course telling it like it is: The talented will make it regardless of what we’ll learn here. For the rest, there’s this class. He taught Semiotics, here we learned that there were the methods to follow to generate ideas and solve creative and mainly graphic design problems, but some of these, if not the most successful ones had a thunderbolt as a description in a certain stage in the process diagrams. Like a magical symbol staring back at our young clueless faces. This was –so we thought– the idea, the inspiration, the ‘eureka’ moment. I think about this sometimes, especially when you find a breakthrough solution for a project when you think you were totally stuck (or screwed). When there’s a moment when you just know that you must nail it. When this solution doesn’t have to be spectacular or award winning… but just right for the task at hand. For years, I thought that this ‘super power’ was limited to a few. I even convinced myself once that I had it but I was never sure. Our teacher’s explanation was that this came from somewhere deep inside our mind, our thoughts, while also being part of a controlled somewhat rigid process. This, to the eyes of a 20-year old, could look like the exact opposite of what studying graphic Design was supposed to be like. Most of us were expecting more the artistic, or even technical side of the discipline.

The concept of this mysterious ‘spark’ was a little bit exciting amongst the concept of the three rules of interpretation and the usual application of metonymies, synecdoches and metaphors. So, are you ‘born’ with this? Is it like some mutant skill? When are you going to need this thunder to strike? Certainly not when you just have to lay out a job where a simple methodology and application of composition, typography and legibility are enough. Not all projects require a ‘big idea’ or ‘a-ha’ moment.

Fast-forward 20 years. A few months ago, I was part of the team working on the development of a brand strategy and visual identity project for a client which amongst many other things, involved naming and art direction for a series of illustrations as part of their brand toolkit. The client was a compliance management company, providing access to content for Compliance Obligations and Professional Development (CPD). That Semiotics course from 20 years ago came to mind because during the process, I thought we were hit by the aforementioned lightning bolt twice. It made me think and reflect a little about these weird moments in the ideation stage. I also thought that it was time to really analyse and ponder this part of the creative process, which was never that clear to me.

The first one struck when it looked like the naming process –which is usually a very difficult task, wasn’t progressing. We had a list with hundreds of names, some good, some passable. We had spent entire days searching for foreign words, words with historic meanings, with direct and indirect references, words in Latin, words with no meanings at all. Then we had our final 10, then our final five. Most names passed the legal requirements and in one way or another had some decent, not so expensive to purchase URLs. But in other ways we weren’t there yet with the name and they were not particularly resonating with the client. Then, like out of nowhere, the name came like a flash to Adam, our Creative Director over a weekend (with a deadline looming). Adam kept thinking about a key piece of information, extracted from reading between the lines from a conference call with the client. His interpretation, which turned to be correct, was that the services provided by the client was in layman’s terms ‘carrying’ or ‘holding’ content rather than producing content. A crucial part of the process that was overshadowed by other concepts that seemed to be more powerful in the brief. The floodgates were opened and the name came instantly: ‘Caddy’. That Monday morning Adam told me about it straight away: “I think we have our name”. I absolutely agreed when I heard his pitch. I quickly checked for domain availabilities and promptly did a desktop research for the name and national legal trademark databases. The name was ticking all the boxes. I instantly wrote the following paragraph which took about three minutes and found an image taken from an old 1920s illustration that I had to re-draw, scan and auto-trace to illustrate the idea:

Caddie Concept 1

In less than 30 minutes we had a PDF for the client to look at. We didn’t have to wait long for a response from the client. They liked it and approved it with no hesitation, but with a small change from ‘Caddy’ to ‘Caddie’ for reasons having more to do with domain availabilities than anything else. Did lightning struck then? We’ll see.

Later in the process of this project we were sketching a series of illustrations that represented our client’s services in an abstract, metaphorical way. We had already selected an illustrator that fit the brand perfectly and would match the look and feel we wanted to convey. There was one idea that was not quite getting solved. Budget constraints meant we had to act fast and again, the clock was ticking. In what seemed like that last minute of the last hour, an impromptu, somehow desperate brainstorming session started happening in front of the whiteboard, which took what it could have been only a couple of minutes. A quick back and forth of words and ideas with the team, quick sketch in the whiteboard and there it was. What seemed to be the resolution right in front of us. I redrew the sketch in a piece of paper, scanned it, dropped it into a presentation and we had approval a few minutes later.

Brainstorming sketch

Brainstorming sketch

Client presentation sketch

Client presentation sketch

Illustrator’s sketch

Illustrator’s sketch

Final Illustration, in situ

Final Illustration, in situ

Did lightning strike again? At first glance, yes. But after giving it some thought, what happened in these two instances could be just a great example of an exercise of the brain. Two experienced creatives executing a method utilising the rules of creative interpretation in minutes, if not seconds, fuelled by collaboration, adrenaline and possibly caffeine. A process that takes hours, now being solved in mere moments. A process in which I’m sure I failed more than once in the past.

There is a bittersweet conclusion to this analysis and I think I am OK now with my personal interpretation of whatever that teacher was referring to that day when using the lightning bolt as an analogy. In the world of Branding and Graphic Design, the big ideas seem to come (even if disguised as thunderbolts) from academic knowledge, a good eye (taste) for design creative processes. These, in the hands of a seasoned designer, can come like a flash, in seconds. To timely untangle the webs that block the flow to overcome a specific problem during the development of a project.

This analysis also validates the fact that collaboration will always trump isolated creative practices. To me it’s becoming clearer that having creative competition within studios is not the way to go. Collaboration will always generate more valuable outcomes for clients, and ‘bouncing around ideas’ with peers seems to accelerate these tiny processes in our brains. The ones that look like thunderbolts and fool us to believe that there is such thing as talent. After all, what we do for a living is not art, but design.