David's blog

About these "musings"

The entries below are all about my working process when doing professional graphic design and website construction, which I am no longer doing except for some volunteer ongoing work.


The process of design, or designing the process?
How do we get from A to B?

My typical design process starts with a determination of the target users or audience, time and resource budgets, and a careful analysis of the exact goals of the design. These goals can be very precise and purely functional, such as the requirements of an interactive or printed form, or more subjective and nuanced, such as identity design. Once these initial steps are addressed, it's time to dive into the actual designing, with all its joys of discovery and agonies of the elusive muse. It's here that the process can become nebulous, at least with projects of the more "subjective and nuanced" kind, since the nature of inspiration is so elusive. It's safe to say that it involves finding non-obvious connections and a little luck. I confess that all too often there's a point in there somewhere when it feels like nothing is working; it's the universe's way of keeping me humble. I have to find a way through that stage to teasing out solutions that please.

Designing the process implies that requirements and goals have been sorted out and now the task is to determine the most efficient and effective task execution — what's the production workflow going to be? This is a design process I enjoy and have succeeded at in production workflows of numerous kinds. It's my nature to always be monitoring any process I'm pursuing with an eye to improving that process. In this field, I'm always interested in new functions included in software updates that open up new process solutions, such as nested styles in InDesign.

Perhaps a brief discussion of the use of styles, whether CSS or in InDesign, QuarkXPress, or even Photoshop, will serve to illustrate one way I design the process: most designers I've worked with have a limited understanding of styles and the power they can deliver in constructing document files. An informed use of style sheets and templates makes possible documents that are efficient, predictable, readily altered and updated, and display nuanced and consistent typography that can be very difficult if not impossible to otherwise achieve. Such use of styles offers a much, much quicker approach to the alternative of brute-force local formatting, especially as documents become longer, more complex, and undergo revision cycles. I strive to use very little if any local formatting in page layout, thus creating documents that lend themselves to even radical alterations in appearance if required, with much-reduced effort. Proper use of styles also facilitates repurposing of documents from one medium or application to another.


Getting it right, avoiding unpleasant surprises, and ensuring consistency: these are some of my motivations in pursuing precision. Whether I'm developing an infographic that is accurate and clear, or knowing the difference between "its" and "it's" and their proper use, or going through the variety of checks involved to properly set up a document for process-color printing, it's fair to say that I am inclined to bring an engineer's approach to the nuts and bolts of graphic design production. I do love whimsy and spontaneity, but I also know there's no substitute for due diligence that can prevent a disappointed client or costly printing errors.

The goal of precision is a big factor in my strong preference for using styles, whether it's paragraph and character styles in InDesign and QuarkXPress, or layer styles in Photoshop, or CSS in XHTML. Styles pay big dividends in areas like avoiding random formatting irregularities, some that can be difficult to detect until a piece is printed, not to mention other benefits in speed and flexibility. CSS layout also makes code far more compact and intelligible than table-based HTML layout.

As suggested above, I'm interested in precision in language, such that my language skills are substantially better in my experience than that of most of my design colleagues. My vocabulary is quite good, and I can often catch malapropisms and other improper word usage. I can spell well, and while we all have spellcheckers, they won't catch other types of typos that I watch for. These skills are not typically expected of designers, but they allow me to help you in this way as well to present a competent and professional face to the world in your published speech.

I am interested in documents that are well-built "under the hood" as well as in their visible design and typography. I've encountered many a print piece that was a mess in its internals, leading to unpredictable performance when press time approaches and random difficulties and inefficiencies when changes were needed. Sometimes it's faster to virtually rebuild the whole thing than to try to sort out the kind of spaghetti pile that tends to get built by someone who doesn't have a good grasp of how their software is designed to work. Build it right, and you may only have to build it once. That's a key to precision, performance, and profit, especially over the longer term.


The main thing; the motivation

My work is guided by a collection of philosophic principles on both strategic and tactical levels.

The most pervasive design principle for me is simply form follows function. This requires an identification of function, naturally, and function can pursue a wide variety of goals. I am most effective designing for goals and functions that are fairly concrete and measurable, such as ensuring that information is presented in unambiguous and accessible ways. One consequence of this is that I enjoy mapmaking in all its forms, whether the territory is geographic or conceptual.

Design that elevates form over function can easily be poor design, however competently or beautifully executed it may be. An small technical example of this is presenting contact information on a website in such way that a visitor can't copy and paste it into their address book. I very much value good typography and all, but forcing people to retype such info, risking typos as well as inconveniencing and possibly annoying potential customers and stakeholders, suggests to me that the responsible designer got caught up in preserving cosmetic goals and lost sight of the real point of providing such information (and even the point of the website itself).

A couple of guiding inspirations

Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style) is my main man in the field of typography. I aspire to his elegant approach and function-driven philosophy, such as avoiding habits we've come to think of as normal or proper but that exist only because of arbitary limitations of current and past technologies, or just because the reasons for certain practices aren't properly understood. A simple example is the oft-seen indenting of the first line of initial paragraphs. A paragraph first-line indent exists to identify the beginning of a paragraph. In the case of an initial paragraph, this issue is moot. Related to this is the use of both an ident and additional leading between paragraphs. Use one or the other — to use both is redundant.

Edward Tufte is my primary inspiration and reference in the area of information graphics. Like Bringhurst, he challenges us to not let our design decisions be driven by our software tools. He condemns what he calls "chart-junk;" embellishments such as three-dimensional effects for bar charts that add nothing to the data set and can actually obscure the data. Applying his criteria to the visual presentation of information results in graphics that may not thrill editors at USA Today, but they will offer clarity, integrity, and timelessness.


We can measure performance many ways, but let's focus on one thing first:

Completed projects

I'm all about making stuff, and I kinda live for that moment when I can step back, look upon the creation, and feel good about the job well done. So I focus on that, and part of my focus typically falls on designing a process that will help to ensure that the project is in fact completed, and in a timely fashion. In a team context, I enjoy taking the bit and pulling hard toward the goal along with my teammates, supporting them as much as I can. This also means that I can be uncomfortable in a situation where goals are vague or shifting, and it feels like we aren't all pulling in the same direction.

As much as I enjoy the design process, I can also enjoy production, especially when it involves cranking up a well-designed production process. This may explain some of my motivation for designing efficient processes (again, see Process). It's about designing good tools and then using good tools. There's an inherent satisfaction to both sides of that, and good tools and their use are a great help in producing good end products. Good completed products.