Design is a human function
I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently traveling the country to present design workshops.
Doing these workshops can be very rewarding. I get to meet a lot of great people—like you—and I conclude most of the sessions with the sense that I’ve been able to provide some tips, tricks and techniques to help you do a better job of design at your paper.
Doing these workshops can also be very frustrating—especially when I realize how little (if any) design training many of you have received. And a key to that frustration lies in my recent understanding that too many people who do page layout and pagination confuse the tools with the trade.
Let me give you an example. As part of the preparation for a recent workshop, I asked what formal design training the participants had had. On one of the questionnaires, the respondent proudly stated that he had received training in Photoshop and QuarkXPress.
This person had confused training in the tools with training in the craft.
It concerns me that the two are perceived as the same. To me, it’s like saying that a guy who knows how to use a socket wrench is a mechanic.
Nope. To my mind, a mechanic is a master at his craft. He’s been to training and training and training. He’s studied computer diagnosis and manifold heat transfer tables and fuel injection nozzle tolerances and all of that. But he’s got something else no other mechanic in town possesses—the “ear.” He can listen to a car and immediately go to the source of the problem.
How did he get his “ear”? Years of training, yes. But also years of working with cars and customers. Years of listening. And years of understanding that no tool in his kit is going to make him a better mechanic.
With the capabilities of today’s software, we often confuse the power of the tool with the power of the truth. But the truth is that we are the power behind our designs.
Design is a human function.
No computer, no software, no tool is going to make us better designers. Yes, they help us create better designs. They increase our capabilities. But the designer defines the design—and vice versa.
Too much of what people call “design” nowadays isn’t really design at all. It is experimentation. It is frivolity. It is risk without planning, and that is an oxymoron: we cannot risk unless we have a plan that helps us to define the goals and appreciate the dangers.
Picasso understood risk. Mozart. Warhol. Edison. The Beatles. Frank Lloyd Wright. Einstein.
And that is one of the reasons they achieved greatness in their work.
But the brush never spoke through Picasso. The piano never spoke through Mozart. Rather, Picasso spoke through his brush and Mozart through his piano. These geniuses understood that their instruments were tools—that the instruments themselves could never create great art.
Today’s advanced graphics software makes it all too easy to confuse the instrument with the artist. And instead of learning design, too many of us learn the software. As a result, we come to believe that if it can be done, it must be good.
Obviously, that is not the case. But there are still too many of us who are ready to experiment, to play at design in front of our readers. You may have one or two of those people in your newsroom today—ready to try out a new trick with an overlay, a graduated color screen, a photo inserted into outlined type.
Their work is characterized by a heart full of hope and a head full of…hope.
Designer-hopefuls work very hard. Their hope is to impress us (and readers) with what they can do.
Designers work even harder. But their goal is not to impress. Rather, their goal is to impress upon us that design excellence lies not in what we can do—but in what we choose not to do.