Sunday, September 25, 2011

Design-by-Menu Challenges Why We Make

To begin, I would like to say that I am wholeheartedly in support of computer based design education. It is no surprise that the forms of digital media are not only how we design, but what we design and will continue for the foreseeable future. The important aspects of design education in the beginning of ones design life can not be compared to yesterdays methods of making. One simple example of incredible change is the advent of the database and what that means for storing, retrieving, and connecting to photos, color systems, font libraries, and general layout options that were difficult to do prior to databases but were also proprietary, guarded assets of individual studios. Storages of photos and fonts consumed space and time that has been cut extensively from the process. This continues to break down the notion that design is about the form and more about the ideas of communication that are carried out through design. This idea has come to me after watching my students over a number of years plowing through networks of databases, searching for photos or illustrations, finding free fonts online, and more recently using color systems to guide their choices.  General layout schemes also influence how they organize information based on what they perceive as successful and found again, in some archive somewhere.

You may be thinking that this is "design by menu" and you would be right. It is not that this method has not been employed in the past and we see copy-cat commercials and ads all over the visual landscape, but it is becoming the method of some design students who are no longer motivated by "originality" or "uniqueness", but rather by ease and their misguided idea that form is the most important aspect of making design work. It is easy to spot and with little experience one can analyze the pedestrian compositions or insipid ideas that grace the page but what is more difficult is demonstrate that these competent, glossy layouts are not as good a design as sloppier, yet sophisticated ideas created by those less enamored by database diving. What is more difficult is encouraging students to continue to question their designs to make them more appropriate, more interesting, clearer in their communication or communicate a more sophisticated idea. The final product has a particular level of polish and feeling of doneness that is hard for students to abandon in pursuit of better design. Design-by-menu still requires students to make choices but there is less analysis about what they are communicating because of the speed and ease at which compositions can be generated. It is not difficult to see that this kind of design making could be simplified further by having these database components of the menu talk to each other. It may seem futuristic but it is a direction of developers and content holders to make "menu coordinators" out of designers. Assemblies of components come in a variety of iterations for the menu coordinator to filter and propose as possible solutions to clients. Can we legitimately call this design?

This gets at the heart of the question of why we design and make things? There are psychology PhD dissertations a plenty that discuss this topic and attempt to answer this question but I would like to refine it a bit further. The reasons for making communications generally serve the purpose of informing people. The function of form and visual application have long been established and seem logical in the context of the arts to serve communication needs, whatever they may be. The question I have is more fundamental in the fact that there are those human beings who make for the purposes of their own interest and find that the inner dialogue with themselves is somehow insufficient. Self expression comes to mind, but this too seems to have a purpose of showing others the thoughts of an individuals genius, perversion, importance or some other ego centric motivation. If we make purely to visualize some idea with no intended purpose other than to clarify it for ourselves, we may tap into the best motivation to design. Design thinking attempts to solve problems based on the thinkers understanding of the dilemma in a given context and that is all. Moreover, we have anchored design education on the basis of communicating ideas and this would solidify the foundation of design education in cognition and analysis. If the motivation of making is held in the minds of those who are selflessly attempting to clarify ideas in their own minds we stand a chance for design to be sustainable. However, if overestimates of the importance of form to attract attention persist we will compete with database technologies making it more difficult to get passed the design-by-menu advantage. I question my students on why they make, hopefully they answer; "to better understand an idea".