What’s design without good ideas? We find out with help from Studio Dumbar, PARSONS, Open Practice and more
The Anatomy of Creativity is a partnership between The Brand Identity and Antalis Creative Power, in which over a series of three articles, we explore and discuss if there are specific components to creativity.
Within a world becoming faster and faster, woven amongst an ever-increasing demand for content, capital and convenience, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of time afforded to thinking – instead sidelined to the desire for engaging visuals that catch our attention amidst the plethora of dazzling competition. But is something that is simply eye-catching an example of ‘good’ design, or is it just shiny? Does design need a concept to fulfil this criteria or is the latter a concept in itself? In today’s context it’s time to ask whether ‘good’ ideas need to be conceptual or can be a solely aesthetic endeavour; and simply ask, what is a good idea?
“Absolute ‘A Smile In the Mind’ fodder,’” Studio Lowrie Creative Director Mike White recalls, “discovering the FedEx arrow was a mind-blower” he adds, describing what he was taught a good idea to be. In a sentiment shared by Liza Enebeis, Creative Director at Studio Dumbar, who notes the “very traditional way” they were taught of good ideas, White explains that as a child the concept of “the word fish shaped like a fish” constituted a resounding success. “In the very early days,” he adds, “a good idea was a bold, simple logo that obviously communicated in a ‘witty’, whimsical way an aspect of the business or its values.” Less traditionally, Open Practice explain their undergraduate education in a somewhat similar vein, suggesting that “there was a focus around ‘good design’ having clarity of its message,” however adding that “at postgraduate, we were encouraged to critique and challenge messages and their mediums.”
The challenge for today’s designers is to rise above the noise.
The guiding force behind all of these teachings is perhaps the teachers themselves, as Open Practice suggest, “when we were studying, we were guided to what a ‘good’ idea was by tutors, fellow students and our design ‘heroes.’” To this extent, Craig Parsons, Chief Creative Officer at PARSONS, remarks that he was never taught what a good idea is at all. “I think the golden-age advertising era tried to impress that a good idea was a catchy campaign and they would build their success around those victories,” he suggests, adding that “I could never get into that, for me, it’s more about instinct.” Similarly felt by Glasgow-based designer and typographer Raissa Pardini, she explains that the stringent and rigid, perhaps academic, methodologies suggested whilst at university for grasping ‘good ideas’ left her more stuck; “whereas my mum would just teach me that a good idea is ‘what you feel is the right thing to do.’”
“I was never taught what a ‘good idea’ was or is,” NYC-based designer and typographer Emily Jing Sum Chan contradicts, suggesting that in fact, some ideas are simply more successful than others, depending on context, time and place – noting that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ idea. “Of course, there are ‘rules’ in graphic design,” she adds, “but you can also break these rules if you know them well enough!” What also becomes apparent in the deconstruction of what a ‘good idea’ is, is the change in concept over time. For Chan and her disfavour for the concept of ideas being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ she remarks that it’s not the ideas that change but the “design, aesthetic trends, principals and opinions.”
Bad ideas won’t result in ‘good design.’
In a more commercial context, Enebeis notes that good ideas are “definitely not exclusive to wit or an aha moment,” but rather a concoction of components like construction, delivery and perception. Correspondingly, White tells us “for me, a good idea still comes from the same essence of communication, but it is two components that form that dialogue: listening and responding.” It is within the listening that one understands the client, their audience and their brief, whilst responding is “communicating all of these things in the appropriate and unique way.” With this in mind, ‘good’ design and the ideas behind them are communicative; with their determination as ‘good’ dependent on their relationship to an audience – be it a client, a consumer or anything in between.
To this extent, suggest that “ideas are rooted in contexts, and when these shift, what was a ‘good idea’ once, may no longer be appropriate,” especially within the circumstances of continually adapting practices across the creative field. Emphasising the importance of the awareness of one’s agency as a designer within the “ever-changing conditions” of the industry, note that the nature of the field is one conceived of scope and feedback. “In having discussions and collaborating together, we get an idea of what is working,” they explain, “and perhaps what is not.”
This abstraction is elementary to Open Practice’s methodology, especially contextually relevant in the design education, inquiry and creation that they reside in. “As a studio, we are interested in a relational and environmental way of working with others,” they explain, “which is based on feminist notions of learning and making.” With this understanding, the basis of their work is designing with awareness of and in relation to, but not for, others. Contrary to White and Parson’s concern, remark that “it’s also important to challenge the old truism that design is all about problem-solving,” doing so through challenging the process of problem-definition. Suggesting that one “easy way” of measuring the quality of an idea is qualifying how successful a solution is to the problem. “However,” explain, “if the ‘problem’ has been misidentified, ill-researched or considered from limited perspectives, what follows may not only be ‘bad’ but have serious consequences.”
With this in mind, it brings into question whether good design can come as a result of bad ideas, and vice versa. Enebeis acknowledges that “if you define the idea as the purpose of something then the answer is yes,” suggesting “a beautifully designed object can be made with a bad or good intention in the first place.” Using Enebeis’s example of “the knife,” it is perhaps the case of questioning whether you place the quality of an idea on intention or the purpose. “For us, if the idea is not there in the first place it makes it difficult to feel compelled to move forwards,” White explains, “in those cases, we’ll challenge the brief internally or with the client, until we extrapolate a good direction from which to begin!” Within this mindset, bad outcomes can be a resultant of good ideas, “like shoddy plumbing,” White remarks, “all the elements are there, but they’ve just been put together in the wrong way.”
A visual is not a nothing – you are always expressing something...
Chan, however, challenges that good design can come from bad ideas, explaining that the query is wrong by definition. “Bad ideas won’t result in ‘good design’ because design is only successful when the idea behind the piece is successful or with reasonable intention,” she explains, adding “sometimes reasonable intentions can result in unsuccessful execution,” praising the need for sketching and interaction within one’s process in order to find the most successful choice. A sentiment shared with Open Practice, they explain “there are of course great ideas, which one may personally perceive as ‘bad’ design,” produced as a result of disregard or lack of emphasis towards form and materiality – or perhaps a “breakdown in communication or lack of reflection.”
Within this context, however, Open Practice raise the question of conviction, explaining that “as designers, we have a unique skill set that can make anything look convincing with the right type of visual language and means of dissemination,” producing design that can seem “dangerously alluring (good)” which importantly requires critique. It is in fact through a lens of arrogance, be it inappropriate decision making or a lack of research, that aesthetically pleasing design can have a dangerous and real-world impact. But does an aesthetic need to have research or a concept behind it to be successful? Does ‘good design’ need a concept behind it, or can it simply be visual?
Commenting on the role of aesthetic in relation to concept, Enebeis notes “visual is a concept in itself,” explaining that “a visual is not a nothing – you are always expressing something, and any type of expression is a concept in itself.” As described by Parsons; “a provocative image is enough commentary in itself when you consider its social context,” leading to the issue of what we consider aesthetic and what we consider conceptual, and once again what constitutes ‘good’ design.
Aware of the difference between methodologies and practice, Open Practice explain how concept development is at the very core of why, how and what they do. “For us, it’s the idea that defines a piece of design,” they explain, “it gives it; meaning, context and a possibility to connect with people.” Now placing this within the context of the eternally evolving and improving systems and technologies at the disposal of the designer – along with the ease to make something look good and the “influx of visual stimulus and accessibility to resources” – Open Practice explain how the function of contemporary creatives has changed. “The challenge for today’s designers is to rise above the noise and make something not only appropriate but meaningful, unique and impactful,” they explain; placing the emphasis of ‘good’ design on the presence it has. For them this is achieved through a concept, adding “the exploratory strategy of thinking through making, instead of focusing purely on delivery of outcomes is a useful tool.”
Pardini too believes in concept as a guide to good ideas; however, she suggests that “sometimes something just works perfectly without a reason,” adding “I challenge clients to see the beauty of it if I feel strongly about it.” With this in mind, White disputes the role of concept within the context in which we consume content now. “I actually feel like the way we consume design through Instagram now it is ENTIRELY superficial and we are magpies to beautiful things,” he remarks, “fake projects, fake posters, fake business cards – if it looks good does it matter if it’s for a client with a good idea because it could lead to one in the end.” The nature of this is conclusive; the result comes after the intent. This also allows the possibility for ideas to be ‘good’ retrospectively, such as ‘fake’ work – which counters the idea of ‘good’ ideas being determined as such due to their intention – leading onto new work due to the positive feedback it received online. On a similar note of justification, this leads to whether this can be applied to concept; and whether post-rationalisation is indicative of ‘good’ ideas and not ‘cheating.’
For some, post-rationalisation is a standard form of practice, as Enebeis suggests “you can label something whatever you want or create it with a specific idea in mind, but once a design leaves the hands of the designer it will need to stand on its own feet.” To this end the meaning behind design is timely and conceptual – to which Parsons sees as a wondrous thing. “The beauty of design is that it means something unique to the person experiencing it,” he explains, “designing for humans allows us to set it free and let the nuanced (or brutally honest) feedback define the experience and make sense of it beyond the expectations of the creator.” Through hindsight design’s rationale can change to become even more considerable and deeper. “That said – yeah, it’s cheating!” he adds, finding the “beauty of the design journey” within a strategy-informed process – asking who, what and why.
For us, if the idea is not there in the first place it makes it difficult to feel compelled to move forwards.
“Post-rationalisation is part of the process, and anyone who says otherwise is lying haha!” White explains, commenting that a microcosm of what Enebeis suggests occurs as part of their process at Studio Lowrie. “Someone could suggest a solution with totally grounded rationale,” he explains, “someone else might see it and see something totally different, that could advance that route to feel more resolved.” It is through the shared communication within the studio that concepts can be interrogated, rationalised and justified. “Post-rationalisation FTW,” White adds. Similarly, Pardini doesn’t view post-rationalisation as a dirty word, noting that “some might say that finding good reasons at the end of the process is as good as finding them in the first place.” That being said; however, Pardini recommends it to be “taken in small doses.”
Akin to the nature of their processes, Open Practice do consider post-rationalisation cheating, but admit that it’s not the case that they haven’t done so themselves in the past, “particularly when we were students,” they add. “Post-rationalisation can be a very frustrating process,” they explain, noting it symptomatic of ill-timed reflection and development, “as in some sense it requires reflection to take place, which in turn could steer you to more appropriate or exciting ideas.”
With greater insight and consideration not only given to ideas but also to practices, maybe ‘good’ design comes from more considerate designers. “It’s exciting to see studios and creatives go deeper and start to consider their impact on the environment, their ethical standpoints, who they’d work for,” White tells us, giving the contentious subject matter of typeface designers and who they sell their typefaces too as an example. “These are the types of ideas that I think are good and stand out in the miasma of beautiful things,” he concludes, proposing a view similar to Open Practice’s which focuses on “what is an appropriate idea instead of what is good.”
In the end, the consideration for anything to be ‘good’ is ultimately down to context and subject, but there is always the opportunity to learn and become more critical of what one deems ‘good.’ What also factors in is the audience of design and whether the consumer need be aware of any concept behind design. “The idea must be relevant, not necessarily obvious, to the people you seek to engage,” Parsons tells us, elaborating “it may be a question they didn’t ever think to ask, yet it strikes a resounding chord because it was the right question to ask at a time in life that gave it volume.” It is also dependent on “the scope of work, the complexity of the idea, and on the consumer themselves,” explain, using the example of the differing considerations given to designing a ‘good’ brand to designing a ‘good’ book. “Feeling and emotion plays a big part in our design,” they conclude, “and perhaps that’s more important in some cases than a big idea or concept.”
Disregarding this more academic mindset; however, explains that her concept of a ‘good idea’ has adapted as she has got older with an increasing interest in the spontaneity of children. “That element of ‘listening to your inner judgement’ became more and more important with the years,” she explains, “and I found myself trying to have more of that spontaneity in my work since the pandemic hit;” remarking that sometimes a research-based resolution “isn’t the right approach to finding a good idea.” Succinctly summarised by , “a good idea doesn’t always fit along the way,” she notes; raising the issue of who determines an idea as good – “I believe that creative judgement is always very personal,” she suggests, “there isn’t a ‘good or bad’ idea to me.”
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Emily Jing Sum Chan