The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Been Given About Graphic Design
If I told you that by the end of this article you’d be a better designer would you believe me? It’s a bold statement and not one I make lightly but I’m willing to put your trust and my reputation on the line to share with you what could be the most useful piece of advice concerning graphic design you’ll ever hear. Even if you disagree, I’d still argue the following advice is an incredibly effective take on the design process.
Recently I had the pleasure of giving a talk to a fantastic group of students from Aberdeen college on the subject of graphic design. The topics covered were varied and numerous, but in the question and answer session that followed I was asked by one student to give my take on ‘what was the best piece of advice you’d ever been given about graphic design?’
This is without a doubt my favourite question to answer: not only because the anecdote is rich like a good old-fashioned story, but because it really did change my outlook on design. In fact I’d go as far to say that you can pretty much divide my professional career into two halves, a before and after, it really was that important.
And stumbled I indeed did: the Central Saint Martins copy of his book ‘Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned about Graphic Design, Including the Ones in This Book’ quite literally hit me in the face as I careered hap-hazardly into the library’s bookshelf. It would prove to be the best misstep I had ever taken.
I’d been looking for something completely different, but picking the book off the floor I was immediately grabbed by the cover’s authoritative yet contradictory title. Turning the book over I realised that the title was in fact the book’s opening paragraph that snaked its way across and under the dust jacket to continue within the book. I was hooked: this curious book demanded my attention. Discarding my more frivolous reading-material, I sat down in the library aisle, and read the book there and then.
It was this single sentence that hit me like a sucker punch to the stomach. Its astonishing brevity in the way it condensed Gill’s countless years of academic toil and experience into a simple statement floored me. It just seemed to make so much sense. For me this single piece of advice had all the hallmarks of a paradigm shift, a sea-change moment, since on reading it and re-reading it, the teaching just seemed so glaringly obvious. How could I have never seen design this clearly?
It was at this precise moment that I began to become a graphic designer. I realised that until a few moments ago I hadn’t had the faintest idea of how to design something. As shameless as it sounds, I’d confess that before I’d read Gill’s book, the closest I came to being a designer was copying (and tweaking) another design I liked.
The statement’s power comes from its seemingly universal truth. You may have even encountered variants of this advice in more quantifiable professions, like accounting or programming. Here the adage of ‘garbarge in, garbage out’ is rigourously followed: you simply can’t get valid data if your input data is flawed. I find it’s this cool reductionism, an approach to design seemingly at odds with such a notoriously subjective profession, that makes Gill’s teaching so very effective.
At a more base level, in the same way ‘you can’t polish a turd’ or ‘throw good money after bad’ if you begin with an ill-defined or boring problem you will be totally unable to think of an interesting response. Only by re-defining the brief into something interesting, cutting to the core of what you or your client really wants to communicate, can you truely come up with an unexpected response. You may not be answering the actual statement of the brief but you will be answering the true problem of the brief: the solution informing everything from your choice of typeface to the illustrations you will use.
Since the solution naturally suggests the aesthetic choices Gill’s rule serves as the perfect compliment to the idea that ‘form must follow function’, another universal truth of graphic design.
As Gill’s approach to problem solving forms the thematic core of ‘Forget All the Rules…’ the rest of his fantastic book is devoted to illustrating his thinking in a variety of ways. Looking back over the book (it’s since been re-printed a few times) his RentaNooYawka logotype is, for me, one of his most memorable solutions. It not only perfectly illustrates his attitude to problem solving, but it appeals to my love of language. Bob Gill explains:
Reading my enthusiasm for Bob Gill’s approach to design you may be mistaken in thinking I’m slavish to the process. I can’t deny how astonishingly useful it’s been, but I’m not interested in distilling the design process into a dry academic exercise. Gill’s approach is useful because it strips away the indecisiveness that hounds any new problem. All designers are, after all, communicators and what Bob Gill reminds us is that we need to first and foremost concentrate on answering the client’s problem, and anything that can streamline this or make this exercise quicker is to be applauded.
So forget what design is meant to look like, there’s no such thing as ‘style’. Just concentrate on re-defining the problem to get a better solution. And one more thing, purchase some notebooks — I promise you won’t regret it.