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The Lone Designer

Mar. 29th , 2014

One of the best graphic designers I ever met never used a computer. In fact he predominantly used a photocopier and pair of scissors. Once he'd roughed out some ideas with cut and paste he'd talk to other people to get everything into digital files; he'd work with a typesetter, an artist, an illustrator.

He produced some great work, and it was real teamwork. But it wasn't just internal teamwork, it was client collaboration too. Everything began with a meeting. We'd sit down together and work through the design as if we were both working on it. He'd cut things out, stick them together. Scissors, sticky tape, pencils, democratic tools. We'd look at typeface catalogues together, discuss colours.

Nothing was ever thrown over the wall. I didn't send him a brief and wait for something to come back. He didn't pass on a finished design to the typesetters. Projects remained in flux, part of a conversation, until the final piece of work was produced.

I've thought more and more recently about how I want to continue this tradition in the small amount of graphic design work I do. And to help with that I've been considering projects in four stages.

1. Purpose

Where does the purpose of graphic design come from? In many cases a client will decide that some work needs doing and have some idea of what the brief for that should be. This becomes enshrined in a document that forms the basis of the designer's work. But how likely is this to produce the right outcome?

A good designer will go back to a client with questions, attempt to clarify the brief. But how much is this ever a conversation and how much time is wasted when it isn't? This discussion, a step before anything visible is even produced, could be the most important part of the design process, so how do we ensure that it isn't just a handover?

2. Paper

Once the Purpose is established it might seem like the perfect time to sit down alone and design stuff. After all, designers are magicians. It's important that others don't see what goes on behind the scenes. Except that my fondest memories of working with a graphic designer involved sitting down together and producing material there and then.

Of course much of this was rough, photocopied drafts. But it gave us a shared understanding. It also saved a huge amount of time and the reason that when I took a course in graphic design I chose one without computers. This way of working can be really liberating.

3. Pixels

Things get more tricky when computers are involved. Much of the standard design software can show full screen, menu-free views of the work in progress so that the mysteries of digital design remain hidden away. We don't want people to see us nudging things around on the screen, experimenting when we should already know what we're doing.

But when we work together, look at the same things, we start to share an understanding of the tools we're using. Beyond static, visual design work, this can take us into other territories. What if we write code and edit websites together? How far can we move from the expert and proprietary technology model to the shared, open model?

Every job we do, everything we create for someone else, is an opportunity to share the tools and deepen the learning. It doesn't make everyone a graphic designer, but it does make graphic designers better, and better understood for what they specifically bring rather than what they are generally selling.

4. Polish

Surely here's where the designer should disappear, with some paper cutouts and rough Photoshop files, before returning with a shiny masterpiece? Except that there's huge opportunity at this point. The real craft of graphic design, the part that matters, is the attention to detail that leads to almost imperceptible tweaks.

Graphic designers who really care about what they do will obsess over minor differences in colour, typefaces, gradients, details. And in many ways it's these obsessions that form the basis of stronger client relationships. Sharing an understanding, and love, of why two ostensibly similar things are actually worlds apart is key to mutual trust and building something meaningful for the long-term.

I recently did a project with some graphic design students, getting them to work on new ideas for services and products. It was hard to get them away from their computers but when they weren't using Photoshop they were doing their best work.

The conversations I had with those students, their tutor, and many other people since has highlighted what a solitary profession graphic design can be, and how much better it can be when it isn't.