What is design anyway?
Published in Jan-Feb 2019
It’s a simple enough question. What is design?
Yet, there is no simple answer to what exactly falls under the realm of design. There are many facets that are left wildly untouched or clumped together as far as Pakistan’s market is concerned.
The essence of design is to be a visual storyteller. To take the colours, the shape, the choice of font and imagery in order to evoke a feeling and create an experience.
The graphic designer once limited to print design has now crossed over to the digital aspect of communication as well. However, within graphic design, there are many variations of specialisations, which in Pakistan, are generally lumped into one holistic ‘Swiss army knife’ design approach. So let me define each practice of design.
The designer who essentially focuses on identity development, creating the logo for the entire realm of the brand and the guidelines which will stay with the brand for a specified period of time, if not forever. Brand development firms such as Future Brand and Interbrand specialise in customisation in order to create the brand’s foundation. Creating an identity is not a weekend job and it never should be done in a hurry because every choice of font and every iconic element has to mean something and must serve a purpose. Neither should colours be discarded because your client’s wife’s sister hates that colour.
They and companies such as Turner Duckworth develop consumer products and design how the product will live as an object. It could be a soft drink can, a bottle of oil or even a household product. It is about the shape and identity and how the packaging extends to other collateral.
Editorial and broadcast design
This entails newspapers, magazines and other visual aids needed in publishing. This kind of design tends to be detail-oriented and time-consuming. Broadcast design is an extension of editorial design into TV. This is about how you effectively design the TV screen between text and image. Design for broadcast does not only mean the text and visual divisions of a 1920 x 1080 pixel size screen (or in Pakistan’s case, the 720 x 576 pixel size screen). Broadcast design also has motion graphics, animators and real-time animators living within those golden arches of white noise.
This is not design but an entity on its own and in most art institutes, it is a subject on its own. This is not to imply illustrators cannot be graphic designers or graphic designers cannot be illustrators, but the two are separate vernaculars and ought to be treated as such. Pakistani clients and art directors who want designers to use illustrations from Shutterstock and plonk them into layouts do a disservice to the discipline of illustration, which needs to be unique and bespoke.
The gap between programmers and designers is so wide in Pakistan that whenever designers try to fight it out with the superior sounding coders, it often gets lost in translation. Because of Envato and other free download themes, the role of the interaction designer is minimised – and when you can download CSS for free, why would you need to respect the space of the designer?
According to the National Association of Schools of Design Handbook: “Industrial designers create and develop concepts and specifications that optimise the function, value and aesthetics of products, environments, systems and services for the benefit of user, industry and society.” Industrial design involves combinations of the visual arts disciplines, sciences and technology and requires problem-solving and communication skills. One of the leading industrial design firms in the world, Frog Design, have made products like Lumen, which measures the metabolism with a single breath and helps keep users focused on their health goals in real time. Frog also designed Meizu, the world’s first phone with a display screen on the back. This particular form of design goes beyond the skill set of making logos and ties in with other disciplines and is entirely focused on user experience along with an understanding of material and form for industrial use. With more technology advancement in experimental products initiated by start-ups, the need of the day is to have specialised industrial designers who understand how to create a consumer to product relationship and make it aesthetically unique at the same time.
In Pakistan, this is taken over by programmers who believe coding is superior to actually knowing and having training in typography, colours and visual elements. The gap between programmers and designers is so wide in Pakistan that whenever designers try to fight it out with the superior sounding coders, it often gets lost in translation. Because of Envato and other free download themes, the role of the interaction designer is minimised – and when you can download CSS for free, why would you need to respect the space of the designer? Within this sphere, you can cover user interface design (UI) and user experience (UX). UI and UX often work hand-in-hand to develop websites, apps, social media assets and so forth. This particular aspect of design requires technical knowhow and an understanding of programming languages. Most graphic designers today need to know THE basics of the interactivity to service the wider market.
This involves the more critical thinking aspect of design. Design thinking is one of the more fashionable buzzwords today. In essence, it seeks to provide products with creative solutions. It is possibly one of the most broad spectrum aspects of design because there is no one particular industry that it is wed to. Because design thinking is about how the user interacts, you have to first empathise and understand what the user needs. As a designer, you are trained to find solutions within the strictest of constraints and intuitively. This results in a solution-oriented approach, which is a process that can be replicated to almost any problem that needs that process. To simplify, a designer’s intuition to find solutions to complex problems has a name and it is called design thinking and the process can be applied anywhere. Many major companies around the world such as IBM have design thinking as part of their infrastructure. The five elements of design thinking are:
1 Empathise. This is the foundation of the process. This is the ‘reconnaissance’ step of the process and insight gathering.
2 Define the problem. Question your insights and identify user issues.
3 Ideate. The quintessential creative step where possible solutions are looked at.
4 Prototype. The first steps to making the ideation come to life by exploring how it can work, be improved or redesigned.
5 Test. This will, more often than not, set you back a few steps because it may or may not work. Design thinking cannot be approached in a linear fashion. Your process may end up looking like Linus’ blanket but that is absolutely okay.
As a designer, you may be thinking: “What I do without realising every single day in my job has a name and big companies are paying big money to turn that process into a new field.” Yes. That’s fairly correct. Mostly. Most people who work in the creative industry overlap many of the different components of the golden arc of design. The need of the day is to take a multidisciplinary approach and at the same time, create a niche of specialisation. Advertising is not design, but design is a strong component of advertising. There is no reason why an editorial designer cannot design apps for matchmaking or cooking. It is about experimenting and trying out new things and creative directors and CEOs need to encourage creatives who have a design mind.
Try, mess up, start again, create again, mess up and perhaps once you get over the failure of messing up, a simple accident is what makes the next great brand. Or logo. Or dating app. Or book club website. Or art catalogue. Or anything.
Alia Chughtai is Senior Interactive Producer, Al Jazeera English.
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