What lessons taught you the most about graphic design.
April 17, 2005 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Attention Graphic Designers: What specific lessons or exercises (whether in school or self-taught) had the most impact on your development as a designer?

I'm really interested in specifics here; such as "Having to design a poster using only red and black and Helvetica."
posted by jeremias to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not really sure I have one specific lesson or exercise that stands out in my mind. I'm more interested in the thought process behind the design, rather than the technical skills needed to produce it, so the history classes I took really opened my eyes. Both classic art history, and modern graphic design. Once you've shunted all of that knowledge into your conscious and sub-conscious, you can only get better.

That said, designing with limitations (like you said, "using only red and black and Helvetica") is also a really good way to break out of a design rut. Just set your limitations to the exact opposite of what you've been doing.
posted by still at 9:56 AM on April 17, 2005

It's been a while now, so I can't remember the exact limits, but one of our early projects (for a design degree) was something along those lines, but also no colours, no font size variation, no italics, letters at angles other than horizontal, etc, just letters on the sheet. The point was that almost the only thing remaining was "the grid" - where on the sheet the text placed in relation to other text and the edges, and how that affects the text - meaning we had to become acutely aware of that, as he rightly noted it was too easy to be completely oblivious to it when there is the usual vast array of layout and design options to use as a crutch, yet it's one of the fundamentals of typography.

Another big lesson was use of art. Most people in the course had an art background and assumed that if graphics were needed, graphics was what we would provide. This was described as re-inventing the wheel. Get over the idea that copying is bad. Get over the idea that everything must be original and yours. Use other people's ideas, other people's work, other people's photos, other people's graphics. Don't waste your time constantly re-inventing the wheel, just use the wheel. (Within legal limits of course). To ram this home, we weren't supposed to create graphics, etc for a lot of projects, and were not given the time to do so. We were expected to just grab this stuff from elsewhere and get on with designing. And again I think they were right. There is a natural urge to not do a lot of things that goes further than it should and creates more problems than it solves if left unchallenged.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:23 AM on April 17, 2005

OK, I'm gonna go on a bit here:

Being forced (in Freshman Design 101) to come up with 100 variations on how to place a circle and a triangle into a square nearly drove me crazy, until I pushed thru my certainty that there couldn't possibly be that many options, and began to see beyond the obvious. So, the first 10 or so variations came slowly as I grumbled about the "stupid assignment," but the rest fairly flew out; I was very impressed, as if I'd discovered a hidden realm.
(Nowadays, tho, I must admit that 99 times out of a hundred, I find my first visual impulse in response to an assignment is the one I like best.)
Add my vote to the limited palette thing, too....it's very helpful to eliminate option-overload.

Another example was an assignment a friend had in a class I didn't take; dunno what the actual assignment was, but I'm sure you can extrapolate: She came up with a way to reshape the word LIES so at first glance it looked like the word TRUTH...or maybe it was FALSE made to look like TRUE; wish I'd gotten a photo of the thing; it was a knock-out.

One more memorable idea from those days: In an illustration class the instructor showed us how to make a grid from a list of one-word image associations we had to any topic or subject being illustrated. He repeated the list as the top row and left column of a table as a device for combining each image with every other image, then went to each cell to see what came to mind with each pairing...it worked like one of those driving-distance tables in a road atlas...hope that's clear? Anyway, it impressed me... (I've looked unsuccessfully for a computerized version of this kind of brainstorming tool, btw.)

I remember the above as cool demonstrations from school...but in fact the most impact on me from those days came from the slowly dawning observation that I had to seriously upgrade my sense of what was a "reasonable" amount of effort to apply to any assignment, be it a design or an illustration. Nobody spelled this out, but it became abundantly clear, the closer I looked at what was required for striking work... So it was the "raise-your-standards" thing that really struck home, in retrospect.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:46 AM on April 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

The only reason you're a graphic designer instead of an artist is that you're working for your client. The second you try some high concept art crap that only you can figure out is the second you begin failing as a graphic designer. Seven elements of design, design history, Milton Glaser, Sagmeister, what the fuck ever, you're working for somebody else. That's it.
posted by Stan Chin at 10:50 AM on April 17, 2005

typeface design. not making new & novel letterforms, either, but a holistic approach to an entire alphabet. reading bringhurst and dwiggins and tschichold and integrating the various classical theories on type design - this gave me far more appreciation for the integration of skill and imagination and, above all else, the incredible patience required to do anything worthwhile in this field. and the more bad type and uncompelling design i see, the more i think that nothing is worth doing that is not difficult...
posted by luriete at 11:29 AM on April 17, 2005

Pay no attention to that Stan behind the blurtin'.

I'd second what luriete said and add: understanding funtionality, purpose, rationale, logic--of everything, ask: what is its nature, what is its purpose, what does it do?

I keep a journal/sketchbook for drawing, sketching, concepting, personal projects; one exercise I do is randomly assigning arbitary constraints and forcing myself to work within a specified set of rules.
posted by fandango_matt at 1:29 PM on April 17, 2005

functionality, that is.
posted by fandango_matt at 1:31 PM on April 17, 2005

When I hear "graphic design" and "lessons", I automatically think of Visual Literacy by Judith and Richard Wilde. I didn't find this until *after* I became a Graphic Artist, but I wish I had! The book has a series of amazing exercises that are along the lines of your "red and black helvetica" example, followed by samples of what actual students came up with in response to the challenge. Do the exercises yourself (or better yet, with a group of friends interested in design) and see what you come up with. Then compare your solutions to the ideas in the book.

Just an amazing book, both for learning and inspiration. Highly recommended.
posted by NewGear at 2:43 PM on April 17, 2005

I second the limitation idea, though not only for getting out of a rut. More often than not, it seems like the best designs come out of some kind of parameters that you have to innovate your way out of.

This is how I do almost all my art these days. I did a series of 10 all inspired off Oblique Strategy cards, a series of 10 "speedie comix" where I wrote whatever came to mind without thinking, a series of 10 color studies with goals like "use only 4 warm colors" or "pick a color and only change its saturation".
posted by jragon at 2:47 PM on April 17, 2005

Select some intelligent writing - no more than a few paragraphs. This can be philosophical, inspirational, or perhaps typography related. Type this text, word for word, into your application of choice. Take the time to read and understand the writing as you are typing.

Now select a typeface that you want to learn the nuances of applying to design. Choose an intelligent face. For body text this will probably be a serif - Garamond, Mrs. Eaves, Celeste, etc.

Set your text in various point sizes, various leadings; then begin to experiment with word and letter spacing. Don't simply kern, go into the justification palette and dig in. Set your text in columns, probably left justified. Apply these variations over multiple pages. Label each page with the specifications for the type on that page.

Once you've exhausted your options, print all of the pages. Pin them up on a board. Compare and contrast all of them while looking at the details of each one. Select the one you think is the strongest, most readable.

Create a single page. Give it a pleasing dimension. The golden mean is good place to start but there are other options. Create a grid that works well within the proportions of the page. Position your text on this page. Begin to understand how composition effects the text and vice versa. Print your final design out. Enjoy. Now start the process over with different writing and a different typeface.

Yes, this may sound tedious. It can be. It can also be extremely rewarding. By making yourself sensitive to the things that other people don't notice you are beginning to become a designer. This a wax on, wax off process.

In reviewing the portfolios of designers I can usually tell who is a hack and who isn't by analyzing their use of type. Styles are easy to plagiarize. Typography has an inherent level of detail that is impossible to fake. Understand typography and you will elevate yourself above the crowd.
posted by quadog at 12:48 PM on April 18, 2005

I'm not a professional graphic designer, but I have had to incorporate some amount of design in a variety of projects and professional settings (e.g. visual aids for evidence presentation to juries, layouts and designs for scientific papers, etc.).

One of the most compelling and informative sources I ever encountered was the work of Edward Tufte. It's very helpful in understanding that graphic design is about conveying information, not just presenting a particular stylistic vision.
posted by patience_limited at 3:28 PM on April 18, 2005

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