Waiting for Lightning

May 17th, 2012 by Mat Dolphin

Earlier this year, we wrote a blog post regarding some of our thoughts on inspiration. Sprungseven left a considered and well written response in the comments section, using a quote from the brilliant Bob Gill:

“Don’t look for inspiration in design books. Don’t sit at your computer, waiting for lightning to strike. If the job is for a dry cleaner, go to a dry cleaner. And stay there until you have something that you honestly think is interesting to say about dry cleaning.”

The sentiment is spot on and one we wholeheartedly agree with. If inspiration for designers comes from the same sources (a finite handful of popular websites and design books), its only a matter of time before things begin to look similar. Without wanting to cover old ground, we concur.

However, how feasible is this approach these days? The design process moves faster and faster as new technology progresses and clients demand quicker turnarounds on more work. The easy access and proliferation of design software means traditional graphic design is now a discipline virtually anyone can do themselves. The days of men in suits hunched over drawing boards, meticulously drafting ‘camera-ready’ artwork with Rotring pens and Letraset are, I’m afraid to say, gone. No longer do a select few learn the secrets of the trade through apprenticeships and wisdom handed down through generations. These days, a downloaded copy of Photoshop and a YouTube tutorial on how to make a drop shadow seems to be enough to make you the next Otl Aicher.

Advancements in the tools we use now mean all of us have a world of inspiration at our fingertips. In a matter of minutes we can have access to thousands of images, articles, videos and logos related to dry cleaners if we so desire. With this convenience and speed, why would we need to walk down the road to see the real thing? The same argument can be applied to looking to books or magazines for inspiration and news. What’s the point in paying for the latest copy of a design magazine (which are never cheap) to see content that has been on a hundred different websites for weeks already, and costs nothing to see? Surely the quick, easy and free option is a no brainer?

Yes and no. In terms of ‘waiting for lightning to strike’, we’re firm believers in going to the source. This doesn’t always mean sitting around in dry cleaners with our fingers crossed because frankly, we don’t often have the time to do that. What it does mean is fully immersing ourselves in the world of our clients, going further than the internet and finding out a bit more about the people we’re doing the work for. Asking stupid questions, thinking about the answers, talking about the answers, asking more questions. Of course we still look at websites and magazines and books, but the practice of discovering through experience and dialogue is an essential part of what we do. Designing a logo for a photographer? Pick up a camera and take a picture. Designing a website for a bar? Pop in for a quick drink and meet the people drinking there. Actually doing stuff is a valuable alternative to passive research and you never know, it might provide the key to answering the brief. Our clients and their customers are the ones that have the information we need, and only by talking to them and observing how they behave and work can we do our bit. It takes a lot longer than a Google image search and it’s a nowhere near as easy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let us know your thoughts — we encourage debate.

Thanks to Sprungseven for providing the quote which inspired this post, thanks to Bob Gill for being amazing and thanks to you for reading.

Phil & Tom

3 Responses to “Waiting for Lightning”

  1. Great post. As the sole designer in a small design & marketing agency the workload often excludes me from going with my colleagues to meet and discuss the projects with the client. Which, in the past, I’ve found to be an invaluable part of the process as sometimes the most innocuous comment or off-hand remark can spark that winning idea. This sort of thing would never be passed through as a second-hand, distilled design brief.

    I’ve now suggested linking me in via video/skype so that even when not in the room I can still hear what the client has to say first-hand and pick up on any subtleties that may help me achieve the best solution for the client.

    Comment by Paul Andrew — May 17th, 2012 @ 9:52 am |
  2. Funny that this one post should link to me and 1972MunichOlympics, the site of an old college mate. I’m sure Ally will back me up when I speak of the design education we began back in 1998 as fresh faced teenagers under the stewardship of Mr Lestaret.

    If I remember correctly, it was six months to a year before we were allowed near anything vaguely computer shaped. Fully equipped Mac suites were locked while our design tools were infuriatingly restricted to the aforementioned Rotring pens and drawing boards, to antiquated lightboxes, gouache and temperamental ruling pens. Briefs reduced palettes to one-colour-plus-black austerity and type choices remained strictly limited to two sizes of a predetermined face.

    I remember learning how to shade with pastels, how to push flat geometric shapes around on paper until we had the best composition. I can recall discussing the finer details of single characters as we traced alphabets by hand, our brushes flowing along the gracious curves and tight switchbacks of lower case italics. Despite it being 1998, our days were filled with long-winded and outdated processes requiring constant cleaning of hands, endless patience and acute observation.

    I hated every mind numbingly tedious minute. But without noticing, it was teaching us something very valuable: value. When you’ve laboured for hours over every single detail on a single piece of paper and learnt the pain of ruining it and starting from scratch, you learn to respect the value of your work.

    Sorry for the trip down memory lane. I indulge it because I think you hit on two things that are very much linked. The flippancy encouraged by the digital age has devalued design not only to our clients but, more worryingly, to ourselves. We tend to get out of any activity exactly what we put in, and digital design encourages an arms length, none committal approach to creativity. Where the laborious production processes of yesterday demanded a designer dedicated to their ideas, to research, test, consider and deconstruct concepts before they could ever be realised, today we can try any old thing and just bin it if it doesn’t work. Not happy with these five concepts? Okay, I’ll do another five, see you in the morning.

    I admit my bark is worse than my bite. I’ll never feature in the design press nor earn enough for that Double Pylon I’ve got my eye on, but I find myself pouring over my humble little ideas regardless because, well, it matters. Our ideas have to be solid, we have to believe in them, be invested in them and able to justify them or they just don’t deserve to go on paper. It all has to be worth something or there’s no point bothering. Creativity is our currency so we can’t treat it as disposable. Those designers who do certainly aren’t our competition – we shouldn’t want their clients.

    The most mutually rewarding designer/client relationships are those allowing for proper discovery. We work best with those who let us prod and poke, challenge and annoy, those who would accept us spending a while in their dry cleaners, playing around with their cameras or propping up their bars. We need to understand better than the client what their brief is, why their brief is, how their brief is. We need to be there to ask the questions ourselves; we can’t assume they’ve already been answered and uploaded to the web. It’s not the client’s responsibility to know what they need – that’s our job. One of insight, perspective, intuition, curiosity and enthusiasm. We can’t achieve all that from the end of a broadband cable.

    If we can’t convince a potential client of our need to be armed with more than Google and the Photoshop toolbar can provide then we’ve already lost the battle. So sod it, let them go to 99Designs and the countless other take-the-money-and-run outfits against which we honest and passionate designers long since lost the race to the bottom.

    Comment by sprungseven — May 17th, 2012 @ 7:46 pm |
  3. Great article, and great response from Sprungseven again!

    Comment by Owen Jones — May 18th, 2012 @ 8:21 am |

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