How do you measure graphic design?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We all have different tastes. So what makes a graphic designer better qualified to make design decisions than anyone else? After all, nine times out of ten* anyone who self-appoints themselves as the arbiter of what’s good or bad design is a bit of a knobhead.
*A made-up statistic.

It’s fair to say graphic designers aren’t always the best at explaining what they do. A notable exception is Michael Bierut, who says this:

“[Designers] start out as normal people & acquire a hyper sensitivity to things that are invisible to normal people. And it’s necessary because that’s how they’re going to be exercising their craft properly, how they’ll solve the problems, and create things.”

This unmeasurable stuff is, understandably, difficult for clients to deal with.

So there is a temptation to try and measure or gauge how good a piece of graphic design is. Particularly when clients are faced with a decision to make. Decisions prompt fears. “What if I’m wrong?”. “How do I know the designer is right?”. So they seek assistance or reassurance from others.

The problem is, aside from designers, people rarely stop and think about graphic design. Design is around us, we read, look, touch and interact with design all day long, but most people don’t analyse it unless someone puts it in front of us and says “what do you think?”. At which point there is a natural impulse to think of an opinion. But this is forcing an unnatural opinion we wouldn’t ordinarily consider. Art should make us think. Design should have a function, solve a problem.

More recently the Tokyo Olympics and New Zealand have run design contests for the public to ‘have a go’ at designing their logo and flag, respectively. It comes from a desire to please everyone. Not upset anyone. However, this approach inevitably leads to bland design, background wallpaper. Nobody will be offend by the result. But will anyone be delighted or thrilled?

It may have polarised opinion, but the London 2012 Olympics had the courage to create something bold and different, then put it out in the World with confidence. And guess what? It caused a fuss. Some people absolutely hated it. Then, after everyone had their say and over-analysed the arse out of it, people just got on and accepted it. Heck, some even grew to love it. It certainly didn’t ruin the event, in what was widely regarded as the greatest Olympics to date. And said more about Britain’s ability to take risks and be creative as a result.

So what’s the answer?

Clients have to choose an appropriate designer and trust them. Designers need to realise they aren’t always right, and listen to the client. And both client and designer need to be designing and making decisions with solving the problem in mind, not their own personal tastes, awards or anything else.

The final piece in the puzzle is confidence. As soon as you accept that you’re not going to please everyone, the sooner you can start creating something that not only solves the problem, but also, to quote Stefan Sagmeister, “touches somebody’s heart”. Hell, it may even be considered great by the arbiters of taste. Who, as made-up statistics have shown, are knobheads anyway.

15th March 2016

File under: Thoughts, Graphic Design