Friday, September 14, 2007

Form for the Sake of Function

Like many of my colleagues in graphic design, I spent a number of my formative years studying art at various educational institutions. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of studying art in school (at a “higher level,” in particular), I can tell you that a lot of time is spent immersed in critiques.

In an art critique, the artist is extensively questioned by his or her peers, professors, visiting artists, and so on. A great deal of time is spent examining the work at hand, discussing its details, and arguing over whether or not it “works.” Which is a difficult thing to quantify, incredibly subjective as it is. I suppose that there may be certain rules when it comes to art, but one of them is that all rules are meant to be broken, leaving us without much of a concrete framework to fall back on when discussing art and its effectiveness. Ultimately what it often comes down to is how well an artist can defend his or her methods and rationale, and how well he or she can convince other people that the art is doing what it’s supposed to do.

Which is all simply to say that art is a messy, complicated, subjective thing, and it’s very hard to determine its success except on a personal, individual basis. This may be why it can be a relief to work in graphic design and advertising.

Design is still a fluid, subjective field, and that same rule (that most rules are meant to be broken) often still holds true. But on the other hand, design and advertising are a little more clear-cut than your average painting or avant-garde video installation. Design can be challenging, sure it can, and of course it can be beautiful and provocative and thoughtful (in fact, these are definite plusses). But in the end, its ultimate goal is to say something, to effectively communicate information.

This is a good thing to keep in mind when designing, or working with designers on a project. We all have our preferences and our tastes, but the most important thing to remember is that the design of a website, ad, logo, newsletter, or really anything, is only useful if people respond to it, if it grabs them and says exactly what you want it to say, points their attention where you want it. Unlike art as such, design (in general) doesn’t exist for its own sake; it exists to attract, communicate, and convince. Which is also why design can be “good” even if it isn’t to your exact taste, and why it’s important to remember to strike a balance between what you respond to personally, and what will most effectively convey your message to a receptive audience. Artists can spend hours explaining their work, but your design has to say everything it needs to right up front, without the trouble of a lengthy critique.


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