Posts in Writing
Does Design Matter

Someone messaged me a while back on Facebook. We weren’t friends so it went into that weird messenger, limbo folder only to be accidentally discovered weeks after the message was sent. (Even looking back now, it took me a few minutes to find it again.)

The message read:

Hi Jake! James Trickington (made up name for privacy purposes) mentioned your name. I’m in need of a logo for a free running group I’m starting in about a month. I have narrowed it down to two names. Just want something so I can get a FB group started and maybe make a few flyers. Can you help? Trying to get an idea of cost. Being that this is something free im starting up in the community, I’m trying to make it as budget friendly as possible. Thanks!

By the time I saw the message, I figured the person had moved on to find someone else to help out. Regardless, I wasn’t really interested. I wasn’t interested because of two words she included in the message: BUDGET FRIENDLY.

I appreciated her honesty to put that as the closer to her first contact point with me. It tells me she didn’t want to mess around and lead anyone too far into something without knowing if there were major stipulations like budget. I wish all potential clients were like that.

A couple of days passed and I was talking to a colleague of mine. Randomly the job for the running group came up and he filled me in on what happened with that project. The person trying to start the group used Fiverr to create the logo and ended up being pleased with the outcome. As you can imagine, the logo that they created was generic, expected and poorly rendered. Despite all of these indicators, the logo was well received. 

My colleague and I jokingly discussed if there was a point to our profession as designers. We chuckled and went our separate ways. And I have not been able to stop thinking about that question. Does design matter?  

And more importantly and personally, does the design I do matter? I wrestle with this question often. I imagine most people ask themselves if the work they do really matters.

I think that is a decision we have to personally make and cannot be necessarily concerned with what other people think. So, I’m deciding that design matters—because it matters to me.

Saul Bass famously put it:

The fact of the matter is I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything or whether the client thinks it’s worth anything or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things even if no one cares.

When the work matters, when it means something, that is when it becomes meaningful to someone else. I follow and admire a lot of designers that deliver consistently good work. And I think it resonates with people because it’s evident that they love what they do. You can feel love was poured into the work.

Library of Congress identity by  Pentagram

Library of Congress identity by Pentagram

Pentagram recently released the rebranding for the Library of Congress. Not to anyone’s surprise, the branding was poorly received. And I can understand that. Looking at it again a week later, it’s still difficult to digest. Something clever and simple replaced by this ever-morphing system. Pentagram seems to put out a lot of work like this. And I don’t mean aesthetically; although it’s arguable the work shares a familiar DNA especially within Paula Scher’s office. What I mean is that Pentagram puts out a lot of work that seems to be divisive. People don’t know how to take it. 

Although they seem to catch a lot of flack for the work they produce, it is always evident that they care about the work. That is how I want to design. Despite if the work is “well-received” by other designers, I want it to be evident that I care about what I’m creating. This is what separates the good designers, the ones we talk about and incessantly criticise, from the bad designers, the ones that don’t care. I hope to be the former.

WritingJake Dugard
(Design) Awards are Stupid

Comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld accepted an award in 2007 with a speech that made its rounds on the internet. He spent five minutes denouncing awards and their perceived value. His speech can be summed up with one sentence: “Awards are stupid!”

I can’t argue with that. I imagine many of us within the design community feel that way as well. Design can be a highly subjective field. What is aesthetically pleasing to one person might be misunderstood or repulsive to another. On top of the subjectivity of aesthetics, the judging process seems to be very shallow for practical reasons like time and/or understanding the goals of the project. Save a few competitions, I would imagine most of the time, judging happens on a hasty, visual level.

In Michael Bierut’s Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design, Bierut explains (almost tongue in cheek) that becoming famous as a designer is as easy as following a few easy guidelines. He writes:

Enter only the kind of pieces that win in design competitions. For the record, the kinds of things that win in design competitions are cool-looking projects that solve easily understandable problems… Don’t be tempted by competitions that invite you to fill out long forms describing the problem, the client, the market situation, the strategy, and so forth. Very few of the judges read them.

Beirut’s first rule is sadly a very practical argument for submitting work into competitions despite the design actually addressing the problems that it was intended to in the first place because in most cases, it does not matter.

Design is not always quantifiable. As a teacher, I often find one of the most challenging aspects of the job to be grading. Distilling something that is abstract and visual into something that is as precise as a number is quite difficult. Unfortunately good grades and winning awards can be a litmus test for a lot students and/or designers.

There are negative side effects to producing work with the wrong purpose. Designing for an award or a grade can turn our work for a particular audience into work for our peers. This practice often times leads to work that constantly borrows from other contemporary designers which turns our industry into a mechanism that churns out sameness. What a boring world!

Interestingly enough in Seinfeld’s speech, he goes on to say what I think is the funniest bit in the whole speech: “…if I hadn’t already won all of these awards, I would not be talking like this.” This is extremely funny because it is true. I follow many designers who I look up to denounce awards as pointless, incestous and a waste of money. I agree with that to a certain degree, but they are a necessary evil for many (including myself). In an increasingly competitive field, anything to separate you from others becomes imperative. As a tenure-track professor, one of the areas of where I can prove my worth to the school is peer review. One of the most common ways to do this as a designer is to enter competitions — and win.

A few months back I entered into Print’s competition the Regional Design Awards. I forgot about it for the longest time and then out of the blue received an email in my inbox. I immediately smiled because the subject line read “Congratulations…” There is something quite intoxicating when other designers, especially those that you look up to, approve your work.

This got me thinking.

As a designer, as a human, we crave approval and affirmation — especially from our peers. Is there a way that this can look different than how it looks now? Does it have to be a formal and gimmicky competition with exorbitant entry fees? Or is there another way that we can affirm one another in what we do? On the flip side of that, does it have to be through an often shallow platform like Instagram or Dribbble where the only discourse happens in a tap of the heart icon?

Is there a place in the middle where the dialogue of making meaningful work can happen? Where feedback elevates the work and the profession as a whole?

If not, let’s build one.

More Bad Ideas Please

“The problem is that you can't have good ideas unless you're willing to generate a lot of bad ones.” —Seth Godin

Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed writing. I grew up making comics and stories. At some point in my life, something clicked, but not in a good way. I became a paralyzed perfectionist. (As a testament to this, I am currently fighting the urge to delete this and go home.)

I have a ton of notes saved on my phone of ideas and writings that I hope to come back to, but I never do. They stay there as headstones of a past thought.

This upcoming Fall I am teaching a course on design criticism. My students will be tasked with writing a lot more about design. I can’t challenge them without challenging myself. 

Going forward with a new platform to share, my hope is that I can share some of my thoughts—be it good or bad.

WritingJake Dugard