Inspiration vs. Replication

Inspiration is one of the most necessary tools in a designer’s arsenal. It can also be one of the most dangerous if used incorrectly. Pablo Picasso once said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” There are a few meanings to this, but the core message is that inspiration is something that shouldn’t necessarily be chosen preemptively to the start of the process. Expressive inspiration will reveal itself after one has done their homework.

In the design world, paying close attention to the trends others are establishing and following is essential to staying modern. There has never been a successful designer who didn’t watch closely what others were making. A terrific way to do this is paying attention to what is winning awards. This watchfulness is absolutely necessary, but it can also be a trap. If one merely spends their career replicating trends, everything that person creates will ultimately be homogenized and undifferentiated.

Replication is the downfall of the effective graphic designer. Peering at works at face value and simply following those exact guidelines in their work is not how one should approach their process. The effective designer will use inspiration, but before they can use it, they must do their own studying. They need to break it down and understand what exactly about the designs they are analyzing makes them successful and if any of the same elements have a place in their project. It is entirely likely that an element that works so well in one project may completely ruin something else.

Once a designer understands what concepts will strengthen their own, this allows them to branch out from that inspiration. Branching out from here allows the designer to use their plentiful creativity to build on top of their concepts and step into new lands design-wise. At this very point, they’ve now crossed over into creating something that is entirely their own, but with a foundation of understanding good design elements. Understanding this process can be the real difference between a sufficient designer and an award winner.

Returning to what Picasso said, finding inspiration is not the first task. Developing a path that will lead a person to the most appropriate inspiration and building from there should be. The end product will be that much better because of it.

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A Great Gingerbread Build

This winter, MJM is proud to unveil a new item to our list of services: award-winning gingerbread architecture and construction.*

The project started with a challenge hosted by the Sioux Falls Design Center and Downtown Sioux Falls, Inc.: build the mightiest house East of the Missouri River. Inspiration for our design came from ever-dropping temperatures in the Sioux Falls area and ancient Norwegian Architecture. We assembled what little gingerbread construction experience we had, and, with heaping portions of sweet supplies, built the Nordic Nook.

The Nordic Nook

Supplies: pretzel rods, honey pretzel twists, waffle pretzels, licorice, chocolate graham crackers, ice cream cones, vanilla wafer cookies, rock-shaped chocolate candies, peppermint candies, sugar sprinkles, almond slivers, almond bark and royal icing.

Supplies not used: gingerbread.

Our Norwegian Nook survived the trek from the MJM space to downtown Sioux Falls, where we ultimately were awarded the Judges Choice Award in the Business/Organization category. We’d like to assume it would perform just as well against a harrowing South Dakota winter.

*Due to consumption of leftover resources by MJMers, gingerbread building services are suspended until further notice.

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A Means to Become Better

Recently, I was assigned the task of writing an article for BizNOW Magazine on one of our amazing clients, Compassion Child Care (CCC). As an English writing major at the University of Sioux Falls, I am no stranger to spending countless hours on long research papers or book analyses. But this made me slightly unsure of how my writing style would transfer over to be appropriate for a business magazine. I could hear my older sister’s words, as a former journalism student, echoing in my ears, reminding me to stop relying on big words to make my writing sound better. Her recent comments have encouraged me to work on my weaknesses as a writer and to continue to improve my craft.

Even though I knew the task of writing for a magazine was out of the realm of what I was used to, I decided to embrace this opportunity as a learning experience, and I went ahead and dove in!

Despite my slight apprehension, the interview process went great, with co-worker Tim coming to save the day by bringing a voice recorder for me to use. (Still really grateful for that, Tim. You’re the real MVP.) I was happy to be able to visit the daycare and see firsthand the quality of care they offer children and families. Dawson, the director of development at CCC, told me all about amazing daycare and answered all my questions. So far, so good!

After producing my first draft, Shannan and Justin offered plenty of guidance on how I could improve the content. I took their advice and scheduled an additional interview with a board member to add more quotes and insight to my article. Shannan and Justin again provided many tweaks and suggestions upon reading my next draft, and both commented on the formal qualities of my work and that it needed a more “journalistic style,” which Shannan significantly helped me with. She did so by adjusting the format of my article and ridding it of un-needed content. As a writer trying to get a grasp on the journalistic style, it was advantageous for me to compare her edits with my original work.

Of course, any article worthy of a read is concise and engaging, but these were the qualities of the journalistic style that I was struggling to get a grip on, as my original draft sounded more like a paper and less like an article. I was incredibly grateful for the guidance offered to me during the writing process as I was adjusting my writing’s style and voice. I think it’s a person’s first instinct to receive constructive criticism and get down on themselves, thinking they failed the task at hand.

Yet, we need to train our minds to view constructive criticism for what it is: a means to become better at our craft. Resources are there for a reason, so use them!

A skilled writer is able adjust their style and voice and direct it towards a particular audience. While wordy writing might be appropriate for one of my papers, (and maybe help add fluff when I’m struggling to reach the assigned page length), it will not appeal to readers of BizNOW Magazine. For my next article, I will take the advice Justin and Shannan have given me and use it to produce something great.

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Selective Reduction as a Creative Act

There are a lot of choices that go into making a photograph–the moment and angle you take the picture, what you include in the background and what you crop out, the distance from the subject and the focal length. We tell the story we choose to tell in our photographs, and this short video from Canon illustrates that truth well.

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it. To prove this we invited six photographers to a portrait session with a twist. ‘Decoy’ is one of six experiments from The Lab, designed to shift creative thinking behind the lens.”

From Canon’s The Lab

To take a photograph is an act of creation, but it is also an act of curation, of simplification and reduction. Out of an entire situation or scene we select one small portion of, and we hold that small slice of the moment up as a representation of the whole scene.

We have a sense that the photograph is a truth-teller, that images don’t lie. But each image is the product of a selective reduction of a complex moment in time. A photograph can’t help but be “lower resolution” than the real moment, and so something is always edited out.

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Critique: Invitation to Collaboration

Why Critique?

We often have a romantic idea of how the design process works—that designers emerge from their creative place with an idea fully formed. In the early stages of any new project, a designer has to make a large number of rapid decisions that will inform the final state and success of the project. The blank canvas necessitates early exploration and trials, but looming deadlines raise the stakes. The ticking clock often means we designers resort to techniques and styles that are familiar and comfortable. It’s a lot of pressure to place all of those decisions on one back. Enter the design critique.

Critique as Collaboration

Critique is an opportunity to test new ideas and a checkpoint to ensure the design solution meets the objectives the client laid out in the beginning. Critique is an invitation into the design process, extended to your team, to help you refine and improve upon your work. The introduction of other perspectives into the process often brings breakthroughs and eureka moments, a result of the intersection of new ideas. Your colleagues will also be valuable navigators who can help you correct course when the project wanders away from the stated objectives.

Facilitating an effective design critique with your team takes some careful thought, especially if you want to feel that collaborative glow rather than a process train wreck. To those ends, it’s helpful to establish a few roles at the beginning. You’ll want to identify the designer in charge of the project—the designer who will be responsible for taking the feedback received and implementing it. This designer will also likely be the person best equipped to introduce the project. Secondly, you’ll want someone in charge of facilitating the critique process. It will be very tempting to run off on creative tangents and the facilitator will have to reign those in when they do happen. They’ll need to keep everyone on task, and make sure feedback is delivered objectively and in a helpful format.

Here’s a basic outline of how a critique could be run.

Briefing:

The designer or owner of the project should briefly introduce the project. This should include client needs, communication goals, limitations and intended use of the design. The goal is to ensure the group understands the problem and the initial approach to developing a solution. The facilitator should keep things moving, and ensure the conversation does not wander. Don’t let the designer explain every little detail—it will eat up a lot of time, and might color the feedback others give later in the critique.

Review:

The team should be given time to consider the design solution and ask questions of the project owner. The facilitator should encourage group members to write down their notes and suggestions, but save them for later in the critique process. The goal at this stage is to simply become acquainted with the project and gather information before assessing the design’s effectiveness.

Reflect:

At this stage, it’s helpful to take some time for team members to silently assess their notes and suggestions and remove any subjective reactions to the work. It may be helpful to consider the following:

  • Does the solution presented address the problem stated in the briefing?
  • Is anything missing from the solution that could still be implemented?
  • Avoid getting caught up on small aesthetic details, unless the designer/owner has specifically requested feedback in that area.

Collaborate:

Finally, it’s time to get vocal. Having created notes and reactions in relation to the goals of the project, they are ready to be shared with the team. It’s helpful to share both positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback is especially useful because it helps identify parts of the design that are working well and ensures these parts don’t accidentally get scrapped. At this time, the designer should take notes and generate a task list of things to tackle once the critique ends.

Critique is a skill that develops with practice. Your team will continue to provide better feedback when you continue to include them in your creative process. As a team, you’ll come to develop a common vocabulary and criteria for assessing the work that you do. And as a team you’ll see greater ownership and investment in good process and good work.

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Designing Money: Reimagining Printed Currency

The design of the physical money in our pockets says volumes about us: how we see ourselves as a nation; what we value as a nation (or at least what we say we value); what we consider to be quintessential elements of our national identity. It’s a daunting task to create a design that captures the essence of a country well enough to represent that country on its currency. In the last week we’ve seen two highly imaginative treatments of currency, one real and one hypothetical.

The real…

Norges Bank, the central bank of Norway, unveiled a new set of design concepts for their printed kroner. The final concepts for the currency redesign were chosen from submissions by a number of design agencies.  In a somewhat unusual move, the final designs will be a hybrid of two different teams’ concepts–the front from one design team and the back from another, according to a press release from the central bank:

Norges Bank has decided that a combination of two proposals submitted will go on for further work. The obverse sides of the notes will be developed on the basis of the proposal from The Metric System, Norwegian Living Space. The basis of the reverse sides will be the pixel motifs submitted by Snøhetta Design, Beauty of Boundaries.

The teams involved took visual elements that represented the country and created a series of compositions, one for each denomination– 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 kroner. One of the challenges was to create a set of images that were easy to differentiate at a glance, but also hung together as a cohesive set. On top of that were all the requirements put in place to foil or frustrate would-be counterfeiters.

Scheduled for a 2017 release, the final designs may look differently than these initial concepts, but the overall approach has been chosen. Here are the combined obverse and reverse of the proposed bills:

You can see more images of the winning designs and read some more of the thought behind those designs in Fast Company’s behind-the-scenes article. You can see also the “B sides” from each design firm, as well as some of the other concepts that were considered in this PDF from the bank. (If you read Norwegian and would like to write a synopsis, I’d be happy to repost it here.)

…And the hypothetical

Just as compelling are these hypothetical redesign concepts for US currency submitted to the public by a Redditor sometime last week. It’s a beautiful reimagining of the printed currency that I would be equally glad to spend or to hang on my wall. I appreciate the subtlety of the set, and the strong geometry in each composition.

I don’t have any illusions that there will be a major redesign of the US currency anytime soon, but they’re beautiful to behold and I’m glad they’re out there.

Your Next Project Is Not Going To Be Easy

Possibilities usually come disguised as hard work. Don’t expect your next project to be easy.

Things fall apart

Anyone who tries to make something or do something finds that there is resistance. It’s an accepted fact of life that things tend toward disorder–cars break down, paint peels, joints begin to ache as we age. We expect that things left to themselves will fall into disorder. But it is also the nature of things to resist being brought into order in the first place. The world around us not only tends toward chaos, it also drags its feet when we try to make something out of that chaos.

There will always be problems–something will break, or blow up, or you’ll have to scrap the whole thing and start over. The problems only reveal themselves as you dig into the work.

Go looking for trouble

The reality is that most projects have inherent obstacles, stubborn sticking points, intractable awkward aspects that only reveal themselves as you dig into the work. If you begin your project expecting to not run into obstacles, you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary discouragement. If on the other hand, you start the work with the expectation that some things will probably go awry, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they immediately do. You’ll be able to tell your friends how clever you were to see it coming.

Include extra grit in your budget

It’s normal to build in extra time and money in your estimates on a given project, to cover unforeseen contingencies. The trick is to also mentally set aside a store of patience and perseverance so that when problems do arise, you’ll be resilient enough to follow the work through whatever obstacles come up. Because there will always be problems–something will break, or blow up, or you’ll have to scrap the whole thing and start over. That can sound pessimistic but it’s really not. We’re not looking for problems so that we can be defeated. Without knowing what they will be, we can anticipate that there will be problems and mentally prepare ourselves for the task of figuring out how to solve them.

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The Clever Design of the Isomorphic Keyboard

As a lover of musical instruments, I have started to accrue a number of instruments that I can barely play. I fall in love with the sound and want to make those sounds myself, but often get stuck in the early stages of learning the proper technique to play them. One instrument I recently discovered has changed all of that through a design decision that significantly lowers the barrier to musical exploration.

The isomorphic keyboard has one incredibly brilliant idea at its core: any interval of notes or any chord that you play will always have the exact same shape, no matter what key you play that chord in. A major or minor triad will be played in the same way in the key of B minor as it would be played in C major. Inverted voicings of those chords would utilize the same pattern, no matter the key. The isomorphic keyboard illustrates the concept in music theory known as transpositional invariance.

As a visual person, what I most appreciate about this type of keyboard is that it makes the structure of music visible to the eye, and does so in a constant manner. Compare it with the traditional layout of a piano keyboard, which places keys in a linear fashion, left to right increasing in pitch. The isomorphic keyboard is a grid, or plane. You can move left to right and increase in pitch, but you can also move up and down as well. It adds a new dimension to your music performance. Seeing how melodies and chord progressions evolve through space in such a manner makes them so much more memorable. Some isomorphic keyboards, such as the Ableton Push, feature a grid that can be adjusted from a chromatic scale to one which only features notes within the scale you are playing in.

Again, the magic of this is the ability to move between musical keys while utilizing the same patterns for chords and intervals. The time needed to learn all 12 major and 12 minor keys and their associated chords with a traditional keyboard is extremely time-consuming, and maybe impractical for a hobbyist such as myself. An isomorphic keyboard solves this issue through its design.

Does an isomorphic keyboard replace the traditional keyboard? I don’t think so, and I certainly don’t have the experience with the piano to make such a claim. But for a generation of musicians who are learning music in the paradigm of music production, a tool that helps them move seamlessly between scales is extremely valuable for quickly exploring new ideas.

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“It’s ok to look back and cringe”

One of the cold hard facts of the creative life is that we all have some past work that we’re not proud of. We’ve all put our names on projects in the past (maybe not even the very distant past) that we now hope will be forgotten. Sometimes the most painful part of seeing old projects is remembering how much I liked them at the time. That introspective regret is probably a common experience in any line of work, but in creative work it can be especially discouraging.

It’s okay to look back and cringe. As creatives, if you aren’t looking back and cringing you aren’t getting better.
—@SusanGKoge via @99u

“It’s ok to look back and cringe.”

A few days ago, I saw this quotation from a talk by Susan Gregg Koger, Founder & Chief Creative Officer of ModCloth. She was speaking at the 99u conference and what she said made an impression on a number of people, for good reason: It’s a refreshing reminder that all of us are in process.

As we develop, we’ll have good reason to critique the work of our younger selves. The work that we’re not happy with might not disappear as quickly as we’d like, but there’s no reason to lament that. If your goal is to have a perfect record, you’re not going to do much–you’ll be too scared to try things. The only reason to think about what you don’t like in your old projects is to do something different in your new projects. Looking in the rearview mirror is useful at times, but it’s a bad way to drive.

Focusing on the creative act, not the final product

Our interns (5 and 3 years old) create a prodigious amount of artwork. My sweet five-year-old girl loves coloring and has recently added mixed media to her portfolio, cutting and gluing things together in all manner of combinations. Some things she has made we’ve kept for years, and it’s interesting to see her find them again. She turns them around, half-remembering the crayon lines and bits of paper. Even more interesting is that she doesn’t linger on those old pieces very long. She’s too young to be embarrassed about the past, and usually too busy making her current project to give it much thought. She’s more engaged in the creative act, and less worried about the final products.

The reality is that there will be lots of “final” products, and some of them will be cringe-worthy when you see them again in a year or five years. Take those cringing moments as a sign that your taste is being refined, and your design sensibilities are being sharpened, and move on. There’s a lot more work to do.

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Stories Give Us Access to the Senses

If I asked you to tell me about your day would you give me the number of breaths you took? Would you inform me that the number of steps you took was 23% higher than yesterday? Would you tell me about how many ounces of coffee you drank or the minutes you waited to get your coffee served? You might. But you’re more likely to tell me about the old friend you met at a cafe and how you spent the noon hour on a walk to catch up.

Numbers can show great leaps of progress or small measures of change. They can articulate a problem and stun. They can represent chilling or inspiring statistics. But are they powerful enough to evoke action? Are they human enough?

Founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison, presented on the scarcity of clean water for people in developing countries at the 2014 OTA conference. He outlined the problems these people faced and the solutions charity: water was providing using numbers and stories. Guess which would stick?

  • He gave the audience a fact: 800 million people are living without access to clean water in the world today.
  • He told the audience a story: A teenage girl living in a remote village spent most of her days walking to a natural well, waiting in line to collect water and walking back with a heavy pot full of water. One day her pot fell from her hands, breaking on the dry ground. From the pieces of broken ceramic, she pulled the rope that held it to her body. She used it to end her life.

What is more memorable? (I’ll give you a hint: I had to look up the number.)

  • Another fact: charity: water has been able to supply more than three million people get access to clean water
  • Another story: charity: water helped build a well in a community where mothers and daughters were responsible for collecting water. After it had been installed, one woman told the organization that not only did she have extra time in her day and enough water to care for her family, she could care for herself. She felt beautiful.

The statistics might wow, but numbers so large are unimaginable. The problems that each person faces are simplified when they become a lump of 800 million. The people are simplified. When we invite narrative to the discussion, however, we have a mnemonic device for something so enormous and unreachable.

Stories give us access to the senses and can lodge these things into our memories. It’s no wonder that we teach children about numbers in units of cheerios, tricycles and pumpkins—things they can touch, smell and taste—instead of an abstract symbol.

Numbers give us important reference points, too. We can say 800 million people are without access to clean drinking water, and we can give it a scope by saying that’s 1 in 9 people on the planet. Nine is a number I can comprehend and 1 in 9 is a perspective I can count on my fingers—a perspective that just might give me a story to tell.