Design by Committee
Picture this. A large, cool and comfortable room. A group of men sitting around a conference table. Everyone is at least 50 years, or older. Most of them are academics, or have worked in universities, often in administrative levels, most of their lives. They have requested 3 young designers to come and 'share their expertise' with them. A quick summary below --
The task at hand: Designing the university certificates.
The design tools: A projector, and a university employee with a laptop.
The design solution (as desired by them): Anything that looks 'good'.
Definition of good: Widely debatable.
As we sat at that table (yes it was two friends/colleagues and me at that table), we very rapidly realized the blokes in front of us don't really know or understand what design is. We can't blame them for that. After all, design is still shrouded in mystery for most folks. Putting it mildly, they did't really have a clue, and they haven't the foggiest idea of what we can do for them. We were regarded by some with suspicion, and by some with relief.
Initially, it seemed as if they wanted us to guide the man working on the laptop, as he typed in the various nuggets of information that would appear on the certificate. We could all see what he did on the projection screen. The gentlemen were constantly giving him advice, designerly and otherwise, but mostly designerly.
"Use Algerian font, it's the best.", "Should the logo come on top, or should the university name come first?", "Should we have English or Hindi first?", "University naam curve pe dal (place the university name in a curve)", and many, many more such golden words of wisdom was freely shared. It was both hilarious and tragic at the same time, besides being mildly bizarre. Why were we designers called? To be witness to the 'design by committee' process perhaps, and give it our stamp of approval. At any rate, it proved very hard to explain to some of the gentlemen there what design was, and how it happened. It ideally did not happen in an hour, on a projection screen, with everyone giving their opinion on it. Most of the time we just sat quiet. This caused one of them to laughingly say,"They are not revealing their trade secrets." Yes, if by trade secrets he meant we don't design by popular vote, he was right. Another gentleman, who was more understanding conceded, "No they will do it on their own, when we give them the content."
This university logo was a strange, convoluted being. It was a product of some quick Google searches, Illustrator live-trace option, and ad-hoc colour selection. When we asked who the designer was, there was no clear answer besides, "Ermmm..". There was no question of re-designing this poor logo, yet, "Do something so that it looks nice." Basically, apply a Band-Aid on it when it actually needs major surgery, or complete reconstruction.
There are numerous people, organizations, institutes, and bodies like this, where design is a mysterious word. Or design is simply beautification. How does one explain design to someone, who doesn't have a clue as to what design is? How does one explain its value, its process, its role and importance? How can you tell someone that design is more that just its tools? Needless to say, we didn't get into it then and there.
Ten lessons from Vision Plus 2010
17–19 December 2010
National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India
The last weekend was an interesting and informative one with the 14th conference of Vision Plus being held for the first time in a developing country, and whats more, right on home ground! Yes, it was organised by IIDj (Institute for Information Design Japan) and the NID (National Institute of Design) played host making it a great experience for all. There were numerous speakers from all over the globe and India, and the topics were diverse, ranging from mobile technology, to signage, to interfaces, to medicine packaging, to rural communication. There were eye-opening discussions, and I came away re-thinking the entire role of graphic design, and the growing importance of information design. Too many things around us, in fact the very important things around us are badly or inappropriately designed. It is an irony that we live in world where the Nike logo and packaging will be perfectly designed, but your bank form will be a test of patience and eyesight. Millions are spent on communication that will sell, but too little is invested in communication that will aid.
Overall, some of the things I came away with are:
1) Text is as important as design (yay!). This was something I personally had felt since a long time, since I joined NID. The words that are forming part of your communication, be it online, in a leaflet, or on a strip of Crocin are important. Because people WILL read. They won't get the information they need just from admiring your pretty fonts. Re-writing the text, and re-structuring the text is as important, and in fact the first stage in providing a solution. Good design is not enough when the text itself is confusing or unclear. Of course good design really, really helps in communication, once the text is coherent.
This was reaffirmed time and again in Vision Plus, especially by certain presenters such as Karel van der Waarde and Alex Tyers. Karel can der Waarde showed us how medicine packaging is mostly unreadable, and inaccessible even in Europe (surprise surprise!). Often pamphlets or some kind of literature is handed out with medicines in Europe, and these are hard to read. Even the text itself is confusing. Medicines have numerous complexities and layers such as one can't consume a certain drug if one has one of the ten conditions mentioned. This is often where text appears to repeat itself or get redundant.
2) Intuition is not enough. Too often designers tend to think that they know best, but as designers we have to go out there and understand users time and again. When we think something will work, we are just taking a personal stand point, and are missing out on hundreds of voices and opinions which may provide some enlightening insights. Design is not about personal choice and preference.
3) Research—design balance. A great question put forward by Karel van der Waarde (I think) in the end was how much should we as designers research, where do we draw the line, how do we walk that fine line of research and design? As Professor Ranjan (of NID) summed up, there is evidence-based design and design-based evidence, and they both are on two sides of a river, which needs to be bridged.
4) Design is focussed on what looks good rather that what works. Many people expressed this point, among them Jay Rutherford and Alex Tyers. Jay Rutherford rightly said that a standardly educated graphic designer tends to worry about how it will look rather than how it will work. This is the crux of the problem and the reason we encounter so much lousy design around us today. Most people (including many designers in India) think that if it looks beautiful its enough, even if the user can't read the 9pt type. This fascination with tiny typography actually rules out a huge reader base of forty-plus people, and those with weak eyesight. This can be accepted in a fashion magazine but not on heart medication, or insurance policies.
5) Design as a term is changing meaning daily. Today design may be enabling users to create their own solutions through workshops or other means. It could be helping people create their own tools to improve their life. Design is no longer 'giving' a 'solution'. Problems are being solved in new ways everyday.
6) You can't parachute into another culture to 'give' design solutions and parachute out. Jay Rutherford pointed out that too often Western designers think they can land in developing countries, tell people what to do, and leave. This, according to him, is a bad way of doing things. And I agree. Its not that Western designers cannot help developing countries, but they need to first spend months if not years in understanding the context, as it is so different and varied. An audience member rightly summed it up as 'we have to understand that we don't understand everything about other cultures'.
Mr. Rutherford explained how information design in India is such a complex thing. Take the domain of road signage. Presently they are haphazard, and inconsistent. There is no system in short. We actually need city signage in three languages — Hindi, English and the local language. Now again, which order should they be in, and how large each should be is a matter of debate. Mr. Rutherford had a very keen observation about our Indian airports which set me thinking. He noticed, while in Bangalore airport, that the English signage was much larger than the Hindi and Kannada signage which immediately followed it. He was wondering why this was, and indeed it is strange that our own local languages have secondary importance. Probably we are one of the very few countries in the world to do that. Is it the colonial hangover? Is it because most people who can afford air travel are also predominantly English readers?
7) Culture and context are everything. Lakshmi Murthy and Tarun Deep Girdher showed us how important understanding a local culture is. And how rural India is a different world, of which we urban designers know naught. In rural India, the simplest of devices can work most effectively. I especially loved Lakshmi Murthy's solution for the pregnant women in rural Rajasthan. These women do not eat a proper diet during pregnancy because of many myths and habits. Women often eat last, and they eat left-overs. They sometimes believe things such as the baby needs space to grow, so don't fill that space with food, and so on. After educating the women on the importance of food, she has a simple tool to remind them to eat a well-rounded meal. She shows them an Indian flag, the tricolour. One can lift each colour strip to see the pictures of food below. For example, under the orange band there are all orange foods, under the white all white foods, and under green the green foods. This reminds women if 'have they eaten all the colours today?' This was information design at its best. A simple solution, easy to create, replicate, relate to and understand.
8) Can there be universal icons? Most probably not, precisely because of the above point. We may take some symbols for granted, such as the tick and the cross, which most of the educated world recognizes as right and wrong, or do and don't. Tarun and Lakshmi showed us how, in rural India however, the cross is seen as two bamboo sticks, or a kind of stand used in rural India. The object represented below the 'cross' maybe perceived by a rural audience as being placed on the stand. What's more, the tick mark maybe seen as a hatha-walla lota, a utensil used to serve water in India. So icons are not as powerful as designers like to think. In fact, they can add to confusion. In a very different context, Alex Tyers reaffirmed this same point. Even in Australia, a more homogeneous society, icons can be perceived differently by different people, and so he has not used them in some of his work where communication is effectively achieved through good typography. Users spend more time trying to figure out your icon, or worse, they interpret it wrongly.
9) Typo, typo, typo. Strangely, a lot of designers are averse to typography, and I have heard a lot of industrial designers comment on how it is over-hyped. Actually, one doesn't notice typography unless it's really bad, and then it's mostly too late. Good typography aids design much more than even I imagined. And this point was reflected in many people's presentations. Alex Tyers showed us a lot of work, which used typography effectively for really good communication. He started the presentation with 'You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.' Barack Obama said this regarding something else, but it applies to design as well. Some important points that Tyers brought up were (and I am quoting his presentation here)
a) To use a design effectively, a person must be able to see how to use the information it contains. In other words, the design should aid the user in finding what she/he wants.
b)Think of design as a series of tasks a person must be able to perform rather than layout, typography and aesthetics. This is specially true for graphic designers, as too often we focus strongly on the latter and forget about what the user will need. I experienced exactly this while doing the Parsee book as well. It helps when you think 'What will the user want to do/read first?'
c) The tasks relate to navigation, attention, and reading comprehension.
d) People can visualise how to use information when
— It is all located in one place
— It is structured around tasks
— It is in the order that people would use it
e) This approach must be backed by
— Writing information to support tasks
— Typsetting that provides distinct voices for different people. This is really useful way to think about type. Often I struggled with the 'what font should I use for this?' syndrome. To imagine your text as having a voice is a great tool. What is it doing, giving an order, asking a question, pointing you some place, or providing an answer?
— Editing out any distraction on areas that have a visualizing function (back to the universal icons point)
10) Is the design liberating? And finally, it was Shilpa Das who asked if the design is liberating for disabled people. This is a very valid point, and it can apply to design in general too. Sometimes design hampers us, and what was meant to aid, becomes a hindrance and a source of frustration. She said we have to 'listen to disabled people's voices'. We have to listen to everyone's voices, especially those of the disabled, women, children and the elderly.
All in all, I learnt a lot from the various presenters, and have only noted things most pertinent to the field I work in. Unfortunately I missed part of day one, and was not able to attend each presentation. Have some videos which I will be posting soon.
Information design is crucial, and has new challenges in a culture as diverse as India.
Many thanks and congratulations to Rupesh Vyas, Andreas Schneider and the entire Vision Plus team.
The New Yorker