Looking Through The Graphic Design Lens

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What would the world look like if your brain was wired to perceive the world as if through a graphic design lens? That’s what I would like to find out. Let’s explore.

I am not a graphic designer. At least that’s not on my business card. What I am is somebody whose way of looking at the world is easily augmented by extreme focus on a particular visual schema. To be more specific, once, after a 20+ hour stint of 3D modeling in Solidworks, I began to think of the trash can at my desk as merely an extruded circle and my desk itself as the top plane. In fact, for days afterward, I couldn’t help but think about the entire world around me as if I had modeled it in Solidworks using some kind of augmented reality world builder tool. Chalk it up to the plasticity of the brain enhanced by lack of sleep, but its a sensation I’ve never been able to forget. And I have always been curious if people in other design fields have experienced a similar feeling. Graphic designers perhaps, begin to see everything around them for the fonts, the colors, the composition, the negative space. The following is a bit of history, mixed with a dash of fantasy, and a splash of theory for good measure, about what it would be like if your brain was wired to perceive the world as if through graphic design goggles. If you or anyone you know has ever experienced anything like what is described here, please don’t panic. Instead, calmly ask them to come forward and share their experiences in the comments section below.

“Design is a way of life, a point of view.” – Paul Rand

It should come as no surprise that graphic design, in one sense or another, spans the history of humankind. From cave paintings to roman carvings to freeway billboards to iPhone apps, people have been enhancing the transfer of knowledge for centuries. But the concept of graphic design as a way of life is a relatively modern vision. For most designers, design is a way of life and a way of thinking about things, not just a job. For me, every problem I set my mind to can be broken down into distinct parts of pieces of a design process. I am of the opinion that everything on earth can be designed, even nature, as frightening a thought as that may be. As I explore the world around me, I consciously (or subconsciously) take note of products, services, or interactions that work better than others, or that completely fail. If I could afford it, I would only surround myself with things that I consider to be perfectly designed. I also happen to have a design job which occupies much of my daily thought process. So if those anecdotes can be taken as a microcosm of what its like to live your life as an industrial designer, what is the graphic design antithesis?

Graphic design as a way of life

I am intrigued by a notion of graphic design as a way of life. Not working as a graphic designer per se (although that may often be the case), but applying a graphic design lens on all aspects of life. From how people keep track of their friends, to how they organize their silverware, individual lives are visually graphic places and there are often overlooked moments where they are beautifully designed.

To loosely borrow an idea from Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, the things one owns and the relationships one cultivates, together, form a sort of personal aesthetic that defines who we are. Taken altogether, the parts and pieces of ones life form a multifaceted patchwork of memories, experiences, possessions, friendships, accomplishments. While this patchwork is a blend of visual and emotional parts, for the sake of this conversation, it can be imagined as a purely visual representation of a person.

the things one owns and the relationships one cultivates, together, form a sort of personal aesthetic that defines who we are

If you drill down just the right path you can find beautifully designed graphic moments in just about anybody’s life. If you’re having a hard time imagining how your grandma’s living room could possibly be an example of beautiful graphic design: consider the emotional value of the family heirlooms distributed around the room, the memories captured in all the photos, the system of organization that ensures she can find what she is looking for. All of these disparate elements fuse together into a graphic masterpiece when looked at through the right lens.

But just in case you don’t have one of these lenses handy, here are a few examples of everyday moments that bleed brilliant graphic design sensibilities.

Symmetry from Everynone on Vimeo.

DanseDance from Julien Vallée on Vimeo.

Charles Schiller Domestic Kitchen Planning, 2010

Imagine…

Ok, time for some fantasy. I want you to imagine you are a super hero. No, not that kind of super hero. You are Super Graphic Designer and the world relies on you to transform mundane and poorly designed graphics into design gold. Your only weakness? Being too obsessed with your job. You live and breathe graphic design. When you look at a poster, you can instantly identify the fonts, the character spacing, the colors, stroke thicknesses, the composition style, what works and what doesn’t. You instantly sketch an improved version in your head but have more important tasks to address. As you go about your day, improving websites, diagrams, billboards, street signs, posters you adeptly utilize your graphic design goggles that overlay Adobe InDesign tools onto your field of vision. Just as Batman uses his body armor and grappling hooks to fight crime, you use your design goggles to fight bad graphic design. But, although your goggles provide guides, x-heights, color pickers, and type identifiers, you don’t rely on them alone. Your brain is uniquely wired to solve complex graphic design problems. In fact, its virtually impossible for you to do much else, which becomes problematic in social situations. But never mind that. Your goggles have an Insta-Icon-maker tool that lets you look at an object and tap a button on the goggles to initiate an algorithmically generated vector icon. Alright, that’s quite enough of that.

this line of thought that interests me the most is how graphic design could be a really interesting framework to place around the rules we live by

Now back to some (somewhat) serious discussion. The aspect of this line of thought that interests me the most is how graphic design could be a really interesting framework to place around the rules we live by. What would life be like if we had to live our lives according to graphic design principles? A sort of moral code dictated by the visual laws of graphic design but translated into behavioural requirements. What if physics, biology, chemistry, psychology were all turned upside down and rethought according to graphic design principles? What if democratically chosen laws and governments at large were redesigned according to graphic design principles? Here are a few possibilities:

  • The Pixel Grid: In graphic design, the grid reigns. Dictating the placement of elements to ensure a balanced, consistent, and usable composition, the grid must be obeyed. Grids exist outside of graphic realms of pixels of course, in the design of cities, in the layout of homes in a housing community, in the construction of our buildings, in the organizing of our closets, in the patterns of our clothes, in the weave of our fabrics. What then, would the rule of the Pixel Grid be like if it was applied to life? Perhaps everything in the physical world had to fit into a massive invisible grid, such that when you put an object down it would shift to its proper position within the grid, as if pulled by a gravitational force.
  • Color Contrast: The difference between two colors, contrast is what makes it possible for you to be reading these words on this screen right now. When it comes to text on a background, the more different the text color is from the background color the more legible the text becomes – hence the popularity of black text on a white background. In terms of the color wheel, the further away the colors are from each other, the higher the color contrast. Incidentally, this also creates complementary pairs of color. Now, what if we lived in a world in which our closest and most compatible relationships were with people who lived the furthest away from us geographically? Or if the strength of our bonds to others was based solely on how different they were to us?
  • Legibility: In addition to color contrast, legibility is critical in order to read words on a screen, in a scroll, or on a sign. While there are a number of steadfast universal rules that ensure proper legibility, it can be more subjective than the others. Some people may be more adept at reading characters carved in stone that others would deem illegible. What then, would the rule of legibility be like if it was applied to life? A low hanging idea is if all of humanity were born with the ability to write with perfect handwriting in every language on earth, and the ability to read them all, guaranteeing 100% worldwide legibility.
  • Negative/Positive Space: Positive space refers to places where visual information is, and negative space refers to where it isn’t. It is common, and often desirable, to end up with a design that contains more negative space than positive space. Balance can still be achieved if the positive elements are properly “grounded” and not freely floating in a sea of negative space. Speaking of balance, what if your emotional balance tweaked the way you perceived the world such that when you are in a good mood, you see the world for it’s positive space and vice versa when you’re in a bad mood.
  • The Wrong Theory: Slightly more esoteric than the previous rules, the Wrong Theory involves designing everything perfectly then purposefully messing something up for visual excitement and intrigue. Perhaps, in this graphic design-driven society it is the norm to genetically engineer humans to all be perfect and beautiful and then it is up to them to figure out how to become unique by messing up one aspect of their visual perfection? The error becomes the beauty; the flaw is seen as the prize.
  • Wabi Sabi: Similar in many ways to the Wrong Theory, Wabi Sabi is a key philosophy of Japanese beauty. Something that is Wabi Sabi is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”… nurtur[ing] all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” In this radical, graphic design-driven world, everything, from architecture to relationships, to personal tastes might be ephemeral and constantly transforming. In this way, nothing would ever be allowed to achieve completeness, let alone perfecting. As frustrating as this may sound, I think it could be beautiful in many ways.

Paul Rand says, “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse.” So put on your graphic design goggles and look around. You just might see the world a bit differently.

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

2 comments on this article

  1. Sherryl Goodman on

    I love the article. Your writing style is so entertaining and informative – a great combo. And so creative – like the idea of the Super Graphic Designer. I have a funny image in my mind of this character.

    The tone of voice comes across as if you are having a conversation with me (or anyone who is the reader). That’s quite a touch.

    I had a thought about Pixel Grid applied to psychology – what if everyone stood and sat and walked at comfortable distances from us. Yes there are cultural definitions of that comfort distance, but even given that, life might be improved.

    Your Color Contrast ideas are interesting in terms of relationships. I’d like to hear more about your ideas on that. Really, I find all of your ‘possibilities’ to be fascinating – such creative thinking!

    The Symmetry from Everynone video made me laugh and cry!

  2. Richard S on

    Am impressed with your depth of thinking. You just don’t make a statement you back it up with examples and illustrations. Thought the juxtapositions in Everynone was well done[man eating steak next to a cow eating grass[would be better if cow was eating man!] Keep thinking and writing. Fun stuff