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thoughts and observations about design, information architecture and design history
Wednesday 12|19|01
Info Arch vs. Graphic Design

Gerry McGovern's most recent column decides to pit Information Architecture versus Graphic Design. He obviously does not understand Graphic Design and design training. His arguments assume that the Graphic Designer is purely a purveyor of style and is a graphic artist rather than a problem solver who creates COMMUNICATION solutions appropriate to the medium in which it will be delivered.

Graphic Designers are getting a bad rap across the web and within a lot of communities. The influx of "designers" who spread across the web during the heyday and swathed sites with heavy graphics and inappropriate flash sites have given the field - which concerns itself with creating solutions that most appropriately communicate meaning - a bad name.

The latest Communication Arts issue has an essay by Nancy Nowacek that comes at this Us vs. Them from the point of view of a well trained thoughtful designer. She defines Design to be:

"Design is also understanding cultural signs and human behavior to create resonant, clear, and intuitively usable objects."

This is what Design is about. She also points out that many designers who worked in print, also did signage sytems and environmental spaces, they worked on Annual Reports and a variety of other problems that required careful thought about the problem, the intended communication, the best solution and an understanding of the final presentation medium.

She notes that many of us, in order to continue to grow and work on the interesting projects and to make a difference, have evolved, have changed our titles and pretty much never mention that we are graphic designers. The name, the profession, used be something that she and many of us were proud to tell people. Now we are "Information Designers" or Information Architects" or "UI Designers" but we have dropped the dreaded Graphic because of the negative connotations associated with it by many in the online world.

Many senior designers that I know, have taken their skills in organizing for meaning, in grouping and developing systems and displays, and become Information Architects. The skills are translateable. I am not saying that there aren't a lot of misguided and poorly trained people out there calling themselves "Graphic Designers", but I am asking that we shouldn't all be judged by what a few are doing. I am an Information Architect. I am a Graphic Designer. I use my skills and experience across multiple mediums and have great concern for choosing the appropriate solutions for the medium. There shouldn't be an Us vs. Them. We are Us. We are Them. There are a lot of people I know who feel the same way.

Posted by erin at 12:18 PM | in Criticism :: | Link | Comments (2)

Monday 09|10|01
Teaching Graphic Design

This study done at MIT Media lab, attempts to research and articulate the process and procedures for teaching graphic design. The study looks at a series of design books and draws examples of the design instructions and comes to conclusions about the examples and instructions.

While I find this interesting, I find it strange that the researcher did not study actual beginning design classes. Much of what is found in design books, is example of best practices or case studies. Many books are supplemental to the actual hands on practice and instruction done in the classroom. In many ways, studying design is akin to apprentice models. Learning from the master by example, trial and error and by seeing rather than by reading from a book.

Studying design is not a cookbook type activity and trying to draw those type of conclusions from samples and instructions in books is going to lead to disappointing results. I think the conclusions drwan in the study - "expert systems from graphic design must learn by example" - are very true and may be difficult to automate.

The final conclusion of the study - "We would like to enable an expert designer to communicate design knowledge to a computer in the same manner as he or she would teach a novice design student. We believe that this will be an important step on the road to intelligent systems for graphic design. " has me wondering - is this something we really want to do? Can we teach machines aesthetics and intuition? Can we teach a machine how to recognize harmony in page design and that feeling that a designer has when everything clicks. Those ephemeral parts of design that touch into the collective unconscious and are hard to articulate are often the very elements that move a good design to being a great design. Can a machine experience this? Can a machine create design with these qualities? I'll believe it when I see it.

Posted by erin at 11:42 AM | in Criticism :: | Link

Friday 06| 1|01
Where Are the Websites?

I received my AIGA annual today. I am pleased by the tactile experience of this book. It is a hefty weight and is nearly 2 inches thick with a groovy plastic cover on it. The implication is of bulk, of permanence and no fear if mistaken for a coaster on the coffee table.

The book covers 3 different purposes and instead of publishing three volumes, the AIGA decided to combine the three as well as intersperse commentary around the samples and choices.

The AIGA site says:

"This year's annual was intended to be transformational: the brief called for the book to be an example of design as well as a chronicle of design; to satisfy members' interests in artifacts and also to stand out in bookstores to reach new audiences; to provide context for design, so that the annual would become a vehicle for more than simply documenting competitions. We wanted the annual to demonstrate all of our attributes: open, stimulating, authoritative."

The first section announces this years AIGA medal winners and sports bios of the recipients and samples of their work. Generally not surprising. This year's medals went to Laurie Haycock-Makela and posthumously to P. Scott Makela, Fred Seibert, and Michael Vanderbyl.

The second section is the bulk of the book and is the annual itself. The organization is a bit confusing, the type is too small and the samples, while some are interestingly cropped to show detail, are cropped in such a way that it is really difficult to tell why these particular pieces were chosen. The authors describe and showcase the judges as well as the winners and it is definitely something that warrants more than once pass through. The AIGA site has a discussion going right now that is quite lively about whether this annual is a success or not.

The third part of the book is the AIGA 50 books, 50 covers exhibit. The presentation is similar to the main annual and suffers some of the same issues, although some of the details or much more relevant to the book covers than the previous type pieces.

At the end of the book is an essay entitled "Where are the Websites" author Andrea Moed tells us that a large number of websites were entered into the competition but the judges abstained from selecting any as worthy of being published in the annual. WHY? She goes on to describe that the sites, while they may have been successful for the clients, and usable by the consumer, were all too much the same and none were innovative or ground breaking in their interface. She laments the fate that interface design has come to as innovations are standardized and commercial ventures dare not challenge the status quo.

This is a dilemma for designers. Similar commentary was recently put forth on the SIGIA list as major criticism against the online journal GAIN. The author of this post (I paraphrase here) criticized the designers for not taking the opportunity to design something truly innovative. Especially here as the audience is more visually sophisticated and perhaps more technically adept than the average consumer.

I followed this thread and held my tongue, because at first I was very angry due to some pretty mean words said about print designers and the AIGA, but after awhile I had to agree with the core criticism. I think that designers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do we innovate and experiment with sites that need to be instantly accessible to the world? This gets worse if you work on a large highly trafficked site. How do we innovate and try new things when even the slightest deviation from the "norm" raises the hackles of clients and of the usability folk on our teams? How do we push the concepts of learnability over obvious when users are part of our design process and aren't visionary enough to see beyond what is right in front of them? With the ever growing push for user-centered design methods, designers need to be even more saavy about the research. about interpretation and understand when to follow and when to lead.

I do think we need to push on our own sites - (I am totally guilty of not practicing what I preach on my own site) and that we need to experiment and try new things. This may mean becoming more and more proficient with other tools. After all, HTML can only go so far. I think it means pushing the envelope and taking risks where appropriate.

This idea of contextually appropriate interface is extremely important. My first gut reaction to the GAIN criticism was that anything more would be interface for interface sake and that the delivered UI IS different from the norm but doesn't get in the way of the content. GAIN after all is a journal with articles and people will come there to read them, not fight with an interface.

I wonder too, if the websites didn't make the AIGA annual because they lacked the bells and whistles and the richness that many used to associate with CDROM work. These types of interfaces were often obscure and inspired the curiosity of the user, but once learned could be easy to navigate. And because of the delivery medium designers could utilize the richness of imagery, typography, color, motion and sound in ways that are just too cumbersome on the web.

I have to wonder if the judges used the sites or just looked at static screens? Did they think about the critical thinking and problem solving or the complexity of information on these sites and how that is balanced with the interface to get people to the info? Did they think about the circumstantial limitation of size and speeds at which this interface was to be displayed? Is bandwidth crippling our creativity? Is usability dogma crippling our ability to see through the limitations? How do we balance the ease of use with innovation?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I am encouraged by the fact that many designers are starting to take notice of the sameness out there on the web and question the status quo.

Posted by erin at 08:15 PM | in Criticism :: | Link | Comments (2)

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