The Feeling of Design
We talk about tonality in music (the harmonic effect of being in a particular key), in color (the color scheme or range of tones used in a picture), in voice (the emotional quality of someone’s voice). Dictionaries define tonality as a general feeling, effect or atmosphere. When you meet someone, you quickly form that important first impression, maybe someone you would want to get to know, someone you’d consider sleeping with, someone you’d never want to see again. That impression is formed through perceiving a bunch of different things like their body language, how much or little they talk, what they say, what they’re wearing, their animation, etc. Just like when you meet someone, people experience graphic design through an overall atmosphere, a feeling perceived, a tone identified. All imagery (designed or not) is perceived when we see it. During this often-immeasurable amount of time (amounting to milliseconds) we go through this complex process of perception and interpret what we’re seeing as a single entity.
During these significant milliseconds, we don't perceive each part of a design individually (the color, the type, the composition, the shape, the actual pieces that make up a single image). If we do want to understand more about what we're looking at, if we are curious, we’ll start see the specifics, the formal stuff many undergraduate graphic design courses focus on. This could take a few more milliseconds, but it’s the most significant time period of viewing: when your audience shows interest to pay attention or moves on, without looking back.
In Robert Bringhurst’s classic book The Elements of Typographic Style, he discusses a typographer picking out a typeface for a book about cycling. Some typefaces use the physical parts of a bicycle to form the letters (the handle bars, the wheels, gears, etc). Logically, it makes sense to consider these, with the notion they amplify the subject matter, in this case is cycling. But what do these forms have to do with the experience of riding a bike? What do the shapes of gear, pedals, handlebars have to do with the feeling of moving swiftly, freely, over the ground? That feeling has nothing to do with what the handlebars or gears look like, and we probably don’t want to be reminded of all of the parts of the bicycle. We just want to enjoy the ride! A better typeface to use, Bringhurst says, is something that is italic, probably something efficient and sans serif. Sans serif italics suggest speed, movement, and freedom, much more so then the clunkiness of the typefaces that use the images of a bike. An italic face amplifies the feeling of riding a bike much more accurately and would be much more appropriate (not to say some situations could work well for the bike shaped letters). This is a critical distinction for designers, and it’s easy to make a wrong turn by thinking you’re making the right choice.
I often ask my clients at the beginning of an assignment what they want their project to feel like, versus what they need it say. I’m looking for adjectives at this stage, which could easily get lost if not clarified early on. This approach could potentially make the project tougher (because it’s much harder to quantify if a piece of design feels historic, revolutionary, clean, etc. versus making sure it has direct visual references). The client, myself and the audience all interpret what an adjective means and it could be trouble if everyone has different criteria for the expression of a feeling. Some clients don't know how they want their project to feel–us designers can help them figure it out. Although this way of beginning could be trickier, it also can lead to a more successful outcome. It’s important to separate the content of a project (banking, politics, technology, theater, etc.) with how it is perceived (fun, established, elegant, trustworthy, etc).
What is Milan Kundera talking about here? What does it have to do with graphic design? If these few sentences were a math equation, we could break it down like this: A = the man throwing up. B = the man who sees him. When B sees A throwing up, he recognizes an emotion being conveyed by A, because B has felt before. That emotion, which the author doesn’t quite divulge but suggests through B’s facial expression, creates a moment of empathy from B towards A, binding them together in that brief interlude. A defining part of our humanity is the capacity to experience emotion, and to recognize it in others. We know what it feels like to be happy, we know what it means to feel sad. We understand the excitement of Garfield the cartoon cat jumping into the lasagna pan with euphoria, because we have felt the joy of eating a meal we love. We know the momentary terror that you feel when you slip, not knowing if you’re going to fall or steady yourself. These are the links that keep us together, sometimes taking unexpected forms, like Milan Kundera’s poetic example in Wenceslaus Square.
The vast majority of graphic design problems are much more emotionally and tonally nuanced then something that’s merely happy or sad. We have to visually express something that has a whole host of adjectives, some of which can be a direct contradiction. A favorite of my client’s answers, when asked what she wanted her company’s logo to feel like, was this: “I know exactly what I want it look like: something classic but modern.” This could easily make a designer frustrated. (What’s she talking about? She knows exactly what she wants? Does she know that what’s she’s thinking of is visually impossible? What the hell is classic and modern, anyway?) If looking at it objectively, it’s clear that something can’t be, by definition, both classical and modern. They are contradictions. She is not describing what it should look like (it could look like anything at this early stage of the process), but instead, she is describing how it should be perceived as something with both classic and modern characteristics. It’s not an impossible task. As designers, we can identify visual cues and symbols that convey classicalism, as well as cues that communicate modernity. The challenge and adventure, at this point, is to use them in tandom, with purpose, clarity and interest.
Children draw humans in the most simple of shapes–a big fat circle for the head, vertical sticks or squiggles for the body and legs, horizontal lines for the arms. But, unknowingly, they are not recording a human body. Instead, what they are visually recording are the physical characteristics of the human body. The big circle doesn’t look like a head, but it conveys roundness, the head's primary visual characteristic. The stick of the torso and legs shows our verticality, the slash that visually describes the arms is only about their horizontality, not what they really look like. Their drawings don’t just record how children see the world, but also suggest how adults see, too. We see, in those first critical milliseconds, a sketch, a total visual gesture of the image before us.
Caricature artists operate in the same way, although with different results, by exaggerating the features that are most identifiable about a particular face or person. We initially see the most pronounced characteristics, in this case the lips and chin of Stallone. In design, we see the ‘corporateness’ of a logo, the 'earthiness' of package, the 'editorialness' of a website before we see the true content.
The title of my course at School of Visual Arts, “The Feeling of Design” approaches graphic design through this lens of perception. What do we want the client and the audience to see in the pieces of design that we make? What does it mean? Most Importantly, how do you get there?