The Design Process: Choice

by | Apr 17, 2010

thebookdesigner.com on graphic design and choiceYears ago I set up my first company in a double-wide trailer beside some oaks and manzanita in an out-of-the-way spot on the far side of the Central Valley. With the help of my talented friend Michael, I started doing graphic design jobs for people in the Sacramento area, the closest city. I called it Godspeed Graphics.

Some of these graphics jobs were pretty cut and dried: redoing order forms, creating job tickets, that sort of thing. We had our drawing tables, T-squares, glue pots and hot wax. But some of the jobs were design, where we had to come up with an identity for a regional theater company, a logo and line of stationary for a government agency, or a brochure for a small manufacturer.

When you do a design project, you start with talk. Graphic design is, in a way, visual problem solving. If you don’t know the problem, you can flail around all you want, but you’ll only solve it by accident.

After the talk you retreat to your studio, your office, your den, wherever you usually do your creative work. You do what you do. Who knows where ideas come from? Inevitably the moment of truth for every design project arrives: the presentation of the design(s) to the client.

Now you’ll find out if you were listening correctly, if you were asking the right questions, if the client was being honest with themselves and with you.

I muddled through this phase simply because I had no idea what I was doing, but our design work didn’t look all that bad. Even if we were imitating work of the designers we saw in Communication Arts or Print, at least they were good models.

Eventually I moved to New York and operated a graphic design studio there, Friedlander Design. I functioned as the creative department for a direct response advertising agency run by a college buddy of mine. I was constantly making presentations to his clients. Direct mail campaigns, brochures, annual reports, whatever they needed.

Here’s where we get to the part about choices. A long build up, I know.

When I started doing these presentations I was pretty unsure of myself. I would create three, four, five versions of a design for a series of informational brochures. The clients looked puzzled, uncomfortable. I encouraged them to revise, or combine, or mix and match to get exactly what they wanted.

They didn’t like anything, or only grudgingly. I was crestfallen, wondering if I had any talent at all. After a couple of episodes I was brooding in my office after hours, looking at the marked up prototypes from the meeting that day. Then it hit me: Too many choices.

By presenting the client with all these choices, I was admitting, in a way, that I didn’t know what the solution to their design problem was. I was asking them to do my job for me. Of course they were confused—they weren’t designers!

The next meeting rolled around. It was for a full page ad series for an upstate New York bank. My assistant, Dave, looked shocked and a little nervous when I told him what I planned to do. When the client arrived, I explained in detail, much more detail than usual, exactly the challenge they had set for us in the campaign.

I talked about the different ways it could be approached, what the plusses and minuses were for each. I explained the process we had gone through, and the breakthrough idea we had as we worked on the project.

By the end, the client was almost falling off the front of his seat, he was so anxious to see what the hell we had come up with. Dave walked in with 4 big foamcore boards with our mock ups glued on them. It was the entire campaign, copy, artwork, everything laid out, complete.

No choices. One solution.

The client was overjoyed. Somebody understood what he’d been saying all along. Whether he liked the typeface, or the models we’d chosen, wasn’t really important. He had hired us to solve the problem of communicating his bank’s values to his customers, and we had given him the solution.

But that’s not the end of the story. Throughout the years I worked in advertising, I stayed with this method with complete satisfaction. Not every job got accepted the first time out, there are always revisions, but we were able to articulate the problem, and that’s most of what goes into finding the solution.

Many years later I found myself working as a designer again, as a book producer. Initially my clients were publishing companies who outsourced the back half of the editorial process and the book production chores to independents like me. Gradually, more and more self-publishers started to find me.

Designing for these authors who were turning into businessmen was a new experience for me back then, since all the design work I’d done was pretty much business-to-business. But here were people paying out of their own pocket, or from their small business, for a book that was going to cost them a few thousand dollars at least.

They were connected to these projects in a way no businessperson is connected to a printing job. In some cases they had been working on their book for years, decades. Retired professors who finally wanted to set the record straight. Health practitioners with the secret to longer life. Therapists with a theory on adolescent development.

I could see right away that they needed to project themselves into the design process, they had to leave their mark on the book. I would need a new method for my business. They weren’t hiring me so much to show them the perfect solution, but to guide them through a process in which we would discover what the answer was together.

I had to do a book cover for a political book. Soon I had three completely different interpretations of the aim of the book, where it hoped to take its readers. After the first one, the others came quite quickly. I explained to the author that these designs were arrows pointing in different directions, all he had to do was tell me which path to go down.

It was completely his choice.

Through exercising it, he determined the process and we quickly came to a great conclusion. He couldn’t have been happier. Was the cover design he picked my favorite, the one I would have chosen? No, not really. But I’d found the vehicle that would allow me to help these publishers realize their dream.

Every time, through the power of choice.

In the design process, understanding how to use choice can make a huge difference in communications between designer and client

Image: Flickr.com / Simonov

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