The Truth will set your design free
Posted by
Ross Thorton at 13:00

There is nothing like brilliant design thinking packaged in high gloss and delivered on a world stage to set a designer's mind racing. So when I arrived back in Joburg in the first few days after Design Indaba 2014, I was packed to the gunwales with inspiration and desire to do great design.

If I were to reminisce about every speaker that sparked something in my mind, you would still be reading, or have sensibly given up, sixty thousand words later. What I would like to share, though, are four key principles from the Indaba that I still find myself contemplating every day.

These four truths were delivered by four designers as diverse as they are accomplished. I strongly suggest that you look them up and find their presentations because they will likely spark something in your mind too.

The lessons that go with each truth come from my context as a designer focused on brand, product, packaging and marketing - and I hope that they help to make brand design a little more inspiring and effective in South Africa.

Truth 1: Everyone is a designer - Naoto Fukasawa

This sounds controversial and mildly insulting to people that are career designers, but it forces one to think about the definition of design. In affluent society the word conjures ideas of talent, beauty, aesthetic flair and quality, expense, refinement and craftsmanship. Something that is designed is simply better than something that isn't. Yet at its core design is about problem-solving. Fukasawa qualified this statement with the following image:

While a cigarette can be disposed of by discarding it anywhere, the puddle offers a more complete (if not aesthetically pleasing) solution. The water will extinguish the ember, soak it and prevent it from blowing away while also helping it disintegrate. The pedestrian smoker has solved a problem and designed a solution.

So in truth any client - no matter how naïvely they may speak of design - is aware of the problem and is thinking about how to solve it. Look into every brief with this in mind. It wasn't written by someone who can't design. It was written by someone who needs help to realize a solution.

Truth 2: Break the brief - Thomas Heatherwick

Briefs often read like solutions rather than problem statements. The parameters and suggestions are so numerous and explicit that it can feel like a paint-by-number. Fill in the outlines and create a masterpiece, please.

This is not an effective way to get the best out of design - and it is a symptom of a poorly articulated problem. In the same way that irony is used to inversely describe an ugly person ("He's no oil painting", "not exactly a CK model"), possible solutions are often thrown in to try and describe the depth and breadth of a problem. 

This is where breaking the brief comes in. By testing each parameter set out in the brief - pushing it until it breaks - you can gauge if that parameter is critical to the success of the project and eventually reveal the true problem to be solved.

For example, a brief might ask for blue to be the primary colour, but the underlying issue is that the masculine target market is ignoring the product. By coming up with better design solutions to the problem at hand, it will become clear that the colour in the brief was not something to take too seriously.

By breaking the brief, a new set of design criteria can be formulated in which the design is evaluated based on how well it answers the underlying problem of the client.

In Heatherwick's case, the brief he received for the 2012 Olympic cauldron had the 'critical' component of 'no moving parts'. Watch the video below to see how that worked out.


PA Sport News:


Truth 3: Keep it simple and unexpected - Marcello Serpa

To dwell too long on this truth is to do it a disservice. But I will say this: the key to simplicity is immersion. Throw yourself into your projects even when the client's business is unrelated to any of your interests. Be the target consumer and understand the business and its goals as if they were your own. By looking at their challenges with the perspective of an outsider but the understanding of an insider, the simple, elegant and unusual solutions will reveal themselves.

Simple and unexpected? AlmapBBDO for Getty Images:


Truth 4: Don't forget your heritage - DJ Stout

In the South African context, heritage can be a thorny subject. Although we are drunk on freedom and democracy, our heritage is generally a sober affair. Inextricably linked to something as public as our skin colour, it is easy for it to divide us.

In a design context though, heritage is far more personal. It is our own history, memories and experiences, family traditions, preferences and in-jokes.

These are the things that should shine through in your approach to design, giving you a unique touch as a designer.

In Stout's case, his Texas cow-boy heritage comes through ever so slightly in his work. And that's what has become his signature style. Not overtly stylized, but subtly Texan - big Texas with a hint of cowboy pensive.

As brand designers and marketers, we operate in an exceedingly well established and researched sector. We work at creating differentiation, yet it is easy to follow category rules and brand guide-lines and fall into step with global trends - generating perfectly acceptable, but soulless, design.

In a country with diverse, unique and vibrant heritage and talent, we should be bringing Jozi, Soweto and Mother City paradigms to life. Reinventing, playing with and celebrating our own aesthetic will lead to much more interesting and relevant design than a copy-paste of global design trends. If one man's creative influence is distinctly Texan, aren't we falling a little bit behind?  

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