Ok, so back to the drawing board. Not the first time and certainly not the last. Let’s just chalk that one up to gainful experience, shall we. You know, sometimes the most obvious creative route is not always the most productive. In fact, from what I’ve experienced over the years, it is most often not. It’s important to remember that you’re working in unknown territory… a foreign land where nothing beneath the surface is familiar. The design problems you face involve getting to know details about those things that are personal and particular to an idea or a need that you probably know very little about beyond just the academics of it. Years ago while teaching a class on Design Principles, I asked my students to consider the following question for homework, “What would you say is the best way to make an elephant out of a block of wood?” I told them to think about it and come back to me the next day with their solutions. The following day, everyone came in and eagerly presented me with pages upon pages of notes and references they had downloaded online. I saw a complete breakdown of the best tools to use, the best wood for sculpting, techniques of the masters, even different breeds of elephants and a ton of photos from different angles for reference. They left nothing out of their research on “how to make an elephant out of a block of wood.” It was quite impressive and the students were very proud of themselves. But there was one student who simply came in with a small, crudely chiseled piece of balsa that looked like what could be recognized as an elephant. Of course, the other students had their doubts and criticisms of his work and told him to ‘prepare for his lack of efforts’. After reviewing all the work, I stood up and walked over to the one student with the sculpture. “Here it comes.” the others said as I scrutinized his craftsmanship. In a calm, inquisitive voice I asked him again, “So what was your best way to make an elephant out of a block of wood?” And in the most sincere but hesitant reply, he simply said, “I just cut away everything that didn’t look like an elephant.” The class broke into an audible gasp! I think I remember someone actually falling out of their seat! Such a confident and complete criticism from those who had spent all night making sure to ‘cover all of their bases’. Ahh, to be so sure of one’s self must have been gratifying indeed for the masses. After the laughter and heckling died down, I turned to everyone and gave them their homework assignment for that night. “Students, tonight’s assignment is to tell me why his solution was more successful than all of yours.” For the one student with the sculpture, he had the night off. I went on to explain that this one student had done something crucially important that no one else had done. He took a risk by exploring that which was unknown to him. He had never picked up a sculpting knife before or worked with balsa. He didn’t refer to pictures of elephants or read how others had honed their craft. He simply approached the solution by recognizing what he didn’t know, and attempted to create based on his own level of understanding. But the solution was much more than that. You see he added no color, no detail around the eyes, no discernable tail or big floppy ears. He gave minimal information and was able to communicate what it was supposed to be to everyone in the class. They all knew it was an elephant. As I went around to individual students and asked them to describe the sculpture, they each gave their own interpretation based on what an elephant meant to them. They put their own experiences into what they saw and connected with it on a personal level. To some it was playing. To others, it was sleeping. It was effective communication at its best, and he didn’t even realize it. . . yet. Research is as much a tool for education as it is for definition. It requires the exploration of those things that are unfamiliar to us, and understanding how the basic principles of design play a part in their communication. Even the simplest items are not to be taken for granted and can have a huge effect on how an overall message is perceived. In fact, it is not uncommon for the most mundane visual elements to have an impact on a solution that is unexpected or overlooked. This can have a negative or polar effect that completely changes the meaning of an intended goal. Consider this example… Everyone knows what a square looks like…what it’s shaped like, what it is going to be when someone says, “Square!”. But at that point it is just a square. So what happens to it when it interacts with another square? Well, it raises a whole slew of questions. What does the other square look like? WHOA! Wait, I thought you already knew what a square looked like. How big are the squares? What color are they? Does one square make the other one look like it is doing something? What’s it doing? Is it fast or slow? Hold it…it’s just a square. How can a square go fast or slow? You see, its not just the focal elements in effect here. It is also their relativity to everything around them. This can be difficult as it is much harder to communicate in simplicity than complexity. The fewer elements you have to work with, the more important and effective they will be on the overall message. This can be a color, a shape, a particular font, etc. Or even the perception of these things. Perhaps the questions to ask while conducting your research should revolve around things like, “What don’t I need?” Or, “What would happen if…?” The approach to research is as unique as a person’s own creative influences and methodologies. For most creatives, its a pretty messy process. And this is as it should be. The origins of creation are always derived out of chaos. Understanding the dynamics of the elements and how they interact with each other is essential before the individual pieces can be put into any sort of defined parameter. Like any craft, you must know not only how your tools work, but how they work together. Similarly, you must know how a concept works and how its communication is affected by a different concept. So remember clients, the next time you ask your creative team to use the color purple in your new logo because it matches your favorite running shoes, try to keep an open mind when they really, really try to suggest an alternative. Research is just one of the many individual processes that make up the Creative Process as a whole. It has its own mechanics, strategies, methods and goals. The Oxford English Dictionary (2002) defines research as, ‘…the systematic study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.’ Wow! Can I get a side of grandiose with that? While the underlying goal of research is effectively the same, remember that an individual’s unique approach is always correct as long as it is mindful of the principles by which it is goverened. Understand your design principles. Noted author Wucius Wong describes the four groups of the Elements of Design in his book, Principles of Two Dimensional Design. They are the Conceptual Elements, Visual Elements, Relational Elements and the Practical Elements. This was one of the foundation texts that I used while teaching and applying these concepts will have a profound effect on how you understand the language of vision. Lastly, remember that research is a process. It requires risk, exploration, discovery and failure to provide results. Ask yourself if what you are about to investigate has already been investigated. Is there any value in reviewing what you already know, or is there more value in breaking something down into understanding the parts that you have always taken for granted. Surround yourself with stimuli and rely on your senses. Reasearch is not all reading. It is experiences and tactile exploration. It is taste and audio. If you must communicate happiness, put yourself in a happy place for sure. But also consider what happiness looks like when you are in your sad place. For without contrast, you will never experience all that the square has to offer. And now. . . . tacos.]]>
What Does the Square Say?
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