What happens when designers ask, “What if?”

Background

If you follow this blog then you know that, last year I decided to leave my corporate job and a 30 year career as a professional design practitioner and go back to school. There were a lot of motivating factors, but most exciting was the idea of pursuing what happens when design is integrated on the “epic” level. By that I mean, when design is firing on all cylinders, not just great communications or great product design, but holistically woven into every aspect of a company. Whether, in reality, they fit this description, Apple is the company that comes to mind.

As I settled into academia, I began to hone in on a thesis that would embrace the notion of epic design. Pull this thread with me…

 

Design and culture

It doesn’t  take a great deal of thought to acknowledge that culture produces design and, in turn, design influences culture. Invention, information, entertainment, transportation, medicine, you name it, they’re all floating in a soup that produces a culture of expectation and more invention. The cycle repeats.

 

Design and narrative

Reach into the soup and pull out one of those ingredients and you will also find a story attached to it. Where did it come from? Why did it take this form? How did it come to be? What were the conflicts? Who was involved? When did it happen? All of these combine into some kind of story narrative. Ultimately, everyone and everything has an origination story. At the very least there is a master narrative that gives context to us and all the things that surround us.

 

Prototyping

How might a designer explore this design-culture relationship in an unfettered exercise of creativity? How often does the designer sit down and ask, “what if?”

What can we learn from examining the design-culture relationship in the purity of the hypothetical. I decided that the answer was fiction: to create a story in the future where everything has changed except for the human condition, and to produce this work in a visual prototype — a graphic novel.

 

The discussion

That’s the premise. I have a particular interest in what designers think, but also anyone  anyone who creates future narratives, graphic novels, comics, movies, art, but also anyone who thinks about what could or should happen next? How does a movie director or screenwriter come at it? A novelist? A futurist? A photographer? A production designer? A game designer? How would you approach it in any profession? What do you think of this exercise? Are you already doing it? Take a few minutes and think about it. How can creativity contribute to future scenarios and what do we take away?

 

I invite you to join the discussion. Some suggestions: Leave a simple comment, a paragraph, a paper, a link to further study or related topics. Leave your comments below and let’s see where this leads.

 

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Finding Meaning Survey Results

concept design

As promised, I am passing on the results of my survey that many of you participated in via Survey Monkey a few weeks ago. I did not get nearly as many responses as I had hoped for. It was the week before finals and a lot of people here must have been too busy to to get to it before it expired. Thus, far from conclusive, it satisfied the assignment, and as with all research, it just leads to new questions. Herewith, the executive overview. The whole idea was to test comic scholar Scott McCloud’s assertion from Understanding Comics, that readers have more difficulty “filling-in” the gutter (the gap) between panels (the frames) when the artwork is more detailed. He also says that people identify more easily with a cartoon figure than a realistic figure. I found this somewhat hard to swallow, so I set out to test it. As you know there were two, very short stories; one in cartoon fashion and one using CG renderings. Essentially, they were intended to tell a similar story.

The first question asked participants to tell what happened in each story. There were various responses for each, but for story 2, the realistic one, people were able to read much more detail into the character and his predicament. In question 2, participants were split equally on which story seemed more “real”. For question 3, story 2 was clearly the winner in conveying more emotion. It was also the preferred story to “continue reading” for question 4, though there were a fair number who would like to have read both. If you’re into the nitty-gritty details on every question you can download my project summary report via this link.

While I didn’t put Scott McCloud on notice with conclusive research, I got enough of a response to at least put his theory in the “subjective” category. Thanks to all who participated.

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The Karate Kid and the graphic novel

14 books into my graphic novel research for winter quarter, I have read commentary and analysis on form and mechanics, layout and design, aesthetics and narrative from comic critics, film critics, academicians and philosophers. I have studied the works of WIll Eisner, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, and Frank Miller — just to name a few. And then there are the contemporaries, Scott McCloud, Dave Gibbons, Howard Chaykin, Moebius, Mike Mingola, Enki Bilal, Alex Ross and that’s just scratching the surface. There are literally hundreds on the list of comic artists who’s work is not just important for their unique style but for their contribution to the story. While critics and analysts may not agree on much when it comes to the art form of the sequential narrative, on one thing they to seem to converge: the art is a combination of sequential art and written narrative, more of the former and less of the latter. In this regard then it is the work of these prodigiously talented comic artist s that told an enormous part of the stories of Superman, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Watchmen, Hellboy, The Spirit, Batman, Spiderman and more. Sometimes they wrote. Sometimes they drew. Sometimes they did both. What is clear is that these artists propelled the story, captured the essence and defined the emotion that the writing could not capture — and wasn’t intended to. These artists were, in large part, the true driving force behind the art form that has bent and twisted itself into what we now see as graphic novels— not to mention the continuing world of comics themselves.

Today there are dozens of new and unheralded talents creating the new forms and conglomerated genres that make up the category of sequential narratives; good and bad. So what does this have to do with my own quest toward a graphic novel? With eight books to go this quarter, I find myself chomping at the bit — like the (original) Karate Kid — wax on, wax off. I’ve been taking copious notes. I’ve made a good start on my annotated bibliography, written several reports and even established a few of my own theories along with a sizable list of what I want to try, the beginnings of an outline, I know the rules I want to break (or at least bend), and the parts of the envelope that I want to push. Now, like the aforementioned Kid, I can’t wait to start kicking something.

But I know, discipline is good and basking in the light of the masters never hurt anyone.

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Inspiration and the graphic novel

Inspiration comes in many forms. This week I have spent slammed by the flu and fever. Today was probably my most lucid. Perhaps that has something to do with it. At any rate, I am reading David Carrier’s The Aesthetics of Comics and though a touch on the academic side for me, I may be grasping (fully) for the first time the true integration of the word balloon and the image. Scott McCloud and David Carrier are in agreement: they are one. To my friends who may casually follow my blog from week or month to month, I’m already introducing jargon that is foreign but now very much a part of everything I am doing; these are conventions, the constructs of the comic medium. Carrier, who spawned this inspiration writes, “Awareness not just of the words balloons contain but also of their purely visual qualities is part of our experience of comics.” In other words, in the comic medium, the visual style of the word balloons may carry as much subtle narrative as the picture. This pushes hard on the notion that several typefaces may have to be designed for this comic, not only for the world in which my characters inhabit, but also in the way they speak. Surely, the audio of comics is part of the design of each panel. The “rat-a-tat-a-tat” of the machine gun that sweeps across the panel is integral to the image. Thus, audio becomes a visual cue. Should each character have their own typeface? Is this too disconcerting for the audience? I think not. From what I have seen the graphic novel reader probably scores a 10+ on the visual literacy scale.

Stuff to think about. The saga continues.

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Journey to the graphic novel

What a circuitous route we travel. Here I am, middle aged, back in school and kind of doing what my brother and I did in 2nd grade… reading and drawing comics. When I think back now to the days when we used to pour over the latest Sgt. Rock comics with art by Joe Kubert, Mad Magazine, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, I really am getting back to some kind of primal calling that’s been with me for some time. In fact, I can track this whole visual narrative idea to several spots in my life where it has just surfaced, it would seem, on its own. Remembering back, comics, and the whole comic style played a pretty interesting role in my life. For example, just recently I remembered trading comics frames back and forth with Larry Mound in elementary school. Larry, usually the more creative one, would pen a frame from a comic and secretly pass it to me. I would pen the next frame and back and forth we’d go. I think we were 8 or 9.  Then all the Army comics my brother and I collected and, of course, we would create our own. Over the years, come to notice, I’ve always had this affection for the frame to frame design style that had a filmic look to it. Graphic Design was my field of study but I quickly broadened out to designing everything including advertising and television. That led to copious storyboards for television commercials that I directed. Then back in the 80’s I developed this single-panel cartoon called the Bacon Strip which I did for the Domino’s Pizza restaurant chain. Later, I moved into the 3D realm, fascinated by the whole CG thing including Siggraph in the early 90’s. Then I taught myself 3D. First, Strata 3D then Power Animator (the precursor to Maya), then a host of others. Following that there were the numerous attempts at writing a novel and one that actually went to 27 chapters. Most others didn’t even get past the first few pages or an outline.

Anyway, rendering in 3D became my passion and then I unknowingly made my pilgrimage back to visual narrative through my admiration and fandom of great concept art. Finally we are at the convergence of it all in the form of a graphic novel. Pretty interesting to look back and see how it all ties together.

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Almost forgot what it was like.

It has been a little over 5 weeks since becoming a student again.

Back at the start came the assignment to layout some personal goals as a sort of an introduction to graduate studies — in 3 minutes. Here was the question list:

What do you aspire to?

What do you want be designing that would be the most fulfilling to your interests?

What are the origins of your aspirations?

OK, after designing for television and radio, 3 minutes is a luxury. So, I timed it out. I started with the origins of my aspirations and traced my design roots back to the beginning. It occurred to me after much thought that; essentially, there have been 5 revelations since I discovered design (a long, long time ago). Herewith:

1 Process becomes Solution

When I started out the tools were a T-square, an x-acto knife and rubber cement. But those were just hardware. The engine runs on software. The software said that design is about problem solving which, of course, is all about the process of understanding what the problem is and asking the right questions. If you ask  — and answer — the right questions the solution is usually screaming at you.

2 Discipline becomes Freedom

Design is not unlike any other creative discipline. You begin by learning the scales and practicing, over and over and over again. If you keep doing it, it becomes almost second nature. You can riff. Then you can improvise. Then you have jazz.

3 Seeing becomes Vision

Design is also about seeing, another skill that you can hone if you do it long enough. It’s a little like composition in photography or drawing. After a while you know whether it is composed or not and you start to look at things like systems and very quickly see where they are out of composition. Eventually what emerges is a persistent ability to envision what it could be.

4 Culture becomes Design (becomes culture… becomes design…)

Design is the product of culture, micro and macro, like necessity is the mother of invention. The culture is the story behind the design, the history, the connective tissue between my design and your design, good design and bad design.

5 Story becomes Design

Then one day I realized that it is story that actually builds design. The experience, and authenticity are tied to story in synchronization with design. The degree of authenticity is directly related to a seamless interaction with the surrounding design.

I don’t have time to go into the answers for the first 2 questions in this blog, but I’ll get there. The most fascinating thing was that this was real thinking. We don’t do enough of that once we settle into our jobs, and get comfortable with what we know. And, God knows, the corporation certainly doesn’t foster that kind of crazy talk. We reach a certain position in business and that’s it. Our expertise winds down to what we’ve accomplished, or our title or the last accomplishment on the resume. I’m not belittling that. Heck, that’s a result years of experience and insight brought to bear on helping people and the business you’re in charge of make it through today and hopefully succeed tomorrow. It’s no small feat.

But there is more.

Coming back to school, I realized that nothing makes your feel more alive than when you have to start over; when you have break new ground; when you have to think, and think really hard. You can’t draw on what you did last week or last time this happened because it has never happened before.

Sounds a bit out there, but thinking, reasoning, and creating from scratch are tremendously underrated experiences.

Now that I’m waist-deep into the whole graphic novel realm, research and study en route to my own creation, I am thinking like I did 30 years ago —like “What if?”. What a rush!

More to come.

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Teaching. Design.

Design : : Teach

With a big, fat, Gill Sans Ultra Bold “x”, I mark my last day of salaried corporate employment at a point where my design career takes a sharp turn.

As I pursue the MFA in Design Development over the next 3 years I will also be teaching part time. On one end, I will be taking a deep dive into the somewhat theoretical assertion that has been at harbor in me, that design theory begets and almost demands a multi-disciplinary approach by either the practitioner or the “village” to fully realize it’s logical potential. This might arguably be the full realization of design theory; a concept of some sophistication and, perhaps, even some controversy.  (Much more on that at some later date). At the other end of the spectrum I am challenged to convey a 30,000-foot overview of the essence of design fundamentals, practice, and history to students with varying levels, perhaps without any real experience or background in what design is.

This much is true: Design is designed into us. I see it as “Divine Inheritance”. And though Stephen Hawking and I may  disagree on where design comes from, it is broadly accepted that design is fundamental to the human condition. John Heskett, in DESIGN A Very Short Introduction, (a text for Design 200) says it succinctly: “Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human, and an essential determinant of the quality of human life.”

Enter moi. What is design? meets The Matrix. Or, how design is woven inextricably into the story and story into design.

On one hand “teaching” in the formal sense, behind a podium in front of dozens, maybe a hundred is new. Although, I jumped headfirst into the profession immediately after my BSID and never stopped to look back — until now — I’ve been trying to teach clients what design is since I left academia the first time.

Yet, as I prepare for both tasks, it is interesting to ponder how much design after so many years has become intuitive and internalized. I find myself deconstructing what I know as mostly second nature, into the basic components and asking questions like, “Why do I do it this way?” Not only have I been bouncing easily between design for graphics, information, web, interiors, displays, experiences, products, and more, I have been confronted with the real-world challenges of not only creating good design, but making the case to the world that ultimately foots the bill for it — or chooses not to. I know the harsh realities of both. So much to talk about, I think. Stay tuned.

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Big news

The last post was Halloween. How embarrassing! Well, as I said then it is the curse of the blog. But in all fairness, the blog is not my business. So it’s time for an update to all those who pay attention to this (greetings to both of you), on what is going on. It’s not like I’ve been lazy or anything, in fact, anything but. Part of the rules of the blog are that I don’t talk about work, but I did finish an epic project at “corporate”  that’s been going on for 18 months. But the real news is that I’m leaving that to go back to school. Yes. I have accepted a formal offer from The Ohio State University Department of Design for a 3-year Graduate Teaching Associateship while completing the requirements for my MFA. As the Masters Degree is the terminal degree in the design profession, it will position me to directly pursue a professorship with a design school at some point – or back into the corporate realm. OSU is the 5th rated design school in the country and the place where I received my BSID.

This requires selling the house and moving to Columbus for the next 3 years. Huge. But why? Even parts of two things: 1.) I feel as though I can reboot my corporate contribution with fresh insight. 2.) 3D has long been a back room passion of mine. I’ve woven it into the workplace whenever possible when designing trade show architecture, showrooms and retail display but not enough to keep me energized and growing. I decided seriously a year or so ago that I was going to really develop the skill particularly in concept design and concept art. Noodling around with ways to quantize my skills I decided against jumping into some other corporate situation. Two years back I put out some feelers to a couple of universities, Parsons New School of Design, and Ohio State, (my alma mater). Both respectable, but Ohio State is clearly rated among the most advanced, plus they work closely with the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. (See where this is going?) When OSU offered me the Graduate Associateship and the endorsement to jump into my own theories of epic integration. See the website and previous blog entries. I decided, “Hey. I’m not getting any younger.” So I went for it.

The idea: At OSU the Design Department has 3 disciplines, Interior, Product and Visual Communications and together with the co-program  at ACCAD this gives me the opportunity to further explore the idea of epic integration, how brands, stories, and experiences are intensified when everything is designed with co-dependence on everything else. At this point I’m looking at the idea of fabricated experiences. My interest is to delve into the fabrication or simulation of real or fictional environments that employ a rich back-story. Taking the form of graphic novel, animated film, concept art/design, or interactive story the exploration would make full use of the potential of digital visualization together with a multi-faceted design narrative that embodies concept interiors, lighting, product, and visual communication design.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. With getting the house ready to sell and pitching junk from the last three decades my weekends, which are usually reserved for concept art and my web novel, have been fairly non-productive. As soon as there is something decent to post (visually), I will.

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The curse of the blog…

I guess Halloween is a good time to post on the curse of the blog. I can’t believe it has been over a month since my last post. I was pretty delighted to see that my cordial glass design was so well received on Yanko Design. Despite some initial naysayers, it was in the top 3 for September visits and added 10x the monthly hits to my website. In addition, it was picked up by another eight or ten global design blogs. All in all pretty amazing — for me anyway. I have been working on a handful of other projects from concept designs for my LayerCity project, to a general atmospheric piece, some character designs, as well as a design  for a new modular hotel. On top of that I’m trying to re-acclimate to Maya, which I have been away from for at least five years. The program has changed dramatically and it was uber sophisticated back then. On top of that there’s my day job. So maybe you’ll understand why I’m not posting much these days. I think I will be focusing on the hotel project for the time being and hopefully have something to post soon.

Until then, here’s a preview of my LayerCity project a post-apocalyptic outpost the size of Manhattan — maybe a story there,too.

A post-apocalyptic outpost the size of Manhattan
A post-apocalyptic outpost the size of Manhattan

That’s the update for now, Happy Halloween!

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a blog about design and the story that connects