Last week I had the interesting experience of presenting at a global pecha kucha event. The basic concept is to present with 20 slides spending only 20 seconds on each slide. This was very atypical for me. I am more accustomed to filling 45 minutes or so rather than only 6 minutes and 40 seconds. The constraints, as they often do, embolden my creativity and caused me to write and think in new ways. I only had rights to the pictures in like three slides. So, I'm only going to share the spoken portion of that presentation here. I hope you enjoy.
My name is Daniel Titus. I own a web development and graphic design company here in Downtown Albany. Ever since we started I have used the tagline “The art of design.” I feel that has served me well and has been very indicative of our work. But, it begs the question, “What is the ‘art of design?’” Aren't art and design two totally different things?
My favorite artist is Makoto Fujimura. He’s from New Yorker but studied in Japan. He merges abstract expressionism with the ancient Nihonga technique. Fujimura is prone to refer to artforms that would completely escape our attention. I think that he and much of the Eastern world are at an advantage here because they see that there is an art to everything that we do.
Conceiving the Teleology
Design is no exception to that; there is an art to design. The first aspect of which is Conceiving the Teleology, the purpose behind a design, the reason it exists. Even when the design is completely aesthetic there is a reason for it. Even if a piece has absolutely no call to action, I have to consider a host of factors, at very least, the audience and the medium.
When we don't pay attention to these factors even the most talented of artist become misunderstood, frustrated and inactive. Tracy Chapman’s a great example. She wrote songs for the purpose of communicating the plight of the poor, black women in America from the perspective of a poor, black women in America.
But, the only ones who were listening to her music were rich, white men. She did not shape her art to speak to this audience, so no one understood her music. She got frustrated and quit, bought a fast car and moved out to California.
In some way shape or form design needs vision, and vision comes from artists.
Balancing the Tension
The second facet of the art of design is Balancing the Tension. Ever since the Enlightenment (and really before that) we’ve tried to segment reality. It’s either this, or it’s that. It’s either yin, or it’s yang. It’s either beautiful, or it’s ugly. It’s either spiritual, or it’s physical. It’s either art, or it’s science.
But, there is no aspect of life (at least not with any quality) that has such a singular aspect. Fortunately life is more interesting than that. Reality is more complex and multifaceted than that. Life and reality have color and shape and movement. They encompasses both the artistic and the scientific at the same time, and our work should reflect or (at least) acknowledge that.
The philosophical art critique Francis Schaeffer said “There are two sides to art. It is creative, yes, but art also involves the technical details of how things are to be made.” Specifically in regards to design these two sides manifest themselves in form and function. The art of design is knowing how to take these two sides and hold them not in conflict but in tension.
Not only is there a way for a design to look good and work well, but when done correctly, the better it looks the better it works and vice versa. The formal and the functional can coexist interdependently when they have that same teleology. The two sides of reality held in tension can open our eyes to new, beneficial vantage points.
Architecture might be the best example. Architects must … out of sheer necessity design buildings and structures that display a certain aesthetic, BUT they have to work. The building has to stand; the door has to open; the ceiling can’t cave in and the flowerbed can’t be in the shadows all dadgum day.
I've never done any sort of architecture, but I did build a table one time. I reclaimed a discarded door from an old bank. I sanded it down, painted it blue, attached sawhorses for legs and plopped it right between the desks in my office. It looks cool, and it works.
Here’s the thing, though: it looks cool because it works. Before I actually put stuff on it, it was like, “Umm … Why is there a floating, blue door?” Once I put things on it and it began to function as a table, it became a cool, functioning, aesthetically pleasing piece.
Worthwhile design needs ingenuity, and ingenuity comes from artists.
Telling a Story
The third facet of the art of design is Telling a Story. It’s different from the others, but it is often what separates the good designers from the crappy ones. There are a lot of people out there who run their mouths but simply can’t tell a story. Storytelling is an integral part of good design.
The marketers will tell you that you need a call to action, and that’s true, I guess. However, without a story nothing activates my action, nothing motivates my movement and nothing changes my direction. In a lot of good design, the story is the call to action. It communicates the need and evokes the response. There is never action without motive and never motive without experience. Good storytelling provides that experience.
Stories are at the heart of good design. Stories do what mere facts cannot. Stories speak the ineffable, convey the incommunicable and evoke emotion. Good stories must be experienced.
Good design tells a story that mere words can’t, and that sort of expression comes from artists.
The art of design is knowing what story to tell to which audience in what way.
A Word to Artists
Now, in my remaining time, I want to give a quick word to the artists here. One of the most challenging and inspiring concepts about art was codified during the conception of the modern era. And, that’s this: “Art is useless.” It’s not like a hammer. It doesn't do anything; it isn't used in anyway that we would commonly accept.
Art and jazz critique H.R. Rookmaaker said that, “Art needs no justification. Its value is intrinsic.” Good art isn't good art because it does something or means something. It’s good art simply because it’s good art. It doesn't need justification or agenda. Art can be without subject, without reality, without beauty. Art is useless … but it can still be useful.
Art is never neutral (nothing ever is). Art always speak from or to and even at times for a cultural moment. Art will communicate something whether you mean it to or not. It can be a weapon against which there is no defense or shield which nothing can penetrate. Art is a powerful thing.
What we do with it, how we create it impacts our world. Now, that’s an ominous burden, but isn't that what you long to do? To a degree, isn't that why you do what you do? Isn't that why you write or paint or dance or mold? Isn't that what keeps you up at night? The need to express, reach or in someway change your world?
Art does that. So, be careful. Be mindful of the art you create. Make it protest. Make it protect. Make it prophecy. I'll quote Rookmaaker one last time to close, “Our calling is to live in freedom and love, to fight against [evil]; to stand for freedom and humanity.”