On Making Things Pretty

9 Mar

One phrase I have come upon frequently in my career is ‘…and then you will make it pretty’. It is generally used to describe my role as the graphic designer in a project, and it never fails to set my teeth on edge. Usually my coping mechanism is to just smile politely and let it slide, but the time has come for me to explain why, exactly this bothers me so much.

Before I tell you why it is not in my job description to ‘make it pretty,’ let me first tell you why it is such a grating phrase in this particular context. When you tell me that I will ‘make it pretty’, I hear that you don’t think my job is very hard. You are saying that I do the things that I do without any reasoning, just because I like the way it looks. It implies that I don’t put any thought into what I do beyond ‘this looks nice’. It tells me that you think a graphic designer is someone who comes in at the end, once the hard thinking has been done, and polishes up what you have already made.

That is so wrong.

Graphic design as a field has exploded in so many different directions. There is print, web, interface, user experience, information, and systems design. (Who do you think is instrumental in designing subway signs, highway signs, really any sort of wayfinding system?) Designers deal with so much more than making it pretty. Graphic design has an impact on our everyday life. Look at the backlash when they changed the Gap logo. Think about how ubiquitous logos are in our everyday life. Target, Wal-Mart, FedEx, UPS, Nike, etc.. You know those symbols like the back of your hand, and that’s just marketing and corporate design! Did you know there is a new typeface being rolled out on highway signs across the world? A group of designers worked to make sure this typeface was easier to read than Highway Gothic, the one previously used. They ran experiments to make sure it was as readable as it could possibly be when you are speeding by at 80 mph, to help prevent crashes and confusion. Another designer worked with Target to revamp how we interact with prescription medication. She came up with a system to help streamline and clarify the labels on prescription medication, so there little room for error in interpreting the instructions. (You can read more about Clearview, the highway typeface here, and the Target pill bottle revamp here)

My graphic design projects in college almost never focused on the aesthetic aspect of the piece. The biggest question was always, does it function to the very best that it can? Is this the most readable, the most informative it can be? If the answer was no, it was not considered successful. We spent semesters studying systems and examining information organization. Graphic design was regarded as a vital tool, not something to be slapped on in the end for extra wow factor.

The truth of it is, most designers (the good ones) are working toward solving a problem, and that problem usually has an attractive solution. The fact that the final piece is aesthetically pleasing is part of the solution, and not the end goal.

This is not to say that every single act of design ever committed is world-changing, and that designers are like superheros. It is to say that professional designers should be given more credibility than they often are in today’s world. Just because anyone can buy Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop and crank out a logo doesn’t mean that anyone can be a designer. Most graphic design is a series of informed decisions working toward solving a problem visually. Models make things pretty, designers change the world!

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