The Shape of Design

Book cover of 'The Shape of Design' by Frank Chimero
The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero

From the The Shape of Design:

… Painting’s near and far states are akin to How and Why: the artist, when close to the canvas, is asking How questions related to craft; when he steps back, he raises Why questions concerned with the whole of the work and its purpose. Near and Far may be rephrased as Craft and Analysis, which describe the kinds of questions the artist asks while in each mode. This relationship can be restated in many different ways, each addressing a necessary balance: How and Why, Near and Far, Making and Thinking, Execution and Strategy, Craft and Analysis …

… How enables, but Why motivates, and the space between the two could be described by the gap of enthusiasm between simply understanding phonics and reading a book that one identifies with and loves.

… The first step of any process should be to define the objectives of the work with Why-based questions. The second step, however, should be to put those objectives in a drawer. Objectives guide the process toward an effective end, but they don’t do much to help one get going. In fact, the weight of the objectives can crush the seeds of thought necessary to begin down an adventurous path.

The creative process, like a good story, needs to start with a great leap of lightness, and that is only attainable through a suspension of disbelief. The objectives shouldn’t be ignored forever, but they should be defined ahead of time, set aside, and then deployed at the appropriate moment so that we may be audacious with our ideas.

… judgment is an important part of the creative process, but when improvising, self-criticism and evaluation from others must be avoided in order to let ideas develop from their delicate state. Criticism has a crucial role in the creative process, but its rigor should match the heartiness of the ideas, which become stronger as they develop. The more real an idea becomes, the less suspension of disbelief is required, and the more criticism it should withstand. But all ideas, both good and bad, start young and fragile.

… The way one creatively wanders is through improvisation. […] The first maxim of improv is “Yes and….” This rule is easy to understand, but like most cardinal virtues, it is much more difficult to execute than to grasp.

… Limitations narrow a big process into a smaller, more understandable space to explore. It’s the difference between swimming in a pool and being dropped off in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight.

… My body and mind are linked. This is hardly a ground-breaking discovery, but for the longest time, it was a bit of knowledge that never changed my behavior. If my mind needed to wander to think about a project, I’d typically sit in a chair, furrow my brow, sip my coffee, and scribble a few things into my sketchbook. That’s no good, though: if the mind needs to wander, best let the body do the same. A short walk is more effective in coming up with an idea than pouring all the coffee in the world down your gullet.

… All design work seems to have three common traits: there is a message to the work, the tone of that message, and the format that the work takes. Successful design has all three elements working in co-dependence to achieve a whole greater than the sum of the individual parts.

… Evolution occurs one step at a time, and the size of each step is limited: nature must first create the cells in leaves that can capture the energy of the sun before it can produce a flower.

… our collective ideas advance with the same limitations.

… Our magicians – our Henry Fords, our Billie Holidays, our Gutenbergs, Disneys, and Marie Curies – do not stand on the inside of what is possible and push; they imagine what is just outside of what we deem possible and pull us towards their vision of what is better.

… the primary position in conversation is the one listening rather than the speaker …

… Web design connects the user to the site’s owner and offers a venue for the connection to develop and grow.

… The qualities of design consistently change, because there is a wide variety of characteristics in what design connects. It means that design lives in the borderlands – it connects, but it does not anchor.

… Design can speak the tongue of art with the force of commerce. The products of design maneuver in the streets of the city where people live, rather than the halls of a museum where they must be visitors. There needn’t be the pressure of artistic credibility or commercial profitability always present, which means that the work of the designer can go further in shaping culture than a traditional piece of art, and make money in a way that has more soul and spill-over benefits than straight commerce.

… It means that the products of design are not autonomous objects, but are creations that bridge in-between spaces to provide a way toward an intended outcome. The design must be transformative for it to be successful. It must take us somewhere. Airports and train stations are other examples of non-autonomous creations that exist as in-between spaces, because they have been built out of our desire to go somewhere else. Even cathedrals could be considered spaces of transit, because they seek to connect the physical world with the spiritual realm. Design is akin to these places in that their usefulness is defined by the consequences of the connections they facilitate. A train station that doesn’t create a lust for exploration is flawed, just as a cathedral that doesn’t inspire awe is a failure.

… The necessities and influence of subject and context, whether in portraiture, installation, or design, take time to unfold. It is the designer’s job to figure out a way to have a problem show its actual self so that he can respond to the truth that has emerged. Getting to know a problem is a bit like getting to know a person: it’s a gradual process that requires patience, and there is no state of completion. You can never know the full of a problem, because there is never comprehensive information available. You have to simply draw the line somewhere and make up the rest as you go along.