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Keith Bowman is a Philadelphia based graphic designer with 15 years experience. In that time, he has worked for various firms and enjoyed a four year teaching stint at a local college. He is currently embarked on a fairly
successful freelance career..



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The challenge of restrictive guidelines
by Keith Bowman
My students used to complain that there were too many restrictions and requirements to my assignments. They wanted more control ... more freedom. Sometimes I would give into their collective whinings and give them a open ended-project, knowing full well it was going to end badly ... because they always had. The more open-ended the project, the worse the students solutions. I always believed that it was because they hadn't fully grasped the nature of conceptual thinking and didn't understand that design is delicate balance.

A good designer must to be able to multitask. He/she needs to be able to focus intently on the developing concept, while at the same time study it and let the creative mind remix and rework angles, grids, use of negative space, etc. A good designer will be able to design a second or third version at the same time the first concept is taking shape.

All too often designers view tight project parameters as restrictions on their creativity. True creativity is born in the challenge of restrictive guidelines. The charge of a designer is to examine, define, and deconstruct the guidelines, until they form a core concept built on a solid foundation.

One of my favoriteassignments I gave my students was a two-page ad for a fictitious software program whose tagline was "reinventing the wheel."Inevitably, when it came time to critique the students' work, I was confronted with numerous underdeveloped, seemingly randomly thought-out results. Many would, in some way, shape or form, feature images of cavemen, wheels, computers with wheels and every insane variation in between.

It never ceased to amaze me how no one bothered to research what the phrase "reinventing the wheel" actually means. It has nothing to do with wheels, but instead deals with the idea of improving on something that has been universally accepted as perfection. Once the real meaning of the phraseisdefined, it is no longer restricted to the use of certain images. A plethora of concepts can be explored.

Since embracing the computer, designers seem to be on a never ending quest to find new tools to expand their techniques. The perfect design always seems just one filter away. This trend reminds me of a child who begs for a brand new 64-pack of crayons, yet 4 out of the 8 crayons in their current box haven't been used.

Once a student debated that she didn't want to learn "steps 1 through 5 of being a designer." She said the basics and principles of design "bored" her. She wanted to jump straight to "step 7... the fun stuff." The debate was heated, but was ultimately decided at the end of the semester when grades were given out. Needless to say, she failed.

I often relate a story aboutone of my typography students. He was also impatient with the process of design. He just wanted to "break the rules" of typography. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a student utter that phrase, I would be in early retirement on a South Pacific beach, sipping drinks with little umbrellas.

"Rules... " Once again this is seen by many designers as being an infringement on their creative process. Do writers complain that there are too few letters in the alphabet? Or, do they rearrange and use those letters to form new ideas, stories and descriptions of some of the most complex emotions? Anytime I would hear the explanation for a design as "wanting to break the rules," my response would simply be "it's not about breaking the rules. The goal is to create new ones."

I believe that in order for design to evolve past the wasteland of gluttonous, trendy "solutions," it is the responsibility of the designer to educate the client. Three or four hours is not an acceptable time frame to design a brochure. Beveled type is never a good idea. Drop shadows don't always make a design "pop." "Jazzy" is not an adjective to be used to describe a design. It is also the designer's responsibility to think conceptually inside of the box, rather than create mediocrity outside of it.

2005, Keith Bowman
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