Category Archives: design and principle

The Rules Aren’t Meant To Be Broken. The Rules Are Broken.

I’ve been debating grammar lately. This isn’t new. As our world shifts to using new technologies and ever newer and shorter forms of communication become normal the tension between the evolving grammar tactics and the grammar traditionalists keeps flaring up.  And, grammatical prescriptivism bothers me on a lot of levels. As a designer, it bothers me that a lot of rules exist not to aid or clarify communication, but “just because.” Worse is the double-standard they institutionalize. Most of the people who laud Shakespeare would probably dismiss him if he were writing today, as many liberties as he was willing to take with language. Faulkner, Cummings, Vonnegut… there are so many valued writers who kept the rules of English at arms length. So, how is it brilliant when they break the rules, but garbage when your average texter does it? Ah yes, that old saw. You have to know the rules before you can break them. You hear that a lot in grammar, where the rules exist to try and leash the sprawling, squirming mass of too many legs and too few heads that is English. You hear it a lot in art where the rules serve to block out some form in the nebulous theories of composition and subject. You have to know the rules first. Once you know them, then you can break them to the correct effect.

Let’s be honest, that’s pretty worthless advice. It has that certain appearance of depth and usefulness that makes it easy to get behind. But it doesn’t actually tell you anything. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. In composition there’s the rule of thirds. It’s a popular one, and one commonly taught to people learning photography. It’s easy. if you’re not familiar with it, I can tell you it right now. You take your frame and divide into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. You’ll end up with a grid of nine squares.  Placing your subject and any horizons along any of those lines will generally make the photo seem more interesting. Placing your primary focus point on one of the four intersections will make it more interesting still.

rule-of-thirds

Easy, no? You bet it is. Now, go shoot a picture like that. Shoot ten. Shoot thirty. Shoot a hundred. When you know the rule so much you’re doing it on auto-pilot you suddenly understand why you would break it, don’t you? Of course you don’t. All you know is the rule. It’s not that rules like this one aren’t useful in their way, it’s just that they’re incomplete. They’re a lazy shorthand for a whole slew of more complicated things used too often as a stand-in for actually understanding those complicated theories. The rule of thirds is a simplification of the entirety of the theories of composition. To know when to break it you don’t need to know how to divide a frame into thirds, you need to understand how tension, isolation, balance, and visual weight work together in a frame. You need to know why a subject in the center feels boring and static. You need to understand that simply offsetting the subject alone isn’t enough, the space you leave beside them needs to have less weight to balance them. You need to know the farther they get from center the harder it will be to balance the tension, and the more empty space you’ll need to leave to accomplish it. Throwing the subject all the way to the edge of a frame turns the tension up to 11. It’s not “breaking the rules.” it’s understanding the underlying theory that gave us the rule.

Lost_Highway_8

David Lynch and his crew are the master class in how to use edge-of-frame composition to increase visual tension.

David Lynch and his crew are the master class in how to use edge-of-frame composition to increase visual tension.

All of which is really to say, it’s not that rules are meant to be broken. If that’s the case all it really means is the rules are broken. And they are. Our rules are broken, because they’re not really rules. They’re crutches. Simplifications. And, that’s OK. Composition, like grammar, is a big idea. Big, and formless. In the beginning, the rules give it enough shape to get a foothold. They’re doorways in. But we have a tendency to stop at the rules. To fail to make it clear the rule is a simplification. A stand in for much wider, more nuanced theory. And then the rules fail us. We start to “break” them, even though there was nothing ever there to break. The difference between a good artist and a bad one, between a good and bad writer, isn’t knowing when to break the rules. It’s either explicitly or implicitly understanding the rule was just a stand-in for other things, and an understanding of how to use those other things. A bad text happens because someone doesn’t understand the history of language and how the parts work together to communicate ideas clearly. A bad photograph happens because someone doesn’t yet get the elements of composition. Teaching those people a rule will help them make better works, but only when they follow the rule. It’ll never teach them when to break it. It can’t. If you want better craft, be less hung up on teaching someone the rules. Be more concerned with helping them understand the theory.

On Design Vs Art

Good designers are problem solvers, not artists. Great designers are both

Brent from Ommyo

Interesting Insight Into Cellphone Industrial Design

So, a few people close to me have encountered my fascination with modern smartphone design. It’s a product that combines a lot of things, from industrial design to OS and interface design and back around to content and app design within an established language. And, that’s all actually very cool to examine and see how all the bits come together, and how decisions at one point are reflected throughout. And, it’s pretty easy to think that Apple with its ground-breaking and totally iconic iPhone is really the only “design” in the game, but that’s really just not true.

And so, I was glad to finally have a chance to sit down and watch this interview Engadget did with Nokia’s VP of Industrial Design, Stefan Pannenbecker, where they talk about several aspects of design within an ecosystem that extends all the way from a flagship superphone all the way down to regular old annual cellphone models, and just how much these every day objects are actively designed with goals and motifs in mind. If you haven’t stopped to think about just how much most of the items in your life have been designed, whether they seem “designer” or not, this is probably a good place to start.

And, if you’re a fan of the Lumia design aesthetic like me, you’ll probably be happy to get an actual answer about why the Lumia 900 has a flat screen instead of the elegantly curved one of the Lumia 800.

Check the video out from the external link. It’s worth it.

Now This Is How You Rant About A Font

I’m a bad designer. Which isn’t to say I make bad design, I like to believe I’m at least competent at that. But, in keeping with my distaste for elitest discourses on painting techniques, I am not an incredible font snob. I trie of Helvetica’s popularity, but I am not among the myriad of frothing-at-the-mouth designers shouting for blood if someone should suggest Arial. There are dozens of nearly indistinguishable Helvetica clones, and you know what? Only designers care. Seriously.

But! That said, this article from a typeface designer with a deep-seated hatred of Helvetica pleases me, if only because those previously mentioned frothy designers have set-up something of a temple around that font, and I find that more than a bit silly. Plus, I have to admit, his Aktiv Grotesque font does look clean, and if I had a couple hundred to buy the common styles and weights for my own work I would. So there.

IMA Gets New Identity; I Don't Like It

IMAItsmyart1

Old IMA Logo

In what’s actually a pretty good blog post, IMA blogger Meg Liffick compares IMA’s brand realignment to the very impressive efforts made by Coca-Cola over the years to keep the brand fresh and relevant. I’m less sure the new logo they have there does that. While it is new, it lacks basically all of the visual punch of the older one, reducing itself visually to a plane of green texture. Relevancy is nice, IMA, but don’t forget that the bigger part of a strong brand identity is maintaining recognizability and the ability to stand out. Your new text-heavy brand might end up being counter-productive in those areas. As a t-shirt or seasonal identity suppliment to your core identity I could see it working, but I’m less excited about it as a whole than the one you’re moving away from.

New IMA Logo

New IMA Logo

But that’s me. Anyone else have any feelings about the switch?

IMA Gets New Identity; I Don’t Like It

IMAItsmyart1

Old IMA Logo

In what’s actually a pretty good blog post, IMA blogger Meg Liffick compares IMA’s brand realignment to the very impressive efforts made by Coca-Cola over the years to keep the brand fresh and relevant. I’m less sure the new logo they have there does that. While it is new, it lacks basically all of the visual punch of the older one, reducing itself visually to a plane of green texture. Relevancy is nice, IMA, but don’t forget that the bigger part of a strong brand identity is maintaining recognizability and the ability to stand out. Your new text-heavy brand might end up being counter-productive in those areas. As a t-shirt or seasonal identity suppliment to your core identity I could see it working, but I’m less excited about it as a whole than the one you’re moving away from.

New IMA Logo

New IMA Logo

But that’s me. Anyone else have any feelings about the switch?