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Graphic Design Process: From Problem to Solution

by Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell
Laurence King Publishing, London, UK, 2012
192 pp., illus. Paper, £19.95
ISBN: 978-1-85669-826-9.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens, Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa, USA. E-mail: roy.behrens@uni.edu.

A solution to a design problem (a poster, book or web design) is a noun: it is a tangible, knowable thing. But the process it develops from is closer to a verb. It is made up of constantly flowing events (like William James’ “stream of consciousness”) and is typically so faint, non-linear, and elusive that we hardly know it’s going on, much less how to grasp and define it.

While its authors admit to the challenge, this book makes a valiant attempt to shed light on the perpetually “moving target” of problem solving in design (a subject that’s closely related, of course, to innovation in any discipline), and it does so in a clever way. It does it by purposely looking aside, not unlike how stars appear more clearly at times by looking at them indirectly. It introduces 20 case studies, by discussing the widely varying work of design teams and designers from throughout the world, by talking with those designers (about their influences, work strategies and beliefs), and by looking for evidence of the process itself, however that might be discernible from thumbnail sketches, experimental studies, preparatory models, and revision proofs.

The works in the book are highly diverse, in part because graphic design is no longer as tightly defined as it was. Today, as the authors remind us, it “spans many media, offers exposure to endless subject material, and reaches into countless other disciplines for inspiration.” Even more distinctions arise because “there is no single way to conduct a design practice” and “every project demands its own way of working.”

The structure of this book reflects the often-bewildering manner in which problems progress toward solutions, sometimes by loopy, meandering routes. The book begins by focusing on two widely shared initial concerns, “research” and “inspiration” (which can and do take many forms), and concludes with “collaboration.” Propped up by these structural bookends are four other sections that deal with more specific means for exploring potential solutions: “drawing,” “narrative,” “abstraction,” and “development.”

What struck the authors (they are teachers as well as designers) is how seemingly little agreement they found among the 23 designers, whose primary zones of concurrence were three: “[T]he busier a designer is, the more ideas mix in the mind for inventive solutions; ideas usually come when a designer least expects them; and exposure to visual art at a young age, through a relative, teacher, or friend, opened a path to design.”

That said, in moving from one case study to another, I found signs of other agreements about problem solving. Sometimes these help to distinguish “design” from other categories, such as “science” and “art.” In one section, a quote from design theorist S.A. Gregory claims that science differs from design: Scientific problem-solving is about “finding out the nature of what exists,” whereas problem-solving in design is about “inventing things of value which do not yet exist. Science is analytic; design is constructive.” In another section, there are inklings of the gap between design and artistic creativity. It is widely assumed among artists that “mundane limitations such as time and budget…run counter to the act of creativity,” but when designers solve problems, “it is these very restraints that stimulate inventive solutions.”

Another thread that runs throughout is the belief that solutions can often result from cross-fertilization, metaphorical thinking or sort crossing (implied by the earlier notion about busy designers being more innovative because they mix up this with that), as occurs for example in visual puns. In one case study, a breakthrough came out of a comment about the resemblance between Arabic letters and a plate of tagliatelle pasta. For another designer, the solution to a poster problem began when he saw the relation between EVIL and LIVE. In a third problem, that of designing a gallery where exhibition attendees could post their handwritten responses, the provided COMMENT sheet was punched so that the O became a hole, the same size as the provided pencil that also functioned as a peg for posting the note. Lastly, a poster designer used interwoven paper strips to construct a provocative portrait of a Nigerian writer from the Yoruba tribe (famous for their arts and crafts, weaving among them).

There is much, much more to harvest in this volume than those few aspects mentioned here. It has an engaging and well-written text, but, like most books on graphic design, its exquisite visual examples provide us with more than words alone can tell.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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