What it means to be a graphic designer in Columbus, Ohio or really anywhere.
There’s no shortage of Graphic Designers in Columbus, Ohio. Or Graphic Designers in the midwest for that matter. Or Graphic Designers in the United States for that matter’s matter. Google anything about graphic design and you can spend the rest of the week scrolling through pages of studios that specialize in some type of design that’s tailored to you. Here’s Columbus’ top designers just on the first page of Google rn:
FORT Design, Slagle Design, Blackletter Design, Throttle Studios, TENFOLD Brands, Bonfire Red Design.
A career in graphic design used to be a very different thing. Or at least the term ‘Graphic Design’ was defined within much tighter boundaries.
According to runemadsen.com’s highly intensive intro lecture on the origin of Graphic Design, the term itself can be traced back to 1922 when William Addison Dwiggins coined it to describe his book designs. Before this, we can look as far back as the 15th century when typography was merely focused on legibility for the sole purpose of clearly communicating information, but isn’t that the end goal no matter the time period?
Having spent my undergraduate career studying architectural design, I know the difficulties that come with attempting to graphically communicate a design idea. It’s far more complicated to clearly communicate a complex design than it is to complexly communicate a simple one. Yet, reading after reading throughout my time at Knowlton was plagued with theoretical articles claiming to be able to read architecture in the most precise manner.
A loootttt of problems arose from these readings..
Though thorough in their dissections of the design and design process, they were monotonous and seemed to be disinterested in a conversation. Growing up I was taught to always ask questions. The reason I fell in love with the discipline of Architectural Design, was its ability to provoke criticism, and thus start a conversation involving so many questions about why the finest details of the design where chosen to be designed in that way. It may be heavily criticized for its cultural acceptance of a lack of sleep deemed architorture by this archinect article, but the intensity of the design process was what taught me such valuable lessons about design and and constructive self-criticism. The first professor I ever had and the one whom I attribute my passion for architectural design taught us in our intro design studio that there is never one answer to our design questions. His name is Robert Cowherd and he came from MIT, so of course I was going to listen. The rest of my undergraduate career moving from designing in Boston to designing in Columbus, his response to any and all questions as being “short answer yes, long answer maybe” followed me as a theme in how I approached design thinking - a concept that’s beautifully explained in this article by segd pertaining to experiential design.
Aside from his direct teaching in how to grow as a designer, he unknowingly engraved a key to design, and communication in general, through his use of repetition. Though he would use this repetition in how he talked about design and design thinking, he wasn’t perceived as monotonous like the texts I would be fed throughout the rest of my educational career. I’ve come to realize that the difference was in the way it was communicated. It got to a point where we were almost hesitant to ask - most of the time it was at the awkward stage in the project when we were ready to scrap all of our drawings and start over - because we knew what the response would be, but that was almost comforting. In the world of design, there’s constant stimuli being absorbed by the designer and consequently disseminated by the design. Then there comes the explanation of the design afterward that contains a hellish wordcount, that if read closely, is circumlocutive. As the number of factors increase in the design process, the design product, and the design reflection, only the repetitive attributes are the ones that can be remembered.
Which may be why we should strip ourselves of everything we know to be our modern-day design principles and return to the cornerstone of the renaissance Graphic Design before our videos become so motion heavy we get sick before we reach the third loop. Reference the trend of the infinite zoom below:
The beauty isn’t just in the simplicity of the early stages of graphic design, but the pragmatism that drove the design. I’m not necessarily advocating for a Miesian ‘Less is More’ revival, though it could be argued that style of design will always exist (like these exemplary contemporary design uses). The ‘minimalist affect is a beautiful thing in the right context.
I’m also not saying there isn’t a time and place for a Venturian ‘Less is a Bore’ approach either (like these exemplary contemporary design uses - we particularly like Bompass and Parr). Marcd has done its fair share of both types of design, but when comparing something like a story that’s designed to be communicated via the infinite zoom to a renaissance text designed for the sole purpose of succinct, textual explanations, there’s something to gained from a criticism that could urge us to take a step back and analyze the current design trends and projection of where they might end up.
The key throughout whatever trend is to remember the weight that a theme can hold if clearly presented in the final design. No matter the project in Cowherd’s design studio, we knew that we would be met with a response of “short answer yes, long answer maybe”. Though predictable, it was a reassurance throughout our constant failures as early designers and the consistency in his response showed confidence in the worth of exploring the long answer. We could take solace in knowing that for the rest of our careers as designers, it would remain that way.
A beautiful example of this intersection of minimum and maximum design is Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. For a break from all this design reading, check out the process of how the characters were designed and created. The movie is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book originally published in 1970. Any adaptation presents the perfect example to do too much in terms of design of its graphic presentation. The story has already been created, so the short answer would be to pack the film full of high energy scenes that push the boundaries of stop motion design and blast the theater with stimuli. The long answer was to inspect the story, taking note of the subtleties in its rhythm and how Roald Dahl was able to perfect the cross between minimum and maximum storytelling. Though his stories were ridiculous in their plausibility, they were brought back to earth by designing the characters with a high level of relatability, and paying attention to where and when it was most appropriate to take advantage of the reader’s vulnerability while relating to the story.
Wes Anderson’s genius was being able to mimic these nuances while simultaneously experimenting with a highly difficult and rarely used medium. Maybe the most dangerous part of the types of characters that Anderson designed was their susceptibility to fall into the uncanny valley. But the characters managed to retain just enough fantasy in their appearance that it didn’t upset the audience when he threw in his repetitive tnuances.
My favorite example of this repetitive design approach is his use of the finger snap. The first reason is obvious in that no fox, badger, or (o)possum will ever snap. So already its humor has lowered the audience’s vulnerability. This is the intersection of minimum and maximum design. Anderson takes a highly improbable occurrence (which will stand out to the viewer because of its absurdness), and understanding that is all that has to be done to grab the viewer’s attention, communicates it simply and repeats it to stamp the movie with a type of signature. The same can be said about his recurrent use of “cuss” in place of explicit language. It would be childish in most contexts, but again because it’s being used by adult, clay animals its well-received. Furthermore, its densely interspersed throughout the dialogue, and again stamps the movie with another signature.
The author Robin Williams writes a great piece that takes a more in-depth look at the value of repetition in design in her book the non-designer’s design book. Perfecting this repetition is what I believe to be the key to design from the early minimal renaissance book designs to today’s hyperactive infinite zoom motion graphics. And as I started with, if you’re going to stand out in a world full of ‘Graphic Designers’, I recommend you learn how to repress your urge to adhere to one end or the other of the Minimum / Maximum design spectrum in hopes of standing out. Not that it can’t be done, but it won’t create a sustainable career.
Social media is a great place to start when evaluating whether or not you have what it takes to sustain a career in design. It’s the perfect environment for testing your design intuition, and your ability to design a plan to brand yourself without being pigeon-holed into maintaining an ‘aesthetic’. Having a design aesthetic when going through a page makes it easier to hit the follow button for a number of reasons. It’s easier for the viewer to understand what the account does. There’s a sense of confidence in the designer sticking to a style. It also looks more beautiful as a page on the screen. But the success that comes from those pages is oftentimes commissions on designs like cover art, personal art pieces, posters etc. (For more on how some of the top design accounts gained their success, check out this blog post by Kati Holland.) Which is great if you’re comfortable designing one thing over and over, but that type of designer sits more in the realm of art rather than true graphic design.
I guess now would be a good time to elaborate on the way in which I’m referring to graphic design. I don’t write about graphic design in the traditional sense of a designer that produces x number of logo designs per day. To me, graphic design is any design that’s communicating something visually. It’s such a broad term, it’s never made sense why we’ve confined the profession to such limited mobility. This lack of mobility has presented recurring roadblocks in my design projects throughout school. I often received criticism that although my design was aesthetically pleasing and communicated a particular overarching ‘big idea’ well, that it was more graphic design than architecture. The line between the two will always exist, but as a designer whose tools of communication consists mainly of a few drawings, it seems the graphic part of graphic design could be argued to be the most important tool of communication no matter the discipline. As our readings would claim, architecture is something like a product of mathematical manipulations to the ‘outer shell’ that implied a cube was more than just four facades, but deconstructed as a result of natural rhythms in a particular, sometimes uncontrollable, manner. When really the only thing that the public saw was a window slightly unaligned from the window opposite itself. So graphically speaking, they weren’t totally convinced. A great example of graphic design’s misunderstood existence is theory’s ability to take over e.g. Peter Eisenmans House VI. Architecturally-theoretically speaking, the design of the house - the way the cube is rigorously affected by a series of precise disfigurements - is beautiful. The drawings and renderings are elegant. But as the inhabitant sits down at the dinner table, places the napkin on their lap-preparing to eat a warm meal with their loving family, and turns to their left to catch up with their spouse, instead of being met with a familiar face, they’re interrupted by a column that splits the dining table in two. In terms of theoretical design, the awkwardness of using the house is arbitrary. In terms of graphic design, it’s a failure to address the design problem in that it lacks the ability to properly communicate the intent of a home.
It’s easy to talk extensively through the theory behind a design. Though it may appear a more thought-out process, in reality it’s the short answer. The long answer is the short explanation - one that is explained thoroughly through its graphic representation. And thus, why I believe graphic design spans a multitude of design disciplines and why an instagram ‘aesthetic’ or the infinite zoom trend may be a similarly short answer to contemporary design.
An artist is to a designer as a square is to a rectangle. A graphic designer’s purpose is to address a problem, design a solution, and most importantly design a way to clearly communicate that solution. An artist’s purpose is to experiment in uncharted territories that stresses a deeper understanding of the world or oneself. Not that one is more useful than the other; honestly the world could use more experimentation, especially with technology, rather than fundamentally sound graphic designers. But it’s the graphic designer’s responsibility to know the boundaries of when a design no longer communicates an idea, but is merely experimentation.
This experimental design is where most graphic designers tend to fall now - especially designers that do things like have an instagram aesthetic (there are definitely enough bloggers who will teach you how to get an instagram aesthetic) .Though experimentation is imperative, for the development of new forms and uses of media that come as a result, it still exists outside of the boundaries of true design. A designer may have a signature at moments, but to propose a design solution whose process adhered to a the designers style and not a reaction to the given problem would be where they would fail as a graphic designer.
On the contrary, is a graphic designer that has an ‘aesthetic’ because they’ve analyzed the setting and the audience to which they are presenting their work and have designed a solution to exist as designers in the sweet spot of the minimum / maximum design spectrum. These designers will have a wide range of work that doesn’t reflect an aesthetic in the work itself, but the way in which it is prepared for that specific type of media. Between their design website, instagram page, and personal portfolio, the designs could look completely different when laid side by side, but rightfully so because the designer is taking into account the multitude of factors that come with each form of digital media and realizing that they are rarely transferrable across those three environments.
Studio Lennarts & De Bruijn
Don’t Spit Zine
We started off presenting our marcd designs and products via instagram in a rectangle with a large white border because we had seen a few successful accounts that had done something similar. To stand out as our own design studio, with our own design aesthetic, we added a small border of color that would be filled when it was a process photo and unfilled when it was project work as not to take away from the colors of the designs.
Bad idea. We had minimized our designs to be less legible, added bright colors that oftentimes overpowered the design itself, and had now made our page solely about an aesthetic rather than the designs we were producing. And as we transitioned to full bleed images, we increased success. As we’ve continued to post and scroll through endless design accounts searching for what works and what doesn’t work, we realized why the design accounts above had made such an impact. Some really great and important design decisions they made and we learned from, and then stole.
They took full advantage of the square whether the images were full bleed or not by making the design the most important aspect and the idea legible.
Repetition doesn’t mean a consistent filter or color palette, but consistently clear and captivating presentation of their designs.
Not taking themselves too seriously - an idea that Marcd share’s with Codeships Ryan Wilke.
Those are just some of the instagram tips we found to be important. Here’s another perspective on what to consider in designing your instagram layout.
Instagram is where graphic design lives and dies. If we don’t trust your instagram page, odds are we won’t trust anything else you do.
Not because I’ve deduced myself to shallow design (but also it may be, you can be the judge of that), but because the instagram platform presents the most ideal place to test graphic design. From the bio that forces the designer to brand themselves in a limited word count, to the amount of users the designs are able to influence, to the way in which the designer comments on their own designs and converses with other users, to the actual presentation of the work itself.
So you can search graphic design studio in x city and you may get 100s of pages of large and small scale design studios, but the same rigor that’s applied to the design process should be applied when critiquing which ones truly exist in the realm of graphic design and which simply produce graphic logos and labels for local coffee shops but have a really hot aesthetic on instagram.
To sustain a career in design, find a sweet spot on the spectrum.
Only repetitions can successfully interrupt a rhythm.
“Short answer, no. Long answer, maybe.”
Written by: Jake Pfahl & Malu Marzarotto