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February 2008
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April 2008

Treatment is King Part II

In the comments, a student of mine raises a question about the statement of designers inability to generate content. Instead of burying my reply in the comments, here is it front and center.

Hi Leilah,

You seem to miss an essence of my point, which is that to apply a treatment to content is not decoration but rather the act of aligning the content to its proper form, which is not the same as generating the content itself like in a Word document.  Yes, there is visual content, but most of my projects have to do with words.

In the projects I've worked on, I define the essence of the experience, write the words to describe it, and often do the information architecture. The designers with whom I collaborate seek to understand and interpret that content, then align it to its appropriate form from an inappropriate form (ie. the Word document). To align content with form is not the same as generating the content nor is it mere decoration. It is just a different phase in the designing process, which in most cases is not the task required of the professional designer because the client provides the content (it's products, it's history, it's brand essence). The client  just don't know what form best expresses it, which is the work of the graphic designer.

I am clear about the fact that I work on highly complex information-rich projects that require in depth research to understand what the content is. In my experience, when I have offered designers the opportunity to create the content (what should be the words said here), they have been unable to do so because they lacked the contextual expertise to know what mattered in that experience and how to describe it in words.

Again, there are "designers as authors" who seek to provide the content as well as the form. Stefan Sagmeister is a good example. But he also doesn't do the type of design I would be engaged to work on. I work  now and in the past with all types of designers, who perhaps are (1) students and thus struggle with the generation of content, (2) can produce content, but are really only interested in the aligning the form part of the process, or (3)can neither write or produce images, but can arrange them in ways that reveal the essence of the content. And more rarely, a bad designer who know nothing about form.

Sometimes it is frustrating for me, because I don't always have time to generate the content, so it would be great to have a designer who can do it when I am trying to juggle something else. And the caveat is that the content they generate has to be as good as something I would generate. But the truth of the matter is, I do "content "extremely well and the designers with whom I work  best are always in the second group -- people who understand how to generate content, so that they respect the craft of doing so, but prefer to do the form work (which I cannot do as well). This makes it an effective collaboration.

I know graphic design in all its many forms and embrace its potentialities. I even train students to advance its potentialities. But as I stated to others before, the value add of any designer to me is their ability to give meaningful form to content. The meaninfulness refers to understanding the context over time, and thus allowing the form to resonate. But really the designer has no control over context or time, they are or ought to be masters form first to be a designer. The rest is even more value-add.

Form is not decoration, but it is not content either. I just wish sometimes that designers actually valued what they do so well. Then these movements into other areas would seem less like overcompensation for some lack. What I appreciated about Micheal Rock is that he is proud of being a designer, in perhaps what may seem to be its most limited manifestation of giving form to client's content. And the content is not just the words for the Guilt label, but rather the essence of the luxury shopping and owning experience of Prada.

Purifying water is a treatment which removes the impurity of extraneous matter so that you can get to the essence of H2O + electrolytes. Graphic design is a treatment with removes extraneous matter so that you can get to the essence of the content. Neither types of treatment do I confuse with decoration. But hey, what is wrong with decoration?


Treatment is King

Yesterday, Michael Rock of 2 x 4 design gave a lecture at UIC for the architecture lecture series. Bob Sobal, director of the school of architecture, made a statement that he asked Michael to come because he was a designer content with just designing and had not given into the call for research. That ruffled my feathers, but as I listened to what Michael was saying I realized that this was not true. What Michael was describing was the essence of graphic designing, which is about the mastery in which you treat the content that you are provided by the client. 

Michael made a very astute statement about how as a designer you cannot control the content, all you control is the treatment of the content. Beyond cries for designer as author, I believe in most cases that is true. I know this to be true because on almost every project that I've worked on with a designer, I had to come up with the content. My disappointments with working with designers is the inability to generate content as well as form. I think the call for designer as author is tied to the perception that somehow this focus on treatment is being superficial. The calls for design thinking is about proving that the thought process behind the selection of treatment is deep. Which is true, but it is true because good designers are gifted in discerning the best technique to get the essence of the content.

Michael described the evolution of two treatment motifs that 2 X 4 has explored for mostly Prada, but also Brooklyn Museum, the Muhammed Ali Museum, and Chanel. The first was the motif of fauna, where through pixelized patterns 2 x 4 treats mostly walls as interactive surfaces of perspective play. Figures only become clear from the distance of an airplane as in the facade of the Muhammed Ali museum. Microscopic pollen patterns close up becomes rich but indistinct decorative wall paper at a distance. The idea that there are teaming lifeforms that exist if you are close enough or far enough from them becomes both a visual treatment, but also social commentary in the world of high luxury goods.

The second motif was flora, which describes their use of organic flower shapes to comment upon mostly cold modernist structures.  He described the work they did for Vitra furniture where they turned modern chairs into flowers, see case study at 2 X 4 site. The flower logo for the Brooklyn museum, and the really cool flower-inspired Waist Down exhibit of skirts.

What I appreciated is the fact that Michael was confident in his identity as a designer, who uses the language of form to give appropriate meaning to whatever content comes his way.  That is the value-add of design.  So while it is not the kind of design I would engage with because I am more on the information design side of things, it was great to get an appreciation for the kinds of work that 2 x 4 does. And reminds me of the diversity of perspectives in design.

Design Policy and CCBHS final presentations

This week (Tuesday) I presented the final designs for the Cook County Bureau of Health Services project I’ve been working on for 2-years. I could not have scripted a better reaction, which highlights for me what design policy is about.

The Presentation

In attendance at the presentation were about 23 financial administrative staff across the entire Bureau. By their surprised and enthusiastic greetings, I knew that it was rare that these groups got together. I opened with a description of the mandate of the project: design an information system about billing and payment that communicates the values of the Bureau’s mission to provide health care regardless of one’s ability to pay, the patients’ own values of health and health service, while recognizing the need for a model of financial sustainability to support both.

I introduced/performed 6 personas of their different patient types. I walked them through the financial aspects of the registration and financial screening processes, and how each of the designs we created fit into the processes. I role played the way in which the designs mediated interactions between the patients and staff. Then, the team and I  passed out a set of the materials to each participant, who eagerly took them. We followed with a long Q&A in which the CFO basically used all of the arguments I presented to him, which were based on the testing I did with patients, about certain policy decisions to convince the other participants.

What made it successful is not just the beauty and clarity of the designs, our demonstration of a deep understanding their patients and processes, but how through designing we could affect positive changes in the entire Bureau. The CFO said that the project was one of the first steps towards working as an integrated Bureau with a patient-centered focus. CCBHS has never been integrated or patient-centered, so this is a major first step.

About Design Policy

This is what design policy is for me: changing governmental organizational cultures to make them more accountable in positive ways to the people they serve. This is distinct from design spectacles that can raise awareness about governmental dysfunctionality. It is distinct from design futuring, which perhaps is what Daniel’s Metahaven does, which provides alternative visions for the future. Design policy is the often mundane work of transforming that awareness of governmental dysfunctionality into tangible self-sustaining realities of alternative futures. Since policy is the tool of governmental change, design policy is the design of both the formation and implementation of that tool.

Helvetica in White

Last night I watched the film, Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit. While it is an amazing film about typography and provides an interesting history of the Swiss modern typeface, Helvetica, it was struck by the lack of ethnic  and even gender diversity among the interviewees. Of the 22 + interviewees, only 4 were women, 0 were people of color, leaving the rest to be European or Euro-American white males.  Okay,  historically I can see how the designers from the 50s and 60s would be the euro white male, but why were there no people of color among the later designers. Paula Scher and David Carson, and Stefan Sagmeister criticized Helvetica for ideological reasons, but what about someone like Saki Mafundikwa, who could criticize it for its colonial rationality.

I know that diversity in design has a long way to go. But considering the film was done in 2007 in ethnically diverse Europe and the US, you'd think that it would somehow make an appearance in the film. Another missed opportunity...

Crazy Busy

Sorry I haven't been so diligent in posting for a while. It has been crazy busy these last couple of weeks. We are completing the design phase of the Cook County Bureau of Health Services project. We deliver the final products (not prototypes) on Tuesday. Sappi's grant of $50,000 buys a lot of printing. We have 15 skids, yes I said skids, of materials being delivered to CCBHS warehouse on Tuesday. The sad part is that the materials will only cover about 6 months of the Bureau's needs.

I put together an NEA grant for the website development. That was really fun (except for the submission part) because it allowed me to really see how valuable work through the City Design Center is and will continue to be. After losing Design for Democracy, to have a organizational infrastructure to write grants, provide visiting research positions, and eventually plant young designers into government agencies is all that I envisioned DforD becoming.

Midterms of coming up and I have lots of essays to read. I am on all of the ID grad student committees (3) and I think 5 of the graphic design, one studio arts, and so far, maybe 1 EV. 

Finally, I am planning the UIC Motorola Innovation Center Innovators lecture series, with Aaron Marcus coming on Wednesday, March 12th. From 4-5:30pm. Before that, tomorrow we complete the reviews of ID candidates for next years grad program and I am hosting the film night for CAPA at the City Design Center on Tuesday.

So its been pretty full couple of weeks. I also forgot to mention the presentation I gave at Motorola the end of February. So that is catching up on all that I am doing. Hopefully, I will be able to blog more faithfully after next week's insanity.