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Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 4 – the design process



When studying the concept of visual sensitivity a quote by the great painter and colorist Henri Matisse was used. To begin our study of design process the quote will come from another great colorist, Joseph Albers:

To design is

to plan and organize

to order and relate

and to control.

In short it embraces

all means opposing

disorder and accident.

Therefore it signifies

a human need

and qualifies man’s

thinking and doing.

(Lauer 12)

This quote brings us back to chapter one and the big picture. Human beings have an intuitive drive to order and organize. It is true that all people are designers or artists to some extent. Wendell Berry has expressed this as follows:

… everybody is an artist – good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world…. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both “the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function.” And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation. (110)

We are all shaping, changing, and designing our private and public worlds — consciously or unconsciously. We are continually interacting within designs. You are a part of this class, a part of this university, a part of a family, a part of a community, a part of a nation, a part of the world, a part of the universe.  How you design your interaction with these various parts and wholes could be called the art of living.  

On the level of visual design the approaches to organization can be as varied as the individuals who organize, but there are some basic methods to problem solving in design. One process can be described as definition, creativity, analysis, production, and clarification (Bevlin 24). The order and form these stages take vary greatly with the individual and sometimes stages are omitted, intentionally or unintentionally.

Definition of the design problem is the process of coming to an understanding of what is to be ordered or designed. This could include something as specific as the detailed requirements for an advertisement, including copy, headlines, and visuals, or something as general as a fine artist attempting to resolve visually an as yet undefined expressive or intellectual concept. To a greater or lesser extent an understanding of what is needed must be formulated. Diagrams, sketches, maquettes, models, research and other means are utilized in defining what is needed.

Creativity has already been discussed at some length. In the problem solving process it can and should play an important role in producing a design of merit and value. The elements of observation and stored information and mental models are of the utmost importance. The designer needs this backlog of mental associations to draw on in order to arrive at a creative solution. Simply using previous models does not arrive at the creative solution; the designer combines previous models in new ways to solve the problem at hand; new associations are formed, and a creative solution is applied.

Analysis is applying the nearly always-present constraints of time, money and function (Bevlin 24). The project must fit the deadline in many cases; this requires careful planning of time and, if the luxury exists, staff. The design must fit the budget that has been set for it. This difficult task can make or break a designer, whether ceramist, sculptor, filmmaker, or art director for an advertising agency. A knowledge of production costs is a necessity for survival in a market system. The final restraint is that of function. The design must, in the end, offer a solution to the definition. This seems rather obvious but it is actually quite easy to become so caught up in other aspects of the design process that this major goal is forgotten or at least partially ignored. The designer’s enthusiasm for the creative process, for the materials, or for the use of the elements of design can sometimes overpower the function that the design was originally intended to actually fulfill. An example of this in the advertising world would be where a designer creates the most exquisite, beautiful advertisement imaginable but if the design does not sell the product or communicate the idea intended – the design is a failure.

Production is the process of actually making the desired product. This involves the designer’s knowledge of materials and processes. This step must be done in concert with the processes of analysis and creativity. It is of the utmost importance to remain flexible during the production process. This flexibility can involve changes and improvements that the production process itself can create or dictate. The complexities of the production process often open up some of the best opportunities for creative associations and solutions.

Clarification is the final step of the design process and could also be called evaluation. In most cases there comes a time for the artist/designer to become their own critic. Some individuals seem better suited for this task than others. While a short-term project might be relatively easy to step back from and objectively assess the strong and weak points, a project that the designer may have spent years on can be very difficult to appraise without the bias of the deep convictions that have grown with the work clouding objectivity. Difficult or easy, clarification is a necessary part of the design process. To become a critic of one’s own work is one way to improve and continue evolving as an artist.

A common problem of art students is that they are overly demanding critics of their own work. They are constantly confronted with professional examples to judge themselves by and if they don’t immediately measure up they are ready to demean themselves.  This is not healthy self-analysis. Their goal should be professionalism in their work; but they must keep in mind that professionalism is not gained in giant leaps but in small increments. They need to look for ways to improve their capabilities. Students’ reaction to problems should not be to condemn themselves for their deficiencies but to find ways to overcome them in the next problem. An understanding attitude toward yourself and your work is a tremendous asset in the process of learning.

An accepted attitude in our society is an appreciation of competition. Some people believe that it is the basis for our social and economic system. To some degree this may be true, but I do not believe it is the best way to learn and grow as an artist. Much of the condemning students do of themselves is when they look at other students work, which they or their instructor perceive as having accomplished the objectives of the assignment better than their own performance, then from this comparison the student becomes disappointed and discouraged. This disappointment sometime leads the student to try to outdo others. Sometimes the comparison leads the student to give up the study of art. I believe both reactions are a disservice to the student. Students all have strengths in different places in the study of art. When students give up because others have strengths that are different from their own, they many times never find their own strengths and talents. Striving to be better than everyone else is futile and narcissistic activity. Striving to be the best you can be is a productive learning experience. There are always going to be individuals who seem to learn more quickly and easily than others. This is simply the nature of people.  Rather than competition and envy, cooperation and admiration should be the basis of relationship between students. Students can usually learn as much from each other as they can from the instructor. If an atmosphere of cooperation and communication between students can be achieved, a true community of learners can be shaped and the educational and social experiences are enhanced for everyone.

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