Way back in late 2001, Adam Greenfield published an essay entitled, “The Bathing Ape Has No Clothes (and other notes on the distinction between style and design). In this essay, he posits “problem-solving within constraints” as an essential component of design. In fact, as he sees it, this component separates design most definitively from “style,” which is characterized by a relatively personal, unconstrained creativity. That some designers, he cites Paul Rand and Saul Bass as examples, were, in spite of real constraints, able to develop a recognizable style, testifies to the level of artistry they achieved with their work.
Though he does not refer to it, Greenfield’s essay was preceded by Jeffrey Zeldman’s, “Style versus design: Why understanding the difference is what it’s all about,” which first appeared in 2000 (and was reprinted in 2005 by Adobe). Zeldman too emphasizes the real-world pragmatism of design over and against the modish self-referentiality of style. He laments that young web designers, along with design competition judges, fall for the trendy allure of style and thus overlook and avoid the less sexy, though more critical, challenge posed by plain-old usability. Eschewing a reductive “either/or,” Zeldman simply states, “Not enough designers are working in that vast middle ground between eye candy and usability where most of the web must be built.”
To show that this debate is far from dead, viddy this recent post by Eric Karjaluoto, provocatively called, “F— Style.” He echoes the positions of Greenfield and Zeldman by advocating “hardcore” design, which he defines as, “design focused on results.” “This kind of design,” he writes, “forces us to see ourselves as intermediaries, who facilitate defined outcomes. To do this, we consider and weigh business, marketing, communications (and other) challenges, and work to resolve them through design. The end-result doesn’t have to look good, even though it might, but it absolutely must work.”
As colorful and interesting as I found Karjaluoto’s polemic, I thought it especially refreshing that he brought the discussion back to careers and getting professional work. While describing the process of hiring an interaction designer, and the elements he looks for in a portfolio, he says, “As I narrow the list of potential candidates I find myself with a handful of books that look aesthetically different from one to the next, but share certain characteristics. These characteristics include work that feels rational, informed, effective and appropriate to the effort. I’m looking for people who craft solutions to address and impact a specific challenge.”
When you look at your book, what do you see? If you see stylistic continuity from one piece to the next, Karjaluoto and Zeldman both suggest, you just might be looking at the failure to adequately and appropriately respond to the needs of your clients.
At the same time, pieces in a book don’t and shouldn’t speak for themselves. All stylistic continuity aside, do your pieces have stories that reflect business results? Can you answer the prickly but pertinent question, “Did it work?”
[Hat tip to the Silverthreaded One for the Greenfield essay.]