The invisibility of design – Ideal design

Reid Miles Jazz cd coverLebogang Nkoane pointed me to this writing by Alex on Retinart, and he asked me what my thoughts are on the statement (from the writing) below:

“The design just carries the message, rather than attempt to be the message.”

I have had a writing in my drafts for past three months or so, it focuses on the invisibility of good design but I’ll try to marry that with the line that Lebogang’s question is based on. Here it goes:

When two people in different geographic locations wants to communicate, they’d be in need of a tool or medium that will allow them to exchange information, news or ideas. Be it a telephone, a mobile phone, a letter and so forth.

In a situation where a man calls his wife who is on the other side of town, through a telephone, just to say “I love you.” For the man, the sender, the most important thing is for the message to reach the wife, the receiver.

As important and valuable as the telephone is, the most important thing in this scenario is the message, “I love you.” The telephone is merely used to transmit the message. Throughout the phone call, the spotlight will be on the message, not the telephone itself.

When talking over the phone, have you realized how the phone is forgotten and the conversation takes center stage? When reading a letter, have you realized how the words takes all your attention that you hardly see the paper the words are written or printed on? When watching a movie, do you realize how at some stage you fail to notice whatever you’re using to watch the movie, be it a TV, computer or even an ipod — as you would be drawn into the movie itself?

Bad design gets in the way of the communication process.

It’s due to that that designer’s go wild in an attempt to let their masterpieces get the attention they believe it deserves. But good design goes unnoticed (by ‘design’) as it lets its master, content + message, get the spotlight.

Design is too broad for me to make an objective argument, so I’ll stick to design in the context of CD covers from here on.

Like I always assert, there needs to be a function to be realized for form to justify its existence. Thus, the CD cover is brought to being primarily as an identification tool, and in almost all cases the designer will go a step further and then try to communicate, say, the theme of the album through the very same arrangement of visuals (read: design) — which is a beautiful thing but it rarely ‘kills’ the album if it’s not done.

It goes without saying – the statement I just made opens room for an argument within an argument:

“Is anything presented by design a message?”

Is the artist’s name, album’s title and their portrait a message, simply because they’re presented by design?

A designer either uses the visual arrangements of a layout to present, or to communicate a message. Either way design, in the context of things like CD covers, is the message.

But it’s only when the layout affects what its contents communicate can we declare design and the message as one.

When you drink tea, you don’t necessarily think, “Oh, I’m drinking hot water, sugar, milk and crushed leaves.” As you see them as you should, a collective. The same applies when a viewer consumes a design. They don’t see; an album’s title, the artist’s name and their portrait. They see a CD cover.

In some cases it’s the photography that carries the intended message. Now the question is; “do we give credit to the photographer, or the designer ‘cos they arranged where and how the photograph is placed?” If the message is communicated by the typography, where does the credit go? The designer or typographer?

The end product is one, therefore, the message and the design are one. It’s only when the design has failed does a viewer separate the design from the message.

The design is the only way the viewer consumes the message. They see design as a collective. Likewise, when having a good cup of tea, a person sees a cup of tea — and not hot water, sugar, milk, and a tea bag.

And that’s what a good design should be, a thing – and not things.

*Lebogang: Thanks for pointing me out to such an insightful read. Alexendra: thank you for such an inspiring and well-researched writing.





  • lebogang nkoane Said:

    Hmmm,, well argued.

    Albeit for the “the design carries the message.” end of the statement.

    I’d say, add … “interactive” before the word “design” then it’s whole other ball game.

    Of which I believe would then change that statement to: “The design carries the message AND is the message.”

    I am too sleep to argue that now — I just had lunch.

    I’ll comeback to it.
    — On July 1st, 2010 at 4:06 pm [permarlink]
  • Mokokoma Mokhonoana Said:

    Lebogang Nkoane,

    I agree, I should have added “interactive” before “design.” I actually had a part were I spoke about “design” in the context of website development (and user-interface), I mentioned how interactive design primarily serves as a means to present content, rather than a communicative tool (read: part of a message) as in most cases with static (read: print) design.

    I must have left it out, unintentionally, when I transferred the writing from TextEdit into wordpress.

    Thanks for sharing your points of view, the value that they’ve added to the writing is appreciated.
    — On July 1st, 2010 at 7:16 pm [permarlink]

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