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J David Ford

What is Design?

I once saw a video that made a good point of the difference between our modern understanding of God and the understanding of the ancient Hebrews. To the modern mind, God is perceived in bullet-point terms: God is almighty, or God is omnipotent. But to the Hebrews, God was a rock, or God was my shepherd, or God was living water. The difference is HUGE.

The modern mind thinks in terms of data: “The storm was third wettest in 1996.” But the ancient mind thought in terms of story: “I will send you rain in its season.”

Larry King once asked Ed Bradley if he could explain the longevity of CBS’ 60 Minutes, the most successful program in television history. Mr. Bradley replied that it was because founder Don Hewitt’s guiding directive had been, “Tell me a story.” So storytelling (Once upon a time . . .), not reporting (Heat wave claims six), is what 60 Minutes has always done.

A novel is nothing but story.

As well, a movie is nothing but story, either. And to see it, we spend millions.

Story is how human beings actually experience life. And what is a story? It's a life lived. Story is about risk and hope and fear and struggle and love and loss. It's about heart and soul and the real reasons behind things.

What's all this have to do with design?

Everything.

As designers, we ask what are we doing on the screen? Why are you involved? What’s your role?

As a client, you may say that you want your page/product/idea to “look good.”  And, of course, looking good is preferable to looking bad. But what do we interpret such a comment to actually mean?

What we believe it should mean is that there’s a story to be told, and that our role is to execute its visual expression. “Looking good” says blue and green look good together. The story is in, what does blue and green say when put together?

To leave the question unanswered is to begin a story. The reader's engaged. He’ll look for what’s next. That’s what you want.

Think about this. That typeface we selected — why that one? Its form might be voluptuous or ratty or rigid. Each in context could be correct and beautiful — or not. 

White space can be a pause, a break in time. It can also organize, separating this from that. It can convey purity, vastness, emptiness, desolation — each different, dependent on context.

In evaluating a design, before asking, “Does it look good?” we ask, “What story is it telling?”

Design — visual expressiveness — is not something plotted on a chart, measured, compiled, compared. It is, rather, the face of life, a window to the soul beneath.


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