Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

"Can you make the type bigger?"

Judging by the design blogs, the chatter at conferences and award ceremonies, and the rhetoric in the magazines, graphic design is a profession where insecurity and doubt are rife. Whenever graphic designers get together, the talk invariably gravitates towards the default topics of restrictive clients, inadequate remuneration and graphic design's junior status in the contemporary media family. It reminds me of Walter Sobchak, the psychopathic character played by John Goodman in the film The Big Lebowski and his warning to everyone he encounters that they are entering a world of pain.

Yet it is one of graphic design's oldest sources of discontent that causes the most pain, namely its vulnerability to client interference. A seemingly innocuous request to "make the type bigger" hardly ranks as a great sociological evil, but it pricks designers where it hurts most: it punctures our fragile sense of personal authorship. It also demonstrates that designers and clients don't often see the same thing when they look at a work of graphic design: a request to enlarge a line of type can have a ruinous effect on a layout, but it's rarely a factor that troubles a client. The designer notices, the client doesn't.

It is fashionable to talk up the idea of "graphic authorship". When we use the term we generally mean designers creating their own content as well as the package the content is delivered in. Yet this definition misses a fundamental point about graphic design, which is that all design, no matter how menial and inconsequential, is authorship. Even the designer who creates the banners for the sun-loungers in the local supermarket is engaged in an act of authorship. The attraction of making a mark that we can call our own is almost without exception the reason why we become graphic designers in the first place. It doesn't matter whether we are designing a bus ticket or a hospital signage system, we have "authored" its look, and therefore feel entitled to put a metaphorical signature on it.

Tibor Kalman famously said that he was more interested in the "message than the medium". But I wonder if Kalman (a bona fide graphic design genius) liked having his work altered by clients? I doubt it. Many designers share Kalman's belief in the pre-eminence of the message. They espouse design's purely functionalist role as a conveyor of other people's intentions. Yet I never met a designer who was happy to have his or her work meddled with. Even the most service-minded of designers become deflated when they are unable to protect their work against interference. For the designer, outright rejection is often easier to take than demands for petty changes.

Rational and fair-minded people will doubtless scoff at this "sensitivity", and accuse designers of having skins thinner than apple peel. They will point out that anyone who accepts payment for their work is a hired hand and should do the bidding of the hirer - If a client wants a 14pt telephone number enlarged to 72pt, just do it. They might also observe that people who work in insurance or warehouse distribution also have a claim to authorship in their work, and are therefore entitled to pout and stamp their feet in protest when asked to do something they object to. And in truth, it's tough to argue that designers are a special case. Yet when Paul Rand - hardly a bleeding heart graphista - was asked what made a good client, he replied: "Most clients are nice clients. It is the people in between who give you the problems: the account executives, the marketing people. They destroy people's work: 'this should be bigger, this should be up here, there should be a sun here with a price.'"

This is not to say that graphic designers can't have discussions with clients that result in changes to their work; or that all designers resist change purely on the basis that they are sensitive flowers who can't be told when they are wrong. But there is something in the nature of graphic design that invites interference from its paymasters. Clients are rarely embarrassed to demand changes, and in modern businesses it is a sign of mercantile machismo to tell "my designer" what to do. Designers are not helped by the fact that graphic design has never been easier to change. In the digital era, every client knows that displeasing gestures can be swept away with a keystroke. And since much design has migrated to the screen, change is made easier still: websites can be tinkered with even after they have been "published".

Client interference also raises the question of perception. No two people see exactly the same thing. When viewing a piece of work, clients see one thing, designers another. In his 1943 book The Art of Seeing Aldous Huxley called this "the mental side of seeing". Huxley observed that if a naturalist walks through a forest, they would see things that no layperson would see. It's the same with design: as soon as we become professional designers we lose the ability to look at our work in an untutored way. We see it "differently", which causes much of the frustration and antagonism that exists between clients and designers.

Clients are quick to discuss design's more abstract and intangible qualities. They talk about "warmth" and "friendliness"; about "impact" and "accessibility". They are understandably concerned with the "message" and not the aesthetic, structural and technical make-up of design. And even if they are aware of these factors, they don't attach much value to them. But without professional and technical skill, without aesthetic judgement honed from experience, without scrupulous attention to detail, "messages" are lost or neutered. When design becomes client driven, and the designer sidelined to a role of passive implementer, the result is the timid repetition of formulaic ideas and endlessly recycled stylistic poses. In fact, great design is by definition a merger of technical skill and aesthetic judgement (craft) and the delivery of a clear message (communication). This test can be applied to the work of Vaughan Oliver and Paul Rand, and both, in their own way, pass with flying colours.

But the onus is on the designer to explain why the details of graphic design are important, or to find acceptable subterfuges to preserve them. None of this is unique to design; all professions have to deal with the problem of informed perception. But it seems a particularly pressing issue in design: after all, seeing differently is a serious handicap in an activity that is principally about "seeing", and as with any handicap, we have to learn to overcome it. If we don't, we can look forward to a lifetime inhabiting Walter Sobchak's "world of pain".

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Typography

Comments [58]

I agree, it's hard to swallow your pride. But a designer must think beyond aesthetics. Design is more than a flashy look. It includes factors like accessibility, usability and it has to be functional. Viewing your work in an, like you said it, „untutored way" is mandatory for a designer. Ask your mum to get a fresh look from the outside.
Bernhard Benke

The issue of client interference is a good one to address, Adrian, but I would have preferred you tackle it with some sticking point other than type size.

I've come to realize that type size often represents a chasm of understanding between a designer (possessing youthful eye physiology), and a client (or the client's audience) who may be middle age or older. The chasm of understanding isn't always about aesthetics (although designers don't always get this), it's often about how common, mid-life degenerative patterns affect the eye's physiology.

Years ago, I did a lot of work for health care organizations. The director of Senior Services kindly showed me studies of common degenerative patterns in the eyes. I don't remember all the details, but they included difficulty focusing on small details and less ability to distinguish tone on tone.

Oversight on the part of designers to take these factors into consideration not only prompts client interference, but also perpetuates the perception that designers care more about surface appearances than useability or concern for the end-user.
Daniel Green

Some immediate things that come to mind

Constraints are a part of what distinguishes "design" from "fine art" in the first place. And one such constraint is the customers' aesthetic sensibilities. We as designers must possess the ability to articulate our ideas and the rationale behind their aesthetic decisions, otherwise, who can blame the customer for making design suggestions? If we can't articulate, or give our profession credibility, the discussion turns into an arguement over taste, and more often than not, the designer comes away feeling beaten up.

I often bristle at customers' design suggestions, especially when I feel like I've really "nailed it", so to speak. But it's worthwhile to try to discuss their suggestions and try to steer them in a better direction. However, there are some customers who feel they have to justify their paycheck by putting "their stamp" on every project. In those situations, we must gain some perspective, in a bigger-picture sense. Have we done all we could to give them a more effective alternative? Are our own agendas or egos driving our design decisions? Is the world going to come to a screeching halt because we made the type bigger, against our will? If the third scenario is true, we need to go home and hug our husband/wife/partner, or read a book, or go for a walk in the forest. Seriously.:)
Tom Michlig

The chasm of understanding works both ways, merely enlarging the type does not make it easier to read; choice of typeface, leading, measure, indents, paragraph spacing together with media and production choices also have parts to play.
There is no agreement on the science behind legibility, which leaves typography as an art based on experience. Rational and fair-minded observers are more likely to take the view that that experience (together with a considered rationale) outweighs client demands, although there are rarely rational and fair-minded observers around when you want one.
Tim Daly

There are so many angles this issue could be taken...

I'd like to pick the angle of client communication. Our clients know their business. They have been working with their audience for a long time and they've seen what works for them. Being in the trenches like this effects their instincts in a way that will cause them to look at a designed page and think it feels right (or wrong) to them. In the cases where it feels wrong they look for a way to fix it like, "Can you make the type bigger?" or "Can you add more Vitality?" (Yes, I actually had a client say that once.)

So I've been working on a skill that I learned from a long-time and respected client. I ask for symptom feedback vs. remedy feedback. Here are some examples of feedback based on the S vs. R theory:

Symptom feedback = I'm straining to read this.
Remedy feedback = Can you make the type bigger?

Symptom feedback = The most important part of the message is the company this comes from.
Remedy feedback = Can you make the logo bigger?

Symptom feedback = Our company's successful track record is based personal relationships
Remedy feedback = Can the photo be a person looking at the camera and smiling?

Anyone who's traveled the design road should recognize how Symptom feedback feels collaborative, and remedy feedback feels condescending.

So every time I get a remedy offered, I try to dig deeper and find the symptom. I've found that most of my clients are happy if we address the symptoms and they'll be more open to our expertise in finding the right remedies.

And if that doesn't work I just make the type bigger.

(On a sidenote, We always make sure that our type is at least the same size [x-height] as the Wall Street Journal. Literally 90% of clients who asked for bigger type changed their minds when given our WSJ rule)

Sheepstealer, the "symptom/remedy" explanation is a great point. Well put. Hits the nail on the head.
Tom Michlig

Thank you for such an insightful post. Sheepstealer, I LOVE your suggestion about the WSJ type size and the symptom/remedy explanation; I'd like to incorporate that thought into my own work, if that's all right.

I have to agree with many of the comments posted here; one of my clients is a non-profit agency which serves many older clients, and one of the main comments I CONSTANTLY get on my work is "can we make the type bigger?" The way I usually deal with this is to make sure that the copy provided is the largest size that will allow for appropriate spacing between lines; if they request it larger, I'll inform them that if I make it larger, I will have to squeeze the lines together, which will cause confusion for most readers (since their eyes will start to gravitate towards the next line before they've finished reading the first line.) Generally, I've been successful with that; if they still want it larger, I explain that they'll have to cut some copy in order to make it fit.
Dani Nordin

Tim Daly --

You're certainly correct that many factors affect the readability of text. If my post implied that increasing type size was the automatic solution to issues of readability, then I appreciate your clarification that there are other considerations, as well.

Of course, "experience" with using type only works to the degree that we share, or can relate to, the visual framework of the intended audience. In the case of macular degeneration, our experience may not completely serve us or the client if we don't understand what we're dealing with.

Sheepstealer --

Your "symptom/remedy" is very useful in addressing client feedback. Great approach.
Daniel Green

If you're making something that is not clearly conveying the message in addition to fulfilling your aesthetic requirements, that "something" is not a design.


This is what separates us from the painters and sculptors.

And although our degrees may not have included a minor in psychology; stewardship is also our responsibility. There is a reason that people seek out designers. Our opinions represent a certain level of expertise. Clients actually want to hear what we have to say. They are looking for our help and opinions—not an argument. Many clients look forward to working with us and what we do usually seems quite intersting to them. We're the ones who are paranoid.
Tobias Brauer

Ah, this is all so familiar! Non-design folk have grown accustomed to the default 12' text of word processing; typewriting as opposed to typesetting. With both clients and students, if asked to make the body copy bigger, I like to lay a well designed page (the WSJ would do) alongside my page design. Of course, the intended audience (and its age range) has to be a factor in the size/legibility debate.

To my taste, worse than being asked to "Make it Bigger" (thanks Paula Scher) is the client who wants to specify which typeface to use. As Tom Michlig mentioned, the ability to articulate to the client the rationale behind one's aesthetic choices is a valuable skill well worth cultivating. The clients who undertand that we designers do have their best interests at heart, and with whom we have a mututally trusting relationship, lead to an all-around happier result.
Marty Blake

Good equation, Tobias. One can't overstate the importance of "message" in design. Especially since the notion of graphic design has it's roots in social activism.
Tom Michlig

Although I work as a theatrical designer rather than a graphic designer, the problems encountered are the same.
Often I have found my directors (clients) will offer a remedy because they feel they need to know HOW to solve the problem. It can be quite a lot of work at times to get them to understand that I can find the best solution to the problem and still maintain the design integrity if they tell me in more emotional terms what the problem is.
Statements like "Can you make that brighter?" more often than not result from a problem with the performer not living up to the director's standards. Perhaps what they mean is the contrast does not feel right and the solution is to make another part of the stage darker, or a different color, or any number of other solutions. Though of course, sometimes it does just mean, can you make that brighter. By discussing the problem more in depth we can often find a solution that is mutually pleasing to both of us and in the end makes the final product a stronger work.
Lucas Krech

Ayn Rand wrote "Don't examine the folly, examine what it accomplishes."

The skill I have found the most valuable is to be able to interpret meaningless feedback like change that color to blue or make the type larger. Once you understand what the client is trying to accomplish with a comment then you can set about achieving that objective in a graphically acceptable way.

This will not work with every client. There will always be those who will insist that the type be 10% bigger no matter what. Then you have to simply choose if you want to keep getting their check or not.
Stephen Macklin

I'm not sure if the term "world of pain" describes anything Vaughn Oliver might be responsible for, but there are any number of ex-IBM or Westinghouse in-house designers still nursing the psychic wounds inflicted upon them by Paul Rand.
Lorraine Wild

The clients that I have worked with in my (short) career are more concerned about what they like, rather than what will be appropriate for their audiences. I'm sure the fifty-something people who run Urban Outfitters think the design is gimmicky and silly, but it really identifies with the people who they want to shop there. When clients say, "I don't like this" I struggle not to blurt out, "Well, that doesn't matter, because this isn't about you."

In business, the customer is always right. In design, the customer's customer is always right. Unfortunately, most of the time, we end up designing things for the customer, our client, because they are paying the bills.

What's worse, is that we often don't know anything about the customer's customer because in-depth research about who we're talking to in the first place isn't often built into the design process at most firms. A lot of the design that I've done so far in my career has been completely subjective, and I don't blame the clients for not liking it. If we expect to have any credibility, we need to remove a lot of the subjectivity out of our work by doing research -- real research, not about what colors are hot this year, but about people.

If we can sit across from clients and say, "look, we've really studied the people that you are trying to talk to, and we really think that this solution works well because of these ten reasons," a conversation will be started that will probably result in a good design solution. At very least, it will be a foundation upon which the design can be based.

Or, we can assume we know what communicates to everyone because we went to art school, sit around and make cool design and pass it over to clients and say, "Here's the design you ordered, isn't it cool?" And when they hate it, we'll get frustrated and write blog entries about how dumb our clients are.

If business people think designers are dumb, maybe it's because we are dumb.
Ryan Nee

Lorraine - on the two occasions that I've spoken to Vaughan Oliver (in connection with a book about record sleeves that I was editing) he came across as deeply troubled by the professional vexations of life as a graphic designer, particularly in relation to the shabby treatment he received from the record business. I would also argue that perhaps, in its dark undercurrents, his work reveals something of this. I'm sure you're right about ex-IBM or Westinghouse in-house designers, I wouldn't know.
Adrian Shaughnessy

During 4AD Records' heyday, from 1982 to 1992, while owner Ivo Watts-Russell was still based in London, Vaughan Oliver enjoyed working arrangements second to none. He was employed as an in-house designer in a small company (almost unheard of then) and given a free hand by his non-interfering client, Watts-Russell, a self-confessed design lover, to produce a highly individual body of work celebrated from Tokyo to LA. In the 1990s, driving along in his BMW, Oliver told me what he had earned that year: it was jaw-dropping. This is not the place to discuss anything else that might have been going on in his life by the time Adrian spoke to him, but, really, let's not get too tearful about this. Oliver had an amazing ride.

Oliver is an interesting figure to mention, though, in the light of Adrian's remarks about authorship. I have argued that Oliver's work in the 1980s is a test case for what authorship might mean in the context of graphic design. Describing all pieces of design as "authored" renders the term almost meaningless. It's like discussing the person who crafts 100 words for a client's ad and Don DeLillo as being fellow "authors". Clearly there is a vast difference in vision, intention and achievement.

Designers, as creative people, face the same challenge as any other creative person, in any field, who wants to be allowed to produce his or her best work. That's the struggle. That's life. If you have something out of the ordinary to offer, you might just find a way. But the suggestion that designers are unusually beleaguered or deserve special sympathy, compared to everyone else in the world of work who must do what the paymasters ask, is unlikely to impress anyone reading this post who is not a graphic designer.
Rick Poynor

Thank you for this, Ryan Nee:
If we expect to have any credibility, we need to remove a lot of the subjectivity out of our work by doing research -- real research, not about what colors are hot this year, but about people.

I had to take a break in my MA thesis writing (which, by the way, is about criticism of visual communication) to read this post. Mr. Nee is making a very important point when saying that more of a designer's research should be about people. For me this is what the whole profession is about (well, almost, at least). The knowledge of people -- what they (we) care about, what their worries are, why they think and act the way they do, how people came to think and act this way, what do people think they need and what do they really need -- is the real tool of the designer.

The aesthetical knowledge and skill is of course important, but that is in a way the basics of the "craft". You can't make it without it, but if this is the only focus, design is reduced to nothing more than mere styling -- which undermines that design has any social an cultural importance at all.

And if we can make the (thorough) cultural, historical, anthropological knowlegde the knowledge of which the designer bases her work, I'm sure that the profession in time will be looked upon with more respect. Because then it will be a reason to do so.
Fredrik Eive Refsli

Having produced a marvellous book on Vaughan Oliver, Rick is better placed than most to pass comment on him. I'm reluctant to speculate on Oliver's personal well being over the past two decades, but I'd merely add this observation. Oliver's golden era was, as Rick states, "4AD Records' heyday, from 1982 to 1992". I don't doubt that he was well remunerated - and creatively fulfilled - during that period. I spoke to him in 1999. It was only two telephone conversations but on both occasions he made bitter references to the treatment he received from other record labels. He gave a number of instances that don't need to be repeated here. My impression was of someone who had some dissatisfaction in his professional life.

Rick objects to my assertion that all graphic design is authorship. I'd go further and say that all creative production - bricklaying, gardening, embroidery - is authorship. We can take a lofty view and dismiss this as phoney or gimcrack or second-rate authorship, but try telling that to the people who take deeply felt satisfaction from small acts of personal creation. The work of Don DeLillo cannot be compared with, for example, a well-laid stone path. But who is to say that the degree of personal satisfaction experienced by DeLillo and the path-maker are not identical?

And that's the reason I stand by the view that all graphic design is authorship. The best evidence I can cite for this is the unalloyed joy on the face of a young graphic designer when he or she receives their first piece of published work. Few of them will claim that their work has any lasting significance, but they are nonetheless experiencing the thrill of authorship. Who would want to take that away from them?
Adrian Shaughnessy

Anyone who writes words for a living.
M Lipschitz

This article amuses me because, for my eyes, the type on Deisgn Observer is too small for easy reading. The site is lovely, but impractical. Fortunately, I can increase the size of body copy in my browser. Unfortunately, billboards, business cards and other printed media don't offer this feature.

The purpose of using the word authorship in the original post seems to be to endow even the most routine kinds of design with the significance and kudos of authorship and to intensify sympathy for designers whose supposed acts of authorship are misunderstood and meddled with by clients.

However, what Adrian is talking about could more accurately be described as creativity or just "making things". Obviously everyone, including designers, should take pleasure and satisfaction in what they make. The heart-tugging question about taking this away from people is unnecessary. I am not trying to do this.

But the term "authorship" was introduced into design to distinguish between different kinds of intention, expression and achievement. Designers are not in most cases the author of the written content in a message, particularly when it comes to more complex kinds of editorial message, and nor is the message their own -- it is the client's. Nevertheless, some designers manage to bring a personal dimension to a piece of communication that pushes it to another level of expression. One task of criticism might be to demonstrate where this has occurred and how the basic material of the client's message has been manipulated, supplemented and complicated by the designer.

This can only be done by analysing particular pieces of work and bodies of work. Assuming that every piece of design communication is an act of authorship simply because the designer had a hand in it and takes pride in it is much too vague; it lacks critical rigour and gets us nowhere. It renders the concept of authorship meaningless and useless, requiring us to come up with another term to describe design work that does achieve an unusual complexity of personal expression.

If Adrian really believes that definitions of authorship as it relates to design can be expanded in the way he suggests, and that this is a critically useful thing to do, then I would be interested to see this explored in a more detailed critical essay that paid due attention to the historiography of the critical discussion of authorship to date, and that explained the oversights and errors in these arguments.

The concept of authorship is too important for the development and understanding of graphic design's possibilities to be cast aside so lightly.
Rick Poynor

Rick is right. There is a technical use of the word "authorship" within design criticism. I acknowledged this usage in my original post.

But I'm not a design historian or theoretician, and regardless of specialised interpretations, the concept of authorship as understood by an educated English speaking-audience is non-qualitative. In other words, there is no assumption of value in the term. Any interpretation that implies degrees of value runs the risk of being accused of elitism, which seems a worse sin than my own desire to permit anyone to use the term who creates something.
Adrian Shaughnessy

It's floppy naval gazing psudeo-intellectual BS like this that gives the graphic design profession a bad name. For years designers have been shrinking and/or warping the text beyond the limits of legibility. Is it any wonder that clients are cautious as a result?

And when did mere decoration give the someone a claim of "authorship"?
Frank Petronio

This post was made for me, so I won't go on, except to say that by far the worst offenders ar the ones (clients) who interfere with every aspect of a design - seemingly at random, and then take that printed sample over to the next sucker studio on the list as evidence of how unbeleivebly unprofessional you are and begin ranting about how they will never go back there again.

To me it's about middle-management types not being able to let go and trust a professional to do what they can't, lest redundancy of their job be revealed. Sure, they may have a pirated copy of CorelDraw on their Pentium 2 at home, but that doesn't make them a designer. The equivilent is me jumping in and telling the guy who is building my house what to do just because I own a hammer. In my experience, the customer is very rarely right.
chris dixon

There seem to be two discussions emerging out of this post, the first being customer-designer relationships and customers' awareness of the value of the design profession (interesting and relevant), the second being the definition of "authorship"(a somewhat superficial concern, and more of a debate over symantecs, not so interesting).

To me, the first discussion has real-world immediacy and relevance far beyond that of the second, and incites more interesting comments than a discussion of Paul Rand or Vaughan Oliver ever will. There was only one Paul Rand, only one Neville Brody, etc., for that matter. Fine historical examples of the heights which a designer can achieve, but hardly the reality of most of us commenting on this post.

I would like to think that there is an emerging, if not already established, contingent of designers who gain great satisfaction by seeing any project which they are involved with succeed. Seems like energy better spent than on worrying about if they are perceived as "authors" or not.

I'd suggest that we are "problem solvers" more than we are "authors".

Perhaps debating over authorship is insight into why graphic designers aren't taken more seriously.
Tom Michlig

One of the little things I think I've learned as a designer, is that every business process is essentially a dialogue. I suspect that given the time and necessary communication skills, from both client- and designer, and increasingly the audience's side - most of these issues can be resolved relatively painlessly, often rewardingly. As a freelancer of course it is in some ways easier to play this game than in a larger studio/agency environment. Any briefed design work essentially is a co-authored 'text'/message, and the most challenging situation by far is 'design-by-committee'.

I think a debate about authorship is valuable.

If message, and communication is as important as we like to claim, perhaps, that should show in the way we deal with our client's experience and perceptions. Silly example, but for clients who like to have 'their stamp' on the final product I enjoy presenting two options, usually with my ideal solution somewhere between the two, kind-of keeping your best card up your sleeve, often as we discuss the options, that solution 'emerges' and often with the client convinced it was 'their idea', and sometimes it even is :- )

Having said all of that, the practical constraints around deadlines and budget are often a pain, but, that's the nature of territory that we claim as our domain.

I'd rather have interfering clients, often interfering because they care about the end result, especially if they can afford quality time for a solution, rather than no clients, or the worst type, bad or non-paying clients.

Perhaps debating over authorship is insight into why graphic designers aren't taken more seriously.

Tom, I would suggest exactly the opposite. Perhaps graphic designers aren't taken more seriously -- and you said it -- because their thinking can be so vague, inward-looking and dismissive of the larger picture, and because design fails to generate a discussion and a sense of what it can be capable of sufficiently convincing to command wider public attention and interest (see "Where are the Design Critics?").

Much of Adrian's fine commentary about music graphics over the last decade is concerned with the question of value so it's a bit mystifying to learn that he apparently regards this as a sinfully elitist undertaking.
Rick Poynor

Of all the design professions, no client tinkers so much as they do in graphic design.

The whole type size / legibility discussion is a side track. The point is that some clients like to make thumbprint changes -- regardless of how "done" a piece is -- just to feel like they contributed.

There is also a basic disrespect for designers and a lack of understanding of what constitutes good design. Let's face it, an amateur can't take one class and pretend to be an architect or industrial designer, but he can take an Illustrator class and design his own logo. When that client doesn't understand good design and doesn't respect the designer as a professional, he is more likely to turn the designer into a "mac operator."

Do you stand over the plumber and tell him what to do? The electrician? Do you move beams around in an architect's drawings?

There's something about graphic design that makes everyone think they're a designer.
John Baichtal

Rick, what you are suggesting isn't the opposite of what I'm saying. I think we are actually making the same point. To me, the arguement over authorship is inward and vague, and to an outsider, may look like designers' shallow complaint about not being recognized as authors (unless we are talking about legality and intellectual property, where ownership is very important).

We can't just say "look, we are authors, what we do is important and you should understand that, and here are some historical examples". We need to show and prove, so to speak. Concern ourselves with effectively solving problems, collaborating with others, guide our customers, and ditch the aloof designer pose. Layouts and decoration come a dime a dozen these days . Design and software is so widespread that everyone thinks they can do it. So it becomes more important than ever that we are able to speak plainly about what we do, and why we make the decisions we make, and what makes a graphic designer different than a prepress operator or production designer, or, worse yet, the guy over in marketing with a copy of Painter on his PC.

Perhaps my understanding of "authorship" is a bit skewed. I think we all have the same goal, though.
Tom Michlig

"Do you stand over the plumber and tell him what to do? The electrician? Do you move beams around in an architect's drawings?

There's something about graphic design that makes everyone think they're a designer.

It's called subjectivity.
Steven K.

Tom, these are good points and I agree with what you say in your second paragraph for the most part.

I don't actually think this thread is the right place to discuss "graphic authorship" but Adrian introduced the concept of authorship in his post, seemingly to boost the reader's sympathy for the way designers feel about their work. He casts aside previous thinking about graphic authorship too casually, leaving readers who are unfamiliar with what has been written on the subject with a misleading impression. As someone with a commitment to the discussion of authorship, I responded.

Design can only gain from a deeper critical discussion. Even if designers are not personally committed to the reading or development of criticism, ideas that are in the air as a result of these discussions do get absorbed and become part of the way that designers think about, talk about and rationalise their activities. You would expect any serious form of cultural practice to reflect on itself in this way. One of the reasons that design has been taken less seriously than other art forms is that it is often not regarded by outsiders as a medium that allows the expression of an individual point of view. It is seen as a service pure and simple. Anyone closely acquainted with design and designers knows that a great deal more than this is sometimes possible. The idea of the designer as a graphic author was one model for thinking about this. There are, of course, others.
Rick Poynor

What does ART = ?

Are we not artists? If we are not "artists", then where does ART in the equation come from? The DIFFERENCE between fine artist and graphic artist is that the fine artist creates to please his own aesthetics and the graphic designer must create to please a target audience's aesthetics. Couln't agree more with the post above. As long as there is no research into what aesthetics are pleasing to the target, then the ART part of the equation will always be subjective. And once it turns subjective the "because I said so" battle is hard to win.
Jason Clewell

Rick, I am probably not as well-read on the subject of criticism as I should be, but I do understand it's importance. And I appreciate your knowledge on the subject and history of graphic authorship (by no means was I trying to belittle your efforts or anyone else who has been dedicated to the subject). Based on your more recent comments, I can see the value of that discussion, just maybe not here (which you have already alluded to).

What further complicates this discussion is the ongoing debate on whether graphic design is truly "art" (not a debate I want to introduce here). Being recognized as an "art" should be a good thing, but to some customers that label becomes an excuse to meddle (since they feel that art is subjective). So it's definitely a rub.

Regardless, I think we all can agree that the legitimization of our craft to our customers is a huge concern and something we all should be advocating.
Tom Michlig

"Do you stand over the plumber and tell him what to do? The electrician? Do you move beams around in an architect's drawings?

You'd be surprised. Why do you think mechanics have those signs that say "Rates: We do the work $60/hr; We work while you watch $100/hr; We work while you give direction: $150/hr"
And believe me, architects go through hell from clients moving bathrooms around, demanding walls be removed, etc.

And sometimes the client is right, struggling to get their vision materialized, and sometimes they're wrong, not understanding the details of the medium they've become involved in.

C'est la vie.
marian bantjes

I'm always intrigued by the people who think there is too much meddling in graphic design.

I've been very fortunate to have worked for two very good in-house design groups, and i think the most marked difference between in-house groups and the traditional design consultancy is the direct client interaction. At first, I thought it was one of the most annoying things to have to be put through — the idea that a non-designer can have an important say in my design project. Now I find it to be one of the most interesting parts of my design duties (though not always the most bearable).

The best thing to me as a designer is the ability to work with people just as intelligent as you (and many times, smarter than you), though its rarely in the same ways as yourself. Architecture (in a blanket statement that has obvious holes) lacks a lot of the context that design can really contain at every stage. Design, and graphic design specifically, is more of a partnership than any other creative field. Your client has the most distinct knowledge of their own field, while you posess the skills that can communicate that. Is there overlap? Sure thing there is. I'll tell a client what i think about their business, and they tell me what they think about my design work (despite my in-house work, i've had a few freelnace clients as well). Thats human nature (and perhaps importantly, American nature) to involve yourself in everything around you.

This leads me to two points on the authorship. First, we praise designers who become their own clients, sometimes in the reverse situation we all complain about (designers telling the client what to do). I feel its somewhat hypocritical at times to praise our field for things we denounce other fields doing to us. Secondly, authorship is not just the designer's pride over a finished work. The best clients to work for are just as proud of a final piece as we are. True, sometimes those clients are few and far between. But I for one am twice as happy when my client thinks what has been created for them is exactly what they wanted, but couldnt verbalize. Its that dual authorship that I find to be the most unique trait in design.
Derrick Schultz

People misunderstanding the genuine concerns behind a designers eye refuse to acknowledge the thinking behind a good designers decisions. Good designers try to cater for as many people as possible and making sure the message isn't lob sided, but pure and meaningful and last but not least actually pleasing on the eye.

With all visual messages the first bite is with the eye, and that is why a designer should be chosen based on portfolio. If the client likes the work of their chosen designer they should trust him/her to make the right choices.

I would like to add:

I have worked for several years as a user interface designer - working on mobile phone interfaces. One particular problem I found from a visual design point of view was working with "techies". The problem being that they had no conception for 'visual functionality' - instead they were so wrapped up in their 'technical functionality' that it was almost impossible to get them to accept visual functionality, visual styles and graphical structure and order as a genuine concern. These guys had to implement the graphics and they often botched it up big time or did as little as possible in terms of graphical implimentation.

They merely saw aesthetics as the virtual make-up on top of their interpretation of "true functionality" as they saw it through their code.

What they failed to see was that if the visuals don't actually look right the user sees a visually "broken interface" even if it does function correctly in the background. They then interpret the message received as broken, misleading or just plain cheap. This has knock on consequences in that the clients message is degraded and possibly tarnished because of this.

What does ART = ?

To answer Jason Clewell's question, if we follow this through mathematically,




I'd like to suggest that a designer should have a totally different role-that of a partner. We don't own the businesses that we are working for (the clients do). So we are not privy to many, many considerations that the clients must weigh. (I have been both in-house as a client, and outside, as a designer.) So how can we as a profession have the audacity to say that we know better than the owner what is right for their business, and, on top of that, that we "own" anything that we are creating on their behalf?

I take a different approach. I think of myself as the one who suggests "possibilities." The "what-ifs" of a solution. I think of my job as to interpret what the client wants and turn it in to the language of communication. So I still believe I know more than the client ABOUT MY "LANGUAGE," but the client still gets to decide the nuances that they feel comfortable presenting.

Here's a radical concept...I have presented, as the initial presentation, 40 possible solutions to a client (all quick computer 'sketches' with minimal detail). And guess what? Something almost magical happens-the client focuses on the MESSAGE and how it is communicated in its broadest form. I have had clients repudiate their own brief when shown better possibilities. I have seen clients take annoyingly useless small copy off the front of their package because they recognized from my possibility sketches that the solution looked better without that junk. Imagine if I had started the meeting by saying, "I got rid of your copy because I didn't think it belonged there and didn't look good."

This process brings the client into the design process without them looking over my shoulder. I get to control the possibilities, so every solution is potentially a good one. Another bonus, the client feels ownership in the solution too. With this process I rarely have point size discussions.
Tom Styrkowicz

As a reader of this site, I can ask you, 'would you make the text bigger?'

I'm not trying to be funny either! I'm getting eyestrain here. Just getting the browser to expand the text doesn't do any good because the ratio of the line height to word spacing doesn't scale well. It's fine for snippets, but such long and interesting articles need more readable text.

But it looks good for those of us who have no problems reading it. In which case I would suggest a simple bit of JavaScript that can swap the style sheets over (though I have never done that with a blog), that way you get full control over your "size-up" style sheet.

Do you stand over the plumber and tell him what to do? The electrician? Do you move beams around in an architect's drawings?

Do you pay a plumber who fails to put a faucet where you need it? Do you put up with an architect who specifies beams in places that get in the way of your intended use of the building?
Gunnar Swanson

I'd like to pick up on the conclusion of Adrian's article, concerning designers' need to convince their clients of graphic design's finer details.

I've worked with a number of clients who not only meddle with type size, but also make demands regarding the use of white space and other matters needing specialist design expertise. Changes such as these rarely result in a more functional or aesthetically pleasing design and in these instances it's vital for designers to be able to express their knowledge, convincing the client of their expert visual intelligence.

Rick's call for a higher level of critical study in the area is vital here. The first application of this should appear in design education. From my experience of BA courses, having graduated quite recently, theory is not covered in any great depth nor with much passion.

A better understanding of design theory and related subjects (for instance semitotics and psychology) can only help designers, not only to produce more affective communication, but to convince clients of the power and potential of design. An industry with a more developed level of criticism would be more challenging, potentially producing a higher standard of output through greater discourse. Then, who knows what graphic design can achieve?
Dan Collins

I agree that we should have control. However, I sometimes think that designers are too worried about beautifying the layout, making small text "look cool" without thinking about other people reading and legibility. This is a usability issue and I am usually leaning towards design, however in some cases (more often than not) I see websites, magazines, postcards, flyers and posters using fonts that are way too small or hard to read.

Average people DO find it hard to read small font. In the case of the web, I know many of my upper management colleagues (from ages 27- 25) cannot read font smaller than 12-13pt. It's not that they cannot, it's more that they will rather skip it. As a designer, do you want to them to subconsciously filter out this important information or communication? Will this mean that all those hours making your graphics look shit hot, that others who are not into cool graphics and layout will lose that connection? Yes they are also your target audience. What do you do then that you know this wisdom? Turn a blind eye and just keep doing small fonts?

That said, if your audience is also targeting cool people who think cool text is 6-8 pt then that is fine. But more commercial work is different user case.

By the way, I am reading Adrian's book "How to be a graphic designer and not lose your soul (shirt)" It's a great book full of wonderful wisdom. One thing I found however is the layout is clean, yet the way the paragraphs are tabbed and designed, I found it hard to read. Maybe this is just that I am so pre programmed to read with a simple layout when reading serious information, and specially designed layout makes me feel awkward. Don't get me wrong, I love creative out of this world design, but sometimes making it different doesn't mean that users will like to experience this given that they are use to having a "safe", learnt environment that they have come to expect.

Another example is the latest IDN magazine where they made the text upside down to the whole magazine, and you have to keep rotating the mag in order to read it. To me that pisses me off, since it does nothing conceptually or tie in with their theme, which was illustration. I think they were trying to be cool, since "no one has done it before". It's a great magazine in general, since we are on this topic this is the first thing that came up.


Calvin Ho

Um, to add, Paul Rand designed the EF logo. Apparently he got paid lots of money, and no one was allowed to make comments or see the design until he finished it. He would send the design by fax and basically the management had to accept the design. No iterations, nothing.
Calvin Ho

I think a lot of issues brought about in the article and the comment discussion are very relevant and informed, but above nitpicking an argument about semiotics and design criticism (which are two very relevant topics on their own but perhaps meant for a very specific audience), the crucial idea is that the design process is a dialogue; it is essential that design is usually intended to communicate a client's message and design is not a self-referential autonomy in itself like modernist art. It is easy for a designer to get caught up in the aesthetic, but for the sake of functionality, if the type is illegible, the piece is not a success. On the other hand, it is also indispensable that a designer is hired for their expertise and their skill and understanding of the visual; unless the client has the same training himself (and if he did, why would he even bother to hire a designer?) there is no way a he can fully understand or be aware of the minute details that come together to make a design successful. A client must understand that when he asks for a change in type size, the entire design can be skewed and the intricate network of elements can become unwound, resulting in an unbalanced piece. It is important for the designer to understand the problems of their design and then remedy accordingly; if the client wants larger type, the type must be difficult to read; if they want the logo bigger, it must not stand out enough.

I have been thinking about this post, and at the same time am looking for work. I have some posters I have designed but these were done only for my enjoyment not for any client, I hesitated to put them in my portfolio.

Should I have? (honest question)

Designing for the pleasure of it, for my own enjoyment, is it wrong? and if not what was that guilt? or is it just me... be cause I know I did that in school, but 5 years out it feels wrong.

If a designer wants to be an artist, free yourself from the client and become one! Oh, and learn the humble disciplines of self-prompt and hunger...

But this is exactly why artists become designers; there's a vast, willing market to provide prompt and breakfast for your commerce. And quite frankly, most of us truly benefit from the "checks and balances" offered by proofers and clients. It's a relationship.

Now, about all that wasted white space...
Dean Rusk

Sheepstealer, what brilliant strategies. "Focus on solutions, not just problems" applies to our work and our attitude.

I am stealing your RvS method, hope you don't mind.
Michael Isaac Almond

Designer = someone who resolves a specific given problem resulting in an analysed reponse appropriate to the problem posed. As a dentist or doctor would give a analysis and recommendation to a symptom described. The patient then takes the required medication. However, most clients (and Paul Rand is largely correct in this that it is usually the persons between the client and the designer) often choose which "bits of the medication (design result) is best for them." judged largely on aesthetics and niceness. (As one client I know said, " I don't like beige or orange' in her role as head of communications for a very large corporate company.)
Thus, the designers rôle is also to know how to manipulate the client in a non negative way to choose the best solution to the problem.
By the way, 'arty' results to problems are totally permissable if that is a correct analysis of the problem. There is nothing worse tha faux information graphics. "Can you make the type bigger" is a client saying that it's difficult to read. As a designer the analysis maybe not the type size but the interline spacing interletter spacing etc... That is for us to resolve. The client is no specialist, he just has a problem with legibility.

"They will point out that anyone who accepts payment for their work is a hired hand and should do the bidding of the hirer ."

This denegrates the designer to a pair of hands on a keyboard; try this with your optometrist and live with the lenses you create. It's a matter of boundaries; if you let people treat you this way, they will. If you explain why you design what you do, clients respect that. If they don't, I send them on their way. And there is some satisfaction in telling clients "whether you follow my advice or not, I still get paid." Some people are just destined to walk around with their wellies on their heads. In their defense, some clients have learned to dominate their designers simply because the range of skill level in that field "graphic designer" is so poorly defined and frequently inadequate; one becomes wary and suspect.
Susan Kirkland

This is one reason it's difficult for me as an art director to find good designers. Those with good design skills do not necessarily have good negotiation skills which I find tremendously important in this industry. I have spent a good amt of time coming up with my "case" to present to a client INSTEAD of just making the type bigger. Yes it requires energy but it's worth it in the end. and Sheeps, I love your post. It's not about what you want it to be changed to, its why you want it changed. right on.
or you could always go with the "hairy arm theory". just kidding, I've never tried that.

It is also a lot of designers having problems coming up with real Ideas. Most of the design work is done with a set of more or less generic tools: that typeface, that mode of composition, use of color etc. Coming up with a truly original, and arguable idea in that economy of means is diffcult and designers are seldomly people who consider the need of their work being idea-driven. If you have a Idea you can defend it, or you can discuss it along the lines of a mutual understanding of what a client needs, it is a causal discussion. I often had that experience with clients. If there is a 'big' Idea and the client likes it, he will rarely discuss it, but they will always move in big time on the detail stuff. Why? Because they need to have something to say, they need to prove themselves (or their well-paid job) necessary. Just make shure that the Idea is Idea and that the Details are Details and you'll come out ok.
philippe galowich

In web-based work, websites and the like, Design is understood in regards to what is possible to fix permanently as rules. No matter what a designer wants to firmly establish as a credible layout for organizing information, readability and aesthetics, etc... and no matter if the client agrees on concept, look, and typeface size - each new generation of browsers insists on bypassing any css-stylesheet or the like, for type size and the like, all in the name of the users - not clients - freedom of choice. So in retaliation the concepts are either frozen in flash - an often unworkable or unecessary solution for many updating websites and the like - or shown as best case "ideal" scenario version, with the reality of the design something quite different on the user side.

As designers, I believe our number one priority is to communicate in the most efficient and clearest way possible. The one thing that a lot of us, designers, get caught up in is the asthetics of our work, the layout, the color pallete, the imagery, the type, etc. We have spent time looking at these things in a different way than the non-designer. I believe that holding back some of that designer pride can actually sometimes enchance our work. It's more than about the client wanting their phone number bigger, its about the client wanting its audience to know who they are. If we have done our work successfully, then anyone that comes across our work should know exaclty what its all about. Sometimes showing the client how we have, as designers, successfully accomplished this is the real art of our job.
Melissa Chiotti

There is a real difference between the creatively engaged, and visually literate, species of client whose vision of the work just happens not to be compatible with ours, and the kind of specious gibberish we sometimes have to bite our tongues not to (over?)react to. Be honest: how many times in your career have you had to deal with the following scenario: designer/creative specs a particular, healthy, full-blooded red as a design element; client requests that the colour be lightened; designer resists, but acquiesces; client returns visuals asking why the designer chose pink (client hates pink) . . . !
item design

Hi. In the future I'm going to keep here links to their sites. But I do not worry about the sites where my link is removed. So if you do not want to see a mountain of links, simply delete this message. After 2 weeks, I will come back and check.

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