Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What are your creative influences?

Designers are social commentators of their time. We design in response to things that are happening around us. To be an effective visual communicator it’s important to understand what influences us and connect these influences directly to our own work. Part of understanding influences involves a level of introspection or tapping into your thoughts/feelings and understanding how these thoughts/feelings influence your behavior. This process helps figure out makes you tick as a visual communicator. (1)

Have you taken the time to identify your own influences? Be honest when answering that question. If you do you will better understand how and why you create. Take a long hard look at your portfolio, first at the individual design pieces and then at the entire group. Can you identify common threads that are woven into your designs? I’d like to stress while these threads present a commonality throughout the breadth of your work, each solution must carry distinct elements that make the final solution unique from any other or you run the risk of becoming a one-note designer. You surely wouldn’t design packaging for baby diapers exactly the same way you would design packaging for Goth makeup! Yet, you could very well find elements that do connect them somehow. That’s exactly what I’m asking you to discover!

I’ve done a little self-reflection on the path taken on my creative journey thus far, and sure enough a clearer understanding of my own idea generation and creative process has emerged. I hope reading through some of my own will inspire you enough to do the very same!

David Carson “Don’t mistake legibility for communication.”
David Carson is a former professional surfer and teacher who turned “self taught” editorial designer in the 1980s art directing/designing for Transworld Skateboarding (1983-1987), Musician (1988), Beach Culture (1989–1991), Surfer (1991–1992), and Ray Gun (1992–1996). He avoids grid formats, information hierarchy and consistent layout; instead he explores expressive possibilities of each subject and each spread, rejecting conventional notions of typographic syntax and imagery. (2)

Carson broke onto the design scene when I was working towards my B.F.A. in the late 80s and early 90s. I had spent four years being beaten into submission learning the rules of effective visual communication. Every “what to do” and “what not to do” rule was continually practiced and preached in the design program. Then along comes the design rebel breaking every one of those rules. I was blown away by this rogue approach and definitely took notice!

Carson was self taught, never learned the accepted and practiced rules of design but instead followed his own gut instinct when creating. Talk about a “fly by the seat of your pants” learning process! His quote “don’t mistake legibility for communication” speaks volumes about his approach. At the time, much of his work seemed illegible. He explored reverse leading, extreme forced justification, text columns jammed together with no gutters, etc. His point: people will suffer through a lot to get the information they want. Ray Gun Magazine was focused on music. When an article came out about Pearl Jam, fans would suffer through a lot to read the content. Every month I was chomping at the bit to see what Carson created for Ray Gun Magazine. For me, it was more about the art of visual communication than it ever was about the content!

Words of wisdom: once you know the rules break them all you want. Only a rare few can accomplish what Carson did without a solid design education foundation!

Below are two examples of Carson’s work for Ray Gun Magazine. The first is his “Is Techno Dead” design featured in 1994. The second, an interview with Bryan Ferry created entirely in the symbols-only font Zapf Dingbats. The double-page spread was quite illegible and would have to be interpreted like a cryptogram for those unfamiliar with the font. He said he did it because the interview was “incredibly boring” and that upon searching his typeface collection for a suitable font and ending at Zapf Dingbats, decided to use it with hopes of making the article interesting. (3) And yes, fans translated that article like it was the Rosetta Stone! Like I said, people will suffer through a lot to get the information they want.

Art Deco | Art Moderne
Art Deco is a term used to identify a design movement of geometric works of the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco's linear, machinelike symmetry was a distinct departure from the natural flowing asymmetrical organic curves of its predecessor style Art Nouveau; it embraced influences from many different styles of the early 20th century, including Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism and Futurism and drew inspiration from ancient Egyptian and Aztec forms. (4)

The term Art Moderne is often used to describe a variation on Art Deco. As in Art Deco, Art Moderne buildings emphasize simple geometric forms. (5) There are, however, important differences:

• Shape: An Art Moderne building usually has a low, horizontal shape. Art Deco buildings tend to be tall and vertical.

• Ornaments: Art Moderne buildings are stripped of decorative details. An Art Deco house may have zigzags, chevrons, sunrays, stylized foliage and other ornaments.

• Color: Art Moderne buildings are usually white. An Art Deco house may be white or brightly colored.

Below are two examples, the first is a detail of an Art Deco building showcasing decorative details: stylized foliage and other ornaments and the second, the façade of an Art Moderne building emphasizing basic geometric forms. Point of note, Art Moderne buildings often look like modified ships.

I attended grad school at Miami International University of Art and Design in Miami, Florida. I lived in the historic "art deco" district of South Beach. South Beach is one of the most successful urban restoration projects in the history of American architecture. Hundreds of buildings have been restored to their early 20th-century Art Deco and Art Moderne appearance. (6)

Living in South Beach offered me the opportunity to interact with the Art Deco and Art Moderne movements first hand. This experience has altered my design aesthetic completely! The allure is the simplicity of each movement. I love the process of removing the extra “fluff” in a design reducing the content down to the most essential pieces of the communication. It’s challenging to see how far these elements can be reduced while maintaining the message. This practice forces every single element in a design to play a vital role in the communication. There is simply no extra stuff for the remaining elements to hide behind and all parts play an active role in the design. 

Below are two designs I’ve created applying the Art Deco and Art Moderne aesthetics. The first is a logo and the second consists of modern stripes and images printed on separate panels of plexiglass superimposed on each other.

Swiss Style a.k.a. The International Typographic Style
This influence is closely linked to the Art Deco and Art Moderne identified above. The International Typographic Style, also known as the Swiss Style, is a graphic design style developed in Switzerland in the 1950s that emphasizes cleanliness, readability and objectivity. Hallmarks of the style are asymmetric layouts, use of a grid, sans-serif typefaces and flush left, ragged right text. The style has a preference for photography. Many of the early International Typographic Style works featured typography as a primary design element and it is for this the style is named. (7)

Detractors of the style feel since the designs are based on a formula the results are too similar to each other. While advocates feel the formula allows for a perfection of style and results are only limited by the designer’s skill.

Personally, it is utilizing the grid, establishing a foundation of structure and organization for the rest of the design that is key. The grid doesn’t have to be as obvious as many Swiss style designs are but helps visually organize information.  

Below are two examples of the International Typographic Style (Swiss Style) to offer you a visual interpretation of the style.

Below are two Art Deco, Art Moderne and International Typographic Style inspired brochure designs for Sol Meliá offering visual examples of me applying these inspirations into my work.

Morris Louis
The American painter Morris Louis’s (1912-1962) work provides a link between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Layered rainbows of acrylic paint poured down huge blank canvases characterize his style. While Jackson Pollock heavily influenced him, Louis' technique of pouring paint freely down the canvas was a major departure from the "gesture" paintings associated with Abstract Expressionism. Louis used thinned acrylic paint to stain the canvas, rather than spatter paint on its surface. (8)

Yes, the man actually climbed up a ladder and dumped cans of paint down the canvas! Starting with one color and then adding another, the first blending with a second color creating a third. Is this not the perfect example of one of my mantras: embrace spontaneity, hunt for “happy accidents” in your work and then exploit it?

Below are two examples of Morris Louis’s paintings. The second image features a girl standing in front of the piece to offer you a sense of scale. 

Below are two pieces of a campaign I developed that are directly influenced by Louis’s painterly process. The water, the champion element tying the campaign together, is created through the same process he used. The resulting visuals are unexpected, alluring, mysterious and impassioned.

Martha Stewart
Bet you weren’t expecting this one! Beginning with the 1982 publication of her book Entertaining, Martha Stewart made a name for herself as an expert on home decorating, elegant weddings, cooking and gardening, with an emphasis on do-it-yourself ingenuity. Her distinctively upscale style and tremendous commercial success made her widely admired. (9)

It isn’t so much the subjects she excels at as much as it is her approach to every creative challenge that I admire. In my previous post: Things I’ve learned about visual communication during my lifetime, I stress good design is in the details. (http://dezignrogue.blogspot.com/2011/09/things-ive-learned-about-visual.html) Attention to detail in design is a must. This goes for all facets of design and creativity. I get the sense that Stewart only asks of others what she asks of herself and that is accept only the highest standard. This philosophy is a tough one to live up to but it is certainly one that any visual communicator should strive to abide by!

In my previous blog post I also encouraged keeping your creative spark by looking for new avenues of inspiration and these avenues don’t have to be directly related to graphic communication. That’s kind of where Martha Stewart fits into my list of inspirations. I want what I’m doing to be the best no matter what it is I’m doing. Last post, I wrote how gardening and interior design help me keep that creative spark burning. I think I may need to add working with materials and crafts to that list. Below are two images of the house at Christmas last year that elicit my point and support why Ms. Stewart made the final cut. Notice the wreaths and garland on the house exterior. I assembled those bad boys myself. The garland on the fireplace, created it from pinecones and wooden beads. I actually walked around collecting pinecones for what seemed like weeks, drilled holes in each one and strung them one by one. Even the way the lights are wrapped around each tree branch on the tree is inspired by one of her “techniques.”  Just wait until this Christmas… I am currently working on creating arches of lights to fit into the four arches of the front portico. It will hopefully be stunning!

In conclusion, I'm restating my opening remark: designers are social commentators of their time. We design in response to things that are happening around us. We are not designing in a bubble. Influences come from far and wide and my list supports this. Truth be told, I could develop a bullet point list as long as my arm from so many different facets of life! The purpose of this post is to inspire you to think about your own list of inspirations. When you do identify your influences, I encourage you to share. 

Below is a resource that might help you delve deeper into the information presented above.

Design Influences

 Blog Resources:

(1) http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Importance-of-Self-Knowledge&id=3560883

(2) A History of Graphic Design, Fourth Edition by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis.John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

(3) http://nedhepburn.tumblr.com/post/4826201796/david-carson-radical-editor-of-experimental-music

(4) http://www.art-deco-style.com/art-deco-history.html

(5) http://architecture.about.com/od/periodsstyles/ig/House-Styles/Art-Moderne.htm

(6) http://www.architectureweek.com/2002/1030/culture_1-1.html

(7) http://smearedblackink.com/swiss_style_timeline/

(8) http://theartstory.org/artist-louis-morris.htm

(9) http://www.answers.com/topic/martha-stewart


  1. Carson is one of the best! I am in love with Charles S. Anderson design..all of it! I love the retro vibe with everything, but modern and appealing to a wide audience. I have a really hard time picking any favorites of his because I find something I love in every piece it seems! The Louis painting are great too. I may have to figure out a way to make a happy accident like that! The time consuming pine cone picking paid off-the house looks beautiful! Its interesting how much our obsessive compulsive design tendencies get into every part of our lives..even holiday decorating! I am exactly the same!

  2. You mention retro in your post and indeed Anderson fits into this category of design. Retro first emerged in New York in the 1980s and spread quickly throughout the world. It was a movement initially based on historical revival, specifically a revival of modernist European design from 1900 to about 1950 (today, there are excellent retro examples that extend beyond this initial first half of the twentieth century timeline). This movement faced some critics at first for many designers asked if retro was parody or plagiarism. (1) A visual example that supports this questioning is Paula Scher's Swatch Watch poster designed in 1985. It closely aligns to one of Herbert Matter's posters originally designed in 1930. You can read an excellent article about the subject at (1) http://retinart.net/creativity/scher-plagiarism-parody/

    Sure enough, retro design established itself as a legitimate style of graphic design. Inspiration came from many sources: old packaging, ads, books, graphics from the 1940s, traditional typefaces, nineteenth-century woodcuts, etc. Much of Charles S. Anderson’s work reflects these noted inspirations.

    Some other retro designers you might want to check out are:

    Paula Scher

    Louise Fili

    Carin Goldberg

    Daniel Pelavin

    “Its interesting how much our obsessive compulsive design tendencies get into every part of our lives… I am exactly the same!”

    Every effective visual communicator must have this extreme attention to detail trait! There are so many aspects of the design process we need to be on top of in order for the message to connect to the consumer and communicate. This mindset can’t help but make its way into other aspects of our lives!

    Thanks for the post Jenn! :)