Design as Visual Problem Solving

Xerox brand analysis poster.
Visual identity and brand analysis timeline of Xerox Corporation presented as an A3 poster.

A recent design assignment as me thinking about what actually is graphic design?

A battle I sometimes face is challenging the hidden assumption made by non (and wannabe) designers, that design is about making pretty pictures. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of their career in technical and scientific (research) roles, I now appreciate that this belief couldn’t be further from the truth.

Graphic design from my experience is the art and science of visual problem solving.

I see many parallels with the scientific method:

Systematic Observation: Every designer learns that before addressing any brief it is imperative to understand the objectives of the client. This includes considering their history, culture and strategic direction.

Measurement: Off course we cannot address the brief without specifications – media, size, copy, images, style guide, distribution…

Experiment: By this stage I have multiple variables. Like any good maths student, I set about solving the equation (relying on principles and elements of design), only my context is different – I’m dealing with images and copy with many constraints.

Formulation: This is when Art steps in. I call it an Art because something very interesting happens. The whole time I am researching the client and reviewing the brief a feeling has been developing in my solar plexus. When I put pencil to paper and draw what I’m feeling I often get sketches that communicate motion. This is an intuitive response to the brief.

Sketch for Xerox brand analysis timeline poster.
Sketch for Xerox brand analysis timeline poster.

The next step for me is to translate the nebulous sketch using one of the fabulous Adobe Creative Suite tools. I find that if I don’t honour the intuitive impulse, I can’t solve the puzzle. I often find myself in a state of flow during this process.

Testing: When I feel that I have solved the visual puzzle, I step back and leave the artwork overnight or better still a few days. On returning, I look for errors, validate my response to the brief and make corrections.

Modification of hypotheses: At this stage I make 2 or 3 variations to the design for client consideration. And to be honest I’m not always successful. Sometimes there is only one solution.

My first idea is always my best idea.

– Paula Scher

(Artwork by the author.)