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Reflections on Design

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  • Reflections on Design
    Below are a few blog posts and articles I have written on the themes of design and design masters.
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  • Valerie Casey: A Leader in Sustainable Design
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    I just returned from the Designers Accord Global Summit on Design Education and Sustainability. It was a two-day meeting of the minds organized by Valerie Casey, the founder of Designers Accord. Before the summit, I was familiar with Valerie’s work championing sustainable design, but now I am personally familiar with the grace, humor and conviction with which she is leading the movement.

    Valerie’s resume would catch the eye and admiration of any designer: Pentagram, frog Design and, most recently, IDEO. Yet, I would probably have never heard her name based on that laundry list alone. Valerie earned my attention with her provoking idea, dedication and willingness to lead the design industry into an enlightened, sustainable future.

    Designers Accord started with an article Valerie wrote for frog design called “The Designers Dilemma”. With Paul Hawken’s support, Valerie’s “Kyoto Treaty of Design” started attracting a great deal of attention and the Designers Accord was launched. The organization is a platform by which designers, educators and business leaders can share resources and methodologies with the goal of integrating sustainable practices into design. Those who sign the Accord commit to guidelines for continual learning and teaching surrounding the practice of benign by design.

    A great idea alone does not necessarily ensure the evolution of a concept into reality. Valerie embodies a number of noteworthy traits of a design leader which have proved a foundation for the success of Designers Accord. She:

        * Surrounds herself with experts (those who support as well as challenge her)
        * Clearly articulates the mission and goals for the organization and its initiatives
        * Cultivates the opinions of various perspectives
        * Maintains a sense of optimism and humor while tackling complex challenges
        * Is humble, friendly and genuine and therefore has attracted a like-minded and committed army of supporters

    It’s no wonder TIME magazine recently recognized Valerie as a “Hero of the Environment 2009.” I hope her story inspires you to consider adopting the Designers Accord into your professional and personal lifestyle. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Allan Chochinov’s interview with Valerie on Core77.

    As a closing note: I also want to say a special thank you to Robyn, Valerie’s logistical partner, and to all the inspirational speakers who presented at the Summit. Most notably, our very own Deb Johnson, the Pratt Academic Director of Sustainability, shared with us the fantastic work she’s doing right in our own back yard!
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  • The Corporate Language of Strategic Design
    How David Butles has helped Coke maintain competitive advantage through design.
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    David Butler, Coke Cola’s vice president of global design, is a master of strategic design. Based on his story, I have synthesized four techniques he has used to maximize the value design brings to one of the largest brands in the world.

    1. Design systems.
    Butler attacks complex design challenges with system-based solutions. When he joined Coke five years ago, the company’s identity was a homespun quilt of diverse interpretations of visual elements like the classic Coke bottle and ribbon form. Butler applied his experience developing the visual system for the 1994 Atlanta Olympic Games to the development of a framework by which Coke’s essential visual elements can be applied in “familiar yet surprising” ways. Enter Coke’s new Design Machine, a web-based interface, which enables novice marketers around the world to customize Coke branded point of purchase materials while maintaining the integrity of the classic identity.

    2. Speak the language of business.
    Butler has made it a point to tailor his vocabulary to his audience. As he told Fast Company in a recent article, “At work, I don’t use the phrase ‘design thinking.’ Here, it’s about creating more value. How do we sell more of something? How do we improve the experience to make more money and create a sustainable planet?” In the same article, his colleague described Butler’s communication style in this way, “Butler’s message is very simple: Here’s what I’m going to do to help you sell more stuff.”

    3. Articulate the value of design.
    After six months at Coke, Butler wrote a document he called “Designing on Purpose” and sent it to all his contacts in the company. His manifesto clearly articulated how strategic design could help sell more Coke. Not only did he grab the attention of his colleagues, Butler also raised the perceived value of his industry by building a bridge between design and business. It wasn’t an accident that Butler became Coke’s first internal vice president of design.

    4. Walk on both sides of the line.
    I was fortunate enough to work with Clement Mok during the Designers Accord Global Summit on Design Education and Sustainability. He is one of Butler’s previous employers and continues to be his mentor. I jumped on the opportunity to ask Clement what he thought had prepared Butler for his success at Coke. Clement suggested that Butler’s previous experience on both the corporate and agency sides was essential to informing his design and communication strategies.

    Not all of us have the level of influence Butler has earned or work for a global organization like Coke, yet these four strategies are applicable across varying levels of experience and design disciplines.
  • A Graphic Designer’s Love of Fashion
    August 2008

    Raise your hand if your jeans and sneakers were covered in doodles in elementary school. Raise your hand if you wanted your jeans and sneakers to be covered in doodles, but your mom threatened to take you out of art class.

    A little over a year ago, I moved from Washington, DC to New York City to accept the position of graphic designer at a luxury furniture company. I was quickly thrown into an environment that humble New York banners broadcast as “The Fashion Center of the World.” I assisted my boss in the launch of his own fashion line, attended fashion week and spent many nights living with two women who market luxury fashion merchandise as their livelihood. Recently, I found myself needing to buy an organizer for my constantly growing jewelry collection, digging deep into my closet for silk scarves to rehabilitate and purging my overflowing closet (which is, embarrassingly, the size of most midtown kitchens). This transformation caused me to reflect on the reason for my long-standing love of fashion and my new-found understanding of what makes fashion so enticing, (or, I would even say, addictive).

    Fashion enables us to literally wear our creativity on our sleeves. It’s a form of self-expression which is virtually a constant presence in our lives (unless, of course, you live in a nudist colony). Fashion is an integral part of how others perceive us on an everyday basis. A friend from design school even told me that her outfit affects her mood. Jill, a graphic designer in DC, went further, “I know what I wear is usually noticed by my coworkers and friends. Sometimes it’s not what they would wear, but it shows them my personality and that I’m willing to have a little fun.” Jill’s right in her assumption that her acquaintances notice her clothing choices. For better or worse, countless situations indicate that first impressions are influenced by clothing choices. From the most obvious form of clothing expression, the choice of a politically charged graphic tee, to the subtle rebellion of wearing white pants after Labor Day, graphic designers enjoy pushing the boundaries of whatever medium they happen to be working with in hopes of accurately communicating a message, and in the case of personal fashion, means representing who we are (or in some cases, who we want to be).

    Directly after moving from DC to New York, my boss launched a denim fashion line, which featured a striking pair of white sailor pants, complete with a solitary, black belt loop (the signature of the line) and two rows of black buttons (as my best friend so eloquently described, “it’s like a pea coat on your crotch.”) In New York, sailor pants were all the rage. The Nautical look was in and everyone was sporting white during fashion week. So during a weekend trip back down to DC, I was proud to wear my trendy new pants for a night on the town. As usual, inhibitions were stunted by alcohol and allowed for more than the subtly raised eyebrow and side glances. By the end of the night, one guy actually said, “you look hot, but what’s with the pants?!” Besides the obvious failure of his moronic pickup line, I couldn’t help but reflect on the influence geography has on fashion, even in the design community. Maybe it’s because twice a year New York is over-run with the most extravagant and cutting-edge fashion in the world. Or maybe it’s because New York billboards inundate us with eccentric Diane von Furstenberg dresses in place of senators and CNN polls. Whatever the reason, I have noticed that it is more acceptable in New York than in the Capitol, to push the boundaries of your fashion choices. This phenomenon is likely in direct correlation to the exceptionally high tolerance for shock value, which is a right of passage for New Yorkers.

    Having worked as a designer in both DC and NY corporate environments, I can attest to one important similarity: the rather dramatic threshold crossed when walking from the sea of black suits and blazers into the oasis of the colorfully dressed marketing department. Think of it as our grownup version of drawing on our clothing. We’re proud of our creativity, of our superior understanding of color theory and our experienced eye for pairing unexpected patterns and textures without offending with a patchwork of competing styles. Somehow I can’t imagine that our colleagues in the accounting department have quite the same level of admiration for the complexity of a successfully repeating Betsey Johnson pattern. Fashion goes further still, enticing our general sense of aesthetics and form. The trained eye of a designer recognizes that the visual lengthening of a woman’s leg is accomplished more successfully by a Jimmy Choo stiletto than by a bulky platform. Likewise, the elegant contrast between the silhouette of a tight pair of pants paired with a flowing top is reminiscent of a strategically chosen sans serif set with a complimentary serif font. One of my favorite comments inspired by the subject of this article was from a college friend who spent a few years working for Betsey Johnson. She told me, “One thing I definitely learned working at Betsey, is the importance of neutral colors and how to use black. I always love crazy bright colors and weird color combos, but if even Betsey Johnson needs to use black and cream sometime, I guess it must be important!” Having an eye for contrast and balance seems to hold true for design in any field.

    To better understand whether this lust for another art form was one-sided, I talked with two friends from college who have gone on to launch their own fashion lines. Katy told me, “A big part of the fashion industry is surface design. Whether it’s a graphic for a t-shirt or a pattern for a fabric, those elements all overlap. Also, any kind of design is all about color and spatial layout. It’s all interconnected.” (Thank you Katy for single-handedly assuring graphic designers everywhere, that their obsession with graphic tees is completely logical and expected.) My other friend, Courtney, found her passion in children’s clothing, “To this day, I love textile design…more designing patterns and prints, less with weaving. I love colors! I don't sit down and draw what I will be making next, I just hold the fabrics together and decide.”  (The Pantone sales team is eternally grateful for our analogous love of comparing color swatches.)

    I would be remiss if I did not also mention a graphic designer’s love of vintage. For the same reason we can spend four days blogging about an updated logo, we enjoy the challenge of revisiting vintage styles and adding a contemporary twist. It’s nice to hear, we’re not alone. A friend of mine who works for Ralph Lauren just spent a few days (and a lovely chunk of someone else’s money) overseas collecting vintage clothes as inspiration for a future line. Designers everywhere reflect on the past in order to revive concepts which worked once and may prove to be even more successful when interpreted through the lens of current trends. (I’d love to have a cut in the soaring market for clutch purses which have recently been emblazon with 80s neon colors.) But as Courtney admitted, the biggest challenge faced by a fashion designer is predicting the next hottest trend. After all, where would us graphic designers be if we didn’t have fashion trends guiding the direction of our next color palette? Someone has to lead the way…

    So, to my graphic design peers, rest assured that next time you walk into a bar for a professional happy hour, you will be able to easily recognize the flock of creatives you’re meeting for a drink by the vintage tees, bleached denim and vibrant patterns they’re wearing. (Who knows, maybe there will even be a few fashion designers in the back corner checking out what you’re wearing as inspiration for their next line.)