October 12, 2004    Business

My Philosophy on Graphic Design

For me, graphic design is not about personal expression. (I do that elsewhere.) It’s not about scoring high on some standard of aesthetics either. (High aesthetics is not always appropriate.) It’s about solving communication problems. My creativity lies in how I solve them.

I was born and raised in Japan until I was 16, and moved to the States on my own. The identity I created for myself in Japan did not translate well here, so I went through a painful process of reinventing myself specifically for the American culture. (It is analogous to how certain famous comedians here are virtually unknown in Japan.) Through this experience, I became fascinated with the problems of identity, psychology, and human perception, which in turn lead me to graphic design and branding.

The problem with using graphic design as a platform for personal expression is that, at best, I would be a mediocre fine artist. My personal expression will never perfectly coincide with the needs of my clients. In fact, it would be quite rare if they came anywhere near it. In one way or another, my personal expression will be compromised, and the mediocrity of my work would be guaranteed. If my personal expression happens to coincide often with the needs of my clients, I would have to question the integrity of my own work. It’s a no-win situation.

Many designers strive to score high on some standard of aesthetics, whether it is the standard of some school, culture, or collective. I find this problematic because aesthetics is only one of many tools in a bigger picture of communication. Scoring high on some standard of aesthetics, no matter how prestigious it might be, is a separate issue from how successful a piece of communication is.

We can look at the concept of aesthetic standard from three different perspectives.

1. Some designers strive to score high on their own personal standards. They don’t care what other people think as long as they are happy. The problem with this attitude is obvious. Unless this is specified as a clause in their contracts, it is not professional to ignore the needs or preferences of their clients.

2. Some designers strive to score high on the standards of the communities they belong to. Though there is nothing wrong with this, it is not exactly a service they provide to their clients. In essence, the clients act as their patrons to support their aesthetic pursuits. The designers are not solving any problems. They usually seek or attract clients who appreciate their specific types of aesthetics. By choosing such a designer, the clients have already solved their own communication problems.

3. Some designers strive to score high on the standard of the whole world. The problem with this is also obvious. When you try to please everyone, you end up diluting the substance of your work. In fact, the wider the audience, the more diluted it is. When you please everyone, you please no one.

In graphic design, pursuing personal expressions or aesthetic standards is self-serving. There is nothing wrong with serving myself, but I believe that it should not be done so at the expense of my clients.

The core of what I offer as a designer or an art director is problem-solving. When I take on a project, I like to ask many abstract questions up front. For my clients and colleagues, this process can be frustrating; some of them can’t see the point of it. The most important question for me is always this: Why do you need to communicate it in the first place?

Well, some of you might ask me this: Why is that any of your business? The answer is: It is and it isn’t. Firstly, a surprising amount of graphic design jobs lack this fundamental drive. For instance, my clients might offer these answers: Because there is a budget set aside for it. Because our competitors do it. Because it would make me look good within the company. Because we’ve always done it. Etc.. It is my business because a job that is driven by true need to communicate something is always more interesting and challenging, and therefore rewarding when it is accomplished. And, more importantly, it tangibly contributes to the success of my clients. It is not my business in a sense that I am not interested in dictating the content of the communication; only in the methods.

Martha Graham once commissioned John Cage, the avant-garde composer, to score music for her dance performance, and the latter came back with a stack of blank pages because he felt that silence was most appropriate for the piece. In a similar way, I feel that the value of graphic design lies not in final products, but in how the problem was solved.