At the ICOGRADA Congress from left: Massimo Vignelli, Colin Forbes, George Finley, Mark Brutton and Jay Doblin. Chicago, August 1978.
I am a designer; therefore, I think like a designer. Or at least, I THINK I think like a designer. But looking back, I’m not sure I always thought like a designer.
In 1978, I was lucky to attend a global conference of ICOGRADA (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations) in Chicago. The theme “Design That Works” kept its focus on design evaluation, with presentations by design luminaries Josef Müller-Brockmann, Milton Glaser, Colin Forbes, Jay Doblin and Massimo Vignelli. But the most memorable presentation from that event was a presentation by Aaron Marcus, who drove home the crystal-clear logic for integrating prototyping in the path to creating effective design. His user-centered advocacy stemmed from his pioneering work in computer graphics and interface design but it resonated in the hall with an audience engaged in environmental, product, industrial and communications design. The principles that Marcus described back in 1978 had everything to do with my evolution as a designer.
Since I was barely two years out of college, I operated under the assumption that effective communications had little to do with the mundane necessities of legibility and comprehension.
My academic training led me to seek a level of playful interaction with my audiences — an interaction that might tease or confound as a legitimate means to extending an observer’s engagement. But then I heard Mr. Marcus and my design thinking began to shift.
The premise he put forth — advocating extensive iterative prototyping and audience testing —moved me quickly forward to a form-function fork in the road. Rather than presenting these concepts as discrete binary options, Marcus proposed a design methodology that allowed the process to acknowledge both paths at the same time — to move forward hovering in the middle, maintaining an awareness of both experiential landscapes as they are revealed. Marcus posited that if a design solution overindulges on the form path — becoming confused by unnecessary density that obscures critical messaging — then it is time to steer back toward function. And likewise, that if the journey down the function path ceases to generate solutions that motivate and delight the observer, greater attention to appropriate imagery, color, detail and form can help correct a project’s trajectory.
This dichotomy was illustrated by a spirited debate between Vignelli and Marcus with the former defending his elegant (but less than legible) signage solutions for the Washington, DC Metro system. The thinking that Aaron Marcus advocated in 1979 predated the term “experience design.” His concerns also helped define the importance of a well-designed “user interface” —years before this term entered common parlance. In essence, his formula for design thinking has become an essential guide as we shape the human-object interactions that define our lives today.