Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Context, context, context

This picture probably doesn't create much of a reaction in the viewer as it is. It is almost boring with how commonplace it looks. A stark, leafless tree in front of a house on a bright sunny day.

As a designer we are always asked to take the boring details of life and arrange them in a manner to give them new meaning, or a deeper meaning. We are asked to put things 'in context.'

Back to the tree... to add context to the tree I can tell you that it was brought to Venice Beach by the grandfather of a long-time resident of this neighborhood. His grandfather moved here from Louisiana and wanted a little reminder of his roots. So he brought a sapling pecan tree to California and planted it on this corner where it still stands 50 years later. The tree is a testament to the man now long gone.

That story has put the tree in context. The picture comes alive. It could be so much more now. If we added type to the picture we might think about fonts and colors that evoke the feel of the bayou. Or we may find the words of a Louisiana ballad long lost and overlay them faintly on the image of the tree to integrate the history into the picture.

Whatever we do we have added context to this picture and forever changed how it will be remembered and perceived. How we juxtapose elements and create meaning with symbols, pictures, words and color is one of the more subtle elements of design.

There is a show on television where celebrities take everyday jobs and see if anybody recognizes them "out of context." I thought about that and decided I would probably not trust my instincts and trust the context of the situation - meaning I would not see the celebrity for who they are but rather the job they were doing. The juxtaposition of ideas is a powerful framing tool that designers have at their disposal.

A good designer can make or break an idea just through the visual choices they make. There is no rule with how to use context - only to be aware of context. Hence you can't always judge a book by its cover - or can you?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Venice Beach - seductive and inspiring

graffiti on a store window in Venice Beach

You may not see what I see in this photo but it is inspiring to me. The play of texture, the white accent of the type, the natural grid formed by the window; it is the type of street art that goes into your subconscious mind and creates a library to pull from later as a designer.

I have watched Venice Beach change along with the rest of the world but there is something different - something resistant to change in this community. It has a "spiritual vortex." Every time I think development is going to smother the spirit of this unique place it rebounds and shows its funky side again. The weather brings out the performers on the boardwalk. The election brings out the aging hippie political reformers. The close-knit community brings out the grass-roots publishers and organizations.

In a sense this is a barometer for that old saying "the more things change the more they remain the same." As the world of design zips along with one technological breakthrough after another the basics never go away. We still need to get our ideas across in the most succinct manner possible. As designers we have to make color and font choices but we also need to keep our spirit. That is what makes us unique and our work worth looking at.

I wrote "dare to be square" as I reflected on this indomitable spirit of Venice Beach. This place inspires me because it takes on the new, integrates it with the old and creates a fascinating hybrid. That is my personal goal... to be a 'fascinating hybrid.'

Venice is covered with outdoor art; stencil art on the sidewalks, graffiti, wall murals, tagging, sculpture and if you count the street musicians and outdoor painters it is almost too much to take in. The rules get broken here because there is no monetary reward for what the artist is doing. It is simply a pure expression of their "spirit." But if you look closely street art has the roots of all other great art movements at its core. Social expression.

If I had a nickel for every client who came to me and said "I want an edgier look" I would be very wealthy now. But edgy changes and is not easily defined - until you look at the art people are creating on the street, then you see it. The best of these cutting edge ideas will later make it into the lexicon of modern design.

But to translate those ideas and make them work for the larger public you need to "dare to be square." The basics of good design make those gritty street ideas work for the rest of the world.
'Daring to be square' is the method by which one becomes a fascinating hybrid.