Tim Rich: Monkey see, monkey do

All too often consultancies relegate younger designers to the role of assembly line operative, says Tim Rich, which risks hampering their creative development

The appropriation of ideas and information is one of the least discussed, but most important design skills. Imaginative designers delve into the methods and mat̩riel of other professions and human activities like children exploring a dressing-up box. One moment they may try on the trousers of a business strategist, the next, don the hat of a poet. This is immensely valuable Рit helps define and shape content and find inspiration for its visual transformation.

The designers who most move and influence us are often those who dig deepest into the dressing-up box (while always remembering that they’re trying on someone else’s clothes). Alan Fletcher is one. His new book, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon), is a remarkable exploration and dramatisation of the value of brilliant appropriation.

It is an elusive, but compelling display of polymathic virtuosity, and does more than any other book to convey the excitement of thinking in three dimensions.

Fletcher is exceptional for the depth and breadth of his interests and inquiries, and for his ability to re-express found information from such unexpected perspectives. Out in the workaday world of design, the entire process of discovery, extraction and transformation has never been more challenging. A contemporary designer in a good studio might be required to engage with issues and ideas from areas as diverse as business, technology, culture, media, science, sociology, politics, psychology, art (and more); and to think across media as varied as posters, multiplayer games, symbols, magazines, TV idents, websites, annual reports, packaging, signage, furniture (and more).

Faced by such challenges, skilled appropriation is now vital. Unfortunately, projects are regularly subject to such mean time constraints that the re-expression of ideas and information often amounts to little more than a hasty cut-and-paste job. When this happens, meaning that’s mined at source is mangled to fit the narrow intentions of the project.

The misuse of famous quotations is the most common example – the likes of Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche are common victims.

Haste brings one set of problems; the increasing departmentalisation of the production of meaning inside many larger studios creates another. The world is an ever-more complicated place and designers sometimes need dedicated experts to help them clarify information and build meaning. Such experts come in many guises – brand consultants, planners, account directors, writers, researchers, client employees. The relationship between the two camps – what we could loosely term designers and content providers – can produce amazing results.

Unfortunately, in many less enlightened studios it also produces amazing friction. Expressed and developed, friction can bring forth new thinking. But the sort of friction that I’m talking about isn’t fertile – it’s the waspish obstinacy and rigidity that comes from frustration.

One reason why this occurs is the all too common relegation of less experienced designers to the role of assembly line operatives. Across the UK, hundreds of young people are spending their days pushing bits of image, type and space around as if they were attempting to ‘solve’ a jigsaw. They are separated from the ‘thinking’ part of the design process, which is handled by content providers and creative directors, and left to do the grunt work on the factory floor (in one studio I’ve visited they’re called ‘Mac monkeys’).

Frustration is the result. Incidentally, the companies where this division of labour happens also tend to work to the tightest timescales. Coincidence?

Organised thus, many supposedly creative companies are actually awful places to work. In fact, many design companies do not deserve to be associated with the term ‘creative’. They’re just digital sweatshops.

Do the directors of such companies realise that limiting designers to the function of graphic assembly restricts creativity, limits learning and so lessens the value of their business (both financially and socially)? Whatever the reasons for their myopia, a number of talented young designers are now setting up their own studios prematurely, just so they can become fully engaged with their work.

I am not arguing for designers to be given responsibility for every aspect of a job, every time. But in many studios, young designers merely tart up other people’s content.

What The Art of Looking Sideways demonstrates (among many other things) is that an empowered and engaged designer adds a unique and unreplicatable approach to the entire discovery, extraction and transformation of meaning.

In the face of ever-increasing complexity in business and in life, this has never been more important, and – by extension – the active and enlightened development of younger designers has never been more valuable.

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