"Design is always wrong"

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"Design is always wrong"

A strong statement, one that I know many of you will disagree with.

Give it a second thought though, how many times have you turned in a completely perfect design on the first try. One that you were proud of. Revision, reworking and rethinking is a constant state for a designer. We are, in my experience thus far, a wholly unsatisfied, tortured people. My long suffering friends and family have tried to offer me encouragement and praise when I am working on a design: "It looks great!", or "I really like it" to which I groan or sigh (I'd like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to them for this behaviour, I know you mean well and I appreciate it and you.) It is, unfortunately, phrases like these that are the bane of the designer. We thrive on constructive criticism, on the tangible "this looks weird" or "I can't read it in this light." We are problem solvers and we need to solve puzzles to do that. However when it comes to work that exists for our own self-promotion or portfolio this process spins out of control into a swirling, cutting tornado of revisions and restarts. We all have projects that we have been working on for years in our portfolio, or far more likely, projects we are meaning to work on in our portfolio. They nag in the dark parts of our minds, always waiting for when you have that spare moment, plotting on how to take that time away from you. I am painting you a morose and melancholic picture and I don't mean to, I love what I do. I love tweaking and nurturing a design to somewhere I can be happy with it.

With my portfolio though that place of fabled happiness just doesn't exist.


It is, and will always be, in a place of "in progress". For this reason "Design is always wrong" has been the motto of the last few weeks of my life as I prepared my portfolio for a design conference in Toronto called "Creative Directions" held by the RGD which I have the great pleasure of volunteering my services to assist from time to time on the student committee. It is a powerfully humble moment to work for hour and hours, losing sleep and valuable parts of your mind sometimes, to produce something that represents you only to be shown the most obvious error in the world such as "the knife and fork are on the wrong side of the plate." You raise your hands to your face and support it because your strength has just gotten up and made for the door. So obvious, so simple and I missed it. And then something else happens. You realize that while, yes you did miss it, it just got caught and it is ok. Thank the lords of design that events like "Creative Directions" and your peers and mentors exist to point out these things to you. You can't do this job in a void or on an island. Problems and mistakes thrive in the shadows of the alleys in the cities of our society and studios. You have to take the light of criticism and an openness to expose your mistakes and burn out these demons wherever they live. Embrace the mistake, own it, and then fix it.  This is your job, you are not an artist, you are a creative detective. Hunting down the threads of a problem and solving it with the amazing super power you have in your eyes, your hands, your head and above all else, your heart. Design should live in the heart. In my first year of Graphic Design, my teacher Andrew McLachlan advised me that you have to live design, you should be thrilled when a design works and crushed when it doesn't. We are responsible to making the world around us more usable, more open, and more beautiful, if we don't feel our design then we are not creating a world based on feeling, and if that is the case. 

Just what are we doing here?


Lets book a flight, a train and then a quick cab ride back to the point of this blog post. Revisiting old projects and touching up the mistakes of our designs. I have been working on an old brochure for an architecture firm (fictional) and I have been shaking out all the old mistakes and strange thinking that I seemed to think was the right call a year ago. The first thing I realized when starting on this project was that my recent year working in the Marketing Department of St. Lawrence College as a Graphic Design Assistant had created some instincts about basic communication materials like brochures. And those instincts were sending red alert warning signals as I looked over this brochure. It was a strange size, based off of a legal sized sheet of paper, not unheard of, but certainly not as common as nearly any brochure that would be printed off in huge quantities, as this one certainly would be. I have resized it back to a letter sized piece of paper just in time for that dark part of my mind to release a salvo upon my workflow. I had always been bugged by this brochure that when I printed it and folded it, it didn't line up quite right. To most people who would design a brochure they would assume that it is three equal panels that are folded into each other. Of course, in true fashion of the real world, this is not the case. Since the paper folds, that fold takes up material so already we can't have equal panels as the middle one loses twice as much with two folds. Also the cover needs to cover the brochure meaning that the panel it is covering needs to be slightly shorter to nestle in place, accounting for the material of the fold. With some research I found a website that let me set up a document properly.


I recently had the fortunate experience of meeting with a creative director that I admire greatly for the purposes of a private one on one portfolio review and he was able to provide me with some excellent advice about this project in particular and he noticed that the content was dry and lacked any sort of real evidence of success that an architecture firm would surely use to sell their business in a brochure like this. This is one of those "rest your head in your hands" moment I described earlier. Of course they would, and of course I missed it.

But, I picked my head up and started researching examples of how this information has been handled by other firms in the real world.


In the recent conference, "Creative Directions" I received some other advice from some fantastic individuals that I am employing and investigating for this project. For instance I have many photo's of architectural elements, but no people in those photo's. Nothing shows scale, or simply, nothing connects it to the humanity that it is meant to serve. The basis of my design solution for the promotion of this firm was to make the partners larger than life in the style of a different era. I used bombastic Saul Bass styling to achieve this effect on the cover, however, it was lacking any human element on the interior which created an odd dissonance between the inside and outside. I selected a photo from some stock photography that matched the buildings in Kingston with a person being featured in a similar perspective as the cover. She is centred with the building around her it exaggerates the character and architecture in the same way as my cover but is slightly more grounded, connecting the reader to what they know in reality to what I am attempting to achieve in my design.

Screenshot 2015-03-10 23.21.56 

There is still much to do with this piece but it is strangely relieving to finally clear out that dark recess in your mind by going back at what you've done before and applying all those new skills and insights to it. We are never done, there will never be enough time, but as always, the design will always be wrong.

This is not a bad thing. Embrace it.

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