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Design Education: Getting outside the box

Fred Shokwer

One of the most important lessons all graphic designers need to learn is to absorb and evaluate every aspect and element in a design or image processing project. This is not at all as easy as it looks.

Young designers, graphic artists, illustrators, photographers, and even some seasoned veterans often want to jump right into the exciting parts of a project -- concepting, sourcing, and creating work materials. We've all had those weak moments. But anyone in the creative field must always evaluate every part of the design problem first. Then they must evaluate every element they have to work with.

First and foremost are the demands of the project's desired outcome. Whether it's an ad for a client, a full scale identity program -- to a simple, hit-and-run photo retouching project, they all have the desired design goals to accomplish.

I hope you have read Shaun Crowley's excellent article: The ultimate design brief. That will be a good start for young designers to learn about the rigors of setting up a design project. In Theo Stephan Williams' book "Creative Utopia: 12 ways to realize total creativity" you learn that creativity is not all in the mind or on the drawing board. It's a life and a lifestyle -- and the ability to get "out of your box." In the book Theo shares these key points to getting your brain to expand into untraveled realms:

* Understand that change is imperative
* Getting out of your comfort zone is the only way to move forward, explore, create with originality
* Become cognizant of your work load
* Learn simplification -- at least in discovering your own present moment
* Change your modus operandi every once in a while
* Attend workshops or seminars on subjects you are interested in but know little about
* Learn to do typical things outside of your norm.

Theo's book "Creative Utopia" is well worth reading if you are serious about being a truly creative designer.

Figuring out what to do next

One of the exercises I've always inflicted upon my design students is to use a hierarchal process to evaluate visual impact. In this exercise students are instructed to purchase two or more magazines about topics for which they have no interest what so ever -- magazines they would never normally buy. They're instructed NOT to open them or look at them until calss. Students grumble a bit about buying these magazines, but by the end of the exercise they think it's pretty cool.

At the start of the exercise each student rapidly turns each page of the magazine. They do so RAPIDLY so they cannot read any of the text or copy other than the very large heads. Their primary objective is to land on ONLY those pages which offer an "eye stopping" visual. Whether it's a photo or illustration, or typographical design, when one truly stops their progress, they tear that page out, lay it aside, face down, and continue on. The goal is only four pages.

When complete, they all close their magazines, then trade magazines with another student. Each student, with a new magazine, then RAPIDLY goes through each page, in the same fashion as before. At the end of the "search" they are instructed to verbalize in writing what it was that made them focus on each of the gathered pages. In this exercise they learn what caught their attention and how it visually stopped them in the rage through the magazine. This kind of analysis and introspect forces the design student to look within themselves.

In the final phase of the exercise, each student trades all of their gathered sheets with another student and using the new pages, they attempt to forecast what caused the other student to stop on those particular pages. When complete, they share and compare notes.

The remarkable thing about this exercise is how many students were affected by the SAME kinds of images or visual design arrangements, for the SAME reasons.

Now, tell us how it was done

The final step -- which then takes several consecutive class sessions -- is analyzing how it was done, and then using Photoshop or Illustrator to replicate the techniques. At the end of this investigative exercise, the students are thrilled to discover that they have learned things they would never have ordinarily stumbled upon -- and picked up visual arrangements and graphic techniques that they now have in their brain space for future use. Now, I want you to tell me how this visual image was done:

This looks like a masterful Photoshop composite of two river canals which have been craftily combined so it looks like one is passing over the other over a bridge. The sidewalks and pedestrians all add a certain realism to the overall final composite. See an enlargement

How was it done?

Did you guess right?

Did you fully analyze all parts of the photo?
* Did you look carefully for tell-tale parts that betray its creation?
* Could you guess all the techniques in Photoshop that would come into play in creating such a composite?
* Careful, accurate selections.
* Overall color correction to make the two channels convincing?
* Careful application of perspective and lighting so that all the visual elements are compatible?

Or, were you too quick to begin the analysys -- without having asked the key question:
* Is this for real?

If you did, then you would be correct.

Even after you see it, it is still hard to believe !

WaterBridge in Germany No, this is not Photoshop. It took six years and 500 million euros to construct this 918 meters long channel-bridge over the River Elbe. It joins the former East and West Germany, in the city of Magdeburg, near Berlin, as part of the unification project. The photo was taken on the day of inauguration.

This is a lesson in NOT jumping to conclusions. Most Photoshop users instantly begin analyzing the image for retouching and editing techniques without getting out of their "boxes" to ask if it could possibly be real.

To those who appreciate engineering projects, here's a puzzle for you armchair engineers and physicists:

      Did that bridge have to be designed to withstand
      the additional weight of ship and barge traffic,
      or just the weight of the water?

Answer: It only needs to be designed to withstand the weight of the water!
Why? A ship always displaces an amount of water that weighs the same as the ship, regardless of how heavily a ship may be loaded.

Always look closer. But don't look too close until you've asked lots of questions.
Always get out of your box -- and you'll be more creative, and more open to new and exciting concepts.

Thanks for reading...

Fred Showker
Editor / Publisher, DT&G Magazine

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