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Innovation: Throwing Design Rules Out The Window

Posted on July 1, 2005 and read 6,244 times

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Sometimes rules should be thrown out the window. Often the most valuable lesson in art and design schools is ignored. For a visual communicator to grow and improve, you must be prepared to throw everything you just learned out the window. Expect the unexpected. It doesn’t really matter what you were taught if once you’re in the “real world”, the landscape changes. You must adapt and find your own style. While I’m often heard art directing my design team or students in my classroom to follow a particular design standard, it is often by bravely pushing the boundaries and experimenting that result in the most exciting and successful visual language executions. We need to move beyond the rules and evolve lest we get left behind. Just ask any designer who put all their eggs in the dot-com basket, routinely developing generic swoosh logos for their clients. Many of them are probably serving you coffee at Starbucks now, or should be.

The same rules that bring structure to learning and form the foundation for knowledge need to empower you to go beyond them. Pablo Picasso was classically trained and the rules he learned from his mentors told him to paint in a manner (realism) with careful use of colour and light (chiaroscuro). However, as most innovators do, he felt compelled to follow his internal compass and, inspired by his travels and contemporaries such as friend Henri Matisse (Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-1906), began breaking those rules, eventually creating Cubism (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907). He had to resist every urge to revert to classical techniques in order to paint like a child. This must not have been easy. It never is to be an innovator; just look at Vincent Van Gogh. His innovative use of intense colour and impassioned brush stroke wasn’t recognized until well after his death in 1890. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Innovation can rock your world if you’re not expecting it. Renowned rock poster artists like Bob Masse and Victor Moscoso also chose to abandon many art school lessons in order to follow the new school psychedelic movement emerging from San Francisco in the 1960s. “It is still very hard today,” says Masse. “I have to fight the rules every time I sit down at my bench to draw”. These design innovators struggled in the early days to develop a new form of visual language by combining images inspired by the burgeoning Hippie Movement with Art Nouveau masters such as Alphonse Mucha. Often shunned by the art community, they persisted, hand rendering their flowing, organic letterforms and using unorthodox patterns and vivid colour combinations. They were very literally going against the training that brought them to that point as artists, but endorsements from musical legends such as Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors verified that these innovators had found their own style that tapped into and helped define an entire generation.

Visual language pioneers often borrow from surprising sources. Each year there’s a new trend, a new standard, a new rule to learn. As exciting as it may be to explore these avenues, it’s often when you turn away from the mainstream and examine the less explored or long forgotten areas that will inspire innovation. For example, new rules come from old sources, such as Kyle Cooper’s ground breaking opening title sequence for the movie Seven. His angst-filled images, roughly edited sequence and scratchy typography was so original and effective it has been copied a thousands times since. What many don’t realize is that he was paying homage to the obscure experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Brakhage, himself a dropout of the accepted “way it’s done” paradigm, pioneered the shocking, raw type style Cooper borrowed by scratching type onto single frames of film. He created a simple, new way of creating film art, and in doing so created a new trend, a new standard and ultimately, new rules for those who followed. One just needs to examine any of the Hollywood films or TV programs of the last 10 years to see Cooper’s influence. Other examples of breaking the rules using visual language can be found in virtually any of Björk’s music videos directed by such innovative directors as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Lynn Fox. Each of these artists has taken inspirational cues from history, culture, art and the greater world around them, infusing their work with surprising new ways of communicating through visual language. These may well be the Picasso’s of the 21st century, having long ago abandoned the rules in favour of innovation.

Some of the most compelling executions of innovative communication design can often be found in the most mundane places. True innovation doesn’t always have to rely on new technologies or gimmicks to capture an audience’s imagination. Look around you and consider new ways to use existing platforms without being cliché or resorting to cheap tricks. So often the test of a simple and elegant innovation is one that evokes the comment, “why didn’t I think of that!”. A fabulous example of innovation in a longstanding advertising format can be found in this billboard by New Zealand’s Clemenger BBDO. A recent winner of a Cannes Bronze Lion award in the Outdoor category, the billboard uses over 12,000 aluminum pegs on a white background to to create images in the sun instead of conventionally printed media. When there is no sunlight the billboard appears to be blank (white on white), but in the sunshine a sunbathing woman appears. The halftone image is ingeniously created by varying the lengths of the pegs, each casting different sized shadows, creating the image from shadow as the sun moves across the sky. The simple tagline reads “makes sense when the sun is out.” Considering the product being advertised is Sunsense Suncreen, this solution is not only incredibly innovative and rich in original concept, but completely relevant and appropriate. Brilliant.

It’s important to know all the rules, but it’s often better to make up your own. Listen to your art or design instructor carefully. Study the styles and techniques of those that have gone before you. Learn the rules forward and backwards, but eventually ask yourself: Do I have to use that classic serif typeface justified left just because it’s expected? Try it your own way. It may not work, but it just might. Can you imagine if David Carson did that with Ray Gun Magazine? Is Moroccan Blue really the hottest colour for 2005 just because Pantone says so? Forget that! Pick your own colours! Throw the rules out the window. Experiment with design and see what happy accidents occur. The point is that YOU may well be the designer who starts the next big design trend. Rules are great and are a valuable reference, but develop your own style and reputation as an innovative visual communicator and be ready with a smart rationale for why you made the choices you’ve made, but never apologize for trying to innovate.


Mark Busse is a designer, Partner / Production Director at Industrial Brand Creative as well as a design instructor at VFS in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Industrial Brand Creative offers innovative branding, marketing strategies, advertising campaigns, print and new media productions that go beyond the basics of good design, and provide results. Recognized for their success in capturing audiences, and a somewhat twisted perspective, the company’s award-winning creative team, produces compelling and effective solutions for a wide range of clients. Photos available upon request.






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