The holidays are a time of year when commercial design is prominent. From the boxes that hold our most coveted wishlist gifts to the timeless posters of classic Holiday movies, the holiday season seems like one big competition to gain your attention. While we tend not to think about the hands and minds behind many of your favorite holiday visuals, now is the perfect time to learn more about the industry and better understand what goes into it.
Designers are put in the unique situation of needing to balance both technical proficiency and creativity. Many other professions sit comfortably in one camp or the other, but designers exist in a sort of middle space, an amorphous, fluid area where the technical and the creative meet, where they have to find a way to live in harmony, a way to complement one another to create a stunning final product, one that consistently draws the eyes of potential customers.
I once had an executive who described designers as visual artists who actually work, day in, day out, just like the rest of us. They have to nurture creativity and also possess the tangible skills required to make their ideas a reality. And while artists are allowed to exist in a world of very forgiving deadlines, designers have to complete incredible work very quickly, sometimes in a matter of days.
To help us gain some perspective on the current state of graphic design and its relation to consumer tech, we spoke with two prominent and hyper-talented graphic designers, Moree Wu and Sijia Zhang. Both designers work out of New York, New York, but their visuals have international reach.
Wu’s specialty is award-winning motion graphics and fashion design. She has worked with the acclaimed Hornet Studio in NYC, and her work has been featured at many international festivals, including the Berlin Fashion Film Festival, the Flipbook Animated Film Festival, and the Female Filmmakers Fuse Film Festival. Her graphics feature a gentle touch, highlighting the realness and fragility of her characters.
Zhang is an expert in helping brands distill their message and essence into stunning and effective logos, website visuals, and marketing materials. Recently, she has been exploring how smartphone apps can serve as their own independent art installations. One of her app experiences, Thauma, examines the public’s relationship with technology in its many forms, especially the tendency for humans to become enthralled with specific devices, and the ability of those devices to convey and communicate complex ideas to millions of other people, who each interpret these messages in their own unique way.
Both have proven themselves to be luminaries in the area of forward-thinking commercial and artistic design. About a week before the interview, we asked them both to think of aspects of design and stages of the design process that the public tends to overlook. We combined these topics with questions we had about how design, packaging, and marketing affect viewers. The result is an in-depth discussion on visuals themselves and the tools we use to create them, a discussion we hope will shed some light on why we find certain images more compelling than others, and why, for example, we choose one box of cereal over another based on the box art alone. Enjoy.
It goes without saying that nearly all professional design work starts its journey on digital platforms. Design software has advanced at breakneck speeds, evolving from simply a novelty into what is now considered the industry standard. Updated versions of programs like Photoshop and Illustrator incorporate increasingly precise functionalities, with a serious emphasis on becoming easier to use for everyone, not just professionals.
But despite these advances, these programs leave a lot to be desired, as Wu noted during our discussion.
“Lately I’ve been daydreaming about the day when Adobe will have one software program that can handle design, illustration, and animation all together! It seems like that’s what they’ve been approaching for a long time, but so far each program has remained separate. It’s inelegant, but hopefully, that will soon change.”
Despite the limitations of such programs, talented designers like Wu and Zhang have proven time and again that they can be used to create astounding images and animations. And thankfully so, because commercial design work needs to be slick, current, and capable of making an impression even on the tiny screens of smartphones.
Such demanding requirements necessitate a significant amount of cross-pollination. Thankfully, the contemporary design community takes that word, community, pretty seriously. Through the use of online forums and various in-person groups, each with their own specific focus, industry professionals and novices alike can brainstorm and share ideas and influences.
Both Wu and Zhang have long lists of designers and organizations that inform their own work. For Zhang, many are carryovers from the world of fine art.
“Alexander Calder is one of my favorites. I love his artistic expressions of movement. Pablo Palazuelo is another wonderful artist. His artworks focus on shapes, free lines, unfettered curves and corners, and bold color.”
Wu also cited several visual artists, but she likes to stay open to finding inspiration from practically anywhere.
“I find inspiration just about everywhere. Fashion and reading, in particular, are two very important areas for me. Ikko Tanaka, Sigrid Calon, Zhihong Wang, Sol Lewitt, and Nathalie Du Pasquier are just a few artists working in a wide range of mediums. I wouldn’t say that they directly influence my work, but because I love them and their work so much, I guess they definitely influence me in some way, perhaps unconsciously.”
And beyond the human element, many designers, Wu and Zhang included, look to other successful brands for examples of how to execute large-scale design coherence. Zhang made sure to mention one Japanese company that’s making a big splash here in the States.
“I really enjoy MUJI. It is well-known for its design concepts and visual brand building. Not only the products themselves but the packaging and posters, advertising, and visual identity are all revealing its core notion: a simple, concise lifestyle that emphasises environmental protection, nature, and quality.”
Tracking Along With Trends
Our collective understanding of cultural style only really works when looking backwards. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that we could finally see the folly of 1990s style. Basic geometric shapes in neon colors only worked for so long. And it was only in the early 2010s that we finally saw the folly of 2000s style. Frosted tips and bad CG graphics suddenly looked awful. And here at the end of the 2010s, we’re starting to get tired of ultra-minimalist style reminiscent of Apple’s packaging materials.
Trends take time to grow and be welcomed into the mainstream, and even longer for them to die out and be replaced by a brand new aesthetic vision. It’s therefore difficult to summarize contemporary design, especially since the advent of the internet has opened the door to a much wider range of design styles and sensibilities, from graphic design to product design and everything in between. But it’s still helpful to absorb as much of today’s style as possible to better predict what the next move should be.
Zhang told us the internet is one of her preferred methods for staying abreast of the latest trends, along with good old human interaction and collaboration.
“I spend time surfing online. I also like to talk with other designers offline. It helps me to maintain a thirst for knowledge. That desire then leads me to absorb many different influences.”
Wu enjoys finding many different design pages and tags throughout social media. They offer a fast and efficient way to observe a massive number of specific design sensibilities and styles. They all get added to the mental stew, and elements of each may manifest in a new design any day.
“Social media helps keep me in touch with other designers, and I’m very grateful for it. Years ago we would have had to go looking for other designers in person and just hope they shared our style.”
Then there’s the inevitable question of outmoded design forms. Here in the digital age, print media has suffered a great deal in the light of the internet’s convenience and accessibility. Newspapers have half-heartedly transitioned to hybrid online/print coverage with very mixed results. Many magazine conglomerates have folded in the face of websites that offer similar content for free.
Print advertising, however, has continued on quite nicely, with the likes of billboards and public transit ads slowly becoming a little more inventive, slightly less obnoxious than their previous forms.
So what does it all mean for the future of visuals? Are we headed for a Blade Runner-style nightmare cityscape of building-sized Santas and holographic Ryan Seacrest advertising a New Year’s special? Or will print media maintain its unique strengths long into the 21st century?
Zhang was quick to point out that print offers something special that just can’t be recreated through digital means.
“Print design has an irreplaceable glamour. It won’t be eliminated. On the contrary, a portion of designers are still specializing in print design.”
Wu agreed completely, adding that physical, tactile response can contribute greatly to design work since it involves two senses rather than just one. After all, it’s much more engaging and fun to open a physical Christmas present rather than an ecard on a computer screen.
“Print matters! I feel that the satisfaction you get from a beautiful print book cannot be fully replaced by online content. The feeling of your fingers touching those fine papers cannot be replaced by swiping on a phone.”
Working With Clients: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In many ways, working with clients is where the rubber hits the road for designers. Like actors, they can’t simply coast on their past achievements and projects. Instead, designers have to prove their talent and worth on every single project. And before the real work even begins comes what can sometimes be the most difficult and frustrating stage: discerning exactly what the client wants, in articulate and actionable terms.
Wu summarized the importance of speaking not only with the client but the whole team in order to best understand the singular goal behind the work.
“It’s all about communication. Using kind and clear communication makes it easier to get what the clients really want. It’s a back-and-forth process. You can never stop communicating.”
Zhang cited one particular past job where those crucial lines of communication were crossed, and it almost resulted in a major roadblock for the project. In a way, the company heads had a vague idea of what they were looking for, but they couldn’t quite find the words to describe it.
“The most difficult problem I’ve had was when a past client didn’t know what she wanted to do. Many of her comments were contradictory.”
It proved to be a tricky situation for everyone involved. And with no solid plan in place, the team slowed, awaiting instructions. But ultimately Zhang was able to use a clever, inventive method to clarify the aims and style of the project.
“We found several different visual references for her to look over and asked her to select different elements from each that she liked. From there we were able to have a more enlightened discussion about what would make for a successful brand image.”
As Wu added, difficulties like these are very formative for young designers, proving to be helpful lessons much later on down the road. That is, if they remember their past mistakes and moments of confusion.
“Projects like that have taught me that communication is the most important thing when it comes to commercial work. As a designer, I tend to think from a visual perspective, but clients have their own business-minded point of view, one that’s especially strong and determined this time of year.”
Projects in Perfect Balance
We asked our experts to choose one finished project that they were most proud of, one that succeeded in every conceivable aspect. It turned out to be a collaboration between Wu and Zhang entitled ‘Meet.’ It was commissioned by a Korean BBQ restaurant to help present young people with a vivid brand image, one that centered around six different patterns for grilling meat in traditional Korean BBQ. ‘Meet’ won the Certificate of Typographic Excellence, the Silver Award in the Graphis Branding competition, and was a runner-up for the Best Brand Awards in North America. Zhang explained the basic premise and why she believed it was so successful.
“We abstracted eight kinds of meats into geometric graphics, then visualized the experience of grilling the meats into six different patterns. We collocated them into the main visual elements for a poster series, which provided the emotional experience of vividness and heat to consumers. I really enjoyed the process of poster design with this project. Playing with the different patterns of meat and piecing together the composition was a joyful experience, and I think that came through in the work.”
The Public’s Design IQ
We hope that articles like these can give a glimpse into the work behind design. And of course, we’re certainly not the only outlet bringing attention to the intricacy and beauty of such work. The popular podcast ‘99% Invisible’ has been doing just that for several years now. But has it had a lasting effect on the public’s perception of design in all its forms?
Zhang was skeptical that such pieces have made any real impact on the average civilian and their understanding of her work. Regardless of that lack of understanding, she strongly believes that design affects absolutely everyone in some way.
“I am not sure if the average citizen is aware of the importance of design. However, whether they realize it or not, design impacts everyone. When people are looking for a product or gift but have no knowledge of details or specifications, what factors will interpret their decisions? Alongside price, that factor is design.”
Wu is optimistic that more and more people are catching on to design’s significance, and the stories behind the people who make it possible.
“Yes, I do feel the average citizen is becoming more aware of the importance of design. Brands with more thoughtful design attract more attention now, brands like HAY and MUJI. What’s even more interesting is that people are starting to be attracted by independent design brands as well. As a designer, this is delightful!”
And now is the time to put that optimism to the test. As any number of brands, channels, and products try to get your attention this holiday season, look for trends, keep an eye out for messaging. Is that billboard saying something simple, easy to remember? Did the colors pull your eyes off the road? How different is it all from holidays past?
With time, this method of paying better attention to the small details behind visuals becomes a habit, one that makes for a more enlightened understanding of the world in which we live. And ultimately it leads to a richer appreciation for the beauty of simple things, from grocery aisles to wrapping paper, to the grooves in your steering wheel, to the simple warmth of your dinner table.