Creative Fuel: Pentagram's Kit Hinrichs Talks about Good Design
In last month's column I told you about the design awards pilot program that was part of this year's North American Sappi Printer of the Year awards. Now let's talk to some of the people behind the scenes of the awards.
My search lead me to the renowned international design firm Pentagram and to Kit Hinrichs, one of the firm's partners who works out of the San Francisco office. Kit is part of the dream team of professional designers who put together the judging criteria for the Sappi design awards. With decades of experience in print design, Kit has written books on the subject and taught a few classes about it here and there.
A Stimulating Conversation
Kit is every bit as warm and congenial over the telephone as he is reputed to be in person -- even more so if you take into account the early West Coast hour that our conversation commenced. I was barely awake myself, clutching my favorite interview pen in one hand and a mug of home-brewed coffee in the other.
Soon, though, I was wide awake -- thanks in part to the caffeine, but also (mainly) because my mind was whirling like a top. Now, to fully appreciate this unexpected turn of events you should know that, like any good journalist, I always (almost always) plan my interviews. That is, before I pick up the phone or walk into an interview subject's office, I type up a list of questions I want to ask. I may add to that list as we're talking, but the original list helps me structure the conversation and stay focused.
Well, not this time. We exchanged a few opening pleasantries and quickly thereafter my piece of paper with its neatly printed and numbered questions hit the floor. I found myself asking questions right and left, barely letting the man have time to answer the first without interrupting with another. I threw in a lot of "but, what abouts" and "well, how woulds." I knew I was doing it and yet I couldn't stop myself.
Kit got into the conversation every bit as much as I did. Before we realized it 45 minutes had passed. We had overshot the amount of time he'd set aside for the interview by a good 15 minutes. I mumbled something about sending follow-up questions via e-mail and hung up, only to sit staring at my interview notes for another 15 or 20 minutes.
Kit had, early on and completely unknowingly, pushed one of my graphic arts hot buttons. After telling me although he had served as the informal chairman of the group that had established the awards criteria, he hadn't been involved in the judging process after all. He recused himself from judging as several of the design competition pieces were done by other people in his firm. That's not the hot button, although I admire his professionalism.
What is "Good Design," Anyway?
The hot button I'm talking about is labeled neatly with the phrase "good design." Part of the judging criteria for the Sappi design awards calls for the judges to evaluate how appropriate the design of a piece is for its intended purpose and how effectively a designer has developed the concept. I wanted to find out how Kit and the judges know when they're looking at good design. I have my own standards, but I also know that all too often I look at print design the way some people look at fine art: I may not be a design judge, but I know what I like.
There has to be a better way to evaluate design work other than by how impressed you are when you first see it. Hence my questions about how he looks at a design and decides if it's appropriate and effective -- and why those standards are so important to him and the other designers who worked on the Sappi criteria. He started telling me, and it was right about then I dropped my list of prepared questions and our conversation began in earnest.
Kit explained that he thinks print design should always keep the audience in mind and that too many designers get involved in impressing their peers and not in solving the communications problem the piece is intended to solve. He thinks, by the way, that print design awards should be called "communications awards" because print design is essentially a communications process.
Flash or Trash?
I threw in one of those "what abouts" and asked him that if good design solves a communications problem then what about all the flashy, yet questionable, design work we've seen win awards.
(I asked this question because years ago I worked with a designer who had won some of those awards but who never wanted to hear what the marketing people wanted the piece to convey. For him, the look of the piece was paramount and phrases such as "print budget" and "response rates" were unintelligible and unimportant. Even though the designer's work sucked the life blood out our marketing budgets, we couldn't get upper management to fire him. I think that's because he was so arrogant and snobbish about his work that they concluded he must be a good designer. I thought his design work was okay, but that we could have done without the expensive paper choices and oddly shaped die cuts that stripped the budgets bare. We never did find out which awards he'd won, by the way.)
Kit chuckled when I told him about my experiences with the hip, mod, and over-paid designer Phrases such as "overly involved" and "absorbed in trends" floated across the phone line to my welcoming ears and we moved on.
The Business of Design
His next point, though, was one I hold near and dear when it comes to design: "It is a business and it has to function commercially." Thus, the need for the Sappi judges to evaluate entries in light of what the printed pieces are supposed to accomplish. Thus, too, the need for judges to carefully examine a piece to see if they think it speaks effectively to the intended audience.
For example, a designer who specs unbleached newsprint for the annual report of a major corporation in dire financial straits is a designer who doesn't appreciate the subtle message that cheap paper conveys. Either that or he has a warped sense of humor. (Kit didn't come up with the example -- I did. Make up some yourself the next time you're waiting for the color printer to spit out a proof. It's fun.)
Back to the interview: Trying to regain some of my journalistic professionalism, I slid in what I thought was an insightful question, "But who should get to decide if a piece works?" Kit's response made me think for a moment that he'd studied design on Vulcan: "Sometimes that depends on the opinions of a few, not the many." Translated that means that if the person who commissioned the work isn't happy with the finished piece, then you can safely conclude it's not good design.
That's it, isn't it? All the glitz, varnish, and complex trapping in the world is for naught if you can't get paid.
More next month on my conversation with Kit about what constitutes good design and the evaluation criteria for the Sappi design awards.
Read more by Molly Joss.
Liked This? Read These!
Since 1999, Sappi Fine Paper North America has offered support for designers doing charity work with a grant program called Ideas That Matter. Awards range from $5000 to $50,000 and may be used for... Read More
Hi, my name is Molly, and I am a paper junkie. (Ed. Note: Hello, Molly!) Read More
Awards for the A&AD, AIGA and ADCC have just been announced and Masterfile's publication 'unbound 5' won Graphic Design/Brochure awards and Direct Mail Promotional Design awards. These wins... Read More
Fall is my favorite time of the year. Sure, I enjoy leaf peeping and bulb planting, but autumn has additional attractions for me. Because summer is over and a new school year is starting, it has... Read More