I’ve yet to meet a designer - a good one, anyway - who can go from concept to finished product without comparing layout options.

– August 27, 2014

On Drawing & Design, Part VI

I don't know of anyone able to compare visuals in their head. I've met many who believe that they can, but in the end they either get the comparison wrong or they cheat and look anyway. It's tempting to think that we remember what a design looks like, but as soon as we make a change, it alters our memory too. Is the weight of that mark really better than before? Did that headline size cross the threshold? How can you tell?

I have to stare at something for a while to evaluate it, and to know if I like something better I have to be able to stare at the comparative version too. I don't trust my memory. I mean, in my mind the back yard at my grandparents was long enough to land a passenger jet when it truth it probably couldn't even support model planes.

It's like looking at identical twins: if you meet them one at a time, it's really hard to tell which one is which. But if they stand right next to each other the differences become apparent.

Towards the end of a project, this comparison is important as you fine tune a composition. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to hit "print" every time you make the type a little larger. But in the development stage, a lot of changes that we make seem so obvious, so intuitive, that we just make them without a second thought. If you are still one of those knuckleheads who go straight to the computer and skip the drawing, you are actually making many of those design leaps in your head. Without the comparative evaluation, how do you really know if the solution you end up working with is the best? Without the basis for comparison, we tend to perceive what we think we should be seeing instead of what is really on the page.

When you draw rough layouts before heading off to the computer – especially if you use your Bienfang Graphics 360 paper – you automatically create a series of images that you can use for comparison. (If you're not familiar with the Graphics 360 paper, I tout its merits at the end of this missive.) No one changes a design without trying to improve it, but sometimes -- a lot of times actually — the problems that we first see are actually a visual reaction to something yet unseen. Making a change doesn’t affect the underlying issue, but we do initially believe that we found a solution. Figuring out that lateral change isn't an improvement requires the kind of careful comparative evaluation that comes from staring at side-by-side layouts. THAT insight can help you better understand what is really bothering you about the design so that you can address it before committing it to the computer.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know my take on the problems of using the computer for the initial stages of any design process. (If you haven’t, go back and read what I had to say.) I can’t stress enough how important it is too work through a design and composition before you start working digitally. I don’t care what Adobe tells you, their products ALWAYS influence the design direction if you start using them too early.

The best way to ensure that your concept is really developing the way that you intend is to compare versions. You can't do that in your head, and you are short changing the development if you try to do that digitally. You have to draw, by hand, in one manner or another.

Let me lay one final analogy on you. In order to really compare cars that you might want to buy, you need to do a little more than just browse the selecton at cars.com. You can't tell if one model drives better than another unless you actually take it for a spin. Sitting behind the wheel feeling the bumps in the road is akin to the drawing phase of the rough layout. Both exercises are necessary if you want the best possible outcome. Without that comparison, your tricked out Yugo -- loaded with every feature you could add online -- may make you perfectly happy, but only because you never sat in anything else.

So about this Bienfang Graphics 360 stuff: here is a link to the Utrecht Art Supplies page. Let me just say that it's great. It takes marker well (no bleeds, the edges stay sharp), has a bright white color, and is translucent. You can quickly sketch the concept, evaluate what you’ve drawn, tear the sheet off and slip it under the next one, and modify the original by tracing what you like and changing what you don’t. The physical act of drawing is simplified as one sheet of paper becomes a guide for the next. You can use markers to help you establish a much broader range of tonal values, and you don’t have to worry about erasing your errant marks: just retrace it instead.

*** end of shameless product plug ***