Once you know what an idea is, the best way to have one is to have many.
Once you know what an idea is, the best way to have one is to have many.
I’ve always been one to have a side project on the go. They’re a great way to experiment with ideas or build new skills. With the new year still fresh there’s no better time to kick one off. So I did. I’ve been chipping away at it now for a few weeks, so it’s a good time to pause and reflect on what I’ve been doing and what my next steps will be.
The project I’ve set for myself is to design a brand and portfolio website for a photographer. Specifically Henri Cartier-Bresson, who happens to be the father of photojournalism. May as well set the bar high If I can pick anyone right?
My goal for the project is to improve the experience of navigating through a series of photos on a website. I also want to use this exercise as a chance to design a brand. Branding is work I don’t spend much time doing and It’s a skill I’d very much like to have.
I started by setting time aside to research the life, personality and work of HCB. This research gave me a better understanding of what feeling the brand and website should evoke. During this research phase I like to build lists of words which I think define the mood I am attempting to create. Here is an example of a list I created for this project:
Next I wrote a brief. If you are asking yourself “Why on earth would he write a brief for himself?” well, I find this exercise forces me to set project constraints. With a brief to answer I end up with clear defined project requirements and goals.
Here’s an example. While answering the brief I described the site’s desired look and feel with the following statements:
The site design should be subtle and understated and exist to serve the content.
The design should be minimal but modern and make ample use of white space to evoke a feeling of calm and reassurance.
Then during the design phase I can refer to these and make sure my design choices make sense and are appropriate.
Once I had a brief I was happy with my next move was to consider typography. For me, typography is a crucial element in setting the tone of a design.
From my research I had a clear idea of what I was looking for in a typeface. HCB captured images from raw, real-life situations. He was also a shy man who shunned the spotlight. I felt a humanist sans-serif with restrained features would best evoke this.
I looked at a lot of typefaces but narrowed it down to three: Serevak, Fedra Sans and Ideal Sans. After setting type with each I settled on Serevak. It’s near invisibility and subtle personality was the perfect fit for the subject matter.
Another helpful task which I completed as part of this prep phase was competitive analysis. This involves looking at pre-existing ideas.
For this project I looked at a large number of gallery type websites. I was particularly interested in their navigation and interaction patterns. I looked for UX and usability short comings which I could address through design.
This ability to study what others have designed for similar problems is a huge advantage. I find an awful lot can be learned by studying their strengths and weaknesses.
So what’s next? After all this prep work I feel I have enough of an understanding to begin work on a lo-fi prototype which I will mockup in Photoshop. I also want to finalise the brand. I plan on detailing that work in future blog posts but now it’s off to Photoshop I go.
Over the past couple of years I’ve become increasingly interested in the art of photography. It all started with instagramming my kids. Since then my photographic worldview has expanded and lately that view is all street photography. There’s something about candid real life photos that capture the spirit of a time or place. Researching master street photographers has led me down one road to Henri Cartier-Bressson.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. He helped define the “street photography” style and was a master of the unposed shot.
HCB started his creative journey as a painter and brought this way of seeing the world to his photography. If you study his photos you will notice many of the elements from the visual language playing an active role such as geometric shapes, strong contrasts and lines.
He travelled extensively during his lifetime capturing some 700,000 photos on his way before at the height of his fame giving it all up and returning to drawing and painting which he described as a meditative process.
His work is truly great especially if you consider that he never post-processed or cropped his shots. He never even developed them preferring to delegate this task so he could spend more time out on the street. How cool is that?
If you’re curious for more here’s a terrific 20 minute overview of his work with commentary from the man himself:
If you haven’t got the time for that here’s some of my favourite photos from his portfolio:
If you’d like to dig further into to the work and the man here’s some links which are worth your time:
What’s the difference between art direction and design? I hold my hand up, even after 10 years working as a designer I was not sure I could explain the difference clearly.
After discovering and subsequently poring over a terrific article by Dan Mall on the subject, my understanding is better. Now I get it. Here’s my understanding: art direction establishes the emotion a message needs to convey and design is concerned with how that message is delivered.
This really is a well written and informative article and well worth setting time aside to read the entire piece.
In case you need more convincing here’s a list of my favourite quotes from the piece:
Art direction is about evoking the right emotion, it’s about creating that connection to what you’re seeing and experiencing.
By contrast, design is the technical execution of that connection. Do these colors match? Is the line length comfortable for long periods of reading? Is this photo in focus? Does the typographic hierarchy work? Is this composition balanced?
Art direction and design work together to communicate the message on an emotional level and a physical level.
Design is perfection in technique; art direction is about the important, yet sometimes intangible emotion that powers the design.
Many consider “look and feel” to be synonyms instead of complements, treating them interchangeably. > Creating a design is creating the “look”. The “feel,” however, warrants specific attention from a seasoned > art director to ensure that the message isn’t compromised.
The article goes on to quote a number of eminent designers on their understanding Chris Cashdollar’s insight clearly comes from the mind of a seasoned art director:
Art direction is a filter for making judgments; you pass every design choice through it. Start by determining the overall emotion. All the copy, photography, UI elements, buttons, and the kitchen sink should be pinged against this ideal.
So now that I have a better understanding of the concept of art direction will I be bolting it on to my design process? Well the truth is I’ve always been self art directing my work, albeit subconsciously.
On every project I’ll spend a lot of time thinking through each design decision I make and making sure each one is appropriate for the message I’m trying to communicate. I mightn’t always get it right but I’m very conscious every decision and pixel communicates something as after all one cannot not communicate.
This week I pushed the latest version of my website live. I’ve a new landing page and blog with more to come. Like a portfolio and the obligatory “about me” section (how hard are they to write?).
Although I’m not finished I want to trap my thoughts on how I maintained momentum on this project over the last 2 months.
If you don’t have the time to read on here’s the rub: break projects in to small specific tasks. Work on these tasks in small time units. Repeat consistently for results.
I mocked up the initial design over lunch 4 months ago. July 19th to be exact. And then nothing. The psd sat in a folder. On my desktop. Waiting.
Why? Free time. Here’s what I’m juggling right now: learning to be a father to twins, a full-time job, planing a wedding, freelance work, physical training. All this meant my personal design work ended up last on my list of priorities. And what ends up last ends up not getting done. This left me feeling frustrated. There had to be a better way to managing my time.
In early October I decided to try a different approach: break my site redesign project into small specific tasks and set one task per day. Then schedule a 25 minute time block to work on that task. If a task was not done in this timeframe it’s scheduled again for the next day. Any day I managed to work on my site I’d log it using streaks. You can see my progress below over the last two months.
On good days I would manage to work for longer than 1 hour at a time. Which was great. But mostly it was 25 minute sprints. I used a timer called focus booster to track this.
There were bad days too, when 5-10 minutes is all I could fit in. On those days I would review where I’m at and move the scheduled task to the next task. This was really important as it kept the project fresh in my mind and momentum going.
So it’s 30 days today. Why is 30 days significant? 30 days is regarded as how long it takes to form a new habit and working consistently on personal design projects is a habit I really want to keep.
Next up is getting my portfolio back online. I haven’t had one for a few years. Which is really lazy on my part as I’ve lots of work to show.
I will caveat all this with stating it’s very difficult to do design work this way. If I could I’d love to work on personal projects 3-4 hours at a time. This isn’t going to happen anytime soon though.