Too many tools, not enough creativity

Jan 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

Can you possibly have too many tools and too big a budget? The answer might well be yes. Compare the movies Waterworld and The Blair Witch Project. Waterworld had a budget of more than $130 million and used state-of-the-art equipment; The Blair Witch Project cost less than $100,000 and was shot largely with a hand-held camera. Yet The Blair Witch Project is the film that enthralled millions, while Waterworld was a snoozer – and a financial debacle to boot.

Real creativity doesn’t necessarily emerge from a big budget or high tech. Sometimes a big budget and high-tech creative tools can actually stifle creativity and effectiveness. I’ve certainly seen this in catalogs and advertising.

For catalog design, the past 10-15 years have seen a dramatic shift from a slower mechanical assembly of art materials to computer manipulation of art materials. The positive points related to this shift are important to note:

- Design of catalogs is much faster. Graphic artists can choose and realign type, and manipulate photographs much faster than they could by hand.

- It’s easier to correct errors in photography or to make last-minute changes in design or content.

- The catalogs are much more consistent in design and quality.

But the very strengths of computer design can be its weaknesses. The speed of PC manipulation can lead to a design approach that is too quick and lazy. There is a distinct difference in quality between taking a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon and hiking into it. The hike may be slower and harder, but it’s infinitely more rewarding.

I don’t want to give an overly mystical quality to the process, but the slow contemplation of art materials and even a (heaven forbid) hand sketch of some ideas can produce a powerful connection from the hand to the brain, and then from the image to the viewer. The organic computer (your brain) has infinite possibilities; the artificial computer has limited choices, but they can be executed very quickly. And just as clicking your TV remote control too quickly can result in your missing that rare showing of your favorite movie, a too-quick finger on the mouse can result in missing the most powerful graphic composition or effective design.

For certain, software graphic formats have leveled the playing field, allowing novices and design powerhouses alike to produce consistent layouts. But these formats have also created a too-homogeneous style of design. While consistency has been improved, the exceptional has not.

Computers have also allowed mediocre designers to copy creative ideas and then reproduce them – badly. Or to put it another way, computer design technology allows mediocre work to be produced faster. The old by-hand method forced a designer to show at least minimum creative skills. It’s the difference between sampling music to produce songs and playing instruments yourself.

Architect Mies Van Der Rohe summed up a solid design philosophy many years ago: “Less is more.” This design axiom is sometimes mistakenly identified with minimalism, but I think what Van Der Rohe meant was that one should not add an iota more than needs to be there.

In catalog design, overembellishment with graphics can suffocate a product. Unfortunately, technology makes it easier for the unskilled person to overdo things, such as use too many typefaces or borders. The viewer should not be distracted by, or even notice, graphic technique. The designer should give the product room to breathe, and the graphics should be a stage for the product presentation, not be the featured actor.

Am I against PC graphic design? No. But I am arguing for a lighter hand with its use and for a realization of its limitations. No amount of technology or budget will guarantee a powerful, uniquely designed catalog. Computer technology will only help you get your product done faster, whether it’s lousy or exceptional.

I’ve often been amused that the time saved with technology is frequently lost by management’s poor planning, indecision, or confused direction. Technology actually encourages indecision, because it makes changes and options easier to produce. I’ve seen weeks lost to indecision, wasting what hundreds of thousands of dollars in technology had gained. Poor planning can obviate the gains in speed that technology has given us. When all the products don’t arrive on time or when they arrive without the proper colors, days can be lost. When photography or art direction misses the intended shadow, the forgotten accessory, the awkward pose, a lot of computer time is unnecessarily spent on correction.

Computers: Lowering standards?

I would submit that the dependence on computer correction has lowered standards in art direction. I hate hearing, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it later.” Computer correction should be saved for emergencies. Besides, overusing retouching capabilities can produce a “plastic” look.

I’ve been working with photography professionals Serge Nivelle Studios to produce our most recent mailers and catalogs. We take photographs based on thematic “scripts.” Then we pin up Polaroids and mate up photos to create spreads as we shoot. The graphic design emerges from the photos, rather than the photos being shot to a rigid preconceived format. High-speed computer hardware and software allows us to do this as we shoot – certainly much faster than a designer sketching the spreads. So I am all for high-tech production – so long as the operator is skilled and uses a high degree of creative sensitivity.

Creative talent and confident, consistent direction are still the hallmarks of unique and effective catalog design. In a time when prospects receive up to a dozen promotional pieces a day, creative talent is the one tool you can’t do without. Those “other” tools – fancy hardware and software – should be treated with care.