making the invisible visible: process, inspiration and practice for the new media designer : [©james mcnally, 2003]

published at Digital Web, February 2003 (web site)

Making The Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. New Riders, 2003, 240pp. US$45.00, CDN$69.99, £34.99.

Hillman Curtis really needs little in the way of introduction. One of the most recognized and acclaimed designers working today, his first book, Flash Web Design (New Riders, 2000) has sold more than 100,000 copies. But this is not another book about Flash, and it's about more than web design. Curtis has set out to write an inspirational book, a combination of good practical advice and beautiful pictures. It's a coffee-table book you'll want to keep close to your desk.

The book is quite logically divided into three sections: Process, Inspiration, and Practice. In the first section, Curtis describes the steps his firm goes through with every new project. These steps inform each other, and so are not meant to be understood as a linear progression. In fact, the boundaries between them often blur. Curtis says, "Steps often mix, overlap, become one, and work together." There are seven:

  1. Listen
  2. Unite
  3. Theme
  4. Concept
  5. Eat the Audience
  6. Filter
  7. Justify

I find Curtis' definitions refreshingly different from most authors on the process of design. He places creativity front and centre at every stage, and it shows. He borrows from everywhere, but especially from the world of film direction. He quotes Sidney Lumet's dictum that theme dictates style, noting that everything else flows from the question "What is this project about?"

With that in mind, we can take a look at his process.

Listening means meeting often with the client and listening to their answers to key questions. Find out what the core values of their company are, and how they want your project to fit into those. As Curtis puts it, "What is the story? Every job has one." Another series of useful questions, if your job is to redesign or extend a current campaign, involves asking the client what they love about their existing campaign, and what they hate. This way it's easy to figure out what to keep and what to lose.

Uniting is an important step early in the project. It involves meeting with your entire team, including the client, and calling upon the collective creativity of the entire group. Setting goals early is another way to make sure that the entire group is working toward the same end. One of the things Hillman Curtis (the company) do is to draft a creative brief at the very outset of a project. This document becomes the basis on which other documents, such as storyboards or site maps, can be created. All of these documents exist to keep the process moving in the right direction, with measurable goals and plenty of opportunity for feedback along the way.

Theme is central, according to Curtis. Although by its place in the list, it appears to follow the other two steps, in reality, it must be emphasized from the very beginning. Curtis describes how he brings a piece of paper with him into the very first client meeting with three concentric circles drawn on it. As he jots down keywords during the meeting, he figures out how close to the center of the "target" each one fits. The words in the center become the theme. For instance, in his work on a Y2K-related project with Iomega, the maker of backup media, he expected to find words like "horror" and "disaster" at the center of his target. Instead, he found the client was stressing words like "secure" and "solution." This changed his whole approach to the project.

Concept relates to theme, obviously. The concept is the idea you formulate which illustrates your theme. This can be the most difficult part of the process, but Curtis encourages us to be open to ideas from almost any source. Surrounding ourselves with great examples is a start. Other methods he uses to bring ideas to the surface include sketching and storyboarding, as well as collaborating closely with the client. Involving the client may seem frightening because it reveals that we are not the incredible idea factory that we may want them to believe we are. However, an idea generated by or in collaboration with the client is much more likely to express their story than one generated in isolation.

"Eating the Audience" is a clever way of restating the concept of understanding who we're working for. There's no substitute for research and this information gathering should take place at every stage of the project's development. Curtis makes a valid point that we do not have the luxury of thinking like fine artists. The art we create is commercial. It is designed to meet the needs of our clients and their audiences, so we need to constantly crawl out from our own creative space to listen to others.

Filtering means pouring our wonderful creative concepts through the sieve of limitations. These limitations can be technical (bandwidth issues, limitations of HTML) or conceptual. What this step involves is distilling a concept down to its most simple and concentrated elements. Curtis quotes Hemingway here, "Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works." By stripping away anything unnecessary, we amplify the "story" the client is trying to tell.

Justifying follows directly on from filtering. It means making sure that every remaining element of our design serves the overall theme. Where filtering is a negative step, where we are taking things away from our design, justifying is a positive step, forcing us to reinforce our reasons for keeping things in. The picture I get is one of constructing a building. After we think we're done, we should not only go around knocking down unneeded walls; we should then go around and reinforce and strengthen the ones left. Curtis explains that this is a step that should be practiced throughout the project. If we do that, there should be far fewer walls to knock down during the filtering phase.

The second section of the book concerns Inspiration, and is heavily illustrated with examples of work that inspires Curtis. Most of these examples have been used in the first section of the book, so in addition to being good visual examples, they serve to reinforce points made in the Process section.

In the final section of the book, Curtis turns over the microphone to some of his respected colleagues. In the last nine chapters, they provide short treatments of various design issues such as color, type, web layout, and usability. These are all interesting and useful, though too short to be comprehensive. Speaking personally, I found the chapters on color (by Leatrice Eiseman) and type (by Katherine Green) to be most useful, since like many new media designers, I've had no formal design training or print experience. Despite that, I found this the least enjoyable section of the book, probably since we're missing the voice of Hillman Curtis.

It's clear that Curtis has several mentors whom he looks to again and again. These include film directors (Sidney Lumet, David Mamet), painters (Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Weigl), even musicians (Billy Bragg). At the end of the book, he reprints the inspirational quotes he's used throughout the book, one to a page. These are maxims that permeate his work, and he wants to share this acquired wisdom with us. Earlier in the book, he discovers a principle that explains this. He shares how his wife Christina was attending a poetry conference and someone asked the poet C.K. Williams where he turned to when faced with writer's block. Williams' response was simple: "I fall in love with a master." This advice only seems radical because the field of new media is still in its infancy. We don't have too many masters. The advice of Hillman Curtis is to open our eyes, that inspiration is found everywhere. New Media design is part of the larger discipline of design, which can encompass everything from print design to industrial design to film and visual art.

Making the Invisible Visible endears itself to the reader because it lets us peek inside the head and heart of Hillman Curtis. He shares his insecurities as well as his inspirations, and this self-deprecation is a mark of some of the best teachers. He is not a "guru" who sees himself as the source of all truth. Instead, he encourages us to look around and discover the world of inspiration before us. Additionally, the man himself is an inspiration due to his own lack of formal design education. So many of us have been thrust into or simply fallen into new media design, it's comforting to know that with some hard work and an open mind, we too can create work that will both wow our clients and feed back into the ocean of inspiration for others to draw upon.

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