Design, Objectivity & The Punk Spirit

What does human nature, biology, and ancient Greek architecture have to say about how wide my sidebar should be?

I’ve recently been geeking out about how my calculator can help me design more gooder.

I’ve been influenced by people who say there may be objective-ish right answers to design problems… or at least righter answers.

Making it feel right

Up to now everything I’ve designed has been a product of feel: shaping the stuff to look right/good to me. Obviously often within constraints which shape the design as much as my “feel” (the CEO hates blue, the site must be accessible to weird people, the target audience is Australian Latinos, etc).

This is the only way I could have known how to make things. I’m self taught, no lessons, and the fun thing about design has always been caring about the experience and making it right.

But this feel-based approach has been called into question by a few smarty pants people.

Smarter people say “calculate!”

Here’s a list of some of the stuffs that have influenced my thoughts on bringing a calculator to my special fun time in Photoshop.

  • Richard Rutter’s Composing to a Vertical Rhythm. This is the thing that first got me thinking, “huh, math?”
  • Tim Brown’s talk on ratios in web typography. I’m not familiar with his work but everyone on internet is, so I started paying attention. This is the video to start with. It’s the thoughts behind his Modular Scale Calculator.
  • Chris Pearson’s article on using the golden ratio as basis for web typography. Chris is a friend and his presentation at Blogworld LA 2011 got me thinking about all this with renewed vigor. He put a ton of work into this article and the subsequent typography calculator.1
  • Koi Vinh’s book on using the grid in web design. “Grid. Grid grid grid. Grid grid. Nein!” ~ bald guys with circle-rimmed glasses who know a lot more than me. Koi’s not one of those guys but he still knows a lot more than me and he says there’s truth in the grid.

Objectively submitting

All these are smart things that define a kind of objectivity one brings to design. The underlying thought being: it’s better to do it this way. Trust maths and your Vitruvian Man and/or landing page will turn out more rightly.

There’s something clean and enlivening about it. It’s the freedom that comes from knowing the rules to the game—all you’ve got to do is follow the rules to win.

It really is liberating. It takes a little pressure off the whole be more brilliant than the next guy thing. It makes it easier to say, “the logo is good because its height and width are related via the golden ratio and also it uses that wildly popular Calgary script. A double-whammy, a sure fire hit!”

Subjectively Omitting, or the kids are all right too

And yet the stuff I loved most about designing and publishing were the way I could explore without any rules. I could take a line-drawing of a dog and collage a silly fart bubble coming out of it’s butt and screen print it onto a shirt and wear it at the skate park and every kid (and I mean every kid) would think i’m the greatest.

No grids. No ratios. No circle-rimmed glasses. Just lol’s and a kind of punk-rock DIY spirit.

I recently saw this video of a designer who’s built tons of great stuff and you can tell from his whole way of being that he’s still got that kid-like punk-rock spirit.

This punk, DIY, child-like exploration is definitely one piece at the heart of design.

Rightly doing what feels good

What’s our end game here? Of course the answer is we don’t have to choose one or the other. We’re able to take a little from column A (totally gridded/ratioed out) and a little from column B (pure farting dogs and The Casualties butt-flaps) when we create.

My point here is to encourage anyone who’s felt the weight of right/wrong in a creative endeavor. There’s great resources like those mentioned above, great thoughts and insights from people who’ve shaped our craft.

But it’s not dogma to be believed at the risk of excommunication. The hard, crystalline parts of things like creativity and religion are the bad parts—it’s the elastic, expansive, alive parts that make anything really and truly world-changing.

After all, there is no excommunication—you can still come to the designer parties where we all wear the same hand-made button ups and boot-versions of Sperry Topsiders and quote Frank Chimero and make our own business cards and try to one-up each other with “classic” “artisanal” “hand-made” cocktails hoping to god no one asks us about how suburban our high school years were!

  1. You should read some of the comments over on this post; highly flammable stuff. Chris may have come off the wrong way, pushing one ratio over all others in an almost dogmatic way. Doesn’t discount the insights in this post for me at all.  ↩

The Matterful Monthly

A monthly for modern meaning makers from Chase Reeves about building lifestyles of significance.

Get the next issue in your inbox:

“I love getting these emails because Chase writes like he talks.” ~ Heath