The Cerebral Designer

In a short interview on grids, Khoi Vinh, famous for his Web design work at The New York Times, discusses his design philosophy. Here’s the key extract from the video:

The reason I was attracted to graphic design and moved away from painting and illustration was that design seemed a bit more objective to me. I’m trying to remove all the decision making from graphic design, get more and more objective. The grid is a tool for me to impose order and logic and law – there’s a framework. If you remove all subjectivity then you get some essential truth, some core idea that’s not clouded by inaccuracies, or approximations, or subjective feelings… emotional cloudiness. And it may be impossible to really get there but if you can get to that core idea, to me that’s a worthwhile pursuit.

That’s the philosophy of the modern cerebral designer which I wrote about here and here. In this approach, the designer does not just use reason and and logic to solve the underlying problem of whatever it is they’re creating, they go one step further and use the same methods on the form as well – trying to come up with a systematic approach for deriving the look as well as the function.

This approach can certainly help you arrive at beautiful products, but the downside to following it is that it denies the value of primal design, that is, design driven by emotion and intuition rather than method and logic. Decorations, ornament and style are deemed superfluous by the cerebral designer, unless of course you arrive at them through some sort of framework. More often than not however, you won’t, which is why this sort of design tends to be a lot more plain, defined by its use of typography and spacing than by use of illustrations and styles.

Notice what colors complement each other: the ones that contrast. If we use blue as the main color for a design and nothing else, that design will be monochromatic, and more likely than not it will be boring to our eye. If we add a touch of orange, that color will complement the blue and their successful marriage will give birth to a look that’s much more pleasing to the eye, and a design that is greater than if it was set in either blue or orange alone. And just in the same way we can use other contrasting elements together: if there is too much monotony, we break it up with a unique element here and there; if there is too little contrast, we make something much lighter or darker to bring out that element; if the styling is too plain we can introduce a more complex element to counterbalance all that simplicity.

Likewise, primal and cerebral design instincts are complements, not opposing forces. They are concerned with disparate goals which is why neither is better at achieving what the other sets out to do. If the design is driven only by the cerebral creative instinct, it will be too plain. If it is fully primal, it will not be very good at fulfilling its function for it would be more of an illustration or an ornamental piece than a design. Instead, if the primal is restrained by the cerebral but not yet fully killed, we arrive at a design that is functional, structured, pleasing to the eye and a joy for the designer to create.

The Web is not print, and unless you work within its constraints, your work will not be suited to the medium. Speed and ease of interaction are absolutely critical, which means that on the Web it makes much more sense to listen to the cerebral instinct rather than the primal, and sites that load quickly and are easier to use will tend to win out due to superior experience. You also have to realize that you’re working within a pixel grid, which puts serious constraints on your font selection and reduces the quality of the visual styles you can create (Apple’s “retina” displays are improving this, but these high resolution displays are far from universal). All these things mean that cerebral tends to rule on the Web, which in turn drives designers further into that sort of thinking, especially with many now starting to work on their designs in code rather than in a digital canvas of something like Photoshop.

But picking a design direction should be intentional, not reactive. The medium influences where we go, but we should not let it shape our design philosophy for us. Rather, we should take a step back to see exactly what options are available to us, and what we gain and what we lose by taking a particular approach. The mistake that we are liable to make is to rule one sort of design as useless and superfluous simply because it doesn’t fit with the ideas we have at this time about how to go about designing things – ideas that we never truly took the pains to properly examine and interrogate.

Published August 2012