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Designers Just Make Things Look Nice, Right?

By Terri Stone

Not so long ago, most artists and craftspeople acquired their skills by apprenticing to masters. While that model isn’t so common today, a new book and interactive exhibition, both called Please Make This Look Nice, serve as master teachers for anyone who’s willing to learn.

The 272-page book is a mix of interviews with graphic design luminaries and the kind of studies and sketches that are often tossed when a job’s done. The result is an absorbing—and educational—journey through the designers’ processes. For example, here’s Bob Gill on generating original ideas:

“Say you get a logo for a dry cleaner—a typical dopey design job—what’s the answer? The answer is, you can’t sit at your computer because the computer is going to belch out what the culture has already put in people’s minds. You can’t look in a library of design books because they already exist—they’re not original. So what’s the answer? It’s obvious! You go to a dry cleaner and you sit there. I have no idea what you do there except I know you must go to the dry cleaner. You sit there and you watch what’s going on, you listen to customers talk to the guy at the counter, you go in the back to look at the machinery, and so on... Even if you think you knew what dry cleaning was about before, you now have a new experience.”

Stefan Sagmeister also finds many of his ideas outside of the studio:

“I avoid looking at things while I’m thinking about the project and it might be everything from losing myself, to taking a train ride, to coming up with a system where I have big lists. I write things down on index cards and then see if there is any correlation between all the cards and then try to forget about it and then hope that an idea comes from working on ideas that have nothing to do with the idea at hand. I have also tried giving myself very tight limitations, saying, ‘I’m going to do this thing, but I have to be done in five minutes.’ Or, ‘I’m going to do this thing and I’m actually executing it, but I only have three hours.’”

The sketches are just as instructional as the interviews. For instance, look at the dedication to exploration evident in Paula Scher’s letterform studies for a Type Directors Club Annual:

A new book and exhibition, both called Please Make This Look Nice, serve as master design teachers for anyone willing to learn. These lettering studies are by Paula Scher

And I love the cover ideas for Outside the Box: Hand-Drawn Packaging from Around the World, drawn by Gail Anderson and Joe Newton:

A new book and exhibition, both called Please Make This Look Nice, serve as master design teachers for anyone willing to learn. These cover sketches are by Gail Anderson.

Wherever you are in your design career, this book is worth owning.

In conjunction with the book, New York City’s The Drawing Center will host Please Make This Look Nice: The Graphic Design Process as an Act of Drawing from February 19 through March 20, 2016. The Lab area of the Center will serve as a working studio; for example, graphic designer John Gall will take over the Lab one night to lead participants in a hands-on collage-making event. You’ll also find an exhibit of some of the works reproduced in the book, and lectures by designers Frank DeRose, Stephen Doyle, Carin Goldberg, Hjalti Karlsson, Paul Sahre, and Jan Wilker, and by Peter Ahlberg, the exhibition curator and author of the book.

Has a client told you to "make it look nice"? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments.