• Jeff

There's No Crying in Graphic Design!

Why "Why?" is the most important question in this business.



Pop quiz:

A. Picasso

B. Pascal

C. A Little of Both

If you said C, let’s talk. You might be a closet graphic designer.

It’s common knowledge that we as human beings, typically rely on one side or the other of our brains to determine which traits and tendencies rule us.

It’s a grand oversimplification of course, but the theory is that each side of the human brain facilitates a different school of thought, and that most of us, for any number of reasons rely more heavily on one side or the other. Based on this theory, problem solvers who typically excel in more linear fields like math and science tend to be left-brain dominant, while those who find success in more subjective areas such as the arts or psychology are ruled by their right-brain.

Go ahead Google it. There are a hundred quizzes and tests out there that you can take to see if you’re a righty or a lefty. (like this one braintest.sommer-sommer.com) Most of these tests score you by percentage – 30% left / 70% right, and so on.

About 1/3 of the population (as expected) receive a balanced or near balanced score on these tests. This "brain-balance" gives them the innate ability to see and reason from both sides of any problem they confront.

For more than a quarter century, I’ve worked as a graphic designer. Over the years, I’ve met soooo many right-brain designers. Many of them did quite well. Consult just about any right-brain / left-brain job study and you’ll find graphic design listed as prime career territory for the solid right-brainer. I get that, but I’m not quite ready to follow their logic to the assertion that right brainers make the best designers.

The most successful teams and the most notable projects I’ve been a part of over the years have relied on a dialogue between left and right; a push and pull between the complimentary reasoning styles – each half contributing to the conversation on equal footing and with respect for the input of the other.

In most cases, and in many savvy agencies this is accomplished by assembling a balanced team; bringing “creatives” and “non-creatives” to the table when brainstorming and developing client solutions.

There are hundreds of artistic individuals out there who, each year see graphic design as a way to commercialize their love for creativity. To avoid... you know, the whole starving artist thing. Many of those folks put in their school-time, enter the workforce, and do very well as a part of a team that incorporates the balance I mentioned above. But some don't. Whether improperly placed, or overly idealistic about their views on the industry, they aren’t able to get past the subjectivity inherent to successful art – and let in the objectivity that defines successful design.

For these reasons (and a few more), I’ve believed and professed for years that “Why?” is the most important question in graphic design.

Let me show you what I mean.


I'll use logo design for this example since despite the resulting simplicity, logo design incorporates high levels of both creative subjectivity and analytical problem solving.

In developing a concept for a logo or identity, the list of things to be considered can seem endless; product, customer, company culture, aesthetic preferences, industry history, cultural roots, the color of their Uncle Butch’s “10-gallon” cowboy hat… the list can go on as far as the client chooses to extend it.

Given the clients input, it’s our job as designers to distill it into something that not only creates an artistic and visual context for their business, but melds those preferences with meaning, and references and entendre - creating something that's more than just a representational picture.

The goals of a great logo should always be to convey the essence – an idea – of who the company is, to make a memorable first impression, and to tie a company's culture to its product or service.

In the past as a team leader, when reviewing concepts, my first question (and sometimes my second, third, and fourth) was always, “Why?”

Why blue?

Why did you choose that font?

Why the chambered nautilus?

...And why the hell is Butch's hat purple?!

If a designer or design team can't answer all or most of the "whys" convincingly, tying them to the information collected, then the mark is no more than a pretty picture – a piece of art - and it's back to the drawing board...


Unfortunately, at times I felt like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own… but when the pencil meets the paper, there's no “because I think it’s pretty” in graphic design.

I’m not being absolutist here, of course art and graphic design are related, and of course pure artistic creativity has its place in great design – but what makes them different is what matters most. True graphic design is deliberate. It must solve a problem, deliver a message, convey an idea, and yes, sometimes generate an emotion – like true art. The difference is that unlike a painting or a sculpture that one person could fall in love with and another find revolting – good graphic design is specific in its message and its goals. While a modern masterpiece can “speak” to its viewers, a masterful design delivers a very specific message.

Now, I’m no psychologist (or HR guru), but based on my experience, I wholeheartedly believe graphic design is a field where the rare balanced-brainer is gold – and can see much success on their own or within a team.

I know… I know… I’m generalizing, right?

Passion and drive and schooling and…

But no, not really.

I’ve worked for, designed alongside, and lead what seems like hundreds of other designers in my career. The best of them understood that graphic design is NOT subjective – NOR is it an exact science. It’s a magical mingling of the two, equal parts artistic eye and scientific method.

Any agency worth its salt should strive to find this balance, whether it’s through hiring personality types, or bringing departments and disciplines together.

Me personally? I believe the real magic happens when you bring together designers who possess this “brain-balance” independent of group interaction.

Just so we’re all up front and open about it, here are our scores based on the brain balance test I linked to earlier.




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