13 November 2006
Colin Wood
Colin Wood

Studies in 'clear thinking' frequently urge you to move from the general to the specific. That is, get a general idea of the problem at hand before you organise the details. As with so many things; easier said than done.

As students we have all been guilty of holding onto a bad idea, refusing to let it go, and developing it to a final solution. If it doesn't work as well as we'd hoped, we attempt minor adjustments. The longer you attempt a rescue, the deeper the hole gets. It's so demoralising. We want to give up.

When we eventually lift our eyes, we see other people's solutions and can be surprised at how different their 'concepts' are from ours. In truth, we see their work as complete solutions, not having been present during the gestation of the idea.

Like strategy and tactics, the most important skill in handling concepts and details is being able to tell the difference between them. This is a very common problem which all designers must conquer if they are to become adept at their craft.

There is a very strong parallel in the way we learn language. We are taught the details first; sounds build into words that, in turn become sentences. We ascribe meaning to the small things before we are considered ready and able to address the big questions. Even a cursory examination of the process will show this to be the natural order of things.

You see the details (the building blocks) as they present themselves but you must imagine the bigger picture. You don't see concepts. You watch the details act themselves out before your very eyes. Songs are sung one note at a time. Plays are acted out through the thread of dialogue. We sit in the audience trying to ascertain the author's intentions. More time is spent explaining paintings than in actually painting them. Strangely, artists (especially painters) are frequently asked to explain their work as if they were philosophers. Usually they are not good at it, which adds a further layer of mystique and makes their work seem ever more enigmatic and impenetrable. All the better for curators.

Of course, we may search for the wrong thing in the wrong place. For instance, we may try to identify 'meaning' where none exists. In a sporting contest, the intention is to win the game (in some sports the score is measured in 'goals').

For designers, marketers and advertisers, briefs are full of detail. Sure, there may be an introductory paragraph spelling out the 'concept' or 'strategy', but these are already details in a document.

Strategies and concepts have a lot in common with our senses; we can smell, taste, hear, touch and see without a word being spoken. We can form opinions from our senses. It goes without saying (as the old saying goes).

After a speech there will be many different interpretations of what was said. Skilled politicians are masters of communication, sending one message while saying another.

That said, the details are so very important, for without them everything turns to dust. They are the glue that holds concepts together, and the means by which they are perpetuated. The complete, skilled designer should be able to think in big and small pictures at the same time. We must live in a sort of time tunnel, shuttling between points in time and space, viewing things from many points of view, assuming the prejudices of others, being flexible enough to bend with the breeze but strong enough to resist breakage.

Some of us also take it upon ourselves to guide our clients along a path of their own making until they arrive at our preferred destination. It's a skill.

We must be the parents of our ideas; not their children. Whoever coined the phrase 'think globally, act locally' knew this all too well.

About this article
Colin Wood's
Design Graphics 108 editorial is re-published with permission.

About Colin Wood
Colin Wood studied industrial design at Birmingham College of Art and Crafts, England, under one of the first graduates from the Weimar Bauhaus, Naum Slutzky. Although he has never practised as an industrial designer, he was always drawn by creative pursuits. After spending several years as a professional musician, Colin moved to Australia and studied advertising. He became Promotions Director, and later Marketing Manager, for two international book publishing houses. In 1983, he founded Design World magazine. He publishes the annual 'Art & Design Education Resource Guide' for Australasia and the Australian design annual Oz Graphix. For the past decade he has published Design Graphics, an international monthly journal devoted to all aspects of computer graphics.