As designers we are often told to search for inspiration in different places – “Don’t just look at design to get inspiration for design” – we are told. So, what about design theory? Can words inspire us as powerfully as pictures? And, does reading about design make us better designers?
Design theory has been one of my main sources of inspiration. It makes me feel more passionate about my career, and it makes me think about design with a broader perspective, as more than just pictures. It has also helped me to understand the relevance that our practice has had throughout history.
Ellen Lupton* refers to design theory in a way that I believe is very inspiring. She says, “Theory is all about the question “why?” The process of becoming a designer is focused largely on “how.” How to use software, how to solve problems, how to organise clients, how to work with printers and so on. With so much to do, stopping to think about why we pursue these endeavours requires a momentary halt in the frenetic flight plan of professional development.”
For me, this summarises the relevance of design theory. Understanding the reason why things happened in the past makes us understand our industry better today. Also, questioning ourselves about our own practice, about the reasons why we are designers and about decisions we make in our everyday life, is something that we sometimes forget to do.
Reading about design has helped me to became aware of the immense power of design and its potential role as a communications agent. It has also made me feel that I am not alone in many of the crises that designers face throughout our careers. It’s surprising to discover that what was talked about 30 years ago in design is still relevant today.
Lupton’s words also beautifully allude to another aspect of theory: its slow rhythm. In an industry where deadlines are becoming shorter and the pace is becoming faster, reading actually forces us to slow down.
Design theory has a slower pace than design practice because we require time to absorb the information, to reflect on it and understand how it fits with our personal design practice. By reading about design we approach our discipline in a different way; we become observers in our own field. I believe that that forgetting about ourselves and our everyday projects for a while and looking at design in a wider light, is a good exercise for our egos.
Finally, and I think worth mentioning, is that I have really enjoyed putting the saturated world of internet visuals on hold to give myself time to be inspired by words. Understanding the context of a specific design, or reading an interesting point of view about design theory has proved to be a surprising and interesting way to find inspiration.
* Note: Philadelphia born Ellen Lupton is a graphic designer, writer, curator, and educator well known for her fascination and study within typography. Lupton is the curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore.
Dani Rolli, from The Noun Project.