The MVA Studio creates original and effective graphic design through fast and easy collaboration.

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More (and better) work in less time

Our design presentations to the Soap Factory back in 2011 consisted of us showing up with a single full-size mock-up of a mailer. We’d give it to the Executive Director Ben to unfold and then we’d explain our concept. It always went well though sometimes we were nervous that our design got a little weird. But, since we typically turned around the design in 2 or 3 days we knew that we could come up with another one if need be. I believe we’d estimate 10 hours for a concept and design, though sometimes we used all the time for the concept and never really get there.

“The Erasers” exhibition announcement for The Soap Factory, 2011.

In those instances, we’d trust that we could lean on our penchant for minimalist design to get us through the end.

The same project in 2012 looked like this: I’d show up with a 16 page deck of notes, research, process and about 8 concept sketches. I’d probably spent no more than 8 hours over the course 2 weeks to make that volume of work. I wasn’t remotely worried that they wouldn’t pick a direction. Actually, I didn’t care. If they didn’t like anything, it’d only take another half-day to develop a bunch more concepts so who cares? Anyway they always picked a one and I could typically turn it out in under 4–6 hours. Sometimes it was a bit more ambitious and took a couple days.

 One concept in 14 hours of real struggle—sometimes creative block—versus 8 concepts (those are just the ones I shared) in 8 hours that flew by. What changed?

We stopped trying to “come up with an idea” and we started using processes that generate ideas. We shifted 80% of our effort to research and analysis, then we used a tool called the Bedno Diagram to generate workable concepts. (That link is a video case-study of one such project).

RUR_bedno-diagram.jpg

We literally didn’t come up with ideas anymore. A grid drawn on photocopy took care of the ideas, we just brought them to life. And our work improved immediately and dramatically. My favorite projects of ours have come out of Bedno Diagrams.

Actually, a lot of my favorite unused work came from them as well:

R.U.R. poster concept: drawing of letterpress blocks to talk about obsolescence

R.U.R. poster concept: drawing of letterpress blocks to talk about obsolescence

Resonating Bodies poster concept where type would be set at extremes forcing the viewer to move their body through space to interact with it.

Resonating Bodies poster concept where type would be set at extremes forcing the viewer to move their body through space to interact with it.

Eventually we found other hacks to get more work done faster (and better). Our Haunted Basement poster wasn’t generated via a Bedno diagram but by then my thinking had been transformed by them. I no longer had to “come up with an idea”, I had to understand content and context and then just find the right bits and pieces to put together. And the best part, was that if that didn’t work, well, then lets do a Bedno diagram. Once we realized that the process—the steps taken in a specific order—was the only thing that mattered work got easy and more gratifying. Now we have a lot of processes. They’re like recipes that we can call on based on the time-frame, budget, client and scale of the project.

Why share this? I don’t talk to many designers that can tell me definitively what it is that they do to get an idea and if you had asked me back in 2010 I would’ve rattled off a list of research and inspiration strategies (read, ask a lot of questions, look at cool stuff, blah blah blah) but not a single way to generate a design concept that wasn’t a varation on “think real hard and come up with an idea”. Which in itself is just a variation on “hope for the best.” But I think you can guarantee outcomes in creative work without sacrificing the creativity. Its all in the steps you choose to take.