Designing Me
February 13, 2011

My little sister loved the show Bosom Buddies. I'm not sure if she liked Tom Hanks' character or Peter Scolari's character more. The show always kind of disturbed me because I just didn't understand the premise. Why should anyone have to hide who they were just to rent an apartment?

I do recall being utterly fascinated by their jobs at the ad agency, however. Those big tables. The markers. The ideas bouncing back and forth. People did this for a living? Really?

I was hooked.

I had always analyzed adults' commercials - not quite so much the ones targeted at me - and found myself fascinated by the way ideas were pitched. About the same time I became very aware of how my toys were packaged ... and how the toys or playsets were designed. I began rattling off what they should have done in order to do it right. Well, right in my eyes, anyway.

I realized I was utterly fascinated with well-designed toys. I didn't even have to be terribly interested in the subject matter to be interested in the toy. For example, My Little Ponies disturbed me greatly. They didn't DO anything. Their accessories were non-existant or lame (to my mind). Pointless toys. Now, if they'd come with markers for "painting" them, maybe that would have been a concept. (Again, to me - I realize a lot of girls loved them - I obviously was not the target audience.)

Smurfs didn't interest me as a toy, but the packaging and the marketing did. There were tons of these little statues and you could also get houses, a ship, tons of stuff that would make playing with them more intriguing.

And, of course, Fisher Price Little People and Adventure People utterly fascinated me. (I won't go into Star Wars - I wasn't allowed to have them and I tried not to covet them too much. Not that I was successful.)

Early packaging was a mix of product shots with elaborately, but realistically staged pieces. If the product was a house, you had the house opened up and all of the pieces arranged where you could see them. Another shot might be a close-up on those pieces in the appropriate rooms. And the early boxes always seemed to include a child posed "mid-play" with the toy. At least three sides (flaps and perhaps the bottom) had blue line art of the toy in different configurations.

Who decided what went on the box? Who picked the little kids in the pictures? Why draw the toy when photographs would do?

My mother loved art. We had Prismacolor markers in the house, various types of paints, pastels and watercolours. She tried explaining once that full-colour photography was more expensive than 1-colour line art. This didn't really compute for me until I finally understood that we're talking paying an artist to draw the line art and paying to have thousands upon thousands of these printed vs. a full-colour photo shoot plus paying to print thousands and thousands printed more expensively.

I began looking at my toys the way I looked at mom's art supply packaging - malleable. Mom's Liquitex paints came in the most WONDERFUL container! It was silver/grey extruded plastic shaped a tiny bit like a rocket - more narrow at the top and with two "wings" at the bottom. It was rather squared off instead of rounded, but still. And the top piece of the box was perfectly clear. And, even better, my Fisher Price Adventure People fit inside - I had plenty of one-man rockets!

My toys could change as well! For example, why didn't the Fisher Price Village get re-used as an adobe pueblo? It seemed a no-brainer to me. You could re-use practically the entire original mold which had to be cheaper than making a new playset from scratch. Why had they not jumped on this opportunity? I mean, they released the house under several variations. Same with the farm. And the parking garage. Even the houseboat was eventually retooled into a ferry boat.

I was well-known for critiquing how things worked and now I was critiquing how things were packaged and marketed as well.

And yet, I did not immediately go into design or advertising. Why?

Simply put, my sister was the musician and my mother was the artist. I read incessantly. I played with toys longer than most of my peers - largely because I was continually lost in stories of my own making. I assumed I would become a writer. To make a living whilst I wrote, I'd become a teacher.

I completely ignored my own art style, my sense of design and my constant fascination with how things are designed. The family roles were not lines to be crossed.

Ultimately, then, it's not surprising that all of these things converged while I was teaching freshman writing. I built a website for my students to fill a specific need: you can't lose a syllabus that's online if you live on campus and have a computer. (Which 90% of students had at that time, at that school.) They also had the standard-issue paper syllabus because what works for one student, doesn't work for another. I went with function first as I was under time constraints and because, let's face it, the web in 1996 was not exactly a beautiful landscape. It was filled with tacky hit counters, under construction signs and the obligatory 8-bit style of animated gifs.

I was ultimately appalled with what I first put up. It was functional, but it was fugly. Surely there could be a better balance on the web of form and function?

As much as I loved helping my students learn – and I did love that – I found the puzzle of designing "the perfect class website" for them even more fascinating. I was in a constant cycle of not just teaching the class and grading papers, but constantly asking my users for feedback. And finally I realized I would always, always be a semester behind in design of the website because my users were subtly different every semester, always having new needs that weren't there the semester before.

Your website is never "done."

It's never finished.

A print piece generally has a finite deadline and purpose. To hand out to this audience at this situation. A website is often a far more complicated creature which often serves a much, much more broad audience. It's not just a Sears catalog for shopping. It's not just an enticement. It's not just about educating your audience.

Don't get me wrong, print design can be very complex – I'm not saying it's easy-peasy.

But a full e-commerce or business website? So very complex. So much to think about. Who is your audience, what are their goals, what are your goals, how do they access data, what data do you want them to access, how can you make them comfortable finding what they need, how can you make it easier, how can you make it enjoyable?

And how do you balance function and form with all of those details?

And that's why web design has such a diverse number of job positions, from visual designer to user interface designer to user experience, content strategist, architect, front-end developer, back-end developer ...

Ultimately web design incorporates so many of the fascinations I had as a kid - from how you "package" the site, how the pieces fit together, the look, the enticement, the whole enchilda.

I consider myself lucky that I live in a time where I can work on projects so complex. It was a career I couldn't imagine the first time I logged into a bulletin board on my neighbor's Commodore 64 ....

Posted by Red Monkey at February 13, 2011 2:35 PM | Design | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

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