I do not know why but this topic has been in my mind for as long as I’ve been working around design. Go back about four years, we’re (a couple of colleagues from King’s College) having a discussion about writing and getting your point across with Bertram Bruce (Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois) – who we call “Chip Dai” around here. I remember asking him “how concrete of a point is too concrete and how abstract is too abstract?” Four years later, at DoLAB, I’m having the same “abstract vs concrete” conversation with Suzzeet (our newest recruit and the Senior Lab Apprentice). Clearly, the topic intrigues me. I know, I’m being an academic bore here – the kind that Ken Robinson would make fun of during a TED Talk.
Abstract is a pain in the ass
It is. It is a massive pain in the ass when you’re trying to just get work done. Here’s the thing – as an improvement designer, as a graphic designer, as an employee and even as a student, most things I hear have been abstract in nature. Whether it is a client’s brief that says “we want the new logo to capture our young team’s dynamic character” or a user interview that reveals that “I want our team to embrace a self-directed approach”, it is difficult to deliver results. I do not know what this “dynamic character” even is. It really just a way this person described what he saw in his team. It is frustrating to know that my interpretation of what this “dynamic character” is and what the client’s intention is are different things. It is also frustrating to know that you – as a reader of this sentence – are probably understanding things differently to the way I intended for you to understand it.
What results as a creative professional is (what feels like) a million rejected drafts, self doubt and eventual career change. Okay, that’s a bit extreme but you get the point. All of this because a client had very abstract thoughts about what the logo had to be. Why couldn’t he just tell me he wants bright colors and pointy shapes?
But, abstract is your friend too
As frustrating as it is, thinking and communicating in abstract terms does have its benefits. Ideas and thoughts generally start abstract – without specific details on what the end outcome will be. Read that again – THE OUTCOME – abstract thoughts and ideas themselves are not the outcomes themselves. Rather, they are a great place to start exploring possibilities that will lead you to the outcome. The abstract gives you a sense of direction – as vague as it may be. Think of it as a starting point from where you make things more concrete. You’ll benefit at this point by asking “what could be” rather than “what it is”. What could a dynamic character be? Could it be the social dynamic that exists in the organization? Could it be the music these people listen to? Or could it be late night drunk notes on their phones that lead to new ideas? These thoughts are not meant to give me an answer about what the logo should look like. Rather, they’re giving me prompts to build off of.
The vagueness you get out of abstract lines of thinking is what often gives you creative license too. Your interpretations of what “could be” leads to creative thinking. …And yes, most of these interpretations will be rejected but chances are, there’s one idea between all the other ideas that matches what your client’s very vague, poorly constructed vision is.
The part no one told you
Take a look at design thinking models and you’ll find that most of them will try and help you take abstract thoughts and manifest them in a concrete manner – whether it is defining your design challenge after user research or creating prototypes out of your ideas. Your job as a designer will be the same – taking abstract thoughts and visualizing the specifics so that the outcome is concrete. Work with your client on helping them make their abstract thoughts concrete – what is happening in the team that makes them think that the team is “dynamic”? What is happening currently that indicates that a team is not “taking a self-directed approach”?
Your job as a creative is not just to produce creative material but also to work with your clients to make sure that the work you’re producing is aligned with their vision. And to do this, you might need to work with your clients to be on the same page about what meaning the abstract ideas have for them and for you. Once you’re both clear about this, you can then begin the creation side of the creative work – meaning you then do what they hired you for – creating new systems and processes, sketching a logo or whatever else it is you do. The focus at this point should then be to produce work that takes these abstract thoughts and interprets & visualizes them in a concrete manner.
While this may sound like it adds more work to you as a designer, in reality, you’re avoiding the hassles you’d have with multiple rejected drafts and as an added benefit, you’re on the same page with your clients on what is to be expected.