Three Things I Learnt From Abstract: The Art of Design – Episode 6

Episode 6 of Abstract: The Art of Design featured the now legendary graphic designer, Paula Scher. Among other designs, she is the one who created the iconic Citibank logo and also the Windows 8 logo.

Although my memory can be rather sketchy at times – I think this episode was perhaps the most enjoyable so far. Paul is one cool chick 🙂

Here are three things insights from the episode that I picked up.

Language of Design

Early in the episode, Paula Scher demonstrates the power of language in design. She takes the letter E and designs it in many different ways. Each iteration of the letter gave the letter a certain distinct feeling. For example, letter E with the bottom line thickened gave it a feeling of stability – whereas a skinny and tall E gave it a feeling of instability and fragility. E with middle line equal gave it a feeling of uniformity. E with shortened middle line gave it style. This shows the power of design elements in helping elicit a certain emotion in the viewer.

Now if all of this is too abstract for you but you do want to look more into this, I highly, highly suggest Molly Bang’s brilliant book, Picture This. It’s a short and highly visual book which really breaks down the concepts of design into basics. It’s perfect for all designers and photographers. Plus, it’s a quick read and you can go through it in one sitting.


Partway through the episode, Paula mentions that all the best ideas come – often intuitively – when she’s in a state of play.

This is interesting because I think we often take our photography way too seriously. As last week my New Caledonian taxi driver quipped to me, “everyone in New Caledonia takes leisure very seriously

I wonder what impact it would have if we just played a little with our cameras? What if, for an afternoon we shot half second exposures in broad daylight? Or shot at f/45? or blew out the highlights and blacked out the shadows in our images? Of course – the resulting images may or may not be any good – but that’s not the point. The point is to just play.

Design and symbolism makes perfect sense.. in hindsight

This is now becoming a common thread in all the episodes so far. Everything that that these artists do and design makes absolute sense.. in hindsight. Their genius lies in seeing things before anyone else a saw. In case of Paula Scher, when she designed the Citibank logo, she essentially took elements from two existing logos of two corporates merging.. and well, put them together. It looks obvious now in hindsight.

This reminds me a story I heard a while ago – called the Egg of Columbus.

Christopher Columbus discovered America on 12th October 1492 – at the age of 42 and after spending almost half his life planning for the voyage. When he returned home to Spain after discovering America, there was celebration and rejoicing. He was hailed a hero.

His success meant that a some were jealous of his success. Over a dinner held in Columbus’ honor, these men declared that finding America was no big deal – if anyone had simply sailed long enough, they would have found it.

In response, Columbus picked up an egg and challenged the men to stand it on its end without any help. Of course, they all tried and predictably failed.

Columbus then picked the egg, broke the egg slightly on its end and simply stood it up on its now flattened end.

Moral of the story? Biggest challenges often seem obviously simple in hindsight. The credit belongs to the one who has the courage and dares to be the first one. In hindsight, iPhone was the next logical step from the iPod – but it took the genius of Steve Jobs to see it before anyone else. Everything is easier after it’s been done once.

Lot of the creative work seems obvious, but only in the hindsight. The genius of the artist is being the one to see it before anyone else.

That one time bad design stole an election… Impact of a bad design

This is a bonus point but it’s worth mentioning because I found it very intriguing. Quite often we may simply ignore the power and language of design. Or worse, not think through a design fully.

Palm Beach county in Florida found out in their disastrous election of 2002. A poorly designed ballot resulted in a liberal, Jewish district casting a disproportionate share of votes for an ultraconservative – and some would argue – an anti-Semite Pat Buchanan. This was simply a result of a poorly designed ballot. Read the full, intriguing detail here.

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