Memorize these steps

  1. Identify the topic
    It’s important to recognize that this is a step, and that it must come first. Often in order to “get a jump on things,” designers try to get started on their end before the content is still completely inchoate. This never ends happily.
  2. Research the hell out it
    Whatever the project, you need to know about it enough to discuss it intelligently. For a project for a small business, for example, you need to understand a) your client’s goals; b) the audience; c) the current approach; d) the competitors’ approaches; and e) the business (or nonprofit) itself. You don’t have to know as much as – or pretend to know as much as – the client does, but you have to know enough to understand the client’s needs. Otherwise, you are just arguing aesthetics, and those arguments are pointless. You can’t convince somebody to love the color orange. You can make the case that orange stands apart from their competitors’ all-blue offerings.
  3. Come up with idea that is original, compelling and interesting
    Designers put a lot of stock in originality, because they want to create beautiful things that will win awards and look good in design annuals. Clients are often uncomfortable with novelty, but may have a grasp on whether something would feel compelling to their audience. Everyone claims that they like things that are interesting. Your job as a designer is often to prove that ideas that aren’t simultaneously original and compelling can’t be interesting.
  4. Create a design concept that proves it
    Remember, showing the design should be enough to prove it. If your concept needs a point-by-point explanation to prove its worth, you’ve failed.

Is it fair to call this the Columbia University Approach to Graphic Design?

If we’re going to be strictly honest – and we are, we are – Columbia doesn’t have a graphic design major (although it should, and it should hire a talented alum as a professor.) However, since I’ll never donate a building to the campus, I figure I might as well donate this snappy bit of nomenclature. Here’s why:

I didn’t go to art school. My Dad convinced me that art school was basically a trade school, and that it wasn’t a very practical trade at that. “Go to a good college. You’ll be surrounded by the smartest people you’ll ever meet. You’ll learn things you never would have imagined. And if you decide you’re going to go into art anyway, you’ll have the rest of your life to pursue it.” So I dutifully applied to a host of liberal arts schools. Come spring of senior year, I got a thick envelope from Columbia University, and that was that.*

Lest you think that this is one of those “how my cruel parents sabotaged my artistic dreams” stories, let me say upfront: Dad was right. (Also: thanks, Dad.) I had an amazing time at Columbia. I met the smartest people I’ve ever known. I learned things I never imagined. And while not going to art school has had some drawbacks for my career in the arts – mostly in that I had no idea how to get started on a career in the arts – I am convinced that any success I’ve had in this field is due to my liberal arts education.

The professor who taught me the most was the great historian Eric Foner**. Foner, who could have coasted through his tenure, had “a perverse desire to teach,” and his classes were always spellbinding.

He was funny and plainspoken, which made sense: one of his key principals was that people who relied on scholarly jargon were often trying to conceal stupid ideas. If someone wrote, “The complex socio-familial relationship between the antebellum plantation class and their African subordinates defies simplistic categorization (viz, ‘master’ and ‘slave’),” his reply would have been, “No, it doesn’t” and then, “The hell with that.” He was great.

For our first seminar paper, Foner announced, “If you want to get an A, you have to teach me something I don’t know.” Having just received a syllabus that required around 3,000 pages of reading, I realized right away that this was not going to be easy.

However, the task itself implied a solution. All I had to do was choose a topic, and research the hell out of it – both through primary sources (so I knew what happened) and secondary sources (so I knew what other people had said about it already). Then I had to find an idea that was at once original, cogent and interesting. Then I had to write a paper that proved it. I did. I got an A. I learned a huge amount, not just about the topic but about how to exceed expectations.

For all the endless articles I have read on Graphic Design Process (and on that topic, please see Foner’s point on jargon above), this approach – designed for term papers – is the only one that I have found that works every time. I’m happy to credit it to Columbia. May it be as useful to you as it has been to me.


*Actually, I did go to art school, but it was after college, for an associate’s degree, and I dropped out. I also never took a graphic design course at Columbia. If you find this confusing, that’s why I relegated it to a footnote.

** If you don’t know who Eric Foner is – and if you came here looking for design tips, why should you? – let me just say that he is, bar none, one of American’s greatest historians. His most important book was on Reconstruction. He completely upended conventional “wisdom” on the topic, which was still centered on the evils of Yankee carpet-baggers, by placing the stories of African-Americans front and center, making the story of Reconstruction’s eventual failure one of great moral tragedy. Everything he writes is both incredibly informative and compulsively readable. His recent book on Lincoln, The Fiery Trial, is a great starting point.