Ignore Culture. Forget Layout. Make a Statement. Bob Gill on Design & Creative Thinking

Graphic design legend, Bob Gill, had a thing or two to say about the state of art and design over the past 50 years, and it wasn’t pretty. But it was a much-needed statement in a space already filled with pretty design, a Chelsea gallery where the Dwell on Design conference took place. Gill, a lean man in his 80s with a larger than life presence, took the stage as keynote speaker. He started by asking the audience to look around at the stands on display and observe their logos. He said, “They’re logos, not ideas. You could transpose the logo from one stand to another and it wouldn’t make a difference. There’s no statement there. There are no ideas, just layouts; and this hasn’t changed in 50 yeas... It’s a shame.”
Gill asked the audience to imagine a common assignment: designing the jacket for a book he called Birds of North America. He argued that most designers would tackle this challenge in the same way, with the picture of a bird and some font for the title. Gill declared, “The designer doesn’t express an experience. It’s design as layout…95% of the book jackets at Barnes & Noble are what the culture tells designers is a good design.”

Bob criticized what he sees as the prevailing process of today’s designers, which consists mainly of reading design books and sitting at the computer trying to recall what culture says is good. He encouraged the audience to make a statement with their work and posed the question, “What if you didn’t accept what culture told you was good or bad?”

So how do we go about making work that’s more than just layout? Where do we start? Bob proposed a hypothetical scenario, creating the logo for a dry cleaner:

All thoughts have been put in there by culture; they’re not original. Start all over again! Go to the dry cleaner. Sit there. Listen to customers. Look at the equipment. Sit there until you have something interesting to say. If it’s not interesting it’s not ready to be a logo…Whether it’s a logo for a dry cleaner or an ad to legalize marijuana, regardless of what you think you know: Start from zero. Go to the source. Make a statement, not just a logo. If the statement is interesting and original so will the logo. I don’t even touch a pencil until I have a statement, then it designs itself.

 But just because you have an idea it doesn’t mean that it’s good; the solution has to be inevitable. When asked about how to sell ideas to clients and what to do if they don’t like your work, Bob replied:

If the client doesn’t like it, there’s nothing you can do about it. When you present a client with an idea it should seem inevitable. Then, it’s harder for the client to reject it. Don’t go to the client and say, "What do you think? Isn't this nice?"

Gill used the Fedex logo as an example of an inevitable solution. Pointing out the arrow that forms within the negative space as obvious, inevitable, great.

In spite of the decades he’s spent delivering lectures and classes on the topic, Bob Gill insists that not much has changed. “They say it’s very interesting and the next day they go and do the same thing.” He criticized the importance that ad agencies place into pleasing the client, giving way to mediocre design, “Clients seem happy and life goes on. Companies go on living... I’m interested in design, not the client.”

We've been warned. As inspiring and insightful as Bob Gill's words are, we'll most likely forget and go back to our same old habits. So to help our brains retain the wisdom a little longer here's a list of 5 lessons for us to keep posted at our desks: 

  1. Design as IDEA, not as layout
  2. The solution should be INEVITABLE
  3. Make a STATEMENT, not just a logo
  4. Start from zero
  5. Go to the source

Photo Credits: All work featured by Bob Gill.

Erika Schader