What I’m Doing When I Design

Graphic design is a lot of things. For me, it’s a form of story-telling.

I know people who can get the name of a company and what it does and have 3 logos for that company done by the end of the day. These logos will have a concept, be aesthetically-pleasing, and be considered “appropriate” for the company’s industry. A win all-around.

I hate people who do this. Actually, I like the people, I just hate what they do.

I hate it because their logo is not about the company, the way it works, what it believes or its history. The logo is simply a reference to the industry the company works in. This is not good enough for me.

When I design a logo it should contain some element of truth about the company or the individuals involved. It should tell a story. I don’t mean a story in the sense of some over-wrought illustration of a chef in front of a background that’s half cityscape (to reflect “urban refinement”) and half-country (locally-sourced ingredients) but a story in the sense that each element—symbols, color, quality of line, typeface, visual style—is a visualization of an idea about the content (the content being a company in this case). I confess that I don’t always care if a casual viewer doesn’t pick up on the story as long as we (me and my client) believe in the story and what we’ve created. 

I’ve worked with designers whose research consists of browsing blogs and Pinterest and grabbing things willy-nilly. They’ll then reconfigure all this “scrap” and make something beautiful. Chances are their work is way more beautiful than mine. But I hate their work, too. 

A simple design transformed by process—an interpretation of curatorial intent of a group exhibition. What Remains flyer, 2010. Art Direction & design: Namdev Hardisty & Kimberlee Whaley; Illustration: John Vogt

A simple design transformed by process—an interpretation of curatorial intent of a group exhibition. What Remains flyer, 2010. Art Direction & design: Namdev Hardisty & Kimberlee Whaley; Illustration: John Vogt

I don’t have a problem with references. I just don’t get why you wouldn’t try to tell a story with those references. When I work with The Soap Factory we have a shared love of Joy Division designer Peter Saville’s work for Factory Records and Swiss Typography (that stripped down Helvetica-driven aesthetic of the 1960s and into the late 70s). No one whose seen the work would be surprised by this but the first layer of every project we do with them is a story about the content whether it be the curatorial intent or threads that connect the artists work. We could execute that story in a number of styles but we tend to come back to these minimal movements because that’s a story about us. We (The MVA and The Soap Factory, especially Ben the Executive Director) have faith in that work so we inscribe it in the surface.

Haunted Basement poster research board on Pinterest

When we conduct research its purposeful—we want the first image search to based off an idea. For The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement poster we knew the content we wanted to focus on—1) a reference to hallways in the event with people trapped or hiding behind fabric walls, and 2) prison showers (when we began the project there was to be a “scene” utilizing group showers) but visually we wanted it to be about horror posters. So we researched them. Through our research we started to find different genres of posters that “felt” right for the Haunted Basement. Then we started looking for “institutional typography” because the event had an abuse-of-power theme. The type that we ended up producing was not what I had in mind when I first started searching for images but I saw a dialogue between some of the movie posters and the typography of hospitals. Our poster is a multi-layered story. There’s a thread about the Haunted Basement. An idea about perception. A homage to 1960s and 1970s movie posters. An observation about institutional typography and Dirty Harry and Rosemary’s Baby. And, of course, its a story about us—what grabs our eye and what we chose to take.

Escpaing or coming for you? “Haunted Basement poster, 2013. Art Direction & concept: Namdev Hardisty; Photography and illustration: Jordan B. Anderson

Escpaing or coming for you? “Haunted Basement poster, 2013. Art Direction & concept: Namdev Hardisty; Photography and illustration: Jordan B. Anderson

When I design (when I’m doing it right) I am taking a piece of content and finding a perspective on it that I can turn into an image. All I’m doing is writing a story. And I don’t understand how you can write a story without understanding your characters, their motivations and the world they occupy.

A story about the relationship between curator and artist and a homage to 60s psychology book covers. Resonating Bodies poster, 2013. Art Direction: Namdev Hardisty; Illustration and typography: Timothy Cronin

You can design without doing this. You can make everything you produce look the same regardless of the content (this is known as having a style). You can make each package you design look exactly like those it shares a shelf with (or making it visually appropriate). You can make your poster a mishmash of everything you’re into right now. These are all legitimate and time-tested approaches to design. I just don’t get why you wouldn’t want to say something that can only come from the combination of you and the content at hand. 

I wouldn’t feel right doing it any other way.


Namdev Hardisty is co-founder of The MVA Studio and author of Function, Restraint & Subversion in Typography (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). You can find more of his writing on design and process at Medium.