It’s the end of the day. You feel a little peckish, and decide to whip up an omelette to make things better. You break three eggs, whisk them together, and decide to add a bit of salt, so it doesn’t taste too bland.
You decide to add, say… two cups of salt.
Well, you’re not sure two cups of salt is a good amount, so you take a second pan, take three more eggs from the fridge and make a second omelette, with just a teaspoon of salt. That feels more right, you think. More appropriate.
Then you hear the voice in your head, the combined experience of all the people who know how to cook. “How can you be sure if you don’t try it first?” Well, that’s a very convincing argument. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? You got two more spaces on the hob so, you take out two more pans, six more eggs, and make an omelette with one cup of salt and one with no salt.
You look at the omelette with one teaspoon. It looks like the right one. Are you wasting your time preparing all these others? “People have different tastes, and some people like a bit of salt in their food” you hear the voice in your head. “How do you know you’re not a one-cup-of-salt person if you don’t try it first?”
A dozen eggs later, you bite down on each of the omelettes. Thankfully, one of them is tasty. You knew the one, you had been looking at it for quite a while.
How many eggs do we need to make an omelette?
This has been the way we have been learning to cook for about fifty thousand years. We try different stuff, we fail a bunch of times, we try again. Next time, we know how much salt we need to add to our omelette. Perhaps we experiment with the pepper, we add mushrooms, sky’s the limit.
The diligent ones, the ones who put time and effort to experiment a lot, make a thousand, two thousand eggs, they become our pioneers. They are the head chefs – they’ve failed so many times, that they know, almost magically, instinctively, what will work without fail.
Until something changed. But let’s leave the kitchen and go back to the design studio a bit.
How many drafts for a logo?
Designers work and learn in the same way. The experimentation process usually happens in the designer’s sketchbook, especially for identity designers. I reached out to various people all over the world to see how this practice of experimentation works out for them.
Drafting a series of sketches for a logo is picked up early in a designer’s formal education. As Asha Mody, creative director of Mindsy shares:
“The first rule was, the first twenty sketches would have to go in the trash. That was my professor’s rule. The first twenty sketches, you are going to tear off, for sure. From the twenty first one, you will start seeing it. And I still apply this process [in my professional practice] because the first twenty are kind of a memory impression, what you are looking around digitally or in your creative world, and afterwards you create fresh ideas.”Asha Mody
But even self-taught brand identity designers pick up the practice of keeping a sketchbook and working on multiple drafts. Abi Lemon, creative director of Brand Pharmacy had formal training in fashion design and interior design, and never had a logo design professor. She works with the same mentality however:
“I find that it gets things out of your head in a faster way. I’ve tried doing this [digitally] on the iPad and stylus, but it doesn’t work the same way. I don’t know whether it has to do with my age, cause I grew up when designers had an actual drawing board – obviously there were computers around – but this is how we did it, drawing board and letraset, so this is how I find my ideas quicker.”Abi Lemon
Ioana Balcan of Cult Cat, trained in fine arts, said she picked the sketchbook ideation process from her design icons:
“We started listening to Michael Beirut and Sagi Haviv, when they said that you should break down logos as much as you can until there’s nothing left. So we make as many variations as possible, breaking everything down.” For Ioana and her studio, sketching is not just part of ideation, but also simplification.Ioana Balcan
All of the brand identity designers that I reached out to, offer different options for logos to their clients, and the number hovers at 2-3 logo suggestions. To make these two or three finalists, people make different numbers of sketches, ranging from 10 too 100 for the whole process.
Alexander Truta, brand identity designer in Denmark, however, notices a pattern on the way he picks the ideas that are going to be fleshed out in the next stage:
“I think my best ideas come first, so sometimes it’s gonna be like 20 sketches. Sometimes, however, it can be more than 100”Alexander Truta
Alex was the first person I interviewed on the topic, and I found what he said very interesting. In the years of his practice he noticed he could “tell” the good ideas from the bad ones, in the same manner where we can tell which of the omelettes is going to be the edible one. I asked about this all the other designers I talked to, and they all confirmed that they could intuitively assess the good ideas in their sketchbooks, even during the sketching itself!
Ioana explained that experience is what drives her ability to pick out the good ideas from the bad ones:
“We have a background in calligraphy so it’s easier for us to work with letters, or for me with illustrated logos because I learned engraving. Sometimes before it’s even translated to paper or a digital medium, based on the experience you have, you will know what will work or not, but still, you have to test it, make iterations.”Ioana Balcan
Abi confirmed that sometimes sketching is more like a troubleshooting technique, and there are times that she can pick the ‘winners’ right from the start:
“I don’t do it all the time with logos, always sketching it out, but if I can’t quite get something, I have to spend some time scribbling some stuff, because I find that then it helps me take this into digital form, in Illustrator, to use the tools to make it look more like how I want.”Abi Lemon
Ari Krzyzek of Chykalophia, describes herself as a ‘designer who can’t draw’ – for her, there are other paths to ideation:
“I feel that drawing is one tool that you can utilize as a designer, the other is conceptualizing; in my opinion, whenever I get to work with any businesses, creating logos, sure, I’ll work on a sketchbook, but primarily I will jot down ideas, writing down keywords, and then looking at what these keywords could look like visually, and work with an illustrator to draw the logo concepts, then bring that to vector design.Ari Krzyzek
I feel that designers who have the skill to draw have a great benefit, because they can present quickly an idea they have on their minds, but my approach is different.”
So perhaps the idea that we can recognize and assess the good ideas might be more common than we think. In the beginning of one’s career however, it’s probably harder to do that. As Ari very eloquently puts it:
“For students I think it is good to challenge you, to think outside the box, it’s to make sure you’re not just providing one solution, there’s a lot of solutions when it comes to design, and I think knowing which path or concept is the best to represent that idea or vision, is worth learning as a student.”Ari Krzyzek
The same intuitive and experiential approach was also the way people learned how to cook throughout the ages. Until something changed. The scientific revolution of the Enlightenment.
A new way of cooking eggs
As the ideas of the Enlightenment spread across Europe, science started taking hold of the way we experience and manipulate the world around us. A few years before the French Revolution, Antoine de Lavoisier was busy studying the way we make soups and beef stock, and he came to a sad conclusion in 1783:
“Whenever one considers the most familiar objects, the simplest things, it’s impossible not to be surprised to see how our ideas are vague and uncertain, and how, as a consequence, it is important to fix them by experiments and facts”.Antoine de Lavoisier
And fixed them they did, working diligently with microscopes, thermometers, weighing scales and gas spectrographers, to understand what happens to our food while it is cooked. In the end of the 20th century, molecular gastronomy, revolutionized by Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti among others, gave us the way to break the mould of conventional cooking and exploring new horizons, bringing us plates like pineapple caviar or eggs Vaquelin.
In his 2006 paper, Hervé This explains the idea behind Baumé eggs: “If we heat an egg, water evaporates, the proteins denature and polymerize to enclose water, and the end result is a cooked egg. Is there another way to do this? Yes, alcohol can do the same trick because it can denature proteins; thus we achieve the same result by adding liquor to a raw egg.” It takes a month for the alcohol to cook the egg, so it feels quite counter-intuitive to experience-trained chefs. No matter how many omelettes you make, you never have the grasp of how to make a Baumé egg, but if you know your science you can cook a great omelette.
Towards Molecular Branding
The question then remains – what are the attributes of good ideas that novice designers cannot spot and experts notice intuitively? Is there a way for us to communicate them earlier in the next generations of designers so they don’t have to break a dozen eggs to make a single omelette?
What is our thermometer? Our gas spectrographer? What are the proteins or the constituent elements of a logo so that we can craft them as we want them, rather than hoping we come across them on the pages of our sketchbooks?
In the end of the 19th century, an American mathematician, Charles Sanders Pierce was writing about the fundamental classes of signs and symbols that we use on our everyday communication. His work remained unpublished for many years, until Harvard University started to release it to the public, and a good chunk of it still remains unpublished.
He was the first to classify symbols in qualisigns, sinsigns and legisigns, in indexes and arguments and dicisigns and icons. He died in 1914, before graphic design and visual communication were a trade, let alone an academic pursuit, so his audience was mainly logicians, mathematicians and philosophers. His writing is dense and archaic, but in there, with a bit of an open mind, a designer will recognize the familiar patterns of our craft; how we put together colours and letters and phrases and icons to create emotions and thoughts in the minds of our audience.
What if, in there, lies our periodic table? Who can imagine how design will be, a few years from now, if we expand the playing field beyond the happy accidents of our sketchbooks?