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How Graphic Designers see structure, not content


I just finished up a project of some CD labels for a client of mine. I used a combination of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I prefer using Illustrator for precision vector work and fonts, but there were raster images that needed to be included, so it was a good combination of the two software programs, which I ultimately supplied as a Photoshop jpeg.

If you're wondering "what was on the CDs?", then you're focusing on content, not structure. And as a Graphic Designer, it doesn't matter to me - it could be penguins, or goldfish, or anything. And what it says doesn't matter either, what matters to be is the font, the size, the kerning, whether it's condensed, how it reversed out into the background color.

It wasn't until I started teaching Graphic Design, in the '90s, that I learned that it's often very difficult for many people to understand. Structure is whether you're working on a newsletter, or a web page. Structure is arrangement of the elements, whether they're photos, drawings, or anything. And it always reminds me of the "Penguin Lady" that was in a class I taught many years ago.

The class was an introduction to a desktop publishing program, so I had various projects that the students could do, like newsletters, magazine pages, that sort of thing. And the student could choose any subject that they liked (within the limits of good taste, which I monitored, although I was pretty lenient!). And since it was a class on desktop publishing, students were not required to write the text, or take the photos, or do the drawings. But they needed visual elements to work with, so they were allowed to use what they could find on the 'net.

The classes always started out the same - the more experienced people in Graphic Design would pick a subject, like racing cars, or friendly cats, and go. In the course of the project they were required to learn about headings, subheadings, body text, captions, pull quotes, that sort of stuff. Some people would get hung up on the content and ask me if a particular subject was OK? I would OK their subject, write it down in my notebook and tell them "Sounds good! Go ahead with that!"

Some people would spend a long time trying to figure out the subject (content), which really didn't matter to the design. I didn't want to tell them what to do, so I would leave them alone, and keep checking. Sometimes people who lost a lot of time hung up on content would figure it out quickly, and get moving. And having a final project with genuine content was much more interesting than doing a "how-to" project. This was a very successful way for people to learn Graphic Design, not just "follow the dots". I saw a lot of amazing final projects.

I have to admit, however, that the Penguin Lady defeated me. She would come to class every week and ponder whether his project should be about penguins, or not. She would research penguins, she would find articles about penguins, she would find hundreds of pictures of penguins. And she never understood that the project wasn't really about penguins, it was about composing a newsletter as a Graphic Designer.

So if you work on a great Graphic Design piece, and someone just says, "I don't like penguins", don't be surprised - they're seeing content, not structure, which is what most non-Graphic Designers see.