Mastering the fundamentals of design

By Shane Durnford

Posted on Thursday, May 20th, 2021

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Effective sign design is about communication. It isn’t about elaborate carving, wild colors or gold leaf—in fact, those things have nothing to do with good design. A good design can stand on its own in black and white. The goal of the sign designer is not to design complicated signs; it is to design appropriate, functional communication that compels the viewer to look and understand the message.

Begin with the research
The process begins when the designer gathers critical information from the customer and the location. Do some research. Forget that you’re a sign maker. Let the sign become a piece you’re working on and allow it to tell a story of a certain time period or a certain place or a certain business—or all of those.

Then develop a list of design criteria based on the information you’ve gathered. Who is the target market? What kind of traffic is there? What is the budget? Understand as much of the reasoning behind the sign as possible. The more you understand how the customer’s business is unique, the more information you’ll have to draw upon to represent and distinguish this uniqueness.

It’s not about us
I try to impress upon customers that I’m not imposing myself on the design—I’m extracting the design from what they’ve already envisioned. The design is there and I’m doing what the job requires to realize it. It’s in their best interest to let that process happen. A big part of my job is educating my customers and making them aware of the creative process. To do that I bring it down to dollars and cents—you get the best project/value if you let me do my job.

I look at convincing the customer to spend money on the design as part of the process. When a customer begins to understand that he’s really getting something of value, he gets excited about it and becomes aware of more than just, “How much will it cost?” Some people are receptive and others aren’t. As soon as a customer comes through our doors, I immediately begin trying to discern whether they’re our client or not. If they’re not, I don’t try to convert them—I refer them.

Good design is transparent
The nature of good design is that it is somewhat invisible— people who are not involved in design don’t see it consciously but they are aware of it.

I remember one time doing a sign for a train station, and as the sign was going up, the guy who was in charge of getting the sign stopped me and said, “What the hell? Where’s all the stuff on it? It should have this and that going for it!” I told him, “No, it’s just right. It’s a perfect fit.” I saw him several months later and he told me, “That sign is awesome, it’s just perfect!”

Beyond the familiar
When I come up with a design, I’m not thinking of whether or not I can execute it. I think of what the sign needs to be. I forget about the actual sign making process. I design it then start thinking of how I’m going to build it. It’s like throwing your hat over the fence, and that’s good.

If you start designing a project by thinking about how you’ll build it, you’ll limit yourself and your growth as a designer. A design is about the emotion it projects and the information it provides. Remove your limitations, get a picture in your head, and then worry how you’re going to make it. There’s always a way. If you design within the realm of what you’re familiar with producing, your work becomes very formulaic. You begin emulating yourself, and then your work is all about you, rather than the message.

Good design is timeless.
Appropriate design has a certain order and calmness to it. It never looks tired or out-of-date, and it doesn’t relate to a specific “style” of design. I’m a musician and often think of good design as the rhythm to a tune—the rhythm is a constant while the melody plays over the top of it. It’s a matter of keeping all the elements—texture, color, shadows and so forth—quiet, but harmonious and interesting. That doesn’t mean boring or plain.

Simplicity is the cornerstone.
The thinking behind all of this is founded in simplicity. If something is designed, all the proportions fit properly and it feels right. This balance resonates with people. It feels right not because it’s fancy or over-the-top, but because of the connection people make with it. A lot of this is archetypal—there’s a great deal of symbolism in an appropriate design regardless of what it is—a house, a boat, a sign, anything.

A mentor really helps.
I am extremely fortunate to have a mentor, John Wiggins, here in Creemore. John has a background in design and marketing, and has helped me immensely. What he had to offer came just at the right time; I was burning to understand and to become a decent designer. His first piece of advice was to look at the things I liked and then try to figure out what made them work. I learned to stop and ask, “What’s really going on here?”

What John taught me was how to get out of myself. And now it’s the fun part of designing—I try to be the catalyst and let the design happen on its own. Once you run into that, you’re onto something. It’s not a matter of better or how fantastic or mind-blowing; rather, it’s questions like, “Is it appropriate? Harmonious?”

It doesn’t matter how complicated the design is, but whether it is sincere. When you look at a piece of work, you can tell if the designer allowed himself to connect with the subject. It takes a while for all of these skills, and the understanding, to take root. You need to consciously practice it, but it’s a good journey. I don’t think I’ll ever see the end of it. It was such a relief to finally get into this way of thinking and seeing and ultimately designing things.

How long does it take?
I’ve had other designers ask me, “How long does it take to internalize this way of approaching design?” I know it’s taken me many years. A lot of it happens intuitively. You have to be aware of it and let it happen. You start moving around the parts of a design, and you almost see it before you put it down. You can’t be consciously thinking of it; you have to do it intuitively. And it’s there in all of us. We just have to get the familiar out of the way and not be self-conscious.

It’s in you—just wake it up!
The designer’s role is to understand the basic design rules and to develop a sensitivity to appropriate design. How do you get that? You just look at a lot of it. It’s very similar to how you develop your ear for music—you hear a lot of good stuff and you connect with it. After a while you won’t even question it and it will flow from you. You’ll wake that part inside of you.

Get out of the way.
The important part of this process is to forget yourself and commit to designing what is authentic. It takes a while. Quite often I find that I’m a spectator to the process. Customers come in and say, “I’m interested to see what you come up with,” and my answer is, “Me too.” That’s because it’s not about what I come up with—it’s about what evolves based on all the information I get.

This approach is about the true art of sign design. The more I remove of myself the better I create. A carving of a bird or a banner or a flower or whatever is pretty, but why is it there? The answer is the idealism behind the images that are appropriate to that project. When you put in the time and effort to get a sense of place, or a sense of the time period that a particular sign should fit (in the pursuit of authenticity), it comes through in the final piece.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the designer must forget about the end result. This is about the process, because it’s the process that gives you the end result. The danger lies in looking at the end result and stopping there. The secret is to look beyond the end result at the questions and information that went into the process. Just looking at the end results leads to thinking, “Okay, I like that end result, so I’ll take part of it and part of that and put it with something else I like, and that will make something really cool and unique.” Well, that’s just not happening. Changing my approach by not looking at the end result has made me a better designer.

We’re not sign makers.
The irony of the way we live today is that we’re so crowded in on each other, but at the same time we’re so disconnected. So why strive for good design? Because we’re not sign makers, we’re communicators. We use the medium of signs to connect with people for many purposes. You can only appeal to one person at a time. And since last time I checked, we’re all people, why not connect personally, genuinely, sincerely? We need to think of ourselves as designers first and craftsmen second. Ultimately it gives us and our clients an advantage, not to mention making the world a better place functionally and visually.

Open up to inspiration.
There are thousands of directions a designer can look for inspiration. I think every designer should read, The Old Way of Seeing by Jonathan Hale. I just spent three days in Toronto going to different museums, and it was great because you could see all these different things from other civilizations and ages, with tools that were of their time. If you stop and look at those things, you get a better understanding of the circumstances under which design ideas were born.

As sign designers, I believe the challenge is to take modern tools and the latest technology and look at them merely as tools, as a means to an end. It’s up to us to learn the rules of good design and practice its discipline. Infuse your world with good design and look for inspiration where you wouldn’t normally. Take a course is psychology. Learn to play a musical instrument. Then put all the pieces together and build a great portfolio.

Shane Durnford’s shop, Shane Durnford Designs, is in Creemore, Ontario, Canada. See more of Shane’s work at www.shanedurnford.com.

—From an interview with John McIltrot in SignCraft, January/February 2007

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