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Study the Past if You Would Define the Future

Posted @ 1:33 pm by Ryan Walsh | Category: Creative Design | 0 Comments

“Study the past if you would define the future.”

— Confucius.

As designers we often look toward the past to find solutions and inspirations that motivate our work and us. Researching historic methodologies, successes, and failures help us at times to find currents in which we can channel our creative output. As technologies evolve and change our daily lives, contemporary design also changes to reflect tastes and trends, application, and execution. Fundamentals of good design such as scale, contrast, space, form, and hierarchy are ever persistent in the designer’s mind—much like how a mechanic relies on a trusty set of tools to get the job done. Like a car though, no model year after year is the same as the function of design too can change. Which is why I was recently surprised to re-discover classic uses of infographics in advertising, specifically from Charles and Ray Eames. Here are a few I found interesting:

japan debt crisis infographic 1

Who's Paying For the President Infographic

Feltron Last.Fm Usage Infographic

It’s not like I don’t keep tabs on what I design in relation to what has already been created. I’ve designed enough infographic-like solutions in my time to basically have a script that I follow in terms of my approach. Every textbook I ever read in school was complete with nifty little diagrams to help illustrate whatever lesson was being absorbed. I even had an early affinity for illustrating charts and maps as a strapping young student; I could break out the colored pencils and markers with the best of them. Somehow though, in my adulthood, the idea of an infographic to me was completely new. Somewhere in the transition from my youth to now, the concept was lost in translation. One night after a long day of work, I decided to nostalgically visit my early roots as a design student and watch a film that had been collecting dust on my desk.

Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter was a film I wanted to watch for a while actually. More common than not I find that my free time is spent on others instead of entertainment, but this was an intriguing film and something I had to watch. A biography on two influential designers and their lives, the narrative outlined their relationship and their storied careers in a way that truly humbled me. The fascination of their work, the caliber of clientele and their approach re-invigorated me. The ah-ha moment came when the story shifted to focus on their film.

In a 32–year span, the Eames collective created over 100 films. Many were experimental, while others consisted of client advertisements and informative features. The Powers of Ten film was one such film that was created for IBM in the 70′s to depict scale in relation man and the universe.

Powers of Ten Image 2Powers of Ten image 1

This really resonated with me, so much in fact that I immediately began digging up contemporary resources to search out this common thread. Realizing that these two pioneers were truly ahead of the game provided me a moment of pause. What would their efforts and solutions had been in our digital world today? Was this type of communication a form of advertising that was always prevalent?

There aren’t many creative agencies today that don’t offer services like this, at least if they wish to remain relevant. Content is disseminated in numerous channels and data visualization provides context that’s easy to digest. Building brand stories through information, video, and graphics is almost as commonplace now as the printed corporate brochure once was. In fact, almost every startup venture today begins with a simple video or narrative that tells consumers what they do. This approach to informative design has always been there, it’s just the wrapper—the manner in which it’s sold—that has changed. It’s adapted to address consumer behaviors and the technologies they use to engage with brands.

The Eames’ truly were influential in the world of design and their work still remains perennial, cutting through subjectivity and progressive tastes. They understood their craft in a way that provided them the ability to work within the technological limits that persisted while addressing their clients’ challenges and goals. Understanding the historical context of our profession is what provides us greater clarity in our grind today. Work smarter not necessarily harder—now there’s a timeless idea.


Author: Ryan Walsh is a Senior Designer at SolutionSet who focuses on conceptualizing, designing and executing innovative brand experiences for clients. Having been involved in the design industry for over 10 years, his client work includes enterprise level organizations as well as small start-ups.

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