Pictograms. Hieroglyphics. Cave paintings. Graffiti. Emojis. Throughout history we have always had a flair for expressing ourselves graphically. Although the tools we use to make images may have changed, our ability to better understand and express complex ideas via a visual representation is just as old a tradition as oral story telling.
As someone who trained as a journalist, I have always considered my designer counterparts nothing short of magic. Whereas I need hundreds and sometimes thousands of words to describe a complex idea or tell a story – my visually-gifted colleagues often do a much better job by creating an insightful infographic, or by taking a candid photograph.
One of my favourite things to do is to collaborate with such visionaries in the work I do. One colleague who I have been fortunate to work with for over a decade on many projects with Greenpeace, Clean Clothes Campaign and the Wildlife Justice Commission is the wonderful Sue Cowell, Founder and Art director of Atomo design.
To try and better understand her process, and gain some insight into the world of design, I decided to interview her, even though I am sure Sue would have preferred to have drawn me a picture.
How and where do you get your inspiration?
I am a natural image thinker so I feel very at home in my work, and if I need to use the written word I get stressed. My mind thinks in images and concepts. I absorb the world as it is changing on a constant basis. I am very observant – so on my cycle to work that takes about 20 mins – had 20 ideas from what is happening around me, colour, light, textures. Eerything and everywhere is inspiration.
What is it like being a designer in the age of the internet, compared to more traditional print design?
Visuals processed by the brain more quickly than words, which means that in the digital age, more and more visuals are created than ever before. It also means that more people are doing it. However this can mean that a lot of design has become more generic. So when I design for a client I work to ensure that it is made to measure. It has to be based on the essential question raised in the commission. I then try and create something that goes beyond the normal boundaries. You need to go beyond language and culture.
Talking of going beyond language and culture, you work with many international organisations, how do you include multiculturalism on your work?
I need to take this into account all the time. For instance, to represent a female – do I need to use an icon of a woman in a skirt or a headscarf? Colours also mean different things in different countries, for instance black and white can mean death depending on the culture. Different signs and images are acceptable in different cultures. So I always do a lot of research depending on the project.
You need to give clients options, so it is a team effort and team discussion to see what works best. I have to be inclusive but also very in control of what I am creating. It is a difficult tightrope to walk. Design created by democracy is not good, but you have to include other people’s needs and opinions. Especially with cultural sensitive issues, you always have to be sensitive with everything you do. These are all very interesting questions that come up when dealing with visuals. Visuals can be deceiving in that they can seem very simple – but they are very complex.
What is your favourite thing about being a designer?
I really love to make identities as it is like making a jewel for each client – you make an interesting and unique story each time. On the other hand I love working with magazine and things like strategy you are involved with interesting new information. I get to make infographics on a huge variety of topics, so I am constantly getting lots of new modern content which is exciting. Ultimately visual communication is an emotionally powerful tool that I am allowed to use very day, and I love it.