Friday, August 25, 2006

‘Control’ Is Not Control

Dave posted some interesting thoughts over at the Type4Screen blog.
“Traditionally good typographic design has been all about control of the page, but designing for ever-changing content on multiple screen types running multiple browsers set to multiple widths on multiple OS’s offers anything but control.”

Reading this makes me realise some of the cross-overs between the role of today’s electronic media designer and the corporate identity aspect of being a brand designer. In essence, both are designing more by describing and defining the visual space within which a brand or website potentially expresses itself, rather than by designing the individual expressions therein. To succeed you need to cecede some control from the centre and allow interpretation at the periphery.

For the electronic media designer, her design decisions are codified in electronic style sheets and templates that are interpreted (more-or-less consistently) by software, with pages then generated dynamically by content management systems. In the case of the corporate identity designer, her guidelines are more loosely interpreted in the minds of company personnel and of their agencies: an ever-expanding cadre of design, advertising, web, marketing, events and PR companies. Reflecting the fluidity and pace of today’s business realities, the form and content of today’s corporate identity guidelines is far more streamlined than those fractally-detailed doorstop-sized publications that were popular up to the nineties. Now there is much more emphasis on the establishing the unique principles which underlie the visual system, rather than on specifying every design feature down to the nth degree. An analogy which I am fond of is that it is about mapping out the general area of potential. Pointing people in the right direction and then letting them explore the terrain to find their own best solutions within that space. It is about defining the gamut of potentiality. You need to build in enough flexibility to accommodate the range of potential applications and enough consistency to create a cumulative impression in the minds of your audience.

Moving up a level, this can all be seen as another manifestation of the long-established trend within the overall discipline of management away from the traditional ‘Commander and Controller’ role towards a mentoring role that works to create an environment where people can best achieve their own potential.
Look beyond the design industry, similar ideas are being utilised in broader contexts. The idea of giving over some control is often the central tenet of today’s most disruptive business models. Increasingly, the most innovation and the greatest growth is in those websites which establish a framework for, and then facilitate the creation of, user-generated content. I am thinking here of the likes of Blogger, YouTube, Delicious, Squidoo, Digg, Facebook, and various other Web 2.0 innovators.

To quote Douglas Coupland: “Control is not control”.