Designing in Silence

Listen to the photo above. It is a shot by Keith Lanpher called “Water Lilies“.

I hear silence, what do you hear?

The image was taken at a very special place about 15 miles from anywhere. A place where the quiet is deafening, hummingbirds flit through hemlocks along the shore, and the Milky Way still shines brightly on a summer night.

There is no word for silence in our visual language. The notion of making no sound with our work is a foreign one for us designers. We are trained to add not subtract.

Just like the composer or the poet, we begin with a blank page, and everything we create makes things more complex. Yet I think there is strong evidence, at least in some areas of package design, that we are reaching for a quiet calmness, if not silence. Certainly the tenor and pitch, if not the volume, of the shelf is being rethought. The question is why?

This is not a new idea. Steven Heller and Anne Fink were one of the first to identify this trend in their 1999 book titled, Less Is More: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design. As they point out “The maxim ‘less is more’ coined by architect Meis Van der Rohe in the thirties, is an idea that dates back millennia . . . the only difference between him and architects of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. was a sensibility and style born of the machine age.”

And yet there has been a lot written lately about the simplicity movement sweeping the shelves. I have written often about it here and one of my earliest columns about the notion of calmer brand design, and Trix cereal, is still one of this blog’s most popular posts.

Cheryl Swanson in a FUSE seminar last week, talked about post-recessionary trends, one of which she labeled a “Search for Simplification”. It features products with fewer ingredients and less complexity.

Peter Clarke wrote recently about this movement toward simplicity in a BrandWeek piece. He suggests, “consumer confidence has been shattered. People are skeptical of false claims and promises, and simplicity really fills a need on the part of the consumer.”

Apparently this movement towards designing quiet is also extending into other areas like city planning with the development of vest pocket parks. In a NY Times review today by Katherine Bouton of George Prochnik’s book titled “In Pursuit of Silence”, the author is quoted as saying that people are making “oases of quiet in which sounds that nurture our sense of peace, compassion, and imagination – like falling water, rustling leaves, and birdsong – become audible again.”

The review of the book goes on to describe the “Deaf Architecture” movement, a very real form of design for silence, as practiced at places like Gallaudet University.

With this form of architecture there is “an emphasis on natural light, the permeability between inside and outside spaces, ‘free-flowing curvilinear movement.’ Transparency and openness enable the deaf ‘to depend on visual cues where one would ordinarily depend on sound”.

In reading this, it occurred to me that those of us who are searching for ways to turn down the volume in our design work, might have a lot to learn from those of us who can’t hear.

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About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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