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In Praise of the Un-”Designed” World

by Derek Horn on 01/23/2019 | 4 Minute Read

For a young designer growing up and studying in Syracuse, New York, the only thing I found to be more barren than the region’s brutal winters was its creative culture, or what I had (wrongfully) interpreted to be a lack thereof.

Like many other young creatives yearning to make a mark on the world, I had felt the world had yet to make a mark on me. I had found the limited Design culture in my hometown endlessly frustrating and was itching to earn my BFA and see the world. Greyhound bus trips to New York City and an iPhone camera roll full of inspiration helped tide me over until I was able to move to the big city myself.

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After a while of soaking in brand experiences and finding excitement in creating them myself, I found myself dissociating from brands meant to target me with pinpoint precision and lure me to make a purchase or a post on Instagram. My genuine appreciation for the thankless and often anonymous craft that go into brand design has never waned, but the more I kept up with trends, the more brands started to feel feel monotonous (looking at you, geometric sans logotypes), if not overtly calculated.

While the cacophony of designed experiences around me began to blend together, an unexpected source of creativity began to shine through-design by non-Designers.

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It started when I encountered a food cart on my lunch break. When scanning the menu, I noticed one item — fish over rice— was represented quite literally; an image of a full fish ( possibly a live goldfish at that?) imposed over a bed of yellow rice. As bizarre and comical this instance was, it got my wheels turning. I thought about how somewhere along the way of this food cart’s journey to the streets of SoHo, someone sat down and took the time to make that graphic.

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Every day, millions of ordinary people make “design” choices out of necessity, whether it's to communicate information, earn a living, or make the world a better place. For better or worse, it’s been happening since the dawn of time.

Once my eyes were open, and ego was stripped, I could no longer ignore all of the design choices made around me.

The sparse branding and packaging from a cash-only Little Italy bakery that delivers just the right amount of authenticity while allowing the goodness inside to take center stage.

A flyer in my apartment building from the tenet in 12C who is moving and needs to get rid of some furniture, so he fired up Microsoft Word and inkjet printer.

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A raw protest sign jotted onto a torn strip of cardboard because being too precious with lettering is one of the last things on one’s mind when combating injustice.

These artifacts would rarely find their way onto a professional mood board, but their potent and unassuming means of communicating have helped me find countless ways to use design to talk TO people instead of AT them. Sometimes the most effective solutions are the least complicated ones that come to mind when you put pen to paper.

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Are all design choices made by ordinary people going to provide insight? No, and plenty of them will be ineffective and often ugly. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored, as even professional Designers produce bad design from time to time. If you stay curious and pay close enough attention, you will find that all human beings exhibit moments of ingenuity.

“Capital D” Designers have been and will continue to be invaluable to society. As a community, we should commit to expanding our horizons beyond our circuit of trade publications, blogs, social networks, and immediate environments that are familiar and keep our eyes peeled to find fresh and timeless inspiration in those who are creating without the weighty mantles held by professional creatives.

As people around the world demand more and more authenticity from the brands they choose, leaders they elect, and the company they keep, the best places to look for inspiration are often literally just outside your door.