“Design balances artistry with reason. It’s the art of making information visible, unobstructed by language or format,” Ugnė tells me.
It’s an elegant way to think about the practice of design, especially for those of us who are literal-minded. Enter Ugnė Jurgaitytė, a Leff designer with a regular artistic practice outside of work. I asked her some questions about where design inspiration comes from when the job is to convey information efficiently and ended up learning about taking inspiration from everywhere in life, the good kind of novelty, and how design isn’t necessarily about making things look pretty.
Mimi: Let’s start with the idea of inspiration. How much does inspiration matter in design work and in your work in particular?
Ugnė: There aren’t many moments in my day-to-day work that are simply meant to inspire someone or evoke a feeling. Most often, it’s to clarify and communicate in an appealing and approachable way. So inspiration becomes a tool for collecting other tools with which to better my work, both in how I create it and how I want it to be experienced.
The thing that inspires me is not the outcome I seek in my own interpretation and design. Inspiration can be a fresh take on stylistic approaches, textures, layout, or some way to bring newness to the current problem I’m trying to visually solve. It can be as simple as seeing a photograph’s softness and translating that softness into a shape, typeface, or color palette in a completely unrelated way.
Inspiration breaks my routine. Without inspiration, I’d be approaching every new project with the same process, which would inevitably lead me to the same conclusions, which would even more inevitably lead me to purposeless, unimaginative, or simply dysfunctional work.
In contrast, some of the daily work I do for clients—charts, presentations, and brand-new designs—does not need to be inspiring to the viewer on the receiving end. It often doesn’t have to evoke anything other than clarity. Knowing when to use inspiration and when to offer inspiration is key.
Mimi: Related to that, where do you look for new design concepts to feed your brain?
Ugnė: Everywhere is a bad answer, but…everywhere.
Since I started working, I noticed that I’ve learned to see the world and absorb information in a very different way. There are reliable resources (such as Pinterest, Behance, museums, and colleagues) that will consistently show you new things in your language of expertise—in my case, design. But I find that keeping 5 percent of my brain attuned to a nonexistent future client’s needs helps me see daily objects, evaluate them, and remember anything useful that I might use in a future approach or sketch. A pizza restaurant’s vintage neon sign will be internalized for logo inspiration or color studies, or a bad package design will remind me to keep an eye on font sizes and margins on a book design—things like that.
Mimi: How much do you value novelty in design, and what can be its advantages and its drawbacks?
Ugnė: Novelty is too often mistaken for successful design.
Like I briefly touched on earlier, design is a balancing act between creativity and logic. In my experience, novelty relies too heavily on the former and neglects the latter. It transforms something meant to primarily inform into something meant to primarily awe. I try not to focus too much on it, honestly, except when it involves novel technologies or tools.
Resources and tools such as Webflow are novel in the positive sense. They’re the first of their kind in how much freedom they allow designers, unrestricted by knowledge of code (or the lack of it). This kind of novelty is worth paying attention to. For instance, here’s an interactive that can be done without coding and without spending time on approval cycles. It could even convince me to learn (yet another) interface, even though the stream of new interfaces is the most tedious thing designers deal with over the years.
Mimi: Take us through your thought process. How do you evaluate a chart that involves lots of quantitative data (numbers) compared with one that uses more text and concepts? How would you approach thinking about numbers and concepts differently?
Ugnė: I always approach the evaluation part of my job through the eyes of non-designer Ugnė. Does this make sense to me? Where is it confusing? What is illegible or illogical? What does this number mean? Where do my eyes get stuck as I scan the page?
I ask these questions as if I don’t actually know the context, or brand rules, or what font is wrong and what chart scales are off. I assess what I see in the place of the intended audience, make notes, then go back and fix things as a designer. That way, I always know that the biggest issues are addressed right away. The design details can be completed as a secondary priority because, in the case of charts and data, the priority will always be clarity first, aesthetics second. Numbers are easier than text and concepts because math never lies. It’s a nice thing to lean on when often your job is seen as highly subjective.
Mimi: What are some common pitfalls in how laypeople think about design versus how designers think about design?
Ugnė: It’s easy for non-designers to believe that our sole purpose is to make things look nicer, when, really, aesthetics are a side effect of our actual work—making information feel accessible and understandable. I’d compare it to working with a translator versus using Google Translate: yes, the job is to make things mean what they are supposed to mean, but it’s up to the interpreter to know the larger context; understand human nature; and use language, phrases, and colloquialisms that will most accurately convey the essence of the message. If it’s done correctly, you won’t know how much work and skill went into it.
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