Applying the Panofsky method to understanding design

Erwin Panofsky was an art historian who, in 1932, studied the significance of iconography and believed that for an audience to find the meaning behind artwork or design, a cultural context of analysis needs to be applied.

Panofsky conceptualized three levels associated with any piece of design or art. Any great work begins with research or understanding the design challenge. The first level is your Primary Analysis; often, this detailed observation compiles the information into a body of research. If the audience is viewing the piece, they can immediately bring meaning to an image by associating it with their own experiences. The first level brings some familiarity but not complete understanding or appreciation into what they are seeing.

The second level, Conventional Analysis, is a layer of understanding from a good base. It brings prior knowledge of the conventional meaning and allows the visual to communicate more by recalling the events taking place within the image. Typically, this level’s purpose has a deep connection to cause and effect or the concept of affordance. Visual hierarchy is established by using whitespace, branding, and other effects such as colouring and aesthetics, and composition. The audience begins to understand the meaning behind what he or she is noticing.

The third level, the Intrinsic Analysis, is where the audience does understand why the designer or artist is taking a particular direction with the visual. Because the audience has spent significant time analyzing and interacting with the design, there becomes a philosophical belief of trust and a manifestation of expressed values. When the design’s visual is abstract, and the viewer finally understands, there is often an ‘aha’ moment. This is the value of going on a guided art tour. The curator often provides the details necessary for one to appreciate the artist’s vision.

Time to improve your brand​

Many good companies are addicted to paying for advertising when they should be paying attention to their customers — their brand. Too many leaders depend upon sales promotion to drive sales and are inadvertently training their customers to expect deeper price discounts. Business should not be in a race to finish on the bottom. Regardless of the reasons for paid advertising, strengthening your brand can remove this promotional based dependency.


01 | Have remarkable experiences

Give customers a wow experience — something to talk about long after the touchpoint has passed. Plan your customer journey map with “Wow-Way” stops along each touchpoint.

02 | Have an extreme purpose

Align the brand with values that customers care about such as the environment or social causes. Raving fans are more engaged by what the brand stands for rather than what you sell. Tie-back the profitability of a brand to a purpose for good, makes good business sense. Customers reward brands that are good citizens.

03 | Inspire first from the inside

Begin with the core of the company — its employees. Create internal alignment to the vision of the brand and staff advocacy will soon follow. First, rebrand and appoint brand champions before introducing the brand externally.

04 | Be approachable

The most meaningful brands personify and celebrate people’s diversity. Create opportunities for high-level emotional engagement so the brand’s personality can shine through tangible actions.

05 | Involve your best customers

Brands that co-create with their customers and communities in exciting and unexpected ways learn more because they are open to listening. Customers feel empowered with a sense of ownership when their views create action and change.

06 | Be seen not heard

Brands that weave themselves into the social fabric of their customers’ lifestyles by intercepting rather than interrupting, enjoy more ultimate access to their audiences. What’s more — customers are more apt to seek out communication unaided with brands that are respectful of the relationship.


Developing timely content


The goal of content creation is to provide relevant information to your core target audience. The most decisive task is to start with a commitment to a defined cadence. Defining the talent of who writes, photographs, and illustrates the content is just as crucial as defining the editorial calendar to keep the commitment real. When developing your strategy, there are three different types of content to consider.

  1. Foundational content includes ebooks, slideshows, videos, motion graphics, interactive graphics, white papers, editorial stories, and case studies. This is the most expensive content because it involves the creation of new material. Behind the scenes, the production of this content should be scheduled as a daily commitment. Don’t expect to complete a full-length article in one day! In developing this content consider who has the skill internally and what services need to be outsourced. The goal is quality as defined by your target audience and assigned editor, art director, or creative director.
  2. Snowball content is lean content that is repurposed from the foundational content into smaller information. It is meant to provide a steady stream of publishing across media channels. Remember the hard work done to create the foundational content. This is cherry picking the best-of-the-best and leveraging across relevant media channels.
  3. Newsworthy content is timely content that capitalizes on news, trends, or industry events. Having slack in the schedule enables you to be proactive so you are ready to develop content when your industry makes the news.

Once the content is created, have a plan to leverage it across as many media channels as is relevant to your industry. Creating new content is hard work. Don’t expect immediate results. The development of content is a long-term strategy. Lastly, just because you want to create content doesn’t make it a reality. Assign the proper resources: people, budget, and the time to generate the material.


The D4 design process

The D4 process is simple to integrate into teams that have to solve for different design challenges. Regardless of whether you are an industrial designer or graphic designer, this framework adds clarity to the process of creative effort. Without process, the energy becomes a non-linear duration, and endless cycles of revisions are the outcome. The painful result we have all experienced is an unhappy client. Clients accept a certain amount of uncertainty and risk, but they become fearful when they don’t understand where they are in the development of the product or service. It is the designer’s job to articulate the process they will undertake. The designer should be able to show the business lead the status of the project and their current design thinking. The design process is a journey. The D4 process is the map.


The success of the design is defined by the scope, resources, schedule, and quality of the product or service you want to create. The output is a creative brief and a project plan with a clear statement of what the business challenge is and listing of the deliverables.


Before design can occur the content needs to be written, approved, and the digital assets created. At this stage, initial mood boards or prototypes are developed to show the design direction before work occurs. If the solution is known, the designer refers to the templates and double checks this against the business process to ensure alignment to the visual strategy.

As part of this process, convergent and divergent thinking between the team is required to push the design concept beyond the expected.


The design stage is where the designer assembles all the content and elements from the holistic visual framework including logos, typography, colour pathways, photography, patterns, and iconography. The resulting solution is shown how it fits upstream and downstream of the business process. At the client meeting there should be no surprises because they would have agreed to the milestone approvals that lead to the final design.


Files undergo a preflight check and deployment to publishing platforms occurs across relevant touchpoints. The project is closed and archived.


If business wants innovation, hire more artists


I remember back in kindergarten. A long time ago. Everyone seemed to be an artist. Crayons littered the floor, paint every where, chalkboards covered with drawings of random lines and shapes. There was “creative energy.” Every child left art class with at least one masterpiece destined for the fridge, fireplace mantel, or a proud parents’ office desk.

The big question of my career is what happened to all those little artists? Sure some of them when on to universities to become doctors, dentists, lawyers, and engineers. In the process what did they give up? Somewhere along their journey all that spontaneous creative energy got sucked out of them. I wonder after 30-years whether anyone of those professionals still calls themselves artists when the teacher calls out, “whos’ an artist.”

If you still call yourself an artist— you have a special gift for seeing the world differently. Artists tend to pick up on life’s details because they take the time to stop and observe. Designers and the creative class also have these observation skills. The way the “T” tucks into the word “Typography” pleases them. They take joy in seeing something for what it’s worth; there is more beauty than will ever be captured with pen and paper. I also believe art can help the sick and bring a sense of overall happiness to one’s life.

There are studies that show people suffering from dementia respond well to creating art as an activity. Dr Daniel C. Potts founder of Cognitive Dynamic states that, “patients can lose themselves in the moment as they create. Through the process of art therapy, relationships are built, empathy fostered, anxiety lessened, and a sense of mastery or control over their environment is developed.” Dr Potts observes, “roadblocks to verbal communication are bypassed through the artistic process, as individuals express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improve, and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over.” If creating art can help the sick why can’t it help everyone lead more productive and meaningful lives?

Somewhere in our journey, being an artist or pursuing art for the sake of enjoyment is sucked out of our being. We are told to follow our dreams, but don’t be a starving artist. There seems to be a lot of pent-up fear about being creative. Today, we are told be original; the next significant innovation is just around the corner, and creative thinking is now the hottest employment ticket. It seems that despite all the advances in digital technologies and artificial intelligence we can’t make a computer creative, we still need humans to create. So if creative based thinking is so essential to our future employment, why are artists or designers not paid more? Why are companies that value design don’t see value in accreditations such as the Associations of Registered Graphic Designers?

The reason is the words we use are from the last century. Being an artist or designer doesn’t accurately describe what designers do today. Human Resources hasn’t caught on to this idea that when business leaders are asking for help it is because they have difficulty articulating what innovation looks like. They are looking for a designer, or more specifically a visual problem solver. Designers understand that innovation is surprising elusive and the solution can’t be found in the numbers, because it’s a creative process that can’t initially be measured by key performance indicators. We can’t just drop the big idea from an Edison bulb. Thinking is hard work. It takes time, and failure is almost guaranteed–its part of the process that leads to success.

My career has danced between applied engineering, technology, and marketing. Fear of failure,” being that starving artist,” initially prevented me from a life of art and design. It wasn’t until I got into marketing that I made the connection between art, technology, and design. I’ve been most blessed in my career to have direct access to some top CEOs, and I’ve noticed all the good ones have incredible visions for the future. The biggest problem is they have difficulty articulating it in a way that inspires and engages the company. Enter the graphic designer, the modern artist for the page in a digital age. But, for heaven’s sake avoid the titles, “artist or graphic Designer!” The CEO is paying you to think and organize his or her thoughts. Visions are most often abstract creations of the mind. Designers have the skill of taking abstract ideas and make it concrete – real. In the design process, this is where the discoveries occur that lead to innovation. And this is why innovation is so elusive. It doesn’t occur at the management level. To foster an environment of collaboration, the business must support the artistry of design thinking.

Here’s the good news, anyone can be an artist. It is the act of creating something from your mind that didn’t exist before. Everyone writes, if you pick up a writing instrument, you are drawing. There’s a whole art to writing called, calligraphy. The study and pursuit of this activity is typography. Thinking is related to creativity. Everyone can draw and be an artist. The proof of this claim is in kindergarten, where all kids are artists.

If you have children, encourage art and writing in the same learning space at an early age. Guess what, the hottest skill right now for designers is creating infographics! There is something special about the ability to think with the goal of taking the complex and simplifying through images, drawings, colour, words, and organization. The ability to draw is most helpful, but it’s not the only skill needed to become an artist. The ability to edit, collect research, and distil information into a creative format is more and more being asked for by business professionals. The world needs more artists.

Source: How Art Therapy Enhances the Quality of Life for Dementia Patients.

Photo caption: Art installation at the Forks, Winnipeg, 2017, Artist unknown


How to sing like a dancing frog by planting an apple tree


Want to know the kiss of death for a creative team? Create an Org chart. Ya, that’s right. An Org chart often shows up as a “restructuring” effort. It’s all to become more efficient, lets put everyone in a square box. Perfect. Except designers are not little squares, they are—people with aspirations, hopes, and dreams. The designers I know like circles, and they are passionate about finding a creative solution to a business problem. Their mind rolls around an idea while incubating the thought. Sometimes, it’s the circle dancing among the tree branches.

An Org chart is a sharp and pointy pyramid, invented to bring order and structure to the masses. The problem is that creative energy is elusive, it’s not a linear journey; it can’t be forced to perform on command. Michigan J. Frog, is the animated cartoon character who debuted in Merrie Melodies cartoon, One Froggy Evening. The storyline goes like this; a construction worker finds a box, opens it to a singing and dancing Frog, belting out, “Hello Ma Baby, Hello! Ma honey, Hello! Ma ragtime gal. Send me a kiss by wire. Baby my heart’s on fire! If you refuse me, honey you’ll lose me.” The worker might have simply enjoyed the frog’s fine voice. But, out of professional greed, he decides to exploit the frog. He seeks fame and brings people into the auditorium by offering them free beer. But when the curtain rises for the performance, the frog becomes mute. The lesson from Michigan J. Frog is creative energy requires a team effort. There is no instant create “live-button.” Likewise, if you dictate the solution, don’t be surprised if the effort is mute with lacklustre results. You must allow the creative process time to percolate, and incubate. Don’t be the master of the frog. Trust the talent to find a solution and together, rise, take centre stage, and sing your hearts out. Dancing is optional.

In the corporate world, I have achieved the role of Director, doesn’t that mean I’m the master of all content, creative vision, and all mediums? No. Frankly, there are not enough hours in the day to master all there is to writing, video, photography, illustration, and design. The team I help inspire collectively is far smarter, and talented than any single individual from within the group. Together, we form an opinion on what the solutions might be for testing. Different individuals offer unique perspectives that as a team we sing, “Hello Baby, I think we have a solution.” The creative spark can come from anyone or a rapid collection of insights that lead to the aha moment. Having a flat collaborative structure is the key to bring out the best creative from a team.

Rather than the typical Org structure of a pyramid, I like to think the visual metaphor of a team structure is an apple tree. Years ago, my mother wanted a young apple tree removed from the corner of the house to make way for an addition on the back of the house. Rather than kill the young tree that had yet to bear fruit I volunteered to transplant it to the middle of the backyard. For the first couple of years that poor tree clung to a miserable life in its new spot. Bearing fruit was out of the question. Three years later, I thank the divine creator; the tree took a firm hold on life and yielded apples. I never lost sight of the vision that with a little bit of love, water, nature would prevail, and bear fruit. I think inspiring a creative team is much like transplanting an apple tree. Give it time, provide nutrients, and the team will sing like a dancing frog and bear fruit.


Design starts at the bottom of the ladder


The best design always starts with functionality. The foundation for all the brilliance to follow. Get this wrong, and you will not be designing the right thing right. The function is related to the features of the product or service. Find out what the consumer wants to accomplish, what they are willing to pay for, and how they intend to use it. Successful design always solves for function first. Many products fail because there are too many options that don’t add value. Websites often fail to be helpful because of scope creep.

The next level is reliability. This idea of taking something that is complex and simplifying it to remove either parts or process. Building something simple is hard, but the effort is worth it. Not convinced? Think of the time when you tried to fix a product and the spare part that was broken or worn out and could not be fixed. If you remove parts, ensure you maintain functionality of the system. In recent decades products are engineered to become obsolete such as mobile devices. Why can’t these devices be modular so we can extend the life cycle of the product, even when technology improves the function of the original.  Reliability is critical for equipment that is potentially dangerous to operate such as a bus or plane. Building in redundant safety systems is good design and might be even best practice in some products. Building something with the idea of maintaining it for the product’s lifecycle is smart. It’s also good for the environment, a safer product, and good for business.

Usability is all about the person using the product or service. How easy is it to use starts with figuring out how to accomplish the task in as few steps as possible. Every product functionality should be intuitive. There is nothing more frustrating than a perfectly good product that you can’t figure out. I remember my wife buying a GPS watch to track her runs. We had inadvertently lost the manual; there was no identifying model number when we went to Garmin’s website to download the manual. Turning the tracker on we think was at least was at least a two button process. We ended up buying an Apple 2 Watch. Usability is the key to engaging the consumer. My opinion is that all productions should never need a manual to use. Engineers and user experience designers need to collaborate and test prototypes to make products intuitive.

Proficiency is the trajectory of the learning curve. How fast can the user become an expert in the product they are using? Adobe does a good job with their Creative Suite design software where the differences between InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator are minimized by using the same menu system, common tools, and the same design language. Becoming proficient in illustrator makes learning InDesign easier because the transfer of learning can occur between software products.

Creativity is at the top of the ladder. It’s where design shines.  For the consumer functionality, reliability, and usability are table stakes. Customers are willing to pay for creative and product aesthetics. Many products are functional, but few reach the iconic status such as enjoyed by Apple, and Braun. Graphic designers are a dime a dozen, but the ones that are successful have mastered the functional aspects with ease and can move into smart, creative solutions that solve all the business and marketing challenges with grace.

There is no single path to being creative. Many of the most creative people I know work hard to remain at the top of their craft. Most designers have their logical flow where they start with something expected and branch off quickly to explore and experiment. Failure is part of the process, the seasoned designers I know are not bothered by this because a successful outcome is a vision from the start.


The fear of whitespace is killing profit

Business wants to find a solution to what they fear most, how to increase whitespace. I can’t tell you how many creative meetings I’ve been in where the business lead proclaims, “we need clean lines and a sophisticated open space.” However, the reality is an inverse relationship between the amount of whitespace and the value proposition of a company. As companies grow, they tend to believe they need to appeal to the critical mass to be successful. They start the change by jamming store windows with product and price discounts, a just in case mentality. The principle learning is this, as the fear of open space increases, the perceived value of the product or service decreases. If stores want to increase margin dollars, they need to become more boutique. Less is more. To create less, reduce product density and increase whitespace.

For example, furniture stores jam product into every available space including corners. It’s all about product density: price laddering, options, options, options. They want open space, but insecurity in the product assortment selection and the category manager being measured against sales per square foot on the floor can’t get beyond the fear factor of open space. The thinking goes something like this; if no product occupies the space, then no sales will occur in that area.

The same goes for graphic design. “Paper is expensive,” yells the category manager, “we must fill the space with product, product, product, every item needs a price tag. And make it big!” Throw in a starburst so the consumer can see how extra special that door crasher is! What is a designer supposed to do in a promotion driven flyer? You know the design sucks because there is no whitespace left in which to breathe.

To promote an association of higher value become a minimalist. Reduce the supporting design infrastructure, reorganize and chunk information into smaller size snowballs, increase alignment of elements, reduce the price tags, and finally edit. Kill redundant products on the page in favour of education and only show the most appropriate product or service. Understand what the purpose of the flyer or store window is for. Category managers listen up, “it’s eye candy.” Your challenge should you wish to accept, is to engage the consumer long enough to inspire them to stop and open the door, turn the page, or click through to the landing page. Customers don’t need a lower price, another product; they crave a better story. Edit, edit and edit some more. Want to know what makes a good artist great? It’s editing out what’s not essential and developing the composition in the remaining space.

Lastly, be afraid of offering sales. Consumers will quickly realize your promotional strategy and will just ask for your sale price. The erosion of margin dollars is the quickest way to become a bottom feeder. In today’s world, there are very few companies left that can survive on advertising lowest price. Instead, increase the whitespace and tell a better story! Dare to be open and different.


Design isn’t art

The gap in the business of design.


There is an art gap that exists between business people and the creative class. The difference between the groups comes down to the definition of design. The Junior designer fresh out of school tries to create the best art. The business professional will try to ask for a design that solves a business challenge or creates an opportunity. See the difference?

If you are a designer be careful not to create art. Solve the business challenge, and you will gain a client. Many professional photographers fall into this idea that their mastery of the shutter is art. Don’t get me wrong I love and appreciate the skill and patience needed to capture the essence of light, but to an Art Director, the image is raw material for a greater purpose. The Creative Director, in turn, is trying to solve a business challenge the client has in the most compelling way possible. Sometimes trying to create beautiful art for the client is not what they want.

The next time your Creative Team has a disagreement ask your team this: Are we trying to create art or solve a business challenge?