Title: Judge This.
Reviewed by: Jesse Pope, Affiliate Member
This is designer and writer, Chip Kidd’s meditation on our mind’s innate need to judge the things we perceive every day, and his thoughts on how to hone your own ability to see the inner logic of the stuff around you. With an irreverent approach to design critique, the book is part field guide and part personal case study of how Kidd uses ‘judging’ to solve design problems in his own work.
First impressions are an important part of how we get through our daily lives and also an essential part of the design process: “What really matters is not that we judge, but how we do so. Is it with intelligence? Empathy? Compassion?” Whether something is judged as successful or not isn’t the focus, rather, deciphering the motives for why a thing is designed a certain way becomes a strategy for problem solving.
Kidd breaks down first impressions into to two basic aspects of how we tend to react to things we see: clarity and mystery. These polar ends of the spectrum comprise the framework upon which ‘judging’ is used in this book. Kidd lets the reader know when things need to be clear and when they should be mysterious. Basically, when communicating with an audience, when should one be direct and no nonsense, or when should one create intrigue? It’s at this point we’re introduced to the Mysteri-o-meter; a decidedly retro tool that is used to rate the level of clarity or mystery of any given design object, from 1 to 10 respectively. An extreme score at one end of the meter or the other doesn’t result in a verdict of bad design, it simply requires the viewer to put the score in context. Is it appropriate to be mysterious in this case, or would some clarity result in a better outcome? Kidd isn’t developing a rigorous methodology for objective design critique, he’s just callin’ it the way he sees it. This isn’t a manual, after all he is using a Mysteri-o-meter and it is all about first impressions.
Kidd puts the Mysteri-o-meter to work by showing examples of items he interacts with every day in the next section called “Learning to judge.” Walking around his neighborhood provides him endless examples of design’s successes and failures, which he captures on his iPhone. Old school packaging for Goods Potato Chips score a 1 (clarity) on the meter. The clear and direct design of the packaging looks iconic and communicates what’s inside using red for home-style recipe and blue for kettle cooked. First impression: We know exactly what were getting. Contrast that with the billing block on a film poster, the use of an ultra condensed block of type that lists the creators and actors in the film, rates a 10 (mystery). Kidd feels the creators are due a more legible layout. First impression: Who made this film?
From perplexing prescription medicine packaging (what does this do again?), to the countdown on a pedestrian traffic signal (I know I can make it across), Kidd is curious; a keen observer who doesn’t pass up an opportunity to question the internal logic of some pretty basic things. Though where some examples are thoughtful, others feel a bit self indulgent and ranty, like he’s using this moment to get some thing off his chest. A tax form is presented with the header “Don’t get me started. Or do”, yet he provides no real reason for why the form doesn’t work or what could be better. It’s just a chance to show the extreme of mystery, as the meter scores way off the chart at 13. Another mysterious item is an online pop-up ad that’s humorously placed over the body copy on the page, with the header “X marks the teeny, tiny, hard to find spot”, the score is planted firmly at 10 on the meter. It goes on a bit more like this with anything from comments on chopsticks being an elegant way to eat (scores a 4), to how superhero franchises have drained the fun from his favourite comic book characters by replacing their colourful costumes with daker ones (comes in at 2). Some examples feel vague about how clarity and mystery are meant to work in the context presented.
However, in the next section entitled “Judgment at work”, Kidd sites some examples of inspiration that run the gamut of obscure to obvious. These are paired with his designs that were spawned from his first impressions of the items. This is where the real value of first impressions become obvious as a tool for observation and problem solving. This section feels rewarding to read, as the aspects of clarity and mystery are made clearer.
Currency design in the form of a one dollar bill becomes a source of inspiration. He notes that the iconic design is so widely recognized that George Washington has become a symbol for the birth of the nation. The Mysteri-o-meter rates it as a 1. Flip the page and he presents the book cover this object inspired; The American People by Larry Kramer. The cover actually features the famous portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, but as Kidd explains, the ubiquitous image of Washington on the dollar bill is what motivates him. The portrait is enlarged and runs off the cover, which creates some mystery, a 9 on the Mysteri-o-meter in fact.
In another example, inspiration is a crumpled and discarded Marlboro cigarettes pack found lying in the street. Despite being filthy, the pack’s design still retains some elegance. The simple colours, typography and proportions make for a classic design. On the cover of Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd, the same design elements are used to make the cover resemble a cigarette pack, as a reference to the protagonist who smokes. The source of inspiration here is simple and clear, but the way in which it’s used in Kidd’s design of his cover creates mystery.
Some first impressions of objects he finds mysterious are also shown as inspiration. Fractured bits of fender from a car accident, or the little paper fortunes in a fortune cookie pique his curiosity. The cover designs these items inspire are carefully crafted to use the appropriate amount of clarity or mystery to convey the central theme of the books. As we discover, it’s how Kidd deploys his inspiration that provides the reader with insight into how to think through solving design problems.
As far as first impressions of Judge This go, Kidd gets a bit cavalier with adhering to his definition of clarity and mystery and the role they play in ‘judging’. However, the real takeaway here is, be curious and ask questions. His ability to observe and critique is something he’s practiced for over 30 years and he uses his wit and intuition in this book to make that process relatable. Design is a problem solving process that is not intuitive, the solution is in how you look at the problem. Despite the cheekiness of the Mysteri-o-meter, this book illustrates the importance of understanding your audience and knowing what amount of clarity or mystery a design needs to communicate effectively. Finding inspiration for your next design, as Kidd puts it, begins with analyzing the problem itself. Judge this for yourself.
About the Reviewer
Drawing on his experiences in designing for theatre and as a mechanic in Toronto’s bicycle industry, Jesse brings a unique perspective to approaching graphic design work. Having worked in the theatre industry as a set and lighting designer, expressing the story hidden within physical spaces is what motivates him to create design solutions. His exhibit, retail and hospitality environmental projects here and abroad include such clients as Four Seasons Hotels, Brookfield Properties, Formica Group, Comcast and Wilfrid Laurier University. Jesse is the senior experience designer at Forge Media + Design in Toronto’s Liberty Village.