Doodle Rant

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” — Jeffrey Zeldman

I have noticed more doodles lately. My working definition for doodle is an illustration misrepresented to be a design. (If there is no misrepresentation then it is not a doodle) They can be illustrations of words or logos for nonexistent businesses. Sometimes they are seen in portfolios and sometimes they are held up as the ideals of a style (minimalism for example), but they are not good design. Historically they were exercises for practicing design principles like figure/ground and closure and were intended to be exclusive to classrooms and sketchbooks. Doodles share the aesthetics of an exercise but pretend to be actual design solutions. They may not be an outright ruse, but are happy to live in the gray.

Part of what separates graphic design as a discrete activity from other aesthetic endeavors are constraints. Graphic designers are constrained by time, budget, client, the nature of the problem etc. None of these constraints are self-imposed. There can be self-authored graphic design solutions, but they also operate under constraints. No live brief is so free of constraints that it would result in a doodle. Designers solve problems with constraints by using the design process, this is another area where doodles fall short. Without constraints, any process is compromised and some doodles are reverse engineered and have no process at all. The solution predated the problem. I argue that if it is created without constraints and design process it is more illustration than design.

Doodles frequently live in portfolios. A portfolio is a device from which skills and aptitudes may be evaluated. A doodle is a misrepresentation in that context. What does a doodle show evidence of? Without process or constraints, it is not good for much. Proficiency with software might be assessed. Some sense of color aptitude perhaps, but after that what have we got? If you were asked in an interview why you made a specific choice, what would your answer be? There are no answers to any questions regarding choices or problems overcome. All there is to be gleaned about the designer is on the page, there is no underneath, or behind the scenes to provide any additional insight. Doodles also raise expectations to unattainable levels. A design with constraints can seldom be as unabashedly clever as one without them.

How you judge the mettle, where the rubber hits the road, of a good designer, is when there are boundaries. Creativity thrives in small spaces. It requires walls to push up against, and over and through. Doodles have no boundaries, they are creative little white lies. I understand the need to pad a portfolio from time to time, but I suggest trying to keep doodles to a minimum, and cut them when you can or identify them for what they are, illustrations. When your evaluating work keep an eye out for doodles and remember although they are pretty but they don’t have much to say.