As part of the graduate program I am enrolled in, all of the graduate students (studio art, photography, and graphic design) are required to take a seminar class together each year. It is a year round class and it focuses on art theory with an emphasis on contemporary art and typically takes the form of discussions which usually turn into debates of some kind.
A few weeks ago, the idea of process versus intent became a heated topic. As artists coming from different places, focuses, interests, and opinions, we did not agree on some things. Some chose process. Some chose intent. A final decision was never made (as most of the things we talk about in that class never resolve with a definitive solution), but the conversation did not end with the class. Since then, I have been constantly considering the importance of process and intent. Which is more important? Process or intent? Is it 30/70? Or is it more 50/50?
It is important to consider what type of work you make and who the work is for. It differs for the type of artist you are (photography, studio/fine art) as was apparent that day in class. As a graphic designer, intent becomes very important, quite arguably the most important thing. Clients approach designers with a goal and it is the designer’s job to reach that goal through visually communicating in some way, whether it is a poster, a website, a business card, or a video. If that goal is not communicated effectively or is lost on the audience, then that typically means the client won’t return. The goal was not met. The problem was not solved. To rephrase more appropriately, the end product did not match up with the original intent of the project. This can lead to you losing clients, which in turn gets you fired sending you spiraling down into a deep and dark depression, forcing your wife to take the kids and leaving you to live lonely for the rest of your life eating vienna sausages out of a tin can in your run-down trailer. That is all because you didn’t care about intent.
That is not to say that the process had anything to do with this failure. Although, most of the time (speaking for myself), the process takes too much precedence over the intent. As someone who enjoys screen printing, this becomes a way for me to slow down and take time to enjoy the process. There is something enjoyable about starting with a loose idea and leaving room for the process to inform the work. Our work can become lost in making the work. We can also put all of our hope in the process to somehow form some meaning or purpose and that is backwards thinking. Some recognize the danger of allowing too much importance to be placed on process. In an interview on Wired.com, entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk was very vocal about his thoughts on process. “Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that “it’s all about the process,” I see that as a bad sign.”¹ I don’t know if I completely agree with Musk but I find process can become a hindrance in making meaningful work.
In Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design, the questions of process and intent were the focus of his first chapter and were framed as the questions of how (process) and why (intent). Frank explains how and why with a beautiful metaphor of an artist who has to look at the work both near and far.² The artist should not only focus on the tiny details up close, but should also step back and see how the piece is working as a whole. As a designer, it has become increasingly difficult to this. I’ve caught myself from time to time just designing something for another designer to look at it or beginning with the process as opposed with an idea. There’s no meaning. No purpose. All flash. No substance. And it can’t be like that and shouldn’t. Designers have to be constantly questioning whether our intent is still actually our intent or did we get lost in the process? We have to be constantly moving back and forth in our work. We should be constantly asking ourselves “Why?” Needless to say, I am still trying to figure out the balance of intent and process.
¹ Chris Anderson. Wired Science. November 27, 2012. (link)
² Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design. (Minnesota: Shapco Printing, 2012), 21-23.