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The sliding scale of art verses pragmatism

Let’s start with a visual that I find…amusing.

Create fabulous design, ruin it, as per client's request.

These were my feeling the other day when I was working on a design for a client that I have a great professional relationship with and have worked with for many years. I was serving as as the designer (and most of the programming) this time, with a good friend of mine serving as the LD out on the road. I had just finished programming one of my favorite songs, one with a really cool backbeat that just screamed some kind of cool snappy color chasing thing. I ended up applying a snap-up-ramp-down effect to the color wheel to make the fixed red filter jump into the beam, then slide back to the open position, in time to the music. It’s an effect I first saw on a Keith Urban song and I liked it so much that I’ve re-used it on a few different designs. It’s sort of different and a fun thing to do on big “musical highlights” like this particular song.

With the band rehearsing through the songs, I sat back and watched the song, decided that I was happy with the programming for now, and eventually the band finished and the band’s manager walked over with his notebook. He mentioned one or two small things about the lights, then perfunctorily announced “Oh, [the band] didn’t like the clappy lights. Can we change that?”

Of course, I knew immediately which effect he was referring to. And of course, my immediate reaction was to feel a slight sense of annoyance. This is perhaps a very human response, and one that I’ve dealt with lately, though in several of those case I’ve been on the other end of it, as someone who had the power to ask for a change and knew that my feedback might not necessarily be appreciated.

In a recent episode of the podcast that I host, Lighing Nerds, interviewee John Featherstone said something I found poignant: “I cannot afford nor have I chosen to work in a field where I’m in my ivory tower creating these works of art, which if people buy them – fabulous, and if they don’t, fabulous. I need to build long-term relationships.” This a brilliant insight, and one which I find myself being reminded of every time I’m asked to change something.

On the other hand, I think it’s important as someone who gets hired as a professional designer to have justifications for why I’ve chosen to do something, and be able to explain the reasoning behind a design choice that someone else – and there will always be someone else – might disagree with. I call this concept the sliding scale of art vs pragmatism. Yes, we as designers are tasked with interpreting our client’s music and lyrics and chords into something visual and dramatic that presumably the client would not have come up with on their own – or else, why would they have hired us? On the other hand, sometimes our interpretations, for one reason or another, do not resonate with those we are creating our art for, and things need to be changed.

The process of design will always be collaborative for those of us in this industry. Learn to embrace it.

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