Design: The Illusion of Drama

My new mantra for design is this: the sum of all parts must assume the appearance of drama, but each individual part must itself remain aloof from said drama. As I’ve discussed this with friends and other designers/artists, it seems to pass the must-align-with-other-rules-of-art law pretty respectably.

For the sake of your brain (while reading this rant), drama is anything overboard, trendy, saturated—or whatever else you’d like to call it.

Lone Rider

Earlier this year, I wrapped up a freelance job for local startup Lone Rider. I had a sit down with Veldon (the founder) where he expressed that he wanted a detailed motorcycle, some tough looking text, and the ability to scale it down onto a business card. My initial reaction was: tell him it can’t be done. But then I thought: good design is problem solving. Veldon had a problem, and he was asking me to fix it. So I decided to give it a try.

One of the first thumbnails that impressed me kinda looked like an eyeball. As I tried to recreate it as a vector I realized that I could pull off the illusion of those dramatic eyeball slopes without actually having such dramatic curves.

By the end of the project, I had still retained that curve (as you can see), but at a much more gentle slope. I didn’t need that kind of drama to be placed on the word “lone”. Enough emphasis (drama) was showing through size, proximity, and texture.

This is the primary difference between decorative typefaces like Buttermilk, and classic typefaces like Gotham. I’m not going to be so subjective as to say that one is better than the other, but that one represents drama in each letterform, and one represents drama within an entire body of text. Each has the capacity to work, beautifully, in the proper context. Alone, maybe “lone” would have needed some more curves. But in context even the most gentle changes can drive the whole piece overboard.

A Question of Emphasis

Sometimes the issue is simply lack of training. Simple design is not the product of a simple design process or a simple state of mind. Take emphasis, for example. Emphasis is a crucial principle in well constructed art, with many complex elements available to form it. Had I not been forced to memorize the eleven forms of emphasis in a 2-D Design class, I would probably still be using color or clarity as they are the most easily understood of the elements. This lack of education is illustrated well in amateur photography/post-processing.

Take, for example, these two (dissimilar) photos. The first one taken by a professional (Trevor Christensen), and the second one obtained by searching “blue eyes” on a Google image search.

What many of you would simply call bad photography, is actually a sound principle of emphasis used in the wrong place. Both photographers used emphasis, but chose varying techniques to accomplish it. The photographer/post-processor for “blue eyes” was trying (the best way he/she knew how) to draw emphasis on the model’s eyes. Color was the tool he/she used to get it done. He/she forced drama onto an item within the photo in order to produce drama as a whole. Trevor Christensen’s photo didn’t use this technique, but still managed to provide emphasis. He allowed for each item within his photo to remain aloof from drama, while still producing the appearance of drama.

More Than Just Art

This doesn’t just apply to work, but to all aspects of life. I often find myself staying up through the night, using those perishable, intermittent, creative juices that just decided to show up that will surely not be there in the morning. This type of dramatic thought is not as different as the kind we irresistibly and wrongfully put into our art.

Saying that a wild creative mind can’t be tamed sounds romantic, but romanticism will serve you better in your actual products than in your schedule.” Marli Mesibov

Or, in other words: quit wasting your time with all that dramatic scheduling, creative juice, not feeling creative right now, and waiting for inspiration type talk and get to work. Don’t waste your day away, waiting for something to hit you. Carve that drama out of your speech and lifestyle so that simplicity can abound. Treat your profession and your person the same way you should your art.


I’ll say again, simple design is not the product of a simple design process. It’s not easy to produce a piece that is striking, interesting, entertaining, or breathtaking and still remain free of producing a design that is trendy. This is true in all walks of life. Work takes work—and the reward for staying free of trends or drama is certainly worth it. So, get to work.