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Problem of Concept

April 3, 2010

***If you would like to avoid confirmation bias, please take a look at, and study both images below (in new windows!) before reading this article.***

Oftentimes people wonder what it is graphic designers do besides play around making pictures all day. The most fundamental problems that designers overcome are conceptual problems. Graphic designers use images and typography to convey whole ideas, elicit emotion, and relay information.

I spent one semester in a design program at an institution regionally known for their communications department, which is the only formal design training I’ve ever had. Prior to attending at 18, I had already been an avid photo editor, and figured I’d just extending my playtime into life skills…and I was absolutely wrong. That semester was was spent learning the basics of color, shape, and texture. Very little graphic design was done…and what was done was mostly in black and white, and using basic geometric shapes to elicit different emotions.

In any case, in creating my recent desktop, I wasn’t necessarily attempting to solve any conceptual problem besides how to make an interesting desktop, however upon completion, I was able to identify one I did “solve”:


[Click image to enlarge]

Because this image was representative of bias I’ll share later in the post, I decided to make a subtle adjustment which changes the entire tone to make it more flattering:


[Click image to enlarge]

Unfortunately you may not be able to tell given the resolutions, but take a look at both images, and see if you get a different mental image from each. Try it out before reading on (of course, now that you know you’ll suffer from confirmation bias).

– — – —

Upon completion of the first image, I realized that it was a pure manifestation of my own bias against Krugman. The Accidental Theorist is one of my favorite books of all time. In the first image, I have the book crumpled in the background, juxtaposing the image with a crystal ball featuring an image of Krugman, the NYT “T”, and his name. What this insinuates is that Krugman has left the realm in which he produced grand works of scholarly merit, and has entered the world of mysticism in writing for the New York Times. It is as if the hands are “serving” you the “new” Krugman.

In the second image, I have the same crystal ball, with the same images; however now they are juxtaposed with the NYT Editorial and Opinion page. What this image conveys is a sense that Paul Krugman is a treasure from an otherwise less-quality editorial page. The treasure is given to you by the Times, and the smiling Krugman is welcoming you to read.

– — – –

Bottom line: Image placement is extremely important. Imagery, color, and texture are the three building blocks with which designers work to create images which solve the millions of conceptual problems faced by individuals and businesses every day. In this sense, a “pixel perfect” image is not one that is perfectly pristine, but one that uses those building blocks to powerfully convey the message intended, and overcome the conceptual problem at hand. The actual “brick and mortar” work using tools like Photoshop and Illustrator is the garnish.

As an aside, I absolutely love making spheres in Photoshop…I don’t really know why, but whenever I complete one it makes me feel accomplished :P.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2010 5:01 am

    Interestingly, I noted the difference between the images but interpreted it differently.

    Knowing your thoughts about Krugman’s old versus new work, I assumed you meant the first image to be the more flattering one. To me the sense of association was stronger than the sense of contrast…that is, picturing him with Accidental Theorist makes me think you are defining him primarily as PK the economist, not PK the NYT columnist. Which presumably is a more positive version.

    Now I’m not at all a visual person and I don’t know whether other people interpret the semantics of imagery the same way I do. Perhaps others will pick up on the contrast more than on the association.

  2. April 4, 2010 7:39 am

    I interpret the first image as conveying something different than what Niklas would want to. Niklas, you respect Krugman the economist; you don’t see the NYT columnist Krugman in the best light–and the fortune teller that he has become. The second image portrays the true sentiment you wish to convey. The only problem with it is you can’t tell that without already knowing he’s a NYT columnist. You don’t necessarily “get” that it is his work behind him. You must assume, but that need to assume distracts from the message.

  3. April 4, 2010 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the comments guys. I can definitely see your points — it’s something that I thought about while writing the article, and probably should have noted.

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