Storyboard: Kit Hinrichs

Narrative Design: A 50-Year Perspective

In trying to impress upon young designers how radically design has changed since I was a student at ArtCenter, I often use the analogy: “First, there was cave painting, and then, I entered the field.”

A few years after I began my career, disruptive technological innovations began to alter the profession on a fundamental level. The discipline rapidly evolved from a hand-crafted aesthetic into a revolutionary digital direction. Although I remain primarily a practitioner of tangible design, it has been invigorating to experience and work in design at a time when changes are more monumental than Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

Looking back, several things come to mind that have informed my 50-year career.

The ability to draw. Like most designers I have drawn since I could hold a crayon. From cowboys and Indians to space ships, drawing gave me a visual language that allowed me to communicate ideas and experiences that words would often not accomplish.

Observation. To be an effective designer, it helps to be an observer of life. As a child, I joined my father at Warner Bros. Studio, where he was a sound technician. I vividly remember the experience on the lot, where multiple stories were being created before my eyes. From actors to script girls, directors to key grips, wardrobe to make-up, and lighting to props, a matrix of people all working together to create a single cohesive and engaging narrative. It was a window into my future career.

Exposure to different ideas. At ArtCenter, I was exposed to a unique collection of professors whose combined experience and point of view opened my eyes to a world that an eighteen-year-old North Hollywood boy couldn’t imagine. Hues, values, texture, the Golden Section, typography as imagery, variations on a theme, biomimicry, Serif, Sans Serif, “fast and slow” curves, chiaroscuro, “first reading,” and 3-point perspective, just to name a few lessons that were new to me.

At the end of my fifth semester, I had the opportunity to work in Germany at a boy’s youth home. This was not a design gig, but a chance to take a break and do community service. It became a pivotal moment in my life and career. Being exposed to, and living, in a new culture with new customs, foods, music, media, politics, transportation, and publications – all in a divided country in the midst of the Cold War. What better opportunity to observe my own future.

First things first. An early mantra from instructors at ArtCenter was “Design is not only about style, it’s about ideas.” It is often easier to jump ahead to the latest typeface or hottest photographer for an assignment, before you have solved the problem with the right idea. Style and technique are the tools to express good ideas, not a substitute for them.

Enjoy what you do. To me, access to knowledge is often preceded by a troop of giggling clowns, dancing through the door of humor. People have to feel relaxed and comfortable before they allow you entry into their emotions. Wit is a wonderful door opener. One of my harshest criticisms came in a packaging class where my instructor said I couldn’t receive an “A” on a project because I had just “too much fun” in my work. The best complement I ever received.

I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time most of my career, but it was the skills I learned at ArtCenter that gave me the ability to recognize opportunities when they arose and the confidence to shift directions in order to capitalize on them when they occurred. I have been an entry level designer, freelance illustrator, partner in several design organizations in New York and San Francisco, exhibition and environmental designer, author and founder of several organizations and yet I always acknowledge how my ArtCenter education was the “Rosetta Stone” for any successes I’ve accomplished.

When I look at the work being done by the next generation of designers, I see the communication boundaries toppling, replaced by something new, unprecedented, raw and thrilling. The work of tomorrow’s trailblazers is never truly finished – not while the rest of our history remains unwritten.

Kit Hinrichs
Principal and Creative Director of Studio Hinrichs, San Francisco
Former Partner, Pentagram
Trustee, ArtCenter Board of Trustees

One of my harshest criticisms came in a packaging class where my instructor said I couldn’t receive an ‘A’ on a project because I had ‘just too much fun’ in my work. Best compliment I ever received.

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