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ST Art Director Jeff Russ Describes the “Chef’s Challenge” Approach to Graphic Design

Brazilian artists also featured




The creative process is a process.

As you well know, a designer gets a project brief from the sales department, works up a few thumbnails, and, after a client review, gets a version approved. After a round or two of revisions, the mechanical is produced. Anything after that point is production work. Yes, adjustments must still be made based on unforeseen structural limitations, site-specific irregularities, or other fabrication concerns, but the creative process is over.

I’d like to suggest another step, but first a story. When my friends and I would go to a sports bar to watch a game, we would always order chicken wings and a bucket of beer. When asked how hot we would like the wings, we would always say “Chef’s Challenge!”We would then explain to the waitress that the chef couldn’t possibly make them too hot for us.This usually caused two things; one: nearby customers would get very excited, and two: we would get the freshest, hottest wings the chef could create. Only rarely would they be too hot to enjoy. The point is this: we took it up a notch.

That’s the extra step; taking it up a notch. As part of the creative process, it’s important to step back from your usual design solutions, as well-conceived as they are. Don’t look at them for an hour or two; go to lunch. When you return, look the designs over again with new eyes. Ask yourself what is missing. Look specifically for ways to take what’s working and amplify it. Any decent designer can go the “first” 95%, and, believe me, the client (and everyone else) will be happy with that 95%, but it is the “final” 5% where the deep creativity, the magic, happens. This last design adjustment, ironically referred to as adding the “spice” element, is where designers find their voice and separate themselves from the rest.

Many signs do their job just fine. But the most effective signs stand out from their surroundings and grab the veiwer. Those are the signs you should be producing.I’m not suggesting you design signs that are brash, brightly colored or unnecessarily bold. Understated elegance can be a wonderful tool. Sometimes you should step away, come back, and look for ways to turn up the understated elegance a notch.

The point is, review your designs before the client does, before your sales team does, even before your coworkers see them. Once this step is integrated into your process, everything you design gets better. Not only does this help reduce the chances of getting into a rut, but it can really help the bottom line. Good signs sell. I’ve also discovered the “final” 5% is the real reason we love being designers, the reason we do what we do. Don’t forget to do what you love doing.And don’t forget to send a couple cold beers back to the kitchen now and then! N


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The two-man illustration and mural team known as “Bicicleta sem Freio” (Bicycle Without Brakes) has erupted out of Brazil and is influencing advertising and sign design in both hemispheres. Their clients include a variety ranging from Absolut Vodka, Levi’s, Nike and Sony. Activity, humor, and psychedelic images merge with deconstructed typography to create a vibe that is at once brash and hypnotic. To see many more examples of their work, go to www.

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