Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on February 20, 2003

image of MTIV book cover Hillman Curtis needs little in the way of introduction. He is one of the most recognized and acclaimed designers working today. His first book, Flash Web Design (New Riders, 2000), has sold more than 100,000 copies. But this is not another book about Flash, and it’s about more than Web design. Curtis has set out to write an inspirational book—a combination of good practical advice and beautiful pictures. It’s a coffee-table book you’ll want to keep close to your desk.

The book is divided into three logical sections: Process, Inspiration, and Practice. In the first section, Curtis describes the steps his firm goes through with every new project. These steps inform each other and are not meant to be understood as a linear progression. In fact, the boundaries between them often blur. Curtis says, “Steps often mix, overlap, become one, and work together.” There are seven steps:

  1. Listen
  2. Unite
  3. Theme
  4. Concept
  5. Eat the Audience
  6. Filter
  7. Justify

Curtis’s definitions are refreshingly different from most authors on the process of design. He places creativity front and center at every stage. He borrows from everywhere but especially from the world of film direction. He quotes Sidney Lumet’s dictum that theme dictates style, noting that everything else flows from the question, “What is this project about?”


Listening means meeting often with the client and listening to their answers to key questions. Find out what the core values of their company are, and how they want your project to fit into those. As Curtis puts it, “What is the story? Every job has one.” Another series of useful questions, if your job is to redesign or extend a current campaign, involves asking the client what they love about their existing campaign, and what they hate. This way it’s easy to figure out what to keep and what to lose.

Uniting is an important step early in the project. It involves meeting with your entire team, including the client, and calling upon the collective creativity of the entire group. Setting goals early is another way to make sure that the entire group is working toward the same end. One of the things Hillman Curtis (the company) do is to draft a creative brief at the very outset of a project. This document becomes the basis on which other documents—such as storyboards or site maps—can be created. All of these documents exist to keep the process moving in the right direction, with measurable goals and plenty of opportunity for feedback along the way.

According to Curtis, theme is central. By its place in the list, it appears to follow the other two steps, but, in reality, theme must be emphasized from the very beginning. Curtis describes how he brings three concentric circles on a piece of paper into the very first client meeting. As he jots down keywords during the meeting, he figures out how close to the center of the “target” each one fits. The words in the center become the theme. For instance, in his work on a Y2K-related project with Iomega, the maker of backup media, he expected to find words like “horror” and “disaster” at the center of his target. Instead, he found the client was stressing words like “secure” and “solution.” This changed his whole approach to the project.

Concept obviously relates to theme. The concept is the idea you formulate which illustrates your theme. This can be the most difficult part of the process, but Curtis encourages the reader to be open to ideas from almost any source. Surrounding yourself with great examples is a start. Other methods he uses to bring ideas to the surface include sketching and storyboarding, as well as collaborating closely with the client. Involving the client may seem frightening because it reveals that designers are not the incredible idea factories that they would like clients to believe. However, an idea generated by or in collaboration with the client is much more likely to express their story than one generated in isolation.

“Eating the Audience” is a clever way of restating the concept of understanding who designers work for. There’s no substitute for research, and this information gathering should take place at every stage of the project’s development. Curtis makes a valid point that Web designers do not have the luxury of thinking like fine artists. The art designers create is commercial. It is designed to meet the needs of clients and their audiences, so designers need to constantly crawl out from their own creative spaces to listen to others.

Filtering means pouring wonderful creative concepts through the sieve of limitations. These limitations can be technical (bandwidth issues, limitations of HTML) or conceptual. What this step involves is distilling a concept down to its most simple and concentrated elements. Curtis quotes Hemingway here: “Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.” By stripping away anything unnecessary, it amplifies the “story” the client is trying to tell.

Justifying follows directly from filtering and means making sure that every remaining element of a design serves the overall theme. Where filtering is a negative step—taking things away from a design—justifying is a positive step, reinforcing the reasons for keeping things in. The picture I get is one of constructing a building. After it’s finished, knock down any unneeded walls, and reinforce and strengthen the ones left. Curtis explains that if this step is practiced throughout the project, there should be far fewer walls to knock down during the filtering phase.

Inspiration and Practice

The second section of the book is heavily illustrated with examples of work that inspires Curtis. Most of these examples have been used in the first section of the book, so in addition to being good visual examples, they serve to reinforce points made in the Process section.

In the final section of the book, Curtis turns over the microphone to some of his respected colleagues. In the last nine chapters, they provide short treatments of various design issues such as color, type, layout, and usability. These are all interesting and useful, though too short to be comprehensive. I found the chapters on color (by Leatrice Eiseman) and type (by Katherine Green) to be most useful, since, like many new media designers, I’ve had no formal design training or print experience. Despite that, I found this the least enjoyable section of the book, probably since it’s missing the voice of Hillman Curtis.

Curtis has several mentors whom he looks to again and again. These include film directors (Sidney Lumet, David Mamet), painters (Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Weigl), even musicians (Billy Bragg). At the end of the book, he reprints the inspirational quotes used throughout the book—one to a page. These are maxims that permeate his work, and he shares this acquired wisdom with the reader. Early in the book, he discovers a principle that explains this practice. His wife Christina was attending a poetry conference, and someone asked the poet C.K. Williams where he turned to when faced with writer’s block. Williams’ response was simple: “I fall in love with a master.” This advice only seems radical because the field of new media is still in its infancy. there aren’t too many masters. The advice of Hillman Curtis is to open your eyes, that inspiration is found everywhere. New media design is part of the larger discipline of design, which can encompass everything from print design to industrial design to film and visual art.

Making the Invisible Visible endears itself to the reader because it allows a peek inside the head and heart of Hillman Curtis. He shares his insecurities as well as his inspirations, and this self-deprecation is a mark of some of the best teachers. He is not a “guru” who sees himself as the source of all truth. Instead, he encourages designers to look around and discover the world of inspiration before them. Additionally, the man himself is an inspiration due to his own lack of formal design education. Since many designers have been thrust into or simply fallen into new media design, it’s comforting to know that with some hard work and an open mind, anyone can create work that will both wow clients and feed back into the ocean of inspiration for others to draw upon.

Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer
Hillman Curtis
New Riders, 2003, 240pp.
US $45.00
CDN $69.99

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James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at