Clever Design, Defined:

“I’ll know it when I see it” is one of a graphic designer’s least favorite phrases. This phrase epitomizes a lack of goals. Therefore, I find it unsettling to use that as my answer to the question, what, exactly, in my eyes, is clever design and where’s the best place to find inspiration.

Since the [ThurZday video]( where I spoke briefly to the concept of clever graphic design, it has been weighing on me that I could not provide a clear definition. So, to clarify my definition, I went to a reliable source: designs from the first set of designers I found inspiring.

I have always been comfortable in the field of fine arts. I can appreciate the mastery of a medium and message within a piece. When I began pursuing a design career in earnest, I realized one of my biggest hurdles was my inability to recognize the same beauty within design. Unity, letterforms, balance, gestalt, graphics, etc…all of these “graphic arts” terms held no weight for me.

To overcome this lack of understanding, I went through a list of influential designers until I found a few that piqued my interest and provided inspiration. As I explored the list, I recognized that a lot of the pieces I was immediately attracted to came from the same source: The Basel School of Design, in the forms of Wolfgang Weingart and Armin Hoffman. To best understand these two designers, I tracked down their books and dove right in.

1. **Artistic Compositions: Inspiration from Wolfgang Weingart**

[Wolfgang Weingart]( was an immediate inspiration. In “[Typography: My Way to Typography](,” he wrote about his history as a typesetter and how it allowed him to understand letterforms and the printing process. He also wrote about his willingness to experiment with any technology he had at hand. The combination of these two allowed him to develop a layered visual style that I would describe as controlled chaos.

While layering graphics, type and texture, Weingart was able to retain control over the composition. His ability to balance halftone textures, limited colors, legible typography, fractured typography, strong areas of flat colors, blacks whites and greys, etc., blend the lines between art and design. Through his understanding of the process, the fundamentals of his vision and a willingness to break standards, he created incredible, complex and visually intriguing compositions.

It was his control and clear purpose that first inspired me. Although his works were complex and contained numerous varied elements, the message was always clear. His pieces were clever, because you could see the balance between his hand and the design solution.

2. **Letterforms: Inspiration from Wolfgang Weingart**

In addition to his graphic, layered posters, Weingart created [typographic experiments]( These helped me understand the beauty that comes from letterforms, typesetting and visual contrast.

As a typesetter, he had access not only to letterforms, but everything that goes along with them. Joining letterforms, removing space between them, creating forms from pieces of other forms…all these experiments created beautiful compositions of stark black and grey.

The cleverness of these designs came from his willingness to break apart typography and use the fragments to create full compositions. He used parts from typesetting that are typically negative, or not visually present. He repurposed and joined common visual forms. Essentially, he understood his craft to the point where he looked beyond the forms themselves and saw the possibility of a total composition.

3. **The Three Dots: Inspiration from Armin Hoffman**

[Armin Hoffman]( is the standard when it comes to inspirational designer…not only because of his mastery, but also because he was one of the most impactful teachers of design.

The non-standard reason Armin Hoffman inspired me comes from a small, very specific piece from his book, “[Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice](” In this book, I found a graphic that showed three dots in a line. They were the exact same size and the only differentiator in the tiny design was the placement of the dots. Instead of being distributed evenly along the horizontal axis, one of the dots was sublimely off-center, creating a dynamic visual scene. The simplicity of the graphic was the summation of his intent. He used this graphic to show how even the slightest adjustment can create visual interest and dynamism.

This graphic was incredibly clever and helped me understand, along with the works by Weingart, just how important it is to know the goal of your design, the medium within which you are working and the aspects you can manipulate to create visual interest and a story.

Therefore, clever graphic design comes from understanding all these aspects and controlling them to achieve the goal of a project in a unique manner. How do you define clever design? Where do you turn for inspiration? Share your thoughts below.