Two questions, perhaps, but so interrelated that I don't see a meaningful way to prize them apart.

There are several discussions in meta concerning the scope of GD.SE, whether it should be expanded, degrees of overlap with other sites, and so on. I'm not trying to rehash these. It seems to me there are many valid points in all of these discussions, but it remains that they haven't gone very far and no clear conclusion has resulted from any of them. At the same time, my efforts to interest other designers in GD.SE have not been very fruitful.

I'm a relative newcomer to the SE family. Up to now I haven't felt that I could make a meaningful contribution to the discussion, but recently I decided to look at the problem from a marketing perspective, and that's when I saw the gaping hole in the discussions hitherto.

Here's the problem as I see it: in all the discussions of what the scope of GD should be, two questions don't seem to have been asked or given the importance they require, and definitely have not been answered. These are the who and what questions: who is this site for, and what do they need? Any product, to be viable, must have potential customers and must provide some kind of clear benefit in exchange for their contribution of time, money, or participation. If these aren't clearly defined, success is uncertain at best. That is true no matter how "good" the product is.

Form follows function, but GD.SE started with a format without really defining its function (usefulness, to whom). If we get the who and the what in view, I think the rest will follow. That includes branding, which is an impossibility without knowing both the audience and the message. (You'd think I would have figured this out sooner; my company tagline is "Your message. Your audience. Our business.")

So... who is this site for, really? Who are we trying to reach? And what would make GD.SE a valuable resource for those people? (Starting point: If you're a designer, what would make GD.SE a more valuable resource for you?)

3 Answers 3


Alan, first, I'd like to say thank you for your great contribution! Your expertise has really helped this site's growth!

I've been thinking about the question you raised too. Currently the /About page states:

This is a free, community driven Q&A for professional graphic designers and non-designers trying to do their own graphic design.

I feel this is fairly accurate. Although there are different types of "graphic designers" these days. There are traditional printer designers, and those who design for the digital. Also "graphic design" may be a subset of some people's professions. For example, web designers, and client app designers etc.

A few problems I see with the site so far: (not sure if "problem" is the correct word, but areas I'd like to see improvement on)

  • Most of the questions are on how. "How do I do this in software X," "ID this font," etc. I have nothing against this type of questions, since they actually fit in the original SE Q&A model, which is, ask a non-subjective question that has a solid answer to. However, I feel when the frontpage is populated with such questions, it may drive professional designers away. They may be interested in more philosophical type of questions.

  • The Beta site design may not be appealing to designers who haven't heard of SE, therefore they won't take the site seriously or participate. Of course, as you know by now, every Stack Exchanbe beta site has the same "Sketchy" skin. I feel this may hurt site's growth. I hate to say this, but a lot of designers do judge a book by its cover.

What I'd like to see on the site:

  • Have more questions on the why aspect. More questions on design principles, grid, color theories, typography, design history etc.

  • Design critiques. I know we allow this already, assuming the question is nicely constructed. I feel this type of Q&A gives a site more of a community feel.

What I'd do to improve the site:

  • Tell more of my professional designers, and design enthusiasts friends about the site. I have in the past, but I'll pester them harder! :)

  • I'll work with our marketing/PR team to promote this site. I feel we have a GREAT topic here, the site needs some love. Some ideas I have: prize giveaway contests with popular design blogs/sites, conference sponsorships etc.

  • I want to deploy a final design for this site in the near future, even though the stats may not meet the graduation requirements yet. I feel an established branding helps to promote the site too. I did this for our UX site(which is still in Beta). I think it's helped its growth.

  • I'll try to participate a lot more on the site. I actually could use this site to design more SE sites! Talk about eating one's own dog food.

Again, I want to stress how optimistic I feel about this site. Graphic Design is a great topic, and more and more people in the tech industry start to value design in their startups and applications. There are some GD related forums I used to participate on, but their typically old school forum format isn't great for Q&A. I think we have a great platform here, we just need more exposure to the world outside of SE.

  • Thank you for such a thoughtful, well-considered answer. Unfortunately, the SE format is great for Q&A, but it makes dialog really difficult (same goes for blogs and most forums). I've framed my response, and an idea or two, as another answer. Dec 24, 2011 at 9:03

Here's my take on the why aspect: Years ago, a designer designed. Image prep, color seps, typesetting, even paste-up in many cases, were separate crafts. Today, except in a few specialized cases, it's all on head of the designer.

The challenge most working designers face is how to apply the principles and techniques of design, using ever-changing, highly technical tools, to both traditional and new media. Art Directors and Creative Directors worry about the "why" of a design; designers sweat the "how" if they want to eat, more so if they're web or app devs grappling with design issues.

It is less and less common for design work to be "print only." Even book design must now include ePub and Kindle, magazine design must consider tablet deliverables. There is no such thing anymore as a corporate identity package that doesn't include the web, even for small clients and start-ups. No freelancer can survive for long as a "print only" designer, so they have to learn the how of things in new media, often with unfamiliar tools. (As a matter of personal experience, I didn't seek out web, or Flash, or interactive design work; it came banging on my door and threatened to take away all my clients if I didn't get up to speed.) So it's not just the web dev wondering "how do I do this?" -- designers face new tool- and technology-related challenges all the time.

If we are for designers, then, and especially for "non-designers trying to do their own graphic design", then not only are "How do I ..." questions inevitable, it seems to me they are being explicitly invited.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Picasso, is:

"When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine."

So when it comes to the philosophical, I have to admit I'm inclined to bow out. On the other hand, a question like "This design blows me away and I can't put my finger on why. What did they do that makes it so outstanding?" will lead, 9 times out of 10, straight into one or more design fundamentals. Also, 9 times out of 10, the answer is a how: a concrete application of one or more principles, substantive rather than theoretical.

Generalized, abstract questions about grids and color theory, then, would send me elsewhere, not least because, as in any art-related field, one is too often dealing only with opinion. (I'm just a working stiff that's gotta eat, knowwhatImean?)

Critiques definitely are healthy, and useful, when they're done in a respectful and positive way (which the whole tone of the site encourages -- thanks to the folks who got it started and the SE team behind them).

But it seems to me there is a class of practical, answerable question that is both interesting and non-trivial, and doesn't require possibly shy beginners to put up their efforts for public criticism; a type of question that is of professional interest to beginners and old hands alike. You might call it the "How'd they do that?" question. We all see great work that intrigues us, and we try to deconstruct some jaw-dropping bit of technique so we can adapt it to some of our own work. That class of question, I feel, would attract working designers, as well as ADs and CDs.

  • In my previous answer, by "philosophical" I meant in the context of answering someone's question(design critique etc), not as an open ended discussion. I think we all agree that there's room for all sorts of questions on the site.
    – Jin
    Dec 25, 2011 at 7:45

A little background: I'm a freelancer who originally picked up graphic design out of necessity. My company wouldn't give me a budget for a UX designer, so I had to learn.

Given the heritage of the Stack Exchange network, I think this site probably gets a lot of visitors with similar background, i.e., hackers who just want their gear to look a little better. I think we have a void when it comes to content for this group.

We have no shortage of Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign how-tos, and Gimp/Inkscape questions seem to get answered. There's even a recent influx of new users who seem to have strong Fireworks backgrounds. We definitely have a talent pool for knowledge about the tools themselves.

On the other end we have a number of newer users who really bring good knowledge to the table about more intricate design details and histories. They blend right in with the rest of the experienced designers who have been here since the beginning.

There is a chasm between these 2* groups - between simple questions and off-hand historical knowledge.

Alan, you mentioned "[leading] straight into ... design fundamentals" and I think this is where we could improve in general as a community. Most of your answers, even to simple questions, are replete with good background info. It would be great to see more of this all-around.

To achieve this, I think we might want to encourage questions about "what's right|wrong with my design?" I'm not certain, but I think the FAQ used to forbid this type of question. It currently does not, and I think this type of question would provoke more mid-level discussion about fundamentals. For instance, this answer has a lot of good information in it.

In short, I would like to see encouragement of questions that invite critiques from experienced designers. Not in a artsy foofie way, but with solid design principles backing up statements that encourage people to stop using Photoshop and start designing.

* There is a third group is populated by the 2 who posted before me on this question, but I'm ignoring them as statistical outliers. ;)

  • 1
    Critiques were once roundly rejected, but I believe you are right. We should have them. "What do you think?" type questions are useless, but "I'm trying to achieve [x]. Here's what I have so far. Am I succeeding?" could be very productive. So could "Why is this design so successful?" John McWade does this kind of stuff incredibly well (bamagazine.com), and it's popular and productive. Feb 10, 2012 at 21:07

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