Get Inspired with Found Materials

Designers are known more for what they produce than for how they produce it. The public sees a new product advertised long after the initial sketches are complete. Users respond to a new Web site after it’s launched. And design annuals are never filled with half-finished work. People see the ends, not the means. But just as the opening scene of a film or the first chapter of a novel is critical to the plot, the beginning of the design process sets the tone for the creative result. Two firms, Design Continuum and Templin Brink Design, are a study in contrasts in many ways. But both use found materials to spark their creative process and establish clear criteria with their clients. (See "Where to Find Found Materials.")

Boston-based product-design firm Design Continuum translates existing brand attributes into new goods. With more than 100 employees organized into large teams, the initial challenge on any project is to establish a common understanding of the visual criteria. Because most clients approach Design Continuum with a set of words—qualities that they would like their product to evoke—thedesigners’ job is to translate those words to products.

In 1998, Design Continuum instituted the Visual Library to provide a starting point for designers and clients alike. It includes 1,400+ found images and 30 books—brainstorming logs dedicated to visual explorations of a particular word, such as "rugged," "friendly" or "fast." The books grow out of group sessions in which participatnts discuss the word and its connotations, find common themes and develop a visual language including colors, images, sounds and personality traits.

For Templin Brink Design, a graphic design and branding firm of five in San Francisco, found images are also central to early development, though used somewhat differently. After a project is assigned, Templin Brink designers create a Design Precedent Book, a tabloid-sized ledger that captures the visual and conceptual foundation for the project through writing and found examples of design, photography and illustration. The designers scour the firm’s vast image archive; they then collect, sort and juxtapose. Instead of an initial round of design solutions, the client receives a set of found visual materials, bound into a book whose mass and materials signify its importance.

For, the Design Precedent Book communicates a sophisticated, approachable and honest aesthetic. After a brief brand analysis, the book shifts to a selection of vintage line drawings, color and design examples from old wine magazines, 1950s Italian industrial catalogs, vintage cookbooks, 1940s hardware catalogs, and a combination of hand-drawn and rigorously set Swiss typography. The materials suggest a visual language for Wineshopper, which resulted in a series of printed promo pieces.

While the found materials may be invisible now that the projects are complete, for both Design Continuum and Templin Brink Design, they were vital to getting started. Both firms advocate an ongoing connection to the physical material that surrounds us all. As Joel Templin says, "He who dies with the most scrap wins."

Templin Brink and Design Continuum creatives recommend these sources for found objects:

• Flea markets
• Antique/used bookstores (look in any section, not just design)
• Garage sales
• Supermarkets and convenience stores
• Bill Cahan’s trash
• Hardware stores around the world
• Old industrial catalogs
• Old type-specimen books
• Attics, basements and closets
• Magazines (old or new)
• eBay
• Big Lots
• Junkyards
• Dumpster diving
• Charity book sales