One of the things that got me most excited about graphic design was that I could create without drawing.

I sucked at illustration of almost all forms. No, that’s a lie. It was definitely at all forms that I was a poor student.

But here I was, about to start my studies in graphic design and any lack of skill on my behalf could be easily hidden by the design chops I did have.

“Alright, so everyone is required to keep a visual diary. No computer input what so ever, it has to be on paper. It can use printed materials, of course, but all notes, sketches, ideas and illustrations must be done by hand. The bulk of the work must be done by hand.”

Well, shit.

“Oh, and it’s going to be part of your final assessment, so make it good.”

Shit, shit.

* * *

“Writing motivates you to look closely at life.”

I love this line in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

When talking to her writing students, Lamott encourages them to look everywhere for dialogue, characters, and story ideas. An overheard comment from the person in front of them in line at the grocery store could help define a story point they’re working on.

If you were to take this approach it forces you to look outside of yourself as much as possible. No longer could you sit in your own world and solve problems. The solutions are more easily found in the outside world, in the people that walk past on the street.

Even if you don’t have some pressing problem to solve in the moment, in every direction there were answers floating past in the grip of the wind. Record them, is the advice. Write them down in a notebook or any piece of scrap paper you can – an interesting turn of phrase, an accent or drawl, an interesting problem. Record them all so that you can use them when you need to.

Doing such a thing feeds itself. You look because you want to record, and you record because you have found something interesting. Then you want to record more interesting things, so you listen and look with more attention.

It provides for the writer a richness of experience required for interesting work to be possible.

For you, the designer, it’s no different.

See, Record, Review.

“They’ll see the world through new eyes. Everything they see and hear and learn will become grist for the mill. At cocktail parties or in line at the post office, they will be gleaning small moments and overheard expressions: they’ll sneak away to scribble these things down.”
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

There’s no need to over complicate the first two steps:.

1. If you see something you like or don’t like;
2. Record it.

It’s that easy. If you see something that catches your eye, take a photo or screenshot of it. Save it to Pinterest or wherever you like.

For me, the important part is in what scared me in the opening story. It needs to have physicality. It needs to be on paper.

Recording to a site or service is simply too easy. Even recording into Evernote, a piece of software I adore and use as my external brain, is too easy for this project. The recording must be an active process, with no room for passivity.

There’s something in making marks on paper that is all the more real. It’s hard to hide a mark made, so what’s recorded tends to be significantly more instinctual. And should you change your mind about what you’ve done, be it a line, shape, or piece of writing, and cross it out, its history will remain; the history of your thought process.

What should you record? Everything.

Websites you’ve taken a screenshot of, beautiful type found on Pinterest, a poster from the corner shop, a quote that elicits something deep in your soul, screencaps from a movie that tore you apart.

Record anything that’ll make the third step more enjoyable and intricate.

“My pages are a place of safe keeping and honor where I transform my inner enemies into allies; where my weaknesses become strengths. Like a soul map, my pages allow me to see more clearly and more deeply the path to the real me.”
–Juliana Coles

It’s the third step that holds the most value – review.

Reviewing, like the recording, must be an active process. Open your visual diary, the one into which you’ve stuck with tape or glue, all your findings and start to review what you see.

Make notes, scribble on the examples, scribble next to them, around them. Highlight what works and allows your excitement to take shape in frantic lines and writing around the work.

Layer examples whenever you can, put odd examples next to each other. Put a piece by Carson next to one by Tschichold, it’ll create an interesting tension, one you can react to in your notes.

Most of all, ask questions. Ask questions that you cannot yet answer – ask why two colours that you love together work so well, ask why a layout seems so harmonious, ask why something makes you uncomfortable, why why you aren’t able to do the kind of work you’ve recorded.

I briefly mentioned earlier that you should also record work that you find offensive or flat-out awful. It shouldn’t make up a bulk of what you fill your book with, but it should be there. It’s important, because it’s another way to learn through asking questions – ask why it doesn’t work, ask where it breaks down, ask how it could be improved.

In the asking of these questions you create space in your mind for them to be answered. Perhaps you know the answer right away, or maybe you need to leave space for it for when you come back to it.

On occasion, should you be lucky enough, you might find a similar question come up in your own work, a situation in which you must find the answer. Then you can go back to fill it in where needed.

After a few months you might find the same questions are being continually asked. Maybe they relate to colour, or type, or some UX you can’t quite get your head around.

This is one of many gifts your visual diary will give you – it’s an opportunity to learn. It’s evidence that you’ve had something bothering you for some time and you haven’t really noticed it.

There have been studies done in which people are required to record their mood at random times throughout the day, when they’re sent an SMS or something similar.

What’s surprising is that even those who thought of themselves as genuinely happy, were often found to be the opposite.

When we’re in our own heads it’s hard to notice the patterns we protect ourselves from. Keeping a visual journal reveal them to you, at least those relating to your creative work and ideas.

Such a project can help you develop your taste, as you more actively critique the world around you. You can’t skate by with mental phrases like “that sucks” anymore, because that’s a shitty comment to leave on paper. You’ll pull the works around you apart and find how their pieces fit together.

It’ll help you figure out what works on a technical level and it’ll help refine your tastes on an aesthetic one, and most valuably, it might remind you of the kind of work you wish you were doing.

Get a blank notebook, fill it with what you see. Review what you record. You might just find yourself staring back from the pages.