What is Forensic Design?

Forensic Design is a method of finding meaningful inspiration in existing design, without being superficially imitative.

Designers need inspiration! While we should look for this inspiration everywhere, it’s useful — and necessary — to study existing design. The problem is, design is very much about “first impressions.” We see only the finished result and accept it as a single designer’s magical vision. We forget that it’s the result of a complicated process that involves many factors: people, language, cultural influences, materials, commerce, and technology. 

Forensic Design asks questions that reveal the process that leads to the desired result.

The study of graphic design is generally “historical” in nature, emphasizing arbitrary “great men” pigeonholed into movements, locations, dates, and trends. Books, articles, competitions, and exhibitions present designers’ work in a “gallery” context, which is a terrible way to experience art, let alone design. Design has far-more-relevant goals than impressing other designers. In the rare cases where we examine “vernacular” or “outsider” design, we generally only skim the surface to snipe ideas.

The key is looking beyond the surface to discover how and why the creators arrived at the finished result. To this end, we can ask questions. All good designers already do this, subconsciously, but by developing a conscious framework, the exercise becomes more fruitful.

After years of making a conscious effort to think about design, I’ve assembled a list of specific questions. It’s a work in progress, and no such list will ever be complete or perfect, but it’s my hope that creative professionals will use it as a starting point for their own investigations. My list focuses on print design, but these concepts can be applied to any creative endeavor. I hope to see it applied to industrial design, architecture… even writing and music!

Here’s the current list of questions (v4.0)

The list of questions above is the first “published” version, as presented to Mark Franz’ senior design class at Ohio University in late 2020, along with a longer zoom presentation about Forensic Design.

More background, and a statement about intellectual property:

In my 35 years of design and production work. I was lucky to experience several shifts in design technology. My great interest in design and printing history allowed me to reverse-engineer any printed piece I came across, to the degree that co-workers started jokingly calling me a “Forensic Designer.” Aside from being a impressive parlor trick, this skill proved to be very useful in my day-to-day work.

As a poseur suburban punk-rocker at heart, I’ve always been averse to “high design culture.” Big design conferences and lactures remind me of arena rock shows, an expensive and unsatisfying one-way flow of already-familiar information. My interest in letterpress printing led me to Hamilton Woodtype Museum’s annual Wayzgoose conference, a better model for a productive and egalitarian exchange of ideas. I’d love to present “Forensic Design” in similar forums, a handful of designers at a time, where, like Wayzgoose, I could learn as much from the “audience” as they learn from me.

With that in mind, I’m sharing my ideas here at the risk of someone rehashing and profiting from them. I put a good amount of work into this project and I continue to develop it with an eye to eventual publication, so while i encourage you to use the process for self-improvement, I ask that you not share these ideas for profit. I would appreciate credit as the concept and the name “Forensic Design.”

I’m happy to talk about Forensic Design anywhere, anytime: please reach out if you’d like me to speak to a group (students, designers, etc), or if you have any interest in helping me pursue/develop/publish these ideas.