Getting Graphic

June 4, 2012

Stephen Killion interviews industrial designer, creative director, and illustrator Craighton Berman.


How we choose to tell a story says a lot about who we are as an individual. Our point of view acts as a lens into how we see the world and what we contribute to society. Trained as an industrial designer with experience as an innovation consultant, creative director, and illustrator, Craighton Berman uses his various skills as approaches to present ideas. Prior to branching out to focus on his personal work, Craighton was a lead designer at gravitytank, a Chicago-based innovation consultancy.

With design work in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and a frequent contributor of illustrations for Dwell, Details, and Core 77, his work has an ever-growing fan base.

Simply put, Craighton is interested in using design as a lens for understanding experiences and as a tool for bringing conceptual ideas to life. With his versatile way of working, each of his projects is grounded through the desire to give shape to new ideas with an insightful eye, a clear concept, and a strong point-of-view.

Stephen Killion sat down with the creative designer in his studio to talk about what exactly is a sketchnote and how his multidisciplinary approach can best capture the essence of an IDEA.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 01

Sketchnotes from SANAA lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. © Craighton Berman.

SK: Could you describe how communication plays an important role in your work?

CB: Design is all about clear intent and communicating an idea as clearly as possible. Communication in design is about shaping thoughts so that others can respond to and interpret those ideas. There are many ways that I feel you can communicate an idea, whether it be through a physical object or a two-dimensional drawing, interactive experience and/or prototype.

SK: What mediums do you use to create ideas?

CB: My personal practice mainly brings ideas to life through drawing or physical products. Often I’m using design thinking and rapid visualization to shape concepts, tell stories, and bring ideas to life. In other words, using drawing to explore very early ideas. I spent seven years at gravitytank, mainly working on interaction design work, and I very much enjoyed thinking about experiences over time. Often the best way to convey interactive ideas is through the use of storyboarding and animation. It’s interesting to me that a 2D medium like drawing becomes 3D through the introduction of the dimension of time.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 02

“Who the hell is Craighton Berman, anyway?” diagram. © Craighton Berman.

SK: What is the importance of sketching to your work?

CB: I see a sketch having a different role for its creator than simply someone who is viewing it. The beauty of sketching is that everyone has the ability to throw some lines down to explain what they are thinking visually. At its best, sketching is a medium for collaborators to work together and to talk through. Bringing an idea into a tangible physicality is a great way to bring everyone up to the same level of understanding about a project. A sketch is universally accessible in that it is a lo-fidelity form of representation. It is a raw and honest form of communication. One that is not perfect, and I think that is what makes it so approachable.

SK: Does this belief hold true in your more personal projects as well?

CB: My illustrations are thought out, but the style is unfinished, like a sketch, so they allow interpretation by the viewer. I want them to be interactive in the sense that people can add their reading of it to the story. Most of the illustrations I create are essentially half-baked ideas that make their way on paper. I use the various mediums I work in to take early ideas and give shape to them. The outcome could be a product, it could be a drawing, it could be whatever best conveys the thought.

There seems to be an acceptance of works in progress by the general public more than any other time. For example, much of Google’s products tend to be released in a beta format, so I think most people are willing to relate to unfinished products and works in progress.

SK: So, for you ideas are a form of communication that often form into design?

CB: Exactly!

SK: Do you ever develop your sketches into a more finished form of representation? For example, a rendering of a product.

CB: Coming from a product design background, I used to develop a lot of renderings. This is something I have not done in awhile. I do think they are an art form of their own and love seeing a stellar rendering as much as the next guy, but I made a conscious decision to not focus on the creation of renderings in my own work. Partly this comes from no longer having to pitch my ideas. This, of course, could change if I do have to start pitching my work again. For now it is nice to stay away from the hyper real even though there is a lot of interesting stuff happening in that realm of communication. For my work, I find it more worthwhile to go from a sketch to a physical thing. Prototypes and models are physical forms of sketching.

SK: Could you speak to how your sketchnotes act as retellings of an existing story?

CB: Sketchnotes/graphic recordings is a form of communication that attempts to translate the verbal or experiential into the visual. Often times you’ll see people taking sketchnotes at lectures in an attempt to distill the information. This technique can also be used more broadly to visualize any sort of meeting, conversation or experience.

When I have graphic recorded at TEDx events, I was visually mapping the presentations, the final images being a mixture of infographic and documentation. I tend to try to capture the essence of a speaker’s ideas rather than create a linear narrative of the lecture/presentation. In that situation, I want to be fair and unbiased in the content being presented, almost like a documentarian.

When I go to lectures independently, the sketchnotes come directly from what I am interested in. My point of view is brought into the story as well. Because of this my sketchnotes are often much different than simply visualizing what a speaker is saying. They are my interpretation. Sketchnotes become less of a form of reporting, and more a form of storytelling.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 03

Graphic recording for TEDxSanJose CA 2012. © Craighton Berman.

SK: You also develop sketch prototypes of objects as well as physical examples of design objects. What is the role of these two mediums and why do you choose to work in both forms?

CB: When I create, there are ideas that have various levels of fidelity. Some things can be conveyed simply as a tweet, a one-liner if you will. Usually these are simple, often funny statements, that don’t need to have more thought given to them.

More complex or absurd ideas I would like to visualize might become a cartoon. These projects simply don’t make since as actual objects. It would be silly to build them whether for practical or financial reasons.

Some ideas just don’t work unless they are brought to reality. For example, Sharpener Jar, a pencil sharpener I designed that collects a users’ pencil shavings in a quart-sized Mason jar. I thought the idea of showcasing the waste from sharpening a pencil in an attempt to document creative progress was interesting. I could have simply drawn a sketch to convey the idea, but I knew a physical artifact would be a better form demonstrating the idea. There are just some ideas that only become interesting if they are physically created. My work is simply the physicality of a tangible idea.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 04

Sharpener Jar. © Craighton Berman.

SK: Could you speak a little more specifically about your illustration/sketching style and how is related to comic strips?

CB: My sketchblog ( is dedicated to the presentation of ideas all conveyed by sketches. Humor is a part of that, since I love to explore the absurd. The absurd pushes you out of a comfort zone and is inheritably humorous. I feel that a lot of times you have to put yourself in a bizarre mindset or situation to push the tangible forward. If you are lucky, you sometimes find that a bizarre idea is marketable.

I find power in the communicative quality of humor. Things that are funny spread quickly, and this is especially true of things on the web. I am not forcing myself to be funny when I create something, I am just expressing my point of view. I happen to be drawn to absurdity, irony, and juxtapositions of object and ideas.

SK: Would you say that you are curating yourself online?

CB: Curating is an interesting word. When I first started, I wanted fueledbycoffee to be my humorous alias while keeping my personal work, under my name, to be perceived as “serious.” At some point I decided to abandon that mindset and mash my two sides together. I now let people traverse from my design side to my illustrations and vice versa.

Putting the cartoons online is a unique channel to tell my story, and share my work. In many ways it has expanded my viewership. The blog has 7,000 followers just through Tumblr—not to mention overall viewership—which is much more than my product design work would have by itself.

SK: How do your website and blog work together and also separately?

CB: They are both tools for communication. I love Tumblr as a form of communication. It is a great medium to reach a large group of people very quickly. It is an almost purely visual medium and creates a viral venue for sharing media. It is a testing ground for an idea. If something you post is interesting, it will be constantly reblogged, and if not, it will quickly get ingested and disappear.

SK: Do you see an importance in sharing your creative process?

CB: I think people care about where things come from. Our society is obsessed with the story of the people that make things and the space in which it is created. Maker stories give a sense of origin that cannot be told through other mediums.

Experimentation is a form of communication. Trial and error should be considered an acceptable way to convey an idea. Then people become more comfortable with the story of the object, and thus the object itself.

What is funny about most of these “maker stories” is that they are not the true story, but rather a telling of the story by someone with a point of view. By documenting a story, whether you like it or not, you are embedding you viewpoint on that story. The truth is never as cinematic as what is shared.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 05

Coil Lamp. © Craighton Berman.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 06

Coil Lamp. © Craighton Berman.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 07

Coil Lamp. © Craighton Berman.

SK: How would you describe your own process?

CB: To be honest, I would say that I don’t often think about process while I am making something. I’d rather explore, discover, and expand ideas until they are ready to share.

Obviously when I am consulting on design projects, I would say it is more a regulated and structured way of working. When I work on my own ideas, they tend to be more gestural and loose, a little more organic in form. My process is flexible in the sense that it is affected by how I am working and what I am working towards.

To bring anything interesting to life, you have to have a perspective on the world. If you don’t have that you are going to create a boring product. If you consider a fashion design, that is exactly what they are doing: sharing their point of view. Artists do the same; they have a way that they approach their chosen discipline. People become designers because you not only solve people’s needs, but you are also able to synthesize things in a particular way.

SK: Describe your point of view.

CB: Essentially, I’m interested in design that’s stripped to its essence—the design is the core idea. Some of my work can be loud and call for attention, but I am also interested in great design that blends in to its surroundings. I call those types of objects the “unnamed craftsmen,” objects that might be great design but aren’t boastful. The Muji brand out of Japan is a great example of that type of design. I am okay with not always pushing things forward; sometimes it is okay to refine something and then just leave it alone.

Imagine a band on tour that’s playing the same set list at every venue. In that restrictive of a setting, the artistry is no longer about creating something new at every event. Instead it is about refining and fine-tuning a formula. There is craft in taking the nuances and looking at ways of tweaking those points. As long as you have a curiosity, and make sure not to muddle your point of view too much, you can create something that is approachable and interesting.

SK: Speaking of focusing your output, most of your physical objects tend to be on the smaller human scale. Is there any reason for that?

CB: It is often said that the size of a studio affects the outcome of an artist’s work. I think this also holds true for designers. A lot of the ideas housed in my sketchbook are more experimental and odd. The problem is that the restrictions of my studio and time can only allow certain projects to be achieved.

SK: Could you tell me an inspiring design experience?

CB: I dropped my iPhone years ago and it crippled my home button. What became interesting about this modification was that almost all of the other functions of the phone were retained. I could still get into and use apps, but without a home button I was not able to exit out of anything without turning the phone off. What was interesting about this was that it changed how I interacted with the object. It made me very aware and conscious of my decisions—I couldn’t idly pop in and out of apps—I had to be very purposeful about what I did with the device. It converted a convenience experience into one that required thought.

Experimentation is a strong point of who I am and by being aware of the importance of situations like this that I can create interesting experiences.

Mas issue communication getting graphic 08

Workspace. © Craighton Berman.