Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

“The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35)Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer Hillman Curtis. June 2002. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing. [ISBN: 0-7357-1165-8. 240 pages. $45.00 (softcover).] Hillman Curtis first introduced readers to his revolutionary approach to New Media design in the best seller Flash Web Design. Curtis returns with his new book to explain the art of Making the Invisible Visible: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. The book reveals how to combine the right processes with enough inspiration to produce successful New Media projects.

Curtis begins by teaching readers the “Process” his company, hillmancurtis, inc., uses to produce some of the best New Media projects in the industry today. The process consists of seven steps: Listen, Unite, Theme, Concept, Eat the Audience, Filter and Justify. Each chapter in this section of the book takes an in-depth look at each step of the process. Curtis notes that steps often mix and overlap in order to get everything moving in the right direction.

The Listen step involves gathering as much information about the client and product as possible. Although Curtis stresses the usual point that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, he goes one step further. The Listen step also means searching to understand the story behind the company. According to Curtis, knowing “the company’s history, its points of pride, its shortcomings, and its core values is pure gold.” (p. 28)

The Unite step might sound like some warm and fuzzy client love-fest, but Curtis’ recommendations are right on target. He reminds New Media professionals to involve the client early and often during the planning stages of the project. “The more respected a client feels, the more secure he’ll feel with your work and the less he will feel the need to watch your every move, thus giving you more freedom as a designer,” (p. 35) writes Curtis. Keeping the lines of communication open takes discipline, but the results pay off in the end.

“Our challenge as designers is to target a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make, from the initial concept to the final composition.” (p. 41) That statement basically sums up MTIV’s attitude towards targeting a project’s Theme. And drawing a target is literally what Hillman Curtis recommends doing to hit the mark. He explains a simple exercise that can help you zero-in on the target and direction of the project.

Curtis draws a comparison to Pink Floyd’s The Wall album to illustrate the power and importance of the Concept. “Think of it this way: a concept is an idea. Our job as designers is to visually explain that idea.” (p. 57) Sketches, storyboards, and keeping your eye out for great ideas are the best ways to explore different conceptual possibilities. Along the way you solicit feedback from other members of the creative team and the client to create the right soil for good concepts to grow.

The Eat the Audience step is meant to remind designers that the audience needs to be included in the process just like everyone else. This is especially true in New Media design where the user is often unseen. Curtis discusses how to conduct “poor man’s focus groups” and other activities to find out more about the project’s target audience.

Both the Filter and Justify steps involve the compromises and streamlining needed to get the best end result. The limitations and constraints of bandwidth, browsers, plug-ins and countless other obstacles are challenges that New Media professionals must constantly deal with. Curtis looks at them as a way to “filter” out non-essential elements from the design. To further pare down the design you need to be able to “justify” it to the rest of the team. This step acts as the final checkpoint in the process.

Now, all the great processes in the world are useless without good execution. You have to combine know-how with inspiration to get the best results. MTIV’s second section is devoted entirely to demystifying the notion of “Inspiration.” For Hillman Curtis, inspiration “is the air we breathe to fuel our creative progress.” (p. 104) While this sounds very ethereal, Curtis is also quick to point out that there’s no such thing as divine inspiration. New Media professionals walk down a creative path filled with ideas and examples, and on this path they can’t help borrowing and sharing some of the things they find along the way.

Curtis explains how he constantly immerses himself in design books and magazines. “It’s all part of my ongoing effort to draw from the work of others. Finding in design books, perhaps, great starting points; or from movies or their titles, blueprints; or from poems or fiction, maps to follow.” (p. 113) Along the way, you piece ideas together until you reach a flash point where inspired creativity takes over. While reading MTIV you can’t help but notice how much Hillman Curtis has been influenced by the motion picture industry.

The “Practice” section of MTIV goes on to show what happens when proven processes meet inspiration in a design setting. Hillman Curtis likes to refer to it as “a sort of ‘Everything I ever wanted to know about New Media design basics but was afraid to ask’ section.” (p. 15) It includes a thorough review of everything from color theory to typography, and designing for the Web, broadcast and print mediums. Well-known professionals like Steve Krug, Katharine Green and Joseph Lowery make guest appearances to chime in a on a variety of topics. This section alone would have made a fine book of its own.

Hillman Curtis’ minimalist approach to design also appears to be his approach to writing. In just a few words he captures the essence of what it means to be a New Media designer and what it takes to push into unknown territory. Curtis passionately believes that “New Media design is a new frontier. It’s like the Wild West -full of pioneers who’ve traded their old professions for the wide open space of new possibilities.” (p. 138)

“Making the Invisible Visible” is a 240-page nonstop sensory experience, from the introduction to the index. At first I wondered if the book was all style and no substance, but Curtis hooked me after the first few pages. I found myself constantly commenting on how on-target his observations were, and how no other book has really captured what it means to be a New Media designer like MTIV does. I highly recommend this book to those in the profession who are looking for a spark to ignite their skills.

About the book:

Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog,, covers a range of issues and topics.


  1. I saw hillman curtis (lower case only, please) speak in Feb. 2001 at the FlashForward conference in SF and he turned me and the audience on. He introduced us to what turned him on and inspired him, books on directing by Sidney Lumet and the opening title sequence to Donny Brasco among other things.

    I returned a year later and his 40 min talk, which was supposed to be an hour, focused on the video clips he had shot to accompany his upcoming book, MTIV. Too much!

    Hilman should talk art, design, and inspiration, not Hillman.

  2. “..there are so many moments of self congratulation in the first half…”

    I can see how the book might be interpretated as such, but I personally felt otherwise; I felt that the personal reflections were rooted in more real life situations. I want to know how he felt; what were his motivations? How did he generate ideas and solutions? Often the answers to those questions call for a deeper and more personal look of the person presenting them.

    I come from a fine arts background in illustration; I had no formal training in graphic design, but I’ve been working as designer (in New Media and am presently a senior) for about 5 years now. Hillman’s personal accounts and biography appealed to me immediately – for years I’ve known how to design but not entirely why I did things the way I did. Hillman’s book, for me personally, really hit the spot, for it’s been a refreshing and clarifying modicum in a large world of development. I relished his personal experiences, because I could relate to them, but in all fairness not everyone will relate and thus potentially be turned off.

    I feel that this book is well worth every penny, and I highly recommend it to the novice and seasoned pro.

  3. Hillman Curtis’ dirty secret: he doesn’t get the web.

    His website says it all: HE USES IMAGES INSTEAD OF TEXT.

    I like some of Curtis’ animation, but his first book is self-congratulatory, and “overdesigned” so as to be unreadable.

    We should all be over the hype by now, and we should question rather than applaud work by web design “icons” that fails to embrace the nature of the web.

  4. this book contains what might possibly be the WORST piece of design advice i’ve ever read:

    …never, ever sell your design. You should be able to lay out your comps in front of the clients and if you have heard them, stayed true to their desires, and included them in the creative process, the designs should speak for themselves. The client should be able to look at the designs and see a
    bit of themselves…
    …resist the temptation to sell your designs, because it’s not about educating your client as to how and why design works… they already know!

    so, they client should just ‘get it’? this perpetuates the myth of design as something that can’t be discussed or debated, but rather it’s just some bit of ‘magic’ passed from hillman’s soul to the client. and if the client is true and if hillamn is true, than a light will go on, everything will click, profit margins soar and Frodo reaches Mt. Doom safely.

  5. great book…
    perfect? no, but what book is. I read it in two sittings and relly loved it. As for the all the player-haters – read the billy bragg quote at the beginning of the book

  6. MTIV is a pretty good book– i think– and full of insights and things to think about. And of course, stuff one doesn’t agree with. Heck, I can’t remember the last time I read a book and agreed 100% with it.

    But I am getting tired of “design as magic” as much as “usability as science” 🙂

  7. I disagree with Mike about Hillman’s advice on selling your designs. If you’ve done as Hillman suggests (communicate clearly with your client, involve them, know them, what they want, and who your audience is), then you’ve already sold the design before the client sees the final.

    They’ve already seen your sketches, rough drafts, and comps, and they’ve already commented and given their suggestions.

    At the point you show them the final design, you shouldn’t *need* to sell your design. It’s merely the last iteration in a long process the client has been involved in.

    I’m used to selling my designs, but having recently moved to higher ed, I’m shocked that I don’t need to, and not because I communicate with my “clients”. They just trust me.

    Otherwise, I loved the book. It was real stories and why and why not. It was experience. I didn’t think it was self-congratulatory at all. It was story-telling. It was happy hour with Hillman talking about design and how he does it, and I while readong, I found myself responding with my own experiences. I found MTIV to be a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a long time.

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