Rules for Design

Rules for Design

If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.

Written By

David Smooke

bad artA few weeks ago, I was eating dinner at an amazing Peruvian restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware, (I mention this on the off chance that you’re planning to visit Wilmington soon, in which case you should look up Juliana’s Kitchen) with some visual artist friends. One of them brought up an old maxim of the art and design world: If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.

The more I’ve thought about this phrase, the more practical this advice appears. A budding artist who wants to attract notice would be best served by creating outsized pieces that literally tower over their peers. Someone who wants to sell pieces needs to think about matching customers’ home design color schemes, which are generally based around neutral and wood tones, perfect matches for a nice splash of red art. Of course, this adage is based upon the premise that creative artists will accept their basic inability to create something they might think is good.

With very little tweaking, this adage translates quite well into music, where a parallel phrase might begin, “if you can’t make it good, make it loud.” There’s nothing like the sound of a full set of orchestral strings sawing away with brass blaring above them to help convey the sense of grandeur and awe, regardless of whether or not the basic materials are worthy of such treatment (what David Rakowski terms OLAMBIC music). Probably the musical equivalent of “red” in this interpretation would be “octatonic”—a modality found in Russian folk music that was utilized by a diverse swath of 20th-century composers, which goes well with just about every other type of pitch construction.

The main thrust of the quoted advice is to help beginning artists to emerge, to stand apart from the crowd. In an exhibition filled with medium-sized well-balanced images, a room-sized work will guarantee that the viewer will take notice of the artist. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of this grand design, its creator will be remembered. Paradoxically, in a setting in which enough artists have heeded the time-honored adage, a microscopic creation might provide the contrast necessary to convey an individual voice.


I hope that everyone who reads this has a happy and safe holiday season. Since this is the first night of Hannukah, I would like to extend particularly warm wishes to those people lighting the candles tonight. In the New Year, I’ll return with more thoughts on standing apart from the crowd.