The Hillman Curtis Theme

After reading MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer by Hillman Curtis, the book remained on my desk and I’d page through it whenever I needed inspiration. I often found myself thinking about Hillman’s story, about reinventing yourself, and not so much about the detail of the book. But one idea in the book struck a chord and I found myself thinking about it years later. It is the concept of ‘theme’ and I like his take on it.

Themes describe entire worlds. It lays down the ground rules for a place, and for participation in that place. A strong theme has the power to change people’s behaviour. People associate with meaningful themes.

Hillman Curtis writes:

Themes have that power. They can communicate so much deeper than literal messaging. As designers we have an opportunity to draw attention to theme through our designs. Every product has a theme, every company, every brand. Our challenge as designers is to challenge 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. Without communicating a theme, our designs will simply be pretty pictures… a bouquet of roses with no note attached.

This has implications for user experience design. Understanding and clear definition of theme allows area focus. Themes are acted out by personas in dress, language, consumption and aspirations. Consider animals living in a desert, their entire being is geared toward surviving the desert theme.

So, I find myself asking more and more, “What is the theme here?” It is not always obvious and sometimes you have to look for it. And this applies to people and places.

But once I see it things start making sense.


I wrote this post before learning of his passing. Keep on reinventing wherever you are …