Getting Beyond Basic

Back in the day when computers went beyond having dot matrix printing, “desktop publishing” came into being. Apple, with its Laserwriter printer, and Aldus, with its PageMaker software for page layout, set the stage for the advent of an entirely new way to print on a small business scale. This was in the mid-to-late 80s, and almost without notice typesetting houses across the country were on the ropes.

Now, all of a sudden, we were the typesetters. Typesetting had its own set of rules: flush-left, flush-right and justified—of course. But things like hanging punctuation and drop caps? How do you set those? We had to learn. But step one…

PageMaker, and applications such as Microsoft Word, came equipped with a standard set of typefaces (known in computerese as “fonts”) to give documents a professional look. Usually the limited set numbered close to 12 or 15 fonts, and included roman sans-serif typefaces like Helvetica, maybe one italic, a few monospaced styles like Monaco or Geneva, maybe a calligraphic face such as Apple Chancery, and a few serif faces like Palatino or Times. Designers already knew things like kerning and proper letterspacing, but non-designers stepping into this new realm took things as they came out of the box.

And one of the obvious things everyone had to deal with was the limitations imposed by those packaged fonts because initially they were the only ones available. Soon fonts of all styles and weights became available, at a price.

Adobe came out with scalable PostScript fonts, which had to be downloaded and installed into the printers’ ROM (read-only memory). But that made everything work, and we were able to have the luxury of things like WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) menus of those fonts. All this is now ancient history, the way computers “talk” to printers to print exactly what you see on the monitor’s screen. But back then, it was a revelation.

The reason I bring all this up today is that there’s a ton of those desktop publishers still out there who haven’t yet moved beyond using the basic set of fonts that came with their computer’s software. Of course, designers know better. But this column is for everyone who may want to enrich his/her knowledge and scope of seeing design and how things work in a graphic manner. One of the tools of design is typography. And knowing when to use a specific font for a specific design feel is the beginning of good graphic design thinking.

I came across one such circumstance just a few weeks ago: I agreed to help out a relative with a choral publication, which had been done for years by a non-designer who no longer wanted to tackle it. Last year’s booklet was done entirely with that basic set of fonts from around 1994.

I once worked for a company in 2005 whose entire type collection amounted to maybe thirty fonts. It was all I could do to try to expand that.

Type as a tool in design makes for messages in copy to become expressive through the good and varied choices we have in fonts. We have all kinds of fonts—thousands of them—to choose from in making those messages come to life on the printed page and in websites. Just go on the web and search for them. There are many free just for the download.

If you do that, be careful, because some of those free fonts are not complete fonts, meaning that they do not contain all of the symbols and characters with diacritical marks that a standard font should have. But you may find, for your personal use, a few really good fonts that can make your documents come alive, be it for announcements for friends and family, anniversaries, wedding and birth announcements, Christmas cards, what have you.

The thing I’m trying to say, non-designers, is take the extra step and become aware of what’s out there in fonts.

 

Animating the Inanimate

Animating inanimate objects for TV commercials can be a dicey thing to do. In the first place, advertisers need to know their target audience: the people who are watching television where the commercials are placed. This can be a spot shown within the time slot of a specific program or telecast, or a spot shown on a network within a given time period on a given day of the week.

The time slot and target audience can determine what kind of commercial an advertiser wants to do, and animation may or may not work for them. But animation has become a way to augment ads in general and gain a wider audience’s attention span. In this age of personifying anything from medicine bottles in television ads to roboting trash in feature films, the future of animation seems to be still on the upswing, thanks to 3D.

Above are two examples of animation with distinct differences. Cartoons they are not. The Ensure commercial is humorous to a small degree, but its intention is to be instructive. The Waste Management commercial is part of a small series, and its intention is to be merely flippant.

The different approaches these two ads take are typical of their kind. The Ensure ad is instructive because the product advertised is a health food supplement, taken mostly by adults who need a nutritional addition to their supposedly already nutritious diet. Its ad placement is usually during the hours of 8:00 AM through 5:00 PM, running on network television. I’m guessing the target audience is aged 34 to 75.

The Ensure ads actually personify the fruits and vegetables along with the Ensure bottle, but like I say—even though the ad is cartoon-like—it isn’t a cartoon. The message Abbott Labs is making is easy to follow because of the way Ensure is portrayed. I’ll give the Ensure ads a B+.

The Waste Management ads were positioned as part of the Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament telecast on The Golf Channel and NBC. So it was embedded as a proprietary advertiser. But its target audience is harder to define here: Waste Management was sponsoring the golf event, and being flippant with the format was a way of saying they are cool as a company. But I found the ads could’ve been so much better: they could’ve shown just how diverse and environmentally sound the company is. The dialog between the two dumpsters didn’t at all reflect that.

The Waste Management ads were also harder to follow along with because the animation was harder to see: the lids of the dumpsters barely move to express speaking, and the insets on the lid handles sliding from side to side are supposed to be the eyes of the characters—overall almost too subtle to be picked up while the dumpsters yap at each other. All considered, I’ll give the Waste Management ads a D.

And Waste Management’s target audience here? Anyone who was watching the golf tournament. A sporting event’s TV audience has an attention span equal to that of a ten-year-old. So being flippant was probably deemed OK by the client.

Home Grown Advertising

I was driving down the highway the other day, right behind a semi that I thought was a local mover. Turns out this is indeed a “local” company, based in White Plains, NY and doing business throughout Westchester County. But since I live in Florida, someone hired this “local” concern to move them here.

I hadn’t seen Al’s Moving before. And I had a hard time reading the logo on the back of that truck. You see it above, with “Al’s” tucked behind three-dimensional letterforms—spelling out “MOVING”—being carried by small figures. How quaint.

Seems Al’s has been in business since 1948 (I get that) and has been a good trusted mover according to their reviews. And that’s a good thing, because they need that kind of reputation. Because the logo doesn’t do them any justice. This kind of imagery can only be conceived by either a family member or friend of the owner, done probably back in good ol’ 1948. Obviously before the world knew the difference between designing a logo and fleshing out a semi-cartoon to promote a serious business. What I like to call “home grown advertising”.

By contrast, there’s also a moving company known as Two Men and a Truck, another well-respected mover. But their logo (not shown) is a simple stick-figure-based drawing done tongue-in-cheek to make the company look primitive and small-time. But that’s part of their charm. Here, Al’s Moving is still trying too hard with those terribly spaced letterforms, which are too difficult to read anyway.

Why do companies do this? Certainly someone must’ve told Al or maybe Al’s son (and probably Al’s grandson—it is a family-owned business) that times change, that the comic-strip-like image is at least no longer relevant. Could they hire a designer to make a much better logo? Sure. But would they ruin it? I mean, they probably toast this ugly image in a local bar.

So much for bad logos (this week, anyway). Now we’ll jump on My Pillow, everyone’s TV favorite. We’re not going to bash his logo—it’s actually not terrible. The font chosen for this has forms that are somewhat folksy, with thick and thin puffy contours, not totally unlike Mike Lindell’s pillow. So this logo is OK for the informal nature of this product.

No, what I’m keying in on is the tune sung by a trio of women at the end of his commercial (for copyright reasons, I couldn’t attach a link in this column). If you haven’t heard it, you will sometime soon, I’m sure. And when you do, you’ll probably cringe and wince a lot. Because it actually sounds like the recording was made back in good ol’ 1948. How quaint.

Gee, Mike, is that Mom singing with her neighbors? I’m certain Mike Lindell has made enough money by now that he can drop the radio-days song—which must’ve cost $50—and slip his TV ad into the 21st century.

It’s OK—I guess—to do your own TV ad. But that’s what car dealers do. They have to, because their margins are thin. But Mr. Lindell is trying too hard, with his hard-sell approach. I get it, it is after all his pillow.

All companies started local and were small once. Most learned to get current over time, the larger and more successful they became, and let go of that homey image. But obviously some just can’t.

Is it tradition or is it just stubbornness?

 

 

When Design Is Art

I was watching some of the events leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics the other night, and observed the beautiful forms made while the skaters performed their ice dancing. And if you’d ever watched ice dancing, you know that it is not like other olympic endeavors. It takes immense skill and strength, no doubt, and supreme discipline—after years of effort and practice. But that’s just one facet of it. The other is the art it makes.

That’s right: it makes art. Right there in front of you, a performance like ballet. The forms, the shapes and colors, all done in performing just in that one occasion. Like watching a watercolor move across the paper in the succeeding brushwork, creating a picture.

Design can be art as well. Thing is, there’s just so much out there that is not art. Take consumer packages: most are merely functioning as information on the shelf, with little or no beauty to them. But every now and then you see a package that approaches a certain essence of perfection, letting your brain, through your eyes, see the art in it.

Like those ice dancers who show things like repetitive shapes and synchronized movements and lines, you’ll see the same things happen in the artful packages. The Microsoft folding mouse packaging above shows that. It’s so simple: it takes a simple shape and repeats it, inverted below, as a semi-revealing window. It shows how the mouse folds. Charles Eames couldn’t have done much better in designing his forms in furniture. The elegant lines of the mouse itself almost demanded a good design here, and the package designer did not disappoint.

Zealong’s tea packaging is a good example of using the name to inspire a shape: a diagonal in its dieline to emulate the “Z”. How simple and yet elegant this is. And the colors—just black and lime green—bring out the contrast to enhance that dieline.

Maybe some companies need to look elsewhere for design inspiration the next time they want to redo their packaging. Maybe nature provides some input, like the shapes of leaves or flowers. Maybe it can come to a designer in the shapes of industrial items, like automobiles or furniture. Typography can be a source. Or maybe it can come from watching sports.

You can’t say those things of all packaging out there. Only a small percentage show it. That elegance, that shape, those lines. That art.

Newer Is Better

Why does a company introduce a new package for a seemingly ordinary line? Can’t they use an existing brand and indicate that it‘s new?

Well, yes (sorry) they could. But it wouldn’t have the impact that a brand new line would. Remember, good design has impact. And in packaging, impact is almost everything. Without it, a package will die on the store shelf.

And there‘s nothing like a brand new package for a brand new line in a food company‘s pantheon of products. They can make it whatever they want to be: new graphics, new photography, new colors, new copy, new name. They can make the PDP, the primary display panel, anything they want. In this case, that front of the can, it can be anything they need it to be, that endangered 40% of the label.

Campbell‘s new line of soups has a catchy name. Well Yes, of course, refers to “wellness”, one of those words I feel is kind of dumb, like “tiredness”. But no matter. It works here, and the semi-freeform design of the name works, also. Especially sitting as it does on the label. And the flavor SKU sits right below it, and the photo of the main ingredients sits right below that. 1, 2, 3. Easy and direct.

And this new label treats the consumer like he/she has a brain: there’s no “beauty” shot of a bowl of soup on the front. Don’t need it. Everyone knows what a bowl of soup looks like. It’s the ingredients that count. And the label has plenty of areas denoting what the health information is, mostly in a large and easy-to-read panel on the back.

They have fourteen SKUs in this new line (so far), all without artificial colors or flavors. Campbell’s says each has “purposeful” ingredients. And that, of course, is in line with the relatively recent wave of consumer-minded things like “organic” and “non-GMO” tags you see on food packaging. But in this new line, not all are non-GMO ad none are organic. Some are delineated as vegetarian or vegan, according to their ingredients. If you’re looking for protein or fiber, they have those, too.

So it’s new. And it’s different (part of what Campbell’s calls the Sage Project). And Campbell’s knows that if it’s new and has that impact they need, consumers will see it, pick it up, and read the label. And because the design is friendly and informative, and having all those friendly ingredients pictured right there, people will buy it. Yes, partly because it’s Campbell’s—a name we trust. But the design really carries it.

And the large “Yes!” in the name is instantly inviting. It has an intrinsic, positive vibe. Everything in the design (and ingredients) is positive. It’s no wonder that Campbell’s decided it had to be a new line. It was such a fun thing to do.

 

 

 

 

Bad Fashion Choices

I’ve written on many areas of design in this blog. To mind, there’s been articles on automotive design, interior design, type design, package design, logo design, all areas of graphic design, motion picture production design, and even design in television commercials.

But I’ve not yet written about fashion design. This entry will not be specifically about design among fashionable garments as much as it is about bad design choices.

There’s bad design choices in any area of design. And those bad choices can and are done by the designers themselves. You see it all the time.

In fashions, just go to stores like Ann Klein and Brooks Brothers to see the better designs, and then go to places like TJMaxx and JCPenney to see the bad ones. A discerning eye doesn’t take long to notice the difference.

But bad design choices are done most of the time by customers wearing the wrong items and it does not matter where they bought them. Dollars do not translate to good design choices.

Men usually don’t show bad design choices they’ve made because, for the most part, men wear standard items of clothing for each area of dress. For formal dress, men will wear a tailored suit or tuxedo, and those items either fit or they don’t (I’ve seen Tim Gunn wearing ill-fitting sports jackets, which makes me wonder).

Unfortunately for women, however, bad choices can show all the more. Because women have the luxury of a wide variety of choices to wear for such occasions, and make personal choices based on ego, the door is wide open for criticism. That’s why we have these red carpet displays at huge galas in show business which show, hopefully, the better decisions among fashion choices.

Far and away, gowns for these occasions are designed specifically for these stars. And the trend for Hollywood is the deep plunging neckline. Unfortunately, not every woman should be wearing that type of garment, regardless of who she is. A plunging neckline is a revealing feature, and what it should reveal is one thing, but a lot of these stars have nothing to reveal, and showing a bony chest instantly becomes a very bad design choice.

Some years ago while I was working at an ad agency, I noticed a girl who was overweight by perhaps one hundred pounds. You couldn’t miss her. She wasn’t obvious by her voice or her manner, but the fact that she chose to wear miniskirts made most of the rest of us a little uncomfortable.

How do you let that person know she made a bad design choice?

The Soundtrack of Our Lives?

Whatever happened to original music in TV commercials?

TV commercials have always relied on ambience—background music or sounds—to set the stage for a thematic message the advertisers wanted to convey to their target audience. From the ’50s thru the ’70s, TV commercials had original music, the track and sometimes vocal accompaniment, to provide that ambience.

Advertisers were well aware that the “jingles” written for these ads became a catchy way for the viewers to remember the ads. People would even hum or sing along with the ads, after a fashion, maybe making fun of the ads. But the advertisers didn’t care one way or another, as long as people remembered their ads.

And the jingle writers were happy to crank out the tunes. Many of the composers of these tunes were songwriters looking for a way to make extra cash between writing more lengthy songs for recording artists. But it was an arm of the entertainment business—part of the way things were done.

Then something changed around the late ’80s. The jingles started disappearing. Maybe the advertising agencies felt that viewers were becoming more sophisticated, but what actually happened, certainly by the late ’90s, was that writers at those agencies saw they had at their disposal a lot of music already available to them. They could use old rock ’n’ roll tunes.

It was part of a wave of using retro imagery and sounds from days past. Baby boomers had become of age, and taking the reins at ad agencies, wanted to express those images they had grown up with as art. You might say it was an extension of Andy Warhol’s version of “pop” art. Packaging began using old off-register print images. And old rock ’n’ roll music, either instrumental versions or snippets of the original vocals, were beginning to be heard in the background of TV ads.

At first, vocalists were hired to redo the songs, even update the sound. But then the originals were starting to be heard. Even today, you can hear ZZ Top’s “La Grange” on a Geico motorcycle insurance ad.

I was watching TV a few weeks ago and heard a tune I hadn’t heard in over 40 years. It wasn’t a rock tune or even a pop song, per se. It was a simple tune called “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, which had been a minor radio hit back in 1968 for a short while and later picked up as a tune used on Sesame Street. Originally used in a Italian film, it was written by Piero Umiliani, a name long forgotten by now. The tune has no words, just nonsensical syllables uttered by a vocalist.

And here it was used on a Ford Explorer commercial where we find a father and daughter making a wood craft in their garage. So here was an instance where the advertiser decided on using a tune heard in his/her youth, recalling a happy time with Dad.

And maybe that’s why we hear these tunes that recall those happy times. The 45-to-60-year-old demographic can surely identify with that mindset. A radio station in Chicago—playing songs from the ’60s and ’70s—has a byline: the Soundtrack of Our Lives.

But then I recently heard a homogenized Steely Dan tune in an elevator.

What Are “Design Sensitivities”?

I’ve written a few entries in this column with references to “design sensitivities”. What are they?

Design sensitivities are most often reflected in our personal choices. For example, in looking at the interior of your friend’s home, you can pick up their preferences for furniture choices, colors of paint, patterns on accessories, and textures. Anything you see in that home is a preference. Anything you don’t see might be be an example of an aversion to that owner’s design sensitivities.

Some people aren’t aware they have design sensitivities until they see someone else’s preferences. Everyone is different. They know they have likes and dislikes when it comes to shopping for themselves. But what they may not know is the cause of those preferences.

Most all preferences are the result of associative experiences—especially those with people you’ve known. If an acquaintance of yours, whom you dislike, wears shirts with wide horizontal stripes, that can work into your subconscious and you later find you have an aversion to that pattern in clothing. Also, if you yourself prefer to wear plaid shirts and you overhear a comment from someone that plaid shirts make you look like a second-class person, the comment may very well affect your future purchase of plaid shirts.

It’s the same with colors, shapes, and textures. This can apply to a home’s decor, a car’s interior, a painting, or even a design on placemats. A color you see can recall an item from your past, or a shape can bring to mind something you saw years ago that might’ve looked wrong for any number of reasons.

The thing is, the longer we live and the more associative experiences we have, the more we develop our design sensitivities, our preferences. For a designer, one who puts designs together from scratch, those sensitivities come to the surface immediately.

Because all those associative experiences are always just under the surface for a designer, he/she makes choices on the fly based on those visual cues, something to avoid or something to definitely use. Like an actor who can produce a certain emotion by thinking about a personal event, a designer can evoke allusions to any visual experience.

This came to mind recently while I was watching a movie one night—La La Land. Damien Chazelle, the director (and perhaps also David Wasco, the production designer, and even Austin Gorg, the art director), had a vision for the movie that keyed into a visual presentation using a color palette of primary hues. Against gradients of blue to sunset pink skies, we see clothing and lighting colors like yellows, blues, reds and greens, making for a kaleidoscope of moving poster-esque imagery that became a true visual delight to witness. This was art as much as it was a musical, maybe more so. The above images were just two of the countless colorful scenes that, to me, were like ice cream.

What I did notice in examining that visual treat was something about that color palette: the greens in the clothing were all of the lime green variety, close to maybe a Pantone 382 (if you don’t know what that is, Google it). This told me that a more obvious raw green (say a Pantone 354) was definitely a color not only outside the palette of tones chosen by the director, but that it was not in line with his design sensitivities.

If you recall, I once noted in this column that design—movies and TV included—is intentional. Anything that is not in line with one’s design sensitivities ends up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

———

My next column will appear on January 5. I’m taking the holiday week off, so Happy Holidays! until then…

Imagination and Seeing

I’ve written before about interior design. A few weeks ago, the subject involved decorating and staging rooms in renovated homes on a television show called “Nashville Flipped”.

With that show, the interior designer had apparently left the production after several successful episodes, and the subsequent homes’ interiors suffered because of her departure.

Today, I’m writing about interior design from a different perspective: what you and I and everyone has, and that’s a living space that we control. We control how it looks and functions, allowing us to use it as we see fit. We all have this canvas that we can paint to our liking, furnish to our visual satisfaction.

We can make changes to our spaces. Some people can visualize the changes more easily than others, but by and large, even design-minded people will get inspiration from looking at interior design magazines. That may spark ideas.

And where do ideas come from? They come from one place: your mind. It’s all about imagination and seeing. A designer uses his/her open mind to see what can be accomplished. The way I like to explain it is this: imagination is a door to an open mind, and seeing is a compass pointing the open mind in different directions to arrive at design possibilities. Seeing is a function of imagination.

But you have to have an open mind to get to those ideas, to see if they will apply to your visual sensitivities. If you see a photo of an interior space that impresses you, there’s no reason why you can’t apply the thinking behind that design to your own space.

The materials that made that room in the photo look impressive may be out of your reach, money-wise. But you can still come close to the feel of that room by taking away some visual cues.

In looking at the two images above, it’s easy to see the impact of one room over the other. I selected two photos of living rooms, both with fireplaces centered on the end wall and a bank of windows on the flanking wall.

What makes the room on the right work so well visually is the way the designer put it all together. We may not know for certain just what the interior designer was thinking, but by taking visual cues, we can probably determine that the light coming from the windows was the impetus to create the lines accentuating it: the beams on the ceiling and the shelves on the end wall on either side of the fireplace. The built-ins add visual interest on that end wall, and the dark shelves are an echo of the dark forms of the ceiling beams, which are an extension of the lines of the windows.

Can the owner of the space on the left take ideas from the room on the right? Of course. It just takes imagination to see them.

Design Awareness and Visual Conflict

I write this column to make readers—both designers and non-designers—see design, both good and bad. I know the title I chose for this article sounds maybe a little goofy. I mean it isn’t like “autism awareness” or anything along the lines of life defining circumstances. Design for most people doesn’t mean much.

Unless of course it involves things that impact movements and functions that people encounter during the course of their day. And for them, that means ergonomics and features of things they use. Things like electric shavers, cell phones, coffee makers, or an automobile. If the comfort level of that usage to them is low, then they perceive the design of those items is bad. And they’re right.

Non-designers might say something like, “This doesn’t feel right.” But to a designer, tactile sensations are just one facet of design. Visually, they can sense right away if something is wrong. Because designers can feel something just with their eyes.

It’s a matter of the overall design they see, usually in the mix of elements. Each element by itself may be sound, but joined with other elements—even if each is sound on its own—can easily set up a visual conflict. This can easily be seen in interior design, which I’ll get to in an upcoming article, but certainly in any ordinary plain design, be it on the web or in print.

Above are two examples that illustrate this: logos of furniture stores near where I live. Both places sell high quality furniture. And both designs use a script font and at least one other roman font. But one of the logos has the bad mix I just mentioned, not to state the obvious. The thing is, they don’t see it.

What makes things like this possible is the availability of graphic design software to anyone with a computer, and that means that some who have the opportunity to make their own designs will try to do so without understanding what makes a design successful. Either that, or someone in a company might envision a design in their mind, then instruct a designer to make what that someone imagined.

It doesn’t matter. The end result is what counts, and what counts here is readability. The thicks and thins of the Baer’s script B, overlaid with the ultra fine lines of the other fonts, set up a visual mess.

Unlike some designs, a company’s logo has properties that should promote the name and focus of that company. This is the face of the company, their best foot forward. Although Baer’s logo has a flowery appearance that may reflect their beautiful store interior, the fact that you can’t read it shouldn’t reflect the store’s focus. Nor should it detract from the store’s accessibility.

Bacon’s design has similar elements of the other logo, but here the designer (or non-designer?) knew when to stop short of visual conflict.