Observations on Perception, Part 2

    

Watching television commercials is like going on a cruise. You can be bored if you like, you can revile the repetition of it all, or you can look closely and people watch.

Me, I like to think I can look closely enough to see things people otherwise tend to overlook. I tend to not take things at face value.

And so, looking closely at some commercials makes me wonder where they get these euphoric visions of certain items the sponsors are trying to sell us. In some cases, the vision is one of extreme excitement. In some others, a feeling of exhilaration. In yet others, it might be an extreme sense of freedom.

I don’t get bored seeing these kinds of commercials. But I do get curious. And I laugh a lot. Especially when I see the kind pictured above.

At left I chose the Land Rover commercial where we see the vehicle outrunning a desert sandstorm (!), stopping to pick up a team of sailors on their way to whatever is pictured at the end of the commercial—what appears to be an America Cup racing yacht. Yeah.

Here’s a team of guys out in the…desert?…just walking around in the…desert? Huh? And all this to the tune of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Sounds completely and stupidly incongruous. After watching it several times, I still don’t get it. It makes no sense.

Next I chose the Alfa Romeo Giulia ad where the newest ugly car from Italy is being driven down a country road. Ever notice in these car ads that theirs is the only car on the road? Some of the ads for other cars show the vehicle being driven downtown in the same way—all alone. Gee. Do we consumers ever get to drive our cars in a situation like that? Of course not.

Last, I chose the Nordic Track Freestride Trainer ad. This woman is riding her new elliptical exercise machine on top of a building! Not in her apartment, not in her basement in the ‘burbs. Right up there in downtown Metropolis, above everyone else. Does this make any sense? No, of course not.

Which brings me to what goes through the minds of ad agencies when they concoct these things. Of course they’re trying to depict the car (or exercise machine) in an atmosphere of escape from the everyday humdrum of reality. To give that car a mystique that it it really doesn’t have, especially while you’re driving your new baby home from the dealer stuck in rush hour traffic.

That I get. I can even apply that kind of idiom to the Nordic Track, if I squint real hard after another gin and tonic.

But the Land Rover ad escapes any kind of lofty storyline logic. Of course, their slogan is “above and beyond”. Beyond for sure. Way out there.

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New Men’s Belts

     

Ever notice the new “technology” with regard to the way men’s belts are cinched? The old way is the peg/hole standard (actually prong/frame in the belt industry). The new way is more of a ratchet method with a track of indents on the reverse side of the belt with a spring-catch mechanism on the backside of the buckle.

This new way makes cinching the belt both easier and also much more adjustable, given that the tracks have increments at around ¼-inch apart.

That’s a good thing. In the old way, the holes in the leather are roughly an inch apart, with maybe five holes to choose from to make that belt fit an ever-widening waistline. So with the increments much closer in the new “tracked” belts, adjusting the belt to how bloated you feel any given day becomes much more accommodating.

There are two manufacturers in the forefront here. Mission Belt offers a fairly sleek design to their buckle, which has a release latch on the back. Comfort Click’s belts look more traditional and have a different mechanism with the way the buckle operates. The Mission Belt comes in a variety of styles. The Comfort Click comes in just the one traditional style, pictured above.

I’d heard about the Mission Belt a few years ago. The Comfort Click, I believe, is more recent. The thing is, the Mission Belt gets an A in appearance, an A- in the way it releases. The Comfort Click get a A in the way it releases, but a D in its appearance.

New-fangled belts are drawing on old tech in the way they operate. Military belts have a plain shield-like buckle that the strap goes through, and the friction bar behind it locks the strap into position. The similarity here is that the buckle hides the cinching. The new belts have taken this as a jump-off point to rethink just how to make the belts work better and still hide the cinch.

The Mission Belt’s appearance is sleek and takes a more fashion approach with different models to choose from. Its release mechanism is OK, but could be a little smaller. The Comfort Click’s release is pretty smooth, but the design of the belt’s appearance was left on the cutting room floor.

Which made me wonder just why a company—which obviously prides itself on innovation—would market a retro-style belt, its only model. Seems to me that you’d want to have your new belt work and look like no other. But here the buckle, with its traditional frame and prong appearance, is fake.

That’s like a car company introducing a new 2018 model with a revolutionary drivetrain, yet on the outside it looks like one from 1965. It’s backward thinking.

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Not the Best Western

      

Close to where I live, there’s a Best Western Hotel. And on the side of the building is their new logo.

Plain and simple. But mostly just plain.

I couldn’t believe it. It’s been almost two years since they changed their logo, but it wasn’t until recently that I saw the new monogram. After seeing it, I immediately thought of my childhood when my parents took us traveling during summer vacations and we often stayed at a Best Western. The hotels weren’t the best, but they were good and they fit my parents’ budget.

The logo was similar in feel to the first one pictured above, although this particular one is the most recent before the change.

So back in 2015, they changed the logo. Something about bringing it into the 21st century or some such malarkey. The official wording had to do with making the new logo reflective of all the “brands” offered by the hotel chain.

What got me was the way they worded the change. Apparently it took them two years to do it. Ouch. That’s one. The word “contemporizing” was mentioned. Really?

They actually said this: “Best Western used today’s graphic design and digital printing capabilities to create an array of logos that use special effects to be distinctive and striking to consumers.” I am not making this up. The italics, however, are mine. Read on…

“The design…uses hand-drawn lettering, which is familiar and personable and pulls through the company’s updated blue color. The centerpiece globe comes to life through the use of special effects such as gradient, highlighting and a 3-D treatment. These effects will be distinctive within the hotel industry which traditionally uses two-dimensional logos.” All that is two. Once again, the italics are mine.

These last two paragraphs. Seriously? Couldn’t possibly have been written by a designer. Designers don’t call a circle a “globe” and they don’t refer to gradients, highlighting and a 3-D “treatment” as special effects. Garbage. Imagine a corporation putting out a message like that. OMG.

All that points to two things: one, if that logo took two years in the making, then there were too many meetings with too many people in the decision making; and two, the above explanation was written by either a marketing person or somebody’s wife or partner who thought writing might be possible career. Any designer who’s read that explanation probably sent a text to another designer saying, “LMAO.”

But enough about the goofy explanation. The logos are too generic. Anyone can slap together two letterforms and call them a logo. Criticisms have appeared on the Internet saying it’s too much of a departure from the traditional “crowned” version. There’s a lot to be said for keeping the feel of a decades-old logo going forward.

In this case, even though Best Western was never a premium hotel chain, the new logo cheapens it. Now it feels like Motel 6.

 

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Those Pharmaceutical Commercials

    

In the last few years, we’ve seen numerous pharma ads on TV, and they seem to multiply like rabbits in April. Seems like you’ve seen them all only to encounter another one with a pharmaceutical name someone must’ve made up on the way to a board meeting. Names like “Myrbetriq” and “Entyvio”. The names themselves don’t mean anything, because none of them sound like what they’re prescribed for. And the ads are long, some longer than a minute—which on TV, while you’re waiting to see if the new MacGyver will save the day—is like a minor eternity.

But this column today isn’t about the names of some of those medications or about the length of the ads. It’s about the ads themselves and the models they use. I’m not certain just why they bother me. But they do. I look at the perception and the storyline of the ad, but mostly the perception.

My issue is that the model walks through her day as though she’s on Xanax instead of the advertiser’s product. I look at these models and the dopey expression on their faces tells me they might not be allowed to drive a car after shooting the ad.

Of course the models themselves aren’t to blame here. It’s the directors who staged these stupidly idyllic ads. Plus the ad agency probably stepped in somewhere between the concept stage and the storyboards and added their two cents. More committee decisions.

In the Stelara ad, the brunette can’t quite stop smiling throughout the commercial. She’s easily the dopiest I’ve seen in all the pharma ads going. Stelara is prescribed for plaque psoriasis, a skin condition that can be embarrassing in the company of strangers or among people of minimal acquaintance. So this girl is walking along various rural tracks with her beau during the sunlit day and also sits with him among others at night around a campfire.

So the depiction is that she’s enjoying life and not worried about her skin condition because she’s taking Stelara. But the perception is that she’s just too happy. And it ain’t the Stelara.

In the Botox ad, this girl is cruising on something else. Not sure, but the perception is maybe…Vicodin? She’s in dreamland, this girl. Botox is prescribed for migraine headaches. I think she’s using more than is prescribed.

In the Lyrica ad, this model appears confident, alert and very conscious of who and where she is. This is normal behavior, advertisers. Lyrica is prescribed for fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder affecting joints and muscles. So the perception here, because the model comes off as managing her condition with a sound mind, is that there’s no apparent side effect of Lyrica displayed by heavy eyelids and a dopey smile.

I can see a patient going to her doctor and asking if the pills he’s prescribing are going to cause her to look as clueless as some of these models. Advertisers need to be aware that perception is everything. Not just to them, but also to the viewer.

 

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Owls for Now

    

Mascots. They’ve been with us almost as long as slogans have (see article from June 16). Whereas slogans probably came from a remark that someone made offhandedly about a product or service, mascots came about in an entirely different way.

Advertisers began introducing characters to represent their products, knowing two things would happen: one, it would distinguish their product from the rest, and two, it would also make it more memorable. Around World War I, we had the girl on the Morton Salt container (1914), Planter’s Mr. Peanut (1916), and Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo on the Cracker Jack package (1918).

In the advertising world, mascots are important for endearing products to the buying public. So like my old design school roommate would tell it, it’s a gimmick. Call it what you will, but it worked back in the day and it still does. Otherwise, advertisers would’ve abandoned it long ago. Advertisers have to be timely and current.

After World War II, animals came to the fore in the ad world. Cartoons came of age in the ’40s, and ad agencies began to see a way to incorporate lovable characters into ad campaigns. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes started using Tony the Tiger in 1951. Bucky Beaver was the spokesperson for Ipana Toothpaste in 1957. There were other characters besides animals just as cuddly: “Speedy” for Alka Seltzer (1952), Pillsbury’s Poppin’ Fresh doughboy (1965), and Keebler’s elves (1968), for example.

Right now we have owls. One for America’s Best eyewear; one for Xyzal, an allergy OTC pill; and a third for Trip Advisor, a vacation helper on the Internet. Two of them are well-animated, the third not so much.

America’s Best is the best owl by far. He looks real—within most parameters—and he’s articulated very well. Plus he’s wearing glasses, which is of course a necessary tie-in with what he’s hawking (sorry). The fact that he appears out of nowhere—on a roof or park bench—is of no real consequence. And there’s no segue into his sales pitch, telling the unsuspecting and bewildered person that she’s paying too much for eyeglasses.

You’d ignore or turn away from a stranger doing the same direct confrontation. But this is an owl, and you listen to him because owls don’t speak and also, because he’s an owl, he’s wise. That’s the shtick.

Xyzal’s owl is much more stylized, but he’s just as wise. Even professorial. He’s not accosting people in the park—he’s in a library, wearing a monocle, a bow tie and a smoking jacket. Plus, he’s got a British accent, which we’ve noted before implies intelligence.

Then we have a third owl, the Trip Advisor mascot. He’s not as qualitative and not nearly as articulated. He’s more a stuffed owl in an oversized white robe. But the implication of you making wise choices for your vacation or business trip can be associated from dialing up Trip Advisor on the Internet.

Note that none of these owls has a name. But then neither does the Geico Gecko (1999), the Aflac duck (2000) or the garden gnome for Travelocity (2003).

Do you think it’s necessary that these characters have a name?

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Tenets of Good Design, Part 1

  

Note: Dan Blanchette is taking the week off. The following is a reprint.

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

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Some Things Never Change

“You can kill a horse, but you can’t kill a Cadillac.”

That slogan appeared in ads for the Cadillac Automobile Company in 1905, a few short years before being purchased by General Motors. The slogan changed throughout those early years, always somewhat lengthy by today’s standards. After the Great War, slogans got shorter.

Some people refer to them as “taglines”. Doesn’t matter. Slogans are one of those things that advertisers can’t seem to let go of. They’ve been around for close to 150 years.

They’re everywhere and every advertiser uses them. And some of them become part of the lexicon, at least in this country. Those in particular have been around a while, probably longer than you’d think. Nike says, “Just do it.” That’s from 1988. Subway says, “Eat fresh,” from 2000. McDonald’s has been saying, “I’m lovin’ it,” since 2003. Maybe time for a change on each of those, but maybe not.

The reason slogans are here to stay is because just saying the name of the company or product in an ad isn’t enough. Marketers want to leave you with a thought in your mind. And that’s not to say they want just to tell you that their’s is so good you can’t live without it. Saying that probably won’t make you run out and buy it.

Maybe back in 1905, people were more receptive to it, but over time—and certainly now—we’re much more jaded.

Giving a product an attribute—a quality no other advertiser has thought of—will set it apart from the rest. That gives the product a new quality that even the creators of that product hadn’t thought of. It’s about perception.

Above is a small collection of automobile logos with their respective slogans, as they appear in TV ads. Notice that most of them use a slogan as a suggestion for you to look at their brands in a different light.

Ford says, “Go further,” a reference to suggest maybe more MPGs or maybe a longevity of ownership. Or something else. In this way, what they suggest becomes interpretive, meaning that they’re making you think. The process becomes interactive in your mind. Does it stick?

Chevy asks that you “Find new roads.” Toyota says, “Let’s go places.”

Land Rover goes a step further by saying, “Above and beyond,” (almost like Buzz Lightyear’s “to infinity and beyond”.)

But BMW brings it back down to Earth. They just talk about the car in no uncertain terms. Is that a German thing? Even Mercedes Benz says, “The best or nothing.”

The thing is, it’s about perception, what the advertiser can place in your mind. It’s no longer just a car. It’s an adventure.

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Sometimes It’s Meat and Potatoes

All packaging becomes functional at the store shelf. Before that stage, however, it’s merely a product of a designer’s vision on putting what’s inside that package on a solid footing toward a sale.

Packaging is one particular area of design I’ve always loved: as a designer, you can encompass all the necessary things you need and put them on display in one neat enclosure. A photo of the product, type design, copy to give the product a thorough description, whatever necessary legal and boilerplate copy, and all that on top of a background you want to achieve impact and tie it all together.

Some packaging is more fun than others. Food packaging, because the entire family is consuming the food, is more descriptive in several ways. It’s more colorful in all directions, has bombastic and sometimes wacky type designs, can and does employ digitally enhanced photography and/or illustration, and often uses cartoon characters when aimed at children or adults who never grew up.

But that’s what makes designing food packaging so much fun. It has boundless possibilities.

Other packaging is just plain functional. Take auto parts packaging, whose examples are shown above. With usually just one person in a household buying auto parts, the focus for a designer is toward the utilitarian. Most auto parts—once purchased and installed on the vehicle—are no longer seen. They’re not exactly something to behold.

Plus it helps if you have a little technical knowledge of the auto part. What its use is, how to describe that use, and how best to depict it on the box: what angle(s) to photograph it to show the best detail. Other than some retouching to pretty it up, not a whole lot else.

Not difficult to put all this together, having all the aforementioned pieces. In looking at the above examples, notice a few things, though.

The predominant colors chosen for backgrounds are red, blue, black, and yellow. Pretty much a primary color selection. There’s no pink, mauve, taupe, lavender, or lilac. Those colors do not reflect a mostly masculine sense of being, of one who might own a Ford F-150 or a tricked-out Honda Prelude.

That bunch of consumers are more meat and potatoes, similar to buyers of tools at Home Depot.

Also notice that the typography on these packages is also plain and simple. No fancy script fonts here. Lesson—know your consumer.

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Logos—Pharmaceuticals

OK. Here we go. I told myself I wasn’t going to go after any more dry logos. But here it is. I have to say something.

About twenty years ago, I caught a small freelance assignment to do a logo for a chiropractor. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but he also knew what he did not want: anything depicting a spine or even anything anatomical in appearance.

I remember part of his practice had to do with holistic approaches to his clients’ health—treating the whole person. Therefore, after a couple of meetings, it was decided I was to do a generic logo, a depiction of an awakening, a sort of “celebration of life”, a person “realizing his potential”. No faces, no profiles, no real “silhouettes”. Just a “feeling”.

Wow. How the…

This kind of thinking, this all-inclusive, worldly, enlightened conscience bearing is practically a non-goal for one to design a symbol.

I eventually came up with a design he liked: a rather calligraphic representation of a figure leaping through a cloud-like atmosphere with arms raised in joy. The Neulasta logo above is vaguely similar in feel.

What do these logos have? What do they do? How effective are they? None of those is considered a factor here. This collection you see above, there is no practicality to them. Unlike a couple of the law logos from my last column (the scales of justice or stable architecture form), there is no mortar and pestle. Nothing that banal. Thank you for that.

No, this is the most introverted bunch of logos going. They’re so introverted, they’re afraid to say anything. They’re all alike in their anonymity. Nothing in their designs that’s close to concrete. No personality. No flavor. Nothing to remotely offend.

I could say things like, “That contrived letterform made into a key in Keytruda is a bad design.” Or that the extended crossbar in the letter “A” in Tresiba does nothing to distinguish the word as a design. Or that the triangular configuration of symbols in the Cosentyx logo looks like it’s trying to be something, but misses. Or that the sun-like green symbol in the Trulicity design has no anchor—why is it located right there?—and why is it green?

I’ll venture a guess at each of the above: the designers were handcuffed in their assignments to come up with these solutions, similar to my experience.

I will say one final thing. The consumer names for these prescription drugs are a blessing, because nobody can pronounce the real names.

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Logos—Law Firms

Generally, I love logos. Wait a second—let me correct that: I love looking at logos. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.

Lately, because lawyers and medical firms and hospitals are promoting themselves so often on TV, it’s easy to see their logos in 1080p resolution.

And for the most part, their logos are not very good. There’s a big difference among what I’d refer to as corporate logos, brand names, and personal “monograms”. Sometime in the near future, I’ll do a column on the history of logos and what a “logo” is. But for today, we’ll just deal with law firm logos. I’ve collected a handful for examination and comparison.

The thing about this collection—any bunch of law firm logos—is that they’re dry. They’re unimaginative. They all have a very clean look, but they’re all sterile, too. And maybe that’s the thing about law firms: the practice is such a straight-laced, dignified, 1-2-3 profession. I’ll bet it’s twice as sterile as what Hollywood portrays it to be.

And being that, designers are probably handcuffed trying to make the firms look like just the happening place to take your lawsuit. Because these are lawyers, they’re very careful about their appearance. Buttoned up, as they say. But as designers, we’re always looking for ways to make our clients look their best while possibly making another design good enough for our portfolio.

The top row in this collection shows two examples of trite law firm design. I put them here to show what not to do. Forget you saw them, going forward. Classic architecture and scales of justice. Really?

Row 2 has two very different approaches of using the initials of the partners on the door.  They’re design examples of a ligature—a joining of letterforms—practically a “brand”. The “GR” is not bad—at least it’s a little different. The Hopgood-Ganim is OK (I can almost see the “hg” burned into a calf’s hide), but it’s a decent try at a logo, especially because it uses a font below that ligature that’s very similar in its design feel.

The 3rd row has two examples of poor design. The “ALF” is a weak attempt at a “monogram”. It isn’t a logo at all—it’s just three letterforms floating in a rectangle. It does nothing. To the right of that, also not so hot. The “G” in a box with a bar above the name—boring.

Then the bottom row. Here’s two examples using typographical brackets to “help” the designs. Not sure why either needs them. The Brown logo has this lacy filigree behind to make it look more dignified, I guess. Notice the off-center ampersand placement in the Morgan & Morgan design, a definite mistake.

Sometimes designing for a straight-laced client is just that. Low key and routine. But as designers, we try to be inventive, different, and somewhat showy. All we can do in an arena such as this is to try to have the client see themselves in a different light than the rest.

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