Art is Always Design

Last week, I reposted an article from months ago, entitled “When Design is Art”, citing examples of design so eloquent in their movement of shapes and color that they became art. Today I‘m flopping that mindset.

Ever think of art as design? It is, always. Painters paint with motion of the brushstroke and movement of the paint on canvas, but also from emotion. That emotion is evident in the shapes they create and the color they use. But it‘s all design: shapes and color, dark and light. The painting doesn‘t have to depict a realistic form. In abstract art, it doesn‘t depict anything other than itself. It‘s pure design.

In art school, we learned two-dimensional design using abstract shapes as subject matter. Those exercises taught us how shapes relate to each other as well as organization of those shapes in a design. In another course we learned color and how to manipulate it to create tonal flow in a composition.

But in those respective classes we skipped something. Although we were taught how to design using shapes and how to modulate color within a composition, we did not touch on emotion, the passion of the painter and the reactive element of the viewer.

And that‘s been in the back of my mind for weeks. You know, there‘s been a lot of talk about AI lately—artificial intelligence—and how our lives will be impacted by its use and replacement of human input in mechanical, or repetitive, situations. But what struck me about it was a few things I‘d read that told me how it could be taught to recognize emotion.

According to psychtastic.com, abstract art contains shapes and color that create feelings in the viewer‘s eye and mind immediately: negative feelings brought about by dark and irregular shapes, and positive feelings brought about by bright colors and simple or regular shapes. This is no real surprise.

How often do you sense foreboding in a movie whereby we follow the camera moving through a dark and dingy house (The Silence of the Lambs)? Or the sense of joy when we see Julie Andrews atop a bright meadowed hill (The Sound of Music)? This is easy.

So I kept searching for connections between AI and emotion and hit on a study by the University of Trento (in Italy). In that study, computers were fed the reactions of 100 people looking at abstract paintings of various colorations. Afterward, the same computers were fed scans of new paintings not from the original focus group. The computers were able to predict, with roughly 80% accuracy, the reactions of the same group of people.

And answers began to appear as to why a dark blue blob of paint evokes sadness, whereas red squiggles evoke anxiety.

Not totally revolutionary, but it certainly looks like AI will eventually get there.

The thing about shapes and color is this: it‘s all based on associative experience. As human beings, we learn from our surroundings, our falls and injuries, our taste of sweet or bitter food, our hearing of music or screams. Happenings can be pleasant or jarring. And all of those experiences are felt as colors and shapes within the mind‘s memory, socked away in our subconsciousness. This is why all of us, when shown an abstract piece of art or design, either like it or dislike it.

It can be a painting or just a simple doodle. It has things in it that remind us of something buried in our experience, no matter how simple.

I‘m not a psychologist, but what else would explain it? If you were doing an abstract painting, how would you depict serenity on a canvas? Would you choose pastel colors with smooth brushstrokes? What about violence? Would you use bold dark colors applied with slashing brushwork, maybe thrown paint?

This is art, designed for emotion.

 

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This Pink Thing

I write about design and how it encompasses our lives, everything around us. I try to inform those of us who are non-designers how to see it and how to recognize just how it impacts our thinking and sways us in different areas of the marketplace.

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, a day of a different kind of recognition. A day of celebration and thanks to our mothers for raising us and showing us the way in our young and formative years.

A long time ago, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis started Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia as a way to teach women the proper way to raise children, make them aware of sanitary conditions around their homes, and how to help them with treating colds and influenza. That was before the Civil War. Eventually other noted women took up the cause for championing mothers, among them Julia Ward Howe, a suffragette.

A few years before the Great War, Ann’s daughter Anna Jarvis petitioned for making a holiday to recognize all mothers for their unique contributions to families everywhere. After much campaigning and speaking and getting ears in Congress to listen, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day a national celebration on the second Sunday in May starting in 1914. Anna later protested the eventual commercialization of the occasion, including the greeting cards that followed.

In 1982, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation was formed by Nancy Goodman Brinker, the sister of Susan G. Komen. Susan had died two years previously from breast cancer at the age of 36, and Nancy was moved to do something in Susan’s honor to make women and everyone around aware of and to contribute to fighting breast cancer. That movement launched meetings, rallies, and events such as marathons, eventually getting a symbol in the form of a folded pink ribbon.

Just how those two things—Mother’s Day and the fight against breast cancer—came together is something that I’m not totally certain will not become blurred in the public eye of history. In 2006, Major League Baseball issued pink bats to be used in the games being played on Mother’s Day. Since that 2006 introduction of pink bats, the color has been extended to uniforms and equipment, including baseballs with pink stitching.

Then other sports got involved. The PGA Tour showed the color this past Sunday with the golfers wearing various shades of pink. Major League Baseball was in full bloom as well.

Which brings me to marketing. I’m not sure just which organization started using pink first, but as far as marketing and promoting with that color, it’s now a contest. And that contest has raised a few barbs in the past ten or so years.

The Komen Foundation has litigated to use the color exclusively, if not also the ribbon. Even the wording “for the Cure” is a sticking point. The organization Uniting Against Lung Cancer was warned by Komen to not use the above wording and not to use the color pink. Over 100 charities have received similar warnings.

The PGA Tour has no affiliation with the Komen Foundation. It gives its charitable donations to the Donna Foundation, which “raises funds for ground-breaking breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic and women living with breast cancer”. The Donna Foundation is also the “charity of the day” at the Players Championship near Jacksonville, Florida.

This apparent confluence of charities and a long-time national celebration is relatively new. The idea of stealing promotional material is not.

And just how did Mother’s Day get paired with these charities? I don’t know. Wearing pink at these events promotes getting money, yes. But it also promotes a certain inclusive clubbiness, like it or not. Because of social media these days, if you’re not wearing the color, you’re a pariah.

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It Must Be the Art Form

I could’ve entitled this entry “More Less Is More”, but I decided to draw a parallel from last week’s article to this one. Less is more will bob to the surface anyway.

Theater in design is not one of the things promoted as a subject in design school. Some people might think of “performance art” in this vein, and I suppose that would lend a theme to the thought process in runway display in fashion design, but what about other areas of the theater aspect in life? Sure, there are concerts, Cirque du Soleil sorts of things, and plays.

But in thinking about last week’s theme, I saw a television show the other day that immediately brought to mind another aspect of theater. The show was about cooking, but more about presenting a meal in a fine restaurant. And there it was.

In selling and merchandising cosmetics, I mentioned the mystique that industry has—all they have—and what propels it along. There’s a Giorgio Armani ad that shows a muscular male model diving into water, then tanning himself and standing in a tree. It’s all a fantasy sequence done in sepia tones, that other-worldly dream-like presentation. The theater of owning, of experiencing, this product.

There isn’t anything in the ad so banal as putting the cologne on in getting ready for an evening out on the town. That’s too ordinary a presentation. Too common stock. This isn’t showering with body wash or even using a premium shaving gel. Those are not transcendent.

And so, in watching the show and viewing the presentation of the food on fine china, I saw the same thing. Sure the food is cooked to perfection. But you can’t see that. Expecting you to love the taste of the food isn’t what the dining experience is all about. That’s a given: if the food didn’t taste good, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Five-star restaurants aim for a higher experience, an augmented atmosphere to enhance, to go beyond mere eating. And so the theater aspect comes into play. The ambience: the owners will stage the restaurant with the best appointments in interior design, fine linens on the table, candlelit spaciousness. The staff: well trained, dressed in slacks and vests, quietly taking orders from the customers without writing anything down.

And then there’s the presentation, brought on with a parade of servers. A piece of art on a wide, white plate: food stacked in the center, the entreé built according to the chef’s designs, maybe adorned with a smear or drizzle of sauces to spark the palate.

And in receiving this dish, this enticement, this gift, you’re getting the theater of it all. Could the food just be placed on a plate the way your mom did? No. Could the plate be smaller? No. Does this presentation add to the taste of the food? No. But now you’re thinking differently.

Now that you have it before you, sitting in this resplendent setting, you feel differently, too. It isn’t about just eating the food. It’s about the experience.

And the theater of it is different than that of selling cosmetics. It’s actually more fleeting. Once you’ve consumed the meal and left the restaurant, it’s over. You’ll remember it and may very well return on another evening, but that theater has ended for a while.

In fashion and cosmetics, the allure will remain with you. Because the dress or suit is still in your closet, the cologne is still on your dresser.

Maybe to wear to that restaurant next time.

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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…

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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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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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How Does a Thought Become an Idea?

How does a thought become an idea? No, they’re not the same thing, not in design. A thought is just a few passing synapses in the brain, whereas an idea, a real process in which we apply a thought to a solution, now that’s something else.

Each of us has a mind and we all have thoughts running through our brains every day, all day long. And those thoughts are an amalgam, a mixture, of our experiences tinged with an imagination. The imagination here is what begins to separate one person with design capability from the rest of us, in various degrees. A designer can harness that imagination and channel it to see into the realm of design solutions. So the real difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer can control that product of experience and imagination and make a thought come alive graphically.

All of us have heard the expression, “I can’t draw a straight line.” Most designers can’t either, but what they can do is convey a graphic idea, a plan to map out a graphic solution. I’ve known many art directors who can’t draw, but what makes them valuable is that they see the possibilities in their mind and can speak to those who can draw, or otherwise make the solutions come to life.

And there are as many ideas out there as are designers, packed with the experiences of life—their environments, their passages in growing up, their friends and acquaintances, things they’ve done, places they’ve visited, personal interests, their education. Like painters, they each have a way of seeing the world through the lens of their experiences. There are countless paintings out there in the world done by countless painters, and each canvas is literally a depiction of what that painter sees. Sure, each exhibits a style, a technique in application of the paint, but it’s all flavored with that painter’s way of seeing.

And designers are no different. Here the differences among designers may be more subtle, but the differences are there nonetheless. The thing is, each designer is constrained only by the limits of his/her imagination. The more experience a designer can bring to the fore, the more imagination he/she can use to bring about successful designs.

The above examples show differences in design solutions. Each shows a container with a built-in handle to make the container easier to use. But other than the additional fact that both have a cap that doubles as a measuring device, the similarities really begin to fall away. The colors, bottle shape and contour, the label—all are different. Both are successful solutions: they convey the idea of cleaning and freshness, otherwise abstract concepts.

Note that in neither example does the label read that it’s laundry detergent, however. Maybe the designs themselves are good enough visually to say it.

 

 

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Where Has the Art Gone?

   

Look at the images above. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

These images are all fruit crate labels, all made during the golden age of illustration, between 100 and 140 years ago. So this will serve as a history lesson of sorts.

During the last twenty years of the 19th century, America was beginning to perfect the marketing of fruits and vegetables, especially to areas of the country where they were hard to get. Small canneries and growers in California and Florida began to merge into associations and getting agreements with the transcontinental railways to ship their goods across the country.

All the crates holding the veggies and fruits had labels like these. And they were printed using color lithography, still in its relatively primitive stages. Color labels were expensive and because of that, they were used over and over again. A crate in good condition with a label was nothing to be discarded.

By the end of the Great War, printing technology became much more advanced and mechanized, allowing the printers to gang the images and save the associations a lot of money per label cost.

As the systems of getting the crates to the markets evolved, so did the businesses grow. Associations became corporations. For example, the California Fruit Canners Association eventually became Del Monte.

Then during the Great Depression, consumers began to want more information about what they were buying and had more health concerns about the food. With the government stepping in with regulations and listing nutritional values, the art suffered, producing a somewhat less artistic image.

Adding to that, offset printing came of age in the 40s and label manufacturers were now using photography, replacing the illustrator.

The rest is history (I hate saying that) because all that stuff you just read also applied to every other area of printed advertising and package artwork.

Art will always be art. But will it ever have the use like what we see here? No. Not on this planet.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like back then? A century ago, those illustrators did the entire images you see here, lettering included. He was also the art director.

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Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities

What makes a design—of anything—more enticing than others among a given group? Ever think of that?

The reasons behind a decision to buy something over another, at least at first, is subliminal on the part of the individual. That buyer reacts to something about the appearance—the design—because it reflects certain associative memories in that person’s brain. If that image evokes a bad memory, he/she will be turned off at the sight of the design. If it evokes a good memory, he/she will like it.

We all have that associative circumstance, ever becoming a pre-condition with life and experience going forward, as we encounter the sight of new things, new designs. And the more we experience the influential stimuli around us, the more we judge objects by their appearance. It’s very personal. That’s why we have so many different designs in any one arena. And it explains how non-objective we all become over time.

In fact, with the media blasts of TV and movies—especially action movies—we actually become biased without thinking about it.

The designers themselves all have the same influences as they go about drawing up new products. And automobiles are certainly at the forefront of exhibiting that influence. I continually pick automotive design for examples in this column because cars and SUVs are so omnipresent. Everybody sees them whether they want to or not. I also think that automobiles reflect futuristic design thinking because auto manufacturers want their designs to consistently be on the cutting edge of design.

So futuristic design thinking has to come from science fiction. And that’s been going on probably since before Dick Tracy was using his two-way wrist radio. Star Trek picked that thinking up in the phasers, and the iPhone picked that up in several steps further.

So it follows that automotive designers use what they see in that science fiction (action movies being the driving force here) to redraw their designs. It’s art imitating art: comic book artwork defining what we actually use here and now in our daily lives. Look at the above examples to see what I mean.

The advent of transformers, predators, and alien imagery culled from the likes of apocalyptic movies like the Road Warrior series and alien creature features make for an interesting, if not encouraging, design future in this area.

Automobiles never looked like this decades ago, because we never had these futuristic action movies decades go.

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