This Is Genius

I had to laugh the first time I saw this TV commercial. I wasn’t really laughing—I was snickering. And shaking my head—marveling at its genius. The name of Nectar’s ad is “Sleep Like a Baby”.

The Nectar Sleep mattress (“Sleep” in the name got me: what other mattress is there?) is a memory foam mattress that, according to the ad promotes you “sleeping like a baby”. Hence the ad whereby we see babies moving on the mattresses, but with adult heads.

This tends to make some viewers feel a little put-off. They look at it and are a little repulsed by it. But I like it. A lot.

From a simple design standpoint, the idea is right on message. The visual idea was probably a whim from the ad agency. They probably kicked it around for maybe a day, thinking and rethinking it, probably wondering if Nectar would be turned off by it.

People are funny about such things. The public gets conditioned by things they see in movies, and although I can’t immediately recall a movie with this kind of baby-adult juxtapositioning, the mere thought of such a vision might bring about nightmare scenarios in some people’s minds.

But none of the antics that the figures do in the TV commercial are devilish or horrific. They’re just as innocuous as a baby squirming and fidgeting on a changing table, because the bodies really are babies and the actors’ facial expressions reflect mere comfort, albeit in a very infantile way.

The fact that Nectar bought the idea was just as genius as the ad agency’s idea itself. It takes two to tango, as they say, but in the ad world it’s entirely essential. I’ve worked in ad agencies where we had great ideas the clients didn’t like, or more to the point, didn’t feel were appropriate to their marketing plan. To have a successful relationship, the arrangement has to be like a marriage, and like in a good marriage, both have to bring something to the party.

If the ad executive with Nectar sees endless possibilities of a promotion presented by the ad agency, good things happen.

A Nectar queen-size mattress, which allows a 365-day trial period, sells for around $795, although I have seen a site that has it for around a hundred less. Its construction is such that the top layer has memory foam stitched into it, plus an additional layer that wicks away the heat retained in most other mattresses of this type. It gets very good reviews.

And for such a simple and engaging idea, this ad probably took weeks to produce, in both pre- and post-production. I can easily imagine the hundreds of videos of babies moving around on the beds, and then finding the right actors whose facial expressions lent just the right emotive movements to marry with the babies’.

And the result is so damned enjoyable to watch. That’s what it is about good design: no matter how often you look at it, it’s always pleasing to see it. And each time you see this ad, a smile will come to your face.

 

 

Contemporary Design Landscape

I’d been applying for freelance work recently, and one of the sites posted had a reference to an application I hadn’t been familiar with: Sketch.

In my digital career, among the tools I’d become proficient with were Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator; Strata 3D; and a bunch of photo RAW things like and including Capture One. I’d also dabbled with a few photo editors and filters that add effects to bitmapped images. So when I saw Sketch listed in the posting for freelance work as a desired attribute by the agency, I was curious as to what it is.

In searching for it, I found it is just another tool in the current landscape of communicating with other places and “teams” when collaborating on given projects.

There are other well-known applications to use for this kind of communicating. Slack is one. Sketch combines that kind of communication with added things like digital asset management, interface development, website building, and icon tools. But it’s anything other that what its name implies: sketch.

What about creating the art in the first place? It’s fine to come up with all this digital asset management and sharing across teams. Using all that stock imagery. What about the actual artwork creators? Where are those artists these days?

A close friend of mine recently was messaging me through Facebook about where we, as artists and designers—and also educators—coming from a generation before digital was even thought of as the way to do artwork, stand in today’s realm of art and design. She was taken aback by noting that art and design students currently do not know how to draw, and are not required to learn so.

And she’s right. One of the classes we attended as formative students in the discipline was anatomy. It was necessary to know anatomy for proficiency in figure drawing. And although it was not necessary to have that talent to totally succeed at the college, the ability to draw—to sketch—was.

She mentioned that her son in his capacity at a firm which employs several designers was one of a bare handful who could actually draw, even now considered an asset at that place. But it’s largely true that most art schools these days do not teach students to actually draw. And I find that unbelievable.

It’s like that grade schools do not teach students how to do handwriting. Cursive handwriting hasn’t been taught in elementary education for years. Those kids do not know how to do their own signatures.

Are we totally that different from baby-boomers to millennials? Apparently. We can easily see the way small children have learned how to manipulate gaming devices and smart phones. It’s part of their early learning now. And that kind of instant interactivity has become the norm.

It does not matter to them what they are missing in the process of getting from point A (or zero) to point B (winning the game); or the process of getting from point C (having a blank canvas) to point D (having a piece of art). They never learned the value of actually making the art, seeing the picture developing from their own hands.

Years ago when I was an illustrator, I was visiting a photographer friend of mine and admiring his work. After listening that I was interested in developing a skill for it, he looked at me and said, “I don’t know why you as an illustrator find this so fascinating. I admire your ability because you make something from nothing.”

That insight stayed with me for a long time. It made me value the talent I had more.

Maybe drawing and sketching is not valued any longer. I certainly have not seen it used in any form in the last twenty years on the job, in the last four positions I had in the design industry.

I remember learning the digital way back in the early 90s, learning how to “draw” in Adobe Illustrator. Even then I felt the name of that application was a misnomer.

To this day, I feel more akin to Leonardo DaVinci than I do to any digital artist. I still draw and sketch my ideas on paper. I will visit this subject again.

 

Not Real Photography

When iPhones first came out, I remember listening to a radio program where I lived near Chicago at the time about advances in technology, which was the focus of the show. The moderator was talking to a tech rep about the new item from Apple, and the discussion eventually came to the numerous apps the iPhone had. The moderator said at the time about how he wanted just a phone the way his flip phone was, being merely a calling and receiving instrument. And the tech rep went on to say why he wanted his phone to do everything.

That conversation has stayed on my mind all these years. I also tend not to forget the computers we had years ago and how far we’ve come since, what we have now in the ways technology has taken us. We can do a lot of things just with our mobile devices.

Of course, not everything we can do with them is first rate as far as some things go. One of the things I have an issue with is the camera. To be sure, the lens on these devices is good, especially for being such a tiny lens. Kodak would’ve loved to have such quality with their Brownie when it was introduced back in February of 1900, believe it or not: 118 years ago, Eastman Kodak came out with a consumer camera, making it the first mass-marketed picture-taking machine.

That camera, finished in what they then referred to as “leatherette”—a texture heat-pressed into the cardboard body and painted black—cost buyers $1. Of course it merely took pictures, called “snapshots”, also a new word. But it did pretty well as a camera.

Thing is, nobody thought of it as something to replace real photography. The same thing about Polaroid cameras when they were introduced in the late 1940s. Snapshots.

And now we have mobile phones that have cameras. Ditto.

I think what the public does is gravitate to equipment that can 1) do multiple tasks, and 2) have instant results. That’s just what these miracle mobile devices can do: supply us with almost anything we need to have and do it all in a matter of seconds. That kind of value is under appreciated, in my mind. Once we have it, there’s almost not enough time to appreciate and use everything the phones can do before the next version comes out. Every year. There’s almost no end to the competition from manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, etc., to bring out the newest and most versatile.

But make no mistake: they are not first-rate photographic machines. They are merely snapshot taking gadgets. Yes, they process the photo right now. Yes, you can send it to your family and friends, right now. You can print it and enlarge it (somewhat) and frame it if you want. But can you enlarge the image to what is referred to as poster-size? No.

They will not ever displace a full-fledged camera, such as a Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, or Olympus. Not a Hasselblad or Leica, for certain. Those cameras, in conjunction with such fine tuning things like light meters and remote triggers, strobes, and items like scrims and light diffusion boxes, all make art. It is still an art to make photographs. Directly making the lighting just right, the angles, the shadows in studio photography.

Even outdoor nature and landscape photography, without all the peripherals I just mentioned, is still art. Waiting for the light to be just right for the kind of shot you want, the wind against the leaves in that tree, the birds overhead, the deer in the glen.

You might be able to do it once in a great while—to a small degree—with that iPhone. But you can’t control it. And you can’t repeat it.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple and the other tech companies have nifty phones that can indeed take decent pictures. But please don’t say that these mobile phones take outstanding ones. TV commercials to that effect are very misleading.

Selfies. Huh.

Do We Really Need This Kind of Disruption?

In the advertising world these days, there’s a lot of talk about disruption. What the advertisers and designers at some firms are talking about is making things like print ads, TV commercials, and package designs way out of the norm to rattle the consciousness of the American consumer to garner attention faster. Defined as interruption, in advertising disruption translates more to interjection.

The new movement is done at a moderate level in the print arena, much more specifically with tech and Internet magazines, both with placed ads and the overall design of the magazines themselves.

With regard to package designs, it’s done in a watered down way by comparison. Customers in stores are at an average age older than most online buyers, and the designs here cannot be too jumbled or “futuristic” so as to avoid confusing consumers.

But television is an all-encompassing medium, a ready-made stage where anything can happen before you have time to react. You can be watching your favorite telecast and the ads that come across in any given commercial break can not only annoy you, but can actually disturb you.

Such is the case with Subway ads we see while watching the 2018 Winter Olympics on NBC. The ads are pure disruption to be sure: the harsh panorama of visuals dancing on the screen with in-your-face large type (of course all in caps).

This isn’t advertising. And it isn’t good design. It’s yelling. And to make it much worse, accompanying the mind-numbing visuals is the music—or what amounts to music—by a band known as the Country Teasers, a Scottish punk group whose sound can be pure noise.

Not all of their music is terrible. It’s almost always off register, dissonant and discordant, sometimes off-color. Their production values are off the charts, so to speak, and not in a good way. What you hear during these Subway commercials is loud cacophony, filled with rancor that most anyone watching the Olympics wouldn’t pay to hear otherwise. Which makes me wonder about the placement of these ads.

Do Subway customers by and large watch sporting and Olympic events? I’m not sure. Or is it that the airtime was a creampuff that Subway just couldn’t pass up?

The ads were created by Dentsu Aegis Network, a multinational London-based ad agency owned by a Japanese conglomerate. That’s about right these days to be owned by a company in another country. In this case, being based in London might have a lot to do with the choice of (so-called) background music used here.

There are no beauty shots of Subway’s sandwiches, by the way. Nor of their brick-and-mortar franchises. Just the noise you see and hear in these ads, costing Subway a lot of cash.

The series of visuals in the commercials show people doing daring things. But the message Subway is trying to get to you is make your life choices so things will pan out for you. Here, it’s about their sandwich choices (doesn’t ”make it what you want“ sound like a burger company’s tagline ”have it your way”?). In other terms, don’t really do what you see on the screen.

But with the jarring presentation shown, you’d have a tough time convincing viewers of that message.

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?