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.


What’s With the “Look”?

Engaging the viewer is of course a staple in making television commercials. After all, the last thing an advertiser wants to do is alienate possible buyers of his/her product or service. But lately I wonder about that.

Back in the day (I actually hate saying that), commercials had spokespersons. And those announcers had great voices previously groomed from radio experience. And for TV, they were dressed up in suits/dresses just for hawking the product or service directly to your living room.

We don’t have that kind of announcer anymore, although I did see a recent Geico ad where a white-haired spokesperson was closing out the ad, a sort of spoof of the old-fashioned stuff from the ’50s and ’60s.

The reason we no longer have that kind of presentation is because America grew up and became more sophisticated. Instead of those didactic presentations, we have voiceovers explaining what you and I cannot live without. But at least the advertising community now lets us feel like we have authority over our own destiny—to a degree.

Most contemporary shopping is done over the Internet anyway. And the retailers are feeling that deficit. In most areas, anyway. But there are some places in the product/service realm where TV advertising is still viable, and in other areas is even expanding.

Which brings me to the spate of long commercials you now see—those 60- and 90-second spots that border on becoming infomercials: the pharmaceutical ads and the ones for exercise machines, the latter running mostly in the evening hours while you’re practicing your couch potato skills.

Of course, the pharma ads, whose companies have deep pockets for TV air time, really cut into your viewing enjoyment of Law and Order reruns. The first third and last sixth of the run time of these ads tell you how wonderful the drug is, while in between we learn the giant list of all the side effects.

All of the pharma ads have visuals of people going through their daily lives and interacting with friends and family, but a lot of the ads have the actors actually looking directly into the camera. At you.

The above two photos are prime examples here. The left photo is from a Humira ad, promoting their plaque psoriasis medication. The right photo is from a Peloton ad, promoting their exercise machine.

This is the newest version of engaging the viewer: you, too, can do this. You, too, can be one of us (regardless, in the case of the Humira ad, of getting your doctor’s prescription first). Is this inviting, meaning you may need to do this, or is it shaming, meaning you really should do this?

I’ll call this the “look”. And it’s more prevalent in the last year or so. It’s become a psychological tool to make you question your laziness in any given part of your life, be it attending to your retirement savings to your medical or life insurance situation or to your lack of fitness.

The “look” on the actor’s face in the Peloton commercial is practically intimidating.



The Real Dodge Brothers

Advertising is seldom what it seems. If you’re looking for reality, commercials are not only not real, but sometimes not to be taken seriously at all. And I’m not talking about funny commercials.

Take the Dodge Brothers ads for Fiat/Chrysler (visual, top left). The ads looking to immortalize the Dodge brothers would have you believe those young bucks were hell-raisers, racing up and down semi-rural roads looking for speed, possibly drag racing their buddies for money. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Horace and John (left and right, respectively at top right) grew up in Niles, Michigan, with John being the older of the two. John was born in 1864 while Horace was born in 1868, which by anyone’s math made them both well into their 40s by the time they started developing their own first automobile in 1914.

John and Horace were not interested in speed. The family had moved to Detroit by the mid-1880s and the mechanically minded brothers were working at places like a marine boiler factory and later a machine shop across the river in Windsor, Ontario. John was an inventor, and having built and patented a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896, they paired up to build their first bicycles the next year for the E & D Bicycle Company. Three years later, with their shares of the business netting them $10,000, they quit the bicycle business to open their own machine shop back home in Detroit.

One of their first contracts was designing and building engines for Oldsmobile. It was not at all long before they became one of the largest auto parts makers in Detroit.

Henry Ford’s company had already gone bankrupt more than twice before looking to the Dodges for help. They’d already started building engines for him; now they’d be partners. They would own 10% of Ford—and all of it—if Ford went broke again. They were smarter than anyone gave them credit: they borrowed 75Gs for new tooling and built Ford a totally new car. The Dodges designed and built the entire Model T drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential, etc.), and by the end of 1914 had churned out 650 cars for Ford, now their only customer.

But Ford’s ego was not going to let him continue to have someone else build his cars. He bought out the Dodges the next year for $25 million, and that gave the brothers enough to start making their own line. In 1915, they had sold 45,000 units, making them the 3rd largest automobile producer in the country.

The thing about the brothers was that they were innovators. They pioneered features in cars that later became standard: all-steel body construction (while others continued with wood frames), 12-volt ignition systems (6-volt systems were the norm until 1950), and sliding-gear transmissions. Their first cars had 35 horsepower (compared to Ford’s 20).

This kind of upscale quality gave them a great reputation in the industry. The lower left visual is their 1915 touring car, a definite step up for most customers, and at right, their line of trucks gave them an industry pat on the back. Their 1916 touring cars were used by Lt. George Patton to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa because the US Army trusted the durability of Dodge.

But in 1920, with Dodge now the second-leading seller of cars, tragedy struck the family. John, now 55, died of pneumonia in January and Horace, 52, in December. The family eventually sold the company to an investment group, which by 1928 sold it to Chrysler.

That’s the real story of the Dodges. Their automotive input was short in time but long on legacy.


Look for the next column on December 1. I’m taking next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.


Those Disaster Graphics

First let me say that this particular edition is not a critique. It’s an observation.

I can’t say with any certainty just which year in my memory saw the most disasters, either natural or man-made. But 2017 would have to rank as one of the front runners in either category.

The major news outlets are still commanding our attention with the latest developments on any of these stories. Apparently the hurricane season has wrapped and tornadoes are probably waning, but with climate change, you never know. Wildfires made big headlines recently. And then we’ve had the mass shootings several times this year.

It seems just a few weeks separate each of the above, but sometimes the disasters overlap. You almost cringe every time you turn on the news, expecting a tragedy somewhere. This country has had its share this year for sure.

So you turn on the news, and accompanying the disaster lead-in you see something like one of the visuals above.

Like I said, I’m not going to criticize any of these. These are graphics thrown together quickly at news organizations like CNN, Fox News, The Weather Channel, and sometimes at local affiliate stations across the country. They have to be done literally within hours of first hearing about the impending catastrophe.

And more than likely it’s one person on the news staff putting the graphic together (in this age of teams, which I’ll get to in another article). And it’s literally a thankless job.

The job is merely what you see—assembling a jarring type-driven message, with an accompanying background “atmosphere”: maybe a map cross-faded over a generic photo of a tornado; maybe a rifle scope’s crosshairs over a blurred image of an emergency vehicle; or maybe a shot of firefighters blended with the orange cast of an immense inferno.

I’m more than certain each news agency keeps a huge digital library of stock photos to draw from. They have to. Of course these images are necessary, meant to pull you into the story.

And these graphics all accomplish the task. There’s no subtlety here. They speak to dread.

I dare say the graphic artists who are called upon to make these signposts have no real pride in doing them. These visuals, given their emotional effect, are not what you’d put in your portfolio.

Why would you?


A Logo Redesign

Usually I don’t do instruction. But occasionally I like to show how the things I preach in this blog can be used to improve an existing design. If we can critique a design, we should be able to tear it down and rebuild it to make it work better, right?

This week we’re going to get into a logo I had cited months ago that certainly needed help. And seeing it on TV over this past weekend reminded me that this would be a good time to get into it. The designer chose a good font to start with, and that helps us as designers but also helps in understanding a few things in this lesson, one of which relates to type design, something that’s a pet subject of mine.

With a sans-serif font such as this one (Avant Garde), it’s much easier to see the letterform relationships: just how one shape of one letterform interacts with another by its close placement (proximity) to another. The elongated rectangular shapes make that much easier to see.

So let’s follow along, class, and see what’s going on. The top left visual shows the existing logo of the State of the Union show, emceed by the reporter Jake Tapper. The first thing we’re going to do is look at the way this was put together.

First, let me say that this logo has too many wacky things going on. Mixing uppercase and lowercase can work, but not so much with the major elements in play, here being the two large words, “State” and “UNION”. Not sure why the designer chose to mix them that way, because there is no interplay between them. Then we have two lines running between those two elements, having some unknown purpose. Notice the small space between the cap S and the cap U, which is not carried through to the two lines above it.

So with the top right visual, we can begin to look at just where those aforementioned relationships should occur. If you recall, one of the main tenets of good design is organization. And with organization, you have flow from one element to another. Good type design follows that tenet, because good type design recognizes letterforms as shapes.

I’ve taken the logo down to the main portions of it to illustrate a some of those wacky things apart from the uppercase and lowercase problem. And using a few dotted lines, we can see the things that are not lining up, consistently. The “t”s have almost exactly the same offset from the vertical elements below. The “a” misses the same opportunity with the “N” below it. And then those lines have a strange feature: they not only end at a place that has no relation to anything else in this design, they’re offset from each other where they end as well as each one being cut off on a diagonal. Not sure what the intention was with that—they play off no other diagonal. Maybe they tried to balance the overhang with the S on the other side, but that doesn’t work, either.

In the lower left visual, I’ve reset the design in a different alignment altogether, for a few different reasons. I couldn’t see the reason for the enlarged S and U, for one. I chose all caps because with just two main elements, it’s easier to line up vertical elements when you have stacked designs such as this. Here, the Ts go hand-in-hand with the U and I below, and notice how the A centers over the N right below it. Then I fattened up the type by choosing a bolder version of Avant Garde. There are a few things that still bug me, but we can bring it all together in a further step.

In the last visual, I’ve butted the word UNION up with STATE and kerned (tightened up horizontally) all the type. I like tight type arrangements. Also I’ve taken apart the U and widened it so the initial stem of the U is centered under the S, which also makes for a more unified type width across the word UNION. Then I set the small element “of the” in lowercase letters to fill the void at right.

It’s easily seen in the original design where the designer intended to use the United States flag colors. I would guess that maybe the two lines are supposed to reflect the flag’s stripes, but the stripes on the flag are red and white, while the stars are white. So…

Putting the star (now white) in the A where it lives in the blue ground like the flag (also as a shape more akin to the A itself) makes much more sense. Then I took the flag stripes and made them wave as a flag would do, but in the shape of the O. Finally, I added the words “with Jake Tapper” in a small area where you still pick them up visually.

Jake Tapper may not always be the host of the show (Lord knows, Meet the Press has had a few), and let’s face it, the words “State of the Union” are the important elements here.

Blatant Plagiarism

Competition in the marketplace is always there, in every area you look. Retail (as in clothing lines), industrial design (as in home appliances), automotive design (as in car features), and consumer services (as in home security)—the list is endless.

Thing is, is it all original? Of course not. Competing advertisers compare their products and/or services in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through images and/or verbiage. Advertisers feel they need to stay current and are not above copying ideas. Sometimes the presentation of an idea can become blurred in the minds of the viewers as to which advertiser did it first.

And the competition doesn’t have to be in the same category. It can be competition just for your attention, regardless of the message. If it worked for them, it can work for us—can be the attitude.

We pick up on similarities among TV ads because the ads themselves are not only in-your-face, but also because they repeat so often that you get second and third impressions, seeing things you might’ve missed the first time around.

For me, I enjoy the entire medium. Sure, some commercials are grating in their delivery—especially local ads. But every now and then you see a gem, or maybe a series of them that catch your eye.

Back in April of this year, ads for Spectrum started showing up with a cast of classic “monsters” appearing in everyday situations among the normal citizenry. Spectrum, as you may know, is now the umbrella cable company under which are such entities as Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Bright House Networks. The first in the series (top left visual) has four deadly characters riding a subway car: a mad scientist, a mummy, a werewolf, and the Grim Reaper.

They way the ad runs, nobody pays any attention to the characters. They’d already been integrated into society.

What makes the ad (and the rest in the series) work so well is that the characters gripe about issues that aggravate all the rest of us, including problems with TV reception: Spectrum, being a cable company, is taking a swipe at satellite providers. And here, the Grim Reaper has received a text message on his cell phone from his kids that the satellite dish has corrupted the signal at home. If you haven’t seen how the commercial ends, I won’t ruin it for you.

The ads were conceived by an independent, little-known ad agency named Something Different, located in Brooklyn. And kudos to that bunch because the ads are by far the most refreshing departure I’ve seen in years. Apart from the aforementioned characters, the cast includes the werewolf’s wife, a demon and a vampire couple.

Another in the series has some of the characters playing charades (bottom left visual), while in yet another the werewolf parents are meeting with their son’s teacher.

One of the ads that ran this past summer has the demon and the werewolf under a child’s bed (top right visual). To be honest, this particular ad doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others in the series. Here, the monsters portend horror, but the child is just irritated.

So, anyway, last week a commercial for Progressive Insurance showed up with the same format (bottom right visual), with a demon under a child’s bed. The reference is so blatantly obvious, the context and timing so close, that Progressive had to have copied Spectrum’s ad.

I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is the surest way of getting sued.


Art Deco Misunderstood

My wife and I were binge-watching a relatively new TV show a couple weeks ago, named “Nashville Flipped”. The show was appearing on DIY Network, but we had found it on demand. Apparently the show is either between seasons or it was not yet renewed for a third season—we’re not sure. All the information we could find about the show was not totally up-to-date.

The show deals with a house flipper named Troy Dean Schafer, an Erie, PA transplant, who’d been flipping historic homes for several years before landing a spot on DIY Network. Having met Mike Wolf of “American Pickers” fame in a local Walmart, connections paved the way for Troy’s eventual TV show.

He originally had an interior designer do his inside spaces, one Julie Couch, who apparently had left the show before the second season started. Her beautiful interiors are one reason we continued to watch. Go to to see what I mean.

But her absence is more than obvious. Troy’s interiors now suffer from what I’d euphemistically call “eclectic clutter”.

Troy likes what he says is Art Deco. In the first place, Troy likes homes built roughly between 1880 and 1935, but especially the Craftsman style of home, and he’s a good builder and renovator. And he likes to furnish his rebuilds with Art Deco styling. Or so he thinks.

Maybe he and Julie had disagreed as to the application of Art Deco in these homes, but one thing is clear: Julie did not use Art Deco in Troy’s flips. I can only guess that Troy is his own designer now or Mike Wolf (the executive producer of the show) has a hand in using antiques from his Nashville store.

Above (top row) are images exemplifying Art Deco, a design styling that grew out of Paris and Brussels back a little before World War I (or the “Great War” as it was known then), but spread internationally throughout the ’20s and ’30s into all areas of graphic design, architecture, jewelry, industrial design and interior design. Art Deco is distinct, having a certain linearity to it, and that linear feel repeats as a pattern of shapes, making geometric motifs of things found in nature.

There were influences from many areas and parts of the globe to feed this phenomenom, not the least of which being the fascination with Egyptian treasures unearthed in Howard Carter’s excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

Look at the photos in the top row to see Art Deco in all its wonder and beauty. Then look at Troy’s applications below and see if you can find anything approaching a semblance of Art Deco.

Good luck.