When Design Is Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newer Is Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Bad Fashion Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soundtrack of Our Lives?

Whatever happened to original music in TV commercials?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are “Design Sensitivities”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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?