Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenets of Good Design, Part 4

   

Design is harmony. In this article, my final lesson in the design tenets series, I’m using food packaging for the examples.

Food packaging is ideal for his exercise because food packaging, across the board, offers up the best parameters for the use of design elements in almost every category: a photograph of the product (as the consumer will use it), the brand name of who made it (or is distributing it), and the shape of the package itself.

In the print industry, what you see is pretty much what you get. All the elements on the page or, in this case, package, is static. There are no moving parts to navigate to like on the web. Easy to design to and with.

It should be easy, this assemblage of parts. All the designer has to do is tie it all up into a neat design, something easy to read (good type design), easy to see what the product is (image large enough for appetite appeal), and easy on the eyes (having harmony among the elements). But it’s important, in the grocery aisle, to have the product readability—the type explaining what it is—apparent enough that the consumer knows what he/she is buying.

Nothing to it, right? I mean, you have a designer with good design skills, so why is it that there’s so much bad design out there?

Let’s take a look at some examples. We really don’t have to look far among the six I’ve chosen to find the ones with the harmony we’re looking for. But let’s go ahead and have fun picking ’em apart anyway.

The Birds Eye Steamfresh package isn’t the worst in this bunch, but it’s close. This is a bad design because the consumer cannot see what he/she is buying. Oh sure, there’s a big plate of food there, but everything telling us what actually is there on the plate is scrunched into that small green block on the right. Here, the marketing people feel their product line, Steamfresh, is way more important than what’s in the package. Grade: D.

Next is the Push Pops. Still not the worst, but it’s still terrible. What’s in the box? The Push Pops brand name is too large and imposing, literally pushing all the other elements to the sides of the package front. The product is large enough to see, okay (and why do we have a goat at right?), but look at the flavor panel, a tiny orange thing at center bottom: with the type being white, you can hardly read it. Grade: D–.

Now we have two really bad examples. I’ve never been a fan of Healthy Choice’s design. The older designs have this exclamation point as a design element, badly chosen because the size of the parts inhibits the usage and readability of anything you put inside. Another example of the marketing people being so in love with the product line that the readability of what’s inside the box suffers. The newer designs aren’t much better (“Orange Zest Chicken”). This design is so crowded, reading the box is a chore. Grade on both: F.

Now we come to the winners. The McCain package is a classic example of simplicity and harmony: logo on top and not too large; “Sweet Potato Wedges” large and easy to read (although not certain just why “Wedges” is slightly smaller); and finally, a good clean photo of the food. Grade: A.

In the Stahlbush package, the blue ribbon (it doesn’t have a photo of the food and doesn’t really need it). A refreshing design here: logo at top left (and not too large), followed by a unitary element that encompasses an image of the food inside with an explanation of what it is and all its attributes. A photo isn’t needed because everyone knows what blueberries look like. But even if the marketers decided to use a photo instead, the design would still be as good. This design has a lot going for it. It has readability in all its parts and it has good harmony. Nothing overpowers anything else. It’s easy on the eyes and still informative for the consumer. Grade: exceptional.

Design fundamentals say that there should be a dominant portion in any good design, followed by the subordinate partners in that design, to have a good working flow of attention and overall design feel. But in the real world of practical design—where readability and product recognition are paramount, you can’t have the consumer search the package for what he/she is actually buying. You can’t stuff that information into a small panel with thin or non-contrasting type explaining what it is.

It’s a matter of balance. Show everything you need to show, just don’t have any parts shout their importance while crowding out everything else. Try to look at it with consumer’s eyes. After all, you are one.

 

Observations on Perception, Part 1

 

This entry will be the first in a secondary series about perception in advertising and how it plays an important part in what makes things sell.

_______

You know, the fashion and cosmetic industries have something going for them that only a few other realms in the ad world are recognizing. But not all of those areas can actually use that something and have it come off nearly as well. It’s that British accent they use to promote their products.

Why is that? What is it that advertisers are trying to do, having their voiceovers done by a Brit? Look at this:

  • The Geico gecko is voiced by actor Jake Wood, a Brit
  • Cottonelle toilet paper is voiced by English actress Cherry Healy
  • Orbit gum is voiced by English-born Vanessa Branch
  • Victoria’s Secret ads voiced by Elizabeth Sastre, also a Brit

According to Brian Wheeler, writing for BBC News in Washington, D.C., fantasy and science fiction on television is best enjoyed by viewers when the predominant accent in those shows is British. He points out that the accent is “sufficiently exotic” to put the mind of the viewer in a different reality.

But if that transports the viewer—at least temporarily (remember, we’re discussing perception here)—to a different reality, how does that thinking translate to TV commercials?

Somehow, in this country anyway, we’ve come to the point of making subliminal judgments about social status, based not so much on what is said, but who says it and just how it is said—what accent is used. British accents, according to polls, are judged to reflect intelligence. That same commercial for Victoria’s Secret just wouldn’t be the same if delivered in either a Mississippi or Boston accent.

French is too provincial and Spanish not high-brow enough. None of this is based on statistics. It just is. Apparently, the fashion and cosmetics industries decided this was the way to go. It works for them. And for them, it translates to viewers that they are getting the best for their money. And that perception translates then to dollars, because that’s all part of the packaging aspect. And they can charge more.

And so Jaguar and Land Rover use British voiceovers. Of course, those are British products. It only makes sense here. But now Lexus is doing it, and that looks and sounds foolish, because Lexus is made by Toyota, a Japanese manufacturer.

Who are they kidding?

 

It’s Time to Change it Up

   

One of the things you learn in design school is not to fall in love with your designs. Complacency is not an attribute you want in the design world, anyway. You don’t want your designs to look the same all the time. You want to keep it fresh.

Unless, of course, you’re running a series of ads within a mode of thought. The famous series of ads for the Volkswagen Beetle, running in magazines in the 1960s, was the brainchild of Bill Bernbach’s team at DDB Advertising in New York. But that ad campaign stands alone in the pantheon of series advertising. There hasn’t been another like that in almost 60 years.

It was named the number 1 ad campaign of all time in Advertising Age’s 1999 The Century of Advertising.

What made that campaign so special was—

1) it didn’t take itself seriously

2) it didn’t make a glamour puss of its product

3) it was simple

One of the things I mention in my Tenets of Good Design series is simplicity. If you make an ad simple, your message gets pared down. And the simpler you make it, your message gets closer to bare bones. Stark. Plain. And—easy to read, understand, and best of all, easy to remember.

That’s what DDB knew in the late 1950s leading up to a new decade, that tumultuous time in America, the 1960s. That time saw a complete change in everything we experienced in this country: movies and music came of age, along with staggering political, racial, and global issues that altered the way news was reported.

And amid that backdrop, DDB played it backwards. With all the complexity and turmoil in that era, DDB played it simple and steady. That’s what made those VW ads stand apart.

But those ads didn’t run forever. Not the way some TV ads run these days. Repetition breeds boredom, and that leads to annoyance to the viewers. The advertisers whose ads are shown above have become complacent leaving these ads running far beyond their value.

They need to come up with something new. Because they’re not at all memorable. Maybe what they need to do is to stop trying so hard to be memorable.

My Two Favorite Nits on Type

 

Most people (non-designers) have no real appreciation for good type design. And it’s not their fault. After all, unless someone (a good designer) points it out to them, they wouldn’t know the difference.

Like, for example, my son enjoys fishing. I’m a novice at best when it comes to fishing, and I didn’t know how to cast with a certain type of reel until he showed me how. Now I know. The same can be said of type design, and the following two things are no exception. So for non-designers, this is a definite learning experience.

Typography is a first-year course in the design school I went to. And in that class, I learned about letter-spacing. The course also teaches the basics of font design, its stems and kerns, ascenders and descenders, counters, serifs, etc.

Wow. Getting complex. But I’m not going to teach you about all that today. Today I’m going to say something about letter-spacing and one other thing. Because as a designer, it kills me to see these two things misused.

The visual at left is from a TV show I watch on the DIY network. The letter-spacing you see in the visual is bad because there’s too much space between the W and the a and the t in the name Waterman. A good designer would not allow this to happen. The thing is (like the following instance) you see this kind of mistake everywhere. It’s on signs, on the back of trucks, in store windows, even on the Internet and—holy cow, on TV.

I know, I know. Some of you (designers) are saying something like, “Well, that’s the font. That particular font has letter-spacing like that.” Too bad. Correct it. I come across a ton of fonts that have bad letter-spacing. Usually they’re fonts found on many of the free download websites. The problem here is that these font designers don’t pay enough attention to the way some letterforms interact with one another. In this particular case, however, it looks as though the designer intended this letter-spacing. Wow. Ouch. Or he’s blind.

Also, some type designers try to emulate old fonts. And of course, there’s a trend right now toward retro design—‘20s and ‘30s styles— using old fonts. This does not make for good design. That’s right: retro design is seldom good design, if ever. Some advertisers will sacrifice good design for retro styles, anyway, trying to be in.

That’s one nit. Now for the other. The visual at right is a classic example of misuse of quotation marks. People that do this kind of thing probably did not make it past the ninth grade or maybe schools don’t teach English and punctuation anymore.

You see this common mistake in the same areas cited above. The person who did this was trying to place emphasis on that particular word.

Good designers know there are variables in type design that are used for proper emphasis of a word or phrase. Italics and boldface are two of them. Color is another. But not quotation marks.

Please.

Whatever Happened to Men’s Shaving Kits?

 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, and then thought about the term ”system.” Because the two thoughts came together while I was also thinking about what a “system” actually is.

The word “system” is merely a marketing term to cosmetics manufacturers. My wife uses a shampoo made by L’Oreal called Everpure Sulfate Free Color Care System. But it’s really just a shampoo. Of course, the cosmetics industry likes to set its own rules.

One thing they love to do is spend millions upon millions of dollars on beautiful expensive packaging. Not sure just how we arrived at this, but we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and buying the most elaborate printing and box designs surrounding ordinary cosmetics.

Getting back to men’s shaving kits—a real “system”—I was thinking just how they’ve all but disappeared. I go to buy razor blades at the drug store and almost always look at the latest razors on display. But I don’t see the total package, the system.

Whatever happened to that? Why is there not a box with the razor, the blades, and the shave cream? Maybe even an optional handle for that razor. You know—a kit. Because when you buy that razor inside the blister pack and you slit your knuckles trying to open it, all you have is the razor with a blade in it.

And I have not yet seen an optional handle for that razor. Why not? Men like custom things. That fishing rod he’s got probably has a cool new expensive reel on it. And that new TaylorMade driver has an adjustable head in it.

But apparently Schick and Gillette haven’t thought about this. Harry’s has a system that at least includes almost everything. But that’s only one manufacturer. Bevel comes close, but there’s no box.

Would men buy it? Would they spend the extra dollars on a superb shaving kit? I think they would. Two reasons: 1) the kit is all inclusive and travels better—it’s all in the box; 2) the guy doesn’t have to grope around in his usual zippered case and possibly nick his fingers on the loose razor.

Plus, it makes a great gift.

In the Commercial World, Color is Identity

 

What is color? A tool of design. Color is as important in design as shape. Color is the element that makes an item among similar shapes noticeable.

Color is what makes anything pop. In the 1950s, the color of lipstick was red. There were several reds available, but red it was. Red gave dressed up women pop. Find reprints of ’50s magazine ads, and there it is (or go to Google.)

And as any designer knows, red is the most chromatic color. It shows up as the most noticeable color. It’s the color of stop lights and stop signs and brake lights. A red car is the most noticeable of all the cars in a parking lot.

But not everything can be red. In the world of advertising and merchandising, marketers have staked out their own share of any given category with certain colors.

So the branding departments at major manufacturers have given their prized products colors to differentiate them from their competitors. Coca-Cola is red. Sprint is yellow. T-Mobile is hot pink. These are examples of branding, a term that has many connotations. But as pertains to color, a marketer can’t choose a more identifiable tool.

Some examples are less obvious. DiscoverCard has run a series of ads that feature a sales associate in one frame talking to a customer in another. Look at the visuals above: everything in frame 1 is color coordinated with frame 2. This isn’t coincidental. It’s a subtle version of branding, using the color from the DiscoverCard logo (orange) along with a complementary toned-down blue. Coordinated and cohesive.

Within all these companies, they have a built-in rule referred to as “brand awareness”, meaning that they keep their brand colors in the forefront when it comes to advertising.

Smart.

 

First Impressions Mean More

Design is all about perception.

It all starts with a germ of an idea. A concept. But once a designer puts that idea to paper, sketching out his/her idea, it’s already changed. It’s evolved from a smidgeon of thought to a graphic entity. And that’s a translation the designer has now to grapple with.

But once that idea gets fleshed out, the designer has to make that idea have the kind of perception that denotes quality.

How do we perceive? By our senses, of course: seeing, hearing, feeling. We judge the value—the projected worth—of something by its appearance. We’ve often heard the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But that no longer carries much weight.

Reason? Actually, here’s a few: 1) in the marketplace, we tend to associate worth with brand; Consumer Reports aside, brands carry a lot of equity with the buying public; 2) we live in a society where commercial reaction has been reduced to soundbites; regardless of the 15-second TV spot, repetition of an ad becomes rote; 3) Internet sales have eliminated the tactile sensation of handling an item before purchasing it: the silk tie, the wool sweater, the grip and feel of that new golf club.

Why do we buy item A instead of item B? In food packaging, marketers have come to appreciate the value of appetite appeal on the box, knowing that mom will be swayed more easily with a great photograph of that food.Other buyers may be tempted to try that boutique package instead, with hand-drawn type and a white, “pure’” background, thinking the item in that package is more organic or specialized.

But one thing is clear. Packaging a product is all about perceived value. Marketers will use terms like “upscale” to denote that the item has an affluent-based value.

When Steve Jobs was putting together his Apple Computer Company back some 35 years ago, one of his partners taught him the value of perceived quality. Mike Markkula instilled in Jobs that the total package was important, but essentially taught him that the package itself was at least as intrinsic to the perception of it as anything else. He never forgot it.

Tenets of Good Design—a Primer, Part 3

Design is impact.

Impact is getting noticed. Anything that sets a design apart from the rest of the pack is impact. Even bad design has a certain impact, but impact of a negative kind is what any good designer has to avoid.

For a product to get noticed, it first has to be promoted. That promotion could be in several places all at the same time: TV advertising, magazine/newspaper ads, and the internet.

Once we see the product, we can see just how much impact it has. Any new product in the marketplace should look different than any that’s come previously in that category. If it does not look sufficiently unique, its impact will be diminished and the product will lose traction—sales—very soon afterward.

Unless something—possibly its performance—is shown to outstrip its otherwise bland appearance. Say, a new laundry detergent: it may have a rather ordinary bottle shape and label design, but it may also contain an ingredient (or an amalgam of ingredients) that removes stains far better and faster than any others available. That kind of differentiation would move this product faster than grocers could stock it.

Visual impact shows up in two primary areas: shape and color. Either could be branded. The shape of a Porsche automobile is distinctive; likewise, the orange color of a Tide bottle makes it very noticeable in the laundry aisle. Each has brand equity this way. Having that kind of equity for many years works toward recognizability and sales that the items practically promote themselves without advertising.

But companies can undermine their equity by making something that has little or no impact.

I’ve removed the branding—logos—from the above images to illustrate my point. The two cars shown are from the same manufacturer. In fact, they’re the same model. Can you tell me what brand of car this is? Toyota? Nissan? Honda?

It’s hard to tell. This car is among many, mostly from the Japanese market, that has lost its branding, and therefore, its impact. The market has become flooded with automobiles that look so much alike in size, features and materials. Even performance. Standard. Unintelligible. Things here have become blurred among brands, even models within those brands.

I can remember in 1976, Honda brought out its first edition of the Accord. It was a great seller. It was different in its shape and function from anything else. It had great impact.

Now look at it.

Logo Designs That Don’t Work

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why there are so many bad logos out there, but one or more of the following has to be true of any badly designed logo:

1. It was conceived by the marketing department

2. It was designed by “committee”, meaning a consensus of several corporate members

3. It was designed by the CEO

4. It was designed by a non-pro, possibly a relative of the CEO

In my career, I’ve worked at or closely with over a dozen ad agencies and several design firms. In all cases, I’ve seen concepts dreamed up by people at corporations and small businesses alike. I’ve sat in conference rooms where these concepts were discussed, presented, and revamped countless times.

In all cases, the client had the last word. And that’s completely understandable, given that it’s their money spent on the design. And in almost all cases, the client felt they had the first—and best—word. Not understandable.

I have many stories about dealing with clients’ logos and other designs. One of my first experiences had the client insisting his logo be green because it was his wife’s favorite color. All professional designers have war stories like this.

99.999% of clients are not designers. People who have an ability to design go to design school to become good designers, learning what works in a good design and what does not work in a bad one. One is inventive, the other hokey. One makes you think, the other tries too hard to explain.

A good logo is a simple design. It says what needs to be said eloquently, without the frills added to explain it to a second-grader.

In the example above left, the design is playful. I get that, but it isn’t elite. And if that’s supposed to be a bow and arrow (ref. Cupid), the arrow is pointing the wrong way. It’s cute at best. The example at right has an image of a glove in it that’s completely unnecessary. Somebody thought it was cute.

The amount of money spent on logo design is not the issue. I’ve seen thousands of dollars thrown at already bad designs only to have them look worse. The latitude given to professional designers and design studios to conceive first and foremost is the issue.

I’ll have more installments about logo design in the near future.