Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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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.

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