What’s Actually Going On Here?

There are a number of television commercials out there these days that ostensibly address nothing in particular within the confines of the air space they occupy.

They might be referred to as “soft sell”, the old epithet describing the opposite of “hard sell”, which means to push the product or service in an obvious way. Advertising in general is almost always soft these days. It’s become practically politically incorrect to hard sell anything, an equivalent of using all caps in an email.

Geico is quite good at using the soft sell, especially of late, using absurd visuals to illustrate the needless worrisome conflicts of consumers looking to buy insurance. But other advertisers are not good at all at what they’re trying to do.

The above are visuals from a Lincoln Navigator commercial, this from the series featuring the actor Matthew McConaughey. In all the TV spots of this series, none of them do anything other than feature the actor’s facial expressions, his smiles, his confidence, his self-assuredness. We see nothing—no attribute whatsoever—of the vehicle.

I mean no features, no details, no closeups, no sounds of this vehicle. He could be driving anything from a Kia Soul to a Tesla, and we’d still be looking at his face.

I’ve seen all of the ads in this series, and I have to say this is without doubt the softest series of ads I’ve ever seen. They’re so soft, they might be considered an inverse of the category, like it’s gone too far, a virtual implosion of soft sell.

Here’s an actual description of the ad, which I quote from iSpot TV, an analytic source for TV ads:

After driving a Lincoln Navigator along a scenic road, Matthew McConaughey brings the vehicle to a stop. It’s as if he senses the rattling train tracks ahead as he taps his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat. He drums in anticipation, and when he points at the crossing gate, it lowers. The intensity of the beat grows and he is fully immersed in the rhythm of the passing train. When the gate rises, he presses a button to put the vehicle in drive and is on his way once more.

Wow. That’s it? That’s how far this is from soft sell. It’s literally passive. So is this about the Lincoln Navigator or is it about McConaughey? Another ad in the series shows McConaughey and his Navigator being ferried across a waterway, again with similar drama.

Lincoln must love this guy. Mr. McConaughey has been a prominent actor for well over twenty years, starring in such movies as Contact, A Time to Kill, Dallas Buyers Club, and Interstellar. I won’t comment on his acting ability, but his apparent attitude in these Lincoln ads gives the series a smarmy implication.

Is that what Lincoln is trying to put across? That owning and driving this vehicle imparts a slick confidence right through the steering wheel? A wheel that we can only guess what it looks like…

Also from the same descriptive passage from iSpot TV:

Lincoln reveals that its 2018 Navigator is J.D. Power’s most appealing vehicle with the highest score of any vehicle in the last six years. (I thought Chevrolet claimed that among its J.D. Power awards.)

If Lincoln can claim that, I suppose it doesn’t really need to show the Navigator’s features. Just the fact that Matthew McConaughey likes it.

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Shortcuts Make for Cheap Images

Is design on the ropes?

I see it every single day: images posted on the web, on TV, in magazines. It seems everywhere you look that the message being reported or being shown or editorialized is the most important thing. And that’s fine, but it’s almost always being accompanied by an image where the designer(s) took shortcuts to make it.

It makes for throwaway designs. After all, in these cases they’re used just once. Who cares if they appear cheap? I do.

We live in product-transient society anymore. Things we use are disposable. Everything about American contemporary living reflects this “paper plate” mentality: disposable plastic bags and cartons, paper cups and plates, frozen meals, paper napkins and facial tissues, etc. just to name the “consumables”. Then we have items that are cheaper to buy new (or otherwise replace) than to repair, like a toaster or a cell phone or or even a car. We don’t think about this anymore, don’t seriously consider what we might toss in the trash. Is this “thing” recyclable?

Well it certainly appears that certain design is considered disposable. The above visuals are evidence of that thinking. And this kind of design thinking is very omnipresent. Some of it is the result of time expediency. But a lot of it is not.

The image at left is from a report I saw recently on television about an employee at Charlotte Douglas International Airport who takes it upon herself to be a vocal beacon of hospitality, her almost sing-song welcoming making the news. The video was recorded by a visitor to the airport and apparently submitted to the news station in Charlotte, then forwarded to CNN by the affiliate.

Notice the clear image in the center flanked by a fuzzy image on either side. You see this all the time nowadays. The cell phone recorded video’s perimeter is obviously limited by the confines of the cell phone’s screen, so in order to make the video presentable on TV, the graphic designer at the TV station fleshes out the 16:9 proportion by adding a section of the video behind the main image, enlarging it and then blurring it.

I’d seen this kind of design a long time ago in a book about web design. I don’t know who first decided this was a way to do what they felt was good design in that book, or what mindset they drew on, or what design school might’ve taught design that way. But it smacks of not having enough of one of two things: image resources or time.

In the web design book I had, time was obviously not a factor. Therefore not having enough image resources is no excuse. There are tons of stock photography available. In the above usage for TV, I can see that time was definitely a factor, but I also think there could’ve been a way to crop the video to make it look more presentable. Why not crop it in a bordered horizontal frame and place it in the center of the screen?

But TV stations and even CNN don’t even think about it. They do what we see above every time, like it’s a programmed format they use for any video that’s phoned in. Maybe the person shooting that video could’ve shot it with his/her phone held horizontally. I’m just tired of seeing this cheap way of fleshing out the screen. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t make the video appear larger that it is.

As for the image at right, this is just garbage. It’s from an article in a magazine, showing a person drinking a beverage. This has become my newest rant in design: doing “designed” illustration the cheapest way possible, using simple geometric shapes, including a letterform (yes, that’s a cap J used as an arm on the eyeglasses), all as shortcuts to expedite an image’s production value. And this, people, is the extent of contemporary illustration. Wow.

Makes you wonder, as a designer. Does anyone care about design anymore? Is function everything now?

I believe the use of expedients should not be a practice. Expedients are one thing if they’re needed in an extreme time crunch. They are another if time is not a factor, and that’s just cheap.


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How to Screw Up a Car’s Design

I see this happen over and over again. A manufacturer brings out a brand new model automobile, its first ever edition. Looks great, design feels uniform, everything flows from one contour to the next.

Then in succeeding model years, the design department decides to tinker with it, make it more this or that. Maybe more hungry-looking, or more “competitive”, more mean.

And then, by the time a few years go by—what was originally almost a classic automobile—what is sitting in the latest showrooms is an ugly, ordinary car.

This happened to the 2003 Nissan Murano (see my column from January of 2015). And now Hyundai is taking its Veloster and trashing the design. I’m going to guess that by 2023 that this car will be discontinued. I’m saying that because this car has now been morphed into an homogenized vehicle, one that is already on its way to become indecipherable among Hyundai automobiles.

The Veloster appeared for the first time in the 2012 model year. Some car critics (I believe one was Car & Driver magazine) called the front-end “bucktoothed”, referring to the sheet metal “tooth” hanging over the grille opening. Maybe so. But the overall shape was unique, along with the three-door configuration (two on the passenger side), its hatchback, and its wide panoramic sunroof. Almost the entire top was glass.

What made the car attractive beyond that were the contours and how the tail reflectors, the front fog lamps, and the twin tailpipe extensions fit those contours. Like I stated in that Murano article, this car looked like it was designed by one person.

Not only was the exterior different from anything else out there, so was the interior. The top row of photos above show that 2012 design. That interior was rakish in its angularity. Everything about it was unique. The car sported the latest designs in electronics and touchscreen technology. You could get the car in a six-speed manual or automatic with paddle shifters.

A year later, Hyundai introduced the Turbo model of this car. And in so doing, the designers felt they needed to distinguish the Turbo from its more sedate brother, and switched out the contoured reflectors and fog lamps for round fixtures and tailpipes. Immediately, the classic flows were altered and the design already took on flaws.

Nothing changing drastically in the next five years after that, except for the open-throated grille, a feature of many Japanese automobiles of late, including those of Toyota and its higher-priced Lexus.

Now we have in the Hyundai showrooms the car pictured in the bottom row. The front end now looks like every other Hyundai on the lot with that honeycomb grille. The windows that before came to a vertex alongside the rear seats are now more squared off, and the taillights are now part of the hatch, which now has an indent (?), and the rear reflectors have taken on an angular shape that is not echoed anywhere else. And it appears the panoramic sunroof is now an option, without which makes for a tunneled vision out the back. Of course we still have the wonky round tail pipes, which just stick there, again without any echoed shape near them.

What was once a curvilinear, flowing design, is now a chopped up amalgam of other cars—making this an ordinary nothingness, no longer acquiring inquisitive looks from prospective buyers.

Which makes me wonder about the future of this car. In putting that honeycomb grille on the front, Hyundai has brought the Veloster into the family fold, the rest of its fleet of vehicles. It’s taken its differentness away. Look at the 2019 interior and how almost Ford-like it now is with those horizontal inline appointments, those mundane-shaped vents.

Hyundai originally designed the Veloster for the youth market. But sales figures would show, from the first model year onward, that most buyers were over the age of 35.

But Hyundai wouldn’t let go of it, couldn’t stop fiddling with it. And now we have this . . . thing.

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Old Golf Course Logos

Old golf courses are like old farms. Some of them were at one point, or old orchards, which is almost the same thing.

This country saw its first few courses built in the 1890s. My old stomping grounds, near Chicago, saw its first course in 1892, the first site of the Chicago Golf Club built in Downers Grove. A year later, the course was moved to neighboring Naperville, where it still exists today. But that course, as old as it is, has never held a PGA Tour event. And even if it had, it wasn’t of the caliber and prestige associated with any of the courses whose logos appear above.

Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, the site of many tour stops over the decades, most recently held the U. S. Open, universally accepted as the toughest test of golf in the world. Pinehurst’s No. 2 course is the site of the PGA of America’s tour qualifying school, located in North Carolina. Pebble Beach Golf Links is probably the most famous of any U. S. venue, perennially hosting the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, an event played by celebrities as well as club and touring pros.

Shinnecock was built just after the aforementioned Chicago Golf Club in 1892. Pinehurst and Pebble Beach, as their logos show, 1895 and 1919 respectively.

Some old logos get to me, in one way or another. But old golf course logos are like old dishes passed down from your great grandmother: they have quaint styles based on old ways of seeing, reflecting old customs, and show old ways of regarding how they fit in the world long gone before two world wars and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

The country clubs were started by industry barons getting together and deciding they needed a getaway where they could carouse, smoke their cigars in private, and enjoy their spoils garnered from the toil of imperialistic business practices of the late 19th century. In a large way, to have a big, gigantic land-based yacht.

These old establishments were also segregated (some still are) and a large percentage didn’t allow women to play until at least the 1960s. Golf courses such as these were literally extensions of men’s clubs on beautiful acreage. True, they gave to charities and put on big dances and banquets. All to appear more altruistic to the public. Of course, in order to take part in and profit from all this pageantry, one had to join: you had to pass muster to get in, vetted carefully for whatever shortfalls you or your family had in the closet.

But all that only brushes against what their designs were on the door or stationery. Some tradition is good, but not so everywhere.

Shinnecock’s design above is a reflection of a old custom of grabbing an icon and using it in spite of itself. The course itself has long been the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Shinnecock Reservation about a land grab back in 1859, that the land was not bequeathed to the industry barons by the tribe, whose representatives say is tribal burial grounds.

Anyone who’s paid attention to sports news in recent years knows that icons and names derived from native Americans is no longer considered fashionable. It’s controversial at best and shameful at worst. Yet Shinnecock holds to their tradition of displaying it, placed in front of an arrow and a golf club!

This smacks of genuine hypocrisy. But that’s the way it was back in 1892. It’s time to let it go.

Then we have Pinehurst’s design. Upon close inspection, it looks like a boy standing on a piece of turf (a green?) either putting or chipping a golf ball. He was probably supposed to look like a caddy, which I’m interpreting from the way the hat is perched on his head. This is very quaint for several reasons: one, that golf is learned best if played from an early age (true); two, that caddies aspired to be like their members and learned to play after the day’s rounds were played; and three, it reflects a typical custom of the times when bronzed statuettes had children depicted adorably in recreational pastimes not to be taken seriously.

This design is charming, yes. But it’s also stodgy and belongs in someone’s attic along with grandpa’s humidor. Update it.

Then there’s Pebble Beach’s design. Now this is nice: a design that’s literally timeless, reflecting its location on the Monterrey Peninsula with that Monterrey Pine growing mightily out of that rock, simply encircled with the name of the place. You can’t attack this design from 1919. And you can’t really improve it, either. Does it need a golf club or ball in the design? I don’t think so. You don’t need to be literal if the design represents a place that, in this case, transcends its locale. It becomes less provincial and in the mind, over time, more magical.

Traditional golf tends to put its own history before its place as a pastime and its old courses as shrines above places to play. History in golf is fine, but will be lost going forward as future generations take to the fairways. Pebble Beach is more than a golf mecca and knew that even in 1919.

Something that places like Shinnecock and Pinehurst could learn from.

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The Non Sequitur

You have to hand it to Geico. They never give up.

And this latest round of commercials, from without doubt the leading advertiser in insurance on television, is genius. At first, you might say, “What’s the point?” But subsequent viewings—which I’m more than certain Geico would like you to experience—will demonstrate that there is just a thread of visual connection to the message.

They probably sat around in a conference room and thought how far out they could go to make the visuals as absurd as they could get away with and yet keep the viewers interested just by the craziness of them. They aren’t funny in the conventional sense. But it all sounds perfect to me.

The latest one running in this series (there have been many series, starting with the caveman) has an actor portraying Alexander Graham Bell with his invention sitting in a balcony of a theater, then answering his telephone during the play running onstage. Who takes his/her phone with them to a play? We do—in our pockets or purse. But never mind. It’s the absurdity of hearing the newfound contraption ringing in the balcony, a la 1875.

And of course, Geico segues into the sales pitch eloquently enough, with just a thread of connection to the scene.

The visual at left was the first in this series. Called “Zen Gardener“, it has this worried renter trying to do some gardening with sand in his apartment. In walks his girlfriend who talks him into looking into Geico because he’s worried about coverage or expense or whatever. She tells him she’s been using Geico for years, then helps him clean up by going to the closet to retrieve the dustpan, and when she opens the door, another cubic yard of sand spills out. It’s ridiculous, totally absurd. But by that time, the voiceover tells us, “Get to know Geico to see how easy getting homeowner’s and renter’s insurance can be.”

The visual at right follows the same premise, only in this scene we see the guy on the left with the same concerns about his insurance who tries to sublimate by collecting and snapping bubble wrap (his walls are covered in it, too). Again, absurd.

The thing that Geico has latched onto is knowing how TV commercials are watched by the current viewing public. And that is with one eye at best and no eyes most of the time.

Commercials are just another thing to be avoided by most TV viewers. And of course a widely growing TV audience is searching for ever creative ways to do that avoiding, not the least of which is recording their pet shows on their DVR and zipping past the commercials when they view those recordings later.

And of course, the contemporary audience has more places on the proverbial dial to switch to at any given hour. Television is so vast compared to what it was even twenty years ago. And advertisers find every nook and cranny to fill all the ad spots they can afford.

But being different is still king in getting viewers’ attention. In all design, from package design to automobile design, having a different angle, a different viewpoint, a different way to make people see and think, that has always been and will continue to be the ticket to having consumers take notice.

And once you have their attention, the rest is easy.


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Design Evolution and Copying

As SUVs go these days, there’s a lot of similarity going around. Back in 2002 to 2003—in the relatively early days of the animal—there was a lot more difference among manufacturers and models as far as styling goes. But now the differences are much narrower.

For me, the pinnacle of SUV styling was the 2003 Nissan Murano, a model I wrote about back in 2015. That model had the best cohesive styling, about which I remember saying that it looked like one person had designed it.

Well, I’ve since changed my mind. It appears the one to emulate now is the Range Rover Evoque. That styling (pictured in the two far left photos above) has set the standard. And it seemed as soon as it arrived in 2012, it brought a lot of emulation from its competitors. At least it did at first.

A little history: the Rover group was purchased in 1994 by BMW as an investment. Then they sold the Land Rover brand to Ford in 2000. Then Ford bought the remained brand—Range Rover—in 2006. As of now, Ford has sold the Rovers and Jaguar to Tata Motors of India (crazy how this global economy works anymore). Tata kept Ford’s engines in the SUVs until 2015. This association with Ford has not gone unnoticed in the styling of Ford’s SUVs, most notably in its Explorer models.

The Range Rover’s Evoque is actually what’s referred to in the industry as a small SUV, sometimes noted as a “sport” model. Its unique profile—that of the back-slanted roofline and high-nosed front end—make for a stylish trend-setting design, especially when accompanied with those 22″ wheel rims. This design has not changed very much in the seven-year span of this vehicle.

Ford’s copying of the front end styling was most notable in the 2012 Explorer, and the Edge took on similar styling, especially with regard to the headlamp assembly shape and location. Of course, what made headlamp assembly evolution possible in recent years are the two incarnations of HID lamps (high-intensity discharge) and the LED headlights. BMW brought about the HID lamps in 1992 and Lexus was first with the LEDs in 2006. Both of those designs made it possible to contour the entire headlamp assembly into a much smaller area, and then made it possible for automotive designers to blend that contouring into slimmer, more svelte front-end styling.

Notice the front-end styling of the vehicles above. The top row photos are from the 2012 model year, while the bottom row’s shots are from 2018. The shots are of course Range Rover Evoques (left), Ford Edges (middle), and Toyota Highlanders (right).

Notice also, like I just stated, how little the Evoque has changed. Then look at the other marques and how much they have changed.

Range Rover knows where its success lies in sound automotive styling. No need to change a beautiful design.

Ford and Toyota feel they need to keep changing. Maybe they both feel they haven’t yet achieved design success. But another thing is clear about their designs: Ford’s styling appears to have taken on a taller front-end profile, with its headlamp assembly becoming larger, not slimmer; and Toyota’s styling overall has become taller and and more cluttered. The styling for both the Ford Edge and Toyota Highlander has actually regressed: the vehicles have become uglier, not better looking.

Maybe Ford had the right idea back in 2012. Maybe copying the Evoque was the better strategy. And Toyota’s fleet styling is perplexing anyway. While the Camry has taken on elements from the Lexus line, its SUV is just the ugly dog in the yard.

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The Best Designed Show on Television

Better Call Saul is the best designed show on television. Period.

And designers should take note if they haven’t already. Vince Gilligan’s creation, the prequel to Breaking Bad, the monumental TV breakthrough series on AMC Network, has been from the start a visual design chrysalis that never stops evolving, never stops growing. Now in its fourth season, the season premiere aired just this past Monday.

Gilligan has hired two really good cinematographers to map out his vision of the quirky yet enthralling drama posed in New Mexico’s law-cum-drug underworld atmosphere. And it works so well. Just watching the story unfold through their eyes is what the treat is all about. You can’t help but surrender to their seeing it.

In order to appreciate the cues, look at the visuals above. These are just four examples of the kind of designed shots we see throughout the show. Upper left, silhouettes against a colorful descriptive backdrop. Upper right, close-ups of many things (here a sink drain), to exemplify the texture and grit of the scene involved, bringing you right into it. Lower left, close/far shots, close-cropped, bringing motion and speed, accelerating tension. And lower right, cropping to the offset vision, the offbeat angle.

Arthur Albert’s work behind the camera dates back to The Wonder Years and ER. He’s done well, also directing episodes in those two series as well as many other TV shows and movies. He’s been succeeded at Better Call Saul by Marshall Adams, whose credits hail back to Kojak and Monk. Both cinematographers bring much to the presentation. Both worked on Breaking Bad.

And the scenes above are not just transitional frames from one scene to another. Many more such as these are used in place of scenes that have dialog. So much of Better Call Saul is atmosphere, making critical use of foreboding; visuals that set the tone for tension, leading to action-filled climaxes or even more tension-building toward anticipation of what might come next.

The story is about Jimmy McGill (played wonderfully by Bob Odenkirk), a con artist whose brother is a prominent Albuquerque attorney. Jimmy has fudged his way all through law school and beyond, just to be like his brother Chuck, whom he admires. But as conniving as Jimmy is, his heart is in the right spot, most of the time. The other times, Jimmy doesn’t care so much about how he gets his money. The series is based on the half-dozen or so years before Breaking Bad happens.

There is humor in the series, no question. Jimmy is a fumbling player, quarterbacking his own mistakes, conniving to cover those and sometimes creating worse circumstances.

And in case you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Breaking Bad, it’s about this: a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future (from IMDB). And as you might guess from that synopsis, what could possibly go wrong? Everything. That high school chem teacher’s brother-in-law works for the DEA, just to whet your appetite. And of course, the chem teacher’s meth distribution bumps right up against the drug kingpins’ already entrenched in the area.

Better Call Saul picks up the thread of that show as a prequel. Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, at first a television commercial guy. But then Goodman gets into teaching the chem teacher in Breaking Bad how to launder his money. What else can go wrong?

Designing motion pictures is not difficult. Although it definitely takes a team effort to scribe images like the above, the director’s eye and the cinematographer’s skill at cropping and managing lighting and color are inseparable. Gilligan is a genius. He’s the planner, and Adams (now) is the painter.

And it’s easy to watch the show—it’s free on AMC.


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Why Do Store-Brand Package Graphics Appear Cheap?

We’ve all been to the supermarket and sometimes comparison-shopped for quality ingredients per money spent. Economically, this is wise. Especially if the ingredients are comparable and taste of the food is at least close to the brand-name item you’re accustomed to buying.

Some items are easier to compare-shop. The two cereals above are practically the same, and one could venture a guess as to who the manufacturer of the Great Value brand really is. After all, it’s widely known that big name brand producers make many store branded foods by contract. This helps both the producer and the discount store: the producer extends its manufacturing volume and therefore its profit, and the discount store has a supplier and still makes a profit on the subsequent sale. They both win.

But the graphics on the containers—either boxes, plastic bags, or cans—is not the same apparent design quality, as exemplified above. (One discount retailer—Aldi—does have decent quality graphics on their packages, a definite departure from other discount stores, but Aldi sells very few SKUs that are not their own brands. They are basically a proprietary retailer.)

Look at the two boxes above. From a design standpoint, they aren’t even close, except for one thing—color, an important detail (see below). The fonts used are way different, including the different sizes. Those fonts are expressive and more dynamic on the General Mills package, including the fact that they’re on a diagonal, an attention-grabbing quality. The photo on that same box has action—almost motion—going for it, with the cereal sitting on acrylic “milk”, and more than probably retouching. Even the gluten free violator has more pizzazz than almost anything on the Walmart box.

Is this kind of quality design hard to do? Of course not. But store branded items generally look drab, almost generic against the national brands.

Why do you suppose this is? Is it because discount chains have a tight budget and don’t want to shell out extra money for the design process and review? Or is it that some imposed differentiation is in the mix between the higher-end producers and the low-end retailers?

According to Tim Harford, an English economist and journalist who writes for Britain’s Financial Times and the BBC, it’s entirely intentional. The cheaper looking packaging is there to get the most from the buying public. Shoppers are smart and know by looking at the package that they’ll get comparable food at a lower price, simply because of the lesser design. And the discount retailer knows this as well, banking on the fact that what’s in the box is the real difference—to them, none.

By aiming the packaging at the price-conscious buyer, they’re fulfilling what makes this work for them—price targeting. The budget-minded consumer doesn’t have to spend several minutes grazing the store aisle, comparing categories for the best item on their shopping list. Especially if the store brands are right there next to (or more probably the next gondola down the aisle) the big name brands. Shoppers can see what they need in plain Helvetica (or Futura, above). And apart from color, which is relational for recognizability, the discount store brands really do need to differentiate themselves readily from the big name brands. And the larger the category, the more chance you’ll see store brands for it.

Thing is, doing store packaging is harder for a good designer to do. Going through design school, a student is taught the nuances of designing to different social strata. And designing for a premium-minded retailer becomes a self-flattering exercise, because designers will use fonts that are more expressive and even decorative, then build those into rich colored backgrounds with beautiful photography and dynamic graphics. Those are then the penchant, the driving force in that designer’s pride of production, what he/she seeks to pack into his/her design portfolio.

And then to step down—in the real world—and design for a store brand, well, that’s just not fun by comparison. Sorry, Walmart.


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What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

(This column originally ran in March of this year. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

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Design Awareness and Visual Conflict

(This column originally ran in December 2017. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

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 as 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.


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