Style is Gone

I’m from an era well before the advent of the computer. When I entered the “field” (as we used to call it), my portfolio had everything in it, at least everything that I wanted to do going forward. But twenty-or-so years later, the art and design business had transformed itself.

I first came into the business as a designer/illustrator. One of my mentors, a guy by the name of Fred Coe, had told me early on that my portfolio had too much in it, or not enough, depending on what art directors wanted to see. Half of the bag was illustration and half was design work, of which he told me to choose only one to promote. “They won’t know where to put you,” he said.

At first, I was lucky. I’d found a place in Cincinnati that hired me to do both disciplines. But a few years later when I moved to a bigger market—Chicago—I found I had to specialize. My design half was ignored while my illustration half was drawing the attention, and so I became a full-fledged illustrator.

Doing that work came easy for me, my style being photo-realistic. And because Chicago was—and still is—a big market in the ad business, my future looked bright as long as advertising illustration was paying my way. This was in the 1970s and 1980s, and newspapers and magazines became the showcase for my work as well as many friends and acquaintances who did similar work. With ad agencies galore and several independent art “studios” as sources, a freelance illustrator could make a lot of money.

What made it fun and interesting for all concerned was that each of us—the illustrators—had a different working style. We drew the line work differently from each other, we applied the paint or watercolor (with a brush and/or airbrush) differently from each other. Overall, we thought the art process through in our own unique way, and that thought process was what made the end results appear so different. Our work was as independently unique as much as each individual appeared standing before you. That’s what made the work so personal.

Then “progress” came along in the late stages of that latter decade. Computers were making inroads into the business, and catalogs for stock illustration began to appear. Because it all seemed to happen within a few years, ad agencies were letting art directors go. Illustrators weren’t getting the assignments as before and soon photographers were suffering the same plight. Type houses started disappearing. Stock photography was showing up. The business was changing, and it was changing rapidly. I bought up cameras and lights and a bunch of stands and booms, making my own backdrops. I needed to diversify, reinvent myself.

With commercial illustration vanishing, I found getting back into design work difficult. My contacts knew me as an illustrator, not as one who could actually do design work. But that’s another story.

When Macs made the biggest splash with system 7.1 around 1994, I bought into it. I learned Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, QuarkXpress, and a few other applications quickly to bring myself up to snuff. I found the medium to be a great tool for processing artwork. What I did not like, however—and still don’t—was creating artwork with it. It isn’t natural.

I find it confining. The art one can do on a computer screen looks and feels mechanical, like drawing with a compass and plastic drawing aids like Alvin templates, drafting tools from an earlier age. Painter, a Corel application, tries hard to make painting as natural and fluid as it can on the screen, but falls way short. The only real advantage one can say about creating illustrations on computer is the undo feature.

What the computer did was homogenize the entire advertising industry. Since individualized illustration and much of photography were sitting in virtual purgatory, the rest of the designed imagery was being done by young “graphic designers” (then a new term) who were schooled in a new mindset of using the computer, not as a tool, but as a machine that everything was created with, like a food processor that already had all the ingredients and recipes in it. This new method of designing directly on the monitor, from scratch, was foreign to anyone like myself. These new graphic designers did not use pencil and paper—ever—to even visualize potential layouts (thumbnails) of magazine pages or of ads for products. The very thought process was short circuited.

And why would these young souls bother to actually design something? They already had templates to follow for that. And worse, this homogenization was extending across the industry. Specializing in one area—like the rest of my breed—was now a bad thing. You were expected to become adept at everything, including website design and HTML. This automaton mentality feeds the “team” process that exists everywhere, and now all members of that are interchangeable—and replaceable.

The end result of all this is the total abandonment of style. And one large elephantine reason to perpetuate this new process of non-thinking is speed. Do it quickly. Get it done now. If you take too long to actually design something new, you’re on the outs. They have templates for everything. And they have budgets for everything, too. I once lost a freelance assignment doing logos for a generic soft drink. They wanted twenty designs in two days. After three hours, the art director saw my process of initial designs on paper and handed the assignment to another, younger person, telling me I was too slow and that “there are templates you could’ve used.”

How is that different? Where is the style, the individuality? It’s gone. Everything is standardized. You take a photo of something (top left) and there are filters to change it into artwork (top right). With so many plugins and filters and morphs, a sameness in everything prevails. Even in the movies, the animated 3D cartoon you take your children (or grandchildren) to see looks the same as the next, because the software the studios use is the same.

I’ll stay with what I do as far as illustration goes. It’s watercolor. It’s natural. And it’s only me doing it.

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What Are “Design Sensitivities”?

(This article originally ran in December of 2017. Dan Blanchette is taking the week off.)

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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Pharma Ads Farm ’70s Songs

I didn’t know when it started happening, but what seems like a few years ago (ten? twenty?) advertisers started using clips of old songs—with even alterations of the lyrics of those songs—for background music to sell their products on television.

According to some sources, the disappearance of jingles started happening as early as the late 1960s. Advertisers began to think that the old jingles previously used would begin to sound old-fashioned to younger ears—teenagers and young adults, more and more—certainly by the ’70s. And as we all know, advertisers like to target most of their ads toward that coveted 18-to-34 age bracket.

Of course, music itself was changing, as it always will. But how music is marketed would play a part in what happened to TV commercials, as we’ll soon see. I wrote an article on the demise of the TV jingle (see my entry from January of this year, “The Soundtrack of Our lives?”). My focus today is to show how and why advertisers are using past music to accompany their messages.

There is a consensus among advertising historians that Michael Jackson was the first to make the foray into making an already released song a part of TV advertising when he adapted his hit “Billie Jean” for a Pepsi commercial in 1984. After that, celebrity-partnered ad campaigns began popping up (RunDMC with Adidas and Madonna with Pepsi).

You’d think that perhaps advertisers were misappropriating old music for their ads—especially Big Pharma. After all, Big Pharma—the largest drug companies in this country—are spending huge sums of money to promote their meds. This year alone, to date, four of the top pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AbbVie, and Bristol-Myers Squib) have spent $2.81 billion on TV ads, and that’s only 40% of all the drug ads on TV. Meaning, viewers, Big Pharma will be blowing over $7 billion by year’s end. Is that crazy?

That prime age bracket for targeted ads has been augmented to include retirees when it comes to advertising meds and medical services. After all, baby boomers make up around 25% of the consumer market, and Big Pharma would be remiss in ignoring the massive potential in revenue here. And since the music industry was already making the mechanism of licensing work for whoever wanted to use it, Big Pharma naturally gravitated to songs that were most associated with the age bracket they wanted to key on. So 1970’s music—pop songs anywhere from 40 to nearly 50 years old—were natural for the pickings.

And as we’ve seen before, TV viewers remember music as a subliminal thing, and advertisers depend on this link for viewers to remember the med. Of course, Big Pharma puts these ads on TV so doctors won’t be able to ignore their patients’ questions about them, promoting the sale through the medical system itself.

The above examples show the use of ’70s tunes: left, we have Ozempic—a drug for type 2 diabetes—using Pilot’s “Magic”, a tune from 1974; at center, we see Anoro—a COPD drug—using Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” from 1977; and at right, we’ve got Trelegy—another COPD med—using “ABC” (one-two-three), the catchy 1970 song from the Jackson 5.

Bands and solo artists have been hurting in recent years by the industry’s way of marketing music. Streaming and selling music online has truncated the amount of money made. With no retail outlets, the way music is purchased has made it practically necessary that music artists use licensing in every and any way they can. It used to be regarded as “selling out”—making your music too “commercial”. But the tide was rolling, and too much money was at stake to be ignored. Last year, revenue from licensed music amounted to over $355 billion in the U.S.

Do I like it? No. I don’t want to remember music like this. The way the advertising industry has corraled music to its use has created a miasma of sound and imagery you can’t run away from, no matter where you are—such as in a movie theater awaiting the feature film or even watching youtube.com.

Almost like tones in a watercolor that run together, it all becomes a blur of subliminal noise that leads me to think of mind control.

 

 

 

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Design Cues Show Up Everywhere

Design trends are funny. They sometimes show up in the oddest places, and across entire spectrums—categories that have nothing in common. Or so it would seem.

I don’t like the term “awareness”, as applies to an affliction (e.g. “autism awareness”). It has an ineffective, almost powerless connotation attached to it. But today I’ll use the word in conjunction with the word “design”—design awareness. This is something real that all good designers have. It’s ingrained in them.

Designers themselves are unique among visual people in that they gather mental pictures by simple observation of everything around them. They store them away in their subconscious, and then at an opportune time, that proverbial lightbulb goes on to launch an idea from it. These are what I like to refer to as design cues.

We like to think that—as laymen—design trends come about all by themselves, like the whole visual landscape’s leaning in a certain way comes about by coincidence. You walk through a clothing store and see hot pink as a predominant color, among different brands. Or you visit a few auto showrooms and see the trend of similar dark colored wheels.

All this comes about because designers will copy one another, either consciously or unconsciously. And this happens across those aforementioned categories, all because that design subconscious has that library of stored imagery waiting to be used. Some of that imagery is fresh, from a few months ago, while other mental pictures are years old.

I noticed a BMW i3 the other day (pictured at top left), an almost six-year-old model of an electric vehicle made for mostly short urban travel. It can seat four people and has a body made from a hemp composite. For those who might be interested, its range is around 100 miles on a 4.5-hour charge. (I won’t comment on the build quality of this vehicle in today’s article.)

Immediately what struck me about it was how much it looked like a shoe: it has body panels of different colors (black plus one other color) and the overall shape is stubby, not entirely unlike that of the child’s athletic shoe pictured at top right. And I didn’t have to look far to find that pic, despite the very similar color arrangement.

Was that design cue by accident? You’d have consult BMW’s design staff. Of course, they probably won’t provide an answer, but one thing is true: this particular design trend is common in more youth-oriented markets (or I should say young adult markets) where the inspiration comes from wanting to be different from the previous generation no matter what.

Case in point: those dark wheels I referred to earlier are a maturation of a design cue brought about by young drivers getting their first car that either has no hubcaps or by taking the chrome hubcaps off dad’s hand-me-down vehicle. Auto manufacturers then built on that cue, because their designers saw what was happening and made it a trend.

The same cues could’ve come about for the Honda Element, a vehicle that was on the market from 2003 until 2011 (Nissan made a similar vehicle, the Cube, made available in the U.S. from 2009 until 2014). Its upright, rather boxy shape was anything but like your parents’ car. It also came with different colored body panels (inspired by baseball shirts, or maybe just primed body panels?).

It doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from. Design cues can come from nature (winged designs such as Chrysler’s logos), from movies (fashion designs from period films like The Great Gatsby), or from even the military (automotive designs such as the VW Thing derived from Germany’s WWII era Kübelwagen). Designers borrow from any number of sources.

So, readers, is all design—or at least most of it—original? Not by a long shot. But seeing those trends developing from visual cues amounts to real design awareness.

 

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Some of the Best Logos Are Free

I was driving the other day where I live near Bradenton, Florida, when I noticed a sign by the side of the road: this nicely designed logo (upper left example). You just don’t see well-designed logos very often, and certainly not on signs. But there it was.

And so when I returned home, I looked it up and found that a women’s resource center (sorry, but I was ignorant here) is a community center where women can go to get assistance for all kinds of domestic circumstances, such as spousal abuse, sexual assault, legal assistance, health care, and even housing. I was impressed, on several different levels.

The fact that these centers exist attests to the generosity and concern of local communities to help women in need and offer support however they can, all for practically no money. Plus they provide for their own services to the community by offering education about their programs in meetings at schools and colleges and other municipal places, making their services known. That’s one reason I was impressed.

So I went online and did a search for other women’s resource centers around the country and their logos, on a hunch that maybe other centers’ logos were just as well-designed as this one in Bradenton. And I was mildly surprised to see that the vast majority of them have very nice logos. Well put together with clean lines and well thought out imagery.

But I think I was most impressed with the thought that these logos were done by good designers pro bono. That the designers were asked to do a design for this kind of service—and knowing the worth of them—more than probably decided to do them for nothing, just for the honor of being asked.

I personally have not done any pro bono work such as this, but I have done free work just for being asked, and I can say it evokes a certain pride in having done that. Here, in these logos pictured above, I can only imagine the kind of gratitude given on both sides of the transaction.

This points up something I’ve noticed over the years: that if given the opportunity to do a design for a worthy cause, the client will usually allow design freedom, within limits, and the designer‘s best work will show.

My first reaction to the top left example was the image of the “W” as a flower. Nicely thought out, and the Optima font goes well with it. I’ll give this one an “A”.

The top right example, for a center in Orlando, reminded me of something one of my college roommates would’ve put together. The image in the logo looks like three figures linked as in dance because it has that kind of built-in motion to it. But it’s clean and concise and reads well, even with the Gotham font that’s used, which gives it a slight generic feel. But it gets an “A-”.

The bottom left example, showing a much more casual approach, is for a center in Winona, Minnesota. The three letterforms—done on the sweet side of the color wheel—read OK (the “R” less so) are fairly well-done, but the accompanying type to the right feels a little off and too separated. This gets a “B-”.

The last example, done for a center in Greensboro, NC, is quite well-done and has a figure formed out of the well of the “O”, promoting a feeling of freedom. I like this one a lot, including the fine serif font which gives the design a real dignity. This gets an “A+”.

Fine work all around here.

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Some Things You Can’t Overlook

(This post originally ran in March of this year.)

Having been in and around design my entire creative life, I cannot unsee mistakes in anything related to it. All I want to do is correct them. But I can’t. All I can do is try to ignore them, which I also cannot do. Catch that.

One of my close friends sent these images to me the other day, and they impressed me so much I felt I had to make examples of them. Literally.

Remember that in type design, readability is key. The examples above don’t all have the same issues, but they all suffer in readability.

In the first example at upper left, I can’t help but realize the type design in the yellow sign was intentional. But I can’t see the reason for it. There is no play on words, no “bucket list” correlation. It’s just a gimmick to make you stare at it and piece it together. A promo for CheapFlights.com, it’s just a cheap idea.

Next we have one of two things: Spicy Soy & Garlic, or Sp & Soy Icy Garlic. Look at it. Are you kidding me? The other design thing that makes me cringe is the pepper overlapping the type at left but the garlics at right do not overlap anything. An example of non-parallel design thinking.

Another tenet of good type design is that things generally read from left to right. We are conditioned to read things that way because we learn to read from books and other publications where the copy is in sentences. Make sense?

Next: a mug with copy reading “Take THE Time”. Except here the type is sitting against texture too complex for the chosen font and tone not contrasting enough to make it readable. And the word “THE” has its own texture competing with the background. Terrible. What—no art direction?

The last two examples are just laughable. The one at left is on an entrance to a park, and is supposed to read, “PUT PETS ON LEASH”. But the first two words have commas after them (one misplaced), possibly added after the sign was spray painted (you can see the stenciled letterforms) trying in vain to make the word spacing evident.

The signage on the restaurant facade is so funny, it’s ridiculous. BBQ Ribs on a bison silhouette is OK, I guess (ribs from a bison are easily questionable), but fried catfish from a moose would make Bullwinkle question his DNA. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but alongside the bison it isn’t parallel design thinking.

You can bet I’ll make an issue for parallel design thinking in the future. But right now just enjoy staring at these goofy examples of horrendous type design.

 

 

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Betta Forgetta Jetta

Volkswagen needs a shot in the arm. And has needed one for more than 20 years.

I had a friend who owned a Jetta back around 1998, and she had me test drive it to see if I liked it. I ended up buying a new one in 2000: a nice black one with a 5-speed stick. I enjoyed that car for over ten years. The body style of the one I bought had been brought out the year before, and I could feel that VW was maybe on a track to upscale their Jetta designs to appeal to more design-conscious customers.

But that never happened. For some reason, VW seems to rely on its image as “people movers” and not much beyond that.

The Jetta never really took off. I had a business acquaintance who purchased a Jetta in 2011, and that design was pretty dull by any marketing standard. Compared to my 2000 car, the 2011 model was anything but new looking. If anything—given the eleven year difference—it was a step backward. The car never made it to the design threshold of fun to drive and exciting to look at.

Any automobile manufacturer designs their fleet of vehicles to match up to a given target market. And those target markets are usually designated by age or interest group, or by a certain affluence. The Jetta was originally aimed at younger buyers, while the Passat was a definite step up in size, price and appointments. The VW CC, their top premium model car, had been discontinued after the 2017 model year due to low sales. As of this year, the Jetta and Passat are the only VW compact and midsize models in the non-Beetle or Golf configurations.

But this column today is not so much about automotive design as it is about marketing: Volkswagen has always confounded me in the way they advertise some models—and not others at all. A few years ago, you’d see TV ads for Jettas and maybe occasional ads for Passats or Beetles. Never for the Golf or the GTI, their two sportiest cars. And in this day and age of the SUV (which personally goes against my grain, but that’s another story), their Tiguan gets barely a mention and the Atlas nary a whisper, both of which are about to outsell the Jetta.

Of course, as many already know, VW is part of a larger conglomerate—the Volkswagen Group. Formerly known as Volkswagen Porsche Audi, the group has taken on additional marques in the last twenty or so years. They also own Bugatti and Lamborghini, among other lesser known brands.

The Jetta remains the lowest priced car in VW’s corral. At around $20K, the car sits in rather squat and stodgy company: the Honda Civic, the Mazda 3, the Kia Forté, and the Toyota Corolla. Not a very exciting bunch.

The TV ad pictured above does everything it possibly can to entice you to buy the Jetta. The car dances around the stage (a well-crafted 3D animation) to a loud electronic dance beat. It moves, it shakes, it swivels, it shifts side to side. It almost break-dances. This must’ve been a real gambit for the marketing team, for two different reasons: 1) the Jetta doesn’t look very sporty and they tried to give it props it doesn’t have, aided in part by the voiceover; and 2) the small sedan is on its way out among most manufacturers’ fleet. VW earlier this spring announced it will soon discontinue its flagship Beetle.

So this ad series for the Jetta is obviously a last gasp at trying to sell a not-very-exciting car. Like anything else in design, differentiation is key to getting noticed in any arena. There are many cars to choose from if you’re in the market, and seeing this car on the road or in the showroom doesn’t get the blood boiling enough to garner a glance.

Betta Getta Jetta before they disappear, I guess. But this nondescript car will not be missed.

 

 

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Progressive Never Gets It Right

I know I’ve talked about Progressive Insurance before, but I love beating a dead horse—this one, anyway.

In the past, I spoke about TV ads for Charter Communications’ Spectrum and how well they were designed and scripted. Their “monster” series was the freshest I’d seen in years, and in the article I posted, I referred to a copycat ad from Progressive using the same scenario (monster under the child’s bed).

Well here we are, boys and girls, in the fall of 2018 and Progressive is still at it. They see something they like and admire. Then they copy it. Not an original bone in their collective bodies, whoever the creatives are at Arnold Worldwide.

The left visual is from the latest in a series from Geico. And I’ve written about this series which started with the “zen gardening” spot. This series of ads is original and quirky and is among the best ad efforts in recent memory. The thinking is fresh and leaves the viewer wanting to see it again and again, if only to figure whom the ads are for—which is OK. They’ve gathered your attention with your first viewing and made you wonder; after that, they have you once you see it’s Geico.

That’s the thing about television. The medium isn’t like print or the web. Television advertisers know that they buy ad space that allows repeated commercial air times, and that in turn allows them to capture your attention. They can sidestep the old advertising adage about making sure the consumer gets it right the first time to avoid confusion.

I remember a series of ads that ran in a magazine decades ago depicting a brand of alcoholic beverage. They’d run a teaser on one page of the publication one week, then another the next week, and finally the last ad in the third week which would then reveal everything you needed to know about it. Not a very good ad campaign as it turned out: it left readers disinterested by the second week.

But TV ads are ubiquitous and run often enough that you can’t miss them, and if they’re interesting enough—such as the Geico series—we actually want to see them again. Which is the best thing an advertiser can hope for.

Which is what Progressive can only dream about. With characters like Flo and Jamie, viewers get irritated and tired of bad ad ideas and then recognize plagiarism when they see it.

In the Geico spot at left, the series has already laid the groundwork with careful scripting and one-time characters for each spot. So it’s easy to accept the format knowing we’ll see a new entry each time. It’s soft sell wrapped in a quirky setting.

With the spot at right, Progressive not only tries too hard with the offbeat premise, they feel they need to explain the situation with characters (including the long tiresome Flo) who are watching the scene from the background. This is hard sell unwrapped as counterfeit.

And this is the real difference: Geico doesn’t need to explain anything, knowing that viewers are sophisticated enough to pick up the idea behind the absurdity of the theme, while Progressive doesn’t give the viewing audience credit for that.

Progressive is smart enough to know what works, but only after they see their competitor’s ads. In trying to top them, it fails miserably.

 

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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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