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.

Please follow and like us:

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.

 

Please follow and like us:

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.

 

 

Please follow and like us:

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.

 

Please follow and like us:

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.

Please follow and like us:

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.

 

Please follow and like us:

Art is Always Design

Last week, I reposted an article from months ago, entitled “When Design is Art”, citing examples of design so eloquent in their movement of shapes and color that they became art. Today I‘m flopping that mindset.

Ever think of art as design? It is, always. Painters paint with motion of the brushstroke and movement of the paint on canvas, but also from emotion. That emotion is evident in the shapes they create and the color they use. But it‘s all design: shapes and color, dark and light. The painting doesn‘t have to depict a realistic form. In abstract art, it doesn‘t depict anything other than itself. It‘s pure design.

In art school, we learned two-dimensional design using abstract shapes as subject matter. Those exercises taught us how shapes relate to each other as well as organization of those shapes in a design. In another course we learned color and how to manipulate it to create tonal flow in a composition.

But in those respective classes we skipped something. Although we were taught how to design using shapes and how to modulate color within a composition, we did not touch on emotion, the passion of the painter and the reactive element of the viewer.

And that‘s been in the back of my mind for weeks. You know, there‘s been a lot of talk about AI lately—artificial intelligence—and how our lives will be impacted by its use and replacement of human input in mechanical, or repetitive, situations. But what struck me about it was a few things I‘d read that told me how it could be taught to recognize emotion.

According to psychtastic.com, abstract art contains shapes and color that create feelings in the viewer‘s eye and mind immediately: negative feelings brought about by dark and irregular shapes, and positive feelings brought about by bright colors and simple or regular shapes. This is no real surprise.

How often do you sense foreboding in a movie whereby we follow the camera moving through a dark and dingy house (The Silence of the Lambs)? Or the sense of joy when we see Julie Andrews atop a bright meadowed hill (The Sound of Music)? This is easy.

So I kept searching for connections between AI and emotion and hit on a study by the University of Trento (in Italy). In that study, computers were fed the reactions of 100 people looking at abstract paintings of various colorations. Afterward, the same computers were fed scans of new paintings not from the original focus group. The computers were able to predict, with roughly 80% accuracy, the reactions of the same group of people.

And answers began to appear as to why a dark blue blob of paint evokes sadness, whereas red squiggles evoke anxiety.

Not totally revolutionary, but it certainly looks like AI will eventually get there.

The thing about shapes and color is this: it‘s all based on associative experience. As human beings, we learn from our surroundings, our falls and injuries, our taste of sweet or bitter food, our hearing of music or screams. Happenings can be pleasant or jarring. And all of those experiences are felt as colors and shapes within the mind‘s memory, socked away in our subconsciousness. This is why all of us, when shown an abstract piece of art or design, either like it or dislike it.

It can be a painting or just a simple doodle. It has things in it that remind us of something buried in our experience, no matter how simple.

I‘m not a psychologist, but what else would explain it? If you were doing an abstract painting, how would you depict serenity on a canvas? Would you choose pastel colors with smooth brushstrokes? What about violence? Would you use bold dark colors applied with slashing brushwork, maybe thrown paint?

This is art, designed for emotion.

 

Please follow and like us:

This Pink Thing

I write about design and how it encompasses our lives, everything around us. I try to inform those of us who are non-designers how to see it and how to recognize just how it impacts our thinking and sways us in different areas of the marketplace.

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, a day of a different kind of recognition. A day of celebration and thanks to our mothers for raising us and showing us the way in our young and formative years.

A long time ago, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis started Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia as a way to teach women the proper way to raise children, make them aware of sanitary conditions around their homes, and how to help them with treating colds and influenza. That was before the Civil War. Eventually other noted women took up the cause for championing mothers, among them Julia Ward Howe, a suffragette.

A few years before the Great War, Ann’s daughter Anna Jarvis petitioned for making a holiday to recognize all mothers for their unique contributions to families everywhere. After much campaigning and speaking and getting ears in Congress to listen, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day a national celebration on the second Sunday in May starting in 1914. Anna later protested the eventual commercialization of the occasion, including the greeting cards that followed.

In 1982, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation was formed by Nancy Goodman Brinker, the sister of Susan G. Komen. Susan had died two years previously from breast cancer at the age of 36, and Nancy was moved to do something in Susan’s honor to make women and everyone around aware of and to contribute to fighting breast cancer. That movement launched meetings, rallies, and events such as marathons, eventually getting a symbol in the form of a folded pink ribbon.

Just how those two things—Mother’s Day and the fight against breast cancer—came together is something that I’m not totally certain will not become blurred in the public eye of history. In 2006, Major League Baseball issued pink bats to be used in the games being played on Mother’s Day. Since that 2006 introduction of pink bats, the color has been extended to uniforms and equipment, including baseballs with pink stitching.

Then other sports got involved. The PGA Tour showed the color this past Sunday with the golfers wearing various shades of pink. Major League Baseball was in full bloom as well.

Which brings me to marketing. I’m not sure just which organization started using pink first, but as far as marketing and promoting with that color, it’s now a contest. And that contest has raised a few barbs in the past ten or so years.

The Komen Foundation has litigated to use the color exclusively, if not also the ribbon. Even the wording “for the Cure” is a sticking point. The organization Uniting Against Lung Cancer was warned by Komen to not use the above wording and not to use the color pink. Over 100 charities have received similar warnings.

The PGA Tour has no affiliation with the Komen Foundation. It gives its charitable donations to the Donna Foundation, which “raises funds for ground-breaking breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic and women living with breast cancer”. The Donna Foundation is also the “charity of the day” at the Players Championship near Jacksonville, Florida.

This apparent confluence of charities and a long-time national celebration is relatively new. The idea of stealing promotional material is not.

And just how did Mother’s Day get paired with these charities? I don’t know. Wearing pink at these events promotes getting money, yes. But it also promotes a certain inclusive clubbiness, like it or not. Because of social media these days, if you’re not wearing the color, you’re a pariah.

Please follow and like us:

It Must Be the Art Form

I could’ve entitled this entry “More Less Is More”, but I decided to draw a parallel from last week’s article to this one. Less is more will bob to the surface anyway.

Theater in design is not one of the things promoted as a subject in design school. Some people might think of “performance art” in this vein, and I suppose that would lend a theme to the thought process in runway display in fashion design, but what about other areas of the theater aspect in life? Sure, there are concerts, Cirque du Soleil sorts of things, and plays.

But in thinking about last week’s theme, I saw a television show the other day that immediately brought to mind another aspect of theater. The show was about cooking, but more about presenting a meal in a fine restaurant. And there it was.

In selling and merchandising cosmetics, I mentioned the mystique that industry has—all they have—and what propels it along. There’s a Giorgio Armani ad that shows a muscular male model diving into water, then tanning himself and standing in a tree. It’s all a fantasy sequence done in sepia tones, that other-worldly dream-like presentation. The theater of owning, of experiencing, this product.

There isn’t anything in the ad so banal as putting the cologne on in getting ready for an evening out on the town. That’s too ordinary a presentation. Too common stock. This isn’t showering with body wash or even using a premium shaving gel. Those are not transcendent.

And so, in watching the show and viewing the presentation of the food on fine china, I saw the same thing. Sure the food is cooked to perfection. But you can’t see that. Expecting you to love the taste of the food isn’t what the dining experience is all about. That’s a given: if the food didn’t taste good, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Five-star restaurants aim for a higher experience, an augmented atmosphere to enhance, to go beyond mere eating. And so the theater aspect comes into play. The ambience: the owners will stage the restaurant with the best appointments in interior design, fine linens on the table, candlelit spaciousness. The staff: well trained, dressed in slacks and vests, quietly taking orders from the customers without writing anything down.

And then there’s the presentation, brought on with a parade of servers. A piece of art on a wide, white plate: food stacked in the center, the entreé built according to the chef’s designs, maybe adorned with a smear or drizzle of sauces to spark the palate.

And in receiving this dish, this enticement, this gift, you’re getting the theater of it all. Could the food just be placed on a plate the way your mom did? No. Could the plate be smaller? No. Does this presentation add to the taste of the food? No. But now you’re thinking differently.

Now that you have it before you, sitting in this resplendent setting, you feel differently, too. It isn’t about just eating the food. It’s about the experience.

And the theater of it is different than that of selling cosmetics. It’s actually more fleeting. Once you’ve consumed the meal and left the restaurant, it’s over. You’ll remember it and may very well return on another evening, but that theater has ended for a while.

In fashion and cosmetics, the allure will remain with you. Because the dress or suit is still in your closet, the cologne is still on your dresser.

Maybe to wear to that restaurant next time.

Please follow and like us:

Observations on Perception, Part 2

    

Watching television commercials is like going on a cruise. You can be bored if you like, you can revile the repetition of it all, or you can look closely and people watch.

Me, I like to think I can look closely enough to see things people otherwise tend to overlook. I tend to not take things at face value.

And so, looking closely at some commercials makes me wonder where they get these euphoric visions of certain items the sponsors are trying to sell us. In some cases, the vision is one of extreme excitement. In some others, a feeling of exhilaration. In yet others, it might be an extreme sense of freedom.

I don’t get bored seeing these kinds of commercials. But I do get curious. And I laugh a lot. Especially when I see the kind pictured above.

At left I chose the Land Rover commercial where we see the vehicle outrunning a desert sandstorm (!), stopping to pick up a team of sailors on their way to whatever is pictured at the end of the commercial—what appears to be an America Cup racing yacht. Yeah.

Here’s a team of guys out in the…desert?…just walking around in the…desert? Huh? And all this to the tune of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Sounds completely and stupidly incongruous. After watching it several times, I still don’t get it. It makes no sense.

Next I chose the Alfa Romeo Giulia ad where the newest ugly car from Italy is being driven down a country road. Ever notice in these car ads that theirs is the only car on the road? Some of the ads for other cars show the vehicle being driven downtown in the same way—all alone. Gee. Do we consumers ever get to drive our cars in a situation like that? Of course not.

Last, I chose the Nordic Track Freestride Trainer ad. This woman is riding her new elliptical exercise machine on top of a building! Not in her apartment, not in her basement in the ‘burbs. Right up there in downtown Metropolis, above everyone else. Does this make any sense? No, of course not.

Which brings me to what goes through the minds of ad agencies when they concoct these things. Of course they’re trying to depict the car (or exercise machine) in an atmosphere of escape from the everyday humdrum of reality. To give that car a mystique that it it really doesn’t have, especially while you’re driving your new baby home from the dealer stuck in rush hour traffic.

That I get. I can even apply that kind of idiom to the Nordic Track, if I squint real hard after another gin and tonic.

But the Land Rover ad escapes any kind of lofty storyline logic. Of course, their slogan is “above and beyond”. Beyond for sure. Way out there.

Please follow and like us: