Tenets of Good Design—a Primer, Part 3


Design is impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now look at it.

Logo Designs That Don’t Work

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

1. It was conceived by the marketing department

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

3. It was designed by the CEO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New H&R Block Ads Miss Core Audience with Jon Hamm

Design is cohesion. We’ve talked about that. And advertising design on TV needs cohesive thought—a continuity—that keeps viewers tuned in.

H&R Block has been doing TV ads ever since the early ‘70s. Henry Bloch (spelling correct) started the firm with his brothers not long after World War II, when it was merely an accounting firm. But in 1955, they started doing tax preparation, and by 1972 they decided to do their first TV ads, with Henry himself appearing in them.

In 2013, H&R Block put an everyman [see my last post, “Rise of the Everyman”] on the screen touting their new bold messages. One of their own tax professionals, Richard Gartland, wearing what was to become a signature (and color-coordinated with the Block logo) green bow tie, yelling, “It’s refund season!” and later, “Get your billions, America!”

Apart from the rather avant-garde delivery from a tax man, his image tied in perfectly with the buttoned down H&R tradition. It was a brilliant move.

But according to Fallon, H&R’s ad agency, 2016 was a tough year for their client. Other tax services were making inroads, including TurboTax, the software anyone can use from the confines of his/her own home. So they decided to change course.

And that course, according to broadchannel.com, is a bold directional change. New direction, new writing, new tagline: “Get your taxes won.” And they picked Jon Hamm to deliver it.

Thing is, Hamm had never done TV commercials. Not on camera, anyway. He’d done some voiceovers for Mercedes-Benz. You hear his words, soft and direct, and he’s OK there.

But in the Block ads, he’s lacking. He practically mumbles his lines, moving the entire time, following his blocking. But he’s quick to move and too quick to speak. We lose his delivery, and therefore the message.

It’s almost like the director was told they had to do these ads all on the first take.

And that’s too bad. We’ve lost the core H&R feel here. It’s too slick—he’s too slick—and the viewers will see it that way as well.

Rise of the Everyman

Decades ago—the ‘50s and ‘60s—television advertising was a proud institution where announcers came from radio. They’d been groomed to have excellent speaking voices, and when mainstream television came to everyone’s living room, these announcers were groomed with hair stylists and makeup to look as good as they sounded. And magazine ads selling the same products echoed this mannered style with photo insets of those same announcers.

Advertisers wanted to come off as authoritative. That aspect gave their product more credibility, more weight in the public eye. If Ed Reimers sold Allstate Insurance on TV, you were “in good hands.” If Harry von Zell sold something on TV, you bought it. If Art Gilmore touted it, it must be the best.

But by the time the ‘70s rolled around, the advertisers’ collective mind had changed. More and more TV advertisers were using a different personality: actors gleaned from the movies and TV shows. Orson Welles sold Paul Masson wines. Rodney Dangerfield appeared in Miller Lite ads. Mel Blank (the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig) hawked the American Express card by saying, “Don’t leave home without it.”

Gradually, these high-profile celebs were replaced by younger, no-name actors. They were cheaper for one, and two, they could grow on the audience by being hip—almost one of us. David Naughton promoted Dr. Pepper. Lindsay Lohan did Jell-O. John Travolta for Safeguard soap.

Other advertisers called on lesser known performers who came from comedy. Jan Miner was the Palmolive dish soap lady. David Leisure appeared as Joe Isuzu.

Soon, advertisers realized two things: they didn’t need to spend money on celebs, and also they could reach the same audience with a new kind of spokesperson—the everyman.

So came the new millennium, and with that prominent advertisers are still using actors, but somehow the pitchmen (and women) are less glamorous, more like us average people. Less intimidating. People like Paul Marcarelli (pictured at left, above, the former Verizon pitchman) selling Sprint, and Adam Lisagor (right) selling TrueCar.

Which is good. We tend to believe the everyman. Not so much a person like Tom Selleck (who was himself a former male model in cigarette ads) pitching reverse mortgages.

Which makes the advertiser and the product—more accessible. More reachable. More attainable. The actors are more…normal.

More like us.

Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 2

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts. This entry will serve as the second in a series that explains what design is and what it isn’t.


Design is function. Function is a word that has some different connotations, but as applies to a designer, the term refers more to ease of usage.

Industrial design sounds like a term people might first associate with heavy machinery. But the term applies to anything we commonly use in everyday living, be it in a factory, your home or in a car, even a toy or cell phone. A television remote is an example: it has buttons that when pushed send signals to your TV set. And that’s a basic case of human usage of a relatively simple device.

Industrial designers look to make items that perform a function. Beyond that, they make those things happen more easily with each new model of the same item, ergonomically. If you use an item in your kitchen such as a food processor, you’re using something that took careful planning on the part of that designer.

He had to regard things as simple as the size and shape of shredded food items before looking at how he might design the blades; how they rotate and how fast they move; the size of the chamber for how much it will hold; the shape of the chute for pouring in liquid; what materials it would be made of for durability; and, perhaps any additional things like safety measures. Then he had to encompass all that into an attractive outer case that looks appealing and will sell.

Sound complicated? It is. But these are all considerations for the designer/design team.

Some things have the same function but are designed differently. Take the Norelco shaver, the first to use rotary blades instead of unidirectional ones. Or that Dyson vacuum cleaner, with its cyclonic action. Engineers designed these to perform the same functions as their predecessors, but doing them better or faster.

Automotive designers make cars and trucks, and here the stage is more familiar (and glamorous) to us as consumers because we tend to appreciate these things design-wise more than that vacuum cleaner. Maybe it’s because we regard an automobile as a work of art, something to behold merely sitting in our driveway rather than a means of transport. Of course, that new car has things on it that go outside the sphere of people moving.

Which brings us to this: that car has a system on it (Bluetooth) that allows it to communicate with your cell phone, an extension of your computer. And that brings the consumer to the interconnectivity of your daily living with the Internet of Things (such as your doorbell, your security camera(s), your heater and air conditioner, your door locks), items you use together because they literally talk to each other over the Internet.

And through all that, we have things that are designed to work together. They operate and communicate for safety and convenience. Function, expanded.

Which leads us then to harmony, but that’s another discussion.

Doesn’t That Design Look Familiar?

What makes a design yours? How about a logo? A symbol, an emblem…a trademark? Not sure here, but last time I looked, a trademark (if it has a “®” accompanying it) is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If the design or logo is not registered with that office, it can be accompanied by a “TM” (meaning trademark) or an “SM” (meaning service mark.) It’s confusing.

The deal is this: “TM” and “SM” have no legal standing. They merely suffice to make the public think that a particular logo looks legally legit. Only the “®” signifies a legally registered trademarked logo.

One thing keeps coming to my attention: what is intellectual property [IP]? Can it be infringed upon? And does anyone care? There are many facets of “design” that can be considered IP. Any design, or aspect of it, can be considered IP. A logo, certainly, but also trade dress, a term meaning the visual appearance of an entire image or package, such as a publication or edifice. That is also considered IP.

Further, if a design is registered (“®”), it’s protected as intellectual property and can be defended as such by law. Ever heard of copyright infringement? Then again, I read somewhere that an idea cannot be copyrighted; only an expression of an idea can be. And that’s sometimes for the courts to decide.

But I wonder if anyone really cares about designs being protected. It’s no secret that companies copy each other’s designs. Automotive manufacturers, packaging companies, even golfball manufacturers, all reflect each others’ editions. That’s one reason—the chief reason—we have design trends.

But it sometimes shows up in the oddest of circumstances, as in the above images. I’m not saying these are direct copies of each other, but in doing design for the marketplace, shouldn’t companies and their design firms be more aware of who they might unintentionally be copying?

What do you think?

There’s Nothing Like Advertising—Especially the Wrong Kind

Believe me, I know. I spent decades in and around the ad business. Last year, we saw two vehicles—the Buick Enclave and the Nissan Altima—getting a lot of ad play during the holiday season. But the way these two were being sold to viewers makes the advertisers look stupid.

The Buick SUV ad wouldn’t go away. It ran constantly. That alone made anyone crazy, but on top of that, Buick was trying desperately to impress us with a design that they felt was not like your old Buick. “That’s not a Buick,” says the elderly lady in the ad. Then Nissan’s ad for the Altima had the actors turning their heads to look at a supposedly racy looking car, when in fact it was as Plain Jane as you can get.

This year the most aggravating series of ads is with Chevrolet. Once again, these ads run all the time. Incessantly. We’ve got this focus group of non-actors following its host around like lambs over a Malibu. One of the girls in the ad actually says this: “The lights remind me of Audi lights.”

Is Chevrolet serious with this? Audi lights? There isn’t an Audi on the planet that has lights like this, and even if Audi had one, it either looks like the same lights or it doesn’t. They don’t remind anyone of Audi lights, is my point. Someone needs to tell the copywriters to feed better lines to their non-actors.

The thing is, advertisers rely on these ads to sell cars. Understandable. But they fail to use some basic, common sense.

1) Viewers get tired of seeing the same ad. If advertisers want to grab their target audience’s interest, they should vary the ad enough—say a series of three ads or more—showing different aspects of the car. Keep the viewers intrigued, maybe making it a continuing storyline. If they do, people will talk about it.

2) Viewers are not stupid. Please quit treating your prospective buyers like fifth-graders. Write intelligent ads that when viewed, will make the viewers feel valued, like they already have smarts. Mercedes-Benz is good at this: they know who their customer is and they don’t talk down to them. Good advertisers don’t have to.


Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 1

Design by definition is—according to Merriam-Webster—“the way something has been made [or] the way the parts of something are formed and arranged for a particular use, effect, etc.” And that’s fine for dictionary purposes. But design is much more than that. It’s bigger and more important, it’s larger. By that I mean it’s everything.

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. This entry will serve as the first in a series that explains what design is and what is not design. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts.


Let me first explain that, in math, we have a symbol representing no items in a certain category. That symbol is “0”, a zero. The fact that we have the zero is an example of an organizational factor that came about centuries ago when it was discovered that there had to be a difference between “no items in a category” and “nothing”. A good example of organizational thinking.


Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss design in many areas—practically everything. In magazines, in cars—even in television commercials.

Lexus Doesn’t Get It, Unless It Goes All-Out

LC-500 Front LC-500 Rear

Lexus. A name that’s been around since the early 80s, at least in Eiji Toyoda’s mind, the head of Toyota. He wanted to build the world’s best car. And not long afterward, Japan’s competition came out with theirs: Acura from Honda and the Infiniti from Nissan.

Lexus, like most of the marques from that period, played it safe with its outward appearance, instead making its mark with fine interior appointments, smooth finishing and materials, and close-fitting body panels. In short, they didn’t push the styling envelope. Sales were crisp enough from sound advertising, promoting quality over flash.

The focus remained on that conservative approach, keeping in line with its European counterparts, that of Mercedes, Audi, and BMW. And in that club, Lexus remains the fourth best-selling luxury brand. But in 2012, the models offered by Lexus began to change when the automotive stylists made a template which eventually led to a more aggressive look.

A trend had developed among designers at Ford, Mazda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Audi showing a deep-throated open-faced grille, with some contours taking the grille all the way down the front of the vehicle. Lexus was to echo that trend, first to a limited extent, then in a more exaggerated way. Lexus recently took it to its extreme hourglass shape in all its cars this current model year. But all the manufacturers did not take that design motif past the A-pillar, meaning the contours stop at practically the windshield, with some cars reflecting the design lines along the hood. And if you look at Lexus, its modified hourglass grille—that kind of angularity—is not echoed on the rest of their vehicles’ body lines. That grille makes a bold statement on the front of the vehicle, however loud it looks, but the back of that Lexus is any manufacturer’s car in comparison to that bold message.

But now Lexus recently showed a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show, the LF-Lc, that took the design to a great uniformity. True, Lexus’ designs of late have been more angular, making the offerings more aggressive looking. But this concept vehicle takes that angularity to a new level, scoring Lexus a near touchdown in its complete provocative styling.

Hopefully, Lexus will not short-change itself going forward. How much it moves that design thinking to its other cars remains to be seen. The concept car will never be built (concept cars never are), but the LC-500 comes really close.

It has just one small caveat. The stretched hourglass contours of that grille may not be regarded high on the design scales of history. It has elements of ultra-comic book styling with alien skin thinking from futuristic movies. And that’s alright, but it may not be timeless.

Are Sports Cars Dead?

Third_Gen_Toyota_MR2_Red Mazda_RX-8_on_freeway_Blue

I remember in 1974 seeing a brand new Toyota Celica. It was yellow and belonged to a guy I was working with at an ad agency in Cincinnati. It caught the eye of almost everyone who worked there. That was then, and now more than 40 years later, Toyota makes no Celicas. Hasn’t for over nine years now. Supposedly because of the shrinking sports coupe market brought on by a 1997 Asian financial crisis and a Japanese price bubble collapse. The Celica (and Supra, following, along with the MR2) were the sportiest offerings from Toyota, at least to the general public.

In fact, other cars were discontinued like that. The Honda Prelude was a victim of the same circumstance. And that was also the sportiest Honda, aside from the S2000. Both, however, died a death attributed to economies on either Asian or global stages, the latter because of the 2008–2009 recession.

This is not to ignore the European sports roadsters of the 60s, such as the Fiat Spyders and the British two-seaters such as the Austin Healeys and the Triumphs, but many of the cars of that era were not durable. But they could’ve been made better into the 80s.

Then there’s the Mazda RX-8. This car failed to meet increasingly stringent emission regulations in Europe in 2010, one of its better markets. So Mazda yanked the model altogether, citing it could not justify the production on a smaller scale. But at least Mazda is coming out with a model known as “ND”, which will replace the Miata, a car that may hit the skids next summer.

VW is of course a German automaker, not beset by the same issues as the Asian automakers. The thing about VW, though, is that it never came out with a sports car. If the GTI is what VW calls its sports model, it does not fit into the same mold as the two above. The same can be said of the Subaru WRX. If a rally car is what some manufacturers call a sports car, then the category needs to be redefined.

VW has what I would call just a plain old-fashioned design stodginess going for it (apart from the MPG snafu), but Honda and now Toyota are suffering from the same disease.

It seems the sportiness of automotive design has left the stage, excepting of course the Corvette (Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro are not sports cars but muscle cars). What is going on?

The price of a gallon of gasoline is now close to $2 nationwide with OPEC telling us it has no plans to cut production, even in the face of ramped up domestic turnout. SUVs are known for using more gasoline than the average family car/minivan, and the oil glut keeping gas prices down will encourage more sales of that beast.

But the sports/roadster makes for much more fun driving.

Think things will ever rebound for the sports car market?