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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Design Awareness and Visual Conflict

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

I write this column to make readers—both designers and non-designers—see design, both good and bad. I know the title I chose for this article sounds maybe a little goofy. I mean it isn’t like “autism awareness” or anything along the lines of life defining circumstances. Design for most people doesn’t mean much.

Unless of course it involves things that impact movements and functions that people encounter during the course of their day. And for them, that means ergonomics and features of things they use. Things like electric shavers, cell phones, coffee makers, or an automobile. If the comfort level of that usage to them is low, then they perceive the design of those items as bad. And they’re right.

Non-designers might say something like, “This doesn’t feel right.” But to a designer, tactile sensations are just one facet of design. Visually, they can sense right away if something is wrong. Because designers can feel something just with their eyes.

It’s a matter of the overall design they see, usually in the mix of elements. Each element by itself may be sound, but joined with other elements—even if each is sound on its own—can easily set up a visual conflict. This can easily be seen in interior design, which I’ll get to in an upcoming article, but certainly in any ordinary plain design, be it on the web or in print.

Above are two examples that illustrate this: logos of furniture stores near where I live. Both places sell high quality furniture. And both designs use a script font and at least one other roman font. But one of the logos has the bad mix I just mentioned, not to state the obvious. The thing is, they don’t see it.

What makes things like this possible is the availability of graphic design software to anyone with a computer, and that means that some who have the opportunity to make their own designs will try to do so without understanding what makes a design successful. Either that, or someone in a company might envision a design in their mind, then instruct a designer to make what that someone imagined.

It doesn’t matter. The end result is what counts, and what counts here is readability. The thicks and thins of the Baer’s script B, overlaid with the ultra fine lines of the other fonts, set up a visual mess.

Unlike some designs, a company’s logo has properties that should promote the name and focus of that company. This is the face of the company, their best foot forward. Although Baer’s logo has a flowery appearance that may reflect their beautiful store interior, the fact that you can’t read it shouldn’t reflect the store’s focus. Nor should it detract from the store’s accessibility.

Bacon’s design has similar elements of the other logo, but here the designer (or non-designer?) knew when to stop short of visual conflict.

 

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