The Purpose of Art

When exposed to a piece of art, many people seem to want to impose an interpretation on it, or to figure out what it “means”.

As different interpretations clash (which they almost always do), the debate often turns into a discussion about the actual purpose of art, which I often personally find more rewarding and interesting than debating the possible interpretations of one single piece of art (as if there is ever a final, decisive conclusion).

Many people prefer clarity and reject ambiguity. Personally, I don’t know if I agree that art is really supposed to clearly represent an idea – that to me delves into the realms of illustration, marketing communication, information, or perhaps education. I think art should have higher aspirations.

The way I see it, art must be free to expressed anything, and be open to interpretation – in fact, to open minds to possibilities. I don’t believe judgmentalism has a place in art. If openness to the possibilities of art leads to some people seeing for example a turd in a sculpture, that is part of the point – for all we know, that ambiguity could well be intentional on the part of the artist. If the artist wanted to present us with an unambiguous, clear and obvious visual presentation, they’d probably do better to go into propaganda.

For me, I think art is supposed to provoke thought, and I don’t see why art needs to be restricted to simply be representational (or even aesthetic). Terrible art, to me, is boring art which is obvious and leaves no room for thought or interpretation at all, whether or not it ends up being visually pleasing. Quite frankly, the idea of art merely being reduced to aesthetics seems rather bourgeois, as if we produce art only to decorate our homes. It would seem to lead to a world full of nothing but landscape paintings of pretty sunrises.

There is beauty in the world, in nature. We don’t need art as a lens for it, in order for us to merely observe it – that is reductive and redundant. On the other hand, if we want to make people think about beauty, and consider what it means to us, that is something that art can do for us.

With that said, I fail to see why thoughts spurred on by art couldn’t be negative, ugly or even offensive ones.

What I especially dislike is when art is interpreted impositionally, as if there is only one possible purpose or interpretation of it, or that someone’s individual assessment of it is definitive. That, to me, defies the very purpose of art.

If art doesn’t open your mind, there is no purpose for it. And conversely, if art actually closes your mind, I would not consider it art at all, but manipulative, coercive communication.

Could a sculpture actually be a turd…? Sure it could! Follow that thought, and see where it leads.

If, on the other hand, you object to the possibility of turds used in art, then your perspective seems more of the moralist kind to me, and then maybe art is not for you…?

A.I. and the visual arts – Ignorance goes both ways

The subject of artificial intelligence (A.I) in the service of synthesized artistic output through text-based prompts is a hot button topic right now.

Online A.I. engines are popping up everywhere, and social media is being flooded with visual outputs from machine learning algorithms that process human-made art and aggregate it into something whose artistic origins may be very difficult to trace.

There is no denying that these A.I. engines are very complex and represent significant developments in how imagery is processed and interpreted digitally. A.I. advocates lean heavily on what they claim is a lack of understanding of the technology by its critics – an ignorance that is undoubtedly real to some extent.

The problem is, A.I. advocates are often equally ignorant when it comes to the history, evolution and craftsmanship involved in the visual arts. And they are often wont to flippantly dismiss the notion that this ignorance affects their ability to clearly judge the very obvious problems – legal, financial, cultural, ethical – that arise from the use of artificial intelligence in producing visual outputs

The flippant dismissal of the “technological illiteracy” sometimes exhibited by A.I. critics can just as easily be turned around on the pro-A.I. crowd as evidence of their lack of awareness of artistic endeavors, and the efforts and skills involved.

Glorifying technical advancements to the detriment of human artistic pursuits does not justify this type of programmatic plundering. A.I. advocates argue that A.I.s “learn” and “recognize patterns”. Sure, but they learn from WHOM, and recognize WHOSE patterns exactly…?

What is used to fuel A.I. engines represents advancements in the arts over centuries that are now being commoditized and pilfered, simply to become convenient, synthesized outputs. This is being enabled blindly, seemingly without awareness of the efforts, skills or sensibilities that are prevalent characteristics of the visual arts, completely without recognition of the contributions of all the myriads of artists who labored to achieve these advancements.

Blind belief in technology (however advanced) does not justify glossing over the ethical, legal and cultural issues involved here. The arts are facets of human culture and expression, not merely data in the public domain to be used as fodder for machine learning algorithms. However much time, skill and effort spent on filter programming, iterations of prompts, editing or post-processing, does not invalidate centuries of artistic evolution.

Ignorance goes both ways, and the fact that so many are willing to call others ignorant while covering up their own massive blind spots is really troublesome. If you want to champion one form of development to the detriment of another, then at least make the effort to learn about that which you are dismissing, depleting and cheapening. I see zero signs of an understanding of art and artistic craftsmanship in the pro-A.I. camp – just a cynical eagerness to commoditize it, and treat it as inherently without value. (I also see zero sensitivity among A.I. advocates to the concerns of actual artists, but that lack of recognition of artistic concerns from the technology sector is unfortunately nothing new).

The fundamental truth about machine learning is: garbage in, garbage out. Which means the machine needs to be fed something of value in order to produce something of value. The real question is, just where is the recognition of the value of the raw artistic materials that are being fed to the machine…? I think it is perfectly obvious that this value goes entirely unrecognized, unattributed and uncompensated. Fortunes are being built in the A.I. field without any of it being shared with those who created the original “raw materials”.

This is what is commonly referred to as piracy.

If you’re going to dismiss this, you need to come prepared with a better understanding of intellectual property law, and not just engage in mudslinging and namecalling – something that cheapens both the fields of A.I. and the arts.

Even if artists are indeed ignorant of the technological complexities involved in the creation and use of artifical intelligence, it still does not invalidate their rights to be recognized as the original creators of the art that is being processed and synthesized. But, on the other hand, ignorance on the part of A.I. advocates of the artistic traditions and efforts involved in producing the raw materials used by the A.I. engines does not excuse outright piracy.

One form of ignorance is not the same as, and does not justify the other.

The relationship is asymmetrical. You don’t need to fully understand the ins and outs of A.I. technology to recognize the risks and challenges. Knowing how machine learning works is not essential to recognizing its impact on society, just like you don’t need to understand the biochemistry of DNA to realize that patenting DNA sequences is highly problematic.

However, the reverse is not equally true; you DO need to understand art, art history and artistic craftsmanship to recognize just what is being eroded.

Technology is the aggressor here; the force that is appropriating and monetizing gains made in another field, without proper attribution or compensation. Its advocates are the ones who need to proceed with caution, and recognize their own ignorance, specifically because of the potential damage caused by that for which they are advocating.

By comparison, artists are really not in a position to challenge or compromise Big Tech – the mere suggestion is frankly a bit ludicrous.

The Creative Process

As a Creative, I often find myself objecting to the traditional, idealized, maybe even Disney-fied view of creativity.

The creative process is arguably (at least in part) about problem solving, and it is not always the blissful, magical, peaceful and inspired process it is made out to be.

The creative process is often turbulent, propelled by frustration, despair and disappointment. There can be sadness or anger inherent in creativity and it can express itself explosively, even violently.

More importantly, the output itself is not always benevolent or admirable (though it is often portrayed that way).

The creation of the atom bomb comes to mind.

On advertising and integrity

Should agencies eat their own dog food?

Anyone working in marketing will inevitably come across a lot of “rah-rah” and disingenuous hype – both in the actual marketing materials produced, as well as throughout the internal strategic and creative processes involved in developing that marketing.

Part of this hype involves the false notion that marketers somehow owe their clients some kind of loyalty. That marketers who sell a certain product must also be users and buyers of that product. That they must be willing to swallow their reason and integrity and live with whatever deficiencies a client’s products might evince.

This attitude is based on a massive misunderstanding of the purpose of marketing, and I don’t believe in it. I think it is disingenuous, it lacks integrity and it means you, as a marketer, are essentially not living in the real world.

Clients count on agencies to help them navigate reality, not project a false one. To understand the real parameters that affect the commercial world that their clients inhabit, and provide truthful and productive advice.

If every agency actually worked for a client with a better product, there would be no inferior products. We know this is not true. And for us to be able to sell a client’s (sometimes inferior) product, we need to understand what its REAL advantages and disadvantages are, and avoid the areas where they are lacking. You don’t do that by wholesale buying into your client’s BS; you do it by forming an understanding of the products, for whom they might be better suited, and in what context.

Furthermore, if the client’s products are lacking, you could argue it’s it’s actually more important to understand why and where the competitors are better. How else are you going to make your client’s products better, or sell them more efficiently? Acting as if there is no competition, and ignoring where the competition has a leg up, means you are living in a bubble, and will make ill informed decisions on behalf of your client.

As marketers, we’re here to help the client market their products, we’re not here to pretend that they actually are better. The latter is, in fact, what is known as fraud, hucksterism and deception. Part of making the sale requires you understanding your audience’s need, and match it to the right product. If you are not representative of your audience, then you buying and using that product means you’re actually not being truthful. You can’t credibly tell a consumer a product is right for them based on your own mismatched, disingeous use and endorsement of that same product.

Sales is not about selling your product to ANYONE, nor is marketing about knowing how to convince ANYONE to buy that product. Marketing is about understanding the product, and finding the buyers for it (that is why it is called “marketing” to begin with, and why there is a reference to a “market”). Marketing is meant  to help clients navigate that market, not carpet bomb it with ads and fool people into buying products they don’t need.

Once you have successfully navigated the market, and identified the right buyer at the right time, and targeted them with the right message, your sales are going to be much more successful, because you are selling to an audience that actually needs your product, and would potentially become brand loyal for that very reason.

You cannot trick a person into buying a product that isn’t right for them, and then hope that they will come back to you for another purchase, or recommend your products to someone else. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Consumers learn from their experiences with bad (or ill-suited) products, and marketers believing otherwise need to take a reality pill.

Beyond the intricacies of marketing strategy, there’s also the consideration of what is right and what is wrong.

I don’t believe my employer should have the right to dictate what I do in my personal life, or how I spend my money, so I don’t think clients should have that right either. It’s just dumb, and it is showing a troubling lack of integrity – one that is pretending that agencies are always telling the truth about their clients’ products, and always believe in what they are selling, when this is in itself a lie.

The ultimate proof of you being truthful about a client’s product is not you buying it out of misplaced loyalty, but you explaining to the client why someone might NOT buy it. And, conversely, showing which people ARE buying it, so that consumers can judge for themselves if those buyers are anything like them.

If we worked for Bayer/Monsanto, would we have an obligation to become sick from using their poisonous products?

Raison d’être

To me, one of the main roles for graphic design to play is to visualize, to communicate, and to amplify a message.

It may sound like a ”duh” type of statement, but far too often I see design that makes me think its creator hasn’t fully understood or embraced this purpose.

It’s almost as if designers are deliberately trying to say nothing; for their design to simply be decorative and aesthetic, and fade into the background like wallpaper, without any intent of prompting a response.

Even worse, designers are quite often trying to say the exact same thing as everyone else, in a misguided ”me too” effort, as if their design carries no more importance than the current fashion shift to high-waisted jeans. The end result is invariably one of insufficient differentiation, which is problematic especially in regards to brand identity.

You will also sometimes see clarity mistaken for persuasiveness, as if clarity is all that is required from a design. But clarity is just the first step on the way to communication, just like diagnosing an illness is the first step towards a cure. Clarity is rarely an end in itself. Yes, you certainly need for the recipient to be able to decipher your message, but if that is where it ends, then your design is likely not going to be very effective. It also needs to create a sense of urgency, and a desire to act.

Finally, at the tail end of the communicative process, the design also needs to facilitate that action. Design that doesn’t fuel interaction is basically just a visual veneer. Cosmetics. Communicative wrapping paper. Almost like a stage actor who thinks that merely speaking the words of the script is sufficient.

For our design to be truly meaningful, we need to make sure it resonates, and has a tangible outcome.

Case-in-point:

Ask yourself if the design below actually communicates, or if it merely assembles some words that don’t actually connect with the intent. Is it actually successful in spurring the very thoughts and actions that those words describe, or does the design run counter to its purpose?

The AOR Dilemma

Agency of Record.

The term implies a relationship where an agency agrees to make recommendations on an ongoing basis, in order to solve a client’s marketing problems.

Quite often, however, such a relationship devolves into diplomacy and the mere maintenance of cordial relations. It’s like everything that requires effort or pushback is a sensitive thing, as if people owning the relationship on the agency side are walking on eggshells – afraid to speak up, and make firm suggestions or demands.

I truly don’t understand why so many agencies choose to be so subservient all the time; turning into passive-aggressive order takers with near-inevitability, instead of trying to be trusted advisors.

A truly meaningful client-agency relationship requires trust, and a willingness to collectively put your finger on the problems that are hindering the client from achieving optimal results.

I’ve never known a client who accepted if the rationale for a bad solution was simply “Well, you asked for it!”. Clients expect their agency partners to both know better and do better, making appropriate recommendations. Often, this seems to go to the genesis and DNA of every business – if you’re working for a company founded by bean counters, then nothing but beans is of value. And there is little realization that beans actually need to be planted first, in order to yield results.

(Also, you know the old rhyme: ”beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot.” If we see beans as a metaphor for cost and ”toots” being the output, those are perhaps not really the results that clients want…)

To be more specific, what perplexes me is that some agencies can’t seem to get it in their heads that subject matter expertise is something you CAN and SHOULD sell to the client, because (drumroll): clients actually LIKE that kind of stuff. And it might make them respect you, and listen when you advise them.

It’s true that there’s a time and place for everything – which is exactly why agencies need strategic orchestration of all client accounts, and figure out at the OUTSET if a project needs discovery, strategy and solutioning. If not, the work is just BAU, and all we need to do is to focus on requirements, cranking out assets as efficiently as possible. But instead, agencies tend to try and sell everything as BAU, packaging every service up into easily quantifiable and sold set of off-the-shelf solutions.

Which seems to be exactly why consultancies are eating agencies’ lunches right now. Consultancies promise solutions and outcomes, and proceed to deliver them by iterating on client needs, as opposed to the agency approach of bucketing everything into piecemeal one-size-fits-all units that are sold with a fervor of a street market vendor.

”Display ads! Display ads” Special price, only for you my friend!”

Even if what the client actually needs isn’t display ads.

To quote Maslow: “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.”

So, how do agencies dig themselves out of this siloed, homogenized, mass-marketing-slash-carpet-bombing paradigm, where clients are quantified and not qualified, and adapted to existing solutions instead of the reverse? Where consumers are treated as faceless masses of undifferentiated people, with the same generic needs?

I sadly think we (as marketing practitioners, whose SME is often not respected) can only hope to achieve fractions of that goal – by focusing on things that are within our control.

And then we can maybe find approaches that could be SEEDS of broader solutions, but which we don’t fully control, and we therefore have to settle for simply spreading in the wind, like dandelions.

Only question is: who has the patience to see if all those things actually germinate into something?

If you were rewarded for that patience, then maybe… but as it is, with the somewhat neurotic over-emphasis on agency-client relations as opposed to tangible results, it all has to be skunkworks in nature, without any promise of results OR reward.

This, then, is the AOR Dilemma.

On Typography and Type Design

First of all, while some may refer to it as an art form, I’m going to ignore that particular can of worms, and simply assert for the sake of convenience that typography and typeface design is mainly a craft.

As such, it comes with hundreds of years of traditions and established norms that have evolved through the very meticulous study, training and practice by countless professional tradesmen and -women. These traditions and norms fuse into what must at this point be regarded as rather deep subject matter expertise – one that, given the narrow focus of the subject, is also by necessity quite dense, and where an inordinate amount of attention is spent on very small details. However, these details come together into a more complex whole, as is the case with any subject that accrues significant volumes of knowledge and experience over the centuries.

Consider the example of and comparison with cartography as a relatively salient one, in that typography is what gives language its visual shape and reproduced physical properties, in much the same way as cartography gives the physical, geographical, topographical and oceanographical world its encoded visual representation.

When debating a subject that is given such broad public exposure (in that lay people are immersed in the physical output of typography on a daily basis), it is inherently very difficult to balance the broad implications of this public exposure with the very deep and very detailed subject matter expertise of those professionals who dedicate their lives to the study of it. As with anything subject to everyday exposure, virtually every human being will have their own personal experience with it, and derive an opinion from this experience. Such opinions are certainly valid, but only in a very superficial and individual sense, and if used to try and question the traditions and norms of the craft, or invalidate the subject matter expertise of trained professionals, it invariably produces a very skewed and problematic discourse.

After all, anyone can have a personal opinion of the appearance of a map, but only a navigator can accurately assess the usefulness of it, and only a professional cartographer can fully evaluate the qualities and viability of its execution.

Similarly, when debating the typographic qualities of any particular printed text, or the properties of a specific typeface, two factors can be considered: the context of the usage, and the technicalities of the execution.

The former aspect – context – is really the only one that can be meaningfully discussed between lay people and professional tradesmen, whereas the latter aspect – execution – simply represents too much of a disparity between the two different perspectives for them to really be considered anything but an unproductive apples-to-oranges juxtaposition. The professional tradesperson would either need to reduce and simplify his or her subject matter expertise dramatically, to a point where it becomes too generic or limited to be entirely meaningful, or they would need to spend an inordinate amount of time educating the lay person in order to bring the balance of input to a more equal, relevant level.

To exemplify and explore this, let’s use the typeface Papyrus as a case study. It is a broadly available typeface to which most people have had exposure, and on which most people would be able to have an opinion. Yet, it is a controversial typeface in professional circles in that it is widely considered a bit of a cliché, to the point of being ridiculed (even becoming the butt of the joke in a famous SNL sketch).

CONTEXT

As highlighted by the sketch, most professionals agree that the biggest problem with Papyrus is contextual (though it is far from free of technical problems – see ”Technical Properties” below).

Heritage and authenticity:
Papyrus was designed in 1982 (see this summary of its history here. While it clearly and quite deliberately pretends to stand on the shoulders of Greek and Egyptian antiquity, this is entirely disingenuous, and this posture must be regarded as rooted in pastiche. It was designed as a caricature of antique calligraphy and biblical scrolls, with very little authenticity to support it – much like the derided faux Ark of Williamstown, Kentucky. While there are plenty of typefaces derived from the lettering of antiquity, whether rooted in calligraphy or stone carving (in fact, the entirety of typography and serif typefaces actually rose out of this context), Papyrus is a post-modern construct, playing only very loosely with the stylistic principles of antiquity, owing much more to modern calligraphic sign painting conventions.

Designer
Papyrus was designed by Chris Costello, at the time a 23-year-old entry-level ad agency designer just out of art school. This context very much affects the credibility and renommé of the typeface. The youth of the designer is admittedly not necessarily something to be held against a typeface – had Costello gone on to design elegant typefaces later in his career, perhaps Papyrus would have been judged less harshly, as the charmingly imperfect early work of a master of his craft. This is not the case, however. Costello has not assumed the professional persona of a stalwart bearer of typographic traditions: he’s produced more of the same faux-calligraphic pastiche fonts, like Mirage or Blackstone. He was a junior ad agency designer working within the lightweight, commercial chicanery of the advertising world, and the rest of his typographic legacy largely reflects this.

Publisher
Papyrus was first offered mainly as a rub-on appliqué type of font by “virtue” of its publisher, Letraset. It was eventually brought into the world of desktop publishing and became a free digital font in the mid-1990s, as did several of its much maligned DTP counterparts, for example Brush Script and Comic Sans. Letraset was never a serious, substantial player on the type market: their products were sold in arts and crafts stores.

Availability
The wide availability of Papyrus immediately made it a choice for amateurs and dilettantes, as it was never really used in a professional context, or grown out of legacy publishing industry needs. It was brought to market as a toy font for lay people who laser printed their own DIY Hallmark greetings, and it never outgrew that contextual taint.

Usage
Most typographers and type designers would agree that typefaces should not overpower the content they’re meant to present, but where the style of a typeface can contribute to the thematic and communicative relevance of a text, that can sometimes be purposeful. However, one has to account for prior usage when making this judgment. The problem with Papyrus is that its usage quickly became so broad, its clichéd appearance soon overtook any possible thematic connotations. It became the font of choice for lemonade stands, pizza restaurant menus and obnoxious office notifications posted to break room refrigerators. This context is inescapable and taints any product garnished with Papyrus lettering. It was the very reason for the ridicule heaped on the big budget movie Avatar, whose title sequence famously used the Papyrus font. (This has since been revised, which ought to tell us something.)

TECHNICAL PROPERTIES

Even if one manages to overlook the countless contextual problems of Papyrus, one still has to contend with some rather glaring technical issues:

Lettershapes
The lettershapes of Papyrus are bloated, grotesque and extended. Lower case characters are squat and short and look like they have been sat on. The bowls of most lower case letters are distorted to the point where drawing them by hand seems like it would require a considerable effort. The inner negative shapes punch large holes in each line of text, which creates a jarring reading experience. Several of the characters have unresolved problems: the negative space of lower case “e” is much too tight to render clearly in all sizes; the loops of lower case “g” are not connected; the upper storeys of virtually all capital letters are much too low compared to the lower storeys, which drastically disrupts the eye’s interpretation of each word, and cause even more negative spaces that must be compensated for through kerning. The angles of each vertical line teeters and totters from left to right, making the letters appear flimsy, and destabilizing the integrity of each word and sentence. The lower bars of capital E and F jut out beyond the width of the footprint of the basic letterforms and pose spacing problems. These are but a few examples – they are legion.

Line rendering
The quality of the calligraphic line of each letter has been compromised by an artificially imposed distortion and aging, where cuts and chunks have been brutally taken out of the edges of each line. This visual characteristic contributes to the pastiche nature of the typeface, affecting a pretend-aged appearance that acts like a clown nose or a fake beard added to the face of the text. This is an aesthetic design decision that belongs in the realm of graphic design, not typography. A typeface should be mainly shaped for character recognition and legibility; lettershapes are not primarily designed with aesthetics in mind. Even the conscious appreciation of the beauty of letterforms is disruptive to the purpose of reading.

Kerning
The typeface has countless kerning problems, where letterforms extend and bump into each other in an unpleasant, disruptive manner, further complicating the ability of the eye to decipher each letterform. This adds to the previously outlined problem with the large, horizontally extended negative shapes.

X-height
Papyrus has an almost comically underdimensioned X-height: the ascenders and descenders are significantly taller than the base of each lower case lettershape. This poses significant problems in its implementation, as leading will appear unnecessarily tall, injecting excessive vertical whitespace that forces the eye to travel farther between the end of each line and the beginning of the next. The visual cohesion and integrity of each multi-line text suffers as a result, and needs to be compensated for in the spatial relationships between lines, paragraphs and columns.

Legibility
Both the letterforms, x-height and kerning problems compound to make Papyrus difficult to read, especially in longer texts. If it has any purpose at all, it should be limited to wordmarks and logotypes. However, see ”Context” above, as logotypes are particularly susceptible to connotations that affect the perception of a brand.

Communicative properties
Given the contextual problems of Papyrus identified under “Heritage and authenticity” and “Usage” above, it must be concluded that the ability of this typeface to convey the meaning of any text in anything but a compromised fashion is null and void. Papyrus imposes its personality – real and perceived – in such an overbearing and irrelevant way, it becomes akin to a serious statement uttered with a comical fake Greek or Egyptian accent. The typeface overwhelms the content it is meant to present, and becomes an unwanted distraction. Furthermore, it also becomes a case of cultural appropriation to the point where it no doubt is perceived as a bit of an insult to the peoples of the Mediterranean, and makes light of the work of scholars studying the real history, architecture and sculpture of antiquity. That is really not what typography should aspire to.

On Hierarchy and Structure

Different senders, recipients and types of content usually require different structures. This is hardly a surprising conclusion. But how can we best structure content? Which building blocks can be used for this purpose?

Some general principles are suggested below:

ALPHABETICAL: This is perhaps the most common form of sorting. We learn at an early age to relate to large quantities of information in alphabetical sequence. But this is a rather blunt sorting method. Alphabetic sorting does not take into account the nature or meaning of the content; it’s really just an arbitrary label that presumes we are able to identify content by its assigned title or name.

NUMERIC: Equally common is numeric sorting, where content entries are assigned a more or less arbitrary number-based order. Like alphabetical sorting, this is an abstract system that in itself does not help the user understand or decode the content.

TEMPORAL: It’s very common on news sites in particular to sort content using time references. This can either be done according to timeliness, i.e. with the latest content item at the top of the structure, or chronologically, i.e. with the very first content item at the top.

SPATIAL: Content pieces can also be arranged after spatial conditions, i.e. their spatial relationship to each other. Perhaps the clearest example here is structuring based on maps, drawings or schematics. The examples may seem obvious, but they are not leveraged as often as one might wish. Imagine, for example, a medical dictionary where the information is sorted by body location, or a car instruction manual where the content is sorted by the spatial placement of the components in the car itself.

CATEGORIES: A useful form of sorting is categorization, i.e. grouping the information into subject categories, genres or themes. However, this often requires a very in-depth knowledge of the content, otherwise the categories can be misleading, as they are typically based on subjective assessment and opinion. The method may also require a lot of prior knowledge of the user, depending on how detailed and fragmented the categories become. For a person unfamiliar with popular music, for example, the conceptual difference between trash metal and speed metal may be impossible to discern, while separating heavy metal from, let’s say, country music may be significantly easier.

NEED: An optimal but sometimes unattainable sorting method is a needs-based one, where the user’s needs and purposes are taken into account. Imagine, for example, a gaming site, where the user can read about games, play games, download games, comment on games, etc.

SCOPE: Sorting can also be performed based on scope, where for example the volume of information in each content item, the number of subcategories, the physical dimensions of the content, or the time span are considered.

MEDIA PROPERTIES: Considering the properties of the Internet as a digital medium, it may in some cases be relevant to sort content based on media properties and meta data, e.g. text / image / moving image, file type (HTML, DOC, PDF, PNG, JPG, MP4), its technical quality, or its file size.

COMPLEXITY: In an informative context, it can sometimes be purposeful to structure content according to complexity. Although the assessment of the degree of difficulty in assimilating each content item is of course subjective, even a small hint can be useful in the right context. Education can, for example, be a suitable area of application: Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, etc.

DRAMATURGY: Since websites need to not only be informative, but can also constitute some form of narrative experience, it is conceivable that the structure of a website may be dramaturgically based, although this must be considered rather unusual.

RANDOM: Structure is not always necessary, or even purposeful. Experiences such as games and interactive narratives may even require some degree of structural randomness to tickle the user’s curiosity.

Visual structure

Applying graphic design for sorting purposes is at the very core of information design. This discipline deals in making the structure visible and navigable to the user. The designer uses all the tools in his toolbox to separate content units from each other, clarify their relationships, and sometimes visualize their external context.

But what are these tools and how can they be applied?

SIZE: Structure can be emphasized by the aspect ratio of visual components. Generally, the basic principle is that large objects are structurally superior to small objects, but in exceptional cases, a single smaller object among many large objects can actually be perceived as more prominent due to its uniqueness.

COLOR: Using color to rank and separate graphic objects from each other is a very simple and useful method. Some colors, such as red and yellow, are perceived by the brain as more prominent than others, making them structurally ”superior”. This is obviously one of the reasons why warning signs in traffic are red and yellow, as drivers have limited attention to devote to visual impressions.

TYPOGRAPHY: Although the possibilities for advanced typography on the Internet are still somewhat limited, you don’t necessarily need a plethora of typographic features to achieve good results. The difference between basic styles – e.g. italic, bold and regular – can be sufficient to indicate structural differences, and alignment (left, centered or right) can be used to suggest structural relationships.

PLACEMENT: The actual placement of texts and graphic objects can indicate structural conditions. An object placed high up on a page is generally considered to be superior to an object further down, and the same relationship applies to objects placed in a horizontal sequence, from left to right.

SHAPE: By giving a structurally superior graphic object a different shape, a distinction from other content is achieved in a very effective way. Round, triangular, polygonal and asymmetrical objects have a tendency to attract attention and therefore take on an overriding structural role over, for example, square and symmetrical objects.

QUANTITY: A larger number of aggregated visual content items usually occupy a higher hierarchical position compared to a smaller quantity.

CONTRAST: Highlighting contrasts, such as different shades of color or grays, often works as a good way to distinguish content structurally. This method may compromise legibility and clarity however, so it is best used with caution.

PATTERNS: Textures and patterns can be useful for suggesting ranking, although it may be difficult to interpret one type of pattern as superior to another. Usually, you would choose to only apply patterns to that which you want to emphasize.

MOVEMENT: Perhaps the most obvious visual method for marking structural dominance is to add movement. An animated graphic object basically always attracts the user’s attention and thus has a greater perceived importance than the static, immovable content.

COMBINATION: In general, all of the above methods are used in combination in one way or another. Three structural levels can, for example, be distinguished by using size (for example using three differently sized text boxes). At the same time, two hierarchical sub-levels within the top level (in the largest text box) can be visually separated by bold and regular style.

NOTE: It is very easy to exaggerate proportions when using all the above visual segmentation methods. This often results in a busy, jumbled whole. Often, only small, subtle visual differences are needed to clarify the relative structural relationships of content items. Designers are usually better off using a certain amount of restraint in working with these tools.

The Importance of Contracts

When you are doing contract work as a Creative, you always need to have a written agreement between yourself and the client that stipulates the terms under which the work is to be carried out. This basically substitutes for an employment contract. 

If you do not have such a contract, agreed upon and signed prior to the work commencing, it is very hard for you to argue any terms and conditions after the fact. The client can basically just argue that “this is not what we agreed upon” – and they’d be right. That doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t ever be entitled to those terms, it simply means you never agreed on them; you basically don’t have a legally binding agreement of anything. It is also hard to change the terms of a contract after it has been signed.

Remember that there doesn’t necessarily have to be malicious intent for contractual disputes to become unpleasant, given that both parties have both time and money invested. In your case, being faced with a contractual dispute can be devastating since you have at that point already put in some effort. Any additional wranglings past that date becomes a lose-lose situation.

For that reason, it is a good business practice to write your proposals so that they have a signatory clause where the parties confirm their intent in a legally binding way (by adding their signatures), and also add a clause of terms and conditions. These don’t have to be super complex or written in a particularly fanciful language, but you need to at least include the following:

1. When the terms of the contract begin to take effect, and when they end (if they do). This should also include an expiration date for the proposal itself, so that the client cannot delay the project start indefinitely, and still expect you to commit to the same timeline and cost.

2. How disputes and modifications to the contract should be resolved. It’s OK to leave certain things open for later definition, but you need to establish clear boundaries around such things (so as to avoid loopholes), and make it easy to add in the specifications later. You should always avoid writing in generalities such as ”TBD”, since those are open to interpretation. If you do not specify what it is that is ”to be determined”, the client may well turn out to have a differing opinion on it. Such disputes need to be negotiated and resolved based on an agreed-upon process.

3. The specific work that the contract covers, both in terms of hours, due dates, named resources (who will be doing the work) and actual output. If you fail to include this, you are allowing the client a lot of loopholes in what they expect to receive from you. If you write your proposals with a reasonable level of detail, that should be sufficient both for your own delimitation purposes, as well as for the client to feel comfortable. If the client is specifically asking for multiple options of something, those need to be defined and limited. You should assign a cost to each additional option.

4. What the cost is, and how and when you expect to be paid. Also make sure to include a late fee clause, just to make sure the client understands that you are not a bank – you are not lending them your time and talents, you are selling them. If it is difficult for you to define the work in quantifiable measures, you can always suggest to have the work be gauged in terms of hours spent: either as a defined number of man-hours at a fixed price, or as a running tally at an hourly rate. Should the client not want to agree to this, you will need for them to specify exactly what it is that they are willing to pay for. Some types of work are so complex that the definition of the work itself becomes part of the work, and that is a consulting service you’re entitled to be paid for.

5. How many rounds of revisions you are committing to, and what happens if the client goes beyond that. If you fail to stipulate this, the client could continue to demand revisions indefinitely. At least state that there is an incremental cost associated with each additional round of revisions beyond what you commit to covering. It is also a good idea to specify how and when you wish to receive feedback. It can become very time consuming to try and consolidate feedback offered by different people in different channels, especially if the feedback is also contradictory. In addition, you need to ensure that the client won’t hold you accountable for delays caused by inefficiencies on the client’s end. It is in your best interests to only accept feedback from one assigned point-of-contact. You should ensure that the client does their due diligence, consolidates the feedback on their end, and articulates it in actionable statements. A question does not constitute feedback; it requires follow-up and a resolution, which takes time and may introduce so-called scope creep.

6. A clause describing the ownership rights to the materials. If the client is buying the rights from you to do whatever they please with the materials, the contract needs to specify this, OR lock down if there are exceptions (additional print runs, usages, applications, selling of the materials to others, etc). You should also specify if you wish to exempt the source files, because if you sign those away, the client can make you redundant. It is fair to ask for additional compensation for that.

As a Creative, it is important for you to safeguard your own time and effort – your chief currency in this type of work. You also owe it to your clients to be clear about the terms under which you agree to work for them, and ensure that you are serious about maintaining a proper and honest relationship that is founded upon good business practices.

A contract doesn’t need to be onerous or imply distrust, it’s just a way to be clear and concise so that potentially costly misunderstandings can be avoided.

Æsthetics Schmæsthetics

The intersection between graphic design and user experience design produces some interesting philosophical dilemmas.

Graphic design tends to concern itself with the æsthetics and subjective appeal of the design output, whereas UX design tends to focus on user needs, and facilitating the fulfillment of those needs.

There is a point where they actually come to a head. Where we, as designers, must ask ourselves for whom the design actually exists.

Does it exist for the brand and the entity behind it, to express itself in what amounts to a somewhat self-centered, ”inside-out” approach? One that can potentially be interpreted as the brand being uninterested in or even dismissive of the desires of the audience, which might actually serve to disenfranchise consumers?

Even worse, does it exist for the designer him- or herself, to compose eye-pleasing visual tableaus that mainly satisfy their creator?

Or does the design exist for the audience and the consumer to identify with, and feel connected to, in what would amount to a more inclusive approach of outreach and dialogue?

Viewing design through the increasingly restrictive and wholly subjective lens of aesthetics is becoming more and more indulgent and less purposeful, particularly in this age of increasingly distributed media consumption and sophisticated audience targeting. I say this on the backs of hundreds of A/B, Multi-variate and Machine Learning tests, where it has been very hard to argue or prove that subjective æsthetics actually affected the outcome in any measureable way. Or, even if they did, why? It is very hard to get audiences to qualify their subjective preferences in a way that make them reliably repeatable. Opinions can be fickle, and the reasons for them can be buried very deep. Equally, an aesthetic preference may not be a reliable indicator of an intent to make a purchasing decision, especially if the aesthetics themselves are not a prominent or valued feature of the product in question.

Which leads to a provocative question:

Does the audience actually care about æsthetics?

Having your brand experiences shackled by a single-minded set of aesthetic preferences risks alienating your customers. It means you risk coming off as tone deaf to the needs and wants of your audience, which can be the equivalent of talking really loud over people at a party, without listening.

As a designer operating in an inherently interactive medium, I think dialogue is of prime importance. And seeing how this aspect of marketing and communication is growing (especially in this age of remote controlled screens and touchscreens of all shapes and sizes), and taking on an ever more important role in how brands engage with consumers, it leads me to conclude that the era of selfish, self-centered, static brands is over.

We need to engage with our audiences if we hope for them to interact with us, and the brand as well as the visual identity needs to invite to that.

We need for design to be a handshake, not a pose.