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.
Ask yourself if the design below actually communicates, or if it merely assembles some words that don’t actually connect with the intent, failing to spur the very thoughts and actions that those words describe.
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 know better, and make 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 opposite? 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Even if one manages to overlook the countless contextual problems of Papyrus, one still has to contend with some rather glaring technical issues:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is admittedly a bit of a departure from my usual UX- and design-related topics for this blog, but bear with me. There is a creative relevance at the bottom of this, especially in terms of creative concepting and the need for emotional resonance. It touches on a broader issue that I feel is not uncommon in the creative world: the need to kill your darlings, or at least work through your conceptual issues so that your ideas connect with people on a more general human level.
I will be using the recent Pixar movie ”Soul” as my benchmark. While this post is a indeed a review of that specific movie, the conceptual and executional problems in ”Soul” are not uncommon, and broader analogs can be found in almost any creative endeavor.
I watched the movie ”Soul” last night. Not my favorite Pixar outing to be honest. I wanted to love it, I really did, and it is quite spectacular looking, but it just didn’t do it for me. Didn’t quite connect the dots. Got a bit too cutesy and indulgent with the concept, didn’t quite bring it home and land it.
The script feels somewhat unfinished, a little bit like a draft. The concept is great, heart’s in the right place, but tackling something as heady as the Meaning of Life needs more than good intentions. Sorry. I’m filing this in the same folder as ”Inside Out” and ”Coco”, two other Pixar movies which I thought had similar issues.
I think Pixar have gotten a bit sloppy with their scriptwriting, and they’re being too cutesy and abstract with their concepts. It seems form has overtaken function, or maybe they’ve just gotten too comfortable with their metaphors. It’s not uncommon in creative concepting and execution.
The thing is, Pixar used to be very good at boiling a story down to its essentials. Connecting the dots between the abstract, conceptual aspects – depicting the inner workings of a psyche (in ”Inside Out”), or creating a convincing scenery for the afterlife (in ”Soul”) – and the emotional aspects of real life, so that they’re not just vague fictional constructs, staged for mere entertainment purposes.
Lately, however, they’ve failed to connect those dots fully – they leave a lot unresolved and sketched in, and it affects the emotional resonance of the story. What was Joe Gardner’s true purpose in ”Soul”, if not music? Aren’t we supposed to care about that? They made a Big Deal of that in the premise of the movie, then left it hanging.
CONCEPT <——————–Soul is here——————————-Wall-E is here—-> RESONANCE
In very concrete terms, I thought ”Wall-E” was much more successful in capturing the nature of loneliness, and the desperate hope of seeking companionship, than ”Soul” was in outlining someone’s search for a purpose in life, or than ”Inside Out” was in exploring the emotional facets of one’s core identity.
To be fair, I enjoyed both ”Inside Out” and ”Soul”, but they didn’t really affect me the way a truly tight, well-constructed story with credible people and outcomes will do. What’s at stake in ”Soul” is merely pencilled in and hypothetical, not heartfelt. The goal of the main character is simply to get on stage and let his musical inspiration flow, and though this is indeed a critical limitation of that persona – that he has not given more thought to his life’s goal – it also becomes a limitation for the story. I cared a lot more about Woody or Flik or Wall-E or Sully & Mike or Remy or the old man in ”Up” than I do about any of these more recent characters. Cared a lot more about the Incredibles even – who are caricatures and superheroes – than I cared about Joe Gardner, who is a regular guy with a rather common dream.
I found most of the afterlife scenes in ”Soul” bewildering and aimless – kooky for the sake of being kooky, not to create an emotional connection. It’s like a concept artist playing around in their own dollhouse. Why should I care? Same situation with the boy in Coco: his life and what was important to him got lost in the conceptual trappings and stylistic flourishes of the Day of the Dead. Pixar is presenting me with an imaginative and really ”out there” concept that doesn’t help me connect with the character or the theme – in fact, it actually obstructs that connection, and the heavy use of metaphor doesn’t help. They need to transcend that obstacle but seem uninterested in or uncapable of doing so.
The chase to get to the jazz club, which was stalled by a series of mechanical plot twists with no relation to the story (getting the haircut, fixing the suit), was just a tedious distraction. Served no real purpose. And that is beside the fact that what they were trying to accomplish was to connect with a zany hippie who somehow would be able to switch them back into their own bodies – a corny Deus Ex Machina solution that really detracts from my sympathy for the character. His travails are not relatable, and the solution does not apply to my life even in the most abstract of ways.
The whole body switching gimmick, in fact, is just a stale old scriptwriter construct with no relevance to the theme of the movie. Feels a bit like copy-and-paste. Again, the relevance of the story suffers.
They need to tighten this shit up.
Dynamic Creative In User Experience Design
All design is inherently subjective.
How people perceive and are affected by design depends on who they are, what their circumstances look like and what their expectations are. Subjectivity applies not only to media and graphic design, but to art, fashion, architecture or any other form of visual expression.
We judge with our eyes.
This is especially problematic in the world of user experience, which to a large extent revolves around functionality and usability. The usefulness of browser- and app-based experiences depends on how well they enable users to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Accomplishing goals, on the other hand, also depends on how motivated users are. This adds an emotional dimension to this otherwise highly rational discipline.
Structuring a website (or an app) so that the user merely understands how to use it is simply not sufficient. If the user does not want to use a website, the empirical knowledge of how to use it is largely inconsequential. Therefore, content must be packaged in a way that the user is emotionally motivated to partake of it and here, design has an important role to play.
A survey conducted by Carleton University in Ottawa, published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, determined that users form their impressions of a website and its visual appeal within the first 1/20th of a second of visiting it. Even more surprisingly, these first impressions colored the entire experience of the site, whether or not the whole site actually turned out to match that initial perception. The conclusion of the survey was that this first impression was “unlikely to involve cognition” – meaning it is largely an emotional response.
However, presenting a differentiated audience with a unified, undifferentiated design – however well optimized – will not account for the variances in people’s preferences and goals. Such a design will never be entirely effective. Given that users are different and have different preferences and expectations, effective UX design has to be personalize-able. This is quickly becoming an expectation, if not the norm.
A recent study published by Salesforce found that 80% of users expect online experiences to be personalized and tailored to their needs. This means that brands simply cannot afford to broadcast the same uniform message to a single, undifferentiated audience. Marketers need to find ways of communicating to individuals, not audiences.
This posits a problem of scale.
Very few marketers or publishers of content can afford to employ armies of designers and content producers to tailor experiences to each individual user. More importantly, they cannot do so in real time.
Enter dynamic personalization.
By devising smartly constructed, modular design systems based on creative componentry that can be freely interchanged, it is possible to compose entire user experiences based on incoming media signals. These signals can reveal behavioral-, demographic- and psychographic details about each individual user, allowing the experience to programmatically flex and adjust to some of those factors.
This ensures a successful, results-oriented communicative solution that scales. In addition, it may even be able to predict favorable outcomes through the application of AI-technology such as machine learning. Done right, it will allow marketers to dial in the most effective combination of content and design with increasing accuracy.
Testing naturally becomes a central element in such solutions, where a multitude of creative options can be fed into the learning engine. The ideal mix can thus be determined, assembled and verified as users arrive on site. In iProspect’s own testing, we regularly demonstrate incremental conversion gains through dynamic, personalized experiences. However, fully capitalizing on this opportunity requires a shift in how brands look at design and how brands go to market.
The era of the static, monolithic brand is over. Modern brands need to understand their audiences, find ways of communicating on a personal level, and truly become interactive.
Never just create a one-off asset when you can construct something reusable
Never just create a reusable single template when you can design something modular
Never just design modular components when you can devise a framework
Never just devise a framework when you can architect a design system
Never just architect a design system when you can define a user experience
Never just define a user experience when you can plan out a user journey
Never just plan out a single user journey when you can improve lifetime value
As part of a side project, a blog, which collects various musings of a mostly political nature, I have produced an art book which I’ve called Excavated Wisdoms.
The title requires an explanation, which I figured might in turn make for an interesting design blog post in its own right.
It started a few years ago with me wanting to push myself, and to not always behave like a nice, well-taught, neat and orderly graphic designer. I periodically grow tired of that professional imperative, a bit like a petulant child who doesn’t want to go to bed, or eat his oatmeal porridge.
I was thinking to myself, ”What is the worst I could do as a graphic designer?”
The answer came pretty quickly: ”Make something illegible!”. ”Make a mess!”
And it occurred to me that I actually LIKE making messes. I’ve always found that the rational side of me acts as a bit of a censor, and that the creative side of me embraces the messiness. Messy design seems to tell a story, whereas tidy, minimalist design seems to wear its corporate suit-and-tie and put on a show that is not necessarily genuine. Picasso said it best: ”The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
At the same time, I was rueing the entertainment-ification of our news, and the proliferation of ”Fake News”. It was bothering me that it was so easy for people to make lies seem plausible, and that even the truth was being boiled down into less credible and increasingly categorical, poorly nuanced soundbites.
It was bothering me that all this focus on brevity and clarity, all this spreading of bite-sized information, didn’t actually help us determine what was true. It seemed to not prompt us to think and try to verify the information. If anything, the ease and the speed with which we were consuming information seemed to make us more oblivious to the truth, and more likely to swallow actual falsehoods.
Around this time, I came upon a very fascinating magazine called ”Found”. I bought an anthology of it for my wife for Christmas (OK, it was really for myself, I confess). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is very engrossing and fascinating. It’s basically a collage of found bits of communication: discarded letters, postcards, torn out ads with handwritten notes, shopping lists, thrown away print-outs etc.
Given the obvious lack of context for these artefacts, they always seem slightly mysterious, but also very appealing. You’re trying to understand what’s going on in a person’s life that would make them write the message you’re deciphering, and this detective work is very satisfying.
The artefacts are also obviously difficult to decode, typographically as well as linguistically, since they are usually handwritten, or at least poorly written. And many of the artefacts are worn, crumpled, grimy, ripped. To say they have ”patina” is being charitable. But I found this didn’t really bother me. In fact, it only seemed to enhance their credibility and ” truthiness”, and motivated me even more to try and decipher them. Which really seemed to activate my brain on many levels.
It occurred to me that what I was doing seemed akin to excavation: I was digging through layers of time to try and make sense of something. And that also seemed like an apt analogy for my own writing process: I have a feeling that there is something already there, buried inside my brain. I just have to dig it out, and the words act as my shovel. It turns out, Michael Ondaatje had the perfect description for this: ”As a writer, one is busy with archaeology”.
So, I decided to take nuggets of wisdom – good quotes that I found to be especially profound – and add layers of grime to them, to deliberately make them harder to read and understand. To treat them as artefacts of buried truth rather than texts to be read, or messages to be communicated.
Why quotes? Well, here I am going to lean on W. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly claimed that ”Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” There has to be something of value at the end of the excavation process, and wit is certainly valuable.
So, here we are. I’ve produced some 60+ ”excavated wisdoms”. Most of them are witty. Some are less legible than others. All of them are messy and grimy, but all of them contain a nugget of truth, if only we are prepared to dig for it.
So: let’s start digging!