The Graphic Responsibility of Good Design
CMO & Partner
February 7, 2022
Every career has at least one defining moment. For me, it was reading Graphis Ephemera. I was stunned! Not bound in the standard minimalistic black, this book was unusual and square with images of ripped paper on the cover. There were pages and pages of all things short-lived: self-promotion projects, event tickets, announcements, cards and mini-posters from the late 1950s to the 1980s from all over the globe. One look and I immediately knew: I had made the right career choice.
In college I coveted this book and renewed it constantly, ensuring I could keep this copy as long as I could without arousing any suspicion. Each design concept in Graphis Ephemera inspired me and opened my eyes to the rich, often fleeting graphic world that surrounds everyday life. Ever since, I’ve kept scrapbooks of mundane items such as tickets, parking stubs, reminders, thank you cards, napkins, you name it, on an ever-increasing Pinterest to learn from their design successes and failures. Collecting these samples—the good, the bad and the really ugly—has become an obsession for me which I encourage my design team to share with our Kaleidoscope Digital Scrapbooks.
Flipping through these samples or scrolling through the digital ephemera of our contemporary life, I find myself asking the same questions as I had early on in my career. Why does design so often fail to impress? Do throwaway items merit only throwaway design—or do they require the same level of creativity and care as architecture and art? What is our graphic responsibility?
When you distill it down to its essence, design is a problem-solving tool that depicts in simple terms who, where, why and how much? However, unlike other forms of problem solving that engage in numbers and formulas, design is a visual tool. Good design not only shows you an idea but also addresses the problem through its solution. More specifically, it makes us look, understand and react in both positive and negative ways. Design can attract or repel in equal manner signaling “I am right for you” or “you are not part of my tribe.” It may take a while for the message to seep in, and that’s okay; however, what’s most important is that the consumer or user—not just the client or other designers—can engage with the solution. Even better, good design lets us be mercifully spared from an industry expert or Monday morning design forum telling us how it could have been improved. Yawn!
Good design accomplishes something else that no math formula can: It makes you smile because it is simple, pure and fun. There is an underlying wit and sense of humor in good design that confirms the designer truly understood the problem at hand and delivered a solution that was intuitive to the end user. It comes as a sigh of relief: someone is on your side and that someone, remarkably, was a designer. When good design appears on an everyday item—whether it’s the bite in the Apple logo or the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo, it delivers a delightful little ray of sunshine for the consumer.
So why is good design so hard to come by? From my experience, it’s largely due to how businesses engage with and understand the role of design, and how designers operate and communicate back to their clients. Talking to and working with designers should be inspiring, fun and engaging. Granted, they don’t always speak, think, dress or behave like business-oriented clients or agency account staff but that shouldn’t put anyone off. In fact, this interplay among designers and other team members should be viewed as an opportunity to spark creativity, not as a hurdle or obstacle to overcome. However, setting ground rules for success is the key. Frank and open conversation at the beginning of a project can greatly enhance a designer’s ability to quickly and effectively solve their client’s problem. This is because the design brief rarely unlocks the true intent of the task at hand, so we need discussions to define and redefine the problems to be solved. This interaction, when properly followed and respected, can not only head-off short-term issues but also lead to strong, long-term client/agency relationships. While we may not always see eye-to-eye on every project, the relationships are the foundational aspects of good design, as well as its future.
“Good design accomplishes something else that no math formula can: It makes you smile because it is simple, pure and fun.”
Whether we’re designing something as large as a shelving unit or as small as a ticket stub, good design needs research to help understand the problem—and the consumer. Oftentimes, a sterile research environment may make it difficult to identify why consumers do what they do, what they need and, most importantly, what they desire. Alternatively, the shopping journey and post-shopping ceremony with the consumer is where we can learn the most.We can learn how to delight them even more through the minute details of their lives. The most successful research in my career involved following consumers from their homes to the store and back again where we asked: How detailed is their grocery list, their to-do lists, and the other hastily scribbled ephemera of their lives? Do they follow the list exactly? How do they navigate the store? Where do impulse purchases come into play, and why? What excited the consumer and, more importantly, what frustrated them? With this more hands-on approach, we gain a better sense of the consumer’s emotional world and the problems design could solve.
As a college student rereading Graphis Ephemera to a CMO rereading his emails, I’ve seen just how much the design industry has changed, and sadly, I have also observed design agencies I thought would last forever disappear. Yet I believe the fundamental tenets of good design will continue. As long as we put problem-solving, strong relationships and the consumer at the center of our design, our ability to communicate visually and think creatively will survive. Most of all, we must remember that the delight is in the details in whatever we’re designing—whether it’s a corporate logo to a piece of ephemera.