When bad design makes brands taste bad

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Graphic design for marketing, advertising and branding is like cooking and eating – there are good meals and bad, restaurants we love and dishes we never want to eat again.

For those of you who know me, this recurring theme of food is unsurprising, but it dawned on me that our opinions on design can be compared with our culinary likes and dislikes.

There are dishes we know we will enjoy, and things we can’t imagine even putting our fork in to. We know that certain combinations work and others struggle, and we have personal preferences around simplicity versus complexity.

The same is true when working with your creative team to bring your marketing ideas to life. It may be an obvious but practical example, but we know that yellow mostly doesn’t work on a white background. Also, we may have differing views about when clutter on a page becomes busy and confusing.

There are global variations in both cuisine and design that amaze or confuse us, just as there are fashions that come and go. Does that make minimalism the design equivalent of nouvelle cuisine? Thank goodness one of those trends didn’t last long.

As we get older, our experiences shape our opinions and our tastes evolve. We either become more willing to try new flavours or more resolute in our desire to stick to what we know. Design that appeals to me will usually differ from what appeals to my teen (often to the horror of us both) but understanding those differences is one of the more exciting challenges your creative team will face.

Effectiveness in design is just as important as getting the message right for your particular audience. After all, what’s the point of a killer idea if the way you present it undervalues or even undermines your brand? The greater your understanding of your audience, the more likely you are to put something in front of them that they will devour.

I appreciate that food certainly is a matter of taste and who are we to say what’s right or wrong. However, there are clearly foods that are popular with wide-ranging groups of people, just as there are niche trends that get enough traction to have commercial success. Some of us love burgers. Some love kombucha.

If I asked you all your favourite meal, I’d get a vast array of answers, but there would be similarities and common themes. However, if I asked you to suggest a dish for a specific occasion or situation, such as a romantic entrée with your sweetheart or a hearty winter dessert with your gran, the answers would be less diverse.

I asked a number of experienced graphic designers for their take on the biggest design crimes. Red rag to a bull, it was! Perhaps surprisingly, the most common responses were about typography and font choices.

One sagely creative director with an unhealthy obsession with type had a clear crime at the top of a long list: brand names spelled out in overly decorative capitals, a fussiness that is prevalent on retail signage. Why make it harder for people to read… and find you?

Others bemoaned insensitive use of spacing, such as a bigger space after a sub-heading than there is after a main heading. Justified text is a common frustration. That’s top of my list, I confess, as it creates weird uneven gaps that offend my Virgoan desire for orderliness.

Photography, or lack of investment in it, was another pet hate, such as those cheesy stock shots of unnaturally beautiful people, clearly in New York boardrooms, masquerading as your casual team meeting.

Success in delivering an effective creative approach starts with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, just as chefs have a vision for their own masterpieces. If you briefed your designer to come up with something that reflected a feeling of calm and sophistication, muted and mature, you probably wouldn’t expect them to use energetic vibrant colours and jaunty angles. So, you wouldn’t expect to taste hot and spicy flavours in a dessert that was expected to be soothing and refreshing. It might work, but only if you’re a Heston Blumenthal.

The other major crime is letting design by committee divert you from your original vision. Designers hate nothing more than coming up with a logo option, for example, and then having it turned into some mutant hybrid by a bucketful of opinions suggesting all kinds of extra features. If you agree on a neopolitan pizza, you’d better have a good reason to add chicken. Know your brand, and be true to it.

My apologies if I’ve over-seasoned this column with culinary analogies, but I hope it gave you food for thought. Bon appetit.

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Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz

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