i have not read this book by allegedly famous graphic design staple debbie millman. titled look both ways, it looks unimaginatively scribbled and “rough” as designers tend to do when they have neither a clear direction and want to appear “always on” nor are any good. also, i guess it is done as a counterpoint to the work she does in the real world, work that is so polished that is cleans any sign of originality right off… hmm, if only i had already written an opinion of that legacy… wait, i believe i have! and i have conveniently copied and pasted it below, lucky you!
it was a busy weekend and it was a busy night for stevie wonder but there’s something i must get off my chest here at the top of the show. i was just surfing that web in the free minute that i have between changing my daughter’s diapers and cooking for 12 and stumbled upon sterling brands, one of those agencies you know without knowing because their work is so ubiquitous and it just got me thinking…
they indeed show an outstanding portfolio of work ranging from dunkin’ donuts to benjamin moore paints, as seen here. but don’t be fooled by language, as they seem to be, and confuse my use of the word outstanding as referring to the quality of the work. merely using bad to describe the aesthetics doesn’t actually serve a purpose here for the trouble is, i believe, much deeper and, ultimately, nefarious.
the problem as i see it lay in the fact that they are doing three distinct groups a disservice with the work they produce: clients, consumers and the design community at large. and they are not alone.
words like strategy and design such as in “we do two things really well — brand strategy and brand design” are used and overused but are rarely qualified while in client meetings by the agency folks. they are merely used to add gravitas and what is thought to be agreed-upon meaning by all parties of a creative endeavor. they can be, and often are, added to a conversation in order to lend it meaning because, as we all know, human beings are wired to react to stimuli. whether that stimuli is visual, oral, sensory or memory-recalled, we mostly wait for things to happen in order to form opinions and take action. creative agencies know this and will create such stimuli that is known to effect positive outlook on the part of their clients. i do this, you do this, we all do this, it is called “positioning yourself to be what the other expects you to be in order to get the outcome you want.” or some shit like that. sterling brands boasts that positioning is the single most important skill in marketing, which may very well be true but they omit to make clear that saying such things positions them as “holders of a truth” for their clients. it is probably what they call “competitive advantage.” but truth is a dangerous concept for a creative agency to lay claim to as it is a concept that, to paraphrase a great man, cannot possibly be written in ink, only found in nature. truth only reveals itself when one gives up all preconceived ideas such as the ideal of an infallible process to sell more chocolate. again, the client is on the other end of such a method and will either reject it outright and use you as a pair of hands or accept it and hold your feet to the fire. which is problematic at best. when president obama promised the return of an absolutely ethical white house, he didn’t count on the power of eventuality, on the fact that human beings react not to results (what tom daschle could have actually done for the department of health and human services) but to events (he didn’t pay his taxes.) we are willing, as a people, to sacrifice talent to what we believe is the rightful application of this truth. that is insane! insane of course at the high level of government but still strange at the low level of making tea packaging decisions. and clients are duped, as we all are, by the words, charts and actions of those people whose hands they are paying to trust. i am guilty of this. of using persuation to get my way, but one must find a way that is not didactic, a way that allows the creative endeavor unconstrained by the weight of truth on its shoulders, that allows the creative people to be unsure, even naive, in front of client and lets them say: “i don’t know… let me look at your problem and see what solutions may arise.” does that sound crazy?
they are, we are, the link in this big chain who rarely get any respect. and i don’t call market research and focus groups respect. not to pound on sterling but they say that “it’s not what your audience says, it’s what you make of it. you need to gather all the relevant information, but you need to assume your competitors have it too.” what kind of a way is that to design anything?! by not only second-guessing the product’s intended demographic, thereby omitting to market to undiscovered segments, but also trying to divine what the competition will do with that same information? that’s a lot of guessing. and who’s getting lost in that shuffle? the benefits to the consumer. who is going to think about use, value, perception, function and meaning when the focus is on originality or following the aforementioned truth? we, as member of an exclusive specie, have few wants, even less needs. the former is composed of love, success and iPhones; the latter of eating and fucking. we’re rather simple that way. sure, in an increasingly complex world in which wants, needs, must-haves and nice-to-haves are often understandably confused because of our intent lack of priority and fear of reality, we do not know how to interpret behavior anymore and so we invent ways, that the smarties among us dub keywords, which can theoretically communicate a feeling or process with other people on the same pre-understood basis. “model,” “tipping point,” “experiential” and “innovation” are a few of these words. the thing is that they only mean what we imbue them with and then have to all agree on that meaning and i’ve gotten no poll in my inbox ratifying that treaty, like, ever. furthermore, the consumer must be the beneficiary of all these words if they are to be of use at all and so far, i only see these words as being useful to the people who use them, not the actual products, certainly not the consumers whose wallets have to open and hands have to use the products. i’m not saying that “process” is not important, nor that each creativity must follow its path. in fact that is exactly what i am saying: each creativity must follow its path, its own path, not somebody else’s. which is what maddens me so about this and many agencies’ approach. to simply inherit what has been been built by those who came before, tweak it and call it your own is not design, it’s neither good nor bad, neither right or wrong, it’s simply problematic for the industry as a whole as it signals the end of thoughtfulness. mind you, a design attempt and result can still be thoughtful within that world but, as you can see from the work, when the creative principle is based on either fighting for or against set dogmas, you always end with reactions, not originality. stop adoring sagmeister and start doing like he does, don’t give a shit about you.
the design community at large:
the problem arises here because everybody follows success and once you are successful while being mediocre, there is nothing preventing you from advising other people on your methods and their obvious results. when looking at life from a purely cause-and-consequence point of view, it is indeed true that success, whether it is creative or financial, begets success but these agencies or individuals may not be correctly identifying the causes of their success. there are a myriad reasons for achieving what other people would consider to be success: a lot of employees, a nice office, big clients, press, the ability to get a quick table at balthazar… all of these are valid of course because they mostly are about self-esteem. which, again, is perfectly fine but the pretension is what bothers me. the pretension that the work is done in the lofty name of inspiration. are you kidding? does color-coding hellmann’s mayonnaise caps really inspire anyone to do anything at all? if only to buy hellmann’s mayonnaise? if you are going to be a marketer, and i am a marketer, have the decency to say so, have the decency not to market yourself as anything other than you are, which is not a holder of truth, not an inspiration but a salesman, a job description which should inspire no shame. i am a salesman, quite proudly so, with aspirations that lay little outside my own life or sphere of influence. searching for happiness? sure. searching for meaning? absolutely. attempting everyday to use my personal pinnings to make my work more interesting? you bet. but i feel that we must be careful not to do it the other way around. not show people images and words that make other people believe that we have anything figured out. it is high time to get out of plato’s cave and give up the shadows on the wall to uncover the puppet masters and see them for who
they we are. design is not a mystery and every time we purposefully cloud language in order to appear more, better or expensive, we do a whole industry with an already fucked up self-image a disservice.
sterling, i do not mean to single you out here but after spending some significant time on your site, i believe that your approach is symptomatic of a design world that can truly revitalize the way people think about consumption, a much-needed impulse in these times, if it stops surrounding itself with unnecessary pretenses. our industry needs to start seeing people as living individuals rather than simply as consumers, to start gaining unique perspective on human behavior if we are to survive in the future and what i am seeing here is simply recycled same ole same ole…
wasn’t that fun?! i think so.