There has been long hiatus since my last post. I will blame it on a combination of summer and my full time job.
Art direction is about vision. You have to have a vision to art direct anything. I don’t know if they teach this in school or not but coming from a design background I never came across a Basics of Art Direction 101 class. Most of what I have learned beyond the core design curriculum I learned on the job, in the field, and under the gun.
This is the way I learned ot directing television commercials, design sets and art direct. Art directing — photography — is a completely different thing altogether than video. The product is a still image (a still) and you can inspect the living heck out of it, blow it up, scrutinize it, immerse yourself in it. Video is a series of images. They flow together to create a collective understanding. With a still, it’s what you see is what you get.
Thankfully, I got to work alongside the late Lyle Cavanagh at Philips who showed me the ropes. Lyle had vision. At Philips we shot black boxes: TVs, stereos, blue LEDs, black plastic. So it became a real challenge to find new ways to create black-box-sexy. So here’s what I know: There are four things that make photo art direction work or not work.
I already mentioned this. Vision is what you see in your mind’s eye then, perhaps you sketch it on paper, or render it up or composite it. Whatever method you use, you have to know what you want if you expect to get what you want. That might seem obvious but I’ve seen a lot of “art directors” return from a photo shoot wondering how things could have gone so wrong. The tighter your vision the closer you are to getting an end product that is free of surprises.
2. A collaborative photographer.
If you know exactly what you want you don’t want a photographer that has his or her own vision. Two visions are not better than one. “Famous” photographers probably got to be famous because of their vision, and if their vision is what you want, hire one. But if your vision is what you want, then hire a photographer that wants to use his expertise to bring your vision to reality. (This pretty much goes for directors — the video kind— as well.) A collaborator’s know-how, together with your vision is always a good match.
This is the magic element that Lyle brought to bear. He was trained in visual display. In his day, they were called window dressers. He was an artist of composition. Composition is, for lack of a better definition: where everything goes, what gets cropped, what’s in focus and out of focus, how everything relates to everything else and the essence of detail. There is probably a book on composition but you are better off experimenting with it. If you don’t think you have a good sense of composition, then you probably don’t, but you can get better at it. Before I met Lyle, I didn’t have a clue. He let me practice a lot and my photographer shot a lot of film until we got it right.
4. Story detail.
If you can get both story and detail, great. If you are shooting catalog shots on white backgrounds then detail is everything; crisp, perfect detail. People want to inspect that stuff so the sharper it is the better. For about 20 years the ubiquitous drop-shadow became the obligatory addition to stuff on white backgrounds. It helped. And while a drop-shadow is better than floating, it got really old. Leave it to Apple to break the rules. Look back at their product photography in the 90s: keyboards leaning up against towers and dramatic angles became elegant details to what would otherwise be tired silver boxes. Now they’ve popularized the “reflection” on white. Great “detailing”. If you are shooting Tommy Lee Jones you have a treasure trove of detail to work with. And sometimes that becomes part of the story. Story comes in when you surround your subject with meaning. Sometimes, as with Jones, the detail is the meaning. Sometimes the meaning is something you have to add.
Which brings us back to vision.
That’s what I know about it.
Design is a process, a process whereby a thinking person (or team of persons) uses a process of investigation, analysis, ideation, refinement, more analysis, more refinement and finally deployment toward the goal of solving a problem. It’s a methodology. It’s nothing terribly new. Engineers, scientists, physicians, and lots of other professionals use variations on this process to arrive at solutions to problems.
What I’m focusing on today is the idea of multi-disciplinary designers. Just as I suspect that an engineer with mechanical and electrical experience makes a better engineer, I think design becomes stronger as it spreads out to embrace a broader spectrum of design. Frank Gehry designs jewelry. Michael Graves, Alberto Alessi, and Philippe Starck have created small empires on diversified design applications. I posit that this increased breadth actually fortifies a designer’s weltanschauung. (Assuming they are actually doing it and not just signing their name to it — another blog.) I know many “specialized” designers who often make the finishing touch to a project through a detail that would normally be considered outside their realm. I have created many spaces that needed a particular object to add balance or composition or color, and I just could not locate it — so I designed it. It was not uncommon for Frank Lloyd Wright to design the windows, the furnishings, the stone work or any number of other details to complement a space simply because nothing else — already designed— would sympathize with the project in quite the same way. It’s not surprising then, that I believe a designer with this breadth is inherently more valuable to retain.
Take a look at the world of logo design, (a recent favorite topic of mine see: Is design becoming a commodity?) Some logos, perhaps for a blog, or limited scope web site, have a limited range; they will never be used for other applications. But, “never” is a big word. For a designer to stop at a solitary application, assuming it will never go beyond the online realm, I venture, is shortsighted. True logo design is a subset of corporate identity design, and corporate ID is really a subset of the larger idea of brand design. In this realm the logo had better work in the street as well as online, as well as in spaces and every other conceivable application. Because, you never know.
The same logic applies to an interior designer who is comfortable designing the lighting, the exhibit designer who is comfortable with interiors, with graphics with UI, etc., etc. It yields a more integrated solution.
For that you need a designer with broader vision and a better weltanschauung.
I’m thinking that the years between 1960 and 1990 were probably the golden years for advertising. It wasn’t just a wildly successful industry, it was elevated to art form and entertainment event. But those years are over, and advertising as we knew it during this period is pretty much dead, or close to it. This is probably not an epic revelation since ad spending has been declining for decades now. We all know that print and television spending is way down, that people are watching less TV and when they do many are filtering out the commercials. Today, consumers get their information online. They get just as much as they want and only when they want it. In the face of this trend, “pushing” advertising seems to be a short sighted way to go to market. No matter what media you are using to push advertising, when you “tag” an ad (unsolicited) onto something that is solicited (something that people want to do or watch) you are risking deletion, through TiVo, or spam, or simply switching to another site, or channel. If brands want to register with customers they are going to have to have to make it a destination — an inherent part of the solicited experience.
Illustration of the week. I stumbled on this somehow from digital artist Steve Goodin. The guy loves Avant Garde, and while this example doesn’t show it the link has some great examples — About as well as I have ever seen it used. The mixture of 2 and 3D is most impressive. Very nice. Seamless. I’d love to see the wireframes on this. Not to mention this is not his day job. Lush.
Is it just about performance or is there something else that keeps us coming back? How important is the label on your beer, the emblem on your car, the tag inside your jacket? I think performance is a huge factor. Let’s face it, we prefer one taste to another, the way a certain vehicle performs, and a jacket with an impeccable fit. Is that it? In other words do we only have to make a better mousetrap in order to be the next uber-brand?
It’s complicated. Yes, your product has to perform and meet the expectations of your customer – and the customer you want. People expect that. (Do you really buy something and expect it NOT to work?) Different products or services succeed because they meet people on their expectations. The brands that do it best, find ways to both meet the expectations and exceed them. They make an emotional connection.
The emotional connection to owning something comes when it goes beyond mere functional reliability — when it over-performs. How does a beer, a car or a jacket over perform? That’s where the brand-sphere comes into play. At a certain level the successful product will attain it’s maximum, peak performance: the beer, the car the jacket are just the way you like them. What’s next? Everything else, now there is the label, and the emblem and the tag. Now there is the packaging, the dealership, the celebrity who wears the same jacket.
Conclusion: The product HAS to perform, consistently. The experience has to delight, consistently.
Is design becoming a commodity?
I was looking over my skill set today and felt compelled to ask the question of whether or not some of my expertise has fallen into the realm of commodity.
Take for example the art of 3D illustration, modeling and graphics. There are a number of offshore firms doing this and cranking it out really at a fraction of what it would cost in the States. They probably have more processing horsepower, faster rendering speeds and obviously lower pricing. Can a really talented small business or freelance designer compete in this landscape?
Here’s another example. Visit the site called 0Desk. (www.oDesk.com). You will see that there are hundreds of designers out there who are doing logo design for an average of $8 an hour. If you were formally trained at a university or design school in the art and science of corporate identity then the notion of a solid, versatile and sustainable logo that costs $20 makes your head spin. To make it even more challenging, a lot of the clients posting jobs on this site are asking for “sketches” up-front before they hire. Nevertheless, these clients are getting what they need and (based upon the number of designers that bid on these jobs), there are lots of people out there willing to do the work.
If you did enough of these jobs could you actually eek out a living?
I had an acquaintance in the consumer electronics business that used to say, “There is very little nourishment in a bowl of volume.” (And that’s an industry that should know.) I have seen this proven out many times. Becoming a commodity, no matter how much you sell, is a slow road to nowhere. Most would agree: The key to big success is in differentiating your brand from everyone elses.
So where is this going? I think that with the advent of the personal computer —specifically the Apple computer and its emphasis on graphics and graphic software — even faux-design became accessible to the masses. It’s the idea that with just enough technology,substance doesn’t matter so much. (Take a look at most PowerPoint presentations.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that great design has to cost a fortune or that designers who work cheap are hacks — I dare not. I’ve done dozens of design projects of all sizes and scale on tight budgets. I’m not whining either — just reflecting. I think that the conclusion from all this is still the client’s ability to discern the differences in good and good enough. If you have a discerning eye, much of what you see from the 3D rendering farms has two distinct components: superior realism, and average design. As for logo design, the design master Paul Rand said, “Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.” If you can do that for $20 you are under charging.
Therein lies the difference, and I’ll admit it’s subtle. Even in product design, the difference between the iPod and all the other mp3 player choices is the subtle difference of great design. And yet, there are many manufacturers out there selling a steady clip of “average”.
So how do I summarize this and answer my original question: Is design becoming a commodity? I believe almost anything can be commoditized in today’s world. It’s the nature of technology: faster and cheaper. So the answer is: Yes. Great design may well be in the eye of the beholder. If it functions and is pleasing at the same time, I think you have a winner. At the same time there is, and will always be a place for the exquisite, which can be simple or complex. And even those designers will, at times, do the $20 logo.
One thing I think remains true: Even the best technology can’t supplant the human spirit and the vision it can produce — tough to commoditize.
Companies who are serious about embarking upon a rejuvenation of their brand, or those who are hoping to create the next major brand, must begin by asking some difficult and fundamental questions such as why their brand exists. If you are old enough to remember the dot-com collapse in the late 90’s, it wasa painful lesson and evidence that a brand cannot be sustained without a bona fide product or service that adds value to the life of a customer somewhere in the world. If the site or the product or the service does not resonate with a prospect on an experiential level whether emotionally, practically, spiritually or even superficially it cannot be made a sustainable brand. It must add value. Without value the brand will not survive the forces of natural selection and brand Darwinism.
The way I see it. The success of a brand and its ability to sustain itself will always be a matter of “value added” and the public’s ability to assign a certain level of reliable expectations to that product or service that provides that value. The most successful brands will always be those that deliver not only the tangible value but the emotional value as well. Whether it’s hamburgers or hotels, the latter will always be seen as the most valuable, because when confronted with two choices of apparently equal benefit the prospect will always choose the one that feels right.