"A Graphic Design Agency That Takes The Status-Quo and Eats It."

RITUAL – Informative

Some people learn best when they see something done the way it shouldn't be – so I'm not going to tell you what's in store for you...

26 February 2015
Josh Davidson

Would you believe this is one of the most common areas in which design fails to function? Paul Watzlawick tells us that “One cannot not communicate.” I really can’t put it better than that, but I’ll at least try to explain it. Whatever we do, say or signify, the person receiving that information receives or infers meaning from it. No matter what the information is, even if it’s a yawn, the receivers will interpret meaning from the action in their own way. What people fail to realise is that design controls this information and how it is received in and out of context. We shouldn’t just rely on the user figuring out what the information means for them; no one cares enough to invest their time doing that. In the design world, to leave meaning subjective is lazy communication; the receiver has to do the work rather than the transmitter of the information.

Brand Interpretation.

See, there are several signifiers that could suggest what the above logo is for: it could easily be for a men’s fashion magazine, or perhaps a furniture company specializing in wood finishes. It’s actually annoying having to do the legwork here; you don’t want a potential customer to suffer thus. To the best of my knowledge, this is a personal brand for a creative of some description (even then I still don’t know what kind); the company name is this guy’s surname, which also gives nothing away. As with a lot of personal branding, I take issue with the designer’s lack of ability to see their brand from an outsider’s perspective. There’s usually a lot of personality injected into such brands, which gives them their “nice look,” but it doesn’t objectively consider signifiers and how they are interpreted – leading to confusion as to what the company does, as per this example.

On the flip side, a lot of corporate brands remove all sense of personality in the name of “professionalism,” i.e. looking like a business and not some dude at a computer. That’s not to say a one-man-band can’t be professional; an idea a lot of corporates seem to cling to.

Professionalism is just something people should expect from a business; trying to push it is like trying to make people aware that you charge money rather than chocolate chip cookies – it should be a given. The issue is that when it isn’t, we end up with things like this, that corporates think they should have:

This, as the name would imply, is a template logo, which the “designer” has the audacity to charge just shy of 100 bucks for. The deal with template material such as this is that the “designer” will change out the name of the company for the buyer’s; the logo isn’t crafted specifically for the company, which is the total opposite of what branding is supposed to achieve. So while the company thinks it communicates a suitably professional and corporate image, it just ends up looking like a cheaply-made afterthought, as if the company doesn’t really care about its image; there needs to be a balance for it to be a good company brand. Template logos (they never extend into a whole brand, I must make that distinction clear) aren’t informative because they aren’t designed for the company. It would be like wearing someone else’s face.

Somehow, it would be worse than this.

I know not who you are.

Obviously, not all corporate branding consists of template logos and pre-constructed websites. Sometimes they pay designers (often hideous amounts of money) to create something, and end up with something equally generic because they ask for the branding to look ‘corporate’. This mentality doesn’t exist solely with corporations. Most businesses will endeavour to look like every other business in their sector, simply because they think that’s what they should do; they think that is what branding is. We call this a “Sector Trap”, lacking in the informative part of RITUAL because they inform customers about their industry rather than what sets them apart from, or makes them better than, competitors. To my amusement, this is very much the case within the design industry itself. Many designers fail to recognise the customer-specific nature of their work, and end up producing very similar work for all their clients (don’t mistake this for a “style;” designers who have a single aesthetic for all of their work are being hired for because buyers personally like said style, and not because it works for their specific brand). They talk ad nauseam about why it is important for companies to have websites and responsive design and user interfaces and blah – it’s all just noise: a multitude of voices saying the same stuff.

Plumbers are one of my favourite examples for demonstrating the fault in the thinking surrounding branding. Every moderately urban landscape houses a raft of plumbers who go above and beyond the mere pipe-repair services they usually advertise. With the visual signifiers of plumbers being so common - gas flames, water droplets, men with wrenches, pipes and so on, - people can spot a plumber from a mile away; you’d think this would be a great thing, but it isn’t. All the white van with the plumber’s logo tells citizens is that there is a plumber operating somewhere nearby, but it’s unlikely that said citizens will remember them when it comes to their own fateful boiler breakdown. This is because most of the company names in the plumbing world are usually the name of the person running the operation with “Plumbing” or “Plumber” attached to it. So when the time comes to Google a local plumber, the screen will be awash with similar-sounding names. Their accompanying logos should help identify them better, but as before, the visual material is the same across the board – meaning people will just go for the first company they come across or go on price.

"Professionalism is just something people should expect from a business."

How does this all tie in under the banner of informative? If you’re not saying who and what your company is in a distinct and recognizable way, then it isn’t an informative brand. A lot of sectors, like plumbers in the example, have dug themselves into a hole of convention – “this is what I need to do for people to know I’m a plumber.” They think that they can’t offer anything different from the competition, as if that would make them somehow inferior, but instead they would be immediately distinguishable from the rest. They wouldn’t have to rely on word of mouth and a tricky-to-manage SEO campaign. There are clearly limits to this, as it needs to maintain relevance to the main facility of the business - you don’t want people thinking you make poker chips when you actually fix taps. If you don’t make people aware of what your company does, they will lose interest, not because it doesn’t look good, but because they don’t know why they would need you.

Saying nothing at all.

Any idea what kind of company this is? These guys probably thought the signifiers spoke for themselves, but there’s nothing here to support what they are supposed to be at all. At least the job title should give it away, but this one just says “principal designer”, which could honestly mean anything. No information is being transferred here at all. They failed to communicate through their brand what they do, so we don’t know what they are. People lose immediate interest in your company if you fail to give important facts relevant to the type of business you are; there is nothing they can do with it.

In something that isn’t purely branding – this central ad for Bar 11 features some very attractive girls and sure, I wouldn’t mind going, but given the global spread of my Facebook connections and what the Internet is like in general, I cannot predict where it is. Also because I am fanatically opposed to clicking ads, I don’t want to have to find the information I need to make a visit or something. They thought they could sell a venue on face value alone without any supporting information; this is bad practice.

A lesson in length.

The flipside of that coin is saying too much. By covering too much material, attempting to communicate every single thing you do in the hope of reaching every type of person, you overburden people with (quite often, unnecessary) information. Behold:

What you’re seeing constitutes one-tenth (or possibly even less) of this website. It is full, head-to-toe, with badly set text. There is a point, when a site is using so much information that it overcooks peoples’ brains, the knee-jerk reaction is to shut down the browser and leave the computer for some fresh air.

Do you remember being made to copy out, word-for-word, the contents of textbooks into your own workbooks in school? The teachers thought that if you passed the information from your eyes to your mind, then into your hand and wrote it down, somehow you’d remember it better. Instead it bypassed all of the important memory-retention centres and went onto a page that would never be looked at again. It felt like a lot of work for something that left you with nothing, and the above website achieves the exact same thing: reading it just feels like a chore, and you leave none the wiser.

Short, but not sweet.

Another extreme is trying to bottle down what you talk about into very specific words or acronyms.

Yes, everyone loves a bit of jargon! Here is another ad I saw on my (personal) Facebook feed. I have zero idea what it meant and spent a considerable amount of time re-reading it to see why on Earth I was glaring at this. Not only is it totally irrelevant to myself and my line of work, it’s written like I should know what it all means. Do they think I care? Why do they assume this kind of thing matters to me?

I think it’s fairly clear that you shouldn’t use jargon, ever. Yet somehow we still see companies doing nothing but that. As a rule of thumb, if there is a technical aspect of a company operation that is named or abbreviated, chances are people outside of your industry know nothing about it, nor do they need to.

Again, there is a balancing act in play here, coupled with an opportunity for me to blast the practice of KISS or, “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. In the video game world, if your player deems the level too easy they won’t see the point in it; if they find it too hard, they will get fed up and move on. Treating people like they’re stupid will convince them that what you do is beneath them. Not to mention that if a company targeted you with the notion of KISS in mind, would you not be insulted? The trick lies in knowing your audience. If you’re a designer that works with start-up businesses, chances are you’ll need to make things a little easier to understand, because the market is new to the workings of that industry. If, however, you tried to explain what branding was to Coca-Cola, they would laugh at you. Know who the player is and construct the level according to their ability; gameification.

Explaining “gameification” to corporates = fatality.

Don’t get hyped up.

What we all need to realise is that people don’t automatically care about what your company does or why, even if you are convinced they need what you do. If you really do believe in your offering, a tiny little ad that lasts mere minutes won’t cut it for you. See, on Facebook, ads reach you from an algorithm based on personal information and the “liking” of other pages. Ad-space buyers can choose from a series of probing options that select from people who (for instance) “like” “business”, that are aged between 18-50 and are friends of those who “like” the company’s page already, thus ending up on my screen. This very loose and, quite frankly, impersonal approach to “targeted marketing” (encouraged by being “seen” by more people) means that people often see ads that mean nothing to them and disregard it. The fact that Facebook still counts these hits as “reach” in a quantifiable and analytical manner makes people firmly believe that it works. Views do not directly correlate as sales, not matter how many line graphs you show off.

People like use social media to be informed, it started off as keeping in touch with those far afield. Now the site can often be full of pointless posts (pictures of food) and volumes of self-gratification, it is shared information nonetheless. People have never liked to be “sold to” and on their own social accounts it feels more like an invasion of privacy, they will remember you for bad reasons. If you are trying to offer something, just remember why your target market use social media – If it is to share belligerent opinions, your campaign for golf clubs might not resonate too well.

Well-informed.

I asked my teammates to run through this post and point out anything I hadn’t considered – which amounted to not showing an example of information being presented well. I have a reputation for being incredibly critical, but in the rare case I do see something of merit, I applaud it. A good example is gaming website Polygon. Obviously gaming is of interest to us, so do bare this context in mind; if they used the exact site design to talk about EastEnders I would have closed the window faster than a change in Cornish weather.

What Polygon does well on their homepage is provide the tools to find something if you’re looking for it, but also lets you keep scrolling if you’re just coasting through for something to read. They use very clear, almost newspaper-like headlines accompanied by relevant imagery and sometimes a portion of intro text, helping you decide if you want to read on. There’s never too much on show at once but each item never says so little that you can’t anticipate the basics of what you’ll be viewing.

When it comes to individual articles, they use the now web-standard fixed navigation pane to easily move around the website. In terms of content, Polygon breaks up its articles with clear sections and different medias so that the volume of material never feels daunting. Typographically, they use short text-frame widths. This helps with fast reading (I shan’t go into specifics, I thoroughly doubt you are that level – more gameification) and again, reducing the perceived length of the content. Also, unlike old-school textbooks, they use a variety of different media to deliver the same message, or back up an opinion. This method addresses the different learning styles everyone has; most people don’t take in the information if it is all text.

Informed ending.

Objectively speaking, running a business isn’t solely about distributing information; you also need to be informed. Next time you are reading up on some new legislation, or find yourself studying articles on work-related stuff think about how they are informing you. Is it clear what the company does? What is the volume of material and how is it laid out? Does it confuse you, or does it sound too obvious? How did you come across it? Are they just driving hits on their website? Consider these things and think how your own company does it. That’s not to say copy it, but keep in mind that information is not just about the words you write.

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