Dave 2
David Burdon

Member Article


David Burdon is Creative Director at Glad, a multi-award-winning branding and design agency based at the Northern Design Centre, Gateshead. He looks at the value in refined design.

I began my career in branding and design at a large and well-established agency. A familiar dialogue between the account managers, representing the client, and the design team, went something like this:

Account manager: The client loves the poster and has asked for just a few small changes.
Designer: OK, what are the changes?
Account manager: Can we put the headline in capital letters and make it fill the available space, add
a colourful flash in the corner with ‘CALL US NOW’ written inside it and finally, can we make the
logo bigger?
Designer: [Groans with despair]

It seems that this kind of dialogue is not at all uncommon, in fact, a song has been written about it. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Burn Back’s music video for their hit song ‘Make the Logo Bigger’, get
yourself on YouTube (right after you’ve read this column and left a positive comment) – I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

The logic underpinning the ‘make everything bigger’ approach to design is presumably rooted in the fact that those commissioning design or advertising are often paying for space and they want to get their money’s worth. So the temptation is to fill whatever space is available with…something. If a particular corner on a brochure cover is looking a bit empty, why not fill the space with a banner reading ‘CALL US NOW’? Surely you are getting more value out of your investment? The more messages you can manage to fit into a space, the better, right?

The Italian art critic, Mario Praz, labelled this kind of approach to design ‘horror vacui’ (from the Latin “fear of empty space”). It was used initially to describe the proliferation of detail and decoration found in the interior design of the Victorian age, but the term applies equally to many forms of visual art from the design of early illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels, to ‘Where’s Wally’ books.

While there are clearly advantages to big, bold messaging and while it is important to include vital information within a design, the danger of crowding an ad, a poster or a web page with large headlines, banners, flashes and logos is that ‘if everything shouts, you can’t hear anything at all.’

When I lived in Edinburgh, the visual environment of the city became massively cluttered each year as the festival season approached; every spare area of wall became unofficial advertising space for the various comedy, theatre and dance performances heading to the capital. Imagine such a wall, lined edge to edge with posters of one sort or another. Do you think that you are likely to be drawn in or pay attention to the posters that are crammed with numerous large messages and visual elements? I wasn’t. I did notice, however, the posters that were more restrained, well-designed and arresting. In this sea of noise, it was the areas of calm and clarity that stood out the most.

You may protest that because I’m a designer, I’m drawn to that which I consider to be good design and repelled by that which I find tasteless, while the general public might react differently – and you may be right. Research carried out by The Guardian, however seems to give weight to my claims. A pair of spectacles with a tiny camera inserted into the bridge were worn by a volunteer for four hours in London’s West End. After the four hour period, the subject was questioned about the advertising messages they could remember and their recollections were measured against the footage recorded by the spectacles.

“Analysing the footage, Roz Plowright, the research analyst overseeing the experiment, showed the extent to which most advertising has become little more than a blur of urban wallpaper. Flicking through a pile of newspapers and magazines on the tube, Ms Plowright noted how the eyes habitually flitted away from the adverts. I couldn’t recall what any of them were for. And while she recorded hundreds of adverts en route, none registered without prompting.”

Far from being ‘drawn in’ by ‘eye-catching’ slogans, ‘calls to action’ and prominent sales messages, we may, in fact, be repelled as we, perhaps even subconsciously, identify such elements as the semiotics of advertising and are instantly turned off.

So what is the solution? We need to stop shouting and hoping that somebody, anybody, will hear. The best design and advertising understands who it is speaking to and it speaks, rather than shouts. It speaks in a language that its audience understands and in a tone of voice that is appropriate and compelling.

Apple’s design style is a case in point. A minimal approach with lots of space, very little detail or decoration and simple, clear messaging. This approach is evident in the design of Apple’s products as well as the packaging, print and online presence. The tone of voice is friendly, witty and just a little bit smug. This is the technology brand that all other technology brands aspire to. Let me refer to another excellent YouTube video, ‘If Microsoft designed the iPod packaging.’ In this video, the iconic iPod packaging is redesigned in Microsoft’s design style. Brand elements, marketing logic and endless compliance information are allowed to have their wicked way with the packaging, resulting in a very uninspiring, cluttered box design.

A trend that I think is set to continue is that a lot of successful brands are speaking with a more informal, human tone of voice. The silky-smooth voice of the ultra-professional corporate salesman with his pinstripe suit and leather briefcase is no longer the voice that most consumers want to hear. We prefer the way that brands like Innocent Smoothies and Boots speak to us. They chat to us, make us feel ok about ourselves, raise a smile and don’t take themselves too seriously. We trust them because they sound like us, rather than
a salesman with his foot wedged in your front door, bellowing out the latest special offers.

The best design speaks through a medium that is appropriate to its audience and it usually only delivers one single, well-crafted message. Fifty-thousand leaflets featuring big red sales messages flooding a neighbourhood is often far more expensive, but far less effective than a focused and appropriate social media effort, blog entry or a single-minded, targeted mailer.

As brands speak to their consumers in a language that they understand, in a tone of voice that they relate to and through a medium that they respond to, they might just find that they get the desired results and are not quite so hoarse and out of breath as before.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by David Burdon .

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