Ad Astra, by Michael di Suvero, 2012
In my work I am frequently called upon to assess the effectiveness of products, product design and various kinds of marketing communications. I see a lot of new products and advertising campaigns before anyone else.
Over time I’ve learned to recognize characteristics that enhance a product or campaign’s appeal or kill it. Some believe there are “rules” about such things, and I don’t have any magical “sixth sense.” But I’ve been around long enough to know that rules can’t explain it and that my ability to discern such things is more related to the ability to recognize the intersection between efficient functionality and good design and recognize and diagnose the extent to which some products and campaigns can’t find that intersection.
I’ve found that things created by engineers and accountants tend to be efficient and extremely linear in their functionality. They work well, but they don’t excite anyone but other engineers and accountants. Conversely, things that are said to be “arty” in their design sometimes aren’t very practical. I’ve had to explain to many an art director that advertising isn’t called commercial art for no reason.
Still, for a long time I gave art directors and designers wiggle room when dealing with such situations. I knew that presenting good design took guts and that designers had to stick up for their work because many people are scared of things that are new and different.
Eventually, though, I became less tolerant of frivolous design. Product design that doesn’t meet functional expectations is not good design, no matter how “arty” it is.
A few years ago I wrote a short essay about how the men’s clothing category had become stale. Everyone was blaming it on the economy. But the truth was men were bored with what was being offered in the way of men’s clothing. There was little new and interesting for us to get excited about.
Eventually, men’s clothing designers figured this out and got back to work creating men’s fashions that drew men back into clothing stores and to online merchants. While most men may still not be “fashion forward,” at least there’s a bit more diversity in men’s fashion.
I was reminded of this the other day when I heard an executive from Google say:
“If you can imagine it, you can build it. If you have time to make it, you have time to make it wonderful.”
Wow! In just a few words all the difference in the world. Wonder why some people prefer Apple products instead ubiquitous PCs? Wonder why people continue to like little sexy red cars over more simple and practical vehicles? Or wonder why some people gravitate to art that’s easy to see and understand while others prefer art that’s layered with multiple interpretations?
When I was in Dallas earlier this week I happened to stop briefly at the upscale Northpark Mall. Two things really impressed me about this mall. One was that instead of the predictable fountains and benches in its open areas, the main intersections of this mall featured large-scale original sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, Mark di Suvero and others. At age fifty, long after most malls would have been torn down, Northpark Mall remains extremely busy for having turned shopping into a cultural experience.
The second thing was that the most upscale merchants at Northpark Mall understand visual merchandizing. The black-and-white design scheme of the Valentino boutique, for example, was a thrilling backdrop for a classic red Valentino gown. The window below was another merchant’s way of doing something artful instead of merely hanging a couple of haute couture dresses in the window.
All this reminds us that design matters. You can have practical or you can have artful. Both work. But one makes life or work merely move along, while the other makes life or work worth moving along.
Making Shopping Wonderful, 2012