This is why we can’t have Nice Things

This is why we can't have nice things

In the past year, I’ve seen a lot of strides in the way technology and design has merged, and the line has become incredibly blurred, for better and worst. Form meets function, function dictates form, form dictates function. In the end, the relationship is, and should always be, beneficial to both parties. Nowhere is this more apparent, at least to me, than in the world of graphic and web design. In the last year, I’ve seen how technology has begun to catch up with not only with what web designers have wanted to do for years, but also what we saw in the Sci-Fi movies of the past. We’ve gotten our tablets, our phones, our ability to watch a baseball game on your phone, scan bar codes to take you to other places. We have interfaces that range from minimalist to complex, and computers are easier to use than ever.

Leading the way in this revolution is us, the designers. WE dictate how you interface with this brave new world. WE determine what works and what doesn’t. We’ve gone away from complex to minimalist, striving for form that works with functions, working in harmony with both the technology that you use and, of course, yourselves, the people using the device. In the last 10 years we’ve learned a lot of what works and doesn’t work, of how we use computers, websites, and countless other technologies, and we’ve learned more and more about what we would like to see, prefer to have happen, and what actually works.

In the past year, we’ve seen companies start to improve things and the backlash has been surprising.

Enter Facebook.

Facebook News Feed

About a month ago from this post, it was reported that Facebook was going to change the way they do their news-feed, the first real major change in years. It was a triumph of design! The new feed promised to be cleaner, brighter, easier to use, and focus on content. In a lot of ways it was trying to get back to its very roots where the feed was a simple thing that was easy to use. Over time, just like anything, it became cluttered and hard to use, and the new design fixes all of that. At the same time, there was one issue; The Ads. The truth of the matter was that it also focused on generating more revenue in ad sales by filling the feed with more ads. On the lone bright side, the ads wee designed to not be obtrusive and work with the design.

So you would imagine the reaction was going to be directed at the ads, right? No.

Instead, every single major complaint seemed directed at the DESIGN of it. “Why on earth are they re-designing it?! It isn’t broken!” “If it ain’t broke!-” “What the hell?! I’m done! I’m quitting Facebook!”

Or how about the Gawker Network? About 2 years ago I, along with countless others, complained about their last re-design, calling it an abomination and something that they would quickly get rid of. Why? Because it didn’t work. It was a interesting design, but in terms of being a blog and informative, it didn’t work on a whole. They gave users the option to also use a traditional blog layout, but it wasn’t easy. The search was never easy to find or use, let alone switching views, and it was just a mess. Finally they began rolling out, all so slowly, their new re-design which is everything right with it: Easy to use, intuitive, and simple. io9 Redesign


Again, people complained, and while it still hasn’t reached Gizmodo or Gawker yet, I can only imagine what the feedback will be when it does.

In my hometown of Philadelphia, we got a new logo for our tourism campaign. About 2 years ago we got a logo that basically sucked. No one liked it, it was hated, and a contest was even held by a tech blog to come up with something better to present to the Mayor’s Office and try to get them to use that instead. A logo debuted within the last year that easily surpassed it and was a welcomed design! Not cliche, not boring, and not basic, the new design was contemporary and smart.

PHL Logo

And, of course, people hated it.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Or, more accurately, this is why its so damn hard to GET nice things.

On a few projects I’ve worked on, I’ve had clients and bosses complain about a design because it didn’t make sense to them or because it was so different. For example, say you have a page for a site where the entire point is to get you to buy something, but the way its currently laid out is cluttered, confusing, and doesn’t compel people to use your call of action. I came up with a design that was clean, fun, interesting, and still focused on all of those things. Sadly, the other person disagreed and the design was never used. In that case they wound up going with someone else who didn’t focus on those things and instead got a design that didn’t do what it really could have. In another similar case, I was asked to do something completely different than what they had while keeping some things, and instead they went for a design that was almost exactly the same.

For a few cases, I’ve been stuck trying to argue why a fully-responsive website makes more sense than something static. In fact, I can think of a few times in 2011, when the concept first started getting a lot of traction, when the idea was rebuffed since there didn’t seem to be a need at the time since smartphones were still “new”, let alone tablets. Instead they insisted on a mobile-only version, and I walked away from it.

To be honest, these stories could go on, but the point is this: We are, as a species, resistant to change. We hate it. The only time we like change is when we allow it to happen or its so subtle that we don’t even notice it. Designers, programmers, and the people who hire and manage us, the people who allow these things to happen… we all must work together and strive for the goal of making things better for not just ourselves and businesses, but on a whole. We must focus on new and upcoming markets and browsers, of how the trends in web and design are going, and not where they have been.

The way things are going, the trend is cleaner and more flexible design. The focus is on helping people, on content, on making things better while still being innovative.

Yahoo Redesign

There was a redesign for Wikipedia proposed this year that never was used, a re-imagining for Yahoo that never made it past the concept stage, and who knows how many others. When people come up with ways to make popular sites better, in ways that make sense, they need to be embraced and treated as such. We need to try and help these changes happen, if not because something may or may not be broken, but because we must always seek innovation, we must seek ways to make ourselves and our world better.

It is up to us as designers to lead the way and push for change, to be able to explain to the people who hire us why a decision makes sense. At the same time, we also must explain why the pitfalls that may come will be worth it, why the anger from the few users or people who dislike it don’t matter and it will be better in the long run. We must be the ones who maintain the standards of design because no one else will.

Do People Still Value Creativity?

This is just going to be a straight-out rant. No images, no examples: Just me ranting.

Do people still value creativity? The more I look at our culture and society, the less I think they do.

Its a paradox, really. In this modern age, we’re able to connect with anyone and everyone in a blink of an eye, seeing ideas and concepts we may have never imagined or thought of. There are countless blogs and websites dedicated to inspiring people to new levels and concepts, and each and every day, someone somewhere is seeing the world in a way you and I have never thought of, exposing their viewpoint, and making us question what we know.

In the end, we actually suffer from it at the same time. To me, crying “Information overload” or “we’ve bombarded with too much information all the time!” are foolish, short-sighted, and, frankly, 100% BULLSHIT arguments. we can very easily choose to not be overloaded with information. If you want to look at a baseball game on TV, you don’t need to sit at a computer typing, listening to music, and using a web search engine all at the same time, but you choose to. Same with everything. We live in an age where you can pick what you want to take in, be it as little or as much as you choose.

No, even though we are given the chance to learn multiple things, we live in an age of both instant gratification and one where we are allowed to learn as much about something as we want. When you combine the two… it gets messy.

I’ll give you an idea: In 1995, if you said you wanted to be a comic book artist, it meant going to the library, a book store, etc, and getting any information you could on the topic. How to Draw books, contact sheets, etc,… It may have only taken a day to get the info if you were diligent enough. Getting better at your craft was something else, and you knew it would take time.

Today, if you want to learn how to be a comic book artist, all you have to do is type in the question and you’re sure to get an answer in the first 10 search results.

The problem? Because you can find out so fast, some of the information you would have gained is now gone, stuff you only get by doing this physically.

One prime example is time. It may have taken you a day, a week… maybe even a month to find the information before, but in the process you were given a chance to fully digest what you wanted to do and if you even wanted to go down that path. Another is personal interaction with people. You would have to talk to or ask someone for the information. Again, this may seem minor, but chances are actually decent that you would have met someone who was more than happy to talk more about comics, someone who may have been down your road… countless things.

Can you get that online, on message boards and such? Yes. But we have such a need now to get to our goal as soon as possible that we seem to just ignore the time aspect and actually learning from these people. Honestly, didn’t you just SKIM this entire thing until you saw me write “skim” in big letters? Do you see my point?

So lets go back a bit and apply this to other things.

Anyone can get a camera, make a video, and post it online. In 1995, anyone with a camcorder and some dedication could make a video and share it with people. By 2000, you may have even been able to put it on a CD-ROM and sell it. The thing, again, was that it took time and effort to do it. It still does, and I would be nuts to say it doesn’t! You and your friends can go out after reading this, make a video for fun, and post it online.

The problem? Everyone is doing it, and no one is really rising to the top.

There are comedic troops out there making high-budget skits and quality videos, but if the content isn’t great, does it matter? And without great press or buzz, does it even matter? If a guy makes a joke in a bomb shelter and no one’s around, was it even funny?

Again, this is a problem with Instant-Gratification. We don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into things, not because we’re lazy or have short attention span, but the idea of the personal gain, of immediate fame and success has become so damn central to our world!

Instant-Gratification and the End of Thought?

I woke up this morning to watch Saturday Morning cartoons, and I got my now-weekly reminder that the networks don’t care about making cartoons anymore, or anything, for that matter. What do I mean? There are exactly 4 new shows on this year. I repeat, out of 4 networks that show dedicated children cartoons, only 4 new shows are up. Why is this?

Well, there are a lot of reasons which I wrote about on my other blog, but it basically comes down to a few things: Less Money and Low Ratings. The US Government passed a law in 1996 that cut back on advertising during kids shows, mandated 4 hours a week for children broadcasting, and stated that there had to be 2 hours of educational programming. At the same time, more and more cartoons were shown on cable. Within 10 years, after a massive animation boom, there was a massive animation bust where less and less cartoons were being made, and the few that were were being moved more and more to Canada and done in Adobe Flash.

Instant-Gratification helped to kill animation and some very creative people.

There are many creative people out there who would love to be animators or work in animation but don’t. This is due to countless factors, but we can safely say its due to both lack of money and lack of patience. Studios are cutting back animation departments, so people who would have either been future animators or storyboard artists or other things, are forced to look for other avenues to be creative. This may mean going into advertising or a corporate world where they can’t be as creative, or maybe give it up altogether. For some people, learning to animate becomes frustrating and tiring and hard, so they find Adobe Flash and learn that with even poor skills they can make a cartoon.

Does poor animation does a bad cartoon make? HELL NO! Some of my favorite cartoons are poorly animated, and they can be havens for creativity! But with limited tools, resources, and skill… well, you get Adobe Flash to animate with. Before, someone may have gotten a stop-motion camera and tried to do something with crayons, glue, and dolls. Now? They make some shapes, animate them, and call it a day. This is partly because now they can create something and be happy with it after a day of work.


The Great Western Trendkill: Graphic Design Trends That Must DIE!

I’m at it again! Devoting time and effort to posting something that is annoying to me. This time, it isn’t just for me: This post is dedicated to every designer out there who is sick and tired of the crap out there and wants it to… well, DIE!

1: Web 2.0

Do I have to explain? Do I?

Web 2.0 is overused. Not only is it overused, over-saturated, but it is OVER! Is there any reason why this is still being used? Is there? Have we grown so little as a design community over the last 5 years that we’ve become stagnant and decided, “You know what? This simple look that has no real character or individual charm? Yeah, lets keep this.” Some designers have moved on.

I have a friend who has defended Web 2.0 design as stating, “Its a good design style, its just been abused.” True, but I don’t consider it a full-fledged design style. This isn’t me trying to be pompous (although I’m sure I sound like it); its about stating what I think is a fact.

If you were to walk into a design agency at any time until 1997 and presented them with any of the countless number of generic web 2.0 styled ads, they most likely would have said, “Well, you have a really nice start, but where’s the rest? Where’s the personality?”

Web 2.0 style isn’t bad, but it’s only a base.

Limited color, incredibly simple designs and layout, generic fonts, and drop shadows and mirrored reflections… these are the hallmarks of Web 2.0 design, and the very reason why it must DIE. I’ve already written how Apple practically invented this style in 1998 with the iMac line, and how, 11 years later, everyone has stolen their design and haven’t really made it their own. We’ve learned that there is great dynamic in putting great, brilliant color against white in order to achieve impact, but we’ve lost a sense of experimentation in the process.

We’ve lost individuality, a sense of purpose, being, and personality. Designers have sacrificed their own personal individuality as designers to create a virtually blank canvas for others to create on. For sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace where the focus is on the user being able to customize everything, that makes sense. The same is true of any site where that’s the point. But for sites that are GIVING the content, its something else!

2. Overusing Pastels

I am sick of pastels! This one started in the late 90’s and became the “it thing” over the last 5 years, and its to the point where I want to start banging my head against a wall. This is another one of those things that, when used rarely, they work well. Really well. In fact, I don’t really hate pastels so much as I am sick of them being everywhere!

This really goes hand-in-hand with web 2.0, because it makes thing really, really… boring. For example, say you have a website with a white background and black type. OK, that’s fine, makes sense. The focus of what your posting is the type and the images. So, in return, the stuff you want people to remember, like the header? Well, you make them all pastels.

Not good.

For starters, if your navigation is a shade of light gray against white… its hard to see. For branding, having a light green against white isn’t good, either. Why? Because the two colors blend and no one is going to stare at your logo longer than 2 seconds if they’re only looking for the content. In turn, your repeating traffic takes a hit because not everyone bookmarks a site on the first visit, especially if the content is only so-so.

In short, here are a list of colors I want to see as little as possible: Light brown, light green, light blue, and light red (aka Light pink).

Actually, its a short list. A very short list. I’m going on memory, too! Why do these colors piss me off? Why do we need LESS of them? Again, this isn’t about the colors themselves; its how they’re used and, in most cases, abused!

You have a band. your band plays a mixture of punk and metal; loud, angry, aggresive music that beats the crap out of your skull and doesn’t stop. Now, you hire someone to design your gig flyer and you tell them, “Hey, we’re sick of using nothing but white, black, and red for our flyers. Can you give us something else?” Well, what are you going to do? You need to convey this band without all those colors. What do you do? Me? I’d go for green and yellow, but then again, I love garish colors when they’re used well and entertainingly. But if your idea is to use light blue, light red, and light brown and draw a happy little blue bird…. then you can see why I’m mad.

This, sadly, happens more than you think for other things.

Light pastels colors are used for one thing: Comfort. They are there to make people feel good and comfy, like they’re buying a set of pillows from “Bed, Bath, & Beyond” or that they’re buying something for a baby, or doing something “Earth-Smart”. They’re soothing colors, and that’s good, we need them. After nearly a lifetime of ads focusing on bright slightly-off primary colors, we need a rest from harsh colors.

But in the end, we lose a lot of effect.

It goes back to the idea of an “empty room” that a teacher of mine talked about in college. The “empty room” is really simple to understand: It basically refers to a design with nothing in it except a white background and some image or type. Nothing happening in the background, nothing fun… just an image on white. It achieve impact, but it loses it when, well, its everywhere. Most of the time I see pastels, its against white, and really, it puts me to sleep. It doesn’t really grab your attention after a while.

3. BAD 80’s style design

I loved the 80’s. I was only 5 when they ended, so in 1998 and I got a ton of then 10-year-old copies of Nintendo Power from 1988 – 1991, you can only imagine how it felt to be nostalgic about the 80’s when I was only 13! I thought, “Wow, there were a lot of cool ads back then! I wish they did stuff like this now!” Well, funny how time works, right? I remember in 2005 I saw the first 80’s-style ad come back, and it was from Comcast. It was bright yellow type against black in huge Helvetica layers. The tag line didn’t fit one line, so they broke it up into 4 lines. It was pretty ugly and made me mad.

Since then, a whole generation of nostalgic for the 80’s designers have taken my beloved memories and took a collective crap on them.

The “Empty Room” I spoke of is, in essence, reversed; it’s an infinite void of black. In it, we see the occasional letters or image with nothing really done to it. It just… well, sits there.

Wait, no, that’s only part of it. BAD 80’s design? Its trying to create this “universe” effect that looks tacky and cheesy. Yes, that is part of the fun, but damn it, it isn’t fun anymore! It just isn’t! I love bright primary colors against black, but this stuff? Crappy Photoshop brushes of universes and galaxies with nonsensical “3-D plains”? Do we need those back? Rays of light that go nowhere? Lasers that make no sense?!

4. 99% of ALL 70’s design

Why? Because it needs to die. I never liked 70’s design. Ever. I have to push myself to a point where I can think of something from the 70’s design-wise that I liked, and sometimes I get surprised. “Wizards” by Ralph Baski blows me away and there are a few films made in 1979 that shock me. Star Wars was designed incredibly well and aged great.

On a whole, it needs to die. Bauhaus fonts, tri-colored bars that make no sense, wood grains for the sake of wood grains? Garish colors mixed in? I went to a “hip” restaurant that had wood grain, green light fixtures and tables, and a black ceiling. Not good.

The 70’s are over, done, dead. We had the revival in the 90’s, and now it needs to go away. Far, far away.

5. Dissolving into light

This one involves a lot. We’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum from what pissed me off at first. Instead of being “generic”, its a false branding of “individuality”. Its also a hard thing to name. I don’t know if it has a real name or not, but I call it “dissolving into light”. It stinks. Its basically the result of one man; the idiot who designed this abomination of an album cover:

You’ve seen this at least once, haven’t you? Yeah, I bet you have.

It goes back to that “crappy 80’s design” I mentioned, but this is worse. Much worse.

What Happened To Branding?

Sometimes I feel older than I should.

This isn’t a figure of speech your about to read, nor am I over-simplifying what happened. I woke up this morning, eyes aching from the attempts to open them after basically rubbing away the protective layer on them last night and then having it grow back this morning. After I got both eyes open, watching TV, I realized something: There is no branding anymore.

I was watching “Morning Joe” on MSNBC when that hit me. I was watching the logo in the background as it was displayed on a screen and that made me think about what it meant, which, really, was nothing. It’s a sloppy logo. Joe Scarbrough is a straight-laced Republican and the logo is a liberal-minded, coffee-shop logo. It doesn’t work. It’s not a brand. The show was slapped together after the Don Imus thing and they never made the logo work for the show. Joe just doesn’t look good against the logo, against this “brand”, and he always looks awkward.

Then I started to think about my logo and branding.

To me, I’ve done a damn good job. I rarely think highly of my own work; my friends will tell you that for a fact. But I think I’ve always done a good job when it comes to branding myself. Ironic, since I hate being branded myself by people. God I hate irony these days, but that’s another day and another post.

The point, though, is that I branded myself. It’s a simple identity: Red, Black, and White using hard shapes and a mixture of art deco, constructionism, and punk. It’s a lot simpler than I made it sound, but the idea is always there. The website, the blog, my MySpace, my business cards… they all follow the brand.

These days, it seems we have an anti-branding mentality.

Look at most recent logos. They all tend to be simple, generic… and insanely boring. They all have white as the dominate color, periodically using pastel versions of red, blue, or green. God they love green. I am sick and tired of white and green logos! Honestly, why? Is this use of color to convey some yuppie idea of being “earth-smart”? I blame it on Web 2.0 graphic design and this unhealthy obsession with trying to take what Apple did with advertising and use it for yourself. In turn, we are now left with what a smart teacher in my college called “The Empty Room”.

There was a great post at that explains it down to a science!

Ultra-simple, ULTRA-GENERIC, and uninteresting the the highest degree! This? This is modern-day branding?!

Or we get a ton of faux-retro logos, and that kills the idea. When I did mine, I knew I wanted something retro, but I also wanted to keep it fresh. A truly hard mix! How do you keep people in a certain mindset without being cliche or doing something that has been done a billion times? Easy, just be YOU. The entire faux-retro thing is annoying since two trends are coming back and only one is good; 70’s-style advertising refuses to die, despite the fact it’s use of bubbles were done better in the 90’s. At the same time, turn-of-the-century advertising is coming back, with it’s focus on iconic imagery over banality. I prefer the later concept, and I’m glad to see more of it, but not too much.

But back to branding. Well, here are a few modern logos, and tell me how the imagery around it could be used to brand anything and everything from cups and mugs to bed sheets (yes, bed sheets!)

The two best concepts of branding I can think of in the last 10 years are Apple and… Spongebob Squarepants.

Apple created a brand for themselves in 1998 with the iMac, and it has not changed much in the last 11 years. Bright colors against white and the “empty room” with very simple fonts, morphing from a Serifed font to a Sans-Serif font. Elegant and simple mixed with a sense of pop-culture; a rare hybrid to get to work, and one that’s been emulated to death by everyone else.

On the flip-side, you have Spongebob Squarepants. He is, to me, the embodiment of really good, really smart branding. It’s downright hilarious to me that they, literally, were able to get him on anything and EVERYTHING. If you wanted to, if you really wanted to, you could create a 100% Spongebob Squarepants room.

Hell, this is from the Mall of America!!

Photo thanks to Bludog!

In the last 10 years, can you honestly name a NEW branding that has come out that has stuck, let alone stuck in your mind?

OK, there are a few more, but they’re all based on things from the 90’s and 80’s. Watchmen, with it’s arresting black and yellow logo and Futura font was easy to market, although I’m sure Alan Moore isn’t thrilled, and rightfully so!

Then you have Sin City by Frank Miller. Miller’s style was given a tough of 3-D reality and created a style of limited color that did, in a lot of ways, spit in the face of Apple.

Here’s a quick rundown of a few logos and companies that are doing decent jobs as well:

Geico – Cavemen, Geckos, and more.

Esurance – The ads have been brilliant and simply theirs!

Cingular – While they lasted, they had an easy to identify logo and look

Virgin – Red, White, Black, and brilliant all over!

The White Stripes – Red, White, and Black… wait…

I picked these because, in the end, you knew what the brand was and it was interesting. It’s hard to see that these days with 99% of the logos out there.

In closing, I want to encourage everyone out there who reads this, future designers and those who are looking to hire a designer, to consider everything I’ve said. The future of graphic design should not be mired in mediocrity and simply but in being creative, and even more importantly… YOURSELF. Don’t try to go out there and change the world, don’t try to make trends… simply be yourself and strive to do it well.