The other day a design came across my desk for coordinated letterhead, business cards, post cards, and pens. It was colorful, creative, and stimulating. Or maybe I should say over-stimulating. My eyes didn’t really know where to focus. Four different fonts were used in different areas, six different colors, and there were graphics and text all over the place. What should have been a blank piece of letterhead someone would be able to type a letter on looked more like a TV screen of a news network broadcast with a stock ticker along the bottom, a news ticker at the top, a weather map on the side, and a bullet-point graphic seemingly growing out of the news anchor’s head. It was simply too much. And, anyway, how was I ever supposed to get all that on a pen?
It got me thinking – why is that a bunch of good ideas aren’t as good as one good idea? And how can a designer feel free to expand his or her creativity while narrowing the focus?
The approach of throwing everything up and seeing what sticks is great if you’re talking about a brainstorming session and a whiteboard. It’s not a great approach if you’re talking about a thousand printed sheets of 28-lb linen paper. So instead of thinking in terms of limiting your freewheeling ideas, think of letting your ideas fly, but only in an early stage of the process. In other words, as many crazy ideas as you can come up with the better. But don’t print there. Take it a few steps farther.
Stephen King in his book On Writing famously quoted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as writing, “Murder your darlings.” It’s harsh and it’s not easy. But as much as you love every one of your amazing ideas up there on the whiteboard – your “darlings” – you must get rid of them and mercilessly go with the best idea for your client and the brand whether it’s the most mind-blowing of your ideas or not. I once had a professor who did his first round of grading papers by picking out one decent sentence out of the whole paper then telling us to ditch the rest and start over from just that one sentence.
But there is an alternative to coldblooded murder – just put the darlings on ice. Keep a notebook or file with the great ideas that didn’t make the cut and save them for another day, another project. No mourning the darlings and no creating a crowded unwieldy design just because you can’t bear to part with them. It works out for everyone.
Sometimes the problem isn’t an over-abundance of creative ideas, but a dearth. We’ve all had days when the creative spark just ain’t there. Too many times, though, I’ve seen busy over-wrought designs that seem as if in lieu of any good ideas, the designer threw a multitude of ideas together and swirled them around like a child smearing food around the plate so it looks as if they ate something. Resist the temptation to throw in everything and the kitchen sink just to distract yourself and the client from the fact that you haven’t come up with a winning idea yet. Then get back to the whiteboard.
Even if you do have several smart ideas, too many of them in one place is not only crowded, it also taxes the viewer’s mind and memory. A logo or design must be memorable. A design that looks like a page out of Where’s Waldo is not easy to reproduce in one’s memory. No one will be able to identify that certain something that truly captures the essence of your brand if it is hidden or if they have to think hard and look closely to find it. A design should capture the brand with an almost singular image, color scheme, or pattern that viewers will come to recognize and associate with your client’s business.
It’s counter-intuitive, but simple designs send a more nuanced complicated message than a design with multiple elements. Instead of distracting the mind, it captures the mind and gives the viewer’s imagination some room to think as well. If you’re struggling to come up with a simpler design a good way to start over is to do some more research on other brands within your client’s industry. Being in touch with the flavor of the industry will help you develop a specific approach from the beginning rather than an all-things-to-all-people approach. Certainly you want your design to be original, but it is also helpful to get a feel for the kind of designs and complexity level that your particular audience is used to and drawn to.
If the name of the brand you are working on is especially creative, engaging, snappy, or memorable, let it do the bulk of the work and find a simple but unexpected way to incorporate a design around it or a design that highlights the name rather than distracting from it.
Coming up with ideas is the fun part of design. But the satisfaction comes when you’ve carved a fine sleek sculpture out of your original mound of ideas. This refining process is worth the work. A lack of focus in design can translate to a more general lack of focus, and no client or designer wants to be associated with a lack of focus. If a business or a designer can’t even keep their stationery looking organized and focused, it sends the message to potential customers that the business or designer is not focused in their other work either. A sophisticated and efficient design, on the other hand, sends the message that complex thinking and efficient work are part of the brand. And that’s one good idea.