Is “Good Design” Ruining the World?

How the ubiquity of Good Design makes it difficult to discern the good from the bad.

Not long ago on a business trip, I found myself in a popular downtown area looking for some good local food. Rounding the corner I was faced with expensive signage and painted windows for the restaurants and bars flanking the cobbled street. American, Italian and barbecue were the prevailing options. But when I stole glances at the patron’s plates, the food didn’t match the quality of the slick menus and logos. Finding the same results for a few blocks, I settled for takeaway from a lackluster sandwich shop. Despite my underwhelming meal, I felt lucky having dodged the pricier traps and wondered how we’ve landed here, floating in a sea of good design?

Hold on, but isn’t good design better for everyone? Not always, like my dear grandmama used to say; “Even too much of a good thing is bad for you.” And in this instance my sweet gran would have rolled her pale blue eyes and yearned for a time when good and bad were far easier to recognize. But when exactly did it happen, when did we leave the realm of discernible brands?

I track it back to the late nineties, the dot-com bubble and the birth of digital culture. With that explosion of start-ups came a glut of new identities saturating the market, seeking digital streams filled with gold. But in this uncharted territory of ones and zeros, the traditional map of graphic design didn’t work and many of these on-line prospectors abandoned the hills. But a few like Amazon, ebay, Google and Priceline.com survived the frigid winters, emerging like hungry bears.

With the success of their good products and services, they began developing a sense of design for the new landscape. Digital design didn’t happen overnight, but in 2004 web 2.0 hit, then web 3.0. Then, in 2007, it all changed with the arrival of the smartphone and social media. With the internet’s true power placed in everyone’s hands, the digital rubber met the human road and good design sprang forth. It makes sense it happened here, while design cost are the same in both the physical and digital world production and dissemination isn’t. So A/B testing in digital brand design flourished and metrics shifted good design into the objective realm. 

This good design wasn’t delivered as slick new brand identities from traditional design agencies—no, it came in subtler forms within the brands themselves. Ways solely intended to keeping us focused on our devices just a little longer. Unbeknownst to all; the time we spent absorbing these tweaks, updates and refreshes trained us to know good design when we saw it.

But, this visual creep didn’t happen with only on-line brands. As the digital environment exploded, the physical marketplace struggled to adapt, spurred on by the media decrying its impending doom over the image of the disemboweled brick-and-mortar sector like knife wielding druids. So this traditional market developed their own methods by combating this existential competition on-line with equity and sophistication. Meanwhile a whole wave of new businesses emerged, armed with digital tools, social media and good design, but not burden of the physical world. All of this drove corporations, retailers, hospitals, restaurants and hospitals to up their design game in the effort to stand out from their omnipresent competition—leaving us in a good design arms race.

Today, we are confronted with myriad new brands appearing on our computer, commute, or phone. Without context, it is challenging to judge their quality and true footprint. A major part of this is due to the ever-new array of accessible digital tools to help anyone take an idea and bring it to life, quicker. Meaning, entities can appear, update and rebrand in a flash, in the quest of good design. As the baseline design landscape improves, brands adopt inexpensive trendy logos and [responsive] websites to look good and fit in, leaving us with little more than a shiny wrapper to gauge them.

But if everything looks good, surely everything can’t be good. So how does a lay person determine brand quality faced with this veneer of good design? Enter crowdsourcing, or what I like to call; The race to the middle. Without the necessary experience to tell the difference between good design and great design, we’ve outsourced our selection process with on-line review tools to aid our decision matrix in hopes of clarity. Who knows, maybe this is the business model du jour; just get them in the door and close the sale. There’s a sucker born every minute, is an old saying for a reason.

Will the good design trend die-off? While change is inevitable, it’s here to stay like Auto-Tune and Instagram filters. But there is still hope for brands to stand out. I feel this is a great opportunity for design professionals to work closely with clients to define their brand factors and communicate an authentic story—not follow trends. Building a strong brand identity and supporting brand components for your clients arms them with the tools they’ll need to strategically plan for when the next big trend to aimed to connect and sell to your customer hits.

What will the next thing be? Who’s to say, but I do know it is coming and my clients will be prepared for it.

 

Alex Morrissey is writer, designer and illustrator based in Asheville, NC
Learn more about author alex-morrissey.com

Thoughts on Beliefs and Marriage Rights

I’m confused by the problems we, as a nation, are facing with the Kim Davis matter. In no way do I feel she is not entitled to her beliefs, she can believe anything she wants. But she is wrong to behave in the fashion she has. She is an employee and is required to conduct her work in accordance to the job description, provided they do not conflict with the law of the land. It’s that simple. If you can’t perform the duties of the job, you should leave the job, or be removed.

Here are a few examples of jobs that Ms Davis could be performing and come to a conflict in belief if the context changed in regards to the job.

Let’s say Ms Davis was a truck driver who preferred to drive the highways at 75 miles per hour, then the law of the land changed the speed limit from 75 MPH to 65 MPH. Now, her new job description requires her to drive the vehicle at the new legal speed, no matter how she feels about the speed limit. If she cannot perform the job in accordance with it’s description, she can no longer do that job.

Not deep enough of a conviction for you to be convinced? Alright, let’s say Ms Davis is the counter server for a vegetarian fast food restaurant and one day the owners choose to sell meat based entrees as well. Though she may disagree and be morally opposed to the consumption of meat, this does not entitle her to refuse serving the customer hamburgers based off her belief system. The job description requires her to serve the food that the customer has ordered from the menu, that’s all. She could perform another task in the restaurant that she finds morally acceptable, or get a new job. It is not the employers responsibility to support your belief system.

Maybe you need an example that connects to the Bible for it to be more relevant. Ok, how’s this? Let’s say it’s October 1920 and Mrs Davis is a male is county clerk responsible for registering voters but believes that the Bible says women shouldn’t be able to vote. (sadly there were plenty of them out there at the time)  While Ms Davis Mr Davis has some trusty scripture passages and a life-time of belief that supports this position and she he is certainly entitled to believe that women shouldn’t vote because God says so, she he is no longer able to perform that job as county clerk. So Ms Davis Mr Davis must either register the voters, or find a new job.

Maybe we need these people to point out how far from common sense they are in these particular moments. Personal belief, no matter how empowering or misguided it may be is not the law of the land. There are other nations in the world that have adopted the will of God over the law of the land and Ms Davis is free to move there to enjoy all the rights and privileges they may afford. And shame on us for placing so much attention on her, maybe the 24 hour news cycle can next focus on some poor soul who believes the world is flat.

The Force Is With Me

I truly feel so lucky to have been born when I was. In the summer of 1977 NASA was in full swing, Star Trek was in re-runs and my life was to change with the release of Star Wars.

Between the formative ages of nine to sixteen these stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away fueled my creative growth. Seeing Luke Skywalker grow from a farm boy to a Jedi Knight set me on a path of creativity and fantasy. Seeing these behind-the-scenes clips and hearing the warm narration for the work only pushes my desire to create things that, hopefully, one day will inspire one young child to dream and create.

An Open Letter to Asheville Breweries

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With its lower price point and quick return on investment craft beer has become the lubricant greasing Asheville’s tourist economy in-lieu of the visual arts. The bonus side-effect is that the rest of the city’s tourism trade benefits from this new draw. But these micro-brewmasters are missing a solid piece of the revenue stream; soft drinks.

While many people enjoy a nice IPA, lager, or stout there are plenty who don’t, or can’t drink beer. And before we get distracted, non-alcoholic beer is not an option for obvious reasons. There are already breweries around the nation producing great beers and their own soft drinks. The addition of complex root beers, mysterious colas and rich ginger ales would make a great complement to the already impressive beers on tap. With this broader offering Asheville’s beer gardens would do greater business with all who come.

So there you have it Asheville brewers, carve out a bigger market share and show off your creativity in developing amazing recipes that conjure nostalgic memories of childhood summers tasting your first fancy soda pop.

Please leave a comment, or email me with your ideas about this.

Settle Down Internet and Look at Mars

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Living in a digital age we see so may things that are titled “Amazing,” “Mind Blowing,” “Awesome.” Then there are the pictures that NASA releases that are humbling. This is another planet. Not a Hollywood interpretation of the red planet, but the actual landscape with a real man-made object upon it. Think about how unbelievably breathtaking this is as you look at the enlarged version of this picture. Click the image and enjoy.