Category Archives: Bad design by design

In a previous blog post, I said that Obama and Romney have failed at replying to Twitter followers – as noted by the ‘no replies’ that can be found on their Twitter profiles. They or their campaign have never replied to any of their followers. I said this was an utter failure because they could at least devote a campaign worker to this task, and occasionally have the candidate send a reply to someone.

It’s not rocket science. It’s like texting a friend. After all, a text and a tweet are both limited to 140 characters. It’s like when someone says something to you, you don’t, then, regurgitate your next talking point, you respond to them and acknowledge them. I know, this sounds like a high standard – but it shouldn’t be looked at this way.  We’ve just set the bar really low.

Others agree

So after coming to this conclusion on my own, I saw this great article, that was shared by a professor I had in college. In one part of the article, they bring up the same point. They said:

Neither campaign made much use of the social aspect of social media. Rarely did either candidate reply to, comment on, or “retweet” something from a citizen-or anyone else outside the campaign. On Twitter, 3% of the 404 Obama campaign tweets studied during the June period were retweets of citizen posts. Romney’s campaign produced just a single retweet during these two weeks-repeating something from his son Josh.

And by ‘Rarely did either candidate reply to…’ they mean that they NEVER replied to anyone.

It’s the right strategy

If the candidates truly want to get around traditional media (or lamestream media, as Sarah Palin would say) and talk directly to voters, they need to listen and respond. Otherwise, what’s the difference between saying your latest talking point on Cable TV and tweeting it (besides maybe the audience)? The difference is that on Twitter, you can be ‘social’ with your followers. That’s why they call it social media. It’s a dialogue not a monologue. Twitter is not a real-time digital billboard to push out your BS to anyone who will listen (although, that’s what it’s becoming), it is a real-time conversation with your followers where you talk, listen and respond.

Let’s get practical

  • The candidates could tweet a question and then monitor the response and reply to select people.
  • The candidates could monitor search.twitter.com for a keyword. Let’s say the economy is a hot topic this week; the candidates could monitor tweets relating to the economy and reply with a great news article on the candidates’ website or news website that sets the record straight or just gives more information on what the person is asking. Or, they could simply reply to agree with or acknowledge someone.

In conclusion

With the election only 70 days away, will the candidates actually use social media the way it should be used? Socially? By following this strategy of interacting with followers, there isn’t an easy way to measure the return on investment. But that’s not really the point. Sometimes you should do the right thing without caring about ‘ROI’.

I’ve talked about this in the past on this blog. I was reminded of this debate from a past professor who re-blogged a post by Frank Chimero.

So, should designers be coders? The answer is, “Yes, to an extent.”

I say ‘to an extent’, because we can’t expect a web designer to be able to do everything a programmer can. These are two different career paths. We can and should expect there to be an overlap between these separate fields. This overlap mainly lies in knowing HTML and CSS. (now you know what the question marks are for in the graphic). So designers should understand code and be able to write HTML and CSS.

Adobe’s recent release of Muse has surely stoked this debate even more. Muse promises to rid the need for a programmer/coder (you know, the way that Microsoft Publisher rids the need for a designer). The problem with this is that Muse promotes a lack of coding knowledge and as a result web designers are still uneducated about coding and their websites are worse off because of it. Websites are not digital versions of print design. They are living documents in 4D – changing based on user interactions, responsive design, dynamic elements etc. For more on why Muse is not the answer to web development, read Elliot Jay Stocks’ assessment.

The point here is that web designers should understand and be able to write HTML/CSS. As a comparison, take this example I mentioned in the aforementioned blog post,

…an architect should understand how a house is built. Otherwise, the architect has become a meaningless decorator of a medium he doesn’t understand.

Frank Chimero says it like this,

Design decisions are not only affected by the characteristics of the content being designed, but also the qualities of the format. The best way to understand the characteristics of the web is to speak its language.

What are your thoughts on this? Should web designers know how to code? How extensively?

Want to know where to start learning how to code? Check this out: Don’t Fear the Internet

 

Since the 2008 presidential election, I have become aware of design in politics and how the quality and effectiveness of the design effects particular candidates.

As designers, we have a lot of responsibility to design for the greater good and not put forth an image (both meanings of the word) that is misleading, untrue or inciting of any negative action. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have a responsibility to not oversell something or someone, if we want a clear conscience.

Below I’ve outlined a few examples of design that has a played a role in our perception of a the candidate.

A few examples, off the top of my head:

Yes we can… make you think I’m God-incarnate

Overtly and overly optimistic political campaign website for Barack Obama. Did we all really think he was going to be ‘God-incarnate’ and a perfect president (note the glowing blue sky/cloud feel)?

The problem with this website design, as I’m starting to see, is that if I were to design a website for ‘God’ – it would probably look pretty close to this. Same colors. Similar logo. Similar quote in the header (at least the ‘I’m asking you to believe’). This is a problem, because he’s not God, but was pretty much marketed as such.

As I wrote about on this blog in the past – this was a great website design, logo and branding. The best that national politics had ever seen. But my question is: Was it over-selling Obama? Just a bit.

Did we think he would be anything more than a politician with skin on? If we bought into the design/marketing – maybe.

There’s an Alaska-shaped lake in the US, don’tchaknow?

To all you middle school kids who have taken geography, you know this map is NOT accurate. It is outrageously false. I know that Palin’s goal was to express that she was the governor of a state that is very large in comparison to the continental United States. Do you want to highlight something in your career that you only put half your effort toward (Palin resigned before finishing her first term)? Why create something that is false, misleading and very untrue? Clever, maybe – but I don’t see it winning any design awards. This logo opens up the floodgates for more people to question the intelligence of Sarah Palin. Why open that door?

LBJ mushroom cloud commercial

Misleading. Fear-Mongering.

It’s not a direct ‘design’ piece but is marketing and political in nature. The commercial worked and drew on the emotions of the American people. Drawing out the fear of a nuclear war and pointing a finger at Barry Goldwater was the goal of this commercial. It worked, and as Milton Glaser is quoted in this article saying, “And even though you knew it was bullshit, your heart swelled anyway.”

You betcha they’re surveying symbols!

Most recently, this graphic has been the center of debate. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Palin is responsible for the recent Arizona shooting. However, her advertisements and words and those of other talking heads need to be scrutinized when violence against politicians arises. Taking responsibility for your words and actions is a necessity. That means acknowledging when something you say or do is in bad taste, as this graphic was. We learned this as a child – why is it that politicians forget this fundamental rule of responsibility? (Another example is when Sharon Angle’s was quoted about using  ‘second amendment remedies’. That is an incitement of violence and nothing less.)

One explanation of this graphic was that it was simply using ‘surveying symbols’.  Maybe that was the intention, but how many American’s are surveyors and would get this reference? It’s more likely that it would be interpreted as a gun sight. You can’t tell me that the Palin folks didn’t know this is how it would be inferred? After all, it’s the perfect graphical symbol to appeal to hunters and gun rights activists around the country. If it should have been a surveying symbol, shame on the designer for not correctly ‘visually communicating’ a surveying symbol. My guess is that the designer was directed to use a gun cross hair – and they did that effectively. Palin and others needs to be more careful about the graphics they present and the words they use.

Wrapping up

We have all seen political ads, designs and words that over-reach their boundary. The question becomes – how do we know how over-reaching it is? How do we know how much violence something or someone may incite with their words or ads? The answer is: We don’t. This is why politicians and the designers that work for them need to be held to a very high standard. They need to realize how much sway they have with their ‘supporters’ – especially their fringe supporters.

What political ads, designs and words have you heard or seen recently that were inciting violence or simply overselling something?

What do designers do? Make things ‘pretty’ and ‘put a new coat of paint on something’, right?

Wrong.

A designer is someone who communicates visually through various mediums. This could be through print design, web design, and especially wayfinding design (the design of directional signs in our environment).

The end result is hopefully something that is visually appealing or ‘pretty’. Pretty should not be the goal, though. It is simply the natural byproduct of a designer who has taken the target audience into account while crafting a readable and functional piece of design (whether it’s a business card or a full-on website). What most people see as ‘pretty’ are simply visual symbols that resonate with a particular target audience and communicate a particular message in an exemplary way.

Some examples

Let’s take wayfinding. Directional sign on the interstate communicate visually. They tell what city you are approaching, which way to turn and so on. They aren’t simply pretty or pleasing on the eyes. They communicate visually. Interstate signs may also look pretty if the text wasn’t white, but instead were a slightly lighter green from the green background color of the sign. Decisions were made by designers about the readability and functionality of the sign, therefore stark white and dark green was the outcome. Design decisions are made in terms of functionality, readability without much focus on ‘pretty’ – because if it communicates visually, ‘pretty’ will hopefully be the natural byproduct.

The same argument can be made for web design. A website should be functional first and foremost. If I don’t know what a link is or what page I’m on, the web designer has failed already. A website can be ugly and functional – think Google search results. A website can be pretty and not functional – some graphic designer’s flash only websites. The best option is for the website to be both functional and beautiful.

On the flip side

Of course a designer should create things that are ‘pretty’ – but this should not be the end goal. Isn’t that what fine artists are for? (EDIT: I mean that fine artist don’t usually have to reach a target audience and therefore don’t need to worry about communicating the same message to everyone) As I often say, there should be balance between form and function. For argument’s sake, form = pretty and function = successfully reaching the target audience.

Form and function work together to create a successful design – but reaching the target audience is the goal, while ‘pretty’ is the byproduct of reaching that goal.

Now it’s your turn! What do you think of the balance between form and function? For designers, is ‘pretty’ the end goal or not?

A few years ago I had a course where we were encouraged to push the limit of what graphic design is and break the rules of design and typography to create something fresh… as fresh as sweet, sweet mountain dew. Here are a few pieces from that time period (which also draw much inspiration from designer, David Carson). I call this my ‘make the professor happy’ era of my design work. 🙂

So I just saw a facebook status update from Gary Vaynerchuk, who I respect as an entrepreneur. But is having a design contest to design his next book cover. He specifically says it’s not spec work, because the winner will be paid. You are correct, it’s not spec work for the winner, but what about the other hundred designers who send you a cover idea? They aren’t getting paid and aren’t under contract with you.

Here’s his video introduction to the contest.

Here was my comment on his facebook status update:

There are so many comparisons I could have used, even one that would hit home with him. How about I ask multiple stores that sell wine to send me a bunch of free wine. I’ll drink it all in the next month and the one that I like the most… I’ll pay for. The rest, I’ll just send a thank you card to.

Or I could ask my dentist, who says I need a tooth removed, to remove it and if I like what he did, I’ll pay him, but if not, I won’t pay him.

UPDATE: A lot of people responded to me, so I responded to them and have posted the thread below. What do you all think about spec work?

Just because something looks good doesn’t mean its useful. And just because something is useful does not make it beautiful.

Joshua Brewer

Think Google – amazingly simple and useful, but not beautifully designed.

There is a difference between usability and beautiful design. It can be ugly and usable or it can be beautiful and unusable.

Every once in a while you find something that is both usable and beautiful. For this: Think iPod.

Check out this article on whether freelancing is a commodity or a profession.

My favorite part is this:

There seems to be a basic disconnect between what is needed to earn a living as a freelancer and what clients seem to want (at least on these outsourcing sites) to pay. The disconnect goes even deeper. Suddenly a client can define all aspects of a job from price to design, causing the designer’s role to change from that of a professional to that of a technician. It is unnerving.

I have to admit, though, I HAVE entered design contests in the past. I did so knowing that I may not win and get compensated for my work. I actually did win one contest for a website header, but it was the worst experience. because there were probably 20 revisions by the client and there was no contract to set the limits. Essentially I had no control over the project.

I won’t say that I’ll never enter another design contest, because I did enter another one only a month ago. I can say that I will do so with caution and much forethought, if for no other reason than to build my portfolio, when I’m looking for a particular client or project to include in my body of work.

In my Advertising course in college we analyzed many past political ads including Daisy Girl.  It aired September 7, 1964 and seemed to be an effective ad because it drew fear about  Lyndon B. Johnson’s opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. The ad was created by innovative ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. It only aired once but that was enough to give Johnson the presidency. Today, this ad goes down as one of the most effective political ads in history.  To learn more about this ad go here.

On May 21, 2009 the RNC decided that it could piggy-back on it’s success over 40 years ago and paint Obama in the same dark hue. The thing is: they are just a tad bit too late. He’s already President. You’d think McCain would have thought of this idea during the campaign since he was 27 when Daisy Girl aired. (that was the same year he apparently got in an auto accident that was kept hush hush until recently – interestingly, that article was written on my birthday – october 28, 2008 – crazy!)

Not only is this remake a textbook example of how not to edit video, but every sound-bite is taken out of context and the ‘daisy girl’s’ voice sounds like someone Meghan McCain’s age rather than a 5 year old girl.

For your viewing pleasure!

In part four, I take a look at the recent website redesign by John McCain and compare it to his previously all black website.

Beautiful Design
I believe I’ve said this on my blog before. This presidential campaign has largely been about change. Most significantly, a change from really horrible design in political campaigns to truly beautiful design and focused branding, most on the part of Obama’s campaign, but most recently with McCain as well.

Finally, candidates are seeing the value of a great brand and beautiful design. By ‘great brand’ I’m talking about the cohesive theme and logo. For Obama it has been ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’. For McCain it has been ‘maverick’ (or is it ‘a couple of mavericks’?) and ‘Country First’. What I think is even more effective is a theme that gets placed on a campaign by the public. In this case it was in the form of Internet viral advertising, especially the ‘Yes We Can’ music video. I can’t think of a viral advertising ‘brand’ that has been placed on the McCain campaign. There have also been some negative viral advertising affecting Obama such as Internet rumors that, ‘He’s a Muslim.’ As Campbell Brown on CNN pointed out a few days ago “So what if he is a Muslim? Since when was that a disqualifer for president?”

Website (re)Design
The website design for both candidates can make or break them in terms of young vote. Young people are all about hip and cool. That’s what first draws them to a candidate in some cases, then they look at the issues. This isn’t the case with all young voters but for some it is. So how does a young voter remain on a website that is black, gray and a little blue with pictures of people their grandparents age? The answer is: ‘they don’t.’ So as I first visited McCain and Obama’s website you can guess which one I was drawn to more, especially as a designer. A young voter’s life is always ‘changing’ and they usually have much ‘hope’ for their future. And what is it that Obama has focused his campaign on? Hope and Change. What do people want after Bush’s presidency? Hope and Change. What do I want a little more of in my pocket? Change. (haha, get it?)

Before McCain’s website redesign at the end of the summer, it wasn’t successfully keeping young voters there and giving them something to grab hold of. His website color scheme was a depressing black and blue and there were about thirteen pictures of him on his biography page (mostly black and white). That is thirteen reminders of how old he is. The constant replaying of McCain’s POW video on his website didn’t connect with young voters since it is from a war so far removed from our generation. Also, McCain’s stance on the Iraq war is not striking a chord with young people as a whole. For example, the statement about being in Iraq for one hundred years. Overall, I concluded last spring that McCain was not reaching young voters and needed to utilize his website in better ways.

Finally a Redesign for the Maverick
What do you get when you have just one maverick? A black and gray website. Add a younger, less-experienced maverick to the team to make ‘a couple of mavericks’ and what do you get? A website very similar to the competition. I say this because McCain’s website changed for the better about 2 months before adding Sarah Palin to his mavericky campaign. Check out my screenshots of the McCain website next to the Obama website. If I were to just glance at these, I would guess they were from the same campaign. Almost identical blue, glowing white shadows/lights, addition of ‘people group’ mentioned in a previous post. Why would anyone want to go from the deathly black and gray to hopeful blue and glowing lights? It might be that they noticed Obama’s website was well designed, structured and communicated their theme of change and hope. I guess communicating the theme of ‘country first’ is visually depicted identical to that of ‘change’ and ‘hope’.

That, or the McCain campaign generously borrowed design ideas from a better looking website. How blatant can you be? I believe my side-by-side image says it all.

In part five I take a look how Obama and McCain are getting out the vote and recent online buzz (Keating Economics, Fight the Smears, Yes We Carve, etc)