03 December 2004

[graphic_design] S. Renee Mitchell Knows Design

Ms. Mitchell just wrote a terrific column which has lessons to teach about communicating through design and transmitting a message (available through the Oregonian for free through the month of December-after that, you gotta pay).

So far, in my training, one thing seems plain: communicating through graphics is a challenge in which one balances certain factors. Chief amongst them is a need to get attention, a clever approach, and not obscuring your information with the cleverness of your approach. It can be a struggle, as the column details, and if cleverness wins the struggle, your viewers aren't entertained or informed, but bewildered and maybe a little irritated with you for wasting thier time.

The current Portland Business Alliance's campaign to promote Downtown Portland is a case in which perhaps the need to be eye-catching has muddled the message.

Renee Mitchell:

The approach is big on pictures and short on words. A picture of a tuba reflecting a flying elephant? A man defying gravity in the middle of the lobby of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall?

I'm sure the concept is creative. Real cutting edge. In an abstract sort of way. But what's the point, again?

These are full-page ads running in newspapers this month. Affixed to the image is a stub from a SmartMeter, and in the corner, in small red print is the tagline Downtown: You Never Know What To Expect.

The main point is, there's this kind of surreal display and clever graphics. The amount of clever tricks and the feeling that there's all an inside joke going on here is so great that it likely just leaves the viewer scratching thier head.

The columnist contacted the PBA and got thier spokesperson on the phone in an attempt to explain the idea behind it. She probably knew she was going to have a bit of a problem when the spokesperson began by saying "Have you ever seen the movie 'Big Fish'?". Mitchell had not.

The rest of the column is very enlightening. It portrays a client who had a short time to get a campaign together and rushed it, came up with a too-clever-and-too-hip-by-half campaign. The messages are multiple and contradictory in some places.

Again, Renee Mitchell:

Another thing, I point out, is that the pictures make me work too hard to figure out what you're trying to sell. The scenes are festive and interesting. But the intended message -- come visit downtown -- is lost in translation.

I shan't excerpt more of the column. If the subject intrigues, then go read it whilst it's free.

But there's a lesson here that my GD instructors taught early on. Your object is to communicate. Nothing in Graphic Design is strictly good (unless you have an epiphany) or strictly bad (unless it makes you want to run screaming); things work or they don't. To the degree the message is obscured, the concept isn't working.

Perhaps they needed some group critiques. It's worked for me.

In the final analysis, if you leave a newspaper columnist-whose job it is to communicate with the written word-bewildered about exactly what you're after with your ad campaign, one can safely say you've missed the mark.


editor said...

As someone who also has studied design, making sure you communicate your message to your audience is the first lesson you learn or at least should.

I imagine the problem here is that the design team in charge of the project probably wasn't from Portland and contracted from elsewhere, otherwise, just aren't in touch at all with who their audience is.

I read the article, thanks to you pointing it out. And, if someone who is as active in the community like Renee Mitchell (who I've met briefly at an event) doesn't understand the ad campaign to entice people downtown, then how will a tourist who has never stepped foot there?

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

You make a good point. They may very well have not been from here: the description of the ad featuring the Schnitz make it seem as though they used a Portland backdrop as an afterthought.

Thanks for the feedback. I enjoyed your thoughts