22 June 2006

Why Good Design is Infectious

In 1995 Milton Glaser wrote that graphic designers would need to create a “new narrative” to restore respect for their existence. And indeed since Mr. Glaser penned that essay there has been no shortage of proposals outlining what that narrative might be. Author, communicator, strategist, tactician, marketer, anthropologist — these are just a few. The profession of “graphic designer” has been in the midst of a huge identity crisis — grasping for some new analogy to explain what it is we do. The problem is largely driven by shifting technology. First we embrace the Macintosh which tricks us into doing our own production work. Fine! But, then along comes the internet, and who wants to do the production work for that — writing code for goodness sakes! It has become more about manipulating the tools than the creative process.

So here I am throwing yet another hat into the ring. As if there weren’t enough ideas flying around out there already declaring what this “new narrative” should be. I would like to approach it from a different and I believe unique perspective. In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote about memes in his book “The Selfish Gene”. For those of you who may have never heard of memes let me briefly explain what they are. A meme is an idea that spreads through society just like a biological virus. In much the same way that a virus uses a host cell – a meme uses minds. They both use a host to replicate themselves. When I discovered memetics in the mid 90s I was completely blown away. Memes are idea viruses and what is a designer if not a creator of ideas. Some in our field may dispute that, but, at the very least a designer is a processor, translator or packager of ideas. Examine for a moment the lowest denominator here. If we are the packager of ideas then what that really makes a designer is a memetic engineer or an engineer for idea viruses – viruses of the mind.

In order to fully understand this analogy a fundamental understanding of viruses is in order. A basic biological virus exists for one purpose — to spread as many copies of itself as possible. In order to do so it is made up of two components — a protein shell and a code which is housed inside the shell. The sticky protein shell is formed with uniquely shaped nozzles covering its surface. When the right host cell is found, these nozzles link the virus to the cell and inject the viral code into the cell. Once inside the host this code reprograms the host, turning it into a virus making factory. Memes function in exactly this way — they are ideas that, once attached to our minds, use us to replicate and spread themselves through the populace.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of design

We are in a unique position as designers. While it is our job to see that our client's message spreads as effectively as possible – we also have an opportunity to enhance or add to that message. At the very least, our design should act just like the protein shell of a virus. A bad design, a design which ignores the content and the target, may sometimes help an idea to spread simply because it has a “cool factor”. This kind of design works, but not well and not for long. A properly engineered collateral virus is content and target relevant. In other words it takes into consideration the ideal host that it is targeting, as well as the message that needs to be spread. Ultimately design can (and should) go one step further and actually become part of the message being delivered to the targeted host. While “good” design is content relevant, “great” design will actually merge with the content to communicate something about the client, the message and the audience. Content delivered without design is just like a viral code without its protein shell — ineffective and short lived. Design is a crucial element in helping a company to spread its message. Whether the bearer of that message is a logo, business letter, brochure, package or Website — if it is poorly designed, it is much less likely to be taken seriously by its target (i.e. the protein shell sticks poorly, sticks to the wrong target or doesn’t stick at all).

The spectrum of viruses that a designer may engineer for clients is broad. Good design by definition (well my definition anyhow) is design that addresses the clients needs. It is content-relevant as well as target-focused and as such may be referred to as a horizontal marketing virus. But there is another form that we commonly generate. Intentionally or inadvertently, we sometimes create a viral message that is separate from the clients. It is the design itself — a “design virus” which propagates vertically. Watch graphic design publications for about two minutes and you will see style treatments that spread rampantly amongst designers. I’m sure that this in a way is a real ego stroke for the designer who originated the form. But more often than not it happens at the expense of the client. It is unfortunate that this type of virus is often developed with complete disregard for the needs of the client. It is irresponsible design, executed without regard for content and/or target.

One of the most interesting and sometimes dangerous characteristics of a virus is its perpetual drive for mutation. This is particularly the case with a “design virus” which spreads vertically. A graphic designer takes a design idea that they’ve seen elsewhere and riffs off of it to produce something of their own (happens all the time). Often this is very flattering but sometimes it is infuriating. If mutation does not occur or if it is not extreme enough then frankly it is plagiarism. In addition to the theft factor another danger when this happens is that often it ignores the project's intended purpose. It may spread through the design community just fine this way, but, at the same time build a very bad reputation for graphic designers as the objectives of the client are completely ignored. If a virus is propagating vertically, mutation should be seen as absolutely essential. The client's best interests should be fully addressed — which nearly always necessitates a major mutation.

Sometimes the mutation factor is planned for from the beginning. Establishing brand standards does exactly that. It can be a very cool and strategically positive thing. Certain mutations will introduce characteristics that prove beneficial or even essential for the propagation of the newly formed virus. After several rounds of mutation the virus may have evolved into something completely different than the original virus. In the biological world, the virus you had last year probably doesn’t even exist today. If a biological virus does not mutate it quickly becomes extinct. Wouldn’t it be exciting if design evolved at that same rapid pace. That would require us as designers to be vigilant in our efforts to generate ever more relevant form. Unfortunately there are a lot of dinosaurs still out there in the world of design!

Call us what you may — I honestly believe that we are engineering viruses of the mind. The next and larger question, if we are doing our jobs and producing viral materials to let lose on the world, regards ethics or morals. But that is a topic for another article.

Original article: graphicdesign.about.com

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