“Either you karate do ‘yes’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so’—squish just like grape.”
Why is being sincere important in graphic design?
Sincerity is a big deal to me. Those who know me personally, know that I pride myself on trying to maintain sincerity in everything I do. It’s only natural that I’d extend that ethos to what I spend so much of my time doing. As a graphic designer, so much of what is requested professionally involves creating images that are insincere. I’ve been asked countless times to “spruce-up,” “sex-up,” or otherwise decorate something graphically. I have recently committed myself to trying to refrain from using these types of tactics to enhance graphic design. However, it’s definitely easier said than done.
Design is serious business. If it’s not deliberate, calculated, and measured, it’s not design. It’s something else. It should be treated like any other science. The sincere design exists when meaningless decoration is stripped away. It’s the true nature of a thing. This isn’t to say that graphic design should necessarily follow any specific style or school of thought like De Stijl or Minimalism. I think that instead, care should be taken to be honest with the audience. Decoration is important, and can often serve a purpose. Its purpose however, should never be to lie to audience, or to convince someone that something is there that isn’t.
This notion of sincerity extends to all forms of brand identity. My most obvious recurring experience with this is ethnic food restaurants. Certainly, there is a style of design associated with any culture. There a fine line however, between designing with a nod to cultural style and designing based on stereotypes. I ate at this moderately large Mexican restaurant in southern Illinois, an area not really known for being culturally diverse, or even culturally aware. The place was in a strip mall, with a Dollar General on one side, and a dentist or hair salon on the other.
Being from San Antonio, I didn’t really expect to enjoy my dining experience. I grew up on what I’ve come to appreciate as traditional, authentic Mexican food. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food at this place. It reminded me of what I had grown up being served at childhood friends’ homes, food trucks, and small mom-and-pop taco shops throughout San Antonio. The disappointing thing was that the place was covered with “Mexican” trinkets and doodads. These tchotchkes were likely made in China, Korea, or some other region far removed from Mexico, and represented actual Mexican culture only in that they were the most obvious staples of Mexican junk.
San Antonio has rich Mexican and Mexican-American culture at every turn. There are large areas of the city where English is not the language of choice for casual or even professional situations. However, you’re not going to walk down the street in one of these neighborhoods and see bandidos sleeping against cacti, or any large women singing Guantanamera. To decorate a restaurant with this sort of ephemera is so insincere it’s both comedic and insulting. These types of restaurants actually end up parodying the culture they are trying so hard to represent.
I have lived in San Antonio among a >60% Latino population, and I’ve never been served food by someone in a sombrero. Again, there are certainly specific styles of design associated with specific cultures, but there’s got to be a way to visually communicate that something is of a specific cultural origin, other than to just buy as much kitschy bullshit as possible and staple it to the wall. Those restaurants that have that special patina of occupancy have earned that look. It wasn’t manufactured, or cobbled together by a stylist. These are the spots that are sincere. Even if the food sucks, it’s authentic.
Likewise, if a product requires some visual stretching of the truth to accomplish its sales goals, it’s probably not something worth buying. For example, and especially in the graphic design of advertising, if a particular design necessitates a particular software effect, or it needs to look “nostalgic,” it’s not being honest about what it’s communicating. Using illustrative techniques to get across some idea that doesn’t really add to the function of the product or service is so common now, that it’s the norm. That normal, status-quo way of approaching design is what is so insincere about the images and concepts we’re bombarded with everyday. This bullshit is all around us. If a product is worth promoting, shouldn’t we as designers speak about its qualities as a product or even the work that goes into its production more-so than trying to illustrate some contrived connection to the past?
That beer brand that is trying so hard to tie itself in to some event that happened a hundred years ago, would be much better served by promoting that it is actually a great beer. Society would be much better served as well. This idea is what keeps me motivated to do sincere work for the people who trust me with their image. I won’t make a leap with advertising collateral to try and show that something is what it isn’t. I will instead find that thing that sets it apart, and run with that. When this approach is used well, a brand becomes memorable because its audience is digesting new data, specific to this brand. It’s said that when you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. It stands to reason then, if events, concepts, and messages are explained as they really exist, nothing is invented. It is instead reported, and a reported story is remembered.
I think a big part of it for me comes down to the difference between using stereotypes, compared to archetypes, as the basis for a visual design. Archetypes in and of themselves are memorable, because they are part of this kind of shared language. I’d go so far as to say you don’t actually even have to try to remember an archetype. It’s already there in your consciousness. They are infinitely moldable, a foundation for building upon. A stereotype is the distilled version of the most simplified qualities of a thing as an end result. If you’re sitting down to make an image and after hours of tinkering, you’ve decided that you’ve made something look real, or old, or new, or vintage, you’re making a stereotype. Let a thing be what it is, let it do what it does, and then design around that. Communicate what a thing is, instead of communicating what you want an audience to think it is.
To base a brand on an implied image alone, instead of the truth of the of product or what have you, does harm to the brand and the audience. The point of advertising used to be to educate the market, and say, “Hey! This thing exists. Yeah, it’s kind of like that other thing, but here are the differences, and by the way, it’s also cheaper.” Advertising has this deserved stigma because it isn’t doing that in most cases. It exists in most cases to manufacture desire for a product that deserves none.
Folks that are able to really understand what they are selling, and speak to an audience in an intelligent way, are the ones that I think end up the most successful, long term.
Mr. Miyagi had it right. You can’t half-step when you commit to being sincere. It’s an all or nothing game and I don’t think there are varying degrees of sincerity if you’re gonna play. The smart game is to just try harder everyday to keep it real. That’s my plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.