An open invitation to discuss the state of mass communication in America.

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I write this halfway across that Atlantic, heading West. On not a great amount of sleep.

I spoke, on Thursday, at the OFFF festival in Paris. Now in it’s tenth year I was in some pretty good company. Personal highlights included Matt Pyke of Universal Everything peddling his wares; Dixon Baxi, Dvein, Non Format and even the man; the legend; Neville Brody, took to the stage. The latter, it has to be said, in a hugely misplaced ‘conversation’ with French anti-advertising, anti-internet, anti-everything (except SpongeBob) duo, Bazooka. That’s a whole other article right there. That aside, it was a fun weekend and that I got to chat with Sam Winston on two days was a bonus.

And now I’m flying back to New York. It’s a strange feeling; leaving Europe for the first time to fly ‘home’ to the states. Back into the welcoming arms of the U.S. Immigration Control at JFK…

Flying past London, being in Paris and seeing the designers and studios that were speaking made me feel acutely aware of the fact that, for the time being at least, I am now a New Yorker. That’s not to say that I’ve distanced myself in any way from the people I know, love and have worked with over the last 7 years, rather that a European designer working in the industry that we do, in the country that I do, can lead to a certain sense of creative isolation, stylistically speaking.

There’s a very different aesthetic over here. A different visual vernacular that can prevent your work communicating with the public if you don’t try and understand it.

You don’t have to go very far to see it. It’s in the choice of typefaces in the signage, the colour schemes in the candy bar wrappers on the news stands and in the squared off edges of the cars waiting to greet family and friends at JFK. American ‘mass’ design is different to European design. New York design is different. There’s no chance of you goading me into saying it’s ‘wrong’ in any way, because it’s not. It’s just different. And I’ve been giving some thought to that fact of late.

I will probably take the subway home.

The Airtrain from JFK to Jamaica and then the E train from there to 23rd Street at 8th Avenue, from where I will walk home.

There’s a good chance that for much of that journey I will be stared at by the white toothed but ultimately friendly looking Doctor Jonathan Zizmore M.D; dermatological specialist extraordinaire who reminds me a lot of Peter MacNicol; the actor from the series Ally McBeal and, of course, Ghostbusters 2. Perhaps it will be him or perhaps I’ll be watched over by the steely eyes of the 4 main lawyers that make up the crack legal team at Fitzgerald & Fitzgerald “Personal injury claim specialists, guaranteed to get you the money that you deserve”. Complete with a boxing leprechaun for a logo. I shit you not.

And I will wince.

And I will look back and I will wince again.

For these are the ads that make up the bulk of the communication on New York’s MTA. And there will be rainbows. And drop shadows. And bevelled text. Bevelled text with drop shadows. Bevelled text with drop shadows, rainbows through them and, if I’m lucky, a chrome effect across the whole headline.

All of these treatments I’ve been asked to use at one time or another. “Can you do something to make this section stand out?”, “We think the phone number is getting lost”, “Can you make it feel more premium?”. All of these comments make me sad. There is always a design solution that is more effective, and usually involves the client re-prioritisng the information they’re trying to communicate. But so often the designer is forced to buckle to client will and apply that extra bit of Photoshop ‘magic’. So it can ‘pop’.

But where does this mentality come from? I have my theories. With regards to the current magpie mentality of most clients I give you exhibit A: any collateral created by Apple in the last 6 years. It’s all so… shiny. And clients like that. Invisible floor? Check. Reflected product shot? Check. Horizon line reflection across shiny glass button/type? Check. I don’t actually know how it crept in but suddenly it was everywhere.

But I think it may even go deeper that that.

Something in the psyche. Something Freudian even? I’m not suggesting that shiny, huge, overly effect-laden typography is any kind of a penis extension but I am going to borrow a quote from Gryff Rhys Jones’ series ‘The Greatest Cities of The World’…

Of New York he had the following to say:

“Standing here amongst the skyscrapers, it’s easy to feel rather insignificant. It’s no wonder that this was the city that had to invent the Superman and Batman in order to compete”

I can actually appreciate that thought.

This place is big. Really big. And shiny. Sometimes. Amongst the glass monoliths of midtown, your average piece of Helvetica can get a little lost. And so we add to it. And make it bling. And make it appear to hover above the page with some tasteful shading. And make it feel like it belongs so suddenly it reflects everything. And suddenly it gets lost exactly because it does look like everything else. So it gets bigger. And brighter. And then there are more typefaces added to it. And then, after a dozen rounds of amends and comments, you’re looking at another ad for Dr. Zizmore.

The blame ultimately lies, of course, with the person who sends it to print, but instead I’d like to make this an impassioned plea to those who commission the designs. There is another way. A well chosen block of color (sic) is more eye catching than a dozen effects and rainbows. Serifs don’t automatically make your brand seem more important or trustworthy. Shadows don’t make type jump off the page. It’s a myth and you’re asking for it because you think you should, not because you think it’s right!

If I’m to be genuinely objective about this I need to write a follow up piece about similar work in the UK and Europe, which I will do when I visit later this year. I’ll not have been back tot he UK for a year at that point so hopefully I’ll be coming at it cold enough to deliver an unbiased sequel to this rant. I’m certainly not out to vilify all American design here, but there is an overwhelming style that is prevalent in most mass communication, particularly advertising.

So please, if you read this and feel like it refers to any of your work, give my eyes a rest. Failing that, I’ve seen some catch looking ads for opticians on the F train.