Like Fruits to A Ripe Mango

This piece was originally writen and published for The Pastry Box Project

On April 14th, 2015, everyone was in a frenzy on Twitter. No, it wasn’t because tax day was creeping up on us. It was because a presidential campaign released a logo. One single logo. And from the moment it was released, designers were on it like fruit flies to a ripe mango! And designers were mean. It seemed like one designer after another tried to one-up each other and see who could be the meanest of them all in 140 characters. But this isn’t about stopping feelings or opinions; we do this all the time, right? We live tweet WWDC, TV shows, NBA finals, those awkward first dates we overhear at coffee shops, and now design, which is sort of what social media is for. I get all of that. But as I read this, I can’t help but think about where Design (capital D, as in the industry) is currently, where it was, and where it will continue to go. And I was extremely frustrated with Twitter that day. After reading everyone’s opinions on the letter H and an arrow, I went on my own 140-character-times-like-10 rant. Design isn’t just about end-result visuals—we know that, right? We have a lot more to think about these days, and countless books, conference talks, and workshops are focusing more on experience, the user, and design research. So why were be ripping one design apart like this? After all, we are designers, too.

I can agree that a bold sans-serif capital ‘H’ reminds me of a hospital sign. That critique is not far off, because designers know that what we put into design still has connotations of past experiences and other design and art we’re exposed to. That plays into design research and history, intentionally or not. But some of the other critiques that came from that day on Twitter made designers look unprofessional and whiny, and said a lot about where we are as an industry. Some of the feedback that I came across that day:

  1. What is that!? Arial? Ugh.
  2. Those colors are dumb.
  3. Looks like it was made in MS Paint

I shudder when I read feedback like that. In 7 years of teaching, I’ve had a simple rule in my in-class critiques: Do not start a critique with “I like” or “I dislike”. I have this rule, because ‘like’ is about personal opinion, not about feedback that is productive or right for the project. Yet, this sort of personal opinion critique isn’t new; even Michael Beirut who worked on that H logo with Pentagram, wrote about design as a spectator sport back in 2013.

What bothers me about those particular examples above are what they mean for what we think of our own industry. For #1, there is nothing wrong with Arial or something ‘plain’ like it (I don’t actually believe it’s Arial). It may be overused, but it’s accessible to many (cost and device-wise) and it’s stood the test of time. It has its historical connotations and it’s readable. Typography isn’t about picking a specific family just because it is there or trendy, but because it is right for the job. And, unless we sat with that campaign team and Pentagram’s design teams, we don’t know what their research, let alone their end goals were or are. At that time we didn’t know that this logo would end up changing from solid colors to overlaid photos representative of each state Mrs. H C happens to visit during her campaign trail. They needed a bold enough letter and thick enough arrow that the imagery is visible when set on the shapes. I’m okay with the function dictating the form here.

For #2, those colors aren’t dumb, but sure, they do remind us of the most primary color shades of red and blue, maybe making someone think of grade school more than presidency. Saying colors are dumb is just like saying we like it. The strange thing here is that we designers gave a critique we would shudder to hear from clients. Some designers share those pieces of feedback on awful sites like Clients from Hell, poking fun at the their clients’ lack of design education (even though that is not the client’s job or area of study), rather than taking the time to sit down with their clients and talking them through the process. Great designers teach their clients about the design process, including how to give constructive feedback other than “I like arrows” or “I don’t like purple”. And when that not-helpful feedback does occur, we should be asking why and coach them through it, patiently. And we should set that example.

For #3, this one ate away at me the most. I kept seeing tweets that said, “they must have used MS Paint”. I’d feel comfortable betting at least a delicious sandwich that Pentagram didn’t use MS Paint. But even so, SO WHAT? Saying the tools we have (like Creative Cloud or Sketch) are better than a tool someone else has feels wrong on a lot of levels. It makes it sound like good design is solely dependent on the tools, rather than designers being creative enough and solving a problem with what they’ve got. We’re not slaves to our tools. We’re better than that. These tools absolutely help us get the job done, but saying that someone’s paintbrush is better than someone else’s paintbrush is a problem. It’s how we use the paintbrush. Further, MS Paint comes standard on many computers and Creative Cloud does not. So we’re also not better because we have a subscription-based, more expensive, industry-specific tool.

At the end of the day, I feel like we’ve forgotten how to be critically thinking designers and just defaulted to being critical designers. I can’t help but wonder what we look like from an outside perspective when we belittle others’ work in our own profession. I think it does a major disservice to each other and eventually to ourselves when we just take the end product into account, and ignore the processes, research, testing, performance, etc that we bring into our own work with so much passion. We’re devaluing our own industry’s work. So, whether it’s a certain clothing brand’s logo redesign, a political campaign, a GoT episode, I think we can all be a bit more considerate and kinder to each other’s work openly, and then maybe humbly approach design parties involved with constructive, doable suggestions for next time. Heck, maybe we can collaborate on something, working through it together with understanding, or at least collaborate on something we all find agreeably awful, you know, like online airline ticket purchase and customer service experiences.