Order helps you to order

While trying to make sense of a café menu, David Bernstein argues the case for creative conventions – why make a meal out of a design for the sake of it?

On holiday I have time to re-examine principles of communication that I take for granted the rest of the year. On holiday I spend more of my time, and money, being an ordinary punter. And abroad, the experience is more intense as I grapple with a different language and conventions which may be unfamiliar.

These musings began as I sat overlooking the Loire on the terrace of our village café and taking in its recent makeover. What had been, only last year, a basic establishment serving cheap meals is now transformed into a ‘café guingette’, ie, a café at the water’s edge with music for dancing. It has a new colour scheme – orange, green and mauve; a new name, Capagamo; and a fancy logo – with the letter ‘g’ doubling as the cap initial of ‘guingette’, the whole thing in script and not very easy to read when you’re stationary from 20 metres, let alone from a passing car.

If Capagamo manages to prosper, how much will its success owe to its disregard of conventional design wisdom and, more tellingly, what new principle will it establish?

The café’s new owner, a retired head teacher, is helped by her two daughters, recent students of architecture and (ahem) graphic design. The latter seems to have had her way with the menu (actual and printed). The dishes, though nominally different (ie, each has a fancy name), are composed of virtually identical ingredients. The vowels in the word Capagamo are made to perform tricky linguistic manoeuvres: the ‘o’ for example deputises for ‘au’. You don’t so much read the menu as decipher it. Unfortunately, as you penetrate the style and get to the substance, the offerings are less than substantial. All this, remember, in a village café whose clientèle consists of locals and passing traffic.

Had the graphic designer ever sat in a car? Hadn’t the highway signage indicated the need for simple unambiguous signals? Clear lettering, advance indications, directional arrows and a rigid colour coding: blue (auto routes), green (national roads), brown (places of interest), red (danger). You muck about with these conventions at your peril.

But, says the young designer, if you stick with conventions don’t you become conventional? Why should, say, a calendar look like a calendar? Why not put the numbers of the days in one discreet line at the bottom of the page, thus allowing more space for a striking illustration? That’s alright I suppose if you don’t intend the design to work as a calendar. But if, for example, you want the user to see at a glance which day of the week is the seventh or which Wednesday would be more convenient, then the familiar grid works a treat.

I’m with Victor Papanek: design is the imposition of meaningful order. Standing order on its head and making it less meaningful may be different, but that difference is achieved at the expense of relevance. First things first.

In another French village on a bustling market day, a trader was selling bottles of pine and herbal essence specifically concocted to revive tired feet. He said not a word but beamed, seated on a wicker chair, his trouser legs rolled up and his feet immersed in a basin full of the product. That was relevant difference.

Bob Worcester of MORI chastises some corporate communicators for a lack of meaningful order – they tell you what they believe before telling you who they are and what they do. They may assume you know. They may genuinely forget to cover the bases. It’s easily done – if you forget to think like the punter. I remember our agency launching a lifestyle magazine. The rough cut of the commercial caught the lifestyle completely. ‘Very good,’ said the creative director, ‘but what is it?’ What did he mean? Then the penny dropped. Not once during the commercial had we said that the product was a magazine. We knew…

The people at Capagamo know it’s a café, but few who drive by can tell at a glance. On the first Sunday in August (and our last this trip) the village held a ‘vide grenier’ (empty your attic – a sort of boot fair). Locals and villagers drifted past other villagers’ stalls and the nearby café. There, to our surprise, on a traditional blackboard, atop a table with a plain white cloth, in traditional café lettering was a simple legend ‘MOULES FRITES’. It was first things first that first Sunday. An exception or a change of rule? We’ll know next visit.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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