The big freeze

Clients complain that graphic design is ‘too cold’ – but can it ever authentically be warm and fuzzy?

It’s a phrase I’m hearing with thudding regularity.

I wonder if it’s just me, or are other designers being told that their work is ‘too cold’? It’s not a criticism that I can recall being levelled at my work in the past.

I’ve had lots of unpleasant things said about my efforts over the years, but I don’t recall them ever being referred to as cold.

So I suppose the question is have I changed or have the clients changed? I’ll own up to the familiar graphic designer appetite for white space and sans serif, asymmetric typography. By inclination I’m a soft Modernist. I like all the greats of Modernist design, but I also like much that would cause the ghost of Josef Müller-Brockmann to wince. Temperamentally, I’m a reasonably friendly individual who would rather stick pins in his eyeballs than be thought of as aloof and cold. But this is what some people seem to think of my work.

Does this mean it’s also what they think about me as an individual? Are designers’ characters judged by their work as much as by their personas?

That this might be true was brought home to me recently by a friend who runs an organisation (not a design consultancy) with a superb, ultra-cool visual identity. It’s a razor sharp ‘look’, avowedly modern and fashionably Minimalist.

My friend travels widely and meets lots of people whose only pre-knowledge of him comes from his website and his printed communications. When they meet him, they are always surprised to find that he is one of the friendliest people imaginable. In fact, if you wanted to sum him up in one word, you’d probably say he was ‘warm.’ But this is not how his contacts viewed him through the lens of his printed literature.

There is certainly an obsession with cosiness and warmth among many clients. This has always existed, but it seems to have reached a new fever pitch. Look at the Christmas ads currently flooding TV. All that faux jollity and sub-Norman Rockwell familial gooeyness is suffocating. It’s made worse by the fact that we all know it’s totally ersatz in modern multicultural Britain. And yet clients serve it up endlessly.

Now even the written communications we receive from banks and financial institutions are frequently laden with an unwelcome mateyness and feigned intimacy in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with us.

Clients invariably want their communications to be inviting and ingratiating. They want their graphic design to be all warm and cuddly. They are frightened of graphic design in its pure unadorned state.

Another friend of mine had a piece of work rejected recently because it was ‘too graphic design’. You know what the client meant – but it’s a pretty weird thing to tell a graphic designer. I’m not advocating a hardline, inflexible approach; icy Modernism, or even room-temperature neo-Modernism, are not the answers to every design brief.

But it seems as if we’ve reached a point where graphic design in its more elemental forms is taboo, and designers who find it difficult to resort to the gushy, over-cooked, shouty language of modern communications, run the risk of being left out in the cold. I can already feel the temperature dropping.

Adrian Shaughnessy

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