Pamela Buxton wonders why designers feel the need to resort to old visual clichés

You know where you are with a good old design cliché. There’s no fear of mistaking what type of product or company it belongs to or what image it’s trying to present, because there are a host of competitors doing exactly the same thing with variations of the same design cues.

And while you’re not going to win any prizes for creativity or make any startling leaps in market share, you know that by playing safe, you should avoid risky and costly mistakes while doing enough to, at best, make a modest gain and, at worst, keep pace with your rivals.

Dull, but true. And while design clichés are nothing new, in today’s economic climate of caution coupled with pressure of faster speeds to market and the need to cater for international audiences, many designers feel increasingly frustrated with what they see as a pervading sprit of conservatism and a reliance on those handy, but hackneyed design devices.

‘People can’t be bothered to come up with their own ideas. It’s a visual shorthand that means absolutely nothing,’ says Williams Murray Hamm director Richard Williams, who despairs of the lack of innovative design and urges designers to take the lead.

‘We designers are meant to be experts in what we do. We’re not forelock-tugging suppliers, but are providing clients with a creative solution that sets out what needs to be done. Rather than follow the market, why not leapfrog it and steal a march on your competitors?’

More exciting opportunities exist abroad, adds Design Bridge creative director Tim Perkins. ‘UK packaging used to be seen as being cutting-edge, but we’re doing braver stuff in other countries now. Maybe we’ve got too many rules here,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of pressure to get things out there rather than getting something out there that will really get noticed.’

Johnson Banks creative director Michael Johnson adds that his most innovative clients are also outside the UK. ‘It’s quite a tough time to get weird stuff through. There’s a degree of conservatism around and fear on the part of designers and clients. A lot of people are just trying to stay alive,’ he says. ‘There’s just a lack of enterprising spirit generally. We’re very risk averse.’

The difficult nature of the current economic climate should really be no excuse for relying on clichés.

‘It costs very little to play safe. But, a recession is the best time to invest when you can buy cheaper in terms of manufacturing and, if you’re going to push the brand forward, to do something more innovative,’ says Tutssels Enterprise IG executive creative director Glenn Tutssel.

And while great graphics shouldn’t take any longer than uninspired graphics, a swift graphic make-over will inevitably appeal more to a client than a costly and potentially riskier structural packaging overhaul. ‘There’s a pressure to fend off the competition by reacting very quickly. But maybe it’s a false economy because many just hold off the competition when really the better option would’ve been looking at the bigger picture and taking longer,’ Tutssel adds.

Readily available imagery is also a contributor to clichédom. Many blame computer software. ‘Everyone has access to the same tools and second rate designers would rather fall back on these clichés,’ says Wolff Olins senior designer Ned Campbell.

Increased reliance on photolibraries rather than commissioning photography is another factor, says FutureBrand creative consultant Peter Stimpson. ‘We’re starting to see a paucity of ideas in photography. It does become very easy trap – nice picture, manipulate it a bit, with neat typography and you’re in business.’

But there are undeniable advantages to the creative use of design devices familiar to the audience, rather than risk confusing or irritating them by too much change.

‘The one thing that makes a brand successful is that a consumer can understand the brand category it’s in,’ says Tutssel. ‘You can use clichés to your advantage by finding a fresh way of interpretation, for example taking a crest and doing it in a fresh and contemporary way and making it ownable by the brand.’

The skill is in knowing when those familiar design cues have become clichéd to the point of meaningless, and when it would be better to update them or even go for something innovative that may become a trend, and who knows, in time even a cliché in its own right.

Design clichés

Business-to-business design language

‘Business-to-business is absolutely riddled with clichés. Businessmen shaking hands, cityscapes, business meetings, computer screens, hands on keyboards. The colour palette always appears to be blue and burgundy, maybe silver – what people assume to be professional and having gravitas,’ says Coley Porter Bell creative director Stephen Bell. ‘Design consultancies haven’t really helped by perpetuating the clichés.’

Global signifiers

Use of spheres/globes/arrows/arms to signify the international character of a company. Newer examples include Consignia, cited by many designers as a prime example of a clichéd identity. The prevalence of such symbols makes them ‘utterly meaningless’, says Wolff Olins senior designer Ned Campbell.

The crescent shape in corporate identities

Combined with a logo type and used singley or in a series to resemble what one designer called ‘fingernail clippings’.

The iMac-inspired translucent blue, moulded case

Often hand-in-hand with the organic styling that’s replaced more geometric shapes in product design over the past decade, as popularised by the iconic status of the iMac. ‘We’ve seen it used in everything from copycat computers to calculators. You can recognise it as a cliché created as a moment of fashion,’ says Factory Design co-director Adam White.

The food-on-a-fork packaging shot

Wins extra cliché value when used with rising steam. ‘Frozen foods all have something stuck on the end of a fork. Do we really need to be shown how to eat?’ says Design Bridge creative director Tim Perkins.

Devices for premiumness

‘Script type to indicate premiumness; fake crests to say “I’m regal”; rosettes/ribbons/ medals/bows as signs of provenance – even sausages have rosettes on them. It’s an instant graphic to add on,’ says Tutssels Enterprise IG executive creative director Glenn Tutssel. Also no type or minimal type on matt black to signify super-premiumness.

Use of brand-leader’s colour scheme

‘Rip-off Cadbury purple, Heinz turquoise, Coca-Cola red and so on, to gain familiarity with the consumer. It’s a very cheap trick. It works on some own-label brands, but it really is a cop-out,’ says Tutssel.

‘Swirly-wirly’ graphics on soap-powder packs

This really gets on designers’ nerves. ‘Does vulgar mean shelf impact? It’s a market crying out for change,’ says Tutssel. ‘There’s a lot of looking over at what other people are doing, rather than thinking how you can create the difference,’ says Perkins.

Exclamation marks in the banner

‘Please, you don’t need to tell me. If it’s exciting enough – I can work it out for myself,’ says Williams Murray Hamm director Richard Williams.

Pet food packaging

‘Catfood always has a cat looking up appealingly for food. They all look as if they’ve been stuffed,’ says Williams, adding that it’s a packaging sector badly in need of change.

Anything ‘designer’

Nonsensical use of the word ‘designer’ as a description of a product. ‘We’re always irritated by seeing a “designer” telephone or a “designer” desk-set, for example. It’s so daft when you look at it — like buying a particular brand of “doctorly” aspirins,’ says White.

And a few other favourite cringe-worthy clichés:

Sports-drink style sipping tops on any beverage

Cliché brand names like Be Good to Yourself

Male toiletries with embossed stripes in the packaging

Shock brand attitude tactics like FCUK

Dotcom language such as @ in corporate graphics

The landscape pack shot – good for anything from cereal to bacon

Medicinal packaging diagrams with painful chest/head/throat indicated by redness and concentric radiating circles

Pizza packaging with ubiquitous shot of a pizza slice with stringy cheese in the foreground

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