Friday, February 19, 2010

Elegance and Clarity

I admire when design and function work really well together. Each of these pages have a function and the design serves to atract you to them.

1) The overall layout (similar to the pure composition of a picture without words)

2) *** The layout draws you to the picture. The picture-the biggest one if there are more than one is the most important element of the layout. If it isn't pleasing, you won't bother to read the text. You'll turn the page. The layout is not an end in itself. It is subservient to the message and the picture. It is a tool to guide your eye to the fun.

3) The picture attracts you to find out about it and hopefully read the text.
All these have a real logical clarity to their designs. They are loosely mathematical without being rigid or symmetrical.
They have hierarchy of importance. Big pictures and big text are obviously more important than small pics and small text. They know you may not read all the small text, so in big letters they tell you the main point of the text.
In a kids' book the pictures are really dominant.
The big things invite you to peruse the details. The details are not in charge or in the way.

I believe in the basic principles of composition (or layout - or structure), hierarchy and clarity in every kind of communication- whether it's drawing cartoons, writing a story, directing a picture or even just selling a product. These basic principles don't at all hinder your style. These examples show a variety of styles that all use logic, clarity and functional design.

This kind of planned communication is what separates "vintage" pop culture and art from today's.

Clarity and design VS cluttered anarchy.

More examples of good stuff to come...


Anonymous said...

As a graphic and web designer myself (been in the industry since the early 90s) I've been seeing this trend of more people entering the field over the past 8-10 yrs. They are drawn in because of the idea that they will get paid to be creative, but then they realize they are getting paid to do what marketing directors, CEO's, and everyone in sales want, so that they are working to make them appear to be the creative ones...hmm, sounds a lot like animation doesn't it? I've noticed that a lot of these younger designers have lost a great deal of knowledge from design history. Most can't even tell you much about design beyond the screen of their macbooks. They are taught that quantity is better than quality, that the faster you work, the more talented you are. It's so upside down. That's why we have that crazy Trix cereal box on shelves. I saw this comic strip here on that basically says it all:

Zak said...

Love the Trix cereal comparison. In the age of ad overload, you think a less cluttered ad would be MORE important.
I've also been meaning to hop on a post early enough to show this link. I think John K will get a kick out of it if he hasn't seen it yet:

Toby said...

I was at Target and saw the early (first?) versions of the General Mills Cereal mascots on some boxes, rather like the Trix rabbit here(notice the modern nutritional label) I think the first thing I noticed, for simplicity, was the lack of gradients in all the fills. I guess maybe the first time I saw a gradient fill it popped off the page a bit, but now it just looks like this totally distracting bit, and the point is that the Trix Rabbit barely even looks like a white rabbit any more: he's partly blue, he's a little gray, he's got chiaroscuro, and for what?

Steve Hogan said...

I'd gladly give up Whole Grain Guarantees to have cereal boxes that look like the one on the left. As a kid in the 70's I could just see how things like that were getting less and less appealing to look at. How I longed for the days when Tony the Tiger had a simple elegant design and didn't ride a skateboard...

BTW, just did a writeup on John's Mighty Mouse cartoons:

O gato said...

The old Trix box is well done! :)

Kawks! said...

Call me blind, ignorant, or not nostalgic, but I don't see one of these Trix designs outdoing another. In fact, both are just as powerful to me as the other, but each in its own way. I can see how you can appreciate the simplistic and elegance on the left, but that doesn't make it better, its just a different way of solving a problem, and that is selling a product.

Paul B said...

That last picture says it all!

I love this posts about composition, is fun and usefull. Those jabalies are awesome.

Jack G. said...

On the Trix box:

The thing I notice is the lack of negative space on the modern box.

That's something that folks that a are a little green (like myself) strugle with.

But at least I'm aware of it.

Niki said...

I haven't seen a Trix cereal box in a while. I never noticed at first the the rabbit's head makes no sense on the second box, no animal grows eyes on it's ears!

Steve Hogan said...

Kawks! said...

"Call me blind, ignorant, or not nostalgic, but I don't see one of these Trix designs outdoing another. In fact, both are just as powerful to me as the other, but each in its own way. I can see how you can appreciate the simplistic and elegance on the left, but that doesn't make it better, its just a different way of solving a problem, and that is selling a product."

The heart wants what the heart wants, but here's my argument:

The box on the right has lots of energy. Unfortunately it's all in your face without much clarity or visual breathing room. The box on the left leaves negative space to frame the essential elements of cereal, rabbit and logo. Additionally, it does a better job of distinguishing things from each other. The cereal is photographed and the most detailed visual on the box, harmonizing well with the red of box (Admittedly the designer had the advantage of fewer colors in the cereal to deal with.) The rabbit is bold and monochromatic, appealing in it's design without competing with the cereal for visual complexity. Likewise the logo, which has enough negative space to be easily legible seems comfortable in the appeal of it's lettering and the contrast of green against red without needing to slather metallic gradients all over.

If I were to sum it up, comparatively the box on the right is cramped with little differentiation between one element and the next. Everything's alike and everything is jammed together. (Plus the cast shadows from the floating eyebrows just plain looks weird. Some character designs were just never meant to look 3d. Also arms coming out of lower jaw.)

I don't suppose this means much to some bleary eyed mom buying junky cereal for her brood, but overall it just adds more loud visual noise to an already cluttered landscape.

thomas said...

Great post. Thanks!
I think in the eyes of the designers of the newer Trix box, the box itself isn't important. They're job is just providing the consumer with the experience of Trix, or the concept of Trix. The box is sort of a necessary evil that's really in the way, so better to obliterate it with design.

Operation GutterBall said...

The new Trix box loves that lame airbrush look! lol!

xynphix said...


Rob Liefeld's art provides me with more unintentional laughs, the laugh being how he got so famous. Always happy to see attention drawn to that subject, he's a known plagiarist too......but Liefeld is Picasso compared to Shepard Fairey:

He takes full credit for designs that he scanned out of old books, old stamps, political propaganda posters and currency, he has his crew of graphic designers do the photoshop work, he slaps his logo on it, makes stencils, sells his "underground" art to big companies like Nike and the cool art crowd goes gaga over everything and anything he does.

Chickens and Beandip said...

I grew up on the Nickelodeon cartoons of the early 90's and Image comics. I prefer the dynamic in your face design over the flat design. Ren and Stimpy wouldn't be the same if it existed in only left to right like an old Hanna Barbara.

Dorseytunes said...

One thing I miss from the old Trix rabbit is the thick outline around him. I don't know why that appealed to me as a kid, but it did. Even when they redesigned him in the 70's, he had that same outline.

The Trix rabbit went from...

- Trix is yummy
- I love Trix
- Trix is like crack or the Trix bunny has gone Coo Coo for Trixy Puffs

I do like the cartoony design of the new rabbit. They need to pull the clutter out and make the cereal not look so radioactive.

RooniMan said...

I wish cereal boxes would be more readible and appealing, as aposed to to cluttered and boring.

SoleilSmile said...

I love these! Have you seen a book called Ad Boy? It's has lots of retro designs. You'll love it!

I made a post about the book here:

Ad Boy for T.Ray

DonB said...

I found the following site awhile ago. It's mostly in Swedish, but contains lots of old ads from the 60s. Farbror Sid Retrospective.

Mark Simonson said...

What book are those picture book layouts from?

Martin Juneau said...

Related note: Did you notice how many modern cereals commercials use to have fun with the airbrush shadding? They think that's makes realistic but it's look boring, dull and uncreative. And they tough airbrushs makes the characters and backgrounds realistic, nonsense!

Marty Fugate said...

Pure eye candy. Pure pleasure for the mind. Truly, the golden age of design.

I made a living a graphic designer back in the 80s and 90s. My inspiration was always the clean look of Pushpin Studios, Doyle Dane Bernbach (The "Think Small" VW ad campaign, etc.) My philosophy: a strong central image, a clean design that led the eye to what was important, and a clear hierarchy that served the message. I was constantly fighting the post-modern, kitchen sink mentality that wanted to throw every !@#$ thing conceivable into the ad or layout and wipe out every square millimeter of white space.

If everything is important, nothing is important.

If you try to say everything, you say nothing.

Elana Pritchard said...

I finally finished my story! (it took more than a couple days after all)

Anyone feel like reading a comic strip?

duckie gets what's coming to him

Pokey said...

Good point, Toby. Ironic that Target has those because of this post..yes, a lot of those are revived...btw Trix in 71 was given ALREADY a new small lettering logo and DIFFERENT cereal shapes [didn't last long.] BTW How about what's happened OT to Trix and Lucky Charms..Trix individual pieces have in last decade and a half and plus resembled their respective flavors..[grape tasting looking like grapes, raspberries like,ok, you get the idea] and Lucky charms in 1975 started adding blue diamonds and now as much marshmalls as cereal.Oh yeah and they constasntly finagle with the marshmallows in every way now.:(

Juxtaminute said...

Ask the 40 year old mom's who buys this stuff which Trix box they would buy for their kids. Certainly not the "boring" old version. They want something new and exciting that appeals to their middle-aged IDEA of youthful positivity and fun. That means the second box wins.
It doesn't matter which one is designed well and is actually appealing to the eyes. It only matters if it appeals to the MIND of the customer. People don't purchase things with their eyes. They purchase them with there minds. The IDEA of airbrush and neon colored Trix shooting everywhere with a hyper joyous Trix rabbit all crammed into one box is more effective than the actual look of any design conceivable. Designers aren't buying this cereal, regular people are.

Erik said...

It boils down to serving the majority and the majority is a bunch of tasteless idiots.

Marty Fugate said...

Re: Juxtaminute ...

With all due respect, I think if you asked a scientific random sampling of 40something moms which box they'd buy, the smart moms would reject the psychotic assault on the nervous system and go for the good design.

It's an internal audience fallacy to think people want busy crap. They don't. Post-modern designers and art directors think they do. It's a patronizing assumption.

It's analogous to "People don't want good cartoons, people want the idea of good cartoons" -- or "People don't want to eat at a good restaurant, they want the idea of a good restaurant."

!@#$, I know when the steak is lousy, even when it's overpriced.

Juxtaminute said...

I completely agree with you. Mom's do have a good sense of design. That's why a box of Special K is so elegant. However they want to buy excitement for their children.

I think we need to realize that design has to follow a strong conceptual narrative. I think thats why crappy anime and flash shows are successful. They have narratives that kids are interested in. I cringe every time I see someone change the channel from Spongebob to Total Drama Island but I have to accept the fact that crappy shows are still effective. Design has to follow content. Thats why Scooby Doo was so successful. It wasn't because the show was full of high quality design and appeal. It was because it had a spooky mystery with a buncha teenagers and a talking dog.

I'm not saying that design isn't important. I'm only saying that a good concept is beats it every time.

James Dalby said...

My Dad once designed an advert for a house cleaning service where it was just a full blank page with only text saying, "so-and-so cleaned this page".

You don't see many adverts like this, which led me to think it was the fact that there was absolutely nothing on it that would draw the audience to it.

Marty Fugate said...

Re: Dalby. Nah. You don't see many ads like that nowadays because advertisers lack guts. Fear is the key motivator of bad design.

Re: Juxtaminute. Jeez, deep philosophical issues. Will reply at length or post link to my blog.

For now: All this is deeply personal. Pardon the sob story, but I spent 7 years in the trenches as a graphic designer at the lowest rung imaginable because I couldn't get a job as a cartoonist.* My bosses were bastards. Bastards on a DNA level. Right bastards.

These bastards didn't want good work. They wanted a lot of work. I wanted to do good work. I knew my work could be better. I wanted to perfect my craft. They knew I wanted to put together a kick-ass portfolio and get out of there. They considered that a form of theft. They didn't want good work. They wanted more, more, more. Funny thing is ...

Crappy design is harder than good design. Mediocrity and bad taste takes MORE WORK. Invariably, these bastards wanted me to stuff every square millimeter of the ad, flyer or poster with text or image.

They wanted phone numbers, maps, times to call, specific breakdowns on price, yattayatta. They wanted the kitchen sink. No original cartoons, natch. That's what clip art is for!

They wanted the ads to SCREAM at people. They wanted the ads to zap people with an electric cattle prod of motivation. At the same time, they wanted arrows and thousands of boxes of text so that every possible question the viewer might ask would be answered.

These bastards had a carnival barker mentality. They had nothing but contempt for the people they sold to. They assumed their customers were chumps with bad taste who drooled faster than Pavlov's dog at the sound of the right bell. I don't suggest you're one of these bastards. Just that, "People don't want great design; they want the idea of great design" was the kind of thing they'd say. They hated great design on principle.

So, getting back to my sob story, 99 times out of a 100, if I came up with a decent layout in the spirit of some of the designs John K has posted, they'd shoot it down. "People won't like it. You ain't gonna get 'em in the seats with that. That's too !@# arty."
So, the deciding factor here was the internal audience: i.e., the bastards' assumption about what people would like, not what the people actually liked.

If you move beyond the internal audience, you face the question of whether the bastards are right -- and a quicksand bog of a thousand other deep questions. But I'll save that for another day.

*For the record, like any good American, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and started my own publication and did things my way for ten years until it crashed and burned in the tech bubble.

Marty Fugate said...

OK, OK, to be fair, you can't chalk all bad design on evil art directors, editors and hucksters and their patronizing assumptions regarding the pinhead public.

My surreal slice of Florida happened to be home to an explosion of great, mid-century modern architecture in the 1950s and '60s. Really cool, futuristic stuff. The kind of homes Frank Sinatra would be proud to live in, baby.

Much of that cool stuff has been torn down or remodelled to death. It's been replaced by lots of uncool stuff. The latest explosion: bloated, gawdaful pseudo-Mediterranean Revival megahomes, the architectural equivalent of acromegaly. Mercifully, this explosion of caca was cut short by the Great Recession, but you get the idea. These aren't great homes: these are congealed symbols of the idea of a great home. So, the people who paid out the wazoo (and helped crash the economy) to buy these monstrosities were really buying a concept.

A nothing burger, all steak and no cattle, an unclothed Emperor, cotton labelled cotton candy.

A concept.

I'll admit it.

Juxtaminute has a point.

Alison said...

I love your blog, Mr. K! I really enjoy your love of nostalgia and classic ads. I also like how you explain what makes these ads so appealing; this is so fun to read. Thank you!

(I am also a huge Ren and Stimpy fan from the good 'ol days of Nick; thanks so much for the memories.)