Concept vs. character.

As far as most media are concerned, there seem to be two main categories of theme:

  1. CONCEPT
  2. CHARACTER

Concept is, as it sounds, a theme unifying around an idea. Concept has been the main, primary driving force in design and advertising since at least the creative revolution of the ’60s. The entire notion of postmodernism is just the idea of a piece of work becoming more important than the execution of the work.

Concept was really effective in the print-driven advertising world, where we had only one page to convey so much information against so much competition for attention. Compared to, say, a 10,000 word essay on Zbigniew Brzezinski, an ad had to be incredibly impactful and in contrast to its surroundings to stand out and get read.

In the past few years, however, familiar media have become much more idea driven. Maxim magazine, to use an extreme example, is 150 pages of pure concept. Even the editorial content is chunked down, optimized, streamlined, and simplified down to just the idea. Just the tidbit, none of the context.

Complicating that further is the web, a billion pages of ideas with no unifying theme, raw information with little relationship to any of the content on the page. A 100 word news blurb is set next to “phrases” representing navigation, ideas totally isolated in meaning connected only through the context of the interface. This is concept taken to it’s absolute extreme. The web itself is a concept, unviewable, unimaginable in any concrete way. It doesn’t even exist in any physical, relatable form. And it changes form in real-time, updating, shifting, transforming with every click. It’s nothing but concept.

So how does one stand out in this wash of nothing but pure concept? By standing in contrast to the surroundings.

The ideal web campaign is one filled with character.

The importance of theme.

As designers, we’re often faced with the challenge of finding a unifying theme or structure for our work. To say it poetically, the theme is waft on which we weave our art.

More frankly, it’s a crutch. A design project involves hundreds if not thousands of decisions. Space, color, scale, typography, heirarchy, tone. All of these decisions can be absolutely overwhelming.

Until you find a theme. The theme turns all of those decisions into just one simple question: Does this fit? It lets us use our brain in that lateral, complex, quantum way. We can immediately test any decision against that “feeling” of fit. It provides a compass, a grounding, a center from which everything can radiate.

In all of my experience, whenever I’ve been stuck or someone I’m working with is stuck, the missing ingredient is theme.

All of the upfront work in planning and consumer research and input briefs and brands statements are all about one thing: providing that theme.

‘Buy cheap, buy twice’

Beauty is skin deep, much like branding. If your brand is not founded on solid research and strategy it’ll fail you quicker than you can say cheapasslogo.com. You could probably head to your local beauty parlor and get a logo while having your nails done, but trust me, the shine will wear off after a few days especially when you see Trevor’s Trailers Company down the road has the same cheapasslogo.

So as I always say, ‘Buy cheap, buy twice’. Buy originality and experience, buy a story that has intelligence founded on solid research, it’ll serve you longer and pay for itself, why wouldn’t you want to shine?

The Scale of the Bauhaus

Just today I had the good fortune to discover Matthew Milliner and his blog, millinerd.com. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton. He’s also a graduate of Princeton’s Theological Seminary. Don’t let the visual aesthetic of his blog lead to you the conclusion that it is without beauty. A tendentious antipathy to Christianity would perhaps make it difficult to get at the beauty there, so, y’know, YMMV.

His recent post, The Largest Show on Earth, is what brought me to him. I’ve been trying to reconstruct how I found it but, sadly, I cannot. It’s a simple and clever little post about Bauhaus and MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibit. Part of what struck me about the post was a quote from Michael J. Lewis (whom I assume to be THIS Dr. Lewis).

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Star Wars Hoodies

I recently discovered hoodiepeople.com, which, I know, I’m slow. It’s a very smart hoodie etailer out of Petaluma, California. If you like hoodies—and who doesn’t—it’s definitely worth checking out.

Thanks to hoodiepeople and their excellent blog, I was pleased to discover Marc Ecko‘s got a line of Star Wars hoodies that are entirely too clever. I particularly like the X-Wing pilot hoodie (which hoodiepeople don’t seem to carry for some reason) and the Boba Fett hoodie. So, y’know, if you’re trying to decide what to buy me so as to curry favor, well, now you know.