Design is a Joke

One one stage you have the comedian who has great jokes but poor delivery. He gets few laughs. On another stage you have one with great style and delivery, but poor jokes. He gets many laughs.

I do a lot of performing as a juggler. In my experience and via the stories of those more skilled in juggling, audiences simply want to be entertained. The difficulty of your patterns and the number of objects you juggle are relatively unimportant. The performer getting laughs using basic three-ball patterns may get better reviews than the über-talented juggler who can manipulate nine items.

One more example. Over the past half year I participated in a class where we studied the books of Acts and First Thessalonians. There was a ton of group discussion. And there were two people specifically who always seemed to have really great input. But upon further analysis, their comments weren’t necessarily extra special. What was special was their delivery. It was slow, thoughtful, and emphatic at just the right places—and it made you think, “Wow, that was a really good point!”

We like to think style and substance have equal weight, but when we’re not purposeful in our evaluations—and if we’re honest—we value style over substance. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Many times it’s a very bad thing—specifically when you’re dealing with truth.

It’s been said the job of a designer is to make trash beautiful. We can give a brave, noble face to a shameful topic. We can make a thief look majestic and admirable. We can take the poisons of the world and present them as perfumes. Those are some rather negative examples. And as designers, there are ethical dilemmas we will encounter, and times we need to walk away from projects we don’t believe in.

But going beyond the pitfalls and the abuse, we cannot ignore the fact that design has power. And sadly, some very great concepts are lost due to poor design. Design is essentially a method of communication. And in a world where our attention spans prevent us from reading beyond a sentence or two, the visual communication of design has more power than ever. We may be saddened by how easily style trumps substance, but it’s a reality that must be understood if we’re to create design that is effective, superior, and appropriate.

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