home » blog

Monthly Archives

The Blessing and Curse of Good Design

I often tell business owners just starting up that good design is a "shortcut to professionalism."

With the right branding and consistent application of styles, a company can appear more established than it actually is. Well-designed business cards, a sharp website, and sleek marketing materials can give the impression that your business has been around a while, has a lot of experience, and/or has already overcome the normal pains of fast growth.

Some of my most gratifying work is crafting logos and brands from scant but rich source material--capturing the essence of a powerful persona and their offering to the world in a tight, appealing package. However, I'm careful to understand and believe in the value of the widget I'm helping to promote before engaging in such work. Why?

The downfall of this "shortcut" is the potential dramatic plummet of your reputation if you're unable to live up to your claims. Case in point: Fyre Festival.

Unless they're in denial (the jury's out), the leaders at Fyre would probably privately acknowledge their misuse of design (intentional or not). They poured money and energy into promotion and superficial allure without working out the execution, delivering instead a promotional disaster that is likely to end the brand and leave its principals in financial ruin. The debacle has resulted in several lawsuits and a million jokes, and, beside the pending legal implications, the people behind the festival will be lucky to ever recover their reputations as event managers.

This is why "form follows function" is a law in any good designer's arsenal--and a good rule for life. This phrase was coined by Louis Sullivan, who I always knew as the architect behind Chicago's old Carson Pirie Scott building, and originally was "form ever follows function" with a different meaning than today's. For our purposes, when he says "form follows function," a designer means that function and communication are the primary purpose of design, while its visual appeal is a secondary concern.

In other words, you have failed if: a) the viewer doesn't understand your message; b) your message is obscured or convoluted by its design, or c) your message mismatches what is delivered. That last one will be of particular note in the Fyre Festival investigation. Did the people behind the marketing knowingly sell a fraudulent product, or were they among the duped or incompetent? Was the marketing material internally created by team members in the know or by an outside agency (and were they paid)? Will the parties who crafted or played a role in the promotions be held liable? What responsibility should lie with them?

This could be scary territory for those who participated, but had form followed function, no one would have a worry at all. And outside design applications, this phrase is a reminder not to put stock in people or things who don't have substance to back up their style--perhaps another lesson for the same people, who allegedly may have gotten red flags about their leaders along the way.