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The Role of Visual Design in Creating Meaningful Connections

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Mike Daines Head Creative Bos Klein

The Role of Visual Design in Creating Meaningful Connections

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Elysia: Hi everyone, welcome to Life is Digital™. I’m your host, Elysia Cadorniga. Get ready to learn about marketing as we share our knowledge and our perspectives on current trends, best practices, and actionable tips to help you grow your business in the digital age. Really excited today because I get to have a great conversation with one of our partners here. I’m here with Mike Daines. Hey, Mike, how’s it going?

Mike: Good, how are you? Thanks for having me.

Elysia: Yeah, I’m excited because I think we talked initially about what we wanted to discuss on here and man, you blow my mind with some of the stuff you talked about.

Mike: I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

Elysia: No, it is, it really is. I think the last time we talked, I think you take design and you kind of the way you really get into more of a practical sense of what it means, it’s been awesome, just listening to you and hearing your feedback on it, so I’m really excited to have you on. I guess for the audience, they don’t know, right, so you’re the Creative Director and founder AKG, also at Bos Klein and you have what over 19 years of experience in the space.

Mike: Yeah, that is correct that. That sounds right to me.

Elysia: And you get to work with awesome brands, which is the best part of what you do, right, so you… I know MTV, Nike, Facebook, Everlane. It’s been awesome getting a chance to see your work, and you’ve won a handful of awards in the area too, so I just feel like having this conversation have so many questions about this same and I feel like you got the line up, so I’m ready to drill you down with some questions…

Mike: Well, yeah, I’m excited to see where the conversation goes. As you said, I think we’ve had some pretty interesting conversations in the past, and I like just discussing my ideas with people and trying to bring a unique perspective to the design field, and hopefully we can take this in an interesting direction, so…

Elysia: Nice, and, you’re also an active professor, associate professor over at the Utah State University too, so I’m sure you get a lot of feedback even in the classroom. The research side of things as well.

Mike: Yeah, I really enjoy teaching. I think it’s a really important part of what I do, but I think maybe where I can bring a unique perspective to my teaching, is it’s just my active, really active involvement in the field, in the design, in the design world, and I can bring that kind of real-life experience to my students, but I also like… I think what I like about teaching is not always being tied to commercial demands and maybe kind of stepping back and really thinking about design on a deeper level and thinking about why it is we do what we do, and the significance of designing culture and teaching gives me, that opportunity to think about that, discuss it and explore it with my students and through my research in a way that is invigorating to me, and then I can bring that back to figure out how that then reconnects with what I’m doing… What I’m doing in the industry with my clients, so… 

Elysia: That’s super cool. It’s good to have the best of both worlds, I feel like, and to really tie the ultimate meaning and the purpose and intention behind design, and being able to articulate that in the commercial world, so I think that’s exciting and we’ve talked about design, but more higher level we’ve even gone to the broader scope of as it pertains to branding, and obviously there’s a lot to unpack in that world, but I think for you, I’m so curious to know, what do you think is

What do you think is pressing or important in the Design industry that you would like to address?

Mike: So yeah, I think that’s an interesting question, and I think today, branding has become this buzzword that all of a sudden people who would have known nothing about branding now, it’s like a recognizable term and it’s getting out there in the cosmos and people are thinking like, what is branding, and so it’s starting to evolve and also, there’s all these channels now that for getting your message out there, you’ve got social media, you’ve got that digital, you still have the traditional advertising channels, whether it’s print media. And obviously the Internet is a huge part of that. But all these things are your brand, right? If you go back to a little bit more traditional outlook on corporate identity, if we go back maybe 30 years the logo, like for a graphic designer, the logo is the brand, but we’re now getting away from that idea, and I think it’s important to understand that we should be getting away from that idea, however, as a designer, and like I said, my background is a design background, the trick is you have to create, you have to physically create a tangible asset that is visual, that has to represent all these really lofty ideas, so once all the positioning is done and once you cut through all the buzz words, the designer, the task of the designers to actually create something that it tends to live up to all those lofty ideals. Actually, there’s a really great book by a Italo Calvino called Six Memos for the Next Millennium and he talks a lot about the idea of lightness in writing, like good literature should never get too heavy and too specific, and he uses the example of the mythology of Medusa where Medusa, you can always look at her in a mirror or in the reflection of a sword, but if you actually looked at her, you would turn to stone, and there’s this idea embedded in that myth of lightness, and the problem with being a designer is you have to actually look at Medusa and you have to create something physical without turning to stone. And I guess what I’m saying about that is, I like to simplify, I like to cut through the jargon, but I really believe in the power of design, of using visual structure to connect with emotion and to aid communication, so… Obviously, design as visual communication. So, there’s no way to get around communicating, but I think seeing is believing. And when you show a client something physical that they can look at, that they can connect emotionally with, that, that’s really powerful, and I think that that’s I think where my own success in the field has been with when I am successful, it’s when I can create something physical, that the client respond emotionally to and that they get the feel for it, and then they really start to believe in it, but it has to get past all the talk, so I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think to summarize, it is important to think about brand as this larger umbrella of things, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You still have to design something and that’s something has to resonate with you, not just the client, but the audience, it has to function properly.

Elysia: Yes, you so answered my question. Honestly, it probably created 10 more questions, but ultimately, the cool part about all this is you keep mentioning it gotta get past this, the buzz and this higher-level abstract direction and get more into this ultimate ultimately, you have to hit someone on this emotional connection that goes past to a subconscious level. Right. So, it’s something that does take a little bit more intention to really understand, to really be able to interpret that through visuals, and that emotional connection has to go past the point of just communication through words. You even said it like, well, I feel like the last time you talked to you there’s a certain point that the talking just stops, right, and you have to be able to inspire in other mediums. So, it really makes sense, honestly, and that’s understanding design and how it plays a role at like a core level.

Mike: Yeah, and I think when you mentioned interpretation that the sad thing is… Well, not the sad that I think the great thing about design is it just exists out there and we can’t even ask anyone to take the time to interpret something, you either connect with people on an emotional level or you don’t find out… There’s this age-old debate between, what is design? And what is art and what is fine art? And what’s the difference between those two things? I think with fine art, for instance, in a gallery setting, you’re asking your audience for a certain level of interpretation, and that’s sort of expected. With design, these products and these visuals and these messages they just exist out there. We can’t really ask an audience to engage with us, they either do or they don’t, and typically, an audience isn’t gonna take the time to interpret something. So, we can really only ask to interact with an audience on a subconscious level, we either strike a chord with them or we don’t so we do or we don’t and I think sometimes, like for instance with my students, when we’re looking at their projects and their work, they put it up on the wall and we take a look at it, I don’t ever let them explain to me or to the rest of the class what their idea was, because you don’t have that luxury in the real world. I tell them, you can tell us about your idea after we look at it, interpret it and critique it, then you can tell us what you’re thinking, because then they actually get to look and observe how what they put out into the world is interpreted by an audience who’s looking at it cold turkey and that tells them something about whether or not they’re successful in communicating what they try to communicate, but if they get up there and say, well, you know this is about this and I had these ideas behind it, and this is my concept, they’ve already framed that to the audience and you don’t have that luxury in the real world, you either communicate with them or you don’t. 

Elysia: That’s so true. Yeah, it goes back to your Medusa analogy earlier. It really does. It’s good stuff. Well, so I guess my next question would be like, you’ve been talking about how you even approach it with a client. Right, and in your experience, working with the client, it’s gotta be it for the audience, there’s an emotional trigger, you’re trying to trigger emotion out of what design 

What does the approach of a rebrand or launching a new brand look like?

Mike: I think a lot of it actually was this and actually Sanghvi really successful brand designer, he said something that I think is really important, you said it’s… Branding is not about what you like, it’s about what works, so that’s true for a client too, but it’s hard to tell a client, this isn’t really about what you like, This is what works, right? Because they’re gonna be like, well, if I don’t like it, I’m not gonna buy off on it. So part of your job is actually educating the client to a certain degree on helping them understand the context that they sit in, helping them understand the competitive environment that they’re in, educating them about what’s going on in their space and contemporary design and contemporary branding and visual culture, and we usually do that through the positioning phase, where we really look hard at what their aspirational goals are, but then also what the competitive landscape is like, and then we show them visuals about what’s going on in their space, and then we try and educate them on some level with our own expertise about picking out things that they’re seeing and making sense out of those things, so then they’re like, okay, I see, maybe we wanna move a little bit more in this direction, maybe we want to stand out a little bit more in this direction, this is kind of what’s happening at the leading edge of our space and branding, so then you’re. You’re setting yourself up for success in that way where the client then becomes more receptive to, I think your ideas, and then inevitably it comes down to creating something like we talked about, so that’s still all like… All the words and everything, I think that’s still important. But then at the end, it’s like, okay, we have all these. We’ve done our research, we’ve done the position and we’ve come to an agreement on the direction, now we gotta make something, and so then what happens is, I think a lot of design agencies approach it in different ways, I think it’s really important to show brands in context, because like for instance, you know, I think I’ve previously mentioned, traditionally, branding was all about the logo. If we go back to Paul Rand and Saul Bass, these sort of great icons of corporate identity, it was all about the logo, and now it’s sort of gone beyond that, but I still think creating an identity, a visual identity that can be condensed down to a mark is still important, it’s still important for a brand, and there can be flexibility in that, but the issue is when you start there with your client and you only show them marks or logos or typography. They can’t contextualize it and so what happens I think when you get caught in that trap is endless revisions to logos because you aren’t actually showing them how the brand works, so what we really like to do is we like to show our clients different, completely different directions about how an actual brand can work, and that includes what the identity is like, but then how that transfers to different brand touch points, how that transfers to digital, how that transfers to advertising, and then it gives them a feel for the emotion of the brand and the specifics of the logo, becomes less important because you showed them how that logo or how that identity actually functions out in the real world, and when you can really give them a vision for that, it’s a lot smoother process. Obviously, it takes a lot more work than just throwing a few logos in front of somebody, but I think it’s important in today’s branding climate to show a brand as a more comprehensive execution, and then that helps give the client a vision for what they’re doing. You know, we just recently did a presentation to a client who didn’t really want a re-brand, sometimes we’re not when I talk about branding, I mean slightly different things then a client might mean when they say branding. So when a client mentioned, I don’t think we really wanna re-brand, I wanted to show them the emotion of what a re-brand could be like, so they could at least compare that against their current brand to be like, Well, maybe we do wanna re-brand and when we showed some options, there was this immediate emotional connection to one of the directions that we showed them, and at that point when there’s an emotional connection, the logic sort of gets thrown out the window I mean not in a bad way, I think in a good way because the client then was saying, hey, this is emotional, I’m having an emotional response to this, and I feel like our clients will also have an emotional response to this, so… Yeah, you have to connect with people on emotion, but you have to do it physically through a tangible asset, and like I said, that’s the conundrum for the designer, is you have to create emotion and connection through visual structure, and that’s the exciting thing about design to me.

Elysia: Yeah, no, it’s been a part of our job working with clients when we get to present that to them, it’s awesome to see because you get to provide the application and then they can really start to visualize not who they are, but who they aspire to be, and what they want for themselves, and I think that really hits home on that emotional level, and you actually want them to think that way, because you’ve already addressed the logic through the research, through the positioning, there’s a component of it that you’ve already addressed, or this is a chance for it to really hit home. And I think the interesting part is the aspirational self of a brand where they wanna be, and I’ve seen clients, when we work with them, overcome that. Overcoming I don’t think of yourself in the static now, it’s like, what are you aspiring to be, and it may not even be designs that are a brand that is in your industry, it could just be the way that you like, the confidence in the simplicity of Apple or any other brand out there, so it’s really I think the experience of carrying a client through that is really important. I’m curious though, on the other side of the spectrum, 

What do you feel like are roadblocks for designers and what could be ignored along the way?

Mike: I think it goes for designers, but also for clients, one thing that I think is important that I think gets overlooked, and that is we sort of obsess over standing out, how do you wanna stand out from your competition? How do you wanna set yourself apart, and that’s fine and good, but there’s also this really visceral human need to fit in, and that’s as important to standing out as fitting in. When I was in graduate school, one thing that my mentor said to me was, you know what, you can learn everything about life from high school, he’s like, it all goes back to high school and you know you think like, Okay. Do you wanna stand out? You wanna fit in. Who do you wanna stand out from? Who do you wanna fit in with? That never goes away. I know we think we get more mature than we were in high school with in the end, we all have this human emotion where we wanna fit in, and so I think it’s really important to look at both sides of the equation. Where you’re thinking, okay, how do you wanna differentiate yourself, right, but also what’s the other side of the coin? Where do you wanna fit in? Who do you wanna fit in with? Usually what… If I’m going to back to high school mentality, you usually wanna fit in with the people who you esteem as… If I’m using high school language… Cooler than you are, right? Yeah, and you want to stand out from the people who you think you are cooler than… And that’s radically simplistic. Right, but in a way, your current competitors might be this pool that you wanna stand out from, but there’s this aspirational group that you wanna fit in with, and so it’s finding the balance between those two things, it’s like, What are the aspirational brands that you wanna be mentioned in the same breath with because that would be great, it. We can’t all be Apple or we can all be nice, but you can aspire to feel like you fit in with a certain group or a certain brand or something like that, and so…

Elysia: Fashion does this a lot.

Mike: Yeah, well, you know, design is a fashion business, you know, whether we want to admit it or not, design is a fashion business, and within fashion, their trends there, for instance, clients, a lot of times we’ll say, I want something really innovative, right. And I kind of question that, okay. What is the definition of innovative? Innovative is something that hasn’t been done before, and usually people are really uncomfortable with things that haven’t been done before, you know when you see something that hasn’t been done before, it actually makes you uncomfortable, you’re actually psychologically going to have a negative reaction to that thing, because it’s not gonna feel safe. Right, where you can be innovative there’s a line between being too innovative and you can figure out how much do you actually wanna push that envelope, but you also maybe you just wanna fit in with maybe you wanna be more familiar among a different group, so that’s innovative within your space, but it’s not necessarily innovative. So, for instance, fashion there’s this actually amazing essay written by Steven Heller, which he’s a high profile a design writer and he wrote this essay back in the 90s called the Cult of the ugly. He was denigrating what he then considered ugly graphic design, but then he gave an amazing… He gave an amazing, basically justification for using ugly as a strategy and design, and when and where you would do it, so like if we get back to fashion, fashion uses ugly as a strategy. Right. So, it’s like, whatever, it’s new, it’s a little off-putting. But if you put something off, putting on enough good-looking models, eventually we all start to think that that thing looks really great, and then it assimilates into culture, and then it changes our perception of beauty, and then we think that thing is beautiful, and then it’s just the cycle that happens over and over. That’s true with design as well, it’s like there’s this point where using things that make people a little bit uncomfortable is a way to kind of push the envelope forward, but you must decide like whether that’s appropriate or not, within the context of what you’re creating, who your client is and what the purpose of the final outcome is.

Elysia: Well, it just really feels like on a business level, you need to have a balance, right, there’s a certain amount of effort you put into fitting in, and there’s that little sliver of standing out, and you have to have that formula that’s gonna resonate ultimately.

Mike: Yeah, and it really just comes down to what the purpose is. I kinda joke with my students in my branding class where generally speaking, we try and avoid things that have negative connotation in branding, you don’t want to create a logo that reminds people of something negative. However, this is the example. One time I walked into a record store and there was an album cover. I don’t know if I should mention this, but yeah, it was like a punk rock band in the name of their band was Stab in the Face and there was a visual of a painting of a guy with a kitchen knife through his face. In that context that was an appropriate extension of their brand… Right, right. Can’t say that in every instance, whether it’s business or culture or whatever, that these principles always hold true because depending on what the outcome, the desired outcome is, it may be in your advantage to create something that doesn’t sit well with an audience. Yeah, usually it’s bad practice if you’re talking like Corporate America, but if trying to push the envelope within culture and that’s what your audience is, then really kind of limitless. It depends on your outcome. 

Elysia: You totally get that. It’s interesting, I don’t know that many people think about this on a really deeper level past the surface. 

Mike: Well, I think what happens is you learn these catch terms and you’re like, oh, that makes sense, for instance, is a big… There’s sort of this age-old modernist notion that form follows function, right? And it sounds good, it’s catchy. I’ve probably said to my students, I know I learned it when I was at… Yeah, it’s just something that it’s like this modernist idea that, well, form follows function, but it’s like, okay, unless it doesn’t. There’s a lot of instances where form doesn’t follow function. I’m a big advocate of the idea that design is actually creating structure, and structure can actually create meaning, like sometimes we come up with our best ideas through experimenting with different visual approaches, and then those visual approaches give birth to conceptual ideas that lead to interesting communications that we can build around it. So, to think that form as in the visual structure of something can manifest a function is kind of silly, it’s just a trope that people say, and so it’s important whenever you’re like, well, you should create something that has a negative connotation. Yeah, you shouldn’t. Unless you should. 

Elysia: Yeah. It’s an arbitrary thought. Really, there’s no rules. If you really think about it, it’s really what the goal is, what are you trying to do? What emotion are you trying to evoke or what’s your outcome and that guides you. There’re really no rules I feel like. 

Mike: Yeah, well, yeah. Well, it’s funny because in design education, we learn what we consider to be rules, and then a lot of times, like for instance, when I learn design, I learned all these rules. Like, don’t put a widow at the end of your paragraph, have an appropriate visual way for this or that, but really what we were learning was the rules of international modernism, which was a specific movement that coalesced in Switzerland in the 50s, so those rules do exist. But the context of those rules is that they’re couched within a certain way of thinking to those rules, you can reject those rules they aren’t hard, fast rules. They are a certain way of thinking that’s had a lot of resonance, that has had a lot of weight in culture within visual culture and art and design for the last 60, 70 years, but it doesn’t mean that they’re actual rules is just a certain mode of thinking.

Elysia: Yeah, I feel like that plays into just different cultures ultimately. 

Mike: Yeah, absolutely, I do perceive it. Yeah, we get into post-colonialism really, we’re just looking at Western… The way Western culture sees things and so and that can be highly problematic, and I think we’re seeing a lot of backlashes now against just thinking about things from a Western European perspective, and so it depends who your audience is and what you’re trying to do, and just I think getting away from hard fast tropes and really thinking about things on a little bit deeper level is important within contemporary visual culture.

Elysia: Yeah, this has been awesome. I think we’re definitely gonna be due for a follow-up episode because I think that what you’ve just lined up are solid, and it would be really interesting to kind of walk-through different examples of brands out there were their stories of how… Not necessarily our clients that we work with, but more so just brands out there that have taken these approaches, I guess this approach to design in very unique ways and being able to use them as examples next time. I think that would be awesome. 

Mike: I’ll have to do my research.

Elysia: Oh yeah, yeah, I’ll have to. Yeah, I’ll give you some pointers before. No, this has been awesome, and you’re just a wealth of really cool knowledge and it’s been really eye-opening, just listening to you talk about the world of design to me as a client service director. A lot of times I’m thinking of these capabilities that we provide more of a tangible service, so it’s really interesting when you’re able to kind of open up the conversation to something bigger. Super cool. But anyway, I just really thank you for joining today.

Mike: It’s been fun. Thanks for having me.

Elysia: Yeah, I appreciate it, and thank you guys. Thanks to the audience, obviously too, for joining us on this episode of Life is Digital™. Again, I’m your host, Elysia Cadorniga. Please remember to rate, review and subscribe to the show, and until next time, don’t stop marketing.

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