I've been spending time recently evaluating print materials for a client. In this case, a multi-page document that we might call a booklet or a brochure.
And I discovered something new. Like so many discoveries of new things, once discovered, they are perfectly obvious. I've been hovering around this one for a while, and suddenly it gelled for me. We each have our own internal library of metaphors and meanings, and while they may be similar, they are not all the same.
But I need to set the stage here. We need to first consider the creative process -- how this print material came to be.
A graphic designer and a creative development team takes a bunch of requirements from the client. In this case, the requirements have been informed by our previous research into the topic. There are some concepts to be communicated. There is language to be chosen. There is a flow and a tone and a manner to the whole concept. And there are graphic elements that will bring the whole thing to life and add richness. Everything from the finish on the printing to the weight and feel of the paper stock will be chosen to support the overall concept and mission of this piece of creative work.
Everyone involved in creating this messaging is drawing on their own internal library of meanings, of symbols, of metaphors. They are drawing on the nuances they understand for words, their knowledge of how typeface affects those nuances. And so forth.
When the work is done, or at least done enough to test, here's what happens.
These words and metaphors are sent out to the target audience, who is supposed to take a certain meaning from them, perhaps have certain emotions evoked, and generally be moved in some way.
But it's entirely possible to have graphic metaphors used that aren't in the library of the recipient of the message. It's like saying something in a foreign language. It's not that you don't want to understand, it's that you simply don't have those words, those meanings, in your internal dictionary.
And this is what happened on my project. There was a visual metaphor that was just as clear as anything for the project team, and that meant nothing at all to the target group. Well, not quite nothing... it meant something entirely unconnected.
When you consider how rich and extensive the internal library of visual metaphors must be for an experienced visual design person, it's a wonder this kind of thing doesn't happen more often.
The more subtle and refined the communication needs to be, the more of a challenge this is. Because a rock is not just a rock, it can stand for many things, from solidity and reliability, to stubbornness and old-fashioned thinking, and a thousand other meanings.
Ultimately, a brand often needs to develop and assign their own meanings to things, to shapes, to colors, to words. Because this is the only way to really reference unique meanings. If you don't do this, you have to share meanings with every other product, object and image out there.
Consider Apple's white color and finish. It's to the point where you see an object with this look, and assume it is Apple even if it isn't.
I have to admire the art of the creative process. To be able to take the brief, the research, the instructions, and to find ways to imply things without saying them directly. To imply things very precisely. With just the right amount of humor, of intelligence, or seriousness, of history, of whatever is desired. This is truly amazing, an amazing skill. It is truly magical.