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Being a chameleon

I have no style.

As I’m writing this, I am wearing a pale blue oxford cloth button-down with gray slacks and black loafers. There is nothing special about the cut, the quality, the material, the tailoring, the brand names, nothing. As I sit here to today, I have no style.

But that’s not what I’m getting at. The style I’m talking about is my work.

Back when I was in college, in my Intro to Design class, we were working on one of those conceptual projects where you were limited to using very simple images. We were a couple of months in and had moved well beyond the simple “black square” projects design students know all too well, and we could use more literal imagery to help communicate the idea. My concept was “compress”, and to show it I did a very graphic drawing in two panels of a hand squeezing a tube of tooth paste. The hand holds the tube in the left panel but grips it in the right hand side and toothpaste oozes out. The pencil drawing was right on.

When it came time to paint it, because that was what you did back when I was in art school, I chose a color palette that had a definite 8o’s flair. This was unlike me, but I had been spending a lot of time in the Print Regional Annual and decided I needed to start pushing myself into a more stylistic direction. I was particularly fond of the burgeoning scene in Dallas. Not a pastel as Miami Vice, colorful. Smarter looking. I wanted to be one of them, and by using their color palettes, I’d be on my way.

Prior to this act of artistic independence, all my work had been primary or bold colors. 100% Cad Red Light, for example. I’ve always had an affinity for color, especially ones that stand out. I looked at the “compress” project as a chance to break out of that mold and start down a path to stylistic salvation. So I painted my 15” x 15” board in soft pastels.

When it came time for the crit, all the students lined their work up on the rail along the wall that circled the design lab in the basement of the art building. Our profs walked around, looked, didn’t speak for a bit, soaking in all the work. Then the floodgates opened.

Jane picked up my board and asked who had done this one. I proudly raised my hand. Being an illustrator, she appreciated the drawing and commented that it successfully communicated the “compress” concept. But what was with these colors? I remember it like it was yesterday:

“It’s so pasty. I look at this board and it makes me feel like there’s this film on my teeth…”

While holding the board in one hand, she uses the other to scratch her teeth like a dental hygienist scraping schmag at your six-month check up. It was humiliating, but an important lesson.

The color selection, the choice to inflict a stylistic approach to my concept, totally disrupted the communication. Sure, the pastiness of it was indicative of tooth paste, but while doing the project that was not on my mind in the least. The drawing wasn’t about the tooth paste, it was about the action of squeezing the paste out of the tube. The style hindered the communication, made my audience think about something quite different. And gross.

This lesson has stuck with me for years.

If you look through my book, at all the design I’ve done, you’ll not find a single style. My intention is always to approach the project from the client’s perspective, not mine. At the end of the day, it about what they want to say, not me. I don’t want to impose my aesthetic on them, my mission is to help them to be themselves. The only style I strive for is “Good”.

Is the {logo, ad, poster, site, etc.] well designed? Does it communicate in a smart fashion? Does the design reflect the client’s values and beliefs? Is the design appropriate? None of these questions nor their answers should have anything to do with style.

That approach makes me a chameleon. I am not a slave to style or fashion.

I like looking at the logo trends every year. What are we seeing on Dribbble and elsewhere? (This is dangerous when you think about it.) Not only do you see so much sameness, you also see work that the logos are firmly fixed in a point in time. For a logo, that is the death nail. More than anything, a logo should be timeless. If someone is going to invest the money and time into making a logo, they will want it to last and be relevant for years to come as their business grows.

Adverts are interesting because they can and should be a reflection of the time and current culture. That is part of how they work. Tap into the zeitgeist, use it to your advantage to help communicate, and don’t worry about longevity. If the ad clicks with the audience and in a brief moment delivers the message, that’s a win.

But what that requires of the creative professional is stylistic acrobatics. You cannot hope to survive in the business if you hang your hat on one single look. You have to be nimble enough to adapt to changing times and tastes and clients and markets.

If you plan to have a long career, you’ll want to become a chameleon, too.

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