By Hans Kleefeld
“Creativity (in visual communication) is the ability of some individuals to form new and meaningful relationships between previously unrelated imagery.”
I don't recall where I came across the above statement, or who said it. But to me it remains the most succinct definition of a unique human quality that has been the driving force behind many memorable visual messages, ones that have risen above the humdrum or the blatantly ludicrous.
To be judged “creative” may occasionally equate with something like sainthood (or at least stardom) in a profession focused on helping businesses or governments to persuade people believing life really is as they see it pictured in print or on screens. As the seductive power of such manufactured reality has been shown to be highly effective, as well as immensely profitable, creativity has become almost sacrosanct. But is it?
Is every newly formed assembly of colours, typography, pictures and graphics necessarily meaningful – let alone good or bad in its effects on viewers – just because it is new, and just because it has cleverly combined previously unrelated imagery? No, there are many examples of squandered creativity in this vein.
This is an instance where something new, and seemingly different for difference’s sake, has replaced a design that is more effective. Look at the current “three-men-in-a-hot-tub” trillium identity (top) for the Province of Ontario, where a wimpy illustrative graphic took the place of a strong mark (bottom), proving the maxim of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
The second manifestation of questionable creativity is work where highly disparate elements have been willfully fused for effect alone, with little or no concern for such considerations as typography legibility or plainly sexist results. Consider the letter work produced for this magazine above, by a junior art director, in the June 2011 issue, for the article “Everyone Designs” (which hints at the root of the problem). Eye- and mind-grating excess.
Not to be too hard on any individual, there are dozens of similar shattered fonts around. For misguided pictorial creativity, an ad taken from a copy of the German mainstream magazine Der Spiegel is among a mercifully still small number of examples of puerile inanity emerging from certain advertising agencies worldwide.
And then there is work that, judging by its surface finesse, was created by professionals who appear carried away by an overdose of imagination, obscuring rather than illuminating what was probably a valid intent. The Zanders ad, for all its seeming clarity, is actually an exercise in irritating message refraction.
Zoom Zoom's brochure cover, by comparison, comes across as a collision between vehicle and environment in a visual mess menacing enough to encourage viewers to consider public transit rather than drive their Mazda CX downtown. If asked, Why did you do this?, the creative team’s answer might well be: Because I could. (Supreme self-confidence is useful armour in our business.)
Of course design creations – regardless of subject matter, medium or format – are basic manifestations of human freedom of expression (at least in tolerant societies), and their worst, but usually harmless, attributes are to be unattractive, meaningless and ineffective, adding to the unholy clutter polluting our visual environment.
What, then, are examples of desirable creativity in visual communication – startling in their image combinations, simple in presentation and immediately recognizable in subject matter and message, whether supported by words or not?
Take the Warren Paper ad. A lobster coloured like the Stars and Stripes catches your attention, doesn't it? The copy may not be brilliant wordsmithing, but it works, anchored as it is by a powerful picture.
How about an instantly understandable illumination of economy class or charter flight air travel? Who would miss the message of a jumbo jet/sardine can combo filled with tightly packed passengers?
Faced with energy shortages, who could be labelled as troublemakers? Consumer hogs, that's who. This is an electrifying idea that works.
And, in this age of angry confrontations, what could communicate anger more forcefully than this photo superimposition of an agitated face and a clenched fist?
Here’s a recent and brilliant, though sad, example of a great twist on a well-known image. To see the profile of the man who created one of the world's great companies, and conceived its society-changing products, replace the bite mark of the apple graphic that identified his enterprise surely exemplifies creativity at its best: a new and meaningful relationship between two previously unrelated images.
Finally, there is one area where positive creativity remains rare: Uncommissioned designs – some the work of professionals, others the result of student projects – that spontaneously aim to foster goodwill and enlightenment for their own sake.
This poster, chosen at random from a collection of similar expressions of concern for others and for a better life everywhere, comes from a student at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, in response to a class project in the use of illustration, colour and limited type. Once more, a new and meaningful relationship is developed between previously unrelated imagery. Though the design is “old” historically, it is also timeless.
In a world flooded with negative news and consumed by apocalyptic speculations, such upbeat creativity in visual communication will always be more than welcome.
Hans Kleefeld is an award-winning pioneer of Canadian design and a design educator who lives in Oakville, Ont.