Can you #&^@%$ see it?

As a writer, I tend to become involved in the graphic design process only peripherally, but I still manage to learn useful lessons from it. One of the most instructive design lessons came from someone who knew absolutely nothing about typography and color theory.

I’m fascinated by the process of logo design – not the amateurish effort of slapping clip art together, but the thinking and execution a professional brings to capturing the vision of a company in a delightfully simple art element.  I’ve observed the process many times and heard designers receive many interesting requests from their clients.
The most memorable came from the manager of a company that manufactured tow trucks. As the designer began to describe the logo creation process and develop a sense of the company’s expectations, the rough-edged boss waved his hand to stop him in mid-sentence. Then he spoke.

“I really don’t give a !@#$@# what the !$@$@ logo looks like…”

“I really don’t give a !@#$@# what the !$@$@ logo looks like,” he said. “All I care is that someone going the other way on the @^#^#%# Interstate at 70 miles an hour can see the @#@% thing and know it’s my @#@%#$ truck.”
Folksy? Perhaps. Crude? Definitely. But sound? Absolutely. He knew that it was critical that other tow-truck operators knew who made that good-looking truck. It’s an industry where appearance is every bit as important as function, and his competitors would add any touch that might give them an edge. (Like me, you probably don’t swoon over tow trucks, but I can remember standing at “tow shows” and hearing, “Now, that’s a real pretty truck.” Fashion models would have been overlooked among the polished chrome.)

It’s all too easy for those of us who work in the creative services business to lose sight of the fact that our work exists primarily to create business for our clients. After all, we take great pride in combining our talents and what we’ve learned to come up with work that makes us proud and impresses our peers. Most advertising and graphic design award shows encourage that focus by rewarding style, rather than substance.

We sometimes forget that logos, headlines, and other elements of marketing communications have to be seen to be effective. It’s great if we can accomplish that and make them visually attractive at the same time. But the most intrinsically beautiful design will fall flat if people can’t tell what it is or who it’s supposed to identify, and the most award-winning ad concept will be a humiliating failure if it fails to drive sales or meet the client’s other expectations.

The best clients for whom I’ve worked have given me a lot of freedom and trusted that my recommendations were sound and sensible. But with that freedom and trust came an understanding that I’d be held accountable for results, too.

Eveyday I pass beautiful billboards, yard signs, ads and other materials. And although I’m taken by their splendor, I have to guess what they’re all about, because I simply can’t read them. As a writer, that frustrates me, because the carefully chosen words can’t be savored and appreciated. And each time I sense that frustration, my thoughts drift back to that tow-truck maker and his @^#%#%# logo.