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Rant: The Problem With Clever Design

Disclaimer About These Rants: These are meant to be entertaining, to give you something to think about, and to stimulate discussion. These are opinions; sometimes unpopular opinions, sometimes harsh opinions, but the operative word is (you guessed it) opinions. This is not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. Please feel free to disagree.

I’m getting really tired of clever. In the last few years we’ve seen a drastic rise in clever photos, clever paintings, clever ads, and clever design.

Now you might be thinking, “Isn’t being clever a good trait for a designer? Designers are meant to do things differently from everyone else”. True, clever is good, but here’s its tragic flaw: many designers and ad agencies rely too heavily on clever. Even worse, clever gets less clever the more people rely on it.

Now, let’s be clear here. A truly unique, well executed, clever design is a thing of beauty. The problem is that they’re few and far between, and it seems to be more and more common to see clever concepts that are poorly executed. Artists and designers are starting to focus too much on finding a clever concept, and not enough on a well executed product.

Fundamentally we’re designing content and websites which need to be user intuitive and easily accessible. There’s no point building a design which makes a user give up half way through. Take these websites for example:

Notice a pattern – all of the websites have similar top featured menus which clearly outline the search pathways. Whilst every website listed is unique and sells different products, the functional bones remain the same. This is done purposefully by successful designers who understand that users will naturally gravitate to look in certain places for their information.

It takes more than cleverness concepts to be a designer or artist.

Tattoo that phrase on your forehead if you need to (backwards so you can read it in the mirror). Design, photography, painting, and any other art share this common, and very important, truism that people seem to have lost sight of:

Good design comes from a combination of concept, insight, and technical skill.

So you want to take a photo of a guy in a tutu and snorkel in a stuffy business meeting? OK, but make sure it’s well composed, well lit, and in focus. You’re designing a website where you click colored jellybeans to navigate? Great, just make sure it’s useable, laid out effectively, and satisfies the needs of the client. A logo that spells the name of the company out in ketchup? Go ahead, but make sure we can actually read the name, that it’s visually effective, and supports the client’s brand. Otherwise, it’s just clever garbage.

Anyone can come up with a clever concept, but a truly talented artist/designer can make the least clever concepts beautiful and interesting.

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