Chasing the Cool

Exactly what makes a design good or bad—the assessment of whether or not it works—is hard to pin down. Like art or fashion, it’s a subjective thing that somehow we seem to be able to come to some level of agreement on.

And, even more than with art or fashion, what’s thought of as good or current design goes in some pretty easy to distinguish cycles. For example, when smartphones first came out it was popular to design icons and apps that mimicked the actual three-dimensional objects or functions they represented—like a ruled yellow notepad or a hardback book sitting on a wooden shelf. After a while, that started to feel old fashioned and the flat design trend took over. Everything got reduced to minimalist abstract shapes and flat fields of color. Now that’s starting to look a little shopworn, so shading, shadows, and soft edges are starting to reappear. The pendulum swings back.

The reason couldn’t be clearer. If what you’re doing looks like what everyone else is doing, no one is going to pay attention to it. In addition to conveying the right message—which is the real hard part—it has to attract the eye. It has to be fresh, not stale. Think about the first time you saw a graphic that looked like something hand-drawn or hand-lettered in colored chalk on a blackboard. It was different from what you’d seen before, and it made you pay attention. You probably still paid attention the next dozen or so times you saw that technique being used. But after you’ve seen it umpteen million times, it loses its charm. In fact, it looks like the work of someone who couldn’t be bothered to be original, and that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Repetition breeds familiarity, and more often than we would like, familiarity breeds contempt.

This is something that clients need to keep in mind, and it’s something designers know instinctively. If the work is going to engage an audience, it has to be different enough to make people stop and take a look. Maybe it’s something they’ve never seen before, or maybe it’s an unusual twist on the usual. The important thing is that it’s different enough to get noticed.

There’s no such thing as a permanent design solution. It’s always going to be a moving target. Because what really gets through to us—what has that indefinable quality known as cool—is constantly changing and evolving. All designers are continually chasing the cool. The really good ones come close to catching it.

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