Visceral design: do looks matter?
March 08, 2006
In Emotional Design, author Donald Norman asks if good-looking things (physical products, user interfaces, etc.) work better. As he outlines in his book, there is evidence that they do. But beyond functionality, do aesthetics of, say, a package or presentation visuals really matter? What about our emotional reactions to the visual presentation of a meal? A master chef labors to make the food delicious, but also takes great care to make the visual beautifully appealing. Norman argues in his book that the emotional aspects of a design may often be more important to the design's ultimate success than the practical elements. Says Norman:
"Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively...positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought."
Presentation visuals must be free of errors; they must be accurate. But our visuals — like it or not — also touch our audience on an emotional level. People judge instantly whether or not something is attractive to them or not. This is a visceral reaction. And it matters.
Package design & presentation visuals
Just like slides are not the presentation, a package is not the product. The function of a presentation slide, for example, is to support a speaker's message, making things clearer for the audience. Fundamental functions of packaging include ease of transport (such as bottled water or a FedEx box, etc.), protection, and of course, identity and communication. Yet, customers and audiences also have visceral reactions to visual design in each case. Unattractive visual design can overshadow otherwise good content that may lurk inside. Poorly-designed visuals speak louder than words.
Last week I received several emails from readers about this parody video piece on YouTube. I first learned about the clip on Robert Scoble's blog. As Scoble said, "Honesty hurts. Ouch!" There is quite a discussion on Scoble's site and on Microsoft's Channel 9 site where Scoble first learned of the clip. While the piece is sardonic and exaggerated, many feel that there is a lot of truth in there as well. The video is certainly creative and a good bit of comedy. So what would happen if Microsoft re-designed the iPod package? Now you know. (Also here and here).
Above: These screenshots are from the video available on YouTube. Watch how the simple, clean iPod box goes through transformations that: "Make better use of empty space," and ensures the packaging is "on brand" and that the "richness of the product is communicated."
The dangers of design-by-committee
I work pretty well with people, but I'm not really a fan of committee work. Committees have their place, but often "design-by-committee" projects get watered down by excessive compromise as the great vision that may have been the genesis gets flattened so as to be more "marketable." Many people may have input into your presentation, but in the end, the presentation must have the look and feel of something designed by an individual (you) even if it wasn't. In the end, it's your presentation.
OK, this is not scientific or without bias, but I wondered how Microsoft executive presentation visuals compared with Microsoft's packaging? Is there an "on brand synergy" which subtly communicates consistently the brand's essence? And how might this compare with Apple? Below: Exhibit A (Microsoft) and Exhibit B (Apple).
Microsoft is by no means the worst
Some of Microsoft's packaging is good. And even their "bad stuff" is not the worst in the world. For that you need to come to Japan and visit a computer store. Below are just two boxes I pulled off the shelf and threw on the scanner in my office. I showed these two boxes to a student of mine, a graphic designer from the US. She was speechless for about ten seconds as she stared incredulously at the boxes in my hand. "I wanted to hit you when you showed me those %^$#@! things!" she said. Obviously a visceral response.
When in doubt, cram as much in as possible
Sample hardware packaging in Japan
Some of the absolute best packaging design is in Japan. Also, we can see some of the worst here. The graphic extremes are what make Japan a paradise for those interested in graphic design.
NOTE: Packages and presentations are indeed different. Slides are more ephemeral and meant for one-to-many communication. Packages can be picked up and read and examined on all sides. In this sense package surfaces are one-to-one. But packages are also designed to get attention on a shelf and to be remembered; in this sense they are more like one-to-many. Slides and packages have many things in common too. The front of a package (like a 2-D slide) needs to be (1) noticed and (2) understood regardless of the visceral impact. The aesthetic of the package should be attractive, inviting people to pay attention and to pick it up. And just as unattractive, death-by-ppt visuals can undermine great content, a lousy package can sell a great product short. Likewise, a great package will not save a crappy product in the long run, and beautiful, incredible presentation visuals will not save an otherwise poor presentation. Visual design matters, but it is not a panacea.
• Package Design Magazine on clean, simple, design.
• Article praising Microsoft package design.