Metaphorical Sledgehammers & Real Outdoor Fountains

A few nights ago I was on a peaceful evening stroll with the puppy dogs. During our loop we always cross in front of a neighbor's home that the sight of causes me real pain. 

FADE TO FLASHBACK SCENE:
As long as I've lived in this neighborhood this guy (we'll call him Jo- no "e" cuz who has time for that) has accumulated broken down rusty trucks, trailers, campers, skidoos & all things on 2 - 4 wheels in his front yard. Its a junkyard of derelict motorized vehicles. The land of misfit boy's toys. A trashy paradise. It is in violation of every city and neighborhood ordinance and yet it remains boldly amidst an otherwise well-kept suburbia. If Jo wasn't my own neighbor I may admire his unconventional approach to landscaping - like a cultural protest to the cookie cutter homes, green lawns and manicured hedges he say's "F the Man - I'm gonna fix trucks in my front yard and smoke in my driveway with my shirt off". Maybe he's a visionary. I imagine he just likes to tinker and collect old things. And has an aversion to wearing shirts. (shrug)

Back to my story, as I was walking by said "thistle in the petunia patch" home, I noticed something new this evening. A sweet little trickling sound amidst the scattered parts, tires and cans. Confused, I searched the garbage for the source of the sound and spotted a tiny outdoor fountain nestled amongst the wreckage. Which then brought my attention to the patchy grass being a decidedly darker shade of green. Mr. Junky Jo had fertilized the yard and added a lovely little water feature. 

Imagine Trevi Fountain in the middle of a Junkyard. But smaller. 

Imagine Trevi Fountain in the middle of a Junkyard. But smaller. 

The realization struck me then, "This man tried to make his yard better by ADDING things!?" I angry laughed and walked home. I had to spend some time thinking about my reaction to these improvements but it started to make more sense. It was obvious to me looking in, the easiest improvement would be to get rid of some things, but this was an insight to the working of Jo's mind. He believed adding stuff was a solution. The fountain was the perfect example of American consumerism. 

We learn from when we are just wee-versions of our selves, from tv or observing our families, that happiness is for sale - it is an additive process. This brick looks bad, lets paint it. I'm feeling stressed, I may need another drink. The kids are bored, lets get cable. I'm sad, I'll go shopping. I feel a deep unending emptiness in my soul, I'll get a boat.  

My yard looks like the city dump, I'LL GET AN OUTDOOR FOUNTAIN. 

Dramatic reenactment of me seeing the fountain.

Dramatic reenactment of me seeing the fountain.

Jo had provided me a perfect visual of what you do not want to do with  life, and as I want to really focus on, design. When things aren't working, its rarely adding MORE than provides the fix we need. This is the time for a careful audit and consider how we can improve, remove & revise what  is important. Very likely, it may require removing the superfluous things that burden the load. A fantastic pseudo-quote I reference often is:

"The design is complete when there is nothing else to take away".  

- Some Guy

 

Certainly its not always true that you need less. But more often than not, I've found when creating a new product or service, companies will bloat their offerings with feature 'fluff' to try to convey more value. Consumers generally see through this and if they don't, they feel betrayed. Doesn't everyone get mad the first time they realize a "30 piece set" of tupperware is actually 15 bowls and they're just counting the lids separately?? Times when I've seen marketing/design that needed the less is best rule:

  • Your buyers aren't compelled by a 40 page sales deck  
    ( It reads like the Grapes of Wrath (dry, meandering and so loooong); give them a ONE page pitch that is unforgettable) 
  • Your homepage lacks conversions
    (Its 5 scrolls to get to the point and lacks a clear Call to Action)
  • Your packaging doesn't stand out
    (It has competing sales points and conveys very little shelf value in the sales clutter)
  • Nobody "likes" your social media posts
  • (Its probably not because you don't post enough, its because you don't post anything of value (its neither funny, relevant or awe-inspiring).)
  • You broke the bank on an ad campaign and had no measurable return
    (Did you choose a method/medium that hits your clear target demographic?  Or are you just trying to spread a marketing budget like an invisibly thin layer of buttah on the toast that is everyone in America?) 

My intuition says if my neighbor Jo was writing a tagline it would read less like "JUST DO IT" and more like the lyrics to the longest Justin Bieber song. Bad. Long. A lot of words, very little value. Life, and products can be really beautiful and clear with LESS.

This literally underground Washington music shop understood the concept of value over volume.

This literally underground Washington music shop understood the concept of value over volume.

 

As you approach your next project, carefully consider whether you have stretched your offerings or target audience too thin and try to focus on the heart and soul of your unique offering. Have a clear vision of the core value and core audience and be willing to let the standard set of features go without starbursts. Put your best players on the court, not all of them (because thats against the rules and this is a sports analogy so 20 lashings to me for using it). Ironically this post is running a bit long-winded, so lets wrap 'er up.

When it comes to designing, mentally prepare for the possibility that your designer may need to bring a metaphorical sledgehammer to the unnecessary elements so your core message can shine. Remember your audience isn't DUMB, they are BUSY. Treat them like smart busy people, they'll appreciate it. 

And if you're just feeling overwhelmed personally, maybe strip out the garbage in your life before you start adding water fountains & fertilizer. Unless its cowbell. Then you always need more of that. 

 

 

Emily Bunnell