Historical Woman with Cell Phone Design Matters

Design Matters

Design Matters

Such a cliché! So bland and clichéd that I generally forget how true it is! 

But this week I had a visceral illustration of the power of design – whether in support of the forces of good or of evil. In fact, it’s messed with my head so much that I’m questioning a lot of my truths about good design and bad design.

The background is that I’ve been doing design work for a very small classical record label for more than 15 years. High quality recordings, but a pretty small, niche market. I don’t know what the sales are, but print runs are short and only recently has iTunes distribution begun to take off. Releases are normally reviewed locally, and very occasionally a national reviewer will do a write up.

I love designing CD packaging; each release is its own aesthetic challenge, and (unlike web design) every project is a complete whole. Once it’s sent off to the printer, it’s done.

The most recent project, however, was a bear! At the outset there wasn’t a coherent sense of “message” or concept or style, and the artist kept inserting his own random ideas into the mix. It was frustrating, but finally, we settled on imagery and a color palette, and I created all the necessary files in Adobe InDesign. I wasn’t thrilled with the design, but I was happy to be done! However, the night before the package was to go to the printer, the executive producer found a stock photo that he loved, and insisted I try a mock up. 

I hated the new image. Everything about it. The music was French 18th-century chamber pieces (think Court of Louis XIV) and the photo showed a model with a huge powdered wig, makeup that you’d normally associate with the TV show “Harlots” and a shiny satin corset in a style you might purchase at your local Ren Fair. To my history snob eyes, it looked cheap, tacky, garish and annoyingly modern. But I did a mock up, and everyone loved it, and it finally went to press. (Of course, I did my best with the image; I gave the entire package design the care and conscientiousness I would on any project.)

Of course, the very things I despised about the imagery brought more notice to that release than any I’d ever seen for this record label. It’s been more reviewed and received more attention than any previous release from the label. It debuted in the top 15 on the Billboard charts, which was just unheard of for our tiny label. To anyone that didn’t care about historical accuracy or visual restraint, that CD cover was eye-catching and attractive—just the right amount of cheeky for baroque music. To be clear, the quality of the music was very high – but no higher than that of any previous release from the label. The cover, not the content of the CD, is what moved those reviewers and buyers to choose it.

Whether I loved or hated that design, it was brought dramatically (and ironically) to my attention how much power lies in those design decisions. I wouldn’t recommend choosing controversial or provocative design for its own sake (that’s a cheap trick!) but understanding how design can drastically affect how a product (or a website!) is received can make or break your marketing efforts.