The key question should be something along the lines of, “what are we trying to achieve with this?” Or, “How do we want people to feel when they look at our logo or our ad?” If you’re creating an advertisement for a new car, obviously you want the car to look unique and attractive. But what sets your car apart from the rest of the pack? If you’re selling a hybrid, your top feature might be fuel efficiency and being “green.” An ad for a sports car would should give a sense of speed and power. The visuals of the design must support your message, not the other way around.

Here’s an example of a design that doesn’t fit the message:

graphic design improper choice Mercedes

So, you should recognize the font design as being that of the old Toys R Us logo. If you were shown just a couple of letters at random, what sort of feel would you say that they had? The soft edges and the bright colors probably make you think of the innocence of being a child. Silly and bright and wonderful. Perhaps even a sense of being safe–no sharp edges on those letters. The concept above was professionally designed. Someone at the corporate office definitely spent a LOT of money contracting a designer to come up with this. It’s fantastic for the market and message that a toy store in the 1970s and 80s would be targeting.

However, as should be obvious, it would be an awful choice for a car company such as Mercedes. The cars made by Mercedes are almost certainly not intended to feel juvenile or silly. Their cars are targeted at folks who ignored the Toys R Us mantra of not growing up, and instead chose more adult styles of fun.

Here’s one more example. What if posters for one of the most successful movies of 1991 had featured the styling utilized by another very popular movie released the same year? Think about it. Hey, they’re both movies, both released the same year in the same country, so it should work just fine, right? Right?

graphic design improper T2

Yeah. Um. No. It doesn’t work, does it? The production company that made Terminator 2 almost surely spent vast amounts of time (and money) developing the advertising for their movie. Given that it was a movie with a plot featuring cyborgs from the future, it made sense that the title needed to be reminiscent of the strange-looking text on a computer terminal–remember, this was more than 20 years ago–while being sleek and intimidating, like the metal chassis of its main character. And they succeeded admirably.

But if Disney had elected to use that font and coloration for its animated movie, the response from its target audience would be… confused. There’s nothing there that hints at a plot featuring the evolving emotional relationship between a cursed cartoon prince and the strong woman he admires, taking place in the midst of the Middle Ages. Instead, this feels like a teaser for an action or horror movie–something much too mature and scary for small children. The theater seats would have been much more empty than they were.

You can spend a million dollars on the best design firm in the country, producing the slickest ads and logos and themes possible, but if those elements don’t reflect the story you’re trying to tell, nobody is going to stop and listen to you. And they certainly won’t give you their money.

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