A Never-Ending Game of Telephone

When was the last time you played a game of Telephone as an icebreaker? It’s simple — you tell someone a phrase, they tell the next person what they heard, and it keeps going until the final person says what they heard out loud. People enjoy the game for its goofiness, some people try to make sure the correct phrase makes it to the last person, and others are just relieved they don’t have to say three fun facts about themselves. The beautiful thing about Telephone, is that at the end everyone starts sharing their personal experiences of the game. What did each person hear? When did the words change? How many times did it change? The group is working together to communicate the history of a silly little phrase they just passed around. Design has done the same thing for a century but with reference, influences, and appropriation. Today, people live parts of their lives online, creating micro interactions and memories from social media platforms, multiplayer games, and various forums where history is not recorded — but it is remembered. Visuals, stories, and jokes — are all shared online, like a massive game of Telephone. Social media has provided platforms for users to share and repeat media that they find or create themselves. This means design work has the agency to freely spread and be shared with no regard or claim to its historical context. This leads to repetition of work that takes away its meaningful value, a loss of our unique personalities, and baseless referencing. This platform for design inhibits the meaningful depth of design work and prioritizes aesthetics over all.

Social media platforms are intentionally designed to provide repetitive content. The algorithms on these sites identify what keeps you engaged and show you more of that content. Social media sites have purposely designed their products to be addicting, to keep users on their site as long as possible to absorb more content. “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.” A quote from Aza Raskin who designed the infinite scroll. Infinite scroll is just one of many tools that social media platforms use to have users form habits (or addictions) to using their product[1]. Algorithms will even introduce new content that you may not enjoy, but it will show it to you enough times over long periods of time to change your mind. The algorithm is looking to give you more of the same, but different enough that you don’t get bored. Unintentionally, these algorithms are reinforcing visual languages into your subconscious. The more attention you give to an image, the more your attraction will grow towards it[2]. However, there is a psychological phenomenon called ‘semantic satiation’, which is defined as the subjective experience of the loss of access to the meanings of words or images caused by prolonged and quick repetitions of the material[3]. This is the downside of repetitive aesthetics, they lose their value. You may grow accustomed to certain visuals, but their original impact will never repeat itself. We have backed ourselves into a corner where we have algorithms feeding us repetitive content with quick decaying value, we are being inspired by nearly valueless aesthetics.

A great example of this is the illustration boom that took over software-as-service (SaaS) companies around 2016–2017. In 2016, Meg Robichaud and the illustration team at Shopify were in the midst of redesigning their illustration style across their entire site[4].

Four different illustrations used at Shopify to playfully visualize different actions related to growing their store
Illustrations from Shopify.

Shortly after in 2017, Alice Lee began working with Slack to create a set of 40 illustrations to use across Slack’s website and platform.

Illustrated graphic used to visualize security on Slack
Illustrations from Slack

This set of illustrations is often credited with the start of the illustration trend amongst SaaS companies[5]. Quickly, companies like Facebook and Dropbox followed and created their own illustration languages that flooded their site. The illustrations are fun and lighthearted, most importantly, they come from a good place. “So many tech companies are focused on productivity, which boils down to work — and work isn’t always fun,” says Russell Shaw, Art Director and Illustrator at Slack. “We’re trying to remind people that, yes, this is about work, but it should also be fun[6].” Yet, when every SaaS company is using illustration to portray how effective their product is, does it still have the same effect it did two years ago? These illustrations are fluid, organic, they are human. Each illustration can show much more emotion than a simple quote can. However, when every company is telling me the same emotions with the same method, how can the user believe any of them? What makes your cute dog illustration more impactful than another’s cute dog illustration and better yet, why are these cute dog illustrations trying to advertise for SaaS companies. These companies have simultaneously agreed to all look and feel the same, and users still choose to argue over which social media app is the best. This isn’t just found in SaaS companies; fashion brands have been ‘sterilizing’ their logos for the past few years.

Picture comparing old fashion brand logos with their new logos.
Fashion Brands Old vs New Logos

Burberry changed their logo for the first time in 100 years in 2018 and aligned their logo to match that of their competitors[7]. Brands are joining in on the repetition, the blanding trend of 2018[8] reflects our digestion of aesthetics. Companies have seen we are willing to interact with the same thing over and over again, so they became the same thing.

Companies have such large audiences, that targeted audiences start to become everyone. Users are sharing the same media, corporations are giving more of what they’ve shared, and the algorithms keep going. Our own voices are being drowned out and our personalities are too curated to be completely our own. Take for example, the “I ♥ New York” design by Milton Glaser.

I heart New York Logo
I ♥ New York Logo by Milton Glaser

In the later 70s, New York was falling apart with public services gutted and Unions warning tourists to stay away with the media campaign “Welcome to Fear City.” TIMES Magazine wrote at the time “Scarcely anyone today needs to be told about how awful life is in nerve-jangling New York City, which resembles a mismanaged ant heap rather than a community fit for human habitation[9].” In 1977, To save face and revitalize the image of New York City, the slogan and logo “I ♥ New York” were created for a PR campaign by New York City to promote tourism[10]. What was planned to be a four month campaign, blew up into a timeless work. The campaign brought in quick success with the state’s visitor spending revenue tripling from $500 million in 1976 to $1.6 billion in 1977. Most importantly, it uplifted the people who lived there. “It’s no longer just a logo,” Toufan Rahimpour, COO of Logoworks, said. “It conveys emotions. It represents the spirit of New York[11].” In 2001, the day after 9/11, Glaser updated the logo to the graphic below.

I heart New York More Than Ever logo
Milton Glaser updated logo following the attacks on 9/11

It reads “I ♥ New York More Than Ever.” This became a symbol for residents of New York to grasp onto, it gave them a reason to keep moving forward when they felt vulnerable — the logo became a symbol of hope[12]. This design has been referenced and appropriated in every city with tourism. From “I ♥ SF” to “I ♥ JP”, a quick google search will find you plenty of options of various cities[13]. None of these imitations have the personality or voice that the original “I ♥ New York” design has. It represents a city, it represents a whole state of people. This design will never represent another place in the way that it represents New York. Blatant appropriation and imitation will only remove the personality out of your design work. The repetition only proves to weaken the design and putting it in an environment it wasn’t designed for nearly voids it of a voice. In this specific case, we should be looking to New York to provide us this aesthetic. Aesthetics are subjective, they only have as much effect as we give them. If someone appreciates what this logo does for the city, they should be looking to recreate what the logo means to people — the visuals are only as strong as the message.

However, a strong message will not carry your design to the finish line — an inappropriate visual language can warp the message you want to communicate. This year the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany hosted a Bauhaus exhibit for the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus school. They branded the exhibit with the graphic below[14].

Branding for a Bauhaus exhibit in Mainz, Germany.
Branding for a Bauhaus exhibit at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany for the 100 year anniversary of the founding the of Bauhaus school

The work references a few famous motifs such as the geometric forms or the famous diagonal composition from Joost Schmidt’s poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar. Yet, this designer chooses to use a color scheme the Bauhaus never used. It also uses bold weight Futura, a typeface inspired by the Bauhaus, which hadn’t been designed by the time the Bauhaus was open. There is a hundred years between this graphic and the creation of the school this work references. The work is blatantly referencing famous works and yet cannot fully commit to the visuals it is celebrating. For a designer with historical context, this work feels cheap and unauthentic. For a designer with no historical context, this could be their history lesson. The danger in work like this is where does the style start and end. This is not Bauhaus design, but it is inspired by it. However, to the average onlooker, this work is being branded as Bauhaus design. This is staking claim of an aesthetic with no supporting base. The value of this work is flat, a puddle that should be much deeper. Historical context is key to every style and understanding why designers created work the way they did. If you cannot do the research to stay true to a style, then there is no worth in reproducing it.

The digital age has brought the world closer than ever before. Designers in Seattle can work with designers in Germany to make a visual campaign for people in China. Our history is more important than it ever has been, we as designers have a responsibility to provide depth and value to our work. Be purposeful with repetition, we want to create meaningful work. Analyze a trend, why is it popular? Being trendy shouldn’t mean using the same fonts, the same styles, or the same visual aesthetics. It should be about pushing a message that your audience wants or needs to hear. What makes each design unique, is the personality of the designers behind it. Designers are communicators, we communicate our message and we help communicate client messages. Sterilizing our messages through empty appropriation and duplication removes any interesting or worthy value from the work. Be true to who you are so that the work can shine. When referencing, remember that to some people — you are a teacher. There is power in reference and there is an opportunity to rewrite history with your work if you are not careful. The key to design — and the key to Telephone — is communication. If you aren’t committed to communicating properly, at some point the line of communication ends and everyone will look back to see who said the wrong message. Was it you?

[1] Andersson, Hilary. “Social Media Apps Are ‘Deliberately’ Addictive to Users.” BBC News. BBC, July 4, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-44640959.

[2] Martinez-Conde, Susana. “Faces Look More Attractive When You Pay Attention.” Scientific American Blog Network, March 15, 2016. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/faces-look-more-attractive-when-you-pay-attention/.

[3] Prochwicz, Katarzyna, Żuchowicz, and Judyta. “The Role of Non-Semantic Factors in Semantic Satiation Effect in Schizophrenia.” The European Journal of Psychiatry. Asociación Universitaria de Zaragoza para el Progreso de la Psiquiatría y la Salud Mental. Accessed November 4, 2019. http://scielo.isciii.es/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0213-61632013000200001.

[4] Robichaud, Meg. “Building a New Illustration Style for Shopify.” Medium. Shopify UX, September 1, 2016. https://ux.shopify.com/building-a-new-illustration-style-for-shopify-2b25dcf14117.

[5] Bailey, Luke. “Here’s How the Illustration Design Trend Caught Fire and Why Every SaaS Is Rebranding.” Unbounce, October 15, 2019. https://unbounce.com/design/branding-cartoon-illustration-design-trend/.

[6] Behance, Inc. “Connecting the Dots: Why Tech Brands Are Embracing Illustration.” Adobe 99U, February 21, 2019. https://99u.adobe.com/articles/56159/connecting-the-dots-why-tech-brands-are-embracing-illustration.

[7] Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg. Accessed November 4, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-20/why-fashion-brands-all-use-the-same-style-font-in-their-logos.

[8] LaBarre, Suzanne. “The Hottest Branding Trend of the Year Is Also the Worst.” Fast Company. Fast Company, December 20, 2018. https://www.fastcompany.com/90276496/the-hottest-branding-trend-of-the-year-is-also-the-worst.

[9] Shank, Ian. “How a Logo Made the World Love New York Again.” Artsy, June 26, 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-logo-made-love-new-york.

[10] “New York State Library.” New york State Library — Bicentennial 1818–2018. Accessed November 12, 2019. http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/emblems/iluvny.htm.

[11] UpperEastRob. “How the ‘I Heart NY’ Logo Transcended Marketing and Endures 4 Decades After Its Debut.” Adweek. Adweek, September 11, 2017. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/how-the-i-heart-ny-logo-twice-transcended-marketing-and-endures-4-decades-after-its-debut/.

[12] https://medium.com/@design.rush.ny/the-i-love-new-york-logo-is-an-iconic-widely-imitated-tourism-symbol-53ec155e2697

[13] https://www.cafepress.com/+i-heart-sf+t-shirts

[14] Horch, André. “Gutenberg-Museum Mainz: Termine Für Führungen Durch Die Sonderausstellung ABC. Avantgarde — Bauhaus — Corporate Design.” Zur Startseite. Accessed November 4, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/designrejectgutenberg.

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