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There is this misconception that to be creative implies some level of genius in which an idea pops into your head instantaneously and a masterpiece results. Conversely, a good idea is a methodical one that emerges through sensible analysis of pre-examined ideas or impressions. This is where the phenomenon or rather more appropriately the problem of the “cliché” comes in. In graphic design, a cliché is a stale, trivial, visual proverb. A visual element that has lost its originality through overuse and remains a commonplace and popular stereotype in the visual world.

Clichés are a stubborn problem, and they are always an annoying facet present in every design process. When a designer comes up with design that is recognized as “cliché”, the issue is not that the designer is uncreative; it means that the design took shape because it was the most readily available solution around, stopping there. Clichés are particularly frustrating because they are hard to banish from our thoughts because of their sheer familiarity. The fact that they are so recognizable makes them appealing. Even worse, their accessibility and familiarity offer a certain level of reassurance that such a design will be received positively. Thus clichés leave the viewer empty and wanting more.

Another challenge is that often clients prefer clichéd designs vs. original ones. This is very common since most business owners are concerned their brand design will not create the necessary associations, and potential buyers will not recognize what product the brand is selling. There is a universality to clichés that is appealing, with a high level of cultural understanding and acceptance of visual banality due to the fact that it is safe. As a result, designers are limited and find themselves trying to convince the client to take a more open-minded approach. After all, as human beings, we have an innate inclination to fit in. But as a result, the need to stand out has become adrift and can result in a brand, or logo not conveying a clear and not-so-boring message.

Dan Mayer, from Smashing Magazine, coined it nicely. “Clichés, in short, are the empty calories of the design world: like junk food, they are available everywhere and easy to consume, but pass through us without leaving nutrition behind.” They are often put into use because it is a quick way to get the point across but lack in fostering long-term recognition and loyalty, two key ingredients that lead to effective marketing and branding of a product. Designers are often trying to find a happy medium, a balance between two extremes. Creating a design that isn’t too obvious and avoiding one that isn’t obvious enough. Designers are constantly searching for the sweet spot in-between.

An effective design is similar to presenting a visual riddle. You want the audience to be intrigued and spend time visually decoding the image/design. Secondly, you want the viewer to form a connection with the visual information, so it is not just engaging, but memorable as well.

The trial-and-error process it takes during the design process means responding to what you don’t like and using those recognizable clichéd images or characteristics as indicators of what to avoid. Often a designer cannot visualize the final solution during the early stages, but in taking intermediate steps, making associations and slowly peeling away the layers of banality, the desired, effective design can be reached.

Here are 5 practices designers can take during the design process to help find the happy medium:

  1. Start with a sketchbook. Using the computer in the initial stages tends to push you in certain directions. It’s too perfect in the beginning, a mess is not always a bad thing. Also, computers temp us towards “over-execution” because of the easy access to advanced tools before the concept is put together.
  2. Start by drawing associations, as many as you can come up with.
  3. Don’t avoid the clichés in the early stages. Get them down and out of your system. Once they are down, break them apart.
  4. Allow for some time in the initial process and allow yourself to take breaks.
  5. Take the time to really look at your designs and their merits without bias. This is not an easy thing to do. This is where having a team around you is essential. As George Orwell said, “ To see clearly what is in front of one’s face requires constant struggle.” Especially, when you have been working on your design for days, even weeks.

Every good idea emerges methodically. Unfortunately, there are no step-by-step instructions. But recognizing the dual role clichés can play along the way can guide us and prevent us from derailing during the design process. It’s not just what goes into the equation, but how you go about solving the problem. With intelligence and time, your design will take form and result in an appeased client and a stimulated audience.

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