Functionality in Print Design

There is a line between success and my design, and that line is made up of service people who have neither the time nor the energy to deal with my crap.

The other night, we were down at the local watering hole, indulging in sundry libations, when my eyes trained, all of a sudden, on the uniquely shaped beer coaster positioned beneath my pint of brew. This was no common circle of soggy pasteboard. It was a large, thick, intricately cut maple leaf, a marvel, we all agreed, of advertising design technology.

Beer manufacturers are known for never cutting corners when it comes to design and advertising. This coaster, advertising Molson Canadian beer, proved that Canadian brewers are no exception to the rule. Molson recently won a Bronze Lion at the IAF for a particularly witty bit of commercial advertising that not only won over the judges at Cannes, but also convinced Molson to change advertising agencies for good.

Obviously, Molson's designers are eager to impress. The noble coaster is, after all, the last bastion of beer advertising. TV commercials, viral ads, massive billboard campaigns – all of these boil down to those little squares or circles that sit on tables in beerhalls and dance clubs the world over, sopping up liquor and keeping you from scratching the Formica.

On a slow night, you might spend hours staring at your coaster. At the design of your coaster. Will it compel you? Will it thrill you? Will you change your order next time the waitress comes by? I was teetering on the edge. The brilliantly colored leaf-points writhed around my beer mug like flames, and the pasteboard was extra thick, bringing to mind the same feeling evoked by particularly expensive toilet paper. I was actually kind of impressed, until I spoke to the waitress.

“These are pretty fancy coasters,” says I.

“Meh,” she shrugs, “they don't fit in the pockets of our aprons, so you have to carry them in your hand while your serving. Most of the girls forget them behind the bar.”

Very interesting.

As I watched our waitress go about her business, I thought about how all jobs – from waitressing to stocking shelves, collecting garbage to cleaning hotel rooms – come with their own set of specialized tricks and techniques – things that make work easier, faster, and more pleasant. If you've ever work at a restaurant, a football stadium, a mall, or anywhere else in the service industry, you know that the key to surviving these jobs is to turn your routine into a perfectly choreographed exercise in efficiency.

Woe to those who dare to screw it up.

And so we arrive at print design work, in which the challenge is always to be MORE original, MORE innovative, and more attention grabbing. This often involves thinking 'outside the box.' Unfortunately, the good thing about a box is that it's easier to carry. Making things larger, pointer, and printed on unconventional materials does not in any way contribute to the functionality of the box.

Consumers who handle your design once or twice might not mind; the people that see it and handle it hundreds of times a day definitely do. And in order for a design to be successful, it has to be functional from the perspective of the service industry laborers who will be setting it up, handing it out, and cleaning up after it.

These individuals, whose happiness may largely depend on their ability to do their job efficiently, are the final and decisive barrier between your design and the consumer. As eye-catching and inspiring as an irregularly sized, irregularly shaped piece of advertising might be, if it gets left behind the counter, it's nothing.

The same goes for advertising designs that generate a lot of litter. Thousands of flyers, however beautifully designed, blowing across Main Street the morning after the Fourth of July, represent the opposite of effective design. Just as, for example, a napkin designed to fold out into a flag that disintegrates when in contact with moisture, will not be enthusiastically disposed up by janitorial staff, leaving your soggy, sloppy, once brilliant designs smeared all over the fairgrounds.

Function is often taken into consideration in design. On the internet, the entire movement away from Flash & co. design towards accessible design is based on the principle that brilliance is nothing without functionality. However, we too often consider the consumer, and our company's bottom line, without considering all those middlemen whose desire to work efficiently can make or break our distribution channels.

Not all design is vulnerable to this service industry barrier, but enough of it is that I will be taking it into consideration next time I'm breaking down design norms with my blinding innovative prowess.

It goes back to that same old rule of never sassing the people that are cooking your food, hauling your garbage, or cleaning your toilets. These intrepid glue-of-society types aren't just in charge of your health, wealth, and happiness, they're the trend-makers, and their judgments, based on practicality, can determine the commercial success of print adevertising designs.


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