Good Advice from Charles and Ray Eames

I’m taking a short break from our Cliché countdown to share something I saw Sunday at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles (A+D).

Part of the extraordinary Pacific Standard Time collaborative project here in Southern California, this exhibition zeroed in on Charles and Ray Eames’ design philosophy, and one particular quote caught my eye (click photo to enlarge for a clearer view).

I can’t think of better advice for arts leaders who often have a genuine desire to sell their products to new audiences, but who allow themselves to get stuck publishing traditional promotional materials that contain mostly self-congratulatory bombast, hackneyed clichés and relentlessly repetitive graphic design.

I think the Eames’ would be horrified at the material arts organizations crank out, mostly because the objectives that determine the design direction are so short sighted. In my experience, these objectives have been:

  1. To fit within traditional industry conventions
  2. To satisfy the expectations of senior decision makers (See 1. above)
  3. To find a marginally different way to do what we did last time (See 1. and 2. above)

The problem with these objectives is that they fill the wrong need. The overarching need is to sell tickets or admissions, but these objectives are aimed at satisfying the administrative needs of arts managers. We may believe that they’re the same thing, but a lot of the traditional conventions we use as benchmarks were established over fifty years ago under extremely different market conditions.

I think the Eames’ would agree that a marketing piece’s primary objective is to persuade as many people as possible – especially new people – to buy the product, and that they would set about trying to satisfy that objective first, while recognizing the more parochial needs of arts administrators as what they called “constraints.”

A piece that’s designed first to persuade could end up looking very different from a piece that’s designed to meet the expectations of conservative EDs, GMs and board chairs, of course, which is probably why we see so few of them. Real persuasion focuses as much on the one who is to be persuaded as it does on the persuader, and that’s not likely to be popular with folks who use marketing materials almost exclusively to talk about themselves.

I can’t say what an Eames-designed piece would look like, but given Charles and Ray Eames’ preoccupation with honesty, function, simplicity and finding art within that which is essential, I’d expect it to look a lot more down-to-earth and to make direct, un-ornamented, motivational connections between the people it was meant to persuade and the product it was designed to promote.

In other words, they’d recognize the task as a sales function and design arts marketing pieces that sell. They might not be as pretty as most arts materials are, but like the chairs that made the Eames’ famous, the beauty could end up being in the way they work as much as it is in the way they look.

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