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Designing for the Moment

posted by Matt Ward on Jul 4, 2010.

There are all kinds of different things to consider when putting together a design, but how often do you consider the time-frame of the design’s message? In this article, we will look at the concept of designing for the moment, discussing the importance of duration and the possibility of leveraging the here and now.

There has been some discussion in the past about timelessness in design. In an article all about the important elements of logo design, Jacob Cass includes timeless design as one of the 5 key elements of a good logo. In the article, Jacob presents a really interesting and telling timeline that contrasts the logos of Pepsi and Coca-Cola across a period that spans over a century. Interestingly, while the Pepsi side has 11 different variations, the Coca-Cola logo is shown to have remained the same.

Considering that (at least in my experience) Coke still seems to be on the winning side of the Cola Wars, there’s certainly something to be said about the impact of a timeless logo as it relates to brand and identity.

Designing for the Moment

Designing for the Moment

Other articles on this subject have also dared to venture into the murkier waters of the web, where its relative newness, continuously evolving technologies and dynamic nature all make this question of timelessness much more difficult to nail down.

Over on Visual Swirl, Leighton Taylor questions whether or not websites should be designed for timelessness or trendiness. Though the framing of the article itself tends to polarize these two concepts, and probably causes many designers to get their backs up right off the bat, the point that Taylor is actually trying to make when he ultimately suggests that websites should be both timeless and trendy is that, like so much that relies on technology, you don’t want a site to look old and out-dated.

In this context, I think that what Taylor is actually talking about has less to do with trends and more to do with modes of visual expression. For example, he references this particular incarnation of the CNN website design:

CNN.com on July 3, 2010 (click to enlarge)

CNN.com on July 3, 2010 (click to enlarge)

In reference to this screenshot, Taylor writes:

CNN uses their classic logo while updating their site’s design to show that they are relevant and with the times, and this relevance adds value to the network’s brand.

In my view, this statement pretty much wraps up what the article is driving at. The point is not to be trendy, but to be relevant, and the article posits that, from a design perspective, one way for websites to accomplish this is through a certain form of visual expression. The CNN website makes use of several techniques (subtle gradients, underlying grid etc.) that help to establish a contemporary appearance without necessarily appearing overtly “trendy”.

A Parallel in Fiction

We can see the exact same thing in the world of the written word. How many young people do you think would want to sit down and read through the Gothic romances of the eighteenth century? Probably not very many. Several hundred years removed, the language would seem dense and inaccessible, and the cultural context almost entirely irrelevant.

Yet, how many of these same young people have spent hours reading through the books in the Twilight series, or lining up to watch the recently released movies based on those same books? Millions. But how different is Twilight from those old Gothic romances? At a fundamental level, not as different as you might think. They are simply love stories wrapped in different language – both literal and cultural.

The same is true of design. As I have said before, a good design involves making intentional and purposeful decisions about how to frame some particular form of content. Part of those decisions involves using a relevant visual language that best allows the viewer to understand and connect with the design.

From this perspective, then, it becomes clear that it is at least somewhat important to design within the cultural context of the current moment. In certain circumstances, however, I would suggest that this goes even further.

Momentary Content

While things like (most) logos, related identity pieces, books and other things that are intended to last should certainly be designed with timelessness in mind, there is a very broad range of content that is actually not timeless, but which is rather firmly entrenched in a particular moment. How much design is done for various events – conferences, concerts, festivals, sporting events – that happen at a very specific time?[

Probably quite a bit.

Logos, websites, fliers, posters, direct mail pieces, billboards and magazine ads are all designed with the specific intention of promoting that particular event. And, since that particular event is actually to be held in a specific place at a specific time, what's the point of creating something timeless?

Doesn't it actually make more sense to create something that actually fully and completely reflects the time in which the event is to take place? If the design looks out-dated two years down the road, who really cares? As long as it accomplishes the objectives for the time in which it was designed, then it can be considered a successful design, even if it is not ultimately a timeless one.

The only reason I can think of for wanting to make sure that a design of this sort is still relevant a few years down the road is so that it can remain a prominent piece of your portfolio. That being said, however, I don't think it's a really great practice to design client projects with your portfolio in mind, since this can cause the design to become more about you than about the client (even unintentionally).

Examples

Since the entire world is currently wrapped up in soccer (football) fever with the FIFA World Cup approaching its ultimate climax in South Africa, I thought it would be interesting to use this as an example of what I'm talking about. Back in 2008, David Airey posted at article outlining the various World Cup logos that have appeared over the past 60 years.

Here are examples from 1954, 1970, 1998 and the current World Cup Logo

Switzerland 1954 Logo

Switzerland 1954 Logo

Mexico 1970 logo

Mexico 1970 logo

France 1998 logo

France 1998 logo

South Africa 2010 logo

South Africa 2010 logo

To check out more of the examples, be sure to check out the full article, and see how, to some degree, each logo is more than just a logo. They are also reflections of the time (and the place) in which the event was ultimately held. In many ways, even looking back on them, their reflection of their unique moments actually makes them even more effective, since each logo becomes something of a historical record that, in some way, captures the spirit of its time.

Of course, the Olympics provide a similar example. I’m sure we’re all aware of the broader Olympic logo, with its five distinctive, coloured rings. On it’s own, that single logo certainly is timeless, and will likely continue to endure for years to come. However, each individual games also has its own logo too, and these do tend to be less timeless, and designed more for the moment.

WebDesigner Depot has a really awesome post that collects many of the different logos, from 1924 through the the monstrosity that is the London 2012 logo.

This kind of thinking doesn’t just apply to logo design either. I think it also makes sense in other forms of design too. For instance, I work as a volunteer adult leader at my church’s youth group, and every single year we take our kids to an even called Overflow. It’s an awesome three day convention that gets really hyped up, and every year they have a different theme.

Every year, they also have a completely different kind of event branding, which gets repeated through all of their posters, booklets, promotional videos and, of course, their website. Here’s a screenshot of this year’s design:

A screenshot for the Overflow 2010 website (click to enlarge)

A screenshot for the Overflow 2010 website (click to enlarge)

Notice the bold use of large typography, the grungy, half-tone, splatter graphics and the bold non-web safe colour scheme, all of which are very much a part of the current visual language of current design – especially on the net. The design is relevant to its readership right now, in this particular moment. It may appear stale or dated a few years down the road, but like I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t matter, because the design’s purpose is to serve the now.

In this particular case, it matters even less, since the website gets an overhaul every year anyhow, in order to match with the branding of that particular installment of the event. So, by the time that the current design does become out-dated, it will also be long gone and a new design will have taken it’s place – hopefully one that is equally as relevant for its own time.

Conclusion

I could probably go on and on, offering all kinds of different examples, but by now I hope that you can pretty much see what I have been driving at. While timelessness is a nice ideal, and certainly something to strive for in many projects, it’s not always necessarily desirable.

First, forms of visual language will change and evolve over time (perhaps even more quickly in the age of instant information), and any new design has to bear this in mind in order to be successful. Second, some of the content that our designs are built to frame is actually connected to a very specific time and place, and may very well benefit from a design that is less timeless and more reflective of its actual temporal and geographic placement.

In the end, I suppose it comes down to this: design is all about communicating a message, and perhaps it can be useful for us to actively consider not only the message itself, but also it’s duration. Is it a message that is meant to continue and endure, or is it a message meant for a very specific moment in time?

Of course, I am not suggesting that you cannot or should not create a timeless design for some messages that are, essentially, temporary. If doing so works and makes sense, by all means follow that course of action. What I am suggesting is merely that perhaps designs that contain a much more immediate message can actually sacrifice some of the timelessness in order to leverage the power of the here and now.

What do you guys think? Do you consider the relative duration of the message in your designs, and possibly change or adjust your approach accordingly? I’d love to hear your thoughts or read about some of your own examples.

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Jul 5, 2010

Grillo says:

I believe the message that should be
last is the most important in a job.
Everything must be taken into consideration of course, but the timelessness fits more for a
that logo for a site.
I really liked the area, subject to great
address.

Jul 7, 2010

tee arere says:

nice design..
i am really like it

Jul 7, 2010

Joshua Lay says:

Good points Matt,
It makes a lot of sense. You have a message and want to be timeless.

But the best thing to strive for is how it’s being pushed across still relevant.

I think architecture exhibits this kind of nature. Buildings have a key purpose, but they keep evolving to keep up with what’s relevant to people now.

Jul 7, 2010

David Greer says:

I certainly consider the relative duration of the message in my designs. For example, I would not consider using the same type of design for an upcoming concert that I would for my personal Website. You have to consider not only what message you want to deliver, but also the length of time the message must be delivered. Many companies will even modify a design for an event advertised on their Website. You can easily see the timelessness versus the temporary as you move throughout the pages. The basic layout may be the same, but the temporary overtones are quite visible.

Jul 7, 2010

Jeremy Carlson says:

Great post Matt. Sadly, I have not designed anything that would be considered timeless. Or maybe its just me that thinks that because I a continually tinker with things. Either way, this was a very good read.

Jul 7, 2010

Aidan says:

Hi Matt,

I think the main branding should be timeless, however using certain events or promotion at times can enhanced the main branding and provide much diversity to the old logo.

Jul 7, 2010

Berk Gül says:

I wonder how many of that “trendy” designs gonna be remembered after 5 years. At novadays can you see a movement or something new about design or just technical improvements and repetition of old timeless design ecoles?

But yes for that money-based design times i agree with you, catching the moment works for popular design.

Jul 8, 2010

Jacob Cass says:

Thanks for the shout out Matt… just wanted to make sure you are aware of the updated Coke / Pepsi timeline.

Jul 8, 2010

Rachel Phoon says:

Your blog is always a good read but my eyes usually give up halfway because of the white text on black. Is that the design of the moment? Hopefully you can change that soon.

Jul 9, 2010

Mark McCorkell says:

I totally agree – great article! Enjoyed reading that, and very well written. :-)

Jul 12, 2010

Gaurav Mishra says:

Very in-depth article.
had a nice time reading it

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