At a grand gala event this past December I met the president of a Fortune 10 company who happens to be a client of ours. We have been designing and implementing a large visual brand program for his firm. Our direct contacts at the organization invited us to the gala and were eager to introduce us. We were introduced by the director of marketing, with whom we have been working on the design of the company’s new branding program.

One sentence into our introduction, he asked me a question that no client, colleague or student had ever asked. He asked, “What’s the single guiding principle that inspires your work?” Man, now that’s a design question.

Well, I answered him by saying something about layering messages to create something visually interesting. And gave an example. He nodded, shook my hand and thanked me for the work we were doing for his organization and very politely moved on to the next meet and greet.

The president will most likely have no memory of the exchange, or at least I hope not, because I would like to try and answer his question again. A “do over”, if you will, in the hopes of providing a more satisfying answer.

While there are many guiding principles of design – rationality, engagement, and strategy, to name a few – I would say the guiding principle that inspires my work is delight.

To me, delight is the moment when the light goes on for the viewer. It is that moment when they are let in on the secret. To achieve this we like to employ what we think of as the “aha moment.” In my work, this moment happens when the viewer is engaged by a visual puzzle just long enough to decipher the message, make the connection, and be delighted for the effort. When this is achieved, whether it’s through a tagline, a logo, poster or other form of communication, this sense of delight can make any piece of communication memorable and indelibly connected to the sender.

The “aha moment” is most often achieved by the layering of information. It is the very act of taking two or more different but equally relevant pieces of information, such as an image and a letterform or word, or even two distinct visuals, and combining them in a new and unique way.

Let me try to explain further by showing you three examples.

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The first example is a brand identity for an activist group fighting to secure the right to vote for felons after they have paid their debt to society. Originally started as a project for a class I lead at Parsons, the New School for Design, the student team worked with the fundamentals of layering information to arrive at this solution. They created a symbol that is both a stylized American flag and a jail cell lock. Again, two very relevant images that when combined, form a simple and unforgettable visual message.

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A second example is this irreverent poster announcing a church sponsored chili cook- off. As you can see in the inset image, this example again combines two different, but relevant images, a chili pepper and the devil into something new and engaging. And you know the image is engaging when the senior minister is so delighted that he adds the headline “ One Hell of a Good Time.”

The last example is a paper product developed for a small publisher, Good Dog Press. This series of note cards, themed, “It’s About Time,” showcases images developed around common cliches like “Plenty of Time,” “Time and Time Again,” and “Time After Time.” The success of the product was clearly driven by consumers’ surprise and delight as they pondered the image on the front and then discovered the cliche on the back.

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Delight, to me, starts with something that is relevant to what is being communicated, e.g., the chili pepper is a relevant image or message for communicating chili. The next step is to create something arresting or new that makes the viewer stop and take notice, pause to figure it out. Personifying the chili pepper as a devil is just that kind of surprise. And hopefully the combination of the pepper and the devil presented by, of all things, a church, should stop the viewer in their tracks as they ask themselves, “What is the sender trying to tell me?” I hope this is a more satisfying answer to the question posed. I am very thankful for being presented with such a savvy question from someone who clearly understands the value of design and the impact it can have on his business. The question challenged me to better articulate this concept for myself. And should I ever be asked that question again, I’m confident I will provide a better answer.

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