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Re: graphic design and law

From: James Souttar <ancient-AT-urizen.com>
Date: 19 Apr 2001 17:13:36 UTC   (01:13:36 PM in author's locale)
To: "The Graphics List" <graphics-AT-lists.graphicslist.org>

>Which raises another point: What is the determining factor that ultimately
>sways an audience to change their views and opinions? Is it repetition, size,
>measure of beauty and ugliness (whether it has captured out attention to that
>we either remember or instantly forget), color, volume, etc.

There's a mathematical model called 'Catastrophe Theory' that shows,
rather elegantly, how a steady build up of factors can suddenly
produce a paradoxical change. A certain point comes where an
apparently stable, coherent system suddenly 'flips'. (The graphics
that accompany Catastrophe Theory are rather beautiful, too - a kind
of three dimensional folded wave form with a little area that, if I
remember rightly, goes into a fourth dimension). But the basic point,
I think, is that what it takes for us to change our views and
opinions is a steady accumulation of influences - in which repetition
and volume (i.e. 'loudness') definitely play their part.

In a book which I'm sure I mentioned here before, 'Battle for the
Mind', Dr William Sargant explored the ways in which beliefs could be
modified. He begins with a rather robust model derived from Pavlovian
conditioning, which is probably closer to what secret servicemen do
than anything a political party might be allowed to do, but he goes
on to look at more subtle forms of influence. Sargant was of the
opinion that all beliefs are changeable, except those held by some
psychotics. He also maintained the old Roman belief that there were
four temperaments, of which the 'phlegmatics' were far more difficult
to influence than the others. The rather unmotivated person who
doesn't seem to believe in anything much is the one that is hardest
to change. Curiously, the easiest group to influence are people who
are 'enthusiasts' (generally 'melancholics') - the person who is
boring you rigid with their new found religious fervour one week is
the person most likely to have swapped it for something else next

Malcolm Gladwell explores all this from another angle in 'The Tipping
Point' - his thesis is that ideas and fashions spread like epidemics,
and that *the people* who spread them are more important than the
ideas themselves. Most influential are the people he describes as
'connectors' - those who know a great number of people in a wide
range of spheres, and who are very good at maintaining social
connections with them. He begins the book by arguing that Paul Revere
was a classic connector, which is why he was so successful in
rallying the militias in his famous 'night ride', whilst we've mostly
never heard of William Dawes (who pretty much did the same thing as
Revere, at the same time but in a different direction) because he
just didn't have the same kinds of contacts (or influence).

>I once talked with a successful business man, whose work was in jewelry and
>fine watches, who told me that if I wanted my business to get attention that I
>should plant the biggest most obnoxious sign in the front yard that I could
>possibly afford. Now, you'd think that jewelry and watches were on the cutting
>edge of fashion design, and that he would follow suit in tasteful decor, but
>this man managed to earn a fine living for his family on a local level, and he
>still has an ugly as hell sign.

Few things cause as much confusion in our business as this idea of
'taste'. The problem is that we mean two quite distinct things by it.
On the one hand, 'tasteful' means something that has been put
together with a craftsperson's eye - harmonious, well proportioned,
beautiful. But mostly what we mean by 'taste' in visual communication
is something which says 'you're not one of us, but you'd like to be'.
In reality, if not always in appearance, the two things are miles

Advertising and promotion play 'good cop, bad cop' games with this
second kind of taste (and are, in my experience, rarely interested in
the first kind). Aspirational brands appeal to the part of ourselves
that feels that we're somehow not good enough. The brands tell us
'you're not cool/smart/rich/young/trendy/sexy/wired enough to drive
our car/use our snowboard/wear our perfume, but we might just let you
through if you really, really try'. It's a brilliant way of making a
mundane product seem glamorous - not by making the product any more
desirable, but by making us feel it's almost out of our reach. That's
what we might call the 'good cop' approach (although I see little
'good' about it!). 'Bad cop' is more or less the opposite - it's when
the devil seems to be whispering to us 'you can enjoy vulgarity
without being affected by it'. For instance, the publishers who
produce tabloid newspapers know that if you ask people what they
read, most will say a highbrow broadsheet. But if you add up all the
supposed broadsheet readers, you'd find that there are three times as
many as actual broadsheet papers sold. What is it that sells the
tabloids? The fact is that some primitive part of ourselves us is
drawn to the salacious gossip, the indignant opinions, the scantily
clad models - and we feel we can indulge it whilst remaining above it
(which is why we don't want to admit to being tabloid readers). One
can see in this example both factors at work - the one working on our
vanity and affectations (marketing broadsheets), the other on our
vulgarity and smugness (marketing the 'red tops').

BULGARI (Should that be 'BVLGARI'?) don't put up an obnoxious sign -
better for their brand that there's nobody in the shop, because they
want most people to feel they don't have the courage to even walk in
there. That way, every big shot Colombian drug lord can feel like
he's better than the rest of us, that he's arrived, because he wears
a Bvlgari watch. On the other hand, here in the UK, there used to be
a mid-market chain called Ratners that did a roaring trade in the
eighties selling cheap gilt jewellery. However the CEO - Gerald
Ratner - made the fatal error of saying in public that the reason
they were so cheap was because the product was 'crap'. 'Vulgar'
marketing depends on our belief that we're smarter than the people
who are selling us something, that we're making a conscious choice to
stoop down to their level so we can derive some benefit from it. In
the case of the jewellery, this is the idea that we've got something
of perceived value for next to nothing (because the retailers appear
to be idiots, not realizing what they are selling - or selling it
'ridiculously' cheaply). Needless to say, this gaffe blew the
Ratner's proposition (showing them to be more cynical and calculating
than their customers) and within a few months the chain was in


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