Getting noticed for the right reasons

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.Almost 30 years ago, The New York Times ran an interview with media guru Marshall McLuhan in which the great...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Almost 30 years ago, The New York Times ran an interview with media guru Marshall McLuhan in which the great man observed:

‘Some think that an ad is good if it gets noticed. This is quite mistaken. The work of an ad is totally subconscious. As soon as you realize it is an ad, it is not serving its function.’

Conventional wisdom would strongly disagree with this notion.

But for those who doubt the veracity of McLuhan’s statement, witness the debacle surrounding the Progressive Conservative party’s recent spate of heavy-handed tv commercials.

Had they not been so ‘noticeable,’ they may not have been so damaging.

Does this dictum carry any weight in the world of graphic design as well? Does a package stop being effective if its design gets ‘noticed?’ Does a brochure stop being read once you realize it is a brochure?

With respect to the memory of Mr. McLuhan, we would have to say ‘no’ to both of those questions.

What killed the pc party was not that its ads got noticed – but that they got noticed for all the wrong reasons.

But to be noticed for all the right reasons – beauty, intelligence, wit – is not damaging, but constructive.

Such are the qualities in the brochure depicted here, entitled ‘Check Up’.

Published by the Harvard Community Health Plan of Boston, this newsletter is noticeable for a number of reasons.

First of all, consider its unusual dimensions.

Rather than adhere to the oft-repeated 8.5-inch by 11-inch or 11-inch by 17-inch formats that characterize most newsletters, this one has cleverly halved the 11′ x 17′ dimension vertically, creating a unique (read: ‘noticeable’) document.

Unique, but also practical: when folded in half again, it is the size of a standard mailing envelope, making distribution painless.

In so doing, it avoids the trap designers so often fall into: in an honest attempt to create visual differentiation for our clients, we end up so far outside the envelope that it will not go in the mail (both literally and figuratively.)

Beyond its clever format, this newsletter also makes an intelligent case for the use of color.

Like the magician who pulls an endless stream of kerchiefs from the sleeve, the designer has used four pantone colors to create the illusion of many more.

By using a combination of solids, tints and duotones, the original four specials have been extended to look like at least 13 colors.

Color has also been used as an organizational device.

The 20-page newsletter is divided into two major sections.

The first and last six pages are devoted to editorial, and the middle eight make up a kind of classified section entitled ‘Health Wanted.’

The editorial section is characterized by a variety of hues, while the ‘Health Wanted’ section is limited to three only, clearly marking the latter as pure information, and the former as lively discourse.

Typographically, the designer has multiplied the use of two typefaces (Gill and Garamond) to create a rich but disciplined texture that rivals the intelligent use of color.

By varying weights and sizes, and by carefully juxtaposing the use of positive and knockout text, a complex array of information is clearly communicated.

Although the use of imagery is quite restrained, it is all executed with a sense of warmth and intimacy which is appropriate for a document that deals with such personal issues.

Almost all photography consists of facial close-ups and is reproduced in a variety of soft duotones. Illustrations are simple and loose, sometimes used as background imagery, other times as symbolic icons.

Last but not least, there is the layout.

Text, color and image have been woven into a rhythm that is lively enough to keep the pages turning

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.