Reading between the beautiful lines

Craig Brooks – Art Director

The illusionist, Derren Brown once did an experiment on two creatives from an advertising agency to highlight the powers of subliminal messaging. Popping them into a taxi on their way to a creative workshop with him, Derren hides messages and designs along the route that would seed ideas into their brains. 

Once he has the creatives in a studio, he sets them a task to create a brand-new store, with a company name, strapline and a logo (in half an hour). And the business in this experiment? Taxidermy.  

Derren has already created his artwork, sealed in an envelope and, after the creatives reveal their designs (an illustration of a bear with a harp, outside some heavenly zoo gates with the name ‘Animal Heaven’ with a pair of angel wings as a logo) Derren then shows his design which turns out to be exactly the same.

Smart trick right, bit of magic? Well, this illustrates how we’re all affected by design, consciously and unconsciously. Most designers and agencies are fully aware of the impact and retention that design has on customers and how we’re all generally persuaded by it. In this case the subliminal markers that Derren laid out for the creatives along their journey informed their decisions as they concepted their ideas.

Advertising and Creative agencies have mastered the art of creative persuasion through the power of design, imagery and copy. Such creative visuals, slogans and logos are all part of our daily lives and ingrained into our brains when we make what we consider to be personal decisions regarding our purchases. The effect influences our choices whether it’s our daily grocery shop, buying a car, updating to the very latest tech or some new health kick.

Derren goes on to explain that we all unknowingly register the campaigns and branding around us in our day-to-day lives, so that when we pop to a supermarket, we’ll already have a subconscious familiarity with certain products.

So, knowing the influence of design magic – albeit a subtle persuasion – that creatives have on a customer, does this come with due diligence and a sense of responsibility? 

And not only relating to persuading someone to buy a product, but that product’s cost to the environment; is the packaging recyclable? What’s its carbon footprint planet? Does the company have a strong ethical culture? Is it sustainably-minded, regenerative even? Or has it fallen foul of a spot of greenwashing?

A lot of companies now are trying to accommodate a more sustainable approach, encompassing social change as well as the environment and the economy. Design has a vital role to play in the future of our planet by positively influencing the way we shop – helping us make informed decisions and better choices.

Product designers for example have an obligation to be aware of the vulnerability of our natural systems and that we don’t have infinite resources. Their opportunity is to focus on re-usable goods, circularity and even being able to repair products in the future.

Patagonia are great example of responsible product design; they encourage customers to look after their clothes and extend their lifespan by repairing damaged instead of buying new. They have a ton of DIY repair tutorials on their website so you can mend a garment yourself, plus you can trade and buy used gear. And to top it all off, Patagonia is also powered by 100% renewable energy. Kudos. 

And as well as promoting repair, their creative campaigns also show support for climate action, espousing their mission to ‘Build the best product. Cause no unnecessary harm. Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.’

They’re bringing our attention to a conversation about real change, leading by example and encouraging us all to take note and perhaps also buy a fleece. But the theme is less is more, think before you buy, what impact will this have to the environment?  

This form of responsible design encourages a more sustainable world for us.

On the flip side we have ‘fast fashion’, where manufacturers churn out low quality clothes at cheap prices, knowing people will discard garments and keep buying more. 

Quick-fire creative fills social media with attractive designs, where the lure of the ‘latest’ garment is on the end of the dangling ‘burnt orange’ carrot. 

France just recently approved a bill that targets fast fashion, banning the advertising of companies like Shein and Temu while increasing taxation. And a touch of Patagonia’s model comes into play with the French government also adding a mandate that fast fashion retailers must display an item’s reuse, repair, recycling and environmental impact alongside its price tag. So perhaps the responsible design approach of Patagonia and others is beginning to have an impact on fast fashion, with politicians not just taking note but finally acting.

Another industry under the spotlight – and rightly so – is e-cigarettes. Here irresponsible design comes in the guise of cartoon characters, sweetie names and childlike designs with bright colours, highlighting just how much the companies creating e-cigarettes are targeting young people. So, while they’re not suggesting that e-cigarettes are good for you, the industry is still masking the harmful health issues with colourful, shiny design to lure young customers in. Here designers and CEOs need to be held responsible for the impact caused to society and our kids, rather than purely focusing on profit.  

But this approach isn’t new, let’s not forget that in the 50’s, cigarettes were marketed as a healthy pursuit, and ‘Just what the doctor ordered’. Responsible design and the moral compass were nowhere in sight back then.

This sort of ‘irresponsible’ design is common. We’ve all fallen foul of what is perhaps perceived as healthy or good for you via the attractive brand design or packaging with models looking happy eating their doughnuts. But once unwrapped the reality is basically full of sugar, cholesterol and regret. Then there’s the copious amounts of packaging that still can’t be widely recycled to be addressed, with many companies and supermarkets, still pushing the eye-catching and colourful designs that can’t go in the recycle bin.

Ultimately being aware of having the designer wool being pulled over your eyes and being subliminally seduced by an unethical brand must come down to our instinct as customers, having faith that we can read between the beautifully created lines.  

On the whole today’s consumers do seem to be looking at brands differently – scrutinizing their ethics and customer responsibilities and paying more attention to what they’re doing to help society and the environment. And if companies are switched on, they’ll do well to prioritize responsible design and be aware of the benefits it’ll have in the long-term creating a sense of wellbeing, trust and potentially increased revenue. 

Now throw AI into the mix, our new superhero sidekick which can churn out creative faster than Derren Brown’s magic tricks. The responsibility of design versus the speed of creating a quick logo, a 300-word boilerplate or the fictious image of Jesus smoking an e-cigarette whilst wearing a Shein smock. Here’s where companies need to tread carefully to manage the onslaught of fast and cheap design, making sure to use AI as a tool rather than relying on it as a droid type of designer.

AI has the potential to introduce more design irresponsibility by blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s fake within marketing and advertising campaigns. AI tempts creative professionals to use shortcuts when up against a deadline through its abilities to bend reality and buy time. The bigger picture of AI is being investigated by the powers that be, but it’ll also need policing locally when it comes to use in design.

So there’s much for us to be mindful of when it comes to responsible design. Creative agencies not only need to monitor and take responsibility for how clients are portrayed through brand and design output, but agencies themselves need to remain transparent on their values and ethics too.

At Future Positive we start by working with organisations that are looking to solve the world’s most complex problems, whether it’s through renewable energy innovations, cutting-edge sustainable technologies or breakthroughs in healthcare and medicine. We steer clear of the companies leaving a growing mountain of e-cigarettes, plastic pollution and discarded fast fashion garments in their wake.

We also do pro-bono work for companies with planet saving initiatives, like RegenIntel (Regenerative Intelligence) a new venture from the environmental pioneers that created Project Drawdown. They came to us to help develop a brand that could represent the goal of activating humanity towards becoming a planet-positive species.

Then through our research, workshops and creativity, we adopt a human-centred approach, concentrating on the end user and ensuring each client’s value is captured succinctly, and any complexity is made truly compelling. Creating experiences with the intention to do good, being fully transparent and avoiding any miscommunication to build trust between the company and its customer.

And we have a responsibility to create original work when it comes to producing campaigns or creating a new brand for our clients, so they can truly stand out amongst the noise and eclipse those companies that are solely interested in profit without considering their impact on people and the planet.

So, if by creating responsible design for our clients and heeding these values ourselves, could we perhaps as creatives, do our bit in making the world a better place?

Accreditations such as B-Corp are certainly helping to encourage businesses to do so, and working alongside a responsible, sustainable company is now an appealing proposition to attract potential clients.

Although this is a positive direction, there’s still a long way to go with accountability within agencies, clients and brands. Here’s hoping that these outdated and somewhat irresponsible ‘masters of persuasion’ (as Derren puts it) become a thing of the past and the more responsible creatives, ‘the purveyors of transparency’ say, become the new norm and forge a better creative and sustainable path.

Craig Brooks is Art Director at Future Positive. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn to chat about using design magic to influence business for the better.