First impressions are the key to how we perceive the world, and are perceived by it. They are our introductions to everything: acquaintances, the workplace, products, experiences, retail stores, the Internet, entertainment, relationships, design. And based on our first impressions, we judge things.
I’ve found that the two most effective and fascinating aspects of first impressions — both the ones I create and those I encounter — are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Clarity and Mystery. After over thirty years as a practicing designer, I continue to be amazed by how these two components work, and what happens when they get mixed up or misused.
When should you be clear?
That depends on the message you want to get across, and its nature. You should be clear when you need people to understand you immediately. You want others to be clear when you need vital and specific information — say, technical guidance for your computer or phone, or when you’re lost and you ask someone for directions. In either case, what is needed is clarity, and when it’s not there we all know the results can be very frustrating. Especially when your GPS cuts out.
A more extreme but not uncommon example is when you hear recordings of 911 calls on the news. I always think, “If I were taking the call, would I be able to understand what the situation is?” The answer varies, and of course the calls are usually made in moments of intense panic, but these are definitely situations when a person needs to be understood.
If we apply this idea to design in our everyday lives, the examples start to become, well, clear:
When decoration — a pretty facade, ornamentation, elaboration — really doesn’t matter at all, clarity is most needed.
Clarity is sincere, direct, reasonable, basic, honest, perfectly readable.
But when it’s automatically applied to everything, things can get kind of boring. Now, let’s look at the yin to this yang, and ask:
When should you be mysterious?
Ah, the allure of Mystery. And the fun of it. Or, if we’re not careful, the disappointment of it. Mystery is an extremely powerful tool; just ask Gypsy Rose Lee (kids, do a Web search) or the creators of Lost. You should be mysterious when you want to get people’s attention and hold it, when you want your audience to work harder — when, frankly, you have something to hide.
Mystery is: a puzzle that demands to be solved, a secret code you want to crack, an illusion that may not be one at all, a dream you’re trying to remember before it fades away.
Mystery, it must be said, can also be terrifying: phantom pain, sudden change, irrational behavior, the loss of power. The threat of the unknown.
In my own work, mystery is hugely important. I design covers for all kinds of books: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history, memoir, essay, comics. Each demands its own visual approach. Sometimes I want the viewer to “get it” right away, but more often I want to intrigue him or her enough to investigate the book further (i.e., to open it up, begin to read it, and hopefully buy it).
Mystery, by its very nature, is much more complex than clarity, and I try to create a balance between the two.
Judgment at work.
Okay, so let’s put our judging to work. Here are some more examples of images and objects I see every day, but now I’ll show how I’ve applied them to solving design problems in my working life (mostly book covers).
I’ve found it important to be constantly alive to the possibilities of my environment; that way, everything becomes fodder for ideas.
You never know when something might be useful, even if it’s you. . .