The Absence of Preconception

Surprise is unexpected, the absence of preconception. We must be unaware, unprepared, and unknowing. When it comes hurtling down at such speed, we must not know what hit us. And yet we do know it when we see it because we’ve never seen, heard, or felt it before.

The world was surprised when Volkswagen launched its “Think Small” and “Lemon” campaigns. But the forgotten ad above (from 1962) is still a surprise.

Everyone is surprised differently yet entire masses of people can be surprised by the same thing. Of course, aesthetics and functionality play a role in a product’s success, but generally the surprise of newness is the single greatest motivating force in design. That is unless a something is supposed to be tried-and-true, in which case a surprising change may have an adverse effect.

Don’t mistake surprise for shock. What is shocking can be surprising, but what is surprising is not necessarily shocking. It is difficult to shock people in this high-intensity, information-deluged world, everyone has seen and heard virtually everything that can be seen or heard. So the ante is much higher when it comes to shocking people than it is when surprising people. It should come as no surprise that surprise is easier to accomplish. Moreover, we don’t relish being shocked. But we love being surprised. Surprise is the spice of life. But as with too many jalapeno peppers, the body can tolerate only so much.

Surprise is a double-edged sword (which admittedly is not a surprising statement). The need to surprise may contradict good judgment. In the Sixties The Saturday Evening Post surprised its loyal readers with a new and improved format designed by Herb Lubalin. For design connoisseurs it was a delightful change from its tired, conventional layout, but for its core demographic it was akin to being invited to a surprise party where all the guests were your idiot cousin. The magazine folded a few years later, which in retrospect should not have been a surprise.

There are countless instances where surprise has done more than simply piqued a transitory interest but has rather altered the visual environment. In such cases the word “inventive” could replace surprise. But the word surprise is the impulsive sensation — inventive is the final analysis. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” record cover was one of the most surprisingly inventive creations of the past fifty years. If you did not hear or see the album when it was released it is difficult to explain how its brilliance reverberated throughout popular culture. The album design, a rogues-gallery of portraits, by Peter Blake was was like a nesting doll, a surprise filled with hidden surprises. It may have been the first time that an album cover could be analyzed like a fine painting. Nothing had preceded it, but scores of album designs followed its lead. And today, it is a graphic icon every bit as popular (and clichéd) as Grant Wood’s much parodied painting American Gothic.

Surprise is memorable. The “Think Small” andLemon” ads for Volkswagen created by Helmut Krone at Doyle Dane Bernbach comprised one of the most surprising campaigns of its day. It was the first to invoke self-ridicule to demonstrate a product’s assets. The public was not prepared for a product to expose its limitations in the open, and make a virtue out of them, to boot. But they did enjoy the honest humor. This campaign rejected all the conventions of hype and hucksterism and doing so, changed the course of advertising.

Perhaps there was no greater shift in 1990s graphic design than the issues of Emigre magazine after it turned from a “culture tabloid” to a clarion for the New Digital Typography. Rudy VanderLans’ design and Zuzana Licko’s typefaces (and all they influenced) altered the models that designers were used to following. The grid-locked printed page had been busted open before, but when Emigre introduced its raucous experiments, it came as a totally surprising challenge to convention. It continued to test the tolerance of legibility and readability as it showed the lengths to which that other surprise, the Macintosh could function in the design world.

For designers surprise is an end to a means. Yet when surprise is real it is really a revelation.

 


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3 COMMENTS

  1. Steven, THANK YOU for this post.  It is brilliant – in part because I am in such emphatic agreement with your point :)
    The surest measure of effective communication – and I don’t care whether we’re talking about design or advertising (where I come from) are surprise and relevance.
    It’s a rule I used for years as a writer and creative director – and passed along to some of my left-brain colleagues who didn’t know a good ad from a bad one, to help them evaluate what they were looking at.
    Surprise without relevance is usually shocking as you point out.
    Great post.

  2. I remember the Lubalin redesign of the Saturday Evening Post.   But I can’t place any blame on Herb’s makeover.  Curtis Publishing was in trouble and floundering, and the Post wasn’t the only one in trouble.  Life and Look were suffering as well, as the market shifted away from what they did, and Collier’s was already a casualty.
    Otto Friedrich, who was the Post’s last Managing Editor, wrote a book about the whole experience called “Decline and Fall, which is worth a read if you haven’t: http://www.amazon.com/Decline-Fall-Otto-Friedrich/dp/0345222377

    Dennis