I’m going to attempt to explore the duality of the role of clichés in design. As we know, they proliferate in daily life. Sometimes a cliché can be humorous, it’s use subverted in conversation to become ironic…like a double-flip cliché gone full circle from funny to cliché to funny again.

But look up the word in your dictionary and you’ll find a bunch of similar phrases and words that would make your skin crawl were they associated with your brand. Commonplace, platitude, unoriginal, overused, tired, banal, trite…to name a few.

But clichés are everywhere in designed material, aren’t they? Well, yes they are…but why?

There are so many different types of cliché; verbal, visual, even people and actions can be considered a cliché (think Trump). And we all know the tired old phrases, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ and  ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ but there are other, more commonly used phrases, that we just can’t seem to stop ourselves using over and over and over again. ‘At the end of the day’, ‘To be honest’ and ‘Literally’ top the list of those that are tripping off our tongues at the highest frequency. And not only are they superfluous and meaningless but they are often absurd. As this quote from Nick Clegg’s party speech about a Tycoon Tax demonstrates:

“It makes people so incredibly angry when you are getting up early in the morning, working really hard to try and do the right thing for your family and for your community, you are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.”


(Ref. https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/english-cliches.html)

Visual clichés work in exactly the same way but can insinuate themselves into our visual vernacular in a more subtle way. We are all aware of the overuse of the heart in relation to healthcare, the scale for justice, the cog for systems, the eye for oversight and looking, the handshake for partnership and togetherness, the cupped hands for charities and poverty, the raised hands for community and family…in fact, if you want to avoid a visual cliché just steer clear of hands altogether.

But visual clichés can also be more subtle, what about typefaces? Read Rob Giampietro’s fascinating article “New Black Face: Neuland and Lithos as “Stereotypography”, which explores the ‘Neuland Question’ which asks how typefaces; Neuland and Lithos became synonymous with Africa, Africans and African Americans. In todays’ visual culture typefaces are often used to depict ethnicity in a way that can only be perceived as slightly racist. And yet ethnic communities will adopt the very same typefaces to ensure legibility in the market place. The article is fascinating and raises many interesting points. (Ref. https://fscviscomadvertising2.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/newblackface.pdf).

In some cases though, surely it can be ‘ethnicity as celebration’, as Nando’s rebrand would have us believe. (Read more here). But it’s still a cliché isn’t it? Or is it the intention that makes it the cliché…the slick meaninglessness of over used cultural symbols rather than a celebration of global cultures in all their originality? Tough questions that we as designers always need to ask ourselves.

So how do we learn from clichés and use them to our advantage? In two articles I have read while researching this topic there is a common theme. That the first solution that comes to mind is rarely the right one…but it can be a useful starting point.

We can’t help thinking in clichés but once identified they can be noted as directions not to go in. Often clients will request the most obvious clichéd response to a design brief in order to ensure instant legibility. But this is dangerous, it assumes the intended viewer is not intelligent enough to interpret something more discerning and also implies that the necessary research has not taken place for the brand to really know who it is marketing to.

According to Shanon Marks, President of MU/DAI, to do good design work designers “…need money, guts and time, but you rarely have all three at once. ..And it’s this scarcity that allows clichés to proliferate within the design field”. But he insists also that “When it comes to producing great work quickly, clichés can be both a launching pad for inspired design…” as well as “…a serious roadblock to progress”. (Ref: http://www.howdesign.com/articles/design-cliches-can-help-leverage-wisely/).

What is understood, is that when someone views a piece of visual material, it is in those moments taken to discern it’s meaning that a relationship between the viewer and the visual message takes place. And if that message is on point, clever and relevant it has more chance to resonate in a person’s mind and allow the relationship to take place. When we hear and view clichés we don’t listen. We are inured, they have no meaning.

It is possible to use the cliché as parody, although I probably wouldn’t recommend its overuse! DBB Sydney recently subverted clichés in car advertising (think landscape, empty road, moody sky, cool couple) for their new ŠKODA campaign to create a jarring contrast to the usual car ad…and with a decent dose of humour. See here and here.

ŠKODA Australia managing director Michael Irmer’s response was extremely positive: “I thought: ‘This is brilliant! Why has no-one thought of it before?’ Initially we wanted to do a more conventional ad which points outs the merits of the car, but another way of doing it was found and it’s one we couldn’t resist…I think now that this will make you think of ŠKODA every time you see one of those car brands that uses the clichés.”(Ref: https://lbbonline.com/news/ddb-sydney-skoda-subvert-car-advertising-cliches-in-brilliant-new-campaign/)


So, if you want to avoid clichéd pitfalls, design ‘from the ground up’ and ‘do more with less’ to ‘go the extra mile’. Yawn yawn.


Also referenced in this blog post: (Ref: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/02/clich-s-and-idea-generation-how-to-turn-clich-in-a-successful-visual-solution/ By Dan Mayer)