The Power of First Impressions
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:
Highway signage. Instruction manuals. Alarm clocks. Emergency escape routes. Wedding vows.
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. . .
Can you read the top line?
Eye charts — developed in the mid-19th century by Dr. Franciscus Donders and colleague Herman Snellen in the Netherlands — fascinate me because they are meant to be read, but not in any conventional sense (out loud, without conveying coherent meaning). They start out reading extremely clearly at the top, and then get more mysterious line by line, depending on your eyesight.
Form and content are completely divorced from each other here, because if the letters spelled out actual words, it would be easier to cheat at guessing what they are. Most examples like the one above use serifs on the letters — the extra lines on the ends of each — to make them harder to make out as they get smaller.
This is a simple, inexpensive and low-tech solution that has become visually iconic and is still in use after one hundred and fifty years.
First impression: E! Now how low can I go?
The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
A book about how eyesight works in the brain
So the famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks goes to the eye doctor for his annual checkup, and the letters on the chart start to do funny things. Thus begins his exploration of visual perception in the brain, and an investigation of six other extraordinary people who have learned to cope with extreme and often potentially devastating changes in their vision.
The visual vernacular here of an eye chart was a no-brainer (sorry), but what makes it different is the letterforms going in and out of focus to mimic Sack’s experience. On a book cover, something like this has to be handled very carefully so that it remains readable.
And then there is the color. My original design was much more muted and skewed to the generally monochromatic nature of the source material, but Oliver wanted something livelier, because the stories are actually hopeful and about overcoming adversity. He was right: the iconography of an eye chart is so recognizable that it can easily withstand being rendered in bright red and yellow.
And its calling attention to itself on the bookshelf didn’t hurt, to say the least.
The clarity of the design of the dollar bill has been consistently effective for over one hundred and fifty years, no matter how it has varied: the image of George Washington is just perfect as the representation of the birth of the United States, and its currency: he can be trusted, relied on, believed in (can’t tell a lie!).
The two green tones (soothing, reassuring, earthly), the precise engraving and stamping, the texture of the resilient cotton and linen paper in the hand that can withstand countless transactions — this is great graphic design that hundreds of millions of people interact with every day.
First impression: In this we trust.
The American People by Larry Kramer
A novel about the history of The United States
Larry Kramer’s searing fictional revisionist history of the United States includes a panoply of well-known figures, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more. I chose to start at the beginning, with Washington, and take a detail of a famous portrait of him from 1796 by Gilbert Stuart. I was definitely influenced by the dollar bill, but thought that by actually using that, this would look too much like a book about finance, which it definitely is not.
Even though the close-up is extreme, we know Washington’s face so well that, coupled with the book’s title, the viewer can easily put two and two together: this is going to be a new point of view about the American Story. The boldness and modernity of the typeface (Blender by Nik Thoenen) signals that this is a contemporary take on historic material.
Like five fingers.
When designing the cover of a book, one starts with the text and uses it as a guide to suggest visuals. In my case, since I mostly work on hardcover first editions, the text is usually an unedited manuscript. There is something about reading a book in its raw form that helps me really get into the head of the author; I feel like I am there at the creation of the work.
In Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, there was a particular phrase about a third of the way in that seemed to define what the jacket should be.
The story itself is about the title character’s sudden exile from his four very closest friends’ circle, for no apparent reason, and his long journey back from the pit of despair this plunges him into. It takes years for him to heal from this, and then to gain the courage to confront his friends one by one to find out why they cast him out. In the meantime he becomes fascinated by the Tokyo transit system and eventually finds meaningful employment as an engineer designing train stations.
The first of the friends he tracks down is Ao, who now has a successful Lexus dealership in their hometown of Nagoya. He seems to have no animosity towards Tsukuru, and when they go to lunch and talk, he recalls the five friends as you see underlined in red above.
First impression: An image of a hand is the perfect metaphor to depict the closeness of this quintet.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
A novel about four close friends who cast out a 5th
The image of a hand here is abstracted, and may not be clear at first. That is fine, as a major theme in the story is that Tsukuru’s banishment is a total mystery to him. His four friends — two men, two women — each have names that in Japanese correspond to a color: Mr. Red, Mr. Blue, Miss White and Miss Black. Tsukuru’s name has no such association, so he goes by Colorless. He is represented here as the “thumb” on the hand — a symbolic anchor that supports the others — and is represented by a detail of a Tokyo railway map, which just happens to use the colors of his friends.
Note that when Ao makes the reference to five fingers, he raises his right hand, so that informed which one I should depict.
On the physical book, each of the five “fingers” is actually a die-cut window (literally a hole punched out with a metal die by the printer) in the jacket itself, and when you remove it, the visual narrative on the cover/binding continues and leads to a new meaning.
This design is not meant to be immediately understood: the idea is to entice the reader to investigate the book in order to decode it. But the materials used — silver ink for the background, cellophane behind each finger-window — are very clearly intended to draw you in, in a way that an image on a screen cannot.
What’s going to happen next?
Well, that’s one of the biggest mysteries of all, isn’t it? Fortune cookies have been around for the past one hundred years, and we hold out hope, after a Chinese meal, that they will tell us what to expect. Or at least we are entertained by them, spurred on to think about what they might mean. On the one hand it’s silly; on the other, it’s possibly something to think about.
The design of the fortunes is a fascinating combination of simplicity and reduction that enlivens the theater of the mind and its infinite conjectures on the possibilities of fate. And all from one sentence on a tiny slip of paper!
And then, of course, there’s interpretation: the fortunes are deliberately vague, so that we draw from our personal experiences in order to bring a sense of explanation to them.
First impression: What does this mean, and how does it apply to me?
All The Beauty You Will Ever Need by David Sedaris
An essay collection
This was the book that eventually became When You Are Engulfed In Flames, and is the only cover in this volume that didn’t actually get produced. As sometimes happens in publishing, the author was weighing several different titles, and finally selected a different one.
Such a change also, of course, affects the cover design process and how I adapt my methods. The original title, All The Beauty You’ll Ever Need, didn’t directly apply to the content of any of the essays in the book, so in that sense I was free to think about an original context for the phrase. A Chinese fortune cookie seemed apt, as it provided a visual that I thought most everyone could recognize, yet had an attending sense of mystery. Note that the form of just the slip of paper is so strong and recognizable that I didn’t need to include cracked bits of cookie around it.
When the final title became what it is, I tried it in the same design scheme, but it just didn’t work — I think mainly because fortune cookies never tell you anything as shocking as the fact that you’re on fire, right now.
David found a painting by Van Gogh of a skeleton smoking, and that was great — the subject had already been through it all.