Two or three years ago, one of our clients came to us for some interior design assistance. We explained to them that we really didn’t do that, but they were on a limited budget and really needed a hand. We noted that the whole thing was outside of our skill set; however, we could likely pick a selection of colours for the walls, which would inexpensively allow them to bring some life to a rather generic space.
So, we collected some photos, consulted our swatch library, and provided some suggestions on a palette that would both add energy to the space, and help it feel more organic and personal. They seemed to appreciate the direction, until they viewed the suggested warm yellow in the entrance. We were a little puzzled by such a strong reaction to one colour. Upon asking why the one party was so troubled by the tone, she responded, “that’s the colour my Grandma had in her kitchen.”
Why was yellow such a big deal?
To this individual, the colour symbolized a particular space and time in her life, which had an either out-of-date or negative association. The colour had connotations for her, which were highly personal and subsequently quite overwhelming. From a designer’s perspective however, this rationale against the use of a colour seemed highly invalid in a larger sense. Although it often occurs, designers can’t limit a workable design solution due to the personal history of any one individual.
I often mention the “yellow kitchen” in discussion. It has become shorthand in our studio for a subjective reaction which serves to compromise an otherwise sound direction. These are particularly challenging situations, as the emotional reaction of one individual can limit the potential effectiveness of a project unnecessarily. Additionally, this lack of objectivity is as difficult to rationalize to the person making the observation, as it is to explain to a 5 year old, that mushrooms “really, really do taste good.”
From my discussion with other firms, this topic comes up relatively commonly in the average design studio. Type and colour seem to be the hot spots, where we find the greatest level of emotionally charged discussion. On numerous occasions, we have worked to convince a client that Comic Sans is not a sound type direction; however, colour much more commonly becomes a contentious topic. My belief is that this is a result of the power of colour, and how deeply it penetrates our psyches, and influences our subsequent reactions and decisions.
Objective feedback from a client can be very difficult to reach where creative matters are concerned. As designers, it is our job to help divorce our clients from emotional beliefs, if they are inaccurate. At our studio, we’ve found some success in asking for very specific information from our clients. We try to get away from questions such as “do you like it?” by moving towards questions relating to the challenge and effectiveness of the proposed solution. Most of our clients are very good at what they do. The knowledge they have of their business/practice is generally admirable. We need to tap that knowledge, as it’s something we can’t supply, and it’s where we can acquire the most useful feedback.
There is one phrase in design which I have come to dread. It is simply, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In my mind, this comment represents the loss of any logical direction, and the triumph of subjectivity gone awry. It leaves the designer blindly searching for a magical solution, which will fulfill all of the client’s inner dreams and desires. I consider this akin to playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”
Mining for insightful feedback
We counteract this sort of comment by working to cajole a response, through a number of probing questions. We ask comparative questions such as whether the proposed solution it is too contemporary, or not enough so. We might ask if it should feel bigger or smaller, colder or warmer, brighter or darker, younger or older, and so on, and so forth.
Often this type of discussion helps us understand what the client is expecting to see, and in-turn allows us to determine whether we have missed the goal of the project, or whether a personal visual reaction/language may be at work. Sometimes the emotional needs of the client and the end goal of the project are inharmonious, which can result in a circular set of revisions and exploration, which is hard to escape from. Such a situation should be addressed and dealt with with great decisiveness and action.
In a presentation she gave in Vancouver, for the GDC, Debbie Millman noted that for many companies, when they say they want to be more progressive, they in fact mean that they want to use royal blue in their logo instead of navy. Sadly, I have found this to quite often be true.
We aren’t immune
The toughest part of all of this is that we are subjective too. We favour particular treatments, aesthetics, and yes, even colours. Even though I feel that most designers are more visually literate as a result of their chosen craft, I also believe that we all lean towards solutions we have explored before. I often feel as though I have a set of visual crutches which I must work to divorce from each new project. Hopefully, we are more apt to recognize and challenge our own less objective preferences and responses to work, in the interest of creating stronger design.
It’s important for designers to look at a project’s objectives as objectively and dispassionately as possible in determining a potential design solution. It’s a lofty (and perhaps impossible) goal to remove one’s subjective responses to work, and focus on the true challenge and most effective solution; nevertheless, that’s sort of mandatory, if we believe ourselves to be professionals.
My grandma’s kitchen was never yellow–more sort of beige. I can’t say that beige tone has had any emotional impact on me. I think there should be some kind of a metaphor in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.