The abuse of clichés. How to flatten the work of creative minds.

In design, like in the world of art, journalism, or architecture it is usual to see an abuse of clichés. Graphic designers either hate that word or they find it ensuring since it brings short benefits without much of creative efforts.

A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. Says Wikipedia.

Familiar vs original

Usually those people whose job require a certain amount of creativity face the challenge to make a message clear and strong enough to the ultimate audience. Familiarity is one of those components that make that message easy to decode.
As Emotional Design reports, there are three levels of experiences that can be triggered by 3 levels of design. The Visceral design is the ‘first one’, the subconscious level of reaction, immediate and beyond our control. The Behavioural Design regards functions and usability aspects because it encompasses the ‘how do you use’ the product. Finally the Reflective Design is the one that implies rationality, when we understand, interpret, reason about the product-service. This process include the experience we had in the past and the contemplation of the future. Are we familiar with it? Can we associate other experiences and values?

But the biologic evolution brought us to pay less attention to familiar things, because it is usually the novel, unexpected thing on life that requires our responses (that perhaps warns us about a mortal danger nearby). This means that we tend to respond positively to a piece of design if it looks classic and reminds us to other seen-things, but it is very easy that familiarity leads to boredom.

How clichés enhance usability

Depending on the scope, the repetitive and ‘already-seen’ element has different relevances. Whether understandability may be crucial for a call to action in an advertising campaign, in other cases it could not only fail to present its real nature, bit it could bring to unexpected paths. With products that require sophisticated levels of interactions, familiarity and repetitions play an important role. Digital designers can benefit from existing design solutions, called patterns, that make interfaces intuitive, with expected interactions, improving the usability of a system. For example having the hamburger menu on the top right of a website is a common pattern that shows clearly the access to the main navigation. Again the experience, the learned behavior make that pattern obvious. Shapes, positions, feedbacks and animations can improve the recognition of a component (for example usually a button is rectangle, it has several states that shows constraints and possibilities and feedbacks communicating triggered actions).

Usability is dull!

Nowadays lots of new progresses threaten creativity in design. Think about AI or a lot of tools and processes made for automation. Design systems for example are powerful weapons in the hand of designers and businesses. They basically provide a grammars, that is a combination of tools and processes, which helps creating digital products with a modular approach. The design process is transparent, it is scalable, it improve consistency, it is efficient and long-term profitable. But the grammar should be designed properly to allow the maximum freedom of expression. And this is not easy at all.

Cliché and comfort zone

In journalism stock phrases are everywhere and hard to eradicate; an alienated architecture can produce silent neighborhood where nobody can orientate since it looks all the same. In design the most exposed to dreadful consequences of overused clichè are the business driven agencies. Actually in its broadest sense this statement is not that clever because every agency has somehow business goals or let’s say a return. The problem comes when the focus is far away from the user and the revenue-driven process try to minimize the time to the only tangible and quantifiable metrics. We overuse frameworks, libraries, templates or ideas that, even if clever originally, have lost their shine. The challenge is to find the sweet balance in designing something that is obvious enough, but still avoids commonplaces.
As Albert Borgmann explains in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life that as works of art lose uniqueness, they also lose their “focusing power”. They are no longer “clear and articulate,” and they cease to “center and illuminate our lives.” The blurred contours of repeated ideas and words allow our interest to slip away.
Nevertheless clichés are sometimes a good point to start, but usually creating a successful message requires courage, stepping out of the comfort zone. It depends if we just want to meet the minimum needs of a client or we really aspire to delight people and create an impact on our society.