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Avoid cliches like the plague

The brain pays attention to the unexpected. The surprising. Mistakes and failures. When everything works as planned, the brain can just go on about its business scanning for tigers, potential mates, and anything else that causes a chemical reaction. I referred to this in an earlier post about learning as the WTF principle, and the getting what you expect is boring posts.

But nothing beats the post Marian Bantjes made on the speakup blog about design cliches. It's tacked my wall for inspiration. If you haven't seen it, go NOW. I'll wait...

OK, now that you're back--when I was still a Sun employee, the education marketing folks scheduled a photo shoot for a catalog/brochure on their customer training courses. When I heard about the new brochure, I pleaded, "Whatever you do, PLEASE don't show happy people smiling and pointing at the computer screen." Happycomputerpeople

But it was too late...

Try checking out the brochures of technical training companies, and see how little real differentiation there appears to be. I'm not saying there aren't huge variations in quality, topics, methods, etc.,-- I'm saying that you'd never know it from the look and feel of their communication. And I'm not just singling out computer training--the overall "sameness" problem shows up everywhere from computer books to banks to churches to software to cars...

Before you can get them to be passionate, you have to get their attention. If the stuff on your website or brochure or book could be interchanged with any of your competitors, it might be that you're using a cliche, or at least falling into the conservative standards. The trap of "professionalism." If we'd listened to all the people who told us the Head First books would never sell because of their perceived lack of professionalism, it would have been a huge mistake.

We're in the process of having a logo designed for a new book series and imprint (I haven't revealed the name yet, but I promise to do so very soon), and I'm frustrated by how easy it is to find something you like and then realize that it would perfectly well for a zillion other companies or worse -- a zillion other companies in completely different fields.

So I guess one of the ways to be identifiable at every scale is to ride herd on cliches. Keep a tight rein. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how well you think outside the box.

Posted by Kathy on July 16, 2005 | Permalink

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» If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge... from life (over IP)
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Comments

I'm assuming you ended a post about not using cliches with the cliche "think outside the box" as a joke?

Also have to say that your blog is one of my favorites.

Posted by: Michael Tildahl | Jul 17, 2005 3:19:39 AM

"So I guess one of the ways to be identifiable at every scale is to ride herd on cliches. Keep a tight rein. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how well you think outside the box."

...and they say Americans don't understand irony! There must be five or so cliches there in that paragraph.

W.

Posted by: Wally | Jul 17, 2005 4:22:59 AM

Sorry, guys, but one of the worst and most annoying visual cliches lately is the semi-fisheye extreme overhead view of a person. You know, the one that makes his (or her) head look really big, and their feet look tiny and about a mile away...

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Jul 17, 2005 9:34:50 AM

Wally: I was going for a personal record. I assumed that titling the post with a cliche was a hint : )

Kyle: agreed. The cover is something we didn't get to pick. Although a cliche can be somewhat relative to the context. At the time the Head First covers were designed, the look was quite *different* from the covers of any of our competitors, and the point they were trying to represent is that the HEAD is the most important thing (brain-friendly and all). I don't think it actually worked from that perspective, but you can definitely tell a HF book from any other computer book... the cover is not interchangeable with another standard computer text book, at least not *authentically*.

There are some covers on books that "make a promise" and don't fulfill it. I have a college algrebra book (not a text book) with a completely wild cover that screams out how different and engaging it is. But the first page was so boring and dry that I assumed it was a joke... that on the next page, it would say something like, "That's what *most* algebra books are like, but we're not going to go there..." But no, it was simply a cover that lied to me.
Our covers do use that cliche (we'll have to work on that) but they're distinct, and they don't lie.
Kyle -- we're trying to design a cover for the new book, so I'm glad you reminded me that it can be unusual but still be a cliche. We need to pay closer attention to that and be more creative.

Posted by: KathySierra | Jul 17, 2005 10:46:19 AM

Wally - Thanks for pointing that out. I guess I'm so used to reading marketing speak that my brain didn't wake up until it had been bombarded by a few and then it enjoyed a laugh.

Posted by: Michael Tildahl | Jul 17, 2005 12:43:03 PM

Kathy,

Avoiding cliches is definitely a moving target. Today's brilliant photoshop trick is tomorrow's bevels and gradients.

Your books do stand out, and the cover doesn't actually lie, but the first time I picked up HFDP, I dismissed it as another of those aiming at the "21 days" crowd, mostly due to the cover. I was looking for a serious and practical Design Patterns book to supplement GoF, and I didn't think that would be it. I'm glad I came back to it, because boy was I wrong, but it took a recommendation from somewhere (I can't remember where) to get me to give it a second look. (And this blog has been even more valuable to me than the book.)

I do like the way your black and white "Leave it to Beaver"-esque pictures kind of play with the cliche of the innocent days of primitive tech and turn it around. But then, reviving old cliches for humor is also a tired old cliche. Part of your dilemma is that, since the tech book market is so saturated, trying really hard to stand out is in itself a tired old cliche.

I think at this point I'd buy any tech book that came in a plain brown cover with just the title on the spine without even cracking it open first, just on principle. No, but then they'd all be doing that...

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Jul 18, 2005 12:03:32 AM

"The brain pays attention to the unexpected. The surprising. Mistakes and failures. When everything works as planned, the brain can just go on about its business scanning for tigers, potential mates, and anything else that causes a chemical reaction. I referred to this in an earlier post about learning as the WTF principle, and the getting what you expect is boring posts."

Yes and no. The brain is looking for the *expected* "surprises". There's lots of clear evidence that people literally ignore the truly unexpected (and do all sorts of mental games to cover up that fact).

The game that big ticket "art" tries to play -- push folks just a little but not too far isn't really about "suprise" but rather just getting rid of the most over-saturated cliches. For example, check out the relatively recent work analyzing Jackson Pollack's art. He started at a relatively low density and worked his way up to very high density and then backed off quite a bit.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Jul 18, 2005 10:35:37 AM

John: good point. There's a lot more to this than a simple expected vs. unexpected -- the context definitely matters. But when it comes to getting attention--and keeping it--getting above the noise requires something different. And as for learning... for example, a compilation you expect to work but doesn't makes a much more memorable impression (easier to retain and recall) than one that compiles just as you thought (or were led to believe) it would. Which is one of the reasons we recommend "the garden path" as something to add to the instructor (or author) toolkit. We consider things that intuitively feel like they *should* work, but which do not, as learning gold... a chance for a deeper understanding and more robust memory.

I'm sure that over time on this blog, we'll be able to explore all of this in more detail and subtlety. (Now is not that time ; )

I have no clue about the big ticket art world, but you got me curious about the Jackon Pollack thing...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 18, 2005 12:15:02 PM

Kathy,

Another great post!

I posted my responses on my blog (link below), but I especially like the quotation that I found as a result of following a string of links that started in your post ....

"Whatever you do will be insignificant but it is very important that you do it." - Gandhi

Keep up the good work!

Dave Wheeler
Founder, NoteWordy.com
http://theshot92.blogspot.com/2005/07/passionate-endeavors.html

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Jul 20, 2005 7:38:56 AM

Hey! I'm reading Head First Design Patterns and wanted to request the Pattern Death Match pages as mentioned on page 499. I sent email to 6 different people at wickedlysmart (including "webmaster") and all the mail comes back with the error "Your message could not be delivered. The User is out of space. Please try to send your message again at a later time."

Ummm..perhaps some inbox cleaning is in order??!? And send me those pages, please.

Posted by: Gary Boyer | Aug 22, 2005 2:12:23 PM

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