The joys of abstraction

Patricia and I just got back from a couple of weeks of traveling, mostly in England. We got to spend a day with two good friends: the artist Terry Cripps and writer and consultant Susannah Finzi at their gorgeously restored and remodeled old home in a tiny village in the Gloucestershire countryside. After years of working as a commercial illustrator and photographer, Terry is now doing what he truly loves. He’s painting abstract images.

We picked the fresh vegetables the couple grows in abundance, which Terry and Susannah cooked brilliantly, along with the spectacular aged lamb they had helped raise on a neighbor’s farm. We ate, drank and talked. And, after two years of having promised ourselves we’d do it, we finally bought a couple of Terry’s pieces to bring home.

Our conversations about Terry’s paintings led me to an interesting question about design. Why do so many people think that the things we create have to be instantly recognizable?

Clients worry about legibility, even if they’re talking about a huge, single-word headline that happens to be set in an interesting font, or a light tint. They worry if we turn words sideways, even though nobody has any trouble reading the headlines on street banners while driving by at 40 mph. They worry about whether people will instantly understand the form of a logo and immediately connect it to the object it might represent.

But not every single thing has to be clear right away. Often the most powerful images are the ones that make you scratch your head for a moment, then lead to a delightful “ah-hah!” reaction. Ideas that leave you curious, that get you interested, are so much more memorable than those that demand no involvement.

Often, reducing a design to its essentials — controlled abstraction — is part of our process. We ask, “What can we leave out and still make this work? What’s absolutely necessary to leave in — that thing without which the concept doesn’t make sense or affect the viewer?” People’s instinct is to include everything. And, generally, that desire is fear-driven: “What if they don’t notice me? What if they have a question I didn’t answer?”

But fear so often results in over-designed, over-written, jumbled, busy messages. It’s the source of clutter. And it pushes people away. Turns out, it’s the most dangerous way to approach any creative problem, because it ensures you won’t stand out, and won’t be remembered.

On the other hand….

Simplicity is approachable. Abstraction is engaging. Discovery is fascinating. And effective.



  1. Josh, it is so true, we see it all the time… sometimes it is just sad… I LOVE the painting you got.

    I went on his blog and looked at his other paintings, he’s so talented…

  2. There were times when advertising was seen as entertainment and that encouraged experiment, I was luck to work in the industry during one of those times but the penny counters are in need of hard justification for their spend and find it difficult to ‘trust’ the wisdom, experience and value of a seasoned designer. Great campaigns are an expression of such trust as well as a display of a great product. So many products in today’s market are me to chasing a very elusive audience. Its not hard to see why there are so few brave brand managers prepared to invest the time in creating a unique expression for their product.
    In this country we still talk fondly of the work done for Guiness, Heiniken, Anchor butter, and mashed potato, they informed and entertained and hey, 40 years on are still remembered. Would love to have heard the high table discussion when some creative said yer ‘the beer that refreshes the parts other beers can not reach’ that will do.

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