On Manipulation, Art, & Designing For Emotions

The premier question in any contest in the United States will eventually always boil down to numbers. Typically, with the number on your bank account balance trumping all others.


In the movie, “love jones”, (and yes, it is spelled with the lowercase type for the initial letters), we find an exceedingly immature couple of artistic types on a romantic roller coaster across the country for the spell of one-hundred and ten minutes. If you are still reading this after I made that particular assessment of one of the most compelling and influential romantic movies of my generation, then I am probably a more respected writer than my PayPal account suspects. No, all jokes aside, in the movie ‘love jones’, the character, Darius Lovehall(played by Larenz Tate) makes a statement regarding artists and definition when he is written to say:


“The true goal of an artist is to create the definitive work that cannot be surpassed”


And like many, I took that particular sentence to heart. In it, and mainly in the ideal of “definition”, and most importantly, in the ideal of that which is “definitive” or “that which defines”, I believe as humans that enjoy creating and have found a voice or an identity within the community of creators, we tend to find the most enjoyment. Until, of course, we begin to pair up with the hustlers and business men, and learn the ideas that drive successful capitalists. Either that, or a bill is late. Whichever comes firstly, of course.


Creation can be easy. Creation can be simple.


For some, it is a matter of reproducing with a canvas. For others it is molding the spark of an idea into an exploding explanation of pain. Regardless of which metaphor best suits one’s particular experience, one thing holds true for us all: food, clothing, and shelter will ultimately be a consideration at some point in our day. As a given coupled with a society of people programmed to glorify the wealthy, to celebrate the most sold above the most well crafted, it is utterly impossible to avoid the cliché in art.


To master a craft demands that techniques be developed and honed in order to not have to recreate wheels everyday. Those techniques that are found to produce the most sought after works(read: purchased), will of course become the techniques that everyone wants to use. This is even– and mostly– from those that have no love for the craft beyond its financial and political usefulness. Even those persons that love the craft can find them Selves mired in consumerist practices to pay bills yielding commercially successful, yet overly formulaic pieces.


Unfortunately, for my Self, these are the very thoughts behind art as design, and writing as blogging. The techniques of the artist: color schemes, closure, continuation, and the like, are used to manipulate the emotional body of the viewer for the purpose of clicks, reduced bounce rates, and increased conversion percentages. In my trade, design is touted as “communication”, but it is not just communication. It is a certain form of communication. When we are speaking of graphic design, the implication is sales.


The ideal of web design is not to just get a response regarding the aesthetic of a site or banner ad, but to elicit an action toward purchasing or returning with a desire to be a part of a community. When someone says,”by design”, they mean something done with the intent to yield a desired result. They mean manipulation. It is art as objectifying tool. Design is the intentional use of “ahs” and whatever onomatopoeia that fits there to change behavior.


And I understand the semiology behind a symbol or cue such as the word,”manipulation”. It has a “bad” connotation. It makes us feel less humane. We begin to itch as the greasiness of the symbol’s expressed meaning vibrates through our nervous system, echoing its perceived sentiments throughout the epidermis. But what is purpose if not manipulative? The very techniques of onomatopoeia, hyperbole, rhyme scheme, and metaphor used by poetic engineers throughout the ages have been with a desired purpose of eliciting a certain response from readers and listeners.


Do we think that AT&T just put a camera in a very well lit daycare center and accidentally arranged their spokesman in the middle of precocious children? Do we not think that at some point prior an assessment of the “cute factor” and its emotional tug on the viewer’s mind had been made by those that must place signatures on lines to signify the authorized permission to spend money on such things as cameras, cameramen, lighting, and well placed witty spokesmen?


And yet, although I probably will not be signing up to AT&T because of a few really entertaining pre-schoolers(my gawd, the “more is better/we want more” girl should be in the advertising history books next to Mikey), I was thoroughly delighted, and more importantly, I am writing about AT&T. That means it was effective and had impact. Yet, the more they attempt to rehash that technique, the more I compare the new batch of children’s responses and exchanges to the ones I was tickled by the most. Design techniques have to be used carefully, no matter how much we think we have something mastered.


Mastery of a few techniques that have worked over time will either lead one to develop their own language(signature style), or it will lead them to be regarded as formulaic. We are all users. It is when we are abused that most of us begin to take security measures. As we should, no doubt. Yet, in being used, in having my senses manipulated, I do want something in return.


I enjoy watching Aaron Macgruder’s The Boondocks. I think his series of cartoons have become a staple in the US Black culture, if not US culture en totale(which brings up a good design discussion: you know, US Blacks historically never saw an all-White cast performance and assumed it was “just” for White people;and hell, even if we did, we would just figure out away to disrupt the Jim Crow policy!). What makes his brand so compelling is that he has found a signature that is not formulaic, but if mishandled could easily be. He has not just blended adult humor and children’s animation, he has fused hip hop and anime, two very distinct cultures of art with rich contextual histories. That is Aaron being creative;but there is also a method, a purposeful use of the creativity. For The Boondocks is satire, and it is effective satire. Not only is it entertaining visually, and sonically, it adds another element of social commentary, that actually deals with critically salient topics.


I look at the Boondocks’ use of anime and its score in the same vein as I might look at a web site that uses a nationalistic motif for its color scheme. The colors red, black, and green immediately elicit certain reactions in certain people. I look at the topics discussed in the Boondocks as the content of the web site. No matter how great the design, and how masterful the designer utilizes certain techniques, if the content is garbage, well, garbage in, garbage out. I do not mind being used, I mind being taken advantage of. I do not mind a person needing to recognize what emotional strings they should be pulling to get me to something I find valuable. I mind you doing such and your overall product is that bullshyt.


When it comes to money, there are great advantages to possessing a great product as well as great advantages in being able to be accessible. I do not want anyone to think I am against earning money, or convincing others to give me money. I support the art of design. I support the formulation of techniques and the study of semiology for the purpose of understanding how symbols and cues work within the cultures that they work within.


I do not support mediocrity well hyped, although I might be inclined to applaud the hype and its practitioner. I do not mind being used;I use the oxygen and the plant life as well as meat of sentient beings to further my own physical and biological existence. Life is the only ecosystem, and I respect my place in it, and realize that something or someone must use me in order to exist in the same manner that I MUST USE others to exist.


I do not mind creative means to capture my attention created by someone that must use me. I, too, create means using cues and symbols that evoke emotional responses for the purpose of eliciting certain behavior for things that I need. Michael Jackson was a master at capturing my attention and with good purpose. A masterful entertainer that provided me with good entertainment, and insightful content with which I was pleased to give my money and attention towards.


Michael Joseph Jackson is not history’s greatest entertainer because he made a lot of money;Michael made a lot of money because he was history’s greatest entertainer, there is a nuance there that must be taken into consideration. And I do not want to give my attention to those that just want a lot of attention without being also great at their craft. Design how you need to appeal to who you need to, but please be ever mindful of what you are offering as content. Do not design the greatest titles for links that lead to lackluster bodies of content. It is a waste of my time, and it only serves to weaken your brand.