Eric Karjaluoto

When They See Behind the Curtain

Sam liked the paintings, and I liked Sam. Of all my art school instructors, he was the most fun. I know few others who can talk for three hours straight, and still hold their audience captivated.

This was my grad project, and I’d worked hard on the paintings. (You can see a few of them here.) There were 50 in total. Some were bad, most were acceptable, and I believe a few were decent. In 4th year at Emily Carr, students have some wall space to display their work. I planned to show these paintings in that space.

I was broke, so my dad helped me strip some 2x4s for the frames. I then miter cut the corners, joined them, and sanded the edges.  The inner area of each frame raised to create a platform for mounting the painting. Around that was a deeper channel of sorts, surrounded by another raised edge, to finish the frame.

There were a lot of frames, so completing them took days of work. Once ready, I painted each frame black, which helped the images feel more connected. For an inexpensive job, the frames looked alright.

Sam’s expression changed when he flipped one of my paintings over. “Oh,” he said, in disappointment—seeing that the backs of the frames were still bare wood. “You know, it would have only taken you another few minutes to paint the backs of the frames, too.” He flipped the painting right side up, and returned to talking about the paintings themselves. Bummed out, I felt like I had lost him.

Sam was right. To finish the frames faster I just left the backs untreated. In my mind, this wasn’t a problem. Most wouldn’t look at the backs of these paintings, so why did the unseen parts matter? Nevertheless, these details do matter.

The more you invest in making a product feel a certain way, the more important those small details are. No one notices that a room’s flooring doesn’t match, if the house is a disaster. However, in a space that’s well put together, even the wrong trim molding can ring discordant.

This is true in many settings. Flimsy garment hangers in a luxury clothing shop weaken the entire presentation. A button with a drop-shadow in an otherwise flat design feels misplaced. Fake drop-caps in a beautiful film trailer imply that the picture is the product of amateurs.

Fact is, you can get to 95% easily. People do this all the time. Pick up a recent issue of Communication Arts, see what the award winners are doing, and copy their approaches. Bazinga. You’re there. But, you’re not… and you know it. Although all the pieces are essentially the same, what you made doesn’t sing. This is because that last 5% is the tough part.

Anyone can copy some layout approaches or photographic tricks. Most will find a way to imitate slick animations or whiz-bangery. What’s more elusive, though, is finesse. Is the image treated in a way that makes the type above it easy to read? Is the text shaped in a visually pleasing fashion? What’s the proper ratio between the heading, copy, and note text? Is there suitable tension, making this item feel compelling?

Unlike matching some popular trend, this fine-tuning is harder to fake. That doesn’t make it any less important. Think of it this way: even the most beautiful song will make listeners wince, if played on an out-of-tune piano. To create harmony, you must hone your sensibilities. This comes with experience. The ability to achieve this touch, is a byproduct of time, care, and attention.

No one can grant you this skill. You need to develop it for yourself. To better equip yourself for this, I urge you to tune even the least critical seeming elements in your design. (This, of course, should only happen once the direction is set and agreed upon.) Figure out what common denominators your type system uses. Establish a voice for each project and stick to it. Take time to catalog and treat often forgotten screens (e.g., Error 404 pages, modals, warning messages).

While doing this, you need to catch yourself if you ever find yourself saying, “but it’s just a…”—because it never is. Every part of the presentation matters: The box you ship your product in. The packing material that keeps it safe. The documentation that accompanies the shipment.

You needn’t get carried away with any of this. Instead, just remain mindful of each element. In fact, each of these touch-points presents an opportunity. You can welcome someone when they open your box. You can hide a secret message that makes them smile, when they discover it. You can show them that you cared about every part of the project. (Whether you do or don’t says a lot about your brand.)

Your audience might not be able to verbalize what you did. They might not be able to spot every detail you put thought into. However, they can feel it. That’s what you as a designer—or company—need to remind yourself of. Your buyers don’t need to know how hard you worked to make your product perfect. That’s not their concern. They just need to believe that what you promised (verbally or implicitly) matches what you deliver.

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