A Smile in the Mind

A Smile in the Mind

“As designers, we have the opportunity (or even obligation) to delight, engage and inform our audience. To do something beautiful, thoughtful and interesting. To create something intelligent and joyful. Work that has a warmth and humanity. Sometimes this is through a great piece of thinking around the problem. Sometimes it is through the craft—exquisite typography, beautiful imagery or stunning colours. The best work is often a combination of the two.”
- Jim Sutherland, Hat Trick Design

We know instinctively when we encounter both good and bad design. That’s because good design is in harmony with nature and its divine laws. While we aren’t all conscious of these laws, we interpret them instinctively. Great designers do what feels right, bringing all the elements into balance and aligning them with nature. Rick Rubin practices this philosophy when working with musicians. As he explains it, “When I’m listening, I’m looking for a balance that you could see in anything. Whether it’s a great painting or a building or a sunset.”

That balance is the first key to great design.

The idea must then be distilled to its simplest form so that harmony, the ultimate expression of balance, can materialize. For example, when a movie is too long, it doesn’t reach its highest form. Fifteen or thirty minutes of unnecessary content can be ruinous, and only an experienced storyteller has the discipline to make the necessary cuts. That’s an example of there being no room in great design for unnecessary elements. Just as evolution removes useless traits from organisms, great designers must remove useless elements from their work. All the ingredients must reinforce the meaning behind the work.

Unnecessary elements diminish joy.

Once designers have stripped their work to its essence, their job is to amplify the work’s purpose and find ways to initiate a positive emotional reaction. That’s what differentiates truly spectacular design from just good design. Good design is pretty, but great design makes you feel good. We experience and appreciate great design every day, but most of us aren’t conscious of its impact on our lives. For a simple example, take a look at the FedEx and Tostito logos. Do you notice anything hidden within the designs?


You wouldn’t normally think of FedEx or Tostitos when describing great design, but both logos are examples of designers going beyond to surprise and delight. The FedEx logo has an arrow between the E and X, meant to sub-consciously “connote forward direction, speed and precision.” The two Ts in the Tostitos logo are actually two people enjoying a bowl of chips and salsa together. While it took me some time to notice these elements, once I did, I gained a much deeper appreciation for the work.

That’s an example of the subtle amplification of purpose that makes great design memorable, that makes you feel something.

In all my years of working with designers, there’s no one who does this better graphically than Ben Christie and the team at Magpie Studios. Magpie is a boutique studio in London. While they work with Apple and Virgin and were recently named Boutique Agency of the Year, you would never know it from speaking with them. They’re focused entirely on craft, not promotion. Ben describes their approach to design as trying to ignite “a smile in the mind,” a term he borrowed from his mentor, Jim Sutherland. Ben describes this “smile in the mind” as “when an idea ‘clicks’ inside someone’s head. That moment when they ‘get it.’ The feeling is gratifying—like solving a puzzle. But more than that, it is joyful. A little moment of happiness. In graphics, for me, it’s these moments of playfulness that win hearts and minds. Pleasure is memorable.”

Great design materializes when balance, simplicity, and the subtle amplification of purpose are present. Great designers combine these elements to ignite a positive emotional response. That adrenaline tag, that subtle joyful emotion, can have a profoundly positive impact on your life and business. Or, as Jim Sutherland said, “An identity can do the practical job at hand—but it can also do so much more for the client, the audience and society at large.”

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