During my initial years as a design student we often had classroom critiques of work we had done. The fifteen of us that formed the graphic design class would gather in a room, put our work up for display and then take turns to present what we had done. There would be heated discussions about what worked and what did not. Most of it was in good spirits and no one took any of it personally. An occasional accusation of the work looking too similar to that of Stefan Sagmeister’s or David Carson's would lead to more animated discussions but almost all was forgotten when we left the room to work on our next assignment.
I say almost all and not all as none of us wanted our work to be termed as clichéd. It was without doubt the worst of all criticism to get in our minds at the time. In fact we were so frightened of it that went to great lengths to make sure that whatever we did was not seen as clichéd. We made books that did not look like books and had no beginning or end, changed the color of the body text in a document to purple just to avoid black and folded our single sheet brochures in complicated diagonals for the fear of having to fold it simply and straight.
It’s not very hard to understand our pathological dislike for clichés. We as students of design felt the need to be seen as creative and to see things, as others did not. And nothing about using clichés seemed fit the bill. In hindsight it all looks very silly. But then the best thing about design schools is that you can be as silly as you want without actually feeling silly.
With time, experience and a greater understanding of design, however, I have come to appreciate the great powers of clichés. In fact more often than not design should seem straightforward and obvious rather than stand out for being clever. Clichés also have the distinct advantage of being widely and easily understood. Why do you think the emergency exit signs in buildings follow the same basic template? The realization that using what seems obvious is not a reflection on ones lack of creativity can be a liberating experience for a designer.
Recently, I was working on a book documenting the 50 years of a design institute. The fact that it was a book on a design institute made my three fellow designers and me feel the need to make it appear designed. To take an example we were thrilled to use directional arrows in the book to connect photographs with their captions rather than going down the traditional route of numbering the images or adding the caption next to the image itself. But as the design evolved almost all of these elements were done away with. With our final design our primary and perhaps only motive was to let content shine through and the design to quietly aid the reader without drawing much attention to itself.
The skill of a designer lies in knowing when and how to adopt clichés or the obvious and when to avoid them. Using clichés in itself is not as horrible a crime as it once seemed. Sometimes the path of least resistance is the best path to take and the only resistance experienced is self induced.