On liking

Why do we like the things we like? How do our social, cultural and aesthetic values combine to prompt us to declare ‘I like that?’

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Why do we like the things we like? How do our social, cultural and aesthetic values combine to prompt us to declare ‘I like that?’

There are all kinds of factors that contribute to our liking of anything – whether it be a piece of music, art, a photograph, a film or a piece of graphic design. The culture we grew up in. The things our parents liked. Our level of education. Our class. Whether or not we are snobs. Our strength of character even – do you have the confidence to declare your liking of something that everyone else has derided? Even our honesty – how many of us pretend to ‘like’ something just because it is currently cool, or because it will make us seem more intelligent so to do?

Comment streams are interesting in this respect. One strong voice can carry the argument off in a particular direction which will be supported by subsequent comments until the next strong voice chimes in and the flow switches their way.

From Construct’s new identity for Claridge’s – most CR readers ‘liked’ it, but why? Because it is appropriate and well-crafted or because its relative conservatism make it easy to like?

The process of creating a piece of communication in the commercial world is rooted more than ever before in research and strategy – it’s how fees are justified and nervous clients reassured. The bigger and more expensive the project, the heavier the reliance on quantifiable factors. ‘Liking’ the result of this process should be secondary – the real question is whether it does the job for which it was commissioned, surely.

Well, that’s the theory, at least. But we still need to ‘like’ something in order to engage with it truly. The way that the majority of readers of the Creative Review website – who are, by and large, professionals in the communications industry – respond to work is still very much on a superficial level that is driven by aesthetics and personal taste. Whether or not the piece in question may have achieved what its commissioners wanted is usually secondary to whether the commenter in question ‘likes’ the overall effect – the typeface or colours used, say.

I had a conversation recently with an eminent designer who expressed his frustration to me over a recent project to create a visual identity for a large organisation. He’d arrived at a solution by rigorously adhering to the accepted routes – research, strategy and so on – but had a hit a road block. An executive on the committee who had commissioned the project was proving unmoveable in his opposition to the designer’s solution. The designer could talk all he liked about the logical process that had brought him to propose this particular solution but the executive simply didn’t ‘like’ it. Something in it was firing off negative connotations and he just couldn’t help having a bad reaction to it. The work may have been ‘right’ for the organisation, but it wasn’t right for him and he wouldn’t accept it.

Johnson Banks’ identity for the Science Museum had a much more mixed reaction – but why?

No matter how much design or advertising would like to portray itself as reliant on logical processes rooted in strategic thinking – as all serious and grown up – it still has this emotional side. For clients, this can be the maddening, scary bit. It’s where months of work can be torpedoed when the chief exec has an allergic reaction to your triumphant presentation of the organisation’s bold new identity. You’ve answered all their questions, you’ve fulfilled everything asked of you, but a simple ‘yuck’ and it’s all over.

Which leaves me wondering, dear readers, what do you do about this? How do you maximise your chances of a piece of work being liked? Or do you just take a deep breath and hope? And how do you cope when you’ve done everything asked of you and the client just doesn’t ‘like’ it?



  • It’s all in the memes.

  • re-arrange these 3 words! PRIDE YOUR SWALLOW.

  • Vic

    Without being psychic, it is very hard to actually know what the client wants, I find. Instead of accepting your creativity, clients often already have an image in their head of how they want the finished product to look. (Do it yourself then?!)

    I also think a big factor of art and design being ‘liked’ by the general public is what is fashionable at the time, and adhering to that fashion. Trying to be unique with your design and being ‘liked’ is incredibly hard! (I find…)

    Swings and roundabouts, as approaching a brief differently can sometimes go down well!

    If you stick your ground and explain to the client why it is how it is, they should accept it, surely. If not, stuff them!

  • finding hard to believe a seasoned professional would get them self into a situation where the client could kill the design at such an advanced stage. They might have been very unlucky but it sounds more like the result of a dodgy design development process. Surely you need to work with a client and narrow down from several possibilities to the final idea – one that everyone understands and has agreed to. That’s what clients want in my experience… they want to be involved and see how a project develops so that they can explain/sell the idea to the wider company. Then the worst that can happen is a couple of tweaks.

  • Aesthetic taste and knowledge acquired through education (sometimes) and experience (most important) = clients should trust the designer/artist and never complain

    = utopia

  • I think the guy answered it himself, when he said “he had arrived at a solution by rigorously adhering to the accepted routes – research, strategy and so on”

    How is a route like that which includes ‘rigorous adherence’ to anything, ever going to produce interesting, new work which appeals to the client/project’s own idiosyncrasies.

    Surprise people! Surprise yourself! This is not a career in marketing or sales! This is a creative field, which means breaking rules when they need to be and behaving responsibly and earning respect for your creativity, not rejecting ideas because they seem ‘illogical’ and you can’t explain them at a meeting. trust!

  • Abi

    Someone not liking your work can be quite frustrating as it can be nothing to do with the merits of your work, it’s just personal taste, but the liking and disliking of work is quite a crucial factor in keeping things interesting and varied.

    Of the two examples shown, a lot of people probably liked the Claridges identity for a mixture of the two reasons – it is both well crafted and conservative; it completely suits Claridges and just ‘looks right’, it’s the sort of design that one would expect and want to see from the company.

    The science museum design; I can see a lot of merit in it, but don’t personally ‘like it’. But I think with the Science museum brief, there was probably a lot more directions that this could have been taken in; the brief was likely one which could have suggested endless ideas and so it is likely to have been ‘liked’ because everyone who looks at it will immediately think of the direction they would have taken the design into and what they would like to see.

    My personal taste in imagery means that I would like to see a Science museum identity which refences the history of science and perhaps used more traditional imagery, but this isn’t necessarily the ‘right’ solution, it’s just the sort of thing that appeals to my personal taste. But I think there are many ways this identity could have been tackled and the way in which it was tacked is interesting; it certainly sparked a debate on CR which is more intriguing than ‘yeah, lovely’.

  • noel douglas

    Taste of course, isn’t partcularly ‘personal’, I can almost guarantee that most UK designers (as an example) like white walled studios, mac computers, trendy trainers, ikea/habitat furniture and the kind of watered down Swiss design that seems to pass for ‘good taste’ in the UK graphic design field.

    Now I’m not saying this as a criticism, I too, being a product of UK art schools like these things too. The problems come of course when you work with people who have not had this grooming and education, and whose ‘personal’ taste conflicts with this quite narrow conception of aesthetics.

    That’s why I like Polish and French graphic design more than the UK stuff, because it’s more interesting and diverse, but then that’s just my personal taste!


  • nice article.

    sometimes, if i have a client who, for whatever reason, can’t nail down a decent brief and is giving vague direction, i’ll ask them to find examples of other companies comms materials which they [a] like and don’t like. This usually enables a discussion between myself and the client with specific examples which allows me to get a much better idea of what to develop and present back to them. non-designers aften struggle to describe what they are after in terms which are useful to the designer. This way really helps as you can extract the info you need using examples and avoid going off in several wrong dirrection early on.

    but yeah, never underestimate the emotional response – that’s the way customers react, so is the most important factor IMO. unless of course you just want to please other designers and make something pretty but possibly ineffectual.

  • For me the word ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ always jars slightly in the professional environment when used to describe anything other than Art which by it’s very nature is completely subjective. To describe a piece of work or campaign as ‘not working’ would be far more constructive for all involved as it at least suggests that all the factors including the brief, target market, application of ideas etc. have been taken into account before coming to a decision/opinion.

    Regarding the Claridge’s campaign by Construct I think the reason that so many people “liked” it was not because it was relatively conservative but because the solution that they came to had respect for the brands heritage but at the same time pushed things forward in a progressive and positive way. The pic used above does not really illustrate this very well but across the whole campaign Construct essentially re-branded Claridge’s utilising a monochrome and mint palette combined with some contemporary graphics and sophisticated typography. The campaign moved things forward whilst still having respect for the brand. In short, good graphic design.

    For me, personal taste should seldom if ever come into play when working in a commercial and professional capacity.

  • Albert Kwon

    I think this has a lot to do with being surprised. Think of all the times you’ve been pleasantly surprised. If you look deeper you might notice that in all those instances you were secretly expecting or hoping for that surprise.

    Nobody really enjoys being caught off guard, so maybe the key to mitigating the risk of a concept being shot down is being transparent about the process as you go through it.

    That doesn’t mean you have to include the final decision-makers in every step but if they’re aware of what you’re doing then at least they won’t be caught off-guard.

  • Simon newman

    Get to know the client well.
    Make them think you are friends.
    Then they will like anything.

  • beauty is mathematical, as is nature.

  • Is being “liked” enough to be successful?

    These days providing “customer satisfaction” is only an order qualifying criteria and so increasingly the ability to exceed satisfaction and deliver “customer delight” is what wins the order. This means that customers must “LOVE” your communications.

    To love something requires more than just meeting the basic social, cultural and aesthetic values that confer admittance to the tribe… it’s also necessary to create PASSION which is a far stronger motivator.

    So I work with clients to help them to convey what they and their clients are passionate about… and this gets the word-of-mouth exposure that generates success.

    James Rock

  • Hmm, this article skirts around a bigger question of how people cognitively process information. There are variable factors determining something being Liked. That said, It’s true that that imposed cultural imperatives will condition taste. For example, magazines such as this one help form and reinforce the western social dogma of what is ‘taste’ – It is this dogma that informs the taste makers, and therefore the world is set as a form if its image.

    There are also aesthetic patterns that are universal. Not many people hate the feel of a water smoothed pebble in their hands. Not many people hate the view of the see when the sun sets or the look of a leaf (unless a personal experience has tarnished this). The brain can process and recognise the elegant and the ugly. However, repulsion is instinctive – there isn’t a great deal you can do about something if it actually is ugly.

    However, an individuals instincts can be mitigated through rational argument. If you can form an argument, preferably a narrative where your work is the logical conclusion you will have a much better response and chance of success.

    If you can’t tell a believable story about your work where your design is the hero, then it probably isn’t good enough.

  • Quick thoughts:

    1. Facebook, as you’ll all know, has a simple one-click action called “like” next to absolutely everything. Note that the “dislike” button only exists as a hoax.

    2. The owner of the junk shop at the end of our road when I was a kid used to say “You like? You buy”. Good name for a brand (luxury or value) if ever I heard one.

    3. The modern penchant for hysterical adjectives like ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’ should be counteracted by the liberal reinstatement of ‘quite good’, which I believe has died out.

  • Liking something and whether or not it fulfills the brief are definitely separate entities. “Liking” something I think also has different levels. You might like the aesthetic of something (i.e its just pretty) but has little or no concept, and might fundamentally make no sense. or you might like the the concept and the message but, it might LOOK nasty.

    The aesthetics are the first impressions of a relationship….the message/concept is the personality. Relationships work best when all boxes are ticked. But depending on who you are depends what you justify sacrificing. Its emotional aswell as practical.

    Either way, I think any, good, lasting, piece of design, whether it be an identity or a one off poster; has to hit all three. It’s less a case of “liking” something and more…..something else…..maybe just; knowing?

  • Dick Laurie

    In communication, isn’t part of what is created emotional and part functional? As people have opinions, some “like” and others “unlike” doesn’t mean the communication won’t be effective, delivering against the required objectives.

    If an idea is killed by an internal individual and yet the audience it’s designed to appeal to does “like” it, shouldn’t this overide an internal “unlike”?

    I agree with a number of comments above, if it’s got to an advanced stage and a senior internal person cans it, then there is something seriously wrong with the initial brief, the process undertaken and the conversations and collaborations between ‘agency’ and ‘client’.

  • I really think Scott has the answer with the word – ‘psychic’. Or more like intuition, empathy, understanding the zeitgiest. All the best designers possess this quality. I find I can usually get inside a client’s brain and find out what he/she ‘likes’. If their idea stinks then I either spend time explaining why it stinks or walk away from the job. You can’t expect to go it alone even if the client thinks you’re a design god… you have to let them get involved and let them contribute. Remember they know a lot more about their business/organisation than you do. You’ve got to make the client happy… it will only help to reinforce the design/brand.

  • I really think Scott has the answer with the word – ‘psychic’. Or more like intuition, empathy, understanding the zeitgiest. All the best designers possess this quality. I find I can usually get inside a client’s brain and find out what he/she ‘likes’. If their idea stinks then I either spend time explaining why it stinks or walk away from the job. You can’t expect to go it alone even if the client thinks you’re a design god… you have to let them get involved and let them contribute. Remember they know a lot more about their business/organisation than you do. You’ve got to make the client happy… it will only help to reinforce the design/brand.

  • The chief executive of any company has a great deal of emotional investment in the business they run. For many, it completely defines who they are and how they are perceived by their peer group. The visual identity is one of the most visible elements of this; it’s something that they have to live with day-in day-out so, while ‘’not liking’’ It may be a purely subjective reaction, it is sheer arrogance to think that we as designers know better.

    Delivering a single fait accompli which you ‘like’ (regardless of the logic behind it), since you wouldn’t be presenting it otherwise – smacks of this. Having a creative process is all well and good, bit when it comes down to it, great design is about engaging with people, taking them on the journey with you – and recognising that clients are human too.

  • David Ogilvy said this about market research – “the consumer does not behave as they say, they do not say what they think and they do not think what they feel”

  • Consumers, clients or otherwise enjoy the privilege of subjectivity and liking or disliking a design. Masaaki Krosu and Kaori Kashimura in one research experiment found that despite in-built inefficiencies, test subjects expressed a preference for a less efficient alternative because they liked one and not the other. The reason given was attractiveness. It seems consumers have a preference for the attractive.

    Further to this, humans have three ways of emotional processing; visceral, behavioural and reflective (Norman, Ortony and Revelle) where the visceral determines the immediate response, behavioural influences this signal and offers an act which the reflective modifies and thus affects the behaviour and in our case results in a like or dislike decision.

    Hofstede tells us that cultural aspects influence nearly every decision over which we can lay other biases such as conventional wisdom and vested interest (Galbraith: The Affluent Society).

    Despite these hurdles behavioural economists such as Dan Ariely show us that even the capricious and irrational can be predictable and since other members of our creative community in advertising and marketing have embraced research, rigour and their strategic application to enhance the statistical chances of success for any proposal, shouldn’t designers?

    Design by its nature is strategic since unlike art, design uses conceptual and abstract thought processes to meet the defined aspects of a brief. The designer will include attributes in a design solution that are relevant to varying degrees of the brief and will have a rationale to substantiate it but that as we know will still not necessarily guarantee that anyone likes it.

    Good salesman (though most creatives would disagree, selling is an art form) know that a well timed compliment concerning the photograph on the client’s desk helps and I’ve known many account managers and directors who know that it is their personal relationship with a client that helps that client like a proposal and keep the truth from a creative lest they become de-motivated.

    A client wants only to minimise the chances of a cock-up and if its a corporate client, a cock-up ruins promotional prospects and is why an incumbent is hard to shift. Sadly the corporate client might like one proposal more than another but still go with the least risky – visceral, behavioural and reflective.

    Personally I preferred things before the Mac, ideas looked less finished and the ability of the designer to visualise with mixed media differed so greatly that inherent in the adoption of the least risk was choosing the designer with the greater demonstrative skill. Templates anyone.

    Ultimately I sense that like can’t be ensured only hoped for.

  • Martin Smith

    De gustibus non est disputandum

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Rob

    Thanks very much for that contribution. I’m doing a talk about this tomorrow so may well refer to some of your sources.