One of the most well-known and most imitated works of civic branding is the ‘I ♥ NY’ logo created by Milton Glaser. Why, according to Glaser, does this slogan work, and how can applying the principle help to save high street shops from dual threats?
Glaser explained the success of his logo on the basis that it stimulates the brain by providing a puzzle. “To understand the design, you have to translate it. First of all you have to figure out that the ‘I’ is a complete word, then you have to figure out that the heart is a symbol for an experience, then you have to figure out that ‘NY’ are the initials for a place. We know that the issue in all communication is moving the brain, and puzzles move the brain. This one makes everyone feel good because they solved the problem.” The meaning of the logo was therefore deliberately obscured in order to offer a mental challenge.
This technique of deliberate concealment in order to force the interested viewer to infer the hidden aspects of the image has a long and significant history across many cultures and epochs. The mystery of the Mona Lisa’s expression, for example, is to an extent imparted by Leonardo plunging the most expressive parts of the face, the corners of the eyes and mouth, into shadow. This technique, known as sfumato, was adopted by many artists; the principle was, as E.H. Gombrich wrote in ‘The Story of Art’, that “the painter must leave the beholder something to guess.”
Examples of this principle in action are legion. Most commonly these days, photographers leave much of a picture out of focus, partly in order to encourage the viewer to fill in the lacking detail.
In Vermeer’s significantly-named The Art of Painting, meanwhile, an important part of the scene is concealed by the foreground painting. This curtain obscures such important features of the painting as the source of light, whilst focusing attention on the area just in front of the woman due to the contrast between the dark of the curtain and the light. This area is dominated by the trumpet the woman is holding, part of which is, again, obscured.
This deliberate concealment appears across centuries and across cultures. Traditional Chinese landscape painting has been formalised for centuries, with its methods of producing aesthetic effects codified and taught to students in textbooks. Douglas summarises these textbooks thus: “Mountains and streams are described as the highest objects for the painter’s skill… The ideal mountain should have a cloud encircling its ‘waist’, which should hide from view a part of the stream… A temple or house, shaded and half concealed by a grove…Such are some of the directions given for landscape drawing, and a glance at Chinese pictures of scenery is enough to show how closely the rules of the textbooks are followed” (cited in Williams’ ‘Chinese Symbolism & Art Motifs’).
In the classical world such effects were also aimed at: Pliny cites a critic’s already centuries’ old praise of a painter for his skill in presenting figures from one side so that the viewer infers the presence of the invisible parts of the body; Gombrich notes in ‘Art & Illusion’ that “this, we read [in Pliny’s work], is the most subtle part of painting… it promises something else to lie behind and thereby shows even what it obscures”.
The Romantics gloried in ruins whose missing parts and former magnificence could be restored only through the imagination.
Picasso honoured this strategem even in its breach: instead of depicting a still life of a violin and letting us infer what the unseen sides look like, he presented a collage of views of all sides of the violin, and let us infer the consequently obscured ‘conventional view.’
“If the art is concealed, it succeeds”, Ovid wrote, and we might say that where the concealment is concealed, it succeeds. This means that the thing that conceals should be seen as performing some function. Most often in an urban planning context, this means that the commercial area with a sense of place will have many independent shops rather than a preponderance of chain stores. Chain stores typically have strong brands and standardised goods, so that they are perceived as fully-known entities. Upon entering a McDonalds, for example, huge numbers of people know exactly what they will experience. There is no mystery to infer. Independent shops, on the other hand, tend to be comparatively unknown entities, which therefore offer the opportunity for discovery by simply walking through the front door.
However, this comes with the proviso that these shops and their immediate environment must present sufficient cues to indicate that their shops are of a good quality and that pleasant experiences are consequently to be had within. This is since people may predominantly be loss-averse, preferring to avoid a bad experience rather than attempt to discover a good experience (it may be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but the former hurts far more than the latter). If so, then the reliable if unexciting standard that chain stores are perceived to represent may otherwise be very much preferable to an independent shop of unknown reliability. In order for passers-by to pick up these cues, these cues should be culturally shared, and thus there is a potential tension if other aims of the development are distinctiveness and uniqueness.
Another way of providing a concealed puzzle is by resisting the trend of creating shopfronts made of floor-to-ceiling plate glass. That shoppers may be able to fully survey the shop’s contents from outside may be more efficient in conveying information; that the shop’s innards are visible from outside may also project transparency and a trust-inducing sense of ‘nothing to hide.’ As such it can give an advantage relative to other shops in the area. However, such a shopfront strategy is easily imitated by competitors where it is seen to be successful, eradicating the advantage but diminishing the character of the area, since both efficiency and transparency, for all their great — and in many situations essential — advantages, by definition eliminate any sense of mystery or sense of a puzzle to be solved.
Advocating the importance of an enticing concealment might seem a peculiar stance; however it is surely increasingly important for shops to have this since they are less and less competing against other shops in the area, and more and more against internet retailers. If that fight takes place on the grounds of efficiency then whatever the high street does it will surely lose to the foe who can offer instant search, one-click purchasing and prompt delivery to a convenient address. If that fight takes place on the grounds of transparency then whatever the high street does it will surely lose to the foe who can offer comprehensive product summaries and a hundred aggregated consumer reviews all on one page. Factoring in internet retail’s pricing advantage, then those shops that do follow a transparency and efficiency strategy might flounder badly.
Due to the projected growth of internet retail it is likely that in many places the high streets of the future will be able to support fewer shops than they could before the economic crisis. This may not be the unqualified disaster that it might be portrayed as (there are other uses we can put town centre land towards besides commerce, and other activities that may attract people) but commerce has always been an important facet of town centres and it supports huge numbers of jobs. Finding ways in which they can cope with the internet onslaught is therefore vital. Many strategies could succeed, and it seems to me that many of the shops that survive will offer some kind of experience that cannot be found online.
The Experience of Authenticity
In addition to providing an enticing concealment, such experiences may often (but certainly not necessarily) depend upon providing some kind of an awareness of limits. In a previous post I argued that the ease, ubiquity and abundance of what can be obtained through the internet is generating, in reaction, a new significance of place that is reshaping our forms of politics and leisure. This is because whatever we can both obtain with trivial ease and replace with trivial ease we do not grow attached to, and do not ascribe intrinsic value to: ‘easy come, easy go’. Given this super-abundance, attempts to work within self-imposed, difficult limits become intriguing. Take, for example, the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets. Those who flock to these markets are well aware that just down the road there is often a supermarket that offers an abolition of limits on food unparalleled in history: fresh produce freighted from around the globe in defiance of what the seasons dictate may be grown, and a range of meals so vast that you could eat a different product each night for a lifetime and never taste all the supermarket has to offer. The appeal of farmers’ markets seems to me to largely rely on self-imposed limits: not only that the market is there for a limited time, and perhaps infrequently, but that there are limitations upon the food: locally-grown, seasonal only, organic etc. The added difficulty and rarity of the food obtained in these ways leads to a willingness to pay a premium for that food. That such farmers’ stalls, each operating under limits, cluster together is also important as it provides the context: that supermarket down the road might well provide the exact same food, but since it is presented together with all the other multitude of options the awareness of limits becomes submerged and the food becomes perceived as just one more option amongst the dizzying array, selectable with the same trivial ease as the frozen pizza. In a word, the context of a cluster of farmers each operating under self-imposed limits contributes a sense of authenticity.
Combating the Internet, and Itself
Internet retail has many advantages over its high street counterpart; for that reason I expect it will put many high street shops out of business. However, I suggest that a viable strategy for high street shops would be for clusters of shops to ease away from competing on grounds of efficiency and transparency and instead aim to provide some kind of experience.
This experience may come in the form of offering goods produced under self-imposed limits (where the decision to impose limits is taken on the basis of some kind of attractive philosophy – it is one thing to decide to make all your products by hand in reverence for traditions of craftsmanship, another entirely to decide to make all your products using only your thumbs). Alternatively the self-imposed limit could be successfully portrayed as offering some sort of challenge: Twitter’s 140 character limit is entirely arbitrary (unless SMS texting is involved) but some take this limit as a spur to creativity, and Twitter informs too-verbose users “your tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.”
This experience may come in the form of outstanding personal service from assistants who are clearly not paid through commission. Or this may come in the form of offering a puzzle: shopfronts that obscure the shop’s insides but communicate a particular architectural character, curated window displays that providing teasing hints of what may lie within and the promise of serendipitous discovery, and so on.*
It’s important that clusters of shops make such attempts as this will set the context: just as farmers’ market food in a supermarket aisle becomes just one more choice among many, a website that tries to replicate the experience will suffer simply because it is on the internet and is just one site of infinitely many sites a few keystrokes away. High Streets can move onto terrain where internet retail cannot follow them.
The pursuit of transparency and efficiency in the design of our high streets has led to huge numbers of shops becoming mere vehicles for brands standardised across the nation or across the globe. Where clusters of shops followed the same strategy whole high streets lost much of their character, becoming Anytowns largely indistinguishable from anywhere else, therefore trivially replaceable and therefore not of high intrinsic value. When the brands, having turned their shops into mere brand vehicles, move on, often only empty shells are left. High streets are under severe and growing threat from internet retail; since commerce is an important facet of almost any viable town centre it is important to implement strategies to help save high street commerce. However, we should not only try to save high street shops from their online competitors, but also save them from what, in many cases, they have become.
I suggest that some application of the strategies outlined in this post may prove helpful in meeting this dual challenge, and hope that one day increasing numbers of us will hold strong attachments to our town centres, that much of its charm will be built into its design and daily functioning, and that therefore we won’t need a slogan to convey ‘I ♥ MY HI ST’.
* Of course, this particular advice would be flatly rejected by perhaps the chain most famously successful at generating a sense of experience, Apple Stores. Such stores are characterised by transparency and seamless efficiency. Yet there is, of course, more than one way to generate a sense of experience, and I think the Apple Stores generate such an experience partly because of something clever in the design. But that, perhaps, is for another post…