This past weekend the Iowa State Cyclones matched up against the Iowa Hawkeyes in their annual rivalry game dating back to 1894. I don’t watch a lot of college football but what caught my eye while getting my quick daily dose of Sports Center was the hilarious (in my opinion) story about the Cy-Hawk Trophy. I instantly made a connection to the story of this trophy to something I deal with daily in my graphic design business. Lets start with the trophy…
The original Cy-Hawk trophy was designed in 1977. It depicts a football and a running back in the cliche/classic stiff arm pose. Its nothing special by any means. At best, it has equity built over time to go along with the built in rivalry. In 2010 they retired this trophy and designed a new one. The new trophy depicts a farmer kneeling over a bushel of corn along with a woman and two children. The farmer is handing an ear of corn to the family. It was commissioned by the Iowa Corn Growers Association which I suppose makes sense given the final execution. Dean Taylor, president of the Association said the trophy is, “a work of art that represents Iowans and their hard work.” Thats a really nice sentiment except neither his trophy or what it represents have anything to do with football.
Both teams rejected it and it suffered major ridicule in the local media. Iowa coach Hayden Fry summed it best by saying, “The farmer, family and corn is all wonderful, but I don’t really get the relationship to a football game.” In the end the trophy was scrapped due to negative public opinion. An interim trophy was quickly designed and in a classic bit of irony was accidentally destroyed (pulled together a little too quickly?) by the winning team during the celebration. The new plan is to design a new permanent trophy that will involve public input.
My point is not to share this story, although I enjoyed it, but to point out how some clients often make these same mistakes when working with a designer. It seems to me that the Iowa Corn Growers Association created a design for themselves rather than the client. When you read this story its easy to think how foolish of them to not see this but often times clients will base their direction or feedback on what THEY want and not make any considerations for what the consumer might want. The reasons for this vary: ego, arrogance, ignorance, self-glorification or simply bad taste, which we know there is no accounting for. With any brand we’re trying to design that “trophy” that people, the customer, want to be a part of and own for themselves. That means we all must remember who the client is and have a good idea of what they’re going to want, not just what we might want.
This is where designer/client trust comes in. A designers job is to take the vision of the client and craft a unique brand experience, a worthy “trophy”, that reaches out to a target market and stays true to original client vision. For clients it can be really hard to relinquish some of that control. They feel that no one knows their brand better than they do and therefore they would rather art direct the project rather than collaborate. If this is what you want I would advise hiring a production artist and not getting upset if no one likes the finishes piece other than you. What prospective clients may not realize is that as a designer we know how to take an idea and expand it, add to it, so it becomes an enhanced client vision with a pure intensity defined to communicate effectively to a targeted audience. Thats where trust in a designer’s ability comes in, and its what we’re being paid to do.
Lets be clear, the design cannot bend fully to make only the consumers happy either. The real tragedy to the Cy-Hawk trophy is that they are now swinging the other way on the pendulum and are going to bring in public opinion to help design the new trophy. This is just as bad as designing something solely for yourself. This approach is an attempt to craft a design that pleases everyone. Usually this leads to a watered down, at best tepid result. If no one really hates it, it’s considered a success. These kinds of clients are just as tricky to work with as the other. They usually have a lot of self-doubt, no confidence, indecisive, and of course no taste. They dread that one bad review. Apple (I know, everyone uses them as an example to make a point these days) is famous for not user testing any of their design decisions. They simply trust their vision and their designers to create something the they think is cool and therefore we get to benefit from purpose driven designs that are advancing technology in leaps and bounds. Does the iPhone look like a design that took into account the opinions of 100 people of varying age, gender and education levels?
In the case of the Cy-Hawk Trophy, after its all over, they will have spent time and money on developing three versions. The first based on pleasing their own tastes. One thrown together really quick simply because they needed something for this year and was subsequently destroyed (designing something with very little time to serve as a band-aid is another story for another time) and the one to be revealed next year which will be the product of many opinions forced into one trophy. Suddenly that cliche running back is looking real good. And, a designer asking “what’s wrong with what you have now” is not a bad starting point in the process of a redesign.
The best end results are the ones were the collaboration between designer and client is open and trusting. I believe getting there is knowing that part of your investment in hiring a designer is buying into their expertise of effective communication. A designer needs to know that their client knows their industry, product, and company best and learns all there is to know from that client. Once there is trust between designer and client they will create a trophy worth winning… or at least paying for.
I hope for the sake of the Iowa football teams they get something worth winning cause thats what we all really want at the end of the day.