Kill Your Photoshop Montage

dctroy's picture

I work for a medium-sized in-house design department for a giant technology company. A woman came to me to ask me to make placecards (fun!) for a company dinner party with the names of guests on them, so people would know where to sit. These cards were to be slightly bigger than a business card, and would probably be viewed from a distance of 10 - 20 feet, by tipsy guests milling around holding glasses, yakking, etc. The client's one specific request: she wanted a photoshop montage on it.

On a place card.

It was at that moment that I knew something is being put in our public water supply to make people crave these cliched, dated eyesores -- I'm not sure what else would explain it. Virtually every day I interact with a client who has almost no design awareness whatsoever, no preferences of colors, typefaces, illustration styles... EXCEPT they know they want a photoshop montage. (Not that they call it that.)

It's gotten so extreme that many clients will balk at any clean, hard-edged shape whatsoever. Every line of type must have a blurred drop shadow, a beveled edge and an outer glow -- every box or circle must have hazy edges that fade into whatever is behind it. Every paragraph must have a big photograph "ghosted" behind it (good luck reading that, sister!)

In my daily life I see them everywhere now: muddy magazine ads, murky point-of-purchase displays -- institutional brochures are so likely to have photoshop collages that it's almost like the default style. The worst of the lot is so busy and confusing that you can't make out any actual images: "what's going on in there?" My coworker calls it "Photoshop Stew."

Near my house is a Blockbuster Video store that contains a 10-foot high point-of-purchase display created to get people to buy Direct TV, or something like that. This thing is the size of large refrigerator, and every surface is covered with a grayish-blue photoshop montage of... stuff you would see on tv, I guess. Looking at it is like sifting through the wreckage of a plane crash. "Is that a football player's arm? Is this part of a car? Is that a chicken?

Do people like them because they look "complex?" Because it's something they couldn't do themselves in Microsoft Word? The clients I'm referring to are all middle-aged and pretty conservative, so it's not like they're pining for the "grunge" look of the early nineties.

In Paula Scher's new book, "Make It Bigger," she speculates that the reasons clients love these abominations is because they're vague and non-committal -- ironically the same reasons I hate them. But the montages have the function of reducing responsibility / potential culpability of the client. How can your boss or coworkers criticize the content / subject matter of an image if you can't tell what it is?

The strange thing is that before coming to this job I experienced very little of this madness. Are other people experiencing things like this? Any suggestions about how to handle it -- counseling, heavy drinking, another career?

Thanks for reading my long rant. I'm off to make hard-edged vector art in Illustrator. (Mmmm, clean, so clean.) :-)

capthaddock's picture

Reminds me of a *hideous* calendar they're giving away or selling at a major video rental chain here in British Columbia. The cover is a murky, muddy, eye-tearing montage of blurry screenshots from movies of 2002.

It seems like it's a of disease, some kind of Photoshopfilteritis mutation, influenced by some of the genuinely interesting work that some of the European digital designers are doing. It began in the US and is spreading from there.

Be honest with your client. Tell them how inappropriate and butt-ugly a montage will be. Show them how successful design doesn't stoop to vague photomontages without a good reason.

The philosophy of the best designers is "to help the client, not to please the client." Of course, I only wish I could afford to uphold this ideal. :-)


hrant's picture

It's simply the classic provincial infatuation with quantity.


Diner's picture

Do the montage and do a version of the placecard as you see it. Raise concerns about readability and wait for feedback.

Who does just ONE comp to show a client?

The only way to educate the client and build their level of taste is to design beyond their expectations and present at least two designs you'd be happy to have produced.

The one good one, one bad one thing ALWAYS backfires.

You must always remember that you are being hired by a person to do something that isn't within their skillset to do. You are an agent for them acting on their behalf.

That doesn't mean you have to lay down and eat sh!t with your design work for them and it also doesn't mean you should totally ignore them. It means you are as much an advisor as you are the guy to help them realize their vision as you interperate it.

Relax and have fun with this, you'll save yourself a lot of stress.

Stuart :D

paul's picture

I feel your pain.

Arguing against this kind of thing to clients, I often use a typographic analogy, explaining that the way you 'read' a picture is similar to how you read a page of text - graphics and text require similar planning. You need to have some kind of strong image, or portion of the image, to function like a headline; it needs to stand out and draw the reader's attention, at which point they'll decide if they want to look deeper into the layout or not, just as a good headline is what makes a reader decide to read a newspaper story or not. Then you can use smaller images, or subsidiary images, to convey more detailed information. Even if the images are all parts of a collage, there needs to be organization and a heirarchy of some kind. If you were designing an ad using only type, you wouldn't print a column of solid text with no headings at all, but you could potentially use punchy headline on its own. In the same way, a single, strong image is much more powerful than a bunch of jumpled images fighting each other for attention, which is like a page of body text with no headline. You need to have contrast. Also, just like text, the graphics need to have a function; you wouldn't put a bunch of words on the page that didn't say anything, just because they looked 'cool.' You'd only put words on the page that communicated a message. Each element needs to have a job to do or it shouldn't be there.

I also try to convince them, again using a typographic analogy, to give consideration to the amount of the reader's attention they can expect. You could easily fit many paragraphs of small text onto a trade show display, but very few people would actually read it, since the show floor is full of other graphics screaming for attention; if your display demands more that a couple of seconds to digest, the potential customer will simply walk on to the next thing. However, a museum placard next to a painting could have a couple of paragraphs of small text, because you have an interested reader who will give it their full attention.

The average person will not give a table place card much undivided attention; as long as the name is clearly legible and it looks neat and attractive, it's doing its job. Anything clutter or reduced contrast between text and a background image would reduce its functionality; you definitly don't want people wandering around peering at them to find their place at the table. The guests are not going to be impressed by the graphics, they're going to be annoyed. What a bizzare place for a photo collage!

This is off the subject a bit, but when dealing with middle-aged clients, I often mention the old black-and-white Volkswagon ads, and point out that what made them so memorable is their straightforwardness and simplicity. The photos were completely unpretentious - usually a silhouetted image of a car or part of a car. No color, one photo, a short headline and a few sentences of body copy, all floating on a plain, white background, yet decades later most people remember this campaign vividly. It was the cleverness, humor, and the work that went into actual ideas that paid off. If those ads had been cluttered with several pictures and a column of text, filled every square inch of the page, and if each ad tried to make ten different points, nobody would remember them today. A single idea, conveyed with directness and restraint, can hit harder than a whole bunch of little messages.

One reason we see so much bad art, I believe, is because of the way many large companies are structured. Large institutions tend to generate fear of authority. The biggest problem with a client in a large organization (whether or not you, yourself are also part of that organization) is that your client is usually not the person who originated the project. Your client (the person you deal with) may not really understand the underlying purpose, since the project may have passed through many hands before it gets to you - middle managers, assistants, account reps, art directors, etc.

What's sad is that often I feel that the originator might be open to new ideas if they only saw them. The originating Big-Shot may have mentioned doing a collage as a casual suggestion, expecting to see other concepts. However, the underlings will show the Big Shot nothing but collages, because that's what the Big Shot specifically mentioned. Maybe someone in the middle has the mistaken idea that the Big Shot likes collages (because they used one last year), or maybe somebody in the middle simply likes collages themselves, changed the specifications, and will pass through nothing but collages. I'm sure that almost every graphic designer/illustrator/typesetter/photographer/copywriter has had an experience where they were given detailed instructions and it later turned out that the originator of the project wanted the exact opposite. There are also basic human tendencies for each person to hold back some information, telling the next person only what they 'need to know,' or to do the opposite and change or embellish the specifications. Thus, the instructions for the project get warped and degraded as it passes through several people with different levels of taste, imagination and competence. You may come up with brilliant concepts that serve the purpose of the project perfectly, but they may never get seen by the originator, and you may never know which ideas the originator rejected and which ones simply got edited out by the middlemen.

I often find that projects for smaller companies are the most fun, because there is less organizational structure, and often you have at least some direct communication with the originator.

This isn't really a rant, I'm just musing on something that most people in the graphic arts constantly deal with. I always like to understand the underlying reasons for a project, not just a set of specifications; this tells me what is important and what might be flexible. For instance, do they want use or not use particular colors because somebody arbitrarily likes or doesn't like that color, simply because they did/didn't use that color in other recent projects, or because there are specific, real reasons (white is the color of death in parts of Asia; a certain color scheme is associated with a competitor). Often this kind of information is not provided without passing detailed questions up and down the line. What can be frustrating is that these questions don't always go all the way to the top, and what you get back may be wrong. Often, large organizations have no idea why things are done in certain ways, but everyone is afraid to change or question.

Take care,

- Paul

graficartist's picture

Remeber the movie life is beautiful - that popular italian flick from a few years ago with the Charlie Chaplin-like main character.

I quote:
"You are a servant, not a slave".

Stuarts right. It's your job to tell them, or rather, show them what is good. Educate them.

I just went through a bout yesterday with two directors and the owner of my company. I asked the owner if I could redesign the business card, bring it up to speed with the new millenium. It took a good 30-35 minutes of empassioned speech from all of us to reach the next level, but we did it and now we will have a better business card - with no montages. I've attached pictures but it won't be too impressive but it is an improvement. Soon our website will be updated with a similar look. It just takes patience and time to explain things to the suits.

Old business card
New business card

hrant's picture

Mistral is a joined script - please don't disjoin it!


bencravy's picture

agree w/ Hrant - eeeeeeeeeewwww disjointed mistral.

dctroy's picture

Thanks for all your thoughts. This is very helpful. I agree with Paul D. that this montage infatuation is like a disease. Paul S's typographic analogy is a good idea and something they might understand. I'm not as concerned with this one project as I am about the larger problem of clients demanding the montage thing one after another.
Any other ideas?



tsprowl's picture

I see how the problem lies with amateurs getting a hold of programs and feeling proud of what filters and melanges they've put together...and how many of them work in print shops...and how many printers see $'s saved when they don't have to refer client to a designer...and subsequently how lotsa crap gets produced. Perhaps there should be a new Guild formed, one that regulates standards before anyones allowed to print anything. yeah, a Big Brother in charge of all paper.

the rules include:
no photoshop montages
no orbits
no drop shadows
no 0's and 1's mushed around emulating "data"
no formatting including combination of Bold, underline & italic. limit 1 style only.
no comic sans, ever

Isaac's picture

i finally saw the real purpose for
drop shadows awhile ago. when the
news is on, watch the little
time/temp thing in the corner.
white type with black shadow.
it makes it readable.

i think some people are afraid to
depart from what they see as the
norm. "everyone else has montages,
i guess i'd better do it too."
that kind of thing.

Diner's picture

I had the challenge several years ago to do a montage for a childrens flash educational thing and honestly really enjoyed it.

It was not used as the main image but more of an accent to the kids control panel interface (less than 15% of the space used). It was perhaps the first and only time I really enjoyed the challenge of a montage and while I fought it, found that it was purposeful in the design to reflect a broad idea to instantly theme a section of the design instead of just for the sake of having a montage or becuase a client requested it.

Even though as a designer I am compelled to do the best work I can, I am willing to try any style of design once.

I'd like to throw down the gauntlet and offer an open challenge to typophile posters to re-create an authentic utilitarian chinese fast food menu.

The thing that is most exciting about the design of a Chinese menu is that it is chock full of montage, a host of fonts, often asymmetrical, designed with little foundation of proper design, and utilizes a host of color shemes not meant to work together as we've been taught.

I think through the exercise of recreating such a design abomination complete with poor leading would enlighten and humble any designer to understand that even if you hate some of the trends in design you may see, until you make one of them for yourself, you won't understand why or how they work.

I think any good designer must extend their range to include designs and design elements they totally disagree with in order to grow as a professional.

Stuart :D

hrant's picture

The pinnacle of good taste, compared to this:


capthaddock's picture

Ow! My eyes!

j75's picture

I think the problem lies with amateurs equating detail with quality (montages=visual detail). The connection does not always exist as we all know but it takes training to realise this. This is a universal problem and its not going to go away. You can talk about educating clients and that may work in some cases, but with marketing increasingly taking over our world, this is not going to be effective in the long run. Design requires a lot of background thinking, but as the product is often visual/supeficial this is not appreciated.

I dont know what the answer is but the problem is getting worse as the marketing industry grows, thats for sure.

tsprowl's picture

o that too.
I hear ya man...personally I can't stand the idea that an marketing account exec goes out to discuss project with client. They sit there for maybe 2 hours max, and then scribbly layouts on cocktail napkins are left on my desk. Then he gets my comps and presents them to client? Hello - how could you possibly explain? Half the time he questions my comps , and suggests that thats not what he asked for. Jesus H. y'no, how many middle men do we need to do a flyer! And don't you dare ask me to add a star burst or increase the font size for $9.99. screwing up my hierachy grrrrr. marketing

graficartist's picture

The old one has the disjointed script. The new one is the smaller. Sorry to hurt your eyes. I hope I didn't blind anyone.


paul's picture


I thought the smaller one looked much better than the large one. I'm happy to hear that the small one is the revised one.

- Paul

graficartist's picture

Thank you Paul. I know I'm not that great of a designer but I was beginning to think that I wouldn't be able to show my face around here at all anymore.

graficartist's picture

Thank you Paul. I know I'm not that great of a designer but I was beginning to think that I wouldn't be able to show my face around here at all anymore.

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