New Year Cards and Design Decisions

The horrible celebration cards made by amateur Photoshop users bombarding our email boxes every holiday and new year isn’t news. No, this post isn’t about the visual qualities of vernacular design. This is about something else – something I still am baffled about.

Many definitions of design put the stress on the verb “to decide”. Design education is not about teaching techniques for creating beautiful imagery; its main purpose is to teach the students to make conscious, unambiguous and intelligible design decisions that they can articulate and defend. You are not considered a designer if you produce lots of cool alternatives without being able to choose between them with good reasons that can be explained to the client. When you see a designed object, be it a gorgeous museum building or an ugly celebration card, you know that it is the result of many design decisions – good or bad, conscious or intuitive – that have eliminated many alternatives – with huge or slight differences – along the way; “this is the one”, you can say, “this is the end of the bottleneck”.

Well, sometimes you can’t, as it appears. You may reason that the difference between professional design and vernacular design is the quality and/or the quantity of the design decisions involved. Let me present you an actual example that reminds us that the whole existence of the most critical decision is also a question: a corporation (a printhouse indeed), so proud of the two alternatives they created for the new year card that they cannot decide which one to send. And the result? They send them both. Attached to the same email.

This, for all I know, is against the very nature of the thing that we call design, in its broadest sense. You just cannot say “Well, we can’t decide, let’s go with both!” at the end of a design process; that decision has to be made, one way or another. At this point, it is crucial to distinguish this particular situation from two categories: (1) the complete non-existence of design decisions (the position of not giving a shit about design, at all) and (2) the existence of a strategic decision to create a system of coexisting alternatives instead of one single thing (the 2009 AOL identity by Wolff Olins being a hot example). Whoever created and approved these celebration cards clearly care about design; the fact that they have prepared two alternatives is the most obvious proof. (The filenames, “1.jpg” and “3.jpg”, suggest that they also eliminated one at least.) It is also clear that these are not designed to belong to a system of alternatives: nearly everything about them is different, including the textual content.

Okay then, am I simply surprised to see amateurs ignoring yet another design principle? Not quite. In the end, the issue here is well beyond the scope of pure visual design. Let me restate it: this situation, for all I know, is against the very nature of management. This is against the nature of communication. This email with two attachments reveals a lot about the company through – the lack of – a visual communication design decision, and it isn’t good news.


  1. keep your hair on… 😉

    Kitsch has been around for as long as humanity. And will continue to be around long after you and I have bitten the dust. Cure? Total extinction through global warming?

    • Deniz Cem Önduygu (Author)

      I guess what you have in mind is a broad definition of kitsch, describing a lack of elimination – an over-abundance of things – since I’m not at all interested in the visual/textual content of the cards; at a meta level, I thought, the absence of the final decision is something worth mentioning. I still think this is an interesting case.

      Another cure would be a fascist regime with strict regulations on design:

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