Avoid the Subtle Threat of Style Bait
Exploring the fine line between art and imitation in marketing.
As a designer, you hold yourself to artistic standards. You’re quick to call out crass clickbait. You don’t cut corners in the name of expediency. But there’s a new subtler threat, born of the social media age: style bait. Are you a victim?
“There are two sides to it that I encounter…”
This is Dan Christofferson — the yin to partner Dan Cassaro’s yang at one of New York City’s most fiercely independent creative studios, Young Jerks. We’re debating the fine line between artful design and clickbait.
“When I’m posting personal work, how influenced by likes and comments am I? The other side is commercial. If they want content that people will respond to, can I make it cool? Make something I’m proud of while also making it something that people will like and share?”
The Jerks’s style is unmistakable: a painfully stylish pairing of hand-crafted Americana and modern street style.
“Both of us tend to favor this sweet spot in American commercial design that was mid-century, a time when if a sign had to be painted, then the sign painter also designed it,” explains Dan Christofferson of the stylistic bond he shares with Young Jerks’s co-founder Dan Cassaro, “which made it a little bit naïve and maybe perfectly human, because he was probably more of a craftsperson than a designer.”
Dan Christofferson’s creative journey winds from the Salt Lake Hardcore music scene, through fine art training, to his current role of co-piloting his own creative ship. He’s cut commercial design for brands from Levi’s to Deus Ex Machina as naturally as he’s exhibited gallery shows of paintings that explore questions like, “What if God communicated with humanity through fine garment tailoring?”
When you look at Dan’s artistic portfolio, and the Young Jerks’s stylistic conviction, you don’t think he’d lose sleep over Instagram likes. But today, it’s hard to escape the judgment of the social media peanut gallery.
“With our own work, it’s a constant thing,” explains Dan, “an inevitable conversation where we ask, ‘Should we post the thing that everyone likes? How do we translate our design into a thing that people respond to?’”
And should we? As a designer, you innately hold yourself to artistic standards. You’re quick to call out crass clickbait. You don’t cut corners in the name of expediency. You know the obvious threats to the integrity of your work. And you wouldn’t be caught dead overtly copping another artist’s style. Mimicry is the content death knell.
But ask yourself these questions: Has the visual style of a project ever felt set long before you got to work? Do you ever feel bound by the visual tropes of an industry you’re designing for? Do you ever get that eerie déjà vu feeling that what you’re making has been made before? Perhaps many times before?
You’ve created style bait.
Unless you’re a brutally abstract, trust-funded artist hell-bent on raging against design-as-marketing, you’re reluctantly nodding yes right now. Which makes you, like all of us working designers, victim to a subtle and often subconscious threat: style baiting.
In marketing, we design at the mercy of fleeting digital attention spans and ever-changing platform algorithms. In turn, we can’t help but consider design decisions that optimize our work for clicks, likes, and shares. One of the digital marketing trade’s only universal laws is that engagement breeds engagement. Every extra comment or like drives content further out into algorithmic popularity. Ultimately, your design is the difference between snaring attention or slipping down a newsfeed.
But just as consumers learned that Russian hackers and fake news lurk on the other side of top 7 headlines, they’re realizing that style bait is a sign of creative deficiency. Take, for example, the outdoor industry’s beloved “look at me looking at this body of water” content with warm, low-contrast photo editing.
Yes, this aesthetic gets a lot of likes. Lots of comments. Lots of digital love. But at what cost? Becoming one with your competitors? Creating a content herd? Style bait is the design equivalent of your junior high school friend who ditched you for the preppy clique, leaving you alone in your Green Day and/or My Chemical Romance shirt.
Style baiting transcends verticals and channels. B2B enterprise buyers know well the tech industry’s kitschy mutation of Tron networking graphics with ominous locks, clouds, and skulls to drive clicks on cybersecurity content.
The hip serenity of the former strikes a clear contrast against the cyberpunk scare tactics of the latter, but they both highlight the core risk of style-baiting your design: homogeneity.
A 2017 eMarketer study found that adults in the United States now spend more than 12 hours per day consuming media, with more than five hours of that time spent on digital devices. Whether you’re selling hip sleeping bags or data center tech, the less your design stands out in this content flood against your competitors, the weaker your content will perform.
The wisdom to know the difference
Style bait can be subtle and difficult to avoid. But there are some very basic principles that designers can obey to create with originality and integrity. We asked Dan Christofferson how he silences the social media feedback, stands his creative ground, and avoids the style-bait trap.
1. Trust peers.
“The best thing about having a partner is that it’s pretty easy to see when [a project] is 90 percent done. The last 10 percent will find you going back and forth like, ‘Did I just make that change? Did I make it too far?’ All these really subtle things. So usually when either of us gets to that point, we just hand it over to the other person and then with fresh eyes they can be like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this, this, and this,’ and then it’s 100 percent.”
2. Embrace setbacks.
“To be hyper-focused from an illustration perspective, it just took me losing a file I was working on. My computer crashed in the middle of something, and I lost it. In my career, that’s happened a bunch of times and each time I have to say, ‘Alright. Let me sit back down and rebuild what I just did.’ It’s always a better piece. There’s some weird muscle memory that I tap into or some cool subconscious refinement of that first composition that comes out.”
3. Celebrate imperfection.
“I think one thing that we both saw in each other’s work was aesthetic similarity, and how we approached design aesthetics that had heritage to it. Both of us tend to favor this sweet spot in American commercial design that was mid-century. If a sign had to be painted, the sign painter also designed it, which was this cool thing that made it be a little bit naïve and maybe perfectly human because he was probably more of a craftsperson than a designer. You get something that’s just clearly a bit off in a really approachable way.”
4. Never settle.
“I think integrity is knowing good work is more important than the paycheck. It’s that you’ve gotten to a point where you can take pride in it based on your own standards or on the standards of the person who’s commissioned you to do it for them… I think everybody knows what it feels like to go maybe 90 percent there, and not get that 10 percent in and still deliver or call it a day.”
5. Say no.
“We’ve been working together in Brooklyn for three-and-a-half years, and we were working together apart for maybe a year before that. So in four-and-a-half years of full-time design, taking as many projects as two dudes can handle, we have noticed if you take a project that isn’t right for you it takes longer, it’s not as profitable, and often it comes in the way of a better project that came along after you took it. You’ll find yourself saying, ‘Why did I do this? I should have said no.’ We’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve seen saying no to projects just to leave space for the right ones.”