Oh yeah, design matters

by Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer  September, 2012

Good design is like obscenity. Most people are flummoxed to define it, but they insist they know it when they see it.

I’m no exception. I love prairie style architecture. I build time into every trip to Chicago to stroll the residential streets of suburban Oak Park, to view the highest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses. I’d be hard-pressed to explain why, but that makes me feel glorious.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed this home in Oak Park, Ill.

One of many Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes in Oak Park, Ill., that I’d love to move into.

Chicago is also home to another mecca for great design – Crate and Barrel. The 170-store chain carries housewares, furniture, and home accessories with a design sense that’s warm, clean and current.

(My friend JoAnn used to coerce her four sons into performing household chores by threatening to get a job at Crate and Barrel. It worked! The boys feared that if JoAnn worked in this home furnishings paradise, it wouldn’t be long before she wouldn’t come home to them.)

Crate and Barrel store at Northbrook, Ill., where I met Lauren.

Hoping to define good visual design, I made an appointment with Lauren Arnold (soon to be Lauren Hengeveld after Oct. 20) at Crate and Barrel’s Northbrook, Illinois, store. Lauren is the senior designer on Crate and Barrel’s seven-person private label packaging team, which is part of the chain’s 60-person creative department.

The creative team includes marketing specialists, photographers, artists, and copywriters whose work assures Crate and Barrel customers get the same exquisite experience whether they’re shopping in a retail store, from a printed catalog, or on the website.

Lauren designs bellybands, hang tags, and information inserts for Crate and Barrel

Lauren Arnold

Senior Designer Lauren Arnold shows some of the packaging labels she’s created for Crate and Barrel.

bakeware, cookware, and holiday gifts. She also designed the packaging for the 2012 Barbecue feature that includes everything you can imagine for outdoor grilling and entertaining.

Design, Lauren told me, is the way to differentiate one thing from something similar. Design defines a brand and enhances value. We’re not talking art for art’s sake here. Design has a specific intent.

At Crate and Barrel, it draws interest. Keeps it. And inspires purchasing decisions (choices!).

Design 101

The elements of design are line, color, shape, texture, space and form. When we like a design – whether it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home or a Crate and Barrel barn-wood bedroom suite – what’s catching our fancy is how those elements are converging.

She pointed out the elements on a framed painting titled “Circular Reasonings” by artist Jennifer Goldberger, which was hanging in the showroom where we were chatting.

Lauren Arnold describes why artist Jennifer Goldberger’s “Circular Reasonings” is a painting a lot of people would like to hang in their homes.

The composition was balanced, yet assymetrical. The lines were organic, not geometric. Colors were soft, natural, and blended nicely. I told Lauren the painting reminded me of pebbles on the beach and left me feeling like I was wading in calm.

“It evokes emotion,” Lauren said. “It’s good design.”

Print as art

Since Lauren works a lot with print, I asked her for some tips for designing school newsletters, PowerPoint presentations, posters, and websites. These communications typically carry a school’s brand and help define how a school is unique. The purpose of a school’s communication tools is both to inform and promote.

Outdoor cooking display

Lauren liked the question. Type is form and image, especially if you’re playing with scale, she said. She showed me a spring green apron, cutting board, and napkins she designed for the store’s summer section in which “type” was the design.

I also enjoyed a cascading display of juice glasses with cute decals of the letter “O” wearing a leaf so it looked like an orange.

KISS applies (keep it simple . . .)

Long before Lauren became a Crate and Barrel graphic designer, she swore off ornamentation. It’s pretentious. Complexity is exhausting, even if you’re just looking, she said.

She thinks of design as subtracting the obvious, adding the meaningful, and distilling everything to its naked core. The challenge is significant.

What’s this mean for school communicators? Lauren said you must hone your message down to its essence.

“A flaw in written communication is that people try to fill all the space they have,” Lauren said. “Remember, the eye needs breathing room. White space is important. It’s what allows you to focus on the main message.”

Wording on labels is important, but so is the space you leave blank. Lauren says even eyes need to “breathe.”

I saw what she meant when she showed me a label she designed for a 13 x 9-inch baking pan. The label covered only a quarter of the product, and the wording covered only a fraction of the label. Nevertheless, the positioning was pleasing. I started reading the label! (That amazed me. I used to be a professional cake decorator. Believe me, I couldn’t read anything about pans I don’t already know.)

Then I admired the labels Lauren designed for muffin mixes. They’re colorful yet simple, which suggests wholesomeness.

Simple, colorful labels suggest wholesomeness.

No one achieves communication that’s easy to understand and consistent across product lines and media platforms without intentionally pursuing it, Lauren said.

What if a school’s message isn’t a simple one?

Playing Devil’s advocate, I challenged Lauren on whether it’s realistic to keep every message simple. After all, some school issues are complex. Who could adequately describe the funding issues involved with a proposed building bond campaign in 50 words or less?

“Some parents will want to know every detail, but others will hate being bombarded by information,” Lauren said. “Most will read the headline and breeze on through.”

The best solution, Lauren said, is to ask parents each fall what channel of communication they prefer and how much information they want. Crate and Barrel asks its customers communication related questions regularly. It’d be a good practice for schools, too.

Snail-mailed letters and email messages should contain nuts and bolts information with any calls to action (“Register Thursday,” “Vote Tuesday,” “Field trip money due Wednesday”) set apart in larger, bold-faced or italicized type to facilitate scan reading. These communications should include a web link or hotline number that parents can use to obtain more information, if they want it.

Inspiration for good web designs

Since more school communications are moving online exclusively, I asked Lauren to recommend some websites and blogs that she would give an “A” for design.

Here’s Lauren’s list. Make time to check them out. More than two minutes will be needed. These are way too interesting!



  • ohjoy.blogs.com/my_weblog
  • ohhappyday.com
  • abeautifulmess.typepad.com/my_weblog
  • kendieveryday.com
  • parcelpost.wordpress.com
  • designsponge.com
Photos by Kym Reinstadler