Thursday, January 6, 2011

Plato on Madison Avenue

The typical reaction on Gap's Facebook to Gap's new logo, released in October of 2010 is: "This is the worst idea Gap has ever had. I will be sad to see this change take place," a Facebook user said. "If this logo is brought into the clothing [store] I will no long[er] be shopping with the Gap. Really a bummer because 90% of my clothing has been purchased there in the last 15+ years."

The 20 year old logo was, and is, in need of a make-over. The need is demonstrated by lagging sales and the store's product line, which has changed little, despite the fact that its original demographic group has grown up and been replaced by a younger group, focused on health and fitness. Sadly, Gap misses the mark with its new logo. Perhaps, the focus should be on a new product line, and then let design form follow.

The idea of design puts in mind Plato's ideas on form. Forms are really nothing more than ideas. For instance, a chair is universally recognized as something to sit on. But, if a thousand people were given a  thousand pieces of paper and a thousand pencils, they would come up with a thousand drawings of what a chair looks like. To Socrates and Plato, his alter ego, forms are unchanging; the world of physical appearances is changeable. A logo change to Plato represents not so much a change in company as a change in which consumers view the company. And, by the measure of sales and customers, gap is not keeping up with the times.

Cultural distinctions highlight the differences in the way we view a product. For instance, whether I live in Florida or Montana will likely affect the way I see a chair. And, this distinction holds across countries, social and economic groups, and age.

The point for the designer is that design must be representative, amorphous, and simple. Gap's original iconic design, for instance, represented a straight-forward, no-sense expression of its no frills approach to clothing. this simple blue and white repitition of its company name was instantly recognizeable to its audience. no wonder that the generation x-er who wrote in on Facebook was "bummed" when Gap attempted to change his image of the brand.

What would Socrates say about this hullabaloo? At first blush, he might remark that it really doesn't matter much what form the logo takes, because Gap is really about an idea, cheap functional clothing for a new generation. Socrates was, by report, ugly, and so we might further conclude that he didn't care as much as to how things looked, just how they were seen. Reread the Parable of the Cave, if you doubt this statement.

To demonstrate that form does influence perception, I give the following example. To the left are the new and old Gap images with the colors inverted. My immediate thought is that the changes are symbolic of Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic.Design does affect our perceptions of the world. And, if this fails to convince you, think about the annual critique given to Hollywood's best and worst dressed stars at the Oscars.Lady Gaga in meat is revolting but attention grabbing.

Plato's failure to accept that we possess notions of beauty would render him incapable of finding a job on Madison Avenue. After all, even if our ideas on beauty are ephemeral, they exist at least for the moment.These ideas affect the flower we choose, the sunset that we admire, or the partner with whom we choose to dance at the party.

Design is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. And while notions of good and beautiful design may change with time, these notions determine our life decisions. Gap's Facebook fan (former?) expresses his new distaste for the company and so influences Gap's decision to take a new look at how it markets itself.

Socrates and Plato be "damned", a chair is not a chair if no one will sit on it.

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