Pizza flyers pose design paradoxes

Underconsideration author Jonathan Baldwin tackles the fine line between the good, the bad, and the utilitarian of graphic design. Thanks to kiwi Natalie Smith for digging this up!

Are pizza flyers well designed? The reason I ask is that someone recently said, in all seriousness, that the role of graphic design historians is to identify examples of good graphic design so that we can improve the quality of the pizza flyers we get through our doors. Of course, ‘pizza flyers’ is just a handy euphemism for the sort of everyday graphic design that permeates our lives, being so ubiquitous that it is largely invisible. Much of this design is undoubtedly ‘bad’ in terms of composition, typography and all-round clarity, but is it really ‘bad design’?

I put this question to my new first year students yesterday during a series of seminars designed to get them thinking (and re-thinking) about their preconceptions of their subject. Pizza flyers, it was agreed, are about as good examples of bad design as you could hope for.

But had any of them used one to order pizza? Almost all had, and several said they kept flyers and even had them taped on the fridge door. So are they badly designed? I asked again. It was like the scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where the peasants are trying to work out the tortured logic of what it means if a witch burns: ‘b-because… they’re made… of wood?’: It was clear from a lot of their faces that something was dawning, somewhat uncomfortably, on them. In this case the logic suggested that if a pizza flyer does its job then, no matter how awful it looks it must, by definition, be ‘well designed’.

I could see most people were struggling with this (and I imagine most readers of this are too — believe me, I feel your pain) but the struggle was not because they didn’t see the sense of it, but because it contradicts everything they have ever been taught or read about what makes good design good. When asked to describe good design the words ‘creativity’, ‘originality’, ‘vision’ and ‘passion’ came out — hardly the sort of things you’d associate with pizza flyers.

So why are pizza flyers so good, yet so bad? One student repeated a familiar argument: the reason pizza flyers look so bad is because they are put together by people who think that they are designers simply because they have a computer and an illegal copy of Photoshop. The old ‘everyone thinks they’re a designer’ argument.
Well I’m not sure I would agree with the generalisation because, while I don’t doubt that a lot of pizza flyers are put together by ‘amateurs’, a lot of them are designed by your actual real-life designers, some of them for a bit of extra cash but a lot of them as part of their stock-in-trade. No — the real reason pizza flyers look the way they do is because that’s what pizza flyers are expected to look like. It’s not the designers that are bad, but the visual language. Comparing a pizza flyer with some agency-originated design is like comparing the language you hear in a court to the stuff you hear on a building site — or college staff room. Pizza flyers are simply visual expletives: short, brutish and to the point.

But that doesn’t answer the earlier comment about a need to improve the quality of design. Just because that’s what pizza flyers are expected to look like doesn’t mean they should forever look like that, does it? I put the question to my students: if approached by a pizza company to design a leaflet to be pushed through thousands of doors in the area, would you produce something like all the others, or strive to be different? Most said they would try to be a little more creative and original, selling pizzas without selling out on their own visual tastes.

But would a ‘well designed’ pizza flyer work? Isn’t it probable that some modernist, sparsely filled masterpiece would send out the signal not that you can have a cheap pizza in minutes, but that you were being offered an expensive and minimalist piece of nouvelle cuisine?
The fact is, pizza flyers set up precisely the right expectations about the product and the service: cheap, cheerful and quick. The choice of visual language any graphic designer makes should be appropriate both to the message and to the intended audience. Differentiation is not an issue here because the pizza market is dependant on reliability and the belief that no matter how many different companies there are offering you pizza, you can be sure you’ll get the same quality product and service.

I would take issue with the idea that it is the role of the visually literate to impose their values on those they see as the visually illiterate. And I would question anyone who thinks that effective design, no matter how it looks, is not in some way good design. Design criticism, and design history, rarely enter TRW (the real world), preferring instead to inhabit a cosy province where everything looks lovely and no designer ever has to hear the dreaded words ‘that’s all very nice but could you make the type a bit bigger and all capitals?’ The fact that graphic designers have to make money and work for other people should no longer be our profession’s dirty little secret. And nor should the fact that graphic design is an essentially multi-lingual activity in which we should,must, be willing to use the same language as the people with whom we are communicating.

Ignoring the invisible visual communication around us, and the powerful effects it has, and looking down our noses at the 99% of designers who operate in that economy risks us producing a generation of designers who shun work they see as beneath them and insist on speaking a visual language only they understand. No wonder the vacuum is being filled with amateurs.

Speak Up Archive: Pizza Flyers: The Height of Good Graphic Design?.


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