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23.10.25 + Perspectives

In Defense of Vibes

Vibes: the ultimate design secret sauce. Creative Director Erin Kilkenny on designing brands with emotion and intuition.

Over the past x number of years (decade? two decades? Shrug!) it has become increasingly prevalent for designers to spend less time designing, and more time engaging in various dark arts practiced by our more analytically or verbally minded colleagues. Strategy, Design Thinking, Research, User Testing, etc.

I’m not against any of these things, by a long shot. But as much as they can help either direct your efforts or explain your ideas to a client, they can sometimes cripple the actual creative process, leaving you with ideas that are bland, derivative, emotionally vacant, or can’t be understood without all the ancillary deck text.

What I’m saying is: sometimes you just gotta VIBE. Vibe it out. Ride the wave. Channel The Dude.

"Creativity requires openness, fearlessness, and risk taking."

– Erin Kilkenny, Creative Director

There are so many different types of design, and this probably doesn’t apply to all of them. If you’re making a train schedule, please, for the love of all that is holy, ignore the vibes. But I do mostly brands and ads, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.

The ideal impact of brand design is emotional—not so much intellectual. Your goals are: be memorable, be consistent, have (the right) impact. And to get to the right combo of brand elements to do that, you’ve gotta feel something, in the hope that all of them (gestures at the audience) feel something too.

Most people are not designers. They only know the default fonts that come with their computer. They don’t wring their hands over CTA messaging. They don’t scrub through every frame of a :30 spot deeply pondering shot selection. And they’re usually not trying very hard to notice your brand. Audience impact is holistic. It is big-picture. It changes over time and with repetition. The thing that is funny and clever at first can become annoying upon repeat viewings… which, oddly, can sometimes be a good strategy. Jingles, anyone? Weird things are often more memorable than tasteful, pretty things. True impacts are hard to measure with analytics, so we shouldn’t blindly trust them. We should mix in emotions and intuitions. We can use strategic insights to set goals for our design work, but attaining those goals? Sometimes it’s just VIBES, MAN. Sometimes when it’s right, you just know.

What does this look like, as part of the early-stage design process? If you’re doing the work, and not taking shortcuts? Surprisingly, it looks like play. It is physically impossible to simultaneously create and edit. Creativity requires openness, fearlessness, and risk taking. It requires deep concentration. It isn’t regurgitating trends, or executing what some over-extended CD tells you to do. It is following a line of thought to the point where you’ve transcended your references and surprised even yourself. It’s “YES AND” -ing with yourself and your colleagues, and even your clients. And it’s hard! VIBES don’t just happen on their own, you have to work twice as hard for them. If 15% of your work gets there, you’re doing great.

What I’m saying is: if you’re a designer, don’t overthink it. Open yourself up and play around, get into a flow, and invite the muses to visit. Live in the present. Go off the rails. Push things further than you think the client will go. Bring a lot of sketches to the next internal review, and pick out what actually works later. Someone will eventually drag you back to earth; you’ll eventually build that system. It’s all part of the process.

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