Cliches get a bad rap since they are often seen as a sign of laziness. But there are a few cliches you don’t want to avoid, because they give us clues as to what something is.
Somewhere along the line, various tropes (recurrent themes) were introduced. We align specific patterns with our expectations. Years ago, Seth Godin pointed out that steakhouses look a certain way because we’ve been programmed to anticipate what they should be.
Coffee shops have their own cliches: you order at the counter, pay, and they misspell your name on your cup. It’s part of the experience.
Graphic design follows similar conventions
When you think of newspapers, you typically imagine their logo (masthead) at the top of the front page, set in a Blackletter style font. That isn’t always the case, but when you see it, you know it’s a newspaper.
Websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a lot of experimental navigation. That died out by 2005, when everyone realized that putting navigation at the top of the window worked best, because that’s what people have come to expect.
Those design conventions reduce friction. The faster people understand something, the better. Until it becomes too predictable.
Good designers start with cliches and move on from there
The real trick is to start with something familiar (a cliche) and create cognitive engagement so that it slows people down just a tad, and they have that “aha” moment, which stimulates your brain and it feels so good once you see it.
It’s why Herb Lubalin’s classic “Mother & Child” logo design is so enduring. The cliche is the classic “madonna and child” motif that has been part of Western art for centuries. Or the “O” is a womb, and the ampersand is an embryo. You see it in pieces, then the whole thing clicks.
You experience a tiny dopamine rush: your brain makes a new connection when it realizes the ampersand has a double meaning.
Cliches aren’t always bad
The secret to good design is to be familiar, with just enough newness to be exciting. That’s why great designs, great products, and great businesses are so often like this other thing, but with a twist. We humans love to be surprised.