Steven Heller | Essays

Topanga, I Hardly Knew Ye

NutriSystem Advertisement, The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2007

Being a design snob, I've always wondered why anyone with taste would pay thousands of dollars to publish one of those text-heavy, type-awful, full-page magazine advertisements void of any semblance of graphic design nuance or sophistication. In other words, an ad so terribly designed the word "design" is irrelevant. Then again, who would take the time to read a 2000-word promotional screed set in monotonous body type, full of hyped-up assertions couched in moldy clichés? Well, now I know at least part of the answer. I am that reader. And those advertisers must bank on the fact that design is indeed irrelevant when the sales message is its own virtue. Maybe they are right.

I came across such a full-page specimen in this past Sunday's The New York Times Magazine, opposite a page on which were the final runnover paragraphs of a fascinating article on Todd Haynes' biopic inspired but not about Bob Dylan, titled "I'm Not There." Having reached the end of the article, and ready to close my eyes for a short catnap, I saw the following headline: "The pressure to be thin in Hollywood is huge! And boy, did I feel it." Such announcements are usually typographic white noise, but then my eyes focused on the typical "before" and "after" pictures and I was hooked.

There was a small but incredibly sexy studio photograph of a woman wearing a bikini overlapping a bleached-out snapshot of her enormous previous incarnation. Although ordinarily not worth an additional iota of attention, this girl, it turned out, was 26-year old woman Danielle Fishel, who from 1993 to 2000 played Topanga Lawrence on the amusing sitcom, "Boy Meets World." Over the years she grew increasingly more sensual evolving from tween to teen. It was one of my then young son's favorite shows, which I dutifully sat through to monitor his intake of mass media. Now I (gladly) admit that watching her develop over the course of many seasons was not a burden. Once "Boy Meets World" was off the air, however, Topanga left my consciousness, until this past Sunday when I stumbled upon the advertisement shown here for NurtiSystem's Glycemic Advantage. By any standards it is a poorly designed ad, but nonetheless very effective. Design snobbery has its place, yet good design I have learned is often irrelevant in the pursuit of an audience.

I wasn't even in the market for a dietary program, but I was intrigued enough by the come-on to read every last sentence presumably written in Ms. Fishel's own words. "I have been an actress most of my life," she states in the first paragraph. "I love doing it. So when 'Boy Meets World' went off the air, I really was looking forward to continuing my career. But my weight got in the way." Poorly letter-spaced and forced-justification of default typefaces notwithstanding, I was hooked.

"Look," she continues as though in a direct conversation with me. "I knew that it was my job as an actress to look my best. And I kind of let that go. I'm just glad that NutriSystem was there to rescue me." And so was I, once her admission turned into a confession. "I first started to have issues with my weight when I was 18... I really didn't pay attention to what I was eating. Plus my body really started to change then. I just couldn't eat whatever I wanted to anymore."

The prose is not Proustian or even Judy Blumeian, nonetheless it seems pretty honest for an ad. So I found myself drawn from reading one short paragraph to another, until by the time the sales pitch kicked-in I was invested enough to continue reading the entire tract down to the coupon. Moreover, as I read, never once did I think of the type or layout: I just wanted to be convinced Topanga was on her path to nirvana, self-fulfillment, or at least another TV gig (you'll have to read the ad to find out).

Of course, I know this advertisement is deliberately "designed" to capture the attention of those who relate to celebrities who after years in the glamour limelight became fat (like that perky Valerie Bertinelli in those Jenny Craig commercials). "Dolling-up" the ads with elegant typefaces is therefore unnecessary since those before- and after-shots, and lengthy personal testimonials, do the job so well, regardless of layout. What's more, from a strategic branding point-of-view, running a text-heavy, sloppily-composed full-page in an otherwise handsomely designed magazine, replete with beautiful fashion and product advertisements, makes it stand out more. I also presume that if a company is investing this much money in a "direct response" ad, they must know what they are doing. Their audience is going to be engaged because of the celebrities sincere about their road back from perdition. Right?

In this blinkered era of design sophistication the lines between good and bad are actually not so clearly drawn. As we see on a daily basis, not all consumers care about good, great, or exceptional design when what they really want is to believe in the message. And the message NutriSystem may be telegraphing is this: Loose your excess weight NOW and worry about design later.

Still, call me an old design snob. We deserve better and so does Topanga.

Posted in: Business

Comments [44]

The ad captured your attention enough that you looked at it, read every word on the page and even though you are not in the market for their product you understood and absorbed their message.

It would seem to me that the ad does what an ad is supposed to do.

How can you call that bad design?

Good design should not be about making a "pretty" ad but about making one that communicates effectively.
Stephen Macklin

"Still, call me an old design snob. We deserve better and so does Topanga."

Okay, you're a design snob!

You just proved why an aesthetic appraisal of design often has little bearing on the actual effectiveness, so it seems a shame to spoil it with a demand for something 'better'.
I'd wager that if this ad were 'well' designed it would not be as effective, a point I've made myself elsewhere.

Surely the far bigger complaint should be about a society that makes judgements about people's bodies, but rather than write an article decrying that instead goes on about the quality of typography and the fact that the photo of the sexy 20-something is too small! I know this is a design blog but any evaluation of design that doesn't consider the effect over the affect has to be a waste of time.

For me, the problem with this ad is that it starts off by complaining that we live in an age where people make judgements about others based on how they look, and then turns that in to a sales pitch for a diet programme. Who gives a tinker's cuss what the bloody thing looks like? It's that we should be critiquing...

Mr. Heller,

You may be interested in what Mr. Ogilvy, had to say about your reaction to a "testimonial ad," too.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ha!

Joe Moran

This essay isn't about design as much as it is about having the hots for Danielle Fishel.

From the pedantic dept.: It's actually tinker's cusp, cusp being another word for dam, i.e. a single-use tool for blocking the flow of solder in metalsmithing. Since it's thrown away, it is not worth much, and with a bit of punning wordplay it went from dam to damn, therefore to not give a tinker's damn means to especially not care. Cuss may be a back-formation from the meaning of damn (to curse).

As for the article, well, yes, it seems quite obvious that if it was 'well designed' people might seem suspicious of it being too slick, expensive and not worth the money. There's something about (deliberately?) mediocre typesetting that evokes a sense of honesty or homespun truth about the product. Call it the print equivalent of a particularly flowery MySpace or Livejournal page.

At SXSW Interactive 2007, there was a panel discussion called "High Class and Low Class Web Design" which touched on issues like this, albeit from a web perspective.

The audio is available at: http://2007.sxsw.com/blogs/podcasts.php/2007/05/29/high_class_and_low_class_web_design

Towards the end, I got up to the microphone and suggested that maybe so-called "low class" design is desired when talking about things that people don't necessarily want to publicly identify with. Their example was a "foot fungus" ad that was quite gaudy, and my argument was that by virtue of the fact that it was horrendously designed, people are able to talk about it to their friends by making fun of it, which surreptitiously spreads brand awareness.

I think that this blog article is another example of that. If the ad had been well-designed, we would not have given it a second thought. And at the same time it might have turned off overweight people by giving off an elitist air, whereas this ad instead helps to humanize a celebrity.
Grant Hutchins

WTF! Heller's ramblings are the most pathetic piece of tripe I have ever read at Design Observer. I would strongly urge you to (re)consider your editorial procedures as this post drags a struggling design discourse back 50 years.
Dominic James

Yeah, this article's a confession alright. Someone call Chris Hansen with Dateline.

1993 means, like me at the time, she was 12. Ew. The show was off the air before Topanga and I could legally drink.

Way to go, Old Man Heller. And thanks to the AIGA Design Conference this past weekend, I now have a face to put to the story. Double ew.

Dreaming of Topanga?

Honest, and still a little gross. Worthy of sharing? probably not.

"Design snobbery has its place"

Typical for someone who loves to hear himself talk...

Yes, you are a snob and it's always come through in your writing. In fact, the ad your referencing here, despite it's lack of designed eloquence, is a lot more clear and to the point — and maybe less painful to read — than many of your articles, which I assume you spend a bit of time finessing.

So where exactly is that place for design snobbery? Perhaps you should be an art critic.

Wow, for having just spent a whole session on blogging etiquette this is quite the setback.

"Blog means never having to say you're sorry"

Doug B

"Design snobbery has its place, yet good design I have learned is often irrelevant in the pursuit of an audience."
Amen, bro.
Case in point:

Bangfest = perfect execution for the target audience and uncut crack for your ears. ;)
p.s. you don't need to buy it, it's free!
Lt. Dan Bassett

They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano But When I Started To Play With Myself!~
Mark Kaufman

Oh good, I'm not the only one who thought this post was a little creepy.

heller misses the point ENTIRELY.

high design is geared for folks who are "moving and shaking". since they are always on the move, they shed pounds doing their very important high-minded things and don't have time to read the fine print.

this ad (and many like it) are geared for those who are sitting. not moving, not shaking. perhaps even sedentary.

you will find a plethora of this genre of advertisement on in-flight magazines. why? well, duh, everyone is sitting, and captive for at least a few hours.

i think posts like this have more to do with expressing the writer's wit than anything really subtantial. which is too bad. mr. heller makes graphic designers look like idiots.
Gong Szeto

It's damn true.

Ugly design can be effective, but it's still ugly. Design is about the message, yes, but it's also about aesthetics and personal pride in the work you do and the world you influence.

And those ads certainly don't promote anything positive.

Mr. Heller! you call yourself a design historian?
You know damned well that there is a long, long history of ads where the copywriter is the "creative." "Somewhere west of Laramie"? (True, nicer typography, but in those days some typesetters knew how to do it. And others did not - just like today. Bad taste has its own version of timelessness).
Doesn't this echo back to why the modernists rejected this sort of pandering, lowest-common denominator ad approach in favor of much more oblique and artful visual appeals. There were politics buried in those ads that rejected this approach, where the audience was at least granted a degree of intelligence. Optimism! But this ad that you are bothering to write about is just one of thousands of examples that harken back to the old ways of appealing to people's emotions and weaknesses over their intellect or imaginations, and there's a history to that crap. Though clearly your imagination applied to Topanga seems to see something...more. I don't get it.

if you think that is ugly, wait till you view my famous tabloids in third world countries and see all the commerce oriented ad that made an impression if you can do illustrator or photoshop, you can design.

trust me , it looks much more damn cheaper of an ad & also the spelling is just horrendous.

it wouldn't be a purpose to design if it needed any, right ?

I've always wondered why anyone with taste would write one of those text-heavy, type-awful, long-winded blog posts?

Then again I've always wondered why anyone with taste would buy a "Flowbee" (Vacuum turned haircutter) as well?
Von Glitschka

I think too often the line between good design and effective design becomes blurred. You certainly can have one with out the other.

Oh my brothers, Im beginning to develop a bit of A "Designers" Clockwork Orange (pms 158 to be exact). I get a bit of a sick feeling in my gulliver when i see such bad design. I just hope the design millicents out there can keep things on the up and up.

Signed, Your humble designer.
Jon Dascola

As someone who has had the misfortune of working in advertising, I would just like to say that good design and good advertising are 2 very different things (that sometimes overlap). Ugly advertising is unfortunately sometimes effective. If someone wishes to be a designer in advertising, then maybe being a design snob isn't appropriate. If someone wishes to stay away from ugly design, then maybe advertising isn't the right fit.

Having worked in advertising and more bespoke forms of design and having done advertising like this before it comes as no surprise. It's true, this is effective and it works. I've had stints doing ads for dating services, and you know the ads that do best? The ones with the flashing multicolor border and the 'bro' guy on them with some inane to the point copy. Anything with nuance, thought, or even premeditated copy doesn't do nearly as well. Basically anything that tickles the most powerful organ in our heads, the reptilian hind-brain. You think even high-fashion works on a different level? Bring on the hot, semi-naked, pre-adolescent woman in a compromising position.

To Jonathan who mentioned that the far bigger complaint should be that society places so much importance on appearance... Well of course society does and it also explains why I don't go around dressed in a boiler suit with food running down the front even though I wish society would allow it. We are designers, don't we deal in the visual? Aren't we about posturing, styling and applying our dark arts towards giving products, events and people the appearance of plausibility in a world that does in fact judge things on visual appearance? To fight this is to fight nature, even peacocks know the value of a tail-feather.

Yeah, this article's a confession alright. Someone call Chris Hansen with Dateline.

Heh heh. This is what makes reading, er peek-a-booing at blogs so great. If only there were enough right winger pedo-alarmists out there when it counted (ie: some guy drops a pube onto a Coke can, gets confirmed anyway, ends up putting his dark chocolate in our rich creamy peanut butter). Thats a metaphor. I think. Hmmm. Better call Chris just to be sure. Zzzz.
felix sockwell

I find it ridiculous that the majority of comments here are jabs at the author. What happened to a sense of humor? I used to love the show myself, as an awkward bumbling teenager alone on Friday nights. She was a cutie then and a cutie now, but that's only the fluff that lays on top of the real point being made here.

Of course there is too much emphasis in society about beauty and perfection, but it also happens to be an evolutionary means of finding healthy, attractive, sturdy mates and propigating successfully. Without aesthetics, half of the animal kingdom would be without a means of attracting a mate!

Standards of human beauty vary from culture to culture, as do standards of design. I agree with the point made earlier that effective design and effective advertising may not always overlap.

Heller states that he is a design snob, not an advertising snob, wherein those different standards lay. I for one enjoy good design, and being in environments that propagate it. Neighborhood rebuilding projects are a perfect example of this.

Is it snobby to watch an "ugly" neighborhood turn into a desirable place to be when parks are added, buildings are painted and murals created? The crime doesn't always change, but because it LOOKS better, people will come.

The effectiveness of an ugly ad like the one described simply goes to show what attracts some people will not attract others, hence the positioning towards the specific audience. Not everybody has taste, and not everybody values design to the point where they will make effective use of it on a platform such as nutrisystem. And good design is not the only way to make an effective ad.

Such is the nature of the beast.

Then again I've always wondered why anyone with taste would buy a "Flowbee"

Not to cut his hair? Now that's creepy.
Gunnar Swanson

When did the arts crowd become as uptight and self-righteous as this commentsthread would seem to indicate?

Attention high-and-mighty artyguys: Observing the way human females change from being coltish pre-pubescents to fleshy real women has been a source of fascination and pleasure for centuries, especially for the arty set, at least the male half. (And as for the female half: Well, it isn't exactly unusual for women artists to focus on the experience of Becoming a Woman. And one of the most common things you see among young female actors is the big moment when she declares herself no longer a child. Didn't anyone else watch Anne Hathaway in "Havoc," for instance? No one forced Anne to do that movie. She was making her own "I'm a woman now" statement.)

Half of the French cinema wouldn't exist if it weren't for this theme, for example. And if you think that the whole childwoman thing doesn't have a wee bit to do with the popularity of Japanese manga, then we really aren't inhabiting the same planet.

Last I checked, btw, the rate of child sexual abuse in France and Japan was no higher than it is in the much-more-uptight- about-these-things U.S. In other words, whether or not you allow yourself to openly enjoy the spectacle seems to have zilch to do with how much the sexual exploitation of youngsters is a problem in your culture. So relax and enjoy the show. Just don't, y'know, act on it. Problem solved.

Michael Blowhard

BTW, one question? I'm just a fan and a civilian. But this whole "good design" thing has me puzzled. What on earth is meant by "good design." It sounds suspiciously ... singular to me. Is there only one standard for "good design"?

People say they like "good design," and they seem to agree on what it is. I'm baffled, because there are *many* creations and productions in the design world that tickle and intrigue me (including tacky ads like the one highlighted in this posting) -- ie., that strike me as "good." Maybe there are some "good" characteristics that they can all be said to share -- but that would have to be at such a high level of generalization that I'd be hard-pressed to derive any myself. So what is this "good design" thing anyway?

But maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe nothing particular is meant by "good design" aside from something like "classy" and/or "tasteful." Enlightenment please?
Michael Blowhard

I think this post and the comments are hilarious! It's like the Q &A at the end of Jerry Springer!

Follow up to my last comment:

I imagine Steven Heller on stage yelling back at the audience: "You don't know me! You don't know me!"

Come to think of it, it is rather odd that Mr. Heller hasn't responded in the comments.

I like watching movies where men develop really green portfolios.

Stock, of course.

Though no matter how beautiful the type I never read fully, the full disclosure on those financial certificates.

...In this blinkered era of design sophistication the lines between good and bad are actually clearly drawn. As we see on a regular basis, not all writers at Design Observer care about good, great, or exceptional writing when what they really want is to believe in the kudos. And the message Heller may be telegraphing is this: Loose your critical faculties NOW so you can 'worry' about superficial surfaces.

I still call you a design nob. We deserve better.
Mustapha Rami

Lean Times for NutriSystem
NutriSystem ability to attract new customers was hurt by the launch of diet drug Alli. Steven who designed the Logo for Alli?

Capital Markets analyst Colin Sebastian said trends are likely to improve for NutriSystem into early 2008 with a revamped diet program. In other words, the stock will go up if NutriSystem hires a designer to revamp the look of the product line and the logo.

Thank you Steven for this post.
Carl W. Smith

ample talent recognized. Heller hit the sweet spot on Topanga. google search delivers 388,000 hits in .11 seconds on Danielle Fishel. To hell with design nobbery, I'll be pitchin' my tent on that section of the copy that says "I love doing it!"
Ray Stanczak

Head On! Apply Directly to Forehead!
Head On! Apply Directly to Forehead!
Head On! Apply Directly to Forehead!
Head On

There's a reason long-copy, 8-page, terribly 'designed' direct-mail pieces get made and sent everyday. Because they work. Long copy has just what you described, the ability to get the reader to 'invest' in the story, and be connected by the time they're done. If it didn't work, those companies wouldn't keep doing them.

With that said, many times 'high' design gets in the way of the message, and doesn't increase conversion. The person selling Nutrisystem doesn't give a crap about anything but conversion, and if 'high' design doesn't improve conversion, they won't use it.

However, there's always room for craft, but design is telling a story, and staying out of the way of that story.

(@ Jason) The prohibition, "design is" limits the very creative potential of design. When we describe design as could be we open up discussion, thinking, and new possibilities.

Someone's infatuated with her, and I think you watched the show just for her..stop using your son as an excuse lol.

She now stars in some really b-rate movies like National Lampoon's Dorm Daze series - which are basically teen sex romp movies. No nudity as far as I know, but some tame lesbian kissing and stuff.
Psychotic Ape

Like you, I'm often amazed that what appears to be a very outdated and unprofessional "design" continues to be produced, and in high end publications too.

But as many other commenters have already noted, this type of ad has a long pedigree and the fact that it's still working (you read it completely) attests to it's power and efficacy.

While the look is clearly outdated, what remain current is the appeal of what feels "authentic." Many agencies go to great lengths and expenses to design authenticity. Sometimes what is needed is the lack of design. When design gets out of the way, the human interest, the universal appeal, can shine through.

Even in new media, like the Web, there's a whole school of thought that *ugly* Web sites (Google, Yahoo, MySpace, etc.) are more effective than aesthetically pleasing ones.

While I personally appreciate and admire beautiful designs, when I work in marketing, it's about results. And if this stuff tests well and pulls in customers...it will look beautiful to me.
Thomas C. Sullivan

It's a promotion article in the ad space. I don't see any need to give it much more than that.

The advertisement is aimed at the desperate. If you're desperate enough to loss weight without working for it, then you'd be desperate enough to read a full page of text (no matter who wrote it).

And what is more eye catching than an attractive young woman in a red bikini? Maybe an attractive young woman wearing nothing? Those Victoria Secret ads sure have me hooked. Ha!

(Hey Stephen, you're article is a little redundant here and there. Proof read more intensely next time. No offense.)

"Even in new media, like the Web, there's a whole school of thought that *ugly* Web sites (Google, Yahoo, MySpace, etc.) are more effective than aesthetically pleasing ones.

That completely depends on what the website is trying to accomplish.

Social networking sites like MySpace, which are purposefully horrendous, are intentionally ugly because they set no bar. Everyone feels welcome to contribute because they don't feel unskilled or amateur. There's no learning curve and no elite to look down on their quirky "Designs". It's intended to be bad so no one feels singled out for being bad.

On the other hand, if my bank's website were to look like MySpace, I'd have to find a new bank. I couldn't trust them. The website of a financial institution has to be neat, tidy, and nominally attractive.

And Google's website is ugly? It's stark, bold, and simple. It's perfect!
amber simmons

Jobs | July 22