Imagine for a moment that you are in a small, relatively intimate auditorium space. There are 20 or 30 people peppered throughout a room with seating for 50. The stage isn’t elevated; it’s a simple podium eight feet from the front row of seats.

The lights go down; a spotlight hits the podium and the projector screen reads, “The Cultural Impact of Adoption — Brad Pitt.”

“Surely this little conference didn’t book Brad Pitt,” you think to yourself moments before you see a handsome man with long, unkempt blond hair emerge from the side door. It’s Brad Pitt.

You’re surprised, but when the shock wears off you notice something even more surprising — he’s in his underwear. It’s safe to say, as he begins his passionate talk about adoption and its importance in his family, you are distracted. You might be weirded out, or you might be distracted by his attractiveness.

In any case, you’re uncomfortable, and the visual is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter. You’re uncomfortable because he lacks something — pants. But he lacks so much more in the way of professionalism, strategy, thought and consistency.

Brad Pitt would likely never do this — which is why I used him for this wildly hyperbolic example. My point is it would be shocking, but lacking the desired impact.

But let’s explore this laterally.

What if he walked in with an obviously cheap, wrinkled polo shirt tucked into dirty khakis? This visual might be even worse than underwear, but just as shocking. While it’s not as culturally inappropriate, it wouldn’t sync with our image of Mr. Pitt. What would that do to your perception of Brad Pitt as a person and his presentation?

My point here is that no matter the greatness of the mission or the awesome person behind it, presentation can trump all of these if it’s not appropriate.

We’ve talked a lot about design over the last few weeks. We’ve talked about following Blackbeard’s example to use brand and design to weed out customers we don’t want and send affirming signals to those we do. We talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment, and how the proliferation of products like Photoshop and Instagram is turning all consumers into designers. We even talked about how your content and design can associate your ideal customer’s ideal lifestyle with the product you’re selling.

Today we’re going to look at some of the dangers of design.

Sometimes, as business owners and marketers, we forget about the end goal of our consumer-facing messages and design things only because they are aesthetically pleasing to us at the moment. We don’t think about the implications down the road.

Maybe Brad Pitt had a bad public speaking teacher who told him, “When you get nervous, just imagine you’re in your underwear,” and now he’s just more comfortable delivering adoption talks in a tight white brand.

While Mr. Pitt has been successfully portrayed in his underwear over the years, and he may prefer that version of himself, it does nothing to convey the gravity of the talk he is giving at our hypothetical adoption conference.

What he says will not be heard, and his passion for the neglected children of the world will not be conveyed because he’s lacking — lacking professionalism, lacking thought, lacking strategy, lacking consistency, lacking pants.

Is your brand taking the stage in its underwear?

When I think about inappropriate messaging, I almost always think about the font Comic Sans. I know, it’s easy to pick on, but it will help me make my point.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into somber places — courtrooms, funeral homes and doctors offices — to be greeted by the notorious 1994 comic book imitation font developed for use by children and in User Interaction elements of a failed early Microsoft user interface.

So, when someone is going to a funeral home to say their last goodbyes to a family member, Comic Sans is probably not the best font to greet them on the sign that’s taped to the door, no matter how much cuter and more whimsical it may have felt on the screen. It lacks professionalism and sends a cheap, playful message to a grieving person.

Inappropriate branding and design go way beyond font. When we are developing materials for our businesses, we must consider what the colors, fonts, shapes, images, animations, etc., are communicating to our potential customers.

How many companies have you seen that were named after the owner’s daughter’s dog instead of the service they provide?

How many designs have you seen that used the owner’s favorite color instead of the most appropriate color?

What about technology companies with a website that looks more outdated than innovative, or artistic organizations with cluttered and uncreative printed materials?

We’ve talked about how leaving the waiting room in your doctor’s office the office-park-gray signals how little you care about the user experience, but painting the walls red because it’s your favorite color signals a lack of thought and strategy. It’s inappropriate. People who are sick and in pain need calming greens and blues.

When our design lacks forethought and strategy, it signals that we are thinking about personal preference over the customer.

Shock with no impact will not benefit your business.

The Naked Cowboy has been a staple of Times Square for over a decade. His performances in boots and underwear have attracted large and consistent audiences, but I think it’s fair to say almost no one has traveled to New York just to see him.

He may attract visitors who want to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but he doesn’t have much of a following. He certainly will never pack out Madison Square Garden.

When your business takes center stage, make sure it’s dressed properly.

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