Recognizing, utilizing or avoiding design clichés

avoiding cliches

You’re faced with a design project. The client gives you the scope of the job and it’s time to bust out some ideas. How do you create something exciting and dynamic while avoiding the obvious and mundane? Learning how to spot cliché will help you build off the obvious and develop unique ideas. In this article we’ll talk about identifying cliches and working with them to build a new point of view.

Identifying cliché:

What’s a cliché? Often the first idea that pops into your head. Clichés are so ubiquitous when you think of something you can’t separate that subject from the cliché that represents that. For example, an idea displayed as a light bulb is a time test, worn out cliché. The light bulb used as an idea is so cliché the original meaning and impact was lost long ago and it’s not tired and over-done.

What makes something cliché?

Often, over use. When those nifty little Microsoft clipart men having ideas were first created, it was an original idea. Now it screams cliche because we’ve seen it everywhere and can’t separate it from early MS word. Clichés are inherently safe and appealing because we are all so familiar with them.

To further illustrate this point, let’s do a font association game, I’ll say something and you tell me what font it’s in?

  • Chinese Restaurant… Asian brush font
  • Old weathered scroll… Papyrus
  • Hipster internet meme… Helvetica
  • Note in a 2nd grade class room about crayon etiquette… Comic sans.
  • How’d you do?

Is there a problem with this type of consistency in design? After all, it works for identifying between Chinese and Mexican Restaurants without having to actually do any reading. The answer is; cliché isn’t entirely bad. It’s just not the highest and best design solution available. The original impact and meaning intended by the design is long gone and replaced by something predictable.

Every cliché possesses old associations, good and bad. As a designer you want to establish a unique point of view - jumping away from clichés will help develop your design voice.

Making Cliché Work for You:

When faced with a design challenge, write your ideas down as they come. Get out some good old fashioned paper and start sketching your thoughts. Then do some research. Chances are, the first thing you thought of is also the first thing lots of other people thought and it’s probably a good idea to keep looking for inspiration.

If you’ve seen it done, don’t just tweak it a little and call it your own. Massage the idea into something entirely new. One way to do that is the mash-up, take two different cliches and merge them. This is innovation at it’s root, taking two ideas and creating something unique.

Balancing the Obvious and the Obscure:

Doing something completely opposite than what you first thought can sully the message. The idea behind avoiding cliché is to make something dynamic but still effective. Dan Mayer wrote a great piece on this subject for Smashing Magazine. Mayer outlines a fictional scenario for a drunk driving campaign, he perfectly illustrations the two extremes, obscurity and obvious and how to find that perfect middle ground. Mayer goes on to showcase professional designers responses and solutions to cliches and how to tweak your design process to work with cliche for the best outcome.

Here are my top 5 pet peeve design clichés I wish people would stop utilizing:

1. Excessive Gradients - they were impressive at a time, but now clean, to the point and easy-to-read wins over flash and effects. has an example:

2. Too Much Script Font—script font is hard to read and readers are fickle, so use script sparingly. has an example:

3. Swoosh Logos—they’re everywhere. Please people, stop making new logos with swooshes. They don’t mean anything and are too widely used to set your design or brand apart from anything else. Brown Advertising has an example:


4. Bevel or Embossing Effects: Once again, yesterday’s flashy and new now looks worn and used. Designs that go beyond the cliché will appear timeless. Better to set the trend than be a trend-victim. Design Shack has an example:


5. Helvetica Dependence: Ok, I get it. It’s a beautiful font. Simple, almost invisible, but it’s all over the place. Don’t rely on it, that’s all I’m saying. It’s holding up a lot of the type market already. Stand out, pick something different. Down with design has an example:

Looking for more design clichés? Here’s an extensive collection on featuring classic clichés like the globe, the handshake, the puzzle piece, people pointing and many more!

Now I’ll leave you with this:

infographic cliché infographics by Alberto Antoniazzi.

Go forth good designers; and make of yourselves something new, something innovative, something dynamic.


About the Author

Melody Stone is a journalist/blogger and designer living in Sacramento Ca. She works full time for and spends her free time riding her bike in dresses and high heels.

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  1. Imran Haider