well designed vs. clever

Recently, in my visual design class, students pitched their designs to a client. I was impressed with all of the designs, particularly for the students who had been struggling who managed to bring it together for the presentation. The students really got into the project and I think having a client provide feedback was good experience for all of us. What I found, though, was the client responded to clever wording or phrases or pictures immediately. (S)he kept using the word, "clever" in describing some of the design choices and I agree that the students were being clever in some of their rhetorical choices. Some that were clever were not as well-designed, though with too much or not enough white space or with poor font choices, for example. The students who drew each element themselves, the ones who I think have the most design potential, were applauded for their technical abilities, mostly, despite the fact their designs were also creative and innovative. I guess they just weren't clever enough in their tag lines. Ultimately, the client will choose one of the designs to use for marketing purposes.

I started thinking about how often design principles underplay the appeal of cleverness. When I ask my students to recall advertisements they've seen recently, many of them remember clever marketing campaigns or funny lines, which is to be expected. The question remains, however, in terms of visual and digital design particularly is whether something can be both clever and well-designed or does one come at the expense of the other?

Obviously, the context of the work you're producing might privilege cleverness but design still has to be important, doesn't it? I have some investment in this, of course, both as a teacher and a designer. I want quality design to be important, to be the factor when deciding between one design or another. But I know that I, myself, have been wowed by creativity, by cleverness. I suppose clever design can also be good design but I don't think a clever tag line makes up for poor design. These are some things I'm thinking about as I sit at the Watson Conference in Louisville and listen to Janet Murray and Kate Hayles debate about electronic literature, which was quite fascinating and hilarious.