You’ve seen it before: an isolated medicine cabinet, filled with a range of beautifully packaged products, photographed head-on in front of a flat backdrop. The lighting is bold and bright, as if the whole shelving unit is illuminated from behind by a fluorescent lightbox. The shelves themselves are likely made of glass, providing a certain je ne sais quoi that’s integral to the elevated result—a seamless blend of the mundane with the ethereal. This art direction style, dubbed the “shelfie,” began with a 1982 Clinique campaign by Irving Penn, and since then dozens of brands and publications have adopted the style, transforming it from a brilliant composition to a personal care trope.
There are many more oft-mimicked setups like the shelfie currently bouncing around the zeitgeist; one omnipresent shot includes objects placed on a mirror reflecting the sky, giving the illusion of a product floating in midair. Another example uses a dense pattern of water droplets to refract a single item into a series of psychedelic miniatures, while yet another places subjects in front of faux scenic backdrops reminiscent of a low-budget Sears photo studio. Each of these distinct setups is utilized broadly and across industries, with the same composition and concept seen on the Instagram feeds of a major beverage syndicate and an indie skincare brand alike.
While each photo trend is precise in its particulars, on closer examination, the photos across trends begin to resemble one another as well; objects start to float against landscape backdrops instead of clouds, and shelves become spotted with dew drops. It’s as if there’s a hidden network of identical references hiding behind every photo—each shot finding inspiration in the aesthetic components of the last, like an elaborate game of telephone. Once you start to notice the recurring elements embedded in every “new” compositional approach, it’s like a sixth sense (or maybe more like a brain worm) that you can’t shut off.
This kind of visual homogeneity is a common occurrence in the art direction world, where ubiquitous styles operate less like trends and more like memes; remixed and diluted until they become a single visual mass. In today’s extremely-online world, the vast availability of reference imagery has, perhaps counterintuitively, led to narrower thinking and shallower visual ideation. It’s a product of what I like to call the “moodboard effect.”
Visual homogeneity is a common occurrence in the art direction world, where ubiquitous styles operate less like trends and more like memes.
Unlike graphic design, where client approval typically happens after work has been created, in art direction the order is flipped, with client sign-off required before any imagery has been made. This gap between sign-off and execution is where the moodboard comes in: art directors are expected to provide a variety of boards that break down every aspect of a shoot (from lighting to propping) as well as a shot list that will be strictly followed by a photographer. This pressure to provide final results in advance of production encourages art directors to only propose ideas that they can find existing photographic examples of, and to ultimately recreate these ideas on set—no matter that for much of the past, simple sketches or written descriptions of shots were more than adequate to demonstrate an intended visual result.
Of course, the rise and fall of trends themselves in visual culture is nothing new. If you’re a regular AIGA Eye on Design reader, the Spotted column is a testament to the vast number of design motifs that pass through the commercial world on a regular basis. But what’s unique about art direction trends seems to be the consistency with which particular combinations of formal tropes recur, combined with a detachment from the meaning behind those forms. Whereas a design feature like a fruit sticker has both a functional purpose (an easy way to chunk out content) and an underlying expressive rationale (serving as a “seal of approval”), brands’ usages of many art direction motifs, like mirrored reflections or sunset backdrops, increasingly seem unrelated to the brands’ overall aesthetic, product line, or strategic mission.
Instead, these visual cues operate on a surface level, rendering form without function. In a recent interview with The Brand Identity, Jesse Reed, co-founder of NY design studio Order, reiterated this idea and communicated his studio’s distaste for moodboarding, stating: “moodboards result in visual derivatives… leading with aesthetic influences as opposed to meaningful connections further propels the cycle of sameness.”
The way in which images are selected and placed within the context of the moodboard is the driving force behind the aesthetic monotony seen in brand photography. Art directors, tasked with sourcing imagery quickly and precisely, are increasingly turning to collective inspiration websites like Pinterest or Are.na to locate reference images. On these sites, by design, creatives are encouraged to bucket out imagery into thematically consistent folders to be shared and mined by other visitors. But by stripping imagery from its in-situ context, it becomes difficult to grasp the conceptual rationale behind their formal appearance.
Reference images are considered only by era, by subject, or by setting, rather than as a unified amalgamation of ideas and aesthetics. As a result, when designers are researching references for, say, a skincare shoot for a product that comes in glass bottles, they are more likely than ever to limit their research to aggregate boards that only trade in still life or glass bottles or beauty. When these borrowed images are further compiled into the form of art direction moodboards, they’re so ideologically flattened that it’s near impossible to use them as a brainstorming tool for new ideas—they become a rigid road map instead. While curation is undoubtedly an artform in its own right, to borrow critic Fran Leibowitz’s words: a sense of discovery is not equal to invention.
Looking at the arc of the shelfie trend, you can see this semiotic degeneration in real time. Hilma, a clean herbal medicine company and an early contemporary adopter of the shelfie composition, clearly uses the shelfie format with strategic storytelling in mind. In the brand’s original use of the photo on their website, designed by Little Troop, the viewer sees shelves of artificial-looking medicine transform into all natural remedies—paired with a copy line that explicitly mentions “cleaning up” your medicine cabinet.
The shelfie shot sits comfortably within an ecosystem of similar art direction for the brand at large; both conceptually, as in the case of other before-and-after moments, and aesthetically, through the use of similar lightbox style photography in other product photos. Conversely, by the time the trend trickles down to locations like Mr Porter or Not Pot, it’s significantly more disconnected from a real medicine cabinet: how many people actually keep seven perfumes behind their bathroom mirror, or use their powder room shelving for a Rubik’s cubes? While art direction is arguably always more aspirational than practical, these later use cases feel like a stretch.
What happens when you let what you’ve seen filter through the lens of your own memory, rather than working directly from a reference on a page?
So where do we go from here? Avoiding repetition may be as simple as looking outside of the world of contemporary graphic design and art direction for inspiration, and certainly outside the client industry you’re working in, whether that be by referencing the past, or other creative fields like architecture or fine art. If you’re excited by the idea of reflection as seen in the cloud-mirror photos, why not see how Ekkehard Altenburger or Yayoi Kusama have played with mirrors in their work?
The internet can be an asset to research, but intentionality in sourcing shows wisdom and intellect; a solid concept with fewer examples is always better than an oft-trodden one with a plethora of precedents. Even more simply: trust your intuition. Chances are you’ve absorbed enough of the current visual climate by osmosis alone; what happens when you let what you’ve seen filter through the lens of your own memory, rather than working directly from a reference on a page? Ultimately, reference imagery should be used as a tool, not a product—leading to visual iteration, not limiting it.