Media Magazine

When Content And/or Design Become Narcissistic

Posted on the 29 October 2013 by Themarioblog @garciainteract

TAKEAWAY: There it was on the page of a book, the word “narcissistic”, used to describe content that is “self-absorbed in substance or style”. It made me think of the famous avocado page and self absorbed design.

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The word “narcissistic” attached to content in Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy book jumped out of the page to me the moment I read it:

If you’re the only one offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.

While I had never heard anyone refer as narcissistic to content that exists for the sake of existing, without offering obvious benefits to those who may consume it, that is exactly what it is.

I may add that there is such a thing as narcissistic design as well, except that we have referred to it as “design for the sake of design”.  Or, if I travel back to our Poynter Institute design seminars of the 80s and 90s, the “avocado page”, which translated into something that Ms. Kissane might agree is nothing more than “narcissistic design”.  For us, the avocado page was an ample amount of space given to the visual treatment of a story that did not deserve it.  Usually, this would be a giant image of an avocado, for example, with a routine story including five recipes to create with avocados beyond just plain and appetizing guacamole.

When I mentioned this is an avocado page, the participants in the seminar would usually laugh, but the message hit home: make the design appropriate and functional.  Don’t overplay the visuals simply because you have the means and the tools to do that.  Don’t force a giant illustration or photo to tease the reader into expectations of a story that may not be as grand or appetizing as the visuals indicate. Simply, don’t indulge in self-absorbed design practices.

It was one of the valuable lessons that are part of the WED philosophy (the marriage of writing/editing/design).

Write, edit and design with appropriateness in mind.  Specifically, design the visuals that seduce but that are functional as well.

Narcissistic behavior is not a good trait, whether in persons, stories or visual presentations.  It is the opposite of functionalism. Let’s face it: it also will exist as long as we have humans in charge of the writing, editing and design processes.

It is a fact that we will probably examples of “narcissistic” behavior in the area of multimedia storytelling.  It is only natural that a team of storytellers with good video footage of a specific subject, will try to weave a multimedia story around it.  Of course, it is OK for video to inspire a major story, or audio, for that matter.  However, inspiration is the word here.

The story must be at the level of that which inspired it.

By the way, the opposite can only be true: when a great story is not presented in a visually appealing manner, or with the design that conveys its importance.  For me this is like serving caviar in Chinese restaurant take out containers.  The avocado page is the opposite: promising caviar and showing up with leftover noodles.

I think that all writers and designers will occasionally have notions “the avocado page” dancing in their heads, and that is OK, just as long as the thought goes through a screening process that allows it to emerge as a solid and functional concept.

For more information:

Kissane, Erin. The Elements of Content Strategy, A Book Apart, New York, New York,, 2011

Our previous blog post related subjects:

The avocado (tomato?) page lives

The WED philosophy in a multi platform media world

Redefining the WED concept for today’s multi platform media world

Unified storytelling philosophy key to media quartet that sings

TheMarioBlog post # 1367

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