CREATIVE CLICHÉ CORNER #2 – the hackneyed handshake!

The ubiquitous handshake stock shot has been a reliable backstop for the uninspired designer for decades. I’m even wondering whether I should have given it top billing above our old favourite, Creative Cliché #1, the light bulb..?

A business handshake


Emblazoned on business books, corporate websites, financial brochures, and almost anything else generically business-ish, earnest, firm, scrupulously clean hands projecting from suited cuffs are seen to: meet, greet and network; congratulate; seal deals; demonstrate agreement; and celebrate trust, balance and equality. Handshake images seem to be everywhere and, you’re probably thinking, they’re all pretty similar shots. But, beware, designer! If you absolutely must utilise the handshake cliché, please do make sure it’s the right kind of handshake for the job! – there are good ones and also bad ones. For regular design projects, you’ll probably be wanting a good one so, for fun, let’s look at the bad ones first:

(For this post, I’ve collated ideas from US, UK and North European writings. Many different traditions exist in other cultures.)

A full-on, very hard squeeze that says ‘I’m better and stronger than you’; a blatant show of strength. According to my research though, it seems that this heavy pressure can occasionally be a mistake, as in… big people don’t always know how strong they are. Something to bear in mind. THE VICE is sometimes accompanied by the ‘palm-down’ strategy, another show of domination.

THE DECOMPOSING CORPSE (my pet name for what’s usually termed THE DEAD FISH handshake)
The opposite of THE VICE, something akin to a floppy, raw chicken breast fillet being slipped into your hand. Thankfully, most of the time, it’s removed before you have to wonder what to do with it – you certainly couldn’t shake something this limp! THE DECOMPOSING CORPSE isn’t, as you might imagine, a manifestation of a weak personality; far from it, it’s conclusive proof of arrogance. Make no mistake, this person doesn’t like you but hey, don’t take it personally… she doesn’t like anyone else either, apart from herself of course!

Similar to THE CORPSE but much faster. This person doesn’t have time to waste on bonding with you. He’s in a hurry and he thinks his time is far more important than yours.

Seems friendly but, underneath, it’s all a about power! This shaker performs a textbook handshake, and then some! Whilst he has hold of your right hand, his left hand is patronising you: patting your shaking hand; touching your arm or shoulder solicitously; or treating you with excessive friendliness and care, as if you need ‘parental’ reassurance from the ‘grown-up’. Unless the two of you really are good friends, his actions might make you feel inferior, dominated, even childlike. And that’s what he wants. He might follow up by placing his hand on your back and ‘helping’ you through a doorway.

A cupped hand is offered but it refuses to touch your palm – it would be just too intimate for this shrinking violet. Here lurks the weak character, afraid of human contact, fearing that full-on flesh-to-flesh contact might reveal too much about this person.

A bit like a high-five but at handshake level. You’ll observe this shake only in the under-25s apparently. Only engage in it if you’re good friends.

So, what’s the right way to shake hands? Here’s the recommended-for-job-interviews method:

Approach with a vertical palm, neither threatening (palm facing down, dominating) nor submissive (palm up). Eye contact is important, but don’t be threatening or confrontational. Smile. Go in matching thumb-webs and hold. No need to shake, but ok if you want to; three times is enough – don’t hang on too long. Don’t dominate. If the other party does try to dominate you, disengage, smile again and move on.

As a postscript, I’ll admit to having used a handshake image on a book cover once. I like to think it was acceptable because it wasn’t the usual boring stock shot representing agreement but something a little more stylish, – it was almost a bad handshake, representing assertiveness. I forgive myself because I still rather like it and also because, when a chap turns round in her lifetime really quite a lot of print, it might be ok to use each cliché just once..? For the record, here’s the book cover…

Assertiveness at Work book cover

The handshake was a rights-managed shot from Getty Images


CREATIVE CLICHÉ CORNER #1 – Is it high-time we turned off the high-energy light bulb..?

I hope to make CREATIVE CLICHÉ CORNER a regular feature over the coming months. There are plenty of hackneyed motifs out there in the designosphere that, though anathema to the few great graphic artists of our time, are over-used by thousands of others. I hope you’ll find my choices amusing, and I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

Broken light bulb


For the first Creative Cliché Corner, I’ve chosen my favourite (probably not the right word!) commonplace icon, the light bulb – not only because it’s a regular traveller on the creative corn cart but also because its days might be numbered.

The ubiquitous glowing light bulb image has over decades burnt itself into our consciousness as the motif of choice amongst designers of business book covers to represent a bright idea. (And in all sorts of popular media for that matter – there’s a great list here.) Why I wonder? Well I guess there’s a clue in the word ‘bright’, and I suppose we’d all agree that great ideas do have that kind of switch effect – sudden and out of the blue, a flash of inspiration.

But we must now ask ourselves in today’s renewable energy obsessed culture whether there’s still a place for the incandescent, argon-filled, short-lived power muncher – on book covers, or anywhere else for that matter? Will we begin to see the (somewhat less than iconic) curly tubes of the energy-efficient replacements? Can’t see it happening, can you? For a start, what would the inelegant, gloomy, slow-to-glow model be saying about our ideas…? On the other hand, how soon will it be before the traditional bulb starts to appear as old-fashioned as a gas lamp? You only have to look at those amusing 1980s photo library shots of the then state-of-the-art mobile phones to see how clunky they will seem. Not much of a choice then: slow and dim or, well, outdated!


So, the urgent plea to designers everywhere must be: start searching, and fast, for a 21st century ideas-icon replacement.

Or, more to the point, maybe instead we should be asking our scientists to invent an energy-saving light bulb that will make designers, and the rest of us, happy – one that’s just like a good idea – bright, quick and elegant!

Please share your thoughts.

(The ‘One Life To Live’ lamp is a beautifully designed, though decidedly macabre, alternative to the traditional bulb!)

A serious footnote: You may
already know that the new ‘green’ fluorescent lamps (cfls) contain the highly poisonous heavy metal mercury. I’m no expert on this subject so I won’t offer my opinion, but you should be aware of how to dispose of them. There are plenty of other sources of information so you might want to do a web search to determine the facts for yourself.

This post was first published August 2009 in The DeZine Journal.