The idea of a “duck” or a “decorated shed” was first described in Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour’s 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The term has become one of the most important ideas in architecture and is one that has been argued over for decades in the architecture community.
In the simplest terms, a “duck” is a building that someone can look at and immediately guess what the activity happening inside is. The term comes from the Big Duck building on Long Island which was used as a shop that sold ducks and duck eggs. The building itself is shaped like a big duck. There are some notable examples of the “duck” idea which include the famous Longaberger basket building, among others.
On the other hand, a “decorated shed” is a building that can house virtually anything and a person can only get its meaning from additional decoration like signage or by observing what is happening inside. Think of your everyday building. If you’re looking at it from the street, would you know that it’s a bank if the signage was gone and there were no ATMs in the window? A “decorated shed” is a building that relies on external hints (decorations, like a sign) to tell you what it is.
When it comes to marketing your business, the idea of a “duck” versus a “decorated shed” is an important one. Is your marketing unique to your company? Can someone who has no experience with your company tell what you do, or do they have to dig deeper? Is your marketing yours or would slapping a different logo on it make it work just as well for someone else?
From a design standpoint, we can spend a lot of time on ducks and decorated sheds. Stock photography is ubiquitous in today’s environment, and you may notice many companies in different industries using photos of the same models (looking at you here, Rebecca). This type of imagery tends to fall directly in the “decorated shed” category because the primary method of differention is the decoration, whereas custom imagery that speaks directly to your business could be more of a “duck” because, hopefully, the design and imagery is unmistakeably yours and will communicate your business to those looking on.
With that said, these ideas don’t have to be exclusive. Consistent branding and functionality can turn a “decorated shed” into a “duck” when your business is recognized for it. Imagery that avoids the cliches (light bulbs, cogs, puzzle pieces, handshakes, and models looking at the camera with a thumb up, just to name a few) will help you stand out, as will picking imagery that is fun, nontraditional or just plain weird. This logic will also apply to printed materials and websites because what is the point of marketing if viewers don’t understand what it is that you’re marketing?