I can empathise. It’s a horrible feeling. For quite a few years one of my mainstays was kids’ non-fiction educational books. Like you, I’d present work, I know would do it’s job and impart the information in fun, exciting ways to helps kids learn, but that wasn’t chock full of drop shadows, 3D effects and pictures at jaunty angles. Not a chance. Every time they’d bling it up even more.
I have never understood why you can’t teach children a little bit of taste whilst teaching them about Solids, Liquids and Gasses. Of course, I get that younger children respond to bright colours and rounded corners. However, once they get over the stages of testing every substance in every orifice, then surely you can start to civilise the little monsters visually as well as intellectually.
From what I could fathom, the reason for this complete taste failure had very little to with actual child development and more to do with an entire system of self-interested and self-aggrandising professional integrity / ego. Decisions were made by librarians and focus groups and people with a vested interest in the status quo. It was a hugely conservative industry that moved in geological time. Over-cautious to the extreme.
The books I designed were almost always for Co-Ed, so if it was for a UK Publisher would already be sold into the US (and visa versa) and other language editions before they started. Because the US market was so lucrative, a lot of compromises were made to placate certain sectors. The end result was that by taking everyone’s sensibilities into account, you ended with a sometimes very odd product. When I say everyone, I mean everyone who makes the choices about what children respond to or what they should or should not see.
It always ended up a train wreck that sold well, as it was the same librarians buying them.
Aside from the visual cacophony that this usually resulted in, more problematic in my eyes, was some of the content. Two of the most ridiculous examples I came across were both to do with reproduction. One was about life cycles in the jungle. Book almost done and a comment came back that we had to remove the testicles from the lion. My humorous (or so I thought) response was something like, ‘I’m not going anywhere near a fully-grown male lion to whip his lads off!’. Went straight over their heads and I received a very factual response about how it could be offensive to a young person and their parents, so please ‘clone’ them out! ‘What? You want four!’ (I wasn’t brave enough to sent that email).
The worst and most serious example of being over ‘correct’ I came across was in a book on human reproduction. We weren’t allowed to have a pregnant woman on the front or use the word sperm anywhere in the book. It had to be ‘male sex cell’. That one was just ridiculous and in the name of placating sensibilities, you end up positively misleading children. I simply cannot see how a picture of a pregnant woman could be offensive to anyone.
Thankfully the books I work on these days are lovely trade titles and I get much more free rein to use typography that isn’t in a rounded box with a drop shadow and bevelled edges!