Out of style
Walk into a store and the shouting quickly starts. Look, touch smell, buy! I’ll be your best toaster, my suds smell like an Alp spring, your feet will float in wisps of clouds, listen to my engine roar. Most times there are neighboring product saying the exact same thing. How is one to make sense of this noise?
Many of us will go with the lowest price, but even then there are competing options in shops and the web priced similarly. So then a lot of us will also consider the brand. To me that make sense. I love that quote by ex Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila (yeah, the guy who missed the smartphone forest doing jump squats in the horizon) who said: ’a brand is a promise’. I’m pretty sure Jorma said that. But there is so much competing information out there and people saying interesting things, forgive me. Actually, can anyone hear me?
That’s kind of the point though. In such a crowded field, how do brands stand out? When everyone says they’re the strongest, fastest, softest, best value, best smelling, longest lasting and professionally built by environmentally friendly elves, we’ve reached the point of white noise. But brand managers, lured by important matters of job security, discovered there was still a way to catch our eye (and sometimes bruise it). By opening the crayon drawer.
It’s not an enviable job. At the point when the Germans reached what is probably a panacea of design with form follows function—it’s good enough for nature; what’s not to like?—and no sooner was the Bauhaus candle of honesty, sensibility and simplicity passed around design offices worldwide (only to be gleefully and successfully subverted by General Motors design chief Harley Earl to light a Cadillac tail fin) when a sudden and vast middle class rose around the world demanding more products. (Fact check: as of February 2020, there’re 7.8 billion of us.) So product planners, marketers and their bosses handed briefs to designers demanding the extraordinary.
Given there are often deep underlying similarities in how competing products are made, and may even have components manufactured in the same Asian factories, designers were left with one easy answer for standing out: styling. But styling is not design. In general (because most times it’s best to keep things general) styling ’adds-on’ to a formed product, like adding a top hat to a parakeet. It may help products stand out but it could easily be overdone and insincere and tacky.
So the way to avoid the stylistic equivalent of taping a mustache to your car (again, speaking generally. Lyft made it work) is to consider design from the get go. Design shouldn’t be a tag team relay between strangers. From initial project meetings to sketches, wireframes, mockups, drafts’how do each define the product? How do they add to its personality? What resources are needed to respect its identity? Having a well defined brief, being intimate with what the product accomplishes and what it stands for, will inform the overall design. Whether it’s a product or service, a toaster or a website, the process is the same. If done right, the commitment you show to your product reinforces trust in your brand, which helps you stand from that pesky crowd.
Design is visual engineering. And it’s a powerful form of communication.