I was at a design conference in Seattle talking with a colleague when it arrived with a buzz. Instead of the sweet note of longing I hoped for, I received this vaguely foreboding statement – and I deserved it.
A little background… My father had a way with cars. He had the intuition and touch, and at times it seemed he related to them better than to any of us children. I was in awe of his skill and how he seemed able to see and understand things that eluded the rest of us.
Well, one of our cars would have a carburetor flooding problem in very specific circumstances. He knew that, and knew how to correct it when necessary. Problem was, it was the car my mother drove most, and she wasn’t blessed with his “car whisperer” gifts… One frigid winter night I remember him talking her through the process over the phone: remove the air cleaner, stick a hair comb into the choke plate to lean out the mix, and so on. It wasn’t really a problem in his eyes because he understood the system intimately, and how to address problems it occasionally had. It sure was a catastrophe that victimized my mother on nights like that though.
Keeping that in mind, let’s pull this all forward… I had recently added a soundbar to our television and left the wiring in a “functional” state, planning to redo it when I wall-mounted the television in a week. The universal remote wasn’t playing well with the soundbar, the HDMI ports and routing were a mess, but I knew exactly what was going on and could navigate it well. That was me – my wife didn’t understand it, couldn’t visualize it, and had no patience for it (or me) when “Chopped” was about to start. Didn’t help that this was the third setup she had to deal with in as many weeks as I experimented.
My wife was a typical user, and it is often easy for product development professionals to lose touch with their point of view. You may think you are just like them – heck, you use the product at home too! But the more you know as a professional in the field (designer, engineer, marketing specialist, etc…), the further you get from being a kindred soul of the mass market consumer. The mechanisms of accomplishing a task are apparent to you, and you’ve gotten to the point of developing sophisticated jargon to describe the elements and actions you deal with to make the magic happen. Most of the time they don’t care – nor should they. A convoluted description or excuse doesn’t solve their need, regardless of how proud we may be that we figured it all out.
I already know this well, but an occasional humbling reminder is a healthy thing. I had grown to be my father’s son, but my wife was clearly not my mother’s daughter (as is the custom, I suppose).
Defining a visual/emotional target for a new product is at the heart of what every designer does. It is one of our “bread and butter” skills. Things get exponentially more interesting when the challenge shifts to a line of products instead of simply one. Does the line of offerings have similar basic forms to deal with (such as automobiles) or do they vary greatly (as in sporting goods)? Do the different iterations imply differing levels of expense and quality, or does each target some unique functional segment of the market – maybe a mix of both?
Just as there are a multitude of scenarios to contemplate, there are a multitude of approaches which can be taken. Some approaches opt to rigidly define a language and apply it in a systematic manner to the line. This can be very successful in regards to customer recognition, but it also can be very limiting if your brand needs to serve a wider customer base or react to changes in those markets. Not exactly niche concerns – I know, right?
To effectively support a brand vision over time a Visual Brand Language (VBL) strategy needs to be agile and adaptable. The mutability of a brand language is what gives it strength. We don’t want it to be so rigid that it is fragile; one element out of position makes the whole house of cards come down. We want a VBL strategy to be more like a melody – where if I whistle it to you out of pitch, out of time, with inconsistencies in interpretation, you can still easily recognize it for what it is intended to represent.
A while ago, I attended a talk by James Ludwig of Steelcase. This event was presented as part of the MIAD Creativity Series, and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear a design leader share some insights. Discovery World’s inspiring surroundings and mission certainly didn’t hurt the evening’s proceedings…
While James shared several interesting principles that evening, two in particular piqued my interest. Intentionally or not, I believe these two guiding lights are intertwined.
If There Is No Insight, There Is No Project:
Before commencing with the “what’s” and “how’s” of NPD, make sure you have a firm grasp on the “why’s”. In supporting this point he stressed the value of synthesis in research, not mere observation. It can be overwhelmingly tempting for designers to immediately jump to direct solutions for the numerous small issues they observe in the field. Doing so before they have enough inputs to understand the interrelations and complexities of why the user is doing something can lead to a perpetual game of NPD “Whack-A-Mole”; a never-ending chase for incremental changes.
Invention Happens At The Programmatic Level:
I found this principle particularly interesting from a selfish standpoint. Creativity often is pigeon-holed as the activity of designers, who wield their markers like magic wands as they solve the world’s problems. This romanticized view has certainly served me well, and has been a lot of fun when everything falls into place just right. But as I’ve progressed in my career, and I’m certain that many designers in my circumstance feel this way as well, I’ve grown to understand that the need for creativity only increases as one takes on responsibilities extending beyond traditional “designer” skills. The toolbox and scale may change, but the pursuit doesn’t. Your creativity at the programmatic level is key to the success of your team.
As discussed previously, in order for a Visual Brand Language (VBL) strategy to be applied successfully across a diverse line of products, we understand that there needs to be some level of mutability to it. The “amount of stretch” required may vary depending upon the nature of your product line, but it is always there at some level.
But if a strong VBL relies on recognition and mutability simultaneously, do we have a conflict? Well, it turns out those two factors are not as mutually exclusive as it would first appear. In his book “This Is Your Brain On Music” Dr. Daniel Levitin explores how our brains interpret and process musical stimuli. Throughout the book he uses musical examples to illustrate aspects of how our brains access memory and recognition, and relates these examples to the competing Constructivist and Record-Keeping theories. While this is all well above my pay-grade, in a nutshell it can be stated that Constructivists argue that we store relational information to inform a reconstruction of events when needed, while the Record-Keepers argue that memories are recorded verbatim as in a video file. Both schools of thought have evidence to support their views, and in the end it appears that each contain a part of the truth.
If you were able to successfully identify a popular traditional melody whistled to you out of pitch, out of time, and with inconsistencies in interpretation, your brain would be illustrating behavior consistent with the Constructivist theory. You took an imperfect input and broke it down into sets of relationships which you could interpret and derive meaning from. Each individual pitch may be off, but if the relationships between them is somewhat consistent with the intended melody (not even in amount, just direction up or down) you will most likely be able to identify the song.
Interestingly, if we turned the tables around and asked you to whistle a recent hit song to me (one with a singular, definitive performance), you would perform it closer to the original performance’s key and tempo than chance could account for. This is true whether you had musical training in your background or not. Relationships are not the lone factor of recognition, your Record-Keeping brain maintained a persistent reference for you to recall in this scenario.
The Constructivist theory demonstrates to us that in the absence of specific sensory information, even in spite of it at times, our memory is capable of dynamically reconstructing a story. This is at the core of why a VBL framework can be manipulated so dramatically yet still remain recognizable to the consumer. Your VBL is a melody, which is reinterpreted time and time again through the multitude of product offerings you bring to the market. The individual product may be a cappella, mellow acoustic, death-metal dirge, or a dance remix, but The Song Remains The Same…
There’s an oft-quoted product development story involving “slow” elevators. In this story, passengers are complaining to building management about the lengthy waits for elevators in a tall building. Most would-be problem solvers, when presented with this situation, attack the readily apparent source of the pain: slow elevator mechanisms. The hero of the story decides that the real problem is that people think that elevators are too slow, and that perception is exacerbated by their boredom while waiting. Ultimately, mirrors are installed in the lobby and the elevators themselves, passengers occupy themselves with checking their hair, outfit, (and yes, other occupants), and management is thrilled with the inexpensive and easy to implement solution to their problems.
This story is typically pulled out to show how impactful the definition of a problem is to the creative problem solving process, and how thinking within disciplinary boxes can lead us to overlook novel solutions. It came to mind when I stayed at an Aloft hotel on a research trip and saw their familiar Liquid Lava™ floor tiles in the elevator. I realized that these were a new twist on the classic elevator mirror. They took this ubiquitous distractive element and elevated it slightly more toward actual engagement. In a sense, Aloft managed to put “mirrors” on the floors of their elevators without the risqué/creepy implications – while creating an experience unique to their hotels. They didn’t think outside the box, but rather rotated it on its side…
This Independence Day holds a special place in our hearts, as it coincides with our own statement of independence. This July marks the start in a new chapter of our professional lives, taking over two decades of experience and collaboration to a new venue we can call our own.
We love the creative process (always have), but we’ve learned we love it best when it is effective and focused. We bring our creativity to your problem, but we also draw your team’s creativity to the surface and inject carefully chosen talents from our network to build upon the resulting mix. You end up with more in substance and effectiveness, but not in overhead and unneeded extras – a concentrated solution.
Exciting possibilities lie ahead, and we look forward to crossing paths with like-minded partners along the way to do fantastic things!