Considering the tectonic shifts in the economic, social, and cultural landscape over the past two years, it appears that we in the branding and design communities could be at a crossroads in our practices. In a world where consumers are less consumed with consuming, we ask ourselves, how exactly did we get here, and what’s next? While in some respects the collapse of the global economy appears to be responsible for the dramatic shift in consumer behaviordecreasing consumption, saving more, searching for the best value, and rediscovering nostalgia for simpler timesthe “financial crisis” was the climax of unnoticed nascent trends that had been making waves for quite some time. The bust, as it were, served to unleash the floodgates, allowing a metaphorical collective cultural sigh that hopefully brings to a close our consumerist spree.
In 2004 we were at the height of luxury addiction and celebrity obsession. Even so, the emergence and slow acceptance of the organic and the sustainability movements hinted at a desire to rethink our ethics and perhaps consider the effects of our man-made world. Furthermore, the health and wellness movement began to suggest a more holistic approach to living and “being.” Simultaneously, the seemingly unbounded acceleration of technology has turned us into always-on, 24/7 technophiles, scrambling to broadcast our virtual personas throughout the webiverse using “social software” in often mind-boggling ways. Gen-Xers may reel at the prescience of sci-fi author Neal Stephenson; it can feel like the world we live in is simply the manifestation of his and others’ novels. Together these forces suggest both a simplistic slowdown and techno acceleration.
On the surface these trends appear to have little in common, but they are truly involved in a dynamic dance where the possibility for convergence is greater and more interesting. Mostly we’ve seen this referred to as “seamlessness,” where technology will become far more simplified and intuitive, and the online world will increasingly blur reality. A practice we deem “platforming” is so far the best way we know to describe how designing and branding paradigms must shift in order to address the future state of this seamless world and fulfill the desires of its inhabitants. In short, platforming posits that design and brands must become more collaborative and generative in nature, with more of the features/qualities of the online world (i.e., platforms), and less prescriptive, immutable, and monolithic. As this dynamic plays out, it will create a ripe new territory for designers and branders.
As the consumer landscape has been evolving, so has the practice of design and branding. “Design, as a brand-building tool, is in its ascendancy,” says Jerry Kathman, president and CEO of international design agency LPK. “Brand aesthetics must be managed strategically today. Leading brands understand that brand design management is not a one-time project, but an ongoing process. A brand’s design franchise serves as a repository for the goodwill assigned to a brand over time. That goodwill comes from the experience that a consumer has using the brand, as well as the investment in marketing communications. But it is a brand’s design that triggers those embedded memories. Design equity is a powerful contributor to brand equity,” he explains.
If we accept that design has been in its ascendancy, then as designers we have also evolved and expanded our roles in the work that we call branding. Building brands has mainly consisted of constructing ownable assets to help a product, company, or service assign meaning and, therefore, provide more depth and emotional relationship to its offerings. In assigning meaning, brand experts drive up the value for goods and services, convincing consumers to pay more for a product than the total costs of production and distribution and to create a shortcut for consumers who need help navigating the increasingly cluttered world. With the creation and evolution of branding into a highly strategic and necessary business-building tool, designers focused primarily on developing brand toolboxes full of logos, palettes, typography, patterns, and other assets. Along with principles for deployment and other strategic brand-building frameworks (equity pyramids, brand personality, etc.) designers created “holistic brand experiences” in which consistency and global recognition reigned supreme, producing world-class design and breakthrough business successes. But it has also resulted in a sort of “global sameness” so aptly put by Matt Mattus in his book Beyond Trend. Furthermore, brands such as Louis Vuitton have experimented with pushing the boundaries of their traditional and iconic brands through hiring brash creative directors like Marc Jacobs, who subverted brand restrictions and allowed for the defacing and deconstruction of the brand’s heritage assets.
Simultaneously, the seemingly unbounded acceleration of technology has turned us into always-on, 24/7 technophiles, scrambling to broadcast our virtual personas throughout the webiverse using “social software” in often mind-boggling ways.
Even with this more open approach to how we use our brand building blocks, there still seems to be a divide between what we as designers think brands are and how people actually use them. People have always used brands to define their identity and as status markers, but with more evidence of consumer collaboration in everything from product innovation to simulated environments in the gaming world, there is a clear shift. People are using brands as tools to forge their own meaning, expressing their creative urge and self-actualization. Consumers, designers, and brand builders alike are using brands to create our very culture, and as such, it is time for designers to shift their thinking and seize the opportunity at hand. There is a chance to take more responsibility for our collective future and to be the standard-bearers for empathy and humanization, as well as revolutionaries against a single-minded focus on the bottom line.
We must reevaluate what is desirable in today’s world. For those of us who have built our careers in the world of material reality, we need to immerse ourselves in the digital realm, particularly in the fields of interaction design and interface design, to address not just how we will design in this new future, but also what and why we are even designing. This brings us full circle to the previously mentioned sociocultural trends: simplistic slowdown and techno acceleration. These movements reveal new consumer desires and emerging values that will shape the future in a way that begs for a paradigm shift in what we consider branding.
From the frame of reference of the simplistic slowdown, we see that though consumers are seeking value right now, they are also becoming more discerning “coinnosumers”able to navigate the landscape of brands and selecting only those they deem “worth it.” The search for value and desire for values are both evolving into ideas that integrate time into the equation; worth and worthiness may be better ways to explain the new value. What is the new value or worth equation? Less choice, but more quality? Less hyperchurn of disposable SKUs and more meaningful product innovation? We will also see less buyer anxiety, more choiceful selections; less overconsumption, more savoring happiness; less purchase, more rental, shared, and community-owned resources/products; less democratization of luxury, more one-of-a-kind finds and nonreplicable items and experiences. It is in these changes that one can see the evolution from value to worth. The idea of worth is perhaps more relevant and appropriate to describe those most precious and rare things. Whereas value connotes monetary measurement and association with financial economies, worth considers alternative, but equally important economies like time and reputation, which affect these precious things as well.
Through the lens of techno acceleration, we see that technology’s relentlessly increasing advancement poses a question: If we are simplifying and slowing down, how and when will technology help rather than hinder this most human of pursuits? Interface design is working to solve the current divide between technology and humanity, resulting in recommendation engines and aggregators that will reconcile the techno-onslaught of recent years with our intuitive habits, human cravings, and elevated consciousness. Until such time when we see the complete collapse of the boundaries between the online and offline worlds, we can consider how the qualities that we love online suggest and enable new design space with new design solutions. These design solutions will be more in line with platforming, where we will coevolve brands with people instead of designing them for consumers. Brand toolboxes will need to evolve from merely producing deployable assets to be more like scaffolds that others can use to create their own constructs and project their own meaning, dreams, and creations. In this way our work will be about giving people the tools for interactive storytelling and meaning makinga more generative, open-ended approach, which runs counter to the prescriptive and controlled practice of today.
Some designers and brands are already figuring out this new design space. The most obvious example is Apple and the iPhone, where the product is continually evolving and customized by the user in order to create identity and simplify lives. In the offline world, established and influential Chicago restaurant Alinea recently added a quasi à la carte option to its grand tasting menu that invites diners to specify some variables (texture, temperature, flavor, and emotion) in a dish, but that leaves the chef to create within those parameters. This platform for experience between consumer and chef (and ultimately chef Grant Achatz’s brand) lets people create their own meaning within the constructs of a larger message or idea. With platforming, brands will be the platforms for people to do, be, and become with the aid, context, and backdrop of a brand. And this leaves us all approaching a future where interface and interaction design has been leading us for years. This paradigm shift will challenge designers to focus less on the physical object (artifact) and more upon the interface and transactional space (hypothetical, virtual or real); less on assigning meaning and more on implicit understanding; less on external, one-way communication and more on collaborative dialogue; less on secret studio product development and more on cocreation with the consumer.
Ultimately, we may end up in an exercise of designing the “in-between” spaces so that people pick up where designers leave off and engage in full-blown brand and product hacking. And in this world, our work will not only serve to aid others in their paths to actualization, but along the way, it might also do the same for us.
The author would like to thank Brian Meyers and Adriane Broili of LPK Trends for their engaging and provocative discussions that helped shape this article.
Valerie Jacobs, vice president, group director at LPK Trends, is a seasoned design forecaster focusing on the development of trend analysis for LPK client brands. Jacobs’s strategic approach melds research, analysis, and translation of trend data into actionable strategies as they relate to design for consumer brand initiatives. With 15-plus years in the marketing communications and design fields, she is also a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. Her leadership includes guest lectures for the In-Store Marketing Institute, Design Management Institute, and the Industrial Designers Society of America. She is often called upon for her expert point of view by the New York Times and has written for a variety of trade journals.
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