Design is the new cool, at least among companies known more for technical creativity than expertise in things aesthetic. Ad Age and The New York Times have both reported on this trend. “Whether a company is on the enterprise side or on the consumer side, design is front and center,” Shannon Callahan, an Andreessen Horowitz partner, told Ad Age. “It’s important to realize that designers in general have elevated themselves to being equivalent to engineers.” Well-known artist James Victore told the Times: “Design, even if you’re talking about Apple and their sexy devices, is a promise of quality. It’s a promise that the public is not going to be let down.”
Design, of course, has always had a place within every marketer’s toolbox, most commonly put to use in narrow applications such as logos, letterhead or packaging. Apple and Method are among the most obvious example of those that have in recent years used design to its fullest power, and now, it seems, others are catching on. This is an important point in design’s history, which grows out of the evolution of media.
Consumers today turn a cold shoulder toward much of paid media, which includes advertising from broadcast to digital. Earned media is often viewed as the most important and legitimate form of media, and the credibility marketers “earn” from word-of-mouth and expert opinion is invaluable. However, owned media, properties such as websites and packaging and user experience, is often the first place where consumers place judgment on a brand. That’s what Google and others are realizing.
The most commonly held belief in our industry today is that we can no longer underestimate savvy consumers. Consumers expect brands to be transparent, engaging, proactive and accommodating. And they’re quick to filter out brands that don’t meet their expectations. More marketers could turn a critical eye to design before judging the success of ads or Twitter response rates when considering how to boost consumer engagement. Increasingly, design is recognized as an amplifier of a brand’s values and at its best, superior design reflect reflects a superior brand experience – from values to customer service to quality to innovation. It sounds simple, yet many brands have prioritized temporary communications and platforms over design strategy.
Good design builds trust, and successful brands recognize this. Look at Mint.com. The free financial-planning utility had a major barrier to overcome: How do you get consumers to put private account information for their banks, credit cards and loans online and in the hands of a startup? By prioritizing design, from their logo to their clear user experience to the visually stimulating charts and graphs, Mint has built a following of nearly 5 million loyal users.
Similarly, Help Remedies packages its painkillers and medical supplies in 100% recycled paper pulp. The messaging – “Help, I’ve cut myself” or “Help, I have a headache” – could not be clearer or cleaner. The brand’s design has even inspired a following of fans filling orders for customized “Help I …” T-shirts.
Design can live on for years, rather than the months of a TV campaign or the days or minutes in social media. Designers are problem solvers with the ability to change behavior. A redesign of nutrition labels, for example, could change consumers’ relationships to food. More than logos, packaging, photography, web, retail and collateral, design impacts utility, innovation and customer experiences. Design is a powerful practice, with the ability to change consumer behavior as well as corporate behavior.
Matias Duarte, director of Android design at Google, said as much to Ad Age in describing how the design team taught designers and engineers to think about the emotions evoked by a product during the building of the Jelly Bean version of the Android operating system. Negative emotions sparked by a product interaction were called “jank,” while positive ones were called “butter.” “By giving these things a name and giving clear examples, it’s now become part of the culture,” Duarte said. “And now the culture of the company is to avoid negative emotions.”
James Fox is CEO of Red Peak Branding, a unit of Red Peak Group.