When We Talk About Design

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Over the last couple of decades, the design industry – if such a neatly defined thing even still exists – has seen more change than at almost any time since the advertising boom in the 1950s; when many people, emerging optimistically from post-WW2 austerity, finally had some money to spend, and the Don Drapers of this world showed up to help them spend it.

Today, things are a little different. A little. In the wake of a lumbering post-pandemic recovery, a Russian-sponsored crisis in Ukraine that threatens to spill over into a European War, the worst economic outlook in 40 years, Brexit (yes, it’s still there, eating away at our future prospects like an unseen moth in our favourite suit), Will Smith punching Chris Rock in the face over a perceived slight, and America, more generally, doing a deeply disturbing and disheartening U-turn on human rights, people still have money to spend. For now.

It’s just that over the last 20 years, instead of Don and Peggy imagining an aspirational world for us, in which everything and anything can be made just a little better with the application of the right lipstick, choosing the right car, burger sauce, washing machine, pantyhose, or beer, we’re doing it for ourselves. Kind of. Through new technology, social platforms, tethered devices and some devious if clever algorithms from Google, Apple, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Amazon, Elon Musk and the rest, we have learnt to curate our own highly personalised and data driven virtuous circles of aspiration and consumption (although, some might say, we have been manipulated into it. But maybe that’s a story for another day).

Collectively, these giga-brands have delivered digitally enhanced experiences and engagement opportunities simply unimaginable to the eponymous TV Mad Men. The iPhone turned 15 years old this week. Perhaps you noticed. Maybe you don’t care. But in that short decade-and-a-half we have been given unprecedented access to our favourite brands, products and services, and a seemingly unstoppable swathe of content – much of it created by us – even as, unseen in the electrostatic algorithms of our swipes and clicks, our Technorati overlords quietly track, shape, nudge, twist, amplify and, importantly, standardise (more of that in a moment) how we navigate and engage with the world. And everything in it. Or at least, that’s the story we’ve been told: the internet is (was) a vast, level playing field, filled with an ocean of highly unmanageable stuff and these tools are there simply to help us focus on what’s important – to us, our friends, our families, and our communities. And all this digital stuff, by the way, just like Don and Peggy before them, is something these technological leviathans have convinced us we need to consume if we want to live a better life.

Of course, whether that’s really true, or even possible, is increasingly up for debate but regardless of how deep you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, all these experiences, products and services – all these integrated, digitally enabled touchpoints, devices and interactions – they all have to be designed. Not merely coded and programmed and built by clever technocrats but designed, to be used, by designers: to be used, understood, and engaged with, again, not only by geeks and brainiacs but by everyone. Everyone being a non-exclusive bracket that includes you, me, your dentist, the guy who changes your tires, the woman who teaches your kids, the annoying idiot on the tube, who treats his phone like a walkie-talkie, and the nurse who helped your mum after her fall. Oh, and your mum.

But the undeniable success of these platforms has increasingly come, at least from a more traditional brand-led design standpoint, at a cost. Such that in a global marketplace where, arguably, we have never been more design literate and brand-aware, standing out from the crowd has, strangely, become a little bit of a challenge.

This is something that the design teams at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and their clients, with their almost universal and incredibly well understood channels of print, radio, and television, never really had to face. And not because that stuff was easy, or that they were living in ‘simpler times’ (although, maybe…), but the advantage of working in broadcast-only mediums meant that they could better own, manage and control the brand narrative (and, actually, to invent the very concept of a brand narrative, at that); not simply by ‘big idea’ messaging, but through thoughtful, imaginative design and copy, typography, layout, colour, illustration and photography.

And, as such, this was how most of us experienced, understood, and engaged with brands – beyond the actual products and services themselves – through the unique, ongoing micro-stories we were told. Whereas today, since we moved into the smartphone dominated era, this is something that seems to have largely been pushed aside, in the service of mass adoption and universal accessibility. In the last 10 years the design world has become intensely preoccupied by the idea of standards, functionality, so-called best practice, technical optimisation and integration, and the phantasm of data-led propositions that will change the world. But what happened to all the stories, man? And I don’t mean those flaky little collections of images and video clips on Instagram, or Facebook we are constantly encouraged to make – you know, to, like, personalise shit up.

Arguably, both global business and consumers have benefited enormously from this swelling technical standardisation – I mean, I get it. Nobody wants to learn how to use and navigate the, uhm… metaverse, one website at a time. It’s not 1998 – but what we have come to see over that time is a huge degree of homogenisation and, increasingly, safe, un-differentiated experiences. How different is Nike.com from New Balance’s online store? I mean, really? What about Marks & Spencers? Does using Barclays’ mobile app really feel so very different to looking at my bank statement on Lloyds’? How different should they be? And anyway, how would we, as a design community, create and express that difference without making it stupidly painful to send your mate that 20 quid you owe him? Do we even have permission to try?

The challenge here is partly a fallout from all those expensively burnt fingers of the dot.com crash, and the weeping clients who had previously trusted their fortunes to unaccountable Web Agencies (many of whom soon shared the same fate as their creations). And they were right to weep. Web Design, as it was seen from late 90s to early-mid noughties, was like the Wild West. Not much in the way of rules. Little control. No fixed standards. Just big promises that there was digital gold in them-there-hills – and a lot of snake oil. Designers and design firms, at that time, were often graduates of traditional Mad Men agencies and saw the web as just another comms channel, that The Big Idea would carry the day, just as it had for the previous 50 years. They were wrong.

Web and digital was indeed a new frontier, and while it definitely needed (and still needs) great, creative designers it also needed new and different kinds of skills, greater collaboration and – critically – more focus, accountability and results. Clients stopped being content with simply having a web presence, as it was referred to, along with a spinning logo and a nice Flash loading animation and started paying attention to the details. They, rightly, demanded a tangible return on their investment. So, when the rational, measurable UX Architects and User Researchers started showing up, it gave them great comfort and reassurance. Note, Architects. Not Designers. Architects who, just like their bricks and mortar counterparts, offered process, structure, precision and measurability – not dreams of a better life and aspirational fictions of how their customers would all soon be being jacking into the Matrix to buy their undies.

Finally, our clients began to get their multichannel houses in order and, better yet, they started to understand what and why it was they were buying; appointing Digital Officers and in-house teams to make sure it all still worked after the agency was done messing around. But it seems that something was also lost along the way. And, in this setting, came a gradual diminishing appetite for the value that great strategic, creative, brand-led conceptual design could bring – because they’d seen all that, and no one was prepared to lose their shirt on another boo.com.

Now, almost 20 years later we have come to think very differently about design. Seismic technology shifts, radical behaviour change, and ever-increasing consumer expectations has radically transformed and diversified the digital marketplace. It is virtually unrecognisable from 2002, never mind 1952. And what we have seen over that time is that trust, in this space anyway, for traditional brand, creative and idea-centric practices has kind of withered on the vine, in favour of more measurable, repeatable and scalable specialisations and capabilities such as Agile, Data, UX, UI, Research, Insight & Service Design – such that today design can mean almost anything. While the natural inheritors of Don Draper’s once great idea-driven design teams have been reduced in the imagination of our clients, and even some of our colleagues, to merely Visual, or Product design.

But in a market where value, efficiency, responsiveness, and measurable customer outcomes are table stakes – and where, by the way, every app, website, application or digital tool we use have all been user-tested to within an inch of their life – we’re kind of done with best practice. Aren’t we? Our clients seem to be.

Over the last several years I and the teams I work with have seen a palpable if subtle shift in client appetites and curiosity. If every vendor they work with are offering pretty much the same safe, dependable, repeatable, quantifiable solutions (and, one has to assume, are peddling the same to every one of their prospective clients), then ultimately the choices they are making as enterprise-level consumers are surely rooted more in time and cost, than in any kind of brand-specific value (because, like Bruno, we don’t talk about that). And certainly not in any meaningful differentiation at a customer experience level. But if you’re paying close attention, you can almost hear them starting to ask; where’s our unique story in all of this? Why aren’t we seeing it? Why do we look and feel like everyone else? Our clients don’t just want parity with their competitors in meeting their customer’s needs, they want to stand out.

If we really want to help, if we want the products and services that we develop for our clients to find new, different, and more meaningful engagement with their customers, maybe it’s time to revisit what we really mean when we talk about design. Maybe it’s time go back into the basement and dust off our books on graphic design (yes, anyone under 30, that’s actually a thing), typography, layout, colour, illustration and photography – and think about how, why and were we use them. Maybe.

Whatever we, in our respective businesses, choose to do next with our design teams, it’s worth reflecting that we are, in some ways, custodians of the client’s relationship to their customers. As design agencies have always been. Don’s three-martini lunches may be gone, but the opportunity – perhaps even responsibility – to look beyond tactical, best-practice-led delivery and find the human connection, remains: It’s up to us to recognise that both sides of the transaction have their own unique stories to tell. Different, rich, strange and highly personal, connected stories, on which you can build brand, engagement, loyalty and a meaningful customer experience worthy of the name.

And, as designers, it’s our job to tell them.

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