• The source of the new is the random.

    Gregory Bateson

Notes on Design Process: Expectations

Nov 28

Expectations matter.

“Clients seem to get the advertising they deserve. The good ones, they’re risk takers. They’re willing to risk failures for extraordinary success. The bad clients? Fear dribbles down from the top. No one says so, in so many words, but you know no risks will be tolerated, no rules will be broken, that mediocrity is the measure by which your work will be weighed.’”
[Luke Sullivan quoting Lois Korey in: Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising]

“Price and audience are not compelling motivators. Your sense of quality is.”
[Twyla Tharp and Jesse Kornbluth, The Collaborative Habit]

That being said:
1 For better and for worse, treat creative collaboration as an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Yet, be deliberate on where you want to start.
2 Design process should always accommodate continuous experimentation. A process that does not allow for validation of a premise makes unnecessary bets on design.
3 There’s a difference between purpose and practice. There’s no design without a purpose. Practice without a clear goal is called decoration.
4 There’s no excuse for bad design.

[img: Pae White: Oslo Opera House Curtain]

Notes on Design Process: Intent, not instruction

Nov 12

Noam Chomsky divided ignorance into either problems or mysteries. “When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for.” We know how to find the solution or at least where to search for it. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Since we have never developed practical tools for creativity that would constantly deliver newness and value, we tend to treat creative process as a mystery. We think of generating ideas in terms of serendipitous, epiphanic and arbitrary decisions and luck rather than a process involving skill, experience and craft. With nothing but the luck of the draw as a prevailing methodology, a great deal of the process is devoted to negotiating ideas, aspirations and tastes of various stakeholders. Yet design is all about imagination disciplined to resolve a specific problem or circumstance, not random acts of brainstorming.

Contrary to intuition and creative egalitarianism introduced by design thinking, ideas are becoming the most overestimated element of a design process. Good ideas are essential but scarce. Good and novel ideas that a) are not based on incremental innovation b) reinvent a product or service regardless of execution, are almost non-existent.

How to (not) fail

Mar 21

Prisoners of metaphor, victims of vanity and the fantasy and reality of, um, marketing.
PS: “Almost every app built for a brand on Facebook has practically no usage… Heavy, ‘immersive’ experiences are not how people engage and interact with brands… Heavyweight experiences will fail because the don’t map to real life.” [Paul Adams, Head of Brand Design at Facebook]

True colors

Nov 28

So you’re a brand owner or about to become one.
You’re a human being with a mostly-intuitive-still-fairly-decent sense of how colors work. (Or at least you happen to know of kuler which is more than enough, if you’re a stereotypical programmer;)

You put most of your hopes in the hands of a designer, but your common sense states firmly that some things in life fortunately are constant, and colors are one of them. Yellow is associated with cowardice, and purple with spirituality. Red stands for passion and love, green for nature and orange for sun. Blue, on the other hand, is safe enough to work in every other context and as such is obligatory in any ppt presentation.

Then, in a momentary lapse of reality, a truly radical idea enters your mind – a passionate firefighter in love drinking coke – and you can feel your anterior cingulate cortex swelling from cognitive dissonance.
That’s because colors don’t work like metonymy but rather as metaphor. The difference lies in strength of an association (or lack of thereof in case of metaphor) – suit may be an appropriate and a ‘transparent’ substitute (and a metonym) for business executive, but a metaphor as such always requires decoding. The ambiguity of a metaphor gives no right answers.

Coming back to colors: meaning of colors does not translate metonymically in a pre-supposed context but is decoded each time within different environment. Depending on the context, red may or may not stand for love (think: red traffic light), green for nature (how about money?) and so on. If you’re about to decide, the colors used by your competitors or the brandscape may provide a much better point of reference to start with than some artsy guide of color meaning.

Summer reading: 6 books that will not change your life

Sep 4

Books don’t change us. So if you’re one of those people secretly hoping that all this time lavishly spent reading did not go in vain, well, acceptance is the first step. As Hemingway once expressed it: never confuse action with movement. Books may entertain, inform or even inspire us to do something but sadly, they themselves are rather on the action side.

On the positive side, this tiny drawback might be the only thing preventing excessive exposure to brainwashed hordes of sociopaths. Obviously, this is precisely what would happen if all those avid students of “The Art of War” (supposedly all time bestseller on Amazon self-help books list) started actually living according to the “Lure them in with the prospect of gain, take them by confusion” maxim. As for now we only have to put up with it during elections.

The following books will neither change you, nor your beliefs (unfortunately, hardly nothing can change the latter), but I’ve found them interesting or useful enough to recommend each to someone at least once. Not to mention that I’d rather keep my self-delusions nourished and nurtured; writing about what I’ve read provides a good excuse for reading on.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life & The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

Being creative for some time takes a lot of work and passion. Staying creative for years takes an awful lot of discipline and really hard work; there’s little romantic about it. As for collaboration, I’ve always thought that was what Beckett had been thinking of when he famously said: ‘Fail, fail again, fail better’.
Don’t let the titles mislead you; neither of these books is a traditional self-help book. Still, the Habits are one of the wisest and most pragmatic books on the subject I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend them enough.

James Gleick: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

Books that are thorough rarely are gripping (unless you’re a nerd). In either case: it’s an excellent read.

Sándor Márai

I love Sándor Márai. With all my heart. His most popular ‘Embers’ is a masterpiece that kept me mesmerized to the very last page and that does not happen often (over-read, blasé and proud of it). His Diaries are the only book I’ve bought recently in paper (!) and decided not to give away after reading. So on and so forth.

Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language and Antonio Damasio: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain

To my best guess pairing psycholinguistics with neuroscience is like coupling css and product design just because in some general sense they both do with design. Regrettably, these volumes are too nerdy and geeky to put them separately and they don’t exactly fit smoothly into ‘easy summer reading’ category. Just as a sum up of both: “The brain is wider than the sky, For, put them side by side, The one the other will contain With ease, and you beside.”


Instapapers (would have fallen under tl;dr tag unless they hadn’t been actually worth reading):

The Local-Global Flip, or, “The Lanier Effect” Somebody should have invented ‘too good for web’ tag. This interview would utterly fit.

How Online Companies Get You to Share More and Spend More. I truly abhor so-called ‘gamification‘, nonetheless this is how a relevant approach to this trend looks like or how posts would have been written if blogging as a genre had not signified “substance watered down to a week of posts”.

Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action, best read with: Designing for Social Norms (or How Not to Create Angry Mobs).

The Possibilian: What a brush with death taught David Eagleman about the mysteries of time and the brain. Rather unfortunate title for quite interesting article on our perception of time.

Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance On unfotunate titles again, still worth a few minutes.

If you’ve read up to this point, it may indicate that you’re seriously procrastinating. So last but not least: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield is a rather short (and consequently procrastinate friendly) book that will help you get out of your own way and just do it. With just a few more pages:)

Ogilvy’s principles of management

Jul 8

1. Remember that Abraham Lincoln spoke of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He left out the pursuit of profit.
2. Remember the old Scottish motto: “Be happy while you’re living, for you are a long time dead.”
3. If you have to reduce your company’s payroll, don’t fire your people until you have cut your compensation and the compensation of your big-shots.
4. Define your corporate culture and your principles of management in writing. Don’t delegate this to a committee. Search all the parks in all your cities. You’ll find no statues of committees.
5. Stop cutting the quality of your products in search of bigger margins. The consumer always notices — and punishes you.
6. Never spend money on advertising which does not sell.
7. Bear in mind that the consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.
[via: Patricia Sellers]

Repost, Recommend, Rethink.

Mar 22

Remember the Old Spice commercial? If so, open your facebook page. Pick the third person of the same gender as yours on the newsfeed and open his feed in a separate tab. Look at his last 8 wall posts. Now, back at yours. Now, back at what his posts are about. Now, back at yours. Chances are they don’t differ much. Yet, you do. Sadly, it’s barely visible through your web presence.

Statistically speaking, depending on your age, gender and friend count likeness, you use similar structures, words and write about corresponding subjects at corresponding times. In case of my facebook friends, there’s at least one niche music video link, at least one ‘funny picture’, at least one thankful post and at least one slightly ironic rant on — in general terms — state of the culture. Which makes 50% of the rather small sample entirely predictable. The question that follows is: are we entering the age of mass unification that reshapes us into rather amorphic and impersonal shells or simply are we that similar?

There are a few things to consider:

1 The medium is the message

Trivial as it has become, McLuhan’s notion of the medium affecting the content is still valid. If you ever had doubts on the extent of its relevance, consider the impact of a slight redesign of FB’s status update box on the use of pronouns:

‘Until March of 2009, the status update box appeared next to the person’s name. So, up until March of 2009, the most common status update motif was to state what you were doing or how you were feeling with a status update like “is happy,” which would show up as “Lars is happy”. When this changed, the usage of “is” dropped off dramatically and usage of “I” doubled almost overnight. After March, people started updating with “I am happy” instead of “is happy” to achieve the same message.’

However, what is often overlooked is the influence of the provided means of reaction by other people. We’re social beings, we supply content and share it to be admired, liked, to be understood, to feel accepted or solely heard. Consequently, sooner or later, consciously or not, we design our messages so that they’re more appealing to our target group. At the same time, it’s difficult to remain personal and relevant if you’re talking to 47 people at once. Besides, imagine that the person next to you is capable of only two reactions: ‘I like it’ and ‘I like it and repost’. Undoubtedly it would limit the scope and depth of a conversation, wouldn’t it?

Looking at this image, it’s hard not to draw a conclusion that we’re living in the Recommendation Age (or, to be precise, the Repost Age). Still, as much as soup.io is social, it’s a quite accurate tool for spreading memes, no less and so is the larger part of other social platforms.

2 Limits of control

Obviously, the majority of the social networking sites has some limitations to at least the length or the subject of the messages you exchange. If you ever tried writing movie summaries in 140 characters or less, you know that in most cases you inevitably end up with genre descriptions stripped of any kind of particularity that might have made a movie gripping. It becomes slightly more bearable if you apply E.M. Forster’s distinction between narrative and plot (Plot is ‘The queen died; the king died.’ Narrative is ‘The queen died; the king died of a broken heart.’). The difficulty is that if you’re not a screenwriter or currently suffering from dissociative identity disorder, you tend to think about your life expieriences in a plot rather than a narrative. Not to mention the miserably flat amplitude of real life drama compared to most of the stories we read/watch.

3 One to rule them all

Social networking sites are created as mass products, carved for the so-called average user. They are based on universal truths, universal paradigms and equally unversal models of interaction, expression and needs. At the same time they’re designed to provide means of personalization and become as transparent & technologically friction free as possible. The catch, as always, lies in between.

When considering technologically advanced, mass market tools or products, the simple rule applies: The more you try to make it universal, the more uniform the outcome is. One way of evading that is clearly through customization (e.g. NikeID), but still, does it make a product more universal or merely less uniform?

The deeper problem lies in the process of finding these universal truths. We’ve become infatuated with data, their patterns, networks and correlations. Evidently this is the age of information, since like never before we’re able to accurately compute and estimate almost every single thing. However, what we’re often missing is the difference between analysis and reasoning. Analysis is a description of a current state (think: Hans Rosling). Reasoning is taking the risk of forming judgements about the things that are not clearly visible in data. It’s the search for insight and superior understanding. We have knowledge, we need more wisdom. Without the latter we’ve created great tools for being connected rather than feeling connected.

Still, the infatuation with data and our computational capability is a mere side effect of the broader cult of staying up to date.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an average, slightly addicted social media user, clicking Like button 9 times a day, writing 25 comments and spending around 55 minutes per day, just to stay up to date. As such, I’m also inherently ‘resistant to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism’, as Georg Simmel described it.

One of the last lines of Synecdoche, NY (which I cannot recommend enough) goes as follow:
‘You realize you are not special. At some point this is everyone’s experience, every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.’

In a deeper sense, we are the same. We live the average, encounter the same joys, tragedies or monotony. Yet, what makes us exceptional and our relations meaningful are ideas. Not some abstractly conceptualized ideas but ideas expressed through our emotions, beliefs and broader idiosyncratic context. One may call them stories, I call them personalities:)

For the Love of Culture

Dec 23

“For 75 percent of the eighteen million books in our libraries, the rule of the plaintiffs would have been a digital death sentence. For these works–presumptively under copyright but no longer in print–to require permission first is to guarantee invisibility. These works are, practically speaking, orphans. It is effectively impossible–at least at the wholesale level–to secure permission for any use that triggers copyright law.”
Lawrence Lessig’s, as always insightful essay on Google, copyright and our future.

Milton Glaser: Ten things I have learned

Oct 4

1 You can only work for people that you like.
2 If you have a choice never have a job.
3 Some people are toxic avoid them.
4 Professionalism is not enough or the good is the enemy of the great.
5 Less is not necessarily more.
6 Style is not to be trusted.
7 How you live changes your brain.
8 Doubt is better than certainty.
9 On aging.
10 Tell the truth.
full post here & a short documentary.

Design Imperialism

Jul 31

“A key point of failure in today’s global design landscape lies precisely in the jargon — we need to invent new ways of writing, talking and thinking about concepts of “humanitarian design”; we need new language that doesn’t homogenize entire cultures, new vocabulary that better reflects the intricate lace of the world’s biocultural and psychosocial diversity as a drawing board for design.” Maria Popova on The Language of Design Imperialism. Insightful.

Of Frog Wines and Frowning Watches: Semantic Priming, Perceptual Fluency and Brand Evaluation

Jul 27

“Visual features that have no meaningful association with the product itself can actually make consumers like the product, provided that these features are something that the consumer can easily identify with.This means that critters on wine labels, however odd that may be, can be a good sales strategy. It allows a marketer to target a certain consumer by using images on labels that represent an important aspect of that customer’s life. Moreover, there are potentially many ways to make that label as unique as possible because a logo would be chosen based on who the target customers are and not on what that product is.” Building a Better Brand: How feelings shape product evaluation.

The Sins of St. Paul

Apr 5

“I did not know Paul Rand. I did not work for him or study under him. My understanding of his importance, then, has been gained in the same way as students and practitioners in years to come will gain theirs: through books like Modernist Design. (…) So it’s with some trepidation that I wonder if I might lodge a few complaints about Mr. Rand as a model for graphic design practice. But here goes.” M. Bierut on Paul Rand.

“Any design student could do a better job”

Mar 3

“I never knew a designer that got hundreds of thousands of dollars to design a logo. Mostly, designers get paid to negotiate the difficult terrain of individual egos, expectations, tastes, and aspirations of various individuals in an organization or corporation, against business needs, and constraints of the marketplace. This is a process that can take a year or more. Getting a large, diverse group of people to agree on a single new methodology for all of their corporate communications means the designer has to be a strategist, psychiatrist, diplomat, showman, and even a Svengali.
The complicated process is worth money. That’s what clients pay for. The process, usually a series of endless presentations and refinements, persuasions and proofs, results, hopefully, in an accepted identity design”
What they don’t teach you about identity design by Paula Scher.

The future is flexible

Feb 20

A few thoughts on the evolution of brand identity.

Karl Gerstner wrote in his Designing Programmes:

“Instead of solutions for problems, programmes for solutions — the subtitle can also be understood in these terms: for no problem (so to speak) is there an absolute solution. Reason: the possibilities cannot be delimited absolutely. There is always a group of solutions, one of which is the best under certain conditions.”

The above paragraph was published in 1964, at the peak of the modernist crusade. The same decade Neuburg introduced his contructivist, functionally minded Neue Grafik at ICOGRADA in Zurich, and Paul Rand was working for IBM.

The 60s set the bar in corporate identity design. Modernist, focused on the ‘consistency, consistency, consistency’ mantra, helvetica and simplicity.

At the same time, the concept of brand has been evolving fundamentally. Brand as  product, organization, person and symbol — all those notions became a part of the brand identity systems. Yet, the visual identity remained more or less a slightly stretched result of the constructivist paradigm. As Paula Scher states:

“Generally, there’s a paradigm of what things look like in any arena. What you want to be able to do is find a new way to stretch that paradigm forward, to break its own mold.”

For years logo was treated as a base of an identity system, augmented with graphic means only essential to make it visually coherent in multi-channel environment. Used as a stamp or badge, such identities culminated in Umberto Eco’s “closed texts” — visual systems with unequivocal, static meaning, recurrent structure & disciplined sequence.

Eco juxtaposes “closed texts” with “opera aperta” (open work): open, internally dynamic “opere in movimento”, in which the the artist (or designer) deliberately leaves the arrangement of their compontents either to public or to chance, giving them a multiplicity of possible arrangements. By definition such works are simply much more engaging to the user.

Digital media have vastly reshaped brand landscape and thus allowed to stretch the paradigm a bit further. Technical restraints that limited design for half a century are gone. Together with rising consumer awareness (cogent brand conversations, no logo movement etc.), they gave the means to think of identity as a vessel for expressing personality rather than consistency.

The recent AOL rebranding is one example of a series that shift from the “logo as a badge” strategy to the identity as a visual language flexible enough to convey a number of ideas. Others include: the controversial London 2012 Olympic, Natural History Museum, Walker Arts Center, City of Melbourne, Casa da Música, and, undoubtedly most known: MTV, changing countless times throught the last 26 years and Google.

All these identities (named “flexible identities”) have in common:

  1. endless permutations of the logo itself (often designed through customized software);
  2. versatile and  distinct visual language (colors, typography, imagery, etc.) allowing adaptation to different environments, executions and contexts;
  3. the concept behind is a system rather than a particular design, giving the designer almost unlimited freedom (though within some contraints);
  4. they empower the organization with almost complete visual and verbal laguage, open to virtually any message it may need to convey;
  5. the visual differentation does not spoil the fundamental, thought-through brand personality & identity that stands as a benchmark; a signifier may (and does) fluctuate but the meaning stays fundamentally the same;

Although the flexible identity solves most of today’s brand identity problems and seems a logical development, the static brand probably is not coming to an end. A dynamic branding model obviously has some constraints, but I think that it is an evolution phase rather than a trend. Of course, like any other idea it might enter a stage of an overused fad, quickly making the static brands trendy again. Evolution by definition is a gradual process.  Maybe we’ll reach a moment, in which a simple, straightforwad and “classic” logo and identity system will seem refreshing.

Gerstner’s “boîte à musique” identity designed in 1954 in all likelihood was the first example of flexible identity, a “programme for solution”. Unless the possibilities will be delimited absolutely, the flexible identity looks like a reliable strategy.

A Product is not a Brand

Jan 19

A Bain & Co. survey notes that 80 percent of CEOs believe that their product is differentiated, but only 8 percent of consumers agree. To truly stand out in the market, a product must embody the characteristics of its brand. (…) The first to market position is a market opportunity, not a brand strategy. A product is not a brand.

The Experience, stupid.

Dec 6

“Design beautiful experiences, not beautiful artifacts. Stop asking “what” and start asking “why”. Start with experience, end with experience. Genius will fail, wisdom will succeed. Become wise. Keep it simple. From design thinking to dynamic thinking. Let iteration direct your process: Work more rapidly, change more frequently. Have fun. Adapt your process to your design goals, not the other way around. Preserve the experience, not your own competency.” The Experience Imperative: A Manifesto for Industrial Designers by Ken Fry.
Plus: “Experience design is not a remedy that turns products into miracles that everybody likes. It will help you speaking more efficiently to your target group. To that end products needs to be simplified. The simpler the product the more character it has, the more likely it is to be rejected or accepted by a group of customers. To that end you need to know your customers and you need to test your designs with your customers.” iA: Can Expierience be designed?

On Designers

Dec 6

“Designers care. This is not always a good thing, and can, in fact, be annoying. Designers obsess so much about their work that it’s a wonder they ever let any finished project out the door. And they’re just as tough on everyone else’s work.” I feel excused now;). For other equally accurate features read: Four Things I’ve Learned About Designers by Warren Berger.

On design thinking & abductive reasoning

Oct 17

“The prescription is not to embrace abduction to the exclusion of deduction and induction, nor is it to bet the farm on loose abductive inferences.
Rather, it is to strive for balance. Proponents of design thinking in business recognize that abduction is almost entirely marginalized in the modern corporation and take it upon themselves to make their companies hospitable to it. They choose to embrace a form of logic that doesn’t generate proof and operates in the realm of what might be — a realm beyond the reach of data from the past.”

Roger Martin: What is Design Thinking Anyway?.

Design and branding for the ‘green sector’

Sep 6

“The majority of environmental organisations and businesses are represented by a mass of visual clichés: A leaf, a water drop, a globe, a happy tree. Many can’t think beyond the obvious associations and it means they can’t stand out from the crowd. Their brand’s consistently use language and visuals that represent the ‘category’ of sustainability. By using common signifiers that belong to this ‘category’ they fail to differentiate their brand and/or engage a new, wider audience.” Tom Crabtree (Design Assembly): Not easy being green.