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On influencing design

April 22, 2013

Seth Godin recently wrote a blog post about what has instantly become my new favourite word – skeuomorph.

This element of digital design has been a niggle for a while, and knowing that this is actually a documented phenomena with arguments for and against has made me feel a lot less old-fashioned about my views.

George Basalla describes a skeuomorph as:

“an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”

So, every single online ‘magazine’ that makes you use your mouse to ‘turn’ the pages is an example of obsolescence in design.  (As well as being really irritating – come on, I can’t be the only one…)

Familiarity, or what Seth describes in his article as ‘analogy’, is great.  It acts as a shortcut and helps us to understand and use things quicker.  It’s probably the basis for what we’d call ‘intuitive design’.

But it’s only great as long as it helps or improves the design, process or service.  This goes beyond simply getting buy in.  It’s about progress and making things better.

I don’t believe that design should always rip up the rule-book and start from scratch; influence is a wonderful thing.  Take for example the concept of biomimicry; the BBC reported a few days ago on a new plaster design which does less harm to burn victims because it is influenced by the way a parasite attaches itself.

The difference is that sort of influence takes the benefit of the source material, and works backwards to design something that preserves the benefit not the literal functionality. It uses the influence to create something that is useful and better.

Just taking the source material wholesale and using it without adaptation isn’t helpful. It’s plain lazy.

On letting the right people fill in the blanks

April 17, 2013

I read a really interesting article by Nicholas Hytner (the direction of the National Theatre) about why plays need to be performed.

The play needs actors to complete it.

Looking at the words on a page will never bring them to life in the same way that a skilled professional can; the bits that are actually written down are just a starting point for the actor to create the character.

In particular I was struck by this paragraph:

The desire of literary critics over four centuries to solve Iago as if he were a puzzle seems to me to be missing the point. The solution is the actor. The playwright writes from the premise that the dots can’t be joined on the page, and writes with the confidence of an actor who knows that, if they are any good, his colleagues will do the rest of the job for him. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and what he knew was that he had no idea who Iago or Cleopatra – or even Snug the Joiner – were going to turn out to be.

He also talks about (and I paraphrase) how Shakespeare wrote, as an actor himself, confident in the knowledge that the experts would be able to flesh out the details. This meant that he could be more concise – which is why Othello fits into a slim paperback and doesn’t look like War and Peace.

This got me thinking about two things:

a) 4 years of studying Shakespeare as literature may have been a little wasted…

b) and, on a more related note – isn’t this how an ideal creative brief should work?

We (planners, account people, clients, whoever) need to give creatives just enough of the detail for them to flesh the direction out and breathe life into it themselves.  We don’t need the 5 chapters Tolstoy would write – just enough to be the jumping off point.

At the same time, we need to put more trust in creative people to hold up their end of the bargain, rather than trying to make sure that our own personal hobbyhorse or idea is coming through, because otherwise you are putting too many constraints on the person whose expertise you are seeking.

Would we still be watching Othello now, and thinking that it is relevant to our times and our concerns, if Shakespeare hadn’t created a loose enough framework that future generations had the freedom to create meaning and interest?

Probably not.

Little things – big difference

April 12, 2013

I’m starting to get that flurry of ‘birthday’ related marketing emails through at the moment (on a separate note, if they know my date of birth, why does this start a month before and finish a month after? Surely they can target better than this?)

But this is the best so far.

I’m a semi-regular customer at Space NK. I probably don’t fit their normal customer profile – it just happens to be one of the few places that stocks REN (the only moisturiser I’ve ever found that doesn’t make my skin go red, flaky, and puffer-fish-esque).

I’ve signed up to their loyalty card; the N.dulge scheme.

Of all the schemes I’ve ever signed up to, this is the best for me.  And not because of the rewards – because of the CRM plan that underpins it.

Not only do I get genuinely interesting emails from them, infrequently enough to make them special. They’ve also sent me a birthday present.

Not a discount, or a reminder about why I need stuff from them – but a genuine birthday present.

A freebie.  And a choice of freebie (not the one thing they are being paid to promote that month).


(Incidentally, nice simple e-mail design as well)

All I have to do is pop into my local store (which is a 5 min stroll through the park) and pick it up. And if I can’t be bothered to do that, they’ll deliver.

What a lovely piece of CRM.  Especially as I know I’m not a good customer for them.  This is a piece of activity that really encourages loyalty, and it’s the sort of thing other retail customers should probably take note of, because it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going to happen when I’m in store to pick up the gift…

What makes an April Fool?

April 10, 2013

10 days ago I noticed a sign outside my local Vision Express branch.  I wish I’d taken a photo – but imagine an A board promoting their tie up with Heston Blumenthal.

I looked at this.  I thought “that’s a bit weird” and then realised it was April Fools Day.  “They’ve got me” I thought, and walked on.

Why would a chef team up with an opticians (even if he is a chef who does wear glasses)?



(Photo from their press launch)

I walked past the same store on Saturday.  And the sign was still there.

Turns out the last laugh was on me.  Not only is it true, but Vision Express are heralding it as their most successful product launch ever.

However, it does beg the question – while a product launch at a bank holiday weekend does make sense, if your brand tie up is a little less obvious, or even a little less believable, does the bank holiday that includes April Fool’s Day make the best business sense?

On why HMV is such a crucial test for the high street

January 21, 2013

A lot of the comment surrounding the problems that HMV faces at the moment has been really interesting – not least because it demonstrates that we are on the cusp of a new role for the digital/physical retail environment.

One comment in particular stood out for me:

Websites can never recreate the serendipity of a shop-floor […] a massive etailer might sell the same album with 78 per cent off, but it can’t chat to you about how good it is

HMV’s brand agency on the brand’s current struggles

The problem being that this on its own clearly isn’t enough. Andrea picked out the key thing this morning; when you trail so far on price on something that is essentially a commodity, it’s difficult for this sort of service to have value.

If you’re only a few pence, or even a pound more expensive, then maybe it gives a good enough reason to choose one retailer over another.

Any bid for HMV that has the support of the record labels (as it seems the Hilco bid does) may just be able to offer that.  With something approaching price parity, we’ll be able to see what the new role for the high-street retail environment is as I can’t think of many other categories that have a product or service that serves as such a good test of how this role will change.

No Noise: commercialising anti-consumerism

January 14, 2013


(Selfridges – No Noise and De-Branded Design)

Looks like I’m not the only one thinking about information overload and the increasing demand on our attention spans.

Selfridges have created a whole space dedicated to quietness – hoping to create a more relaxing shopping experience.  It’s an interesting concept – meditation pods and quiet spaces in a retail environment – and only an environment like Selfridges could pull this off.

Part of this is their ‘Quiet Shop’ where:

“Some of the world’s most recognisable brands have taken the symbolic step of removing their logos in our exclusive collection of de-branded products”

The problem being that most of them are so recognisable as brands that they haven’t de-branded simply by removing the name.  In fact, the whole thing feels like a bit of a gimmick – commercialising anti-consumerism and turning these branded-yet-not products into collectors items in their own right.

I wonder if they’ve done special yellow bags with no writing on them?

On Attention Spans

January 14, 2013

Something that I’ve been wondering about recently is how much the way we receive information changes the way we react to it.

For the past couple of years we’ve seen more and more services become bitesize, 24/7 or both.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the way that we consume news.  The explosion of 24 hour news channels, the way online media can support far more information and updates than any newspaper or time-dependant TV slot ever has.  The rush to be there first, to report quickest.

Fast is good.  It’s necessary in a world where it’s received wisdom that standing still is the same as going backwards.  But what has it done to our ability to process information, or explore root causes?

It strikes me that the way that we react to things is changing.  There’s constant exposition of the ‘what’, rather than truly understanding the ‘why’ or the ‘how’.  Twitter is a great tool, but 140 characters doesn’t leave a lot of space to dig into the reasons behind things.

And how does this affect our ability to process stories, think critically?

Claire Tomalin, as part of her promotion for her biography of Dickens, commented:

“Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have
to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.”

From the BBC last year

Are we losing the ability to concentrate on anything that requires a bit more effort or time?

Which is why I’m really interested by the #Edenwalk.

In a world of bite-size communication and instant gratification, I love that someone has the courage to do something that will require this level of dedication.

I’m intrigued by the idea that this isn’t just about following the footsteps of our earliest ancestors, but about how we process stories – adding depth because the pace is slower.

“You can make a pretty good evolutionary argument that this was how we were
designed to absorb information at about 5km an hour (3mph),” he says. That is an
average walking speed.

(Paul Salopek, Going For A Seven-Year Walk)

Maybe sometimes to fully understand things, we just have to take them slower?

On misinterpretation

October 23, 2012

I was reading a market report today and it made me realise just how careful you have to be with the interpretation of data.

Take this paragraph for instance (category removed to disguise client / report writer).

“An ageing population may be problematic for certain segments: The predicted 9% increase in over-55s is good news for Segment x, with this group the most likely to eat Segment x. Segment y may also benefit, but this demographic shift is likely to be less positive for Segment z for which the over-55s show decidedly low usage.  Segment z enjoy high usage among a broad age group, from the age of 15 up to 44. On the one hand, the 11% projected growth in the 25-34 age group will help to drive market growth. However, declining numbers in the 15-19 and 35-44 age groups, who are also key users, will offset this to some extent”

Although this may seem to make sense – to me it seems to be making a pretty big assumption; people suddenly change their product preferences just because they’ve moved from one age bracket into another.

If you were segment x you might think that this means you are going to be alright – that your fortunes will be saved because your consumer base is getting bigger.

The problem is tastes shift, and you tend to move your tastes along with you.  Teenagers today (I may be generalising horribly) don’t listen to the music I did when I was a teenager – instead that taste and preference is moving through my life stages with me.

To me, it looks like Segment Z might have captured the zeitgeist a bit better, and will be maintaining its popularity, even as its audience ages.

If I hadn’t had the time to look in more detail at the numbers, and just taken the report at face value, it would have resulted in a very different strategy.  Another reminder that no matter how reputable the source, always double-check the story that the numbers are telling you.

Interactive everywhere?

October 18, 2012

I was in KFC a couple of days ago.

Admittedly I’m not in there very often, so maybe this has been happening for a while – but the displays behind the tills with the menu on caught my eye.

There was a mix of static menu cards, and video screens that showed the products being made – but the thing that I found surprising was that I couldn’t tell the difference in how they looked between the static and the moving screens.  It was like a piece of point of sale was suddenly animated, rather than being obvious that it was a TV screen.

(New packaging from Bombay Sapphire)

I wonder how far these will go – especially as Bombay Sapphire has just launched packaging that will light up in consumers hands as they pick it up.

Things like this help messages get stand out now … but when everyone is doing this will the shelves and shops just be so full of moving messages that we won’t notice them anymore?

Global vs. Local

October 3, 2012

(Picture credits go to The Guardian

Before and after shots of the offending pages)

I read this article today about how Ikea is getting grief in its home market of Sweden for a decision to airbrush women out of its latest catalogue in Saudi Arabia.

Leaving aside the wider questions of women’s rights, gender equality, and why the brand took this decision – all massive topics in their own right – the thing I’ve found interesting is how a brand that is tailoring content for the local market (albeit in an incendiary way) and being criticised for it as it doesn’t fit with the home market’s values.

Is this something that we’ll see more of in coming years?  A swing back to globalisation of brands and campaigns rather than tailoring content and expression to different markets?

The internet has a lot to answer for again – who would have spotted this otherwise?