Creativity & Happenstance

“I love systems and despise happenstance.”
— Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli was a modernist designer of the old-school. This quote is from his manifesto, The Vignelli Canon (downloadable for free here).

In Vignelli’s view the goal of design was not the pursuit of beauty or self-expression, but the forensic application of guiding principles to every project. He saw design not merely as an intellectual process but as a severe, ascetic discipline. Using Swiss grids and a limited type palette – often only a single font per project, usually Helvetica – he constructed rigid, scaleable systems to drive every design decision, leaving no room for exploration or accidental discovery.

This approach led to a body of work that is austere, finely-balanced and entirely predictable. When function is the driving design principle – as to a New York subway rider – it’s perfect.

For everyone else, it’s a little bit boring.

Designers traffic in two main commodities: ideas (the concept phase) and execution (the design phase). Some of the best ideas arrive accidentally. This is why creative teams engage in blue sky thinking by brainstorming in caffeinated groups, looking for happy accidents by smashing disparate thoughts together like particles in a collider until something interesting pops out.

The same is true for execution. For every good idea there is an unlimited number of possible design solutions, and most of them you haven’t thought of yet. This is why designers engage in unguided “design exploration” by trying a lot of things quickly, throwing stuff at the wall – figuratively, but sometimes also literally – to see what new sparks emerge. Organized chaos is simply part of the process.

Happenstance is how new things are born. If your toolkit is limited to Helvetica and a Swiss grid, you can make a very effective design system – but you’ll miss out on the magic of discovery.


Reactive Filter

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.

Steve Jobs said this originally, in reference to the way that users are a poor source of quality information about their needs. Most of the time they don’t know what they need, misidentify what they need, or lack the language to articulate either way. If you leave it up to the users to make UX decisions, this happens. It bankrupted the company.

We try to minimize client interference in the design process by synthesizing their explanations and ideas into a creative brief everyone can agree on. But it’s not a very reliable process.

I noticed a pattern of behavior common to clients early on in my career: even if they couldn’t explain exactly what they wanted, they knew what they didn’t want as soon as they saw it. You quickly learn to resist doing high-fidelity work early in any project, because you must first get through the reactive filter: the meeting in which you present work and the client says, “That’s nice, but what I was thinking was…”

Listen carefully to what comes after these words, because most of the time it’ll be worth more than anything in the creative brief. Why? Because it’s much easier to react to a point of reference, even if it’s wrong, than to imagine something from nothing, and the output from that reaction is just as illuminating.

This is not a shortcut to avoiding design thinking – you must still define the problem properly before presenting early, or the reaction to your work, whether positive or negative, won’t yield useful intel.

Entire projects cannot be run this way. Use the reactive filter to establish boundaries early on, then direct the design process from there.


How Strong Branding Transcends Language

If your brand aesthetic is strong enough, not even a foreign language will keep you from being recognized.

Where I live, in the United Arab Emirates, Arabic is the official language. English is widely spoken but Arabic is part of the cultural fabric and local heritage, and that means any international brand looking to trade here must find a way to reinvent itself in Arabic script.

For many small brands that’s as simple is converting your name to Arabic and making new signs.

At the other end of the scale, more sophisticated brands will spend to have their logo recreated in a script custom-designed to match its Roman character counterpart. Fedex is an excellent example – the famous arrow now points the opposite way, as Arabic is read right to left.

Though few are as obvious, I noticed many international brands have such well-established visual languages that it was possible to identify them from the Arabic alone, finding clues in icons, colours, context or artifacts of typography that survived the transition. I started a collection so I could play a game of name that Arabic brand with friends back home.

A few fun examples after the jump.

Continue reading “How Strong Branding Transcends Language”

Good Branding is Mind Control

More than anything else, branding is a means of influencing the way people think.

Jeff Bezos is widely quoted as saying: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” But here’s the unfortunate truth: more often than not, nobody talks about you when you’re not in the room. People talk about themselves, mostly.

A better way to say it is your brand is how other people feel when they think about you. Substitute ‘you’ for your logo, your face, your product or any representative of your company.

How do you feel when you see a parking enforcement officer lurking near your car? Parking enforcers have a poor brand image. It’s very effective, but not in the way anyone would want.

How do you feel when you see the Amazon delivery man coming up the street? Probably a sense of low-level excitement caused by a tiny hit of dopamine, because he is bringing your stuff. Assuming he doesn’t throw it across the porch, he is the temporary custodian of an exceptional brand image – one that persists even when he’s not standing outside with a box.

Looked at this way, it’s easy to understand why the most successful brands (and their aesthetics and messaging) are rooted in behavioural psychology. Understanding how people think is the first step to getting them to think about you – and to think the right things about you.


Consistency is Not Conformity

When a company fosters uniqueness among its people, the result is a unique brand.

Until 1995, IBM was notorious for an unrelenting dress code that tolerated no disparity. Respect your customer and dress accordingly was the driving adage, and that meant dark suits and ties, without exception. Unsurprising – until the 80s, men wore suits to work for most non-industrial jobs anyway. 

Things changed when tech exploded. Workplaces became dramatically younger – partly because young minds find better traction on emerging advancements, and partly because pioneers like Microsoft sought to distinguish themselves from the stodgy old guard. These days, in many fields, dress codes are an artifact of the past. Trendy, lifestyle-friendly work environments are designed at great expense to attract and nurture talent. Company culture is a brand value. So are diversity, individuality and freedom of expression.

In the corporate world of the 70s, order and conformity were a means of controlling brand image. Suits were a professional imperative, and no one would’ve dared to assert differently. These days we know better. Suppressing individuality leads to other problems: dissatisfaction, resistance and productivity loss. Even without knowing why, most people understand the importance of their own personal brand. Being unique is part of being alive.

This is true for corporate brands too. Consistency of appearance, behaviour and values are desirable brand attributes. But conforming to rigidly-defined ideals is counter-productive, leading to inflexibility, tunnel vision and a failure to be agile, pivot, fail fast or adapt quickly – all traits of successful young companies in the digital age. Brands that can live up to their vision and values without resorting to militant conformity will naturally find resonance with new customers, because individuality is a highly-valued quality.