Branding may have finally reached its Mannerist phase. Where the old-fashioned brand earnestly embraced a core message that verged on religious doctrine (Apple’s “Think Different,” Nike’s “Just Do It”), the new brand is aggressively self-aware, exaggerated and self-referential to the point of collapsing in on itself; rather than imbuing the product with magical qualities, it embraces and undercuts those qualities in one swift gesture. The effect is to subvert consumer prejudices and preconceptions and make us forget that we’re caught in a commerce-focused undertow.
It’s a counterintuitive sleight of hand: By acknowledging that their central message is unbelievable or at least exaggerated, the branding masterminds gain our trust and bolster our faith in the brand. Will Ferrell, for example, promoted “Anchorman II” and Dodge at the same time by appearing on talk shows as Ron Burgundy and declaring that Dodge’s cars were “terrible.” Dodge sales spiked. (Ferrell also voices President Business.) In New Zealand, Burger King ran YouTube ads of two guys eating Burger King while complaining about YouTube ads. Nearly every Super Bowl ad this year referred to the fact that it was a Super Bowl ad. The brand — and the TV ad, the movie and the fictional spokesman — is hyperaware of its own fictionality and thus earns the right to simultaneously denigrate and elevate itself as divine.
These acrobatics can be found in Lego’s trajectory from maker of humble toys to a multibillion-dollar cross-platform marketing empire. First, a simple product — primary-colored interlocking blocks — is expanded to include a universe of specialized pieces and wildly popular faces from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Dora the Explorer. The Lego empire has since grown to include (among other things) six Legoland theme parks, more than 50 video games, Lego Modular Buildings (complex models aimed at adults), a programmable brick called Lego Mindstorms and something called Lego Serious Play, a “radical, innovative, experiential process designed to enhance business performance,” which seems to boil down to making adult co-workers play with Legos.
Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design:
- Is innovative – The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself.
- Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.
- Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
- Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
- Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
- Is honest – It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
- Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
- Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
- Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
- Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
Things are changing in Silicon Valley. Where once tech companies paid little regard to their surroundings, Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon are all in the process of opening epic purpose-built headquarters. In a new article in Vanity Fair, Paul Goldberger “explores what companies’ choices reveal about their cultures, their workforces, and the shifting relationship between city and suburbs.” Below is a brief extract, read the full piece here.
In Silicon Valley, almost every town is a company town. As Cupertino belongs to Apple and Mountain View is dominated overwhelmingly by Google, Menlo Park is where Facebook is located, and Palo Alto has the old, troubled, but still-enormous Hewlett-Packard. Yet you don’t always feel this. Tech companies tend to look inward; they seem to like campuses more than cities or even towns. Gehry’s Facebook building will be across the street from the company’s existing complex, which will be retained. Apple occupies more than 30 low-rise buildings in Cupertino, with the corporate headquarters in a cluster of modern glass buildings that bears the invented address of 1 Infinite Loop. The address tells you as much as you need to know about the company’s view of its campus as a self-contained environment, disconnected from the city around it, a goal that the new, Foster-designed building will achieve more fully, surely, than any building since the Pentagon, which it exceeds in circumference. The current Apple offices, which were originally put up by a real-estate developer in the early 1970s for the company Four Phase Systems, are notable less for anything about their architecture than for their exceptionally elegant signs in a small Myriad font, the identical typeface to that used on most of the company’s products. Oracle, the huge software company, built itself a kind of high-rise campus, a cluster of rounded, reflective glass towers beside the 101 Freeway a few miles north in Redwood Shores—more conspicuous than any of the old Google buildings, to be sure, but nearly as generic, since you could imagine these buildings sitting beside a freeway in Dallas or Houston as easily as on the San Francisco peninsula. They’re no more specific to Silicon Valley than the Alpine Inn.
There’s a great piece on design skeuomorphism on the Realmac Blog. Here’s a sample:
Despite it being a current design trend, skeuomorphism isn’t a new thing. The earliest example of realism in an interface that comes to my mind is Calculator which shipped with the Macintosh in 1984. Even today on the Mac, as well as iOS, the design is still the same as the real-life object. Looking at the wider picture, the very notion of the Desktop was of course inspired by the thing it was named after, what with there being folders, documents, and files on both. The reason for this is simple – to help familiarise new users to something that was a new technology. We’re at the stage where we’ll forever be creating new technologies for users to interact with, so should we still be designing in the same mindset to make everything look realistic so it is easier to use, or can we be more clever than that?
Read the article in full here.
So much has been written about how Apple’s Jony Ive is influenced by Dieter Rams, chief of design at Braun from 1961 until 1997, that it’s refreshing to hear from the man himself in the video above. From the Atlantic:
The video was produced to go with Less and More, a massive collection of [Dieter Ram’s] product designs. The video isn’t new but it’s always fascinating to revisit Rams’s 10 Principles for Good Design. Although they were formulated in 1985, they still feel modern today — especially with their emphasis on sustainability.
Klaus Klemp, who curated an exhibition of Rams’s work also called Less and More, explains that the principles were not “a theory” but “the result of the first 20 years in this laboratory,” drawing on the experience and contributions of many different people. Decades later, Rams wants to push innovation beyond product design; “today we need less but better products, ok, but … we need new landscapes, together with new cities. We need new structures for our behaviors — and that is design. We have enough things.”
Check out the book Less and More here.
Wired has a wonderful reminder of why Polaroid was the Apple of its time. Read it here.
I’ve always loved Apple’s iconic Crazy Ones ad campaign from 1997. I just discovered an alternative version, with Steve Jobs narrating. I definitely prefer this one (via The Loop).