Drawing things together

Last Sunday I read some paper on design and altho the second part is heavy-duty sociology, the beginning is real interesting. It made me think about stuff that’s applicable to the digital brand. Then I started scrambling to think of some brand that does the stuff that can be linked to what this author, a contemporary sociologist, talks about. I wanted to avoid Nike+ because the example is honestly old & tired and because I don’t agree completely with what it does. So anyway, I decided on Dopplr. In part because Matt gave this great talk.

1. The first thing that I liked is the meaning of “design” in French which is to “relook” = to give a new and better look or shape to something [“…that would otherwise remain too clumsy, too severe or too bared if were left only to its naked function”]. This is great also if applied to intangible things, like activities (e.g. travel). Then it means making some activity better, more enjoyable & with less noise (of all kinds). So the first question for brands would be, which action/relations are you trying to capture?

2. Then, there’s this thing of design as moving away from the “naked function”. Here’s the quote: “ even if design could be greatly admired, it was always taken as one branch of an alternative: look not only at the function, but also at the design.” It is true that, for many years now, in digital media there was created a divide of building sites that are functional vs. building online brand campaigns that are (supposed to) be fun. This is a divide between website development & digital marketing. Altho the two are def not the same, when brands are concerned, this divide is artificial, as site experience = the brand.

3. I also find some stuff there that reminded me of the question of “making” vs. “communicating”. Like, there is a material space and then there is a symbolic space. Well, the news is they are colliding. The brand had never been thought of as something material, that can be touched and interacted with. The situation is something like this: you interact with products/services and then, you see/talk about the brand. So the question of the brand was always a matter of communication: what is the brand image, personality, logo … blah … and how to communicate it. The thing is that what you build — make — online is the brand experience, and that personality comes through the interaction. (and yep, logo doesn’t mean a thing online. It may mean something to the company, but it doesn’t mean a lot to consumer. Would you care if Google’s logo were different? Or Zipcar’s?).

4. Then, there’s the idea that you never ever start building your brand online from zero. (Even when you are creating a new brand). I liked this: “The word “design” (in addition to its modesty, its attention to detail and the semiotic skills it always carries with it), it that it is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. The most intelligent designers never start from a tabula rasa. Designing is the antidote to colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.” (this is one of the reasons I really don’t like labeling anything digital as “revolutionary”. Everything always builds on something else). So does the brand. You never bring something “new” online, you always should build upon what’s already there, mostly on what people are already doing and what they care about. Just look at Dopplr: it builds upon best online practices in terms of features + helps people do better stuff that they are already doing + offers information that people are already looking for + makes visible stuff that people already care about (like CO2 footprint of your travels) + it’s fun to use = builds on how you already like to use web + weeds out the noise.

Now, I am not saying that all brands should become services, but it would be nice if they cared about some of the above listed things. Most importantly, really try to extend how people already use the web.

I also like this idea of redesigning b/c we are at the moment where a lot of elements of the economic, political, and social system are obviously faulty and thus those systems need to be remade, upgraded, or redesigned. More interesting tho, is that for this to happen the approach to “building something new” today may in fact be to fix something. (In contrast, all big systems of the past — communism, fascism, even capitalism, always tried to create a clean break from “what was before” and to establish a completely new set of relations).

5. Agendaaaa. Finally, something there also reminded me of the problem I have with Nike+, also known as “your brand is, um, not yours” dilemma (hardly a dilemma for Nike, tho). Meaning that to me Nike+ is just a smart promotion disguised as service. But anyway, this is the point: when you create a digital brand, it has to combine business goals and people’s behavior. What people want and what the brand wants regularly not aligned and in fact often contradictory. Simply put, Nike+ lacks complexity. Not a literal complexity of the website (it is complex well enough), but the complexity of different stakeholders’ viewpoints. Something that Twitter or FB have in abundance (and yes, i do know that they don’t make any money). But complexity is a good thing when it accommodates the ultimate diversity of those for whom the brand is meant to matter. And you can’t know what that diversity is going to be if you don’t allow for collaborative design, even if, in some cases the collaborators are not always welcome. Those who criticize you may actually bring issues to table that can make your brand better. The simple benefit of allowing contradictions is that you may end up having more customers than you have originally foreseen.

This post was originally published on March 6, 2009