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Design beats Advertising in a Social Media World.

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Ideas will travel interview with Smart Design

This fall I was lucky to be able to visit the headquarters of Smart Design in NYC. The global design firm is one of the recognized voices in the resurgence of design. Their iconic work features prominently in Gary Hustwit’s great documentary “Objectified” (Trailer here): a fascinating look at how designed things impact every second of our life.

However, when I sat down with Smart Design’s co-founder Dan Formosa and Paul Katz, their Director of Innovation Engineering, we hardly talked about how they design better working products or how they make sure their design is meaningful. Instead, we mostly focused – and I felt almost sad about it – about the relationship between design, advertising and media. I am writing “almost”, because as it turned out, SmartDesign have a whole lot of clever and fascinating things to say about this as well.

“Back in time, someone would design or invent something. And they would hire a marketer or advertiser to make it known. … At some point in time, probably in the 1950s when television and advertising became extremely popular, the sequence of events flipped.” Advertising campaigns became the primary product, and design updates became a campaign feature – because novelty is easy to communicate.

The media budgets grew – and put marketing in the driver’s seat, while design had to ride in the back. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the annual chrome mutations in US car design. But this kind of “applied design” touched everything, and often an excess in style was used to hide a lack of quality:  “If you saw something that looked like it was designed, you’d be very suspicious” remembers Formosa.

From Applied Design to Meaningful Design

Luckily, things have changed. People have become better at judging design as our culture has become used to advertising. Not only have they learned to ignore the chrome of the 50s and 60s. They have also learned to ignore the tech overkill of the 80s and 90s. Now people are asking how something works for them, and if it adds something meaningful to their life.

Social media have enabled and strengthened this mindset. “Previously if companies made something and it wasn’t great… it would have a life span of a couple of months before word got out. It was much easier to rely on a promise and on a brand. Now… people will know much much sooner.” And Social Media have made it easy to talk about it. The resulting bad buzz can quickly hurt brands and their products’ sales, and good buzz can propel an unknown brand into the limelight just as fast.

Formosa now routinely asks people during speaking engagements whether they have ever used their phone to check for consumer ratings or tests while they were in a store, about to make a purchase. He says almost everyone has. “People feel like they need to check the reviews on the internet and what people are saying. So the purchase is really made by the trust in the social network, not by trust in the brand.” This kind of reassurance was previously only used “for expensive things, but now it’s for little kitchen items.”

Brand Loyalty vs. Product Usability

Successful Brands are obviously learning to react to that. At one point we shortly talked about Apple, of course. More than any other brand Apple understands how usability and meaningfulness are now the core of success for a technology brand. Apple has built its second coming not on technological innovation, but on superior interface design for existing technology. At the same time, their advertising has moved from mindblowing (Macintosh, 1984) to sleep-inducing (iPad, 2010).

(I’d like to insert Apple’s iPhone 4 launch as an example of this new mentality. When the tech writers were throwing hissy fits about the lack of Flash support, Apple barely flinched. But when the first customers reported problems with reception and dropped calls, Apple reacted. It updated the system and offered free phone covers that reduce the problem. Obviously, the real-life complaints mattered more to Steve Jobs than the journalists’ perception of the product. http://gizmodo.com/5571171/iphone-4-loses-reception-when-you-hold-it-by-the-antenna-band)

Smart Design sees this move from trust in brand values to trust in proven usability as a fundamental trend for many product areas. It creates a two-pronged challenge for brands: 1. People have learned to quickly disinvest from a brand if it disappoints. 2. Only extreme user experiences get documented in the social media.

Better make sure that you design your products to deliver an all-around satisfying experience, says Formosa. A disappointing experience easily warrants a negative comment. However, in a prime example of life being unfair, a product that actually delivers what it promised rarely triggers any reaction.

If you want to build up word of mouth, “what’s really critical for good design is: to exceed expectations” says Formosa. If it just does what you thought it would, “are you actually going to take the time to tell the world on Amazon it did that?” asks Katz. To trigger a positive response, he says, you actually need to get people fired up. “When you look at products that have a lot of good feedback, those are the ones that exceeded expectations.”

Design obviously regains an edge over advertising when the playing field gets redrawn like this. “Companies realize that everyone’s got the same kind of ammo [technologically]. So what do you do to distinguish yourself? Design is really the powerful distinction here,” says Katz. “The investment that companies make in advertising or branding to build up that equity, should be – and is being diverted to design.” adds Formosa, because “the equity that a company has in a brand is much less valuable” these days.

Exceeding expectations: Ford Fusion Hybrid and Flip Video

Digital technology has become incredibly powerful, enabling us to do ever more – and truly magical stuff. But being the limited monkey-descendents that we are, we can only use and appreciate these powers, if the complexity behind them is hidden. “The need to simplify life is great,” says Formosa, and Smart Design has created success by making things ergonomically and emotionally easy to use.

“The Flip camera is definitely a good example” says Katz. While the producing company Pure Digital had introduced low cost video in various forms before, it was the Flip model co-designed by Smart Design that took off. The Flip’s legendary simple user interface – a single red button – brought creating and sharing video into the realm of the everyman and everygranny.

The Flip’s design language not only speaks of simplicity, but also of accessibility. “It’s a very nicely designed camera, but it’s not so precious. So people would throw in their pocket and take it to the beach.”  Doing to video what the iPod did to mp3s, the Flip exceeded user’s expectations, became an overnight sensation, and created an entire new category in the videocamera market.

Giving people something to talk about by making life simpler was also behind another recent Smart Design project: The new dashboard for Ford’s Hybrid limousine, the Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Early in the design process, a big challenge emerged: conventional American driving styles (pedal to the metal? :-) tended to keep Hybrids from reaching their full fuel saving potential, sometimes even making the cars fall short of the advertised miles per gallon (MPG).

Smart Design solved the problem by reducing information and adding a new perspective: “Traditional dashboards inform you about the car’s performance. We decided to also show the driver’s performance”. The new owners of a Ford Fusion will immediately see how their driving style influences the fuel efficiency of their car. To help them adapt to a new way of driving, SmartDesign replaced the rational metrics of traditional gauges with an emotional display of unfolding green leaves.

Success without Advertising

As lofty as this sounds, the results are solid: The first test driver not only matched the announced 41 MPG, he exceeded it by more than 10 gallons – and wrote about it. Other magazines reported similar experiences. And probably so did most non-professional  drivers. Did exceeding expectations make a difference? In a 2010 car market that saw Hybrids struggle for the first time, the Ford Fusion Hybrid is still on a strong growth path, closing the gap to the market leading Toyota Prius.

While driving the Fusion Hybrid created conversational capital to boot, the advertising campaign for the Fusion Hybrid probably didn’t. But maybe it doesn’t need to. If your design exceeds expectations, you just need to tell people.

4 Responses to “Design beats Advertising in a Social Media World.”
  1. convenient is rechtig. a spelling misstake

  2. Mr. Katze said “only 2 % of population”. <– this was really shock for me. Amazon user is not major,but amazon is convinient.

    and Ford 's auto mobile front panel. P-R-N-D-3-2-L might be better , I thought.

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