Smart Design Strengthens the Brand and Reveals Purpose

Thinktopia's Patrick Hanlon Explains Why, in This Economy, Driving Business Must Be Paramount

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Patrick Hanlon
Patrick Hanlon
It goes without saying that the Great Recession has been a time for companies to pull back and retrench. But the recessionary downswing has also become a remarkable opportunity for re-imagining and reinventing brands.

Some marketers have been forced to rethink their brands because of competitive pressures; when things are good, it's easy to put aside the marketer's responsibility to continually re-excite its consumers (and stun gun the competition). Too many marketers leave that quest to Apple, Nike and Marc Jacobs.

So imagine the brave souls who have to redesign their offerings in the face of dwindling sales and increased pressure from management.

Thanks to companies like Ikea, Target, Design Within Reach and others, it's no secret that we are living in an era of democratized design. Fact: The biggest challenge for museum shops today (even MOMA) is that gift stores are stacked with consumable esthetics from gift cards to garden gloves, mimicking museum shops.

The process of transforming everyday objects into artistry is not new. Historically, this hearkens back to Leger's plates, Picasso's pottery and Dali's knick-knackery. I am reminded that transforming function-into-fantastic is innately human whenever I look at the thousand-year-old Zuni bowl on my bookshelf. Designers from Charles and Ray Eames and Tibor Kalman to Karim Rashid are following a long line of accomplishment.

So it is no surprise that companies have taken design by the horns. It's a natural progression for marketers to watch Ikea and Target and then want to do it themselves. Wondering, "Hey, why can't we do that?" Procter & Gamble's The Clay Street Project in Cincinnati, Johnson & Johnson's Global Design Strategy group, Porsche Design Group and their kin all attempt to add some juice to the design of labels, packaging, product design, industrial design, product formulation and other malleables.

Despite Tropicana's misstep last year, breakthroughs abound (including Arnell Group's genius 3-D orange cap). Karim Rashid's new package for Hugo Man redefines the fragrance category. Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus is a sustainably smart and comfortable residence (recently resided in Times Square). Amanresorts' fabulous Amangiri Hotel by architects Wendell Burnette and Michael Boucher in Utah's Canyon Point is a perfect blend of earth and sky uninterrupted at this graceful uber-luxurious resort. Wrigley's new Eclipse Breeze gum is made with cardamom. Removing pet hair is an awful task that wastes yards of adhesive tape, so 3M created new Fur Fighter that plucks away hair with a sigh of relief from pet lovers. New sports bags use dye-sensitized photovoltaic cells as solar panels to recharge iPods and cellphones. (Pray that electric cars soon sport a similar skin.)

In related news, Barnes & Noble worked with Savannah College of Art & Design to reimagine its stationery line. I sat next to the founder of Kid Robot -- the retailer of Japan-inspired toyware -- flying from Manhattan recently, who remarked that, after selling the company a few years ago, he has now been called back to keep its design mojo humming.

From iconic orange plastic Tide package redesigns to Nissan Cube to Sigg water bottles, we are reminded that consumers want to be continually excited and titillated by what they consume. That surprise under the lid, that colorful lining hidden under the collar, that product design that truly works cannot be underestimated.

But great design is neither whim nor folly. Designer hubris rarely floats anything larger than the ego bubble. The better way to design a mousetrap had better kill the mouse.

As fashion designer Giles Deacon says, business must be at the near-center of design. "That era of designers being away with the faeries is gone. You've got to live in the real world. It's changed a lot since people being locked in a room and coming up with whatever they fancy. You can be eccentric, but you've got to have your feet on the ground. I'm a big fan of getting rid of the idea that designers are all on another planet floating around on a catwalk with champagne," he asserts. "It's a really dated concept."

Product design is a fusion of icon and ritual: both "the thing itself" and how the thing is used. When great design misses, it's because it tries to be better design, rather than better product. (Your example here.)

Great products are cool because they look brilliant and because they fit a desire that we as consumers have either expressed first or never knew we had. Did we know we wanted an iPod? Hardly. But we did want our own mixes without having to buy an entire album, and we did want something lighter and handier than a Sony Walkman. The legendary Eames chair looks smart, but it is also easy to stack and comfortable to sit in. A design trifecta.

Gut-smart design, the revered process of taking designer's instinct and rendering it into product (and the rampart of artistic expression), is something to be celebrated, especially when it succeeds. Where would we be without Philippe Starck's sippy cup for Target? Shepard Fairey's Obama posters? Jonathan Adler's color palette? Tesla's remarkable persistence in designing a kickass electric car? These souvenirs of the imagination deliver purity of form and function defined by equal parts talent, wit and intelligence.

It is every marketer's task to seek out its product's emotional touch points and figure out ways to strengthen, enhance and deliver those assets with authority. This is when design strengthens the brand and reveals smart, deliberate purpose. The Volkswagen Beetle is a series of ovals, so automobile designers Jay Mays and Freeman Thomas tweaked them and redesigned the Volkswagen for the car company's rebirth. Coke's red silhouettes of the classic bottle shape and Coke ribbon in its current creative iterations also slam home the brand's core icons with a whopping dose of eye candy.

Turn bad news into big news. Unilever's SlimFast has been recalled off the shelves. Perfect. What better time to restage a brand that's already been depositioned by organic cleanses, wellness trends, crushed cashew milk with agave nectar juice and more nutrition-based lifestyles?

From the exotic to the mundane, design (whether it's industrial design, graphic design, digital design, architectural design or product formulation) is good when it excites, stimulates, prods and is function-forward. When it fails, it's at best a fad. Troll dolls.

Design for design's sake is (often) a poorly directed joy pop on the part of the designer. (And, frankly, we must love them for that. But woe to the company that hires them for that purpose.) Design inspired by consumer need is the uber direction. (How could we think otherwise?) One of the most perfect designs ever -- the wheel -- was invented to move things more easily from point A to point B.

Design solutions must help drive function and drive business. Failed design efforts only help prove what design naysayers (I am not one of them) have said all along: that design is ephemera, aesthetics, ultimately pointless, save your money.

Great design is a path to greater consumer advocacy, commercial success and an uptick on the bottom line in any economy. Design that, and you have what everyone -- consumer, brand team and management -- is looking for.

Patrick Hanlon is founder-CEO of Thinktopia, an idea-engineering firm that has conducted successful ideation workshops in Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Moscow, Beijing, Bogota and elsewhere. Participating clients have included Wrigley, Taco Bell, Microsoft, Levi's, American Express and others.
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