Branding to Design?

I stumbled onto a great article on the current state of branding for products:

So you got line extensions, big ads, expensive logos, brand onions. You got branding. And most of it was as intellectually rigorous as phrenology. Actually it was probably more like Scientology; it was somewhere between a fake religion and a false science.

The dismal nature of the branding science has started to become clear to business recently and they’re starting to vote with their investments and appointments. They’re turning from the people who create perceptions of value to the people who create actual value – the designers, technologists, innovators. Hence branded utility, hence ‘design is the new management consultancy‘, hence the current Business Week heroes being IDEO and Ives not CHI and Chiat Day. Hence the limited tenures of CMOs. Hence the rise of communications businesses that can actually make stuff rather than just think of stuff.

If you take Business Week as the sole, definitive guide to the business landscape, you might have the impression that design (and design thinking) has indeed become the zeitgeist, tour-de-force of the new world. Design is increasingly being recognized as much more than simple surface styling – in fact it’s not so much the design skills that are attractive to the suits, but more the design approach, attitude and thinking: for instance the natural emphasis design places on the end user. Personally I guess it’s about time too – years of management theories have focused a lot on the processes – cheaper, more efficient, quality management – supply-side intervention: the tide has turned onto the demand side.

And yet, amidst this hype about incorporating design into the corporates, there lies a great fundamental risk as well – as the “design” buzzword gets applied to every field and where everybody wants to own a piece of the “design” action to somehow feel more important and strategic; every other product launch is termed as the greatest innovation (EVAR!); every little tweak to the systems is labeled as an overhaul after extensive usability study and re-design; and perhaps most pervasively, where every management action/decision is heralded as a consequence of strategic design.

At some point, design in its true sense would have been diluted beyond its original context. By its very nature, design usually leverages across disciplines – unifying and synthesizing a multitude of factors into a coherent, appealing whole. That requires tremendous vision and authority on the designer. And yet, the essence of design: insight, original thought, clever solutions, attention to details and users – might just get left behind or placed on the backburner in favor of quicker, more painless adoption of design into current corporate cultures – “let’s not shake too many trees or too many monkeys would fall”.

Herein lies the greatest danger: as much as it is being trumpeted the loudest, design might fundamentally not be given the room nor its role to play – and are but relegated to mere surface patching of corporate visions in tune with the latest fad – “design”.

That, perhaps is the time when the term “design” loses trust and equity, itself becoming a fad branding: somewhere between fake religion and false science.

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5 comments so far

  1. bosboss on

    Can’t we all stop worrying about the all the theoretical politics around design? Who cares what anyone thinks or says about it. As long as we make stuff, we have to design stuff, and whoever’s doing that should focus all of their effort on trying to make it great. It doesn’t have to go beyond that.

  2. boost on

    I am glad to hear someone feels the same as I do. The word design is used too much in society and it drives me nuts when I hear someone misuse the word in places it never belonged to begin with. I agree that design is much more than just surface styling or any of the physical aspects that goes along with it. Design is something that can be applied to non-physical things, such as business models and structures. The true problem was mentioned by the author, “Herein lies the greatest danger: as much as it is being trumpeted the loudest, design might fundamentally not be given the room nor its role to play.”

    The core of design is still there, but you have to look through the murky cloud created by all the people that want a “piece of the design action.”

  3. Gems Sty on

    bosboss: IMHO, I think we can’t afford to simply do what we’ve always done and ignore the world – that simply puts peril to ourselves. For instance, it’d be foolish to tell the horse-carriage maker to ignore the world (and thereby ignoring the automobile revolution), which would definitely impact his livelihood and value.

    The world changes, more and more rapidly even – and designers should be at the forefront keeping tab: that is different from the blind wholesale following of whatever’s cool at the moment – but for me it’s important to at least be aware.

    boost: Aye, everybody branding something as design (not only design, I’m also particularly allergic to words like: strategic, vision, holistic, new experience, more interactive, globalization, individualization, mass-customizable, etc). Not because there’s anything particularly screwy about them per se, but more often than not they are used in a bland, meaningless way, often corporate.

    I guess we could agree that we are irritated by bullshit?

  4. bosboss on

    Irritated by BS: yep.

    And that’s my point, I guess… putting energy into worrying about the theoretical role/status/blahblahblah of design is just joining the tide of wanting to “own a piece of the “design” action.”

    If instead we all put our energy into creating great design, then we’re doing what the world needs. And we really do own the “design action.”

    Everyone else can say what they want but talking about design doesn’t add value to the world like actually designing does. Five years from now all the talk will mean nothing, but the kid who can communicate, or the community that has clean water, or the athlete with a new world record will thank us for the designs we created that enabled those things to happen.

  5. Rasul Sha'ir on

    AAAAMEN! Another person who definitely empathizes with EVERY word. As an architect by training (and now a business strategist) I soooo agree. Endlessly when I deal with folks and I tell them that my degree is in architecture and I now do branding/business/organizational strategy they look at me with crossed eyes. People don’t get it. Architects are system thinkers (just as businesses are systems themselves) and in my head it makes perfect sense. But I patiently engage people and explain what our company does (help to design and/or redesign business systems). Most business folks don’t get it though. But that’s part of the battle. I will continue the struggle and the fight and love every minute of it!


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