What Your Product’s Design Says About You

In the book, Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company, the authors take the reader through a series of car lots while shopping for some new wheels. As we traverse the mishmash of brands, we start to see something: Every product/brand is talking to us with its design language.

The “Bimmers” (BMW) with their sporty and sleek profile, the Volvos with their boxy, safe and sturdy design. Every line, curve, and layer, has a purpose. It tells a story about that brand and what it stands for. However, a few of the car brands that the authors look at have a language that is more like the “Tower of Babel1:

“That model looks kind of like it’s pretending to be a BMW, and the one over there is almost an Acura. Another looks a bit like a Mercury, another Toyota-ish, another with shades of Lexus, and so on.”

Sound familiar? This immediately takes me to the period in our cellphone market history that I refer to as, B.I. (Before iPhone). Do you remember what that looked like? The design language for those phones said to me: “I just violently puked out buttons, colors, and features to see what sells.” Then along came the iPhone and the entire design language changed. Apple decided that the software was what mattered. As Mike Rundle said in his article, “Every Phone Looks Like the iPhone”:

“Your phone becomes the app that it’s running. How many people focus intently on the bezel around the screen while they’re using their phone? No one does. You stare at the screen. As technology advances and miniaturizes, everything will get faster and smaller. The hardware will fade away and software will be the only thing people care about.”

The point is not that other smartphones are copying, or have no choice but to implement designs similar to, Apple. I’m saying that the story they are telling about themselves, through their design, is not about them at all. They are talking like Apple does. In the design of these products and sometimes marketing, they are communicating the strengths of someone else’s design, not their own. It’s not a Tower of Babel, it’s a “Tower of Apple.” We all know that Apple’s design language is very calculated. So, the obvious problem with trying to follow someone else’s design language is that you don’t know exactly why you are saying it. And when they change it, the products that follow it lose what little meaning they have.

When you design a Website or application — product or service of any kind — you are telling people a variety of things. You are communicating what matters to you (or to your client). You are building the story that will evoke an emotional connection with a customer. Every page on your site is an “about page.” If it’s not, it should be.

People don’t want to buy from (or hire) some cold, empty machine. They don’t want a list of services or products that came from nowhere. They want something they can connect with. In the case of a car, the customer will identify with it, imagining driving it and showing it to their friends. It will become an extension of them and their personality. For example, if someone buys a new hybrid car, it likely reflects them and tells others that they care/are concerned about the environment.

Adrian van Hooydonk, is a Dutch designer who is credited with a lot of the design language for BMW starting with the 7 Series. He designed it for a specific kind of driver and extended this design across their other lines. Some of those design cues showed up in other car brands as a sort of trend. This obviously happens all the time in digital design.1

Web/interface design trends explode into life overnight and spread like a wildfire. Using these cues is fine. We know everything is a remix of something that came before. But, before you begin to design, it’s important to understand what you are trying to communicate and what you are saying about yourself. Or, if you have an existing product or site, ask: What is this saying? You might not like the answer. If it’s a mixture of design languages creating a cacophony of gibberish, then it’s probably time to step back and build your own design language.

Further reading

This post was inspired by an earlier short essay I did and by a section in this book: 1. Robert Brunner, Stewart Emery, Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company, FT Press, 2008, pp.156-178.