Not long ago on a business trip, I found myself in a popular downtown area looking for some good local food. Rounding the corner I was faced with expensive signage and painted windows for the restaurants and bars flanking the cobbled street. American, Italian and barbecue were the prevailing options. But when I stole glances at the patron’s plates, the food didn’t match the quality of the slick menus and logos. Finding the same results for a few blocks, I settled for takeaway from a lackluster sandwich shop. Despite my underwhelming meal, I felt lucky having dodged the pricier traps and wondered how we’ve landed here, floating in a sea of good design?
Hold on, but isn’t good design better for everyone? Not always, like my dear grandmama used to say; “Even too much of a good thing is bad for you.” And in this instance my sweet gran would have rolled her pale blue eyes and yearned for a time when good and bad were far easier to recognize. But when exactly did it happen, when did we leave the realm of discernible brands?
I track it back to the late nineties, the dot-com bubble and the birth of digital culture. With that explosion of start-ups came a glut of new identities saturating the market, seeking digital streams filled with gold. But in this uncharted territory of ones and zeros, the traditional map of graphic design didn’t work and many of these on-line prospectors abandoned the hills. But a few like Amazon, ebay, Google and Priceline.com survived the frigid winters, emerging like hungry bears.
With the success of their good products and services, they began developing a sense of design for the new landscape. Digital design didn’t happen overnight, but in 2004 web 2.0 hit, then web 3.0. Then, in 2007, it all changed with the arrival of the smartphone and social media. With the internet’s true power placed in everyone’s hands, the digital rubber met the human road and good design sprang forth. It makes sense it happened here, while design cost are the same in both the physical and digital world production and dissemination isn’t. So A/B testing in digital brand design flourished and metrics shifted good design into the objective realm.
This good design wasn’t delivered as slick new brand identities from traditional design agencies—no, it came in subtler forms within the brands themselves. Ways solely intended to keeping us focused on our devices just a little longer. Unbeknownst to all; the time we spent absorbing these tweaks, updates and refreshes trained us to know good design when we saw it.
But, this visual creep didn’t happen with only on-line brands. As the digital environment exploded, the physical marketplace struggled to adapt, spurred on by the media decrying its impending doom over the image of the disemboweled brick-and-mortar sector like knife wielding druids. So this traditional market developed their own methods by combating this existential competition on-line with equity and sophistication. Meanwhile a whole wave of new businesses emerged, armed with digital tools, social media and good design, but not burden of the physical world. All of this drove corporations, retailers, hospitals, restaurants and hospitals to up their design game in the effort to stand out from their omnipresent competition—leaving us in a good design arms race.
Today, we are confronted with myriad new brands appearing on our computer, commute, or phone. Without context, it is challenging to judge their quality and true footprint. A major part of this is due to the ever-new array of accessible digital tools to help anyone take an idea and bring it to life, quicker. Meaning, entities can appear, update and rebrand in a flash, in the quest of good design. As the baseline design landscape improves, brands adopt inexpensive trendy logos and [responsive] websites to look good and fit in, leaving us with little more than a shiny wrapper to gauge them.
But if everything looks good, surely everything can’t be good. So how does a lay person determine brand quality faced with this veneer of good design? Enter crowdsourcing, or what I like to call; The race to the middle. Without the necessary experience to tell the difference between good design and great design, we’ve outsourced our selection process with on-line review tools to aid our decision matrix in hopes of clarity. Who knows, maybe this is the business model du jour; just get them in the door and close the sale. There’s a sucker born every minute, is an old saying for a reason.
Will the good design trend die-off? While change is inevitable, it’s here to stay like Auto-Tune and Instagram filters. But there is still hope for brands to stand out. I feel this is a great opportunity for design professionals to work closely with clients to define their brand factors and communicate an authentic story—not follow trends. Building a strong brand identity and supporting brand components for your clients arms them with the tools they’ll need to strategically plan for when the next big trend to aimed to connect and sell to your customer hits.
What will the next thing be? Who’s to say, but I do know it is coming and my clients will be prepared for it.
Alex Morrissey is writer, designer and illustrator based in Asheville, NC
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