Friday, December 23, 2011

Love For The iPhone 4S

I really don't understand the disappointment being thrown at the iPhone 4s. I love the design. No other company on Earth has yet to match its quality, beauty, and overall impact. While I suspected the release of an iPhone 5, I wished for one more iteration of the 4's design.

The problem with the 4 was that Apple made a conscious decision to put form before function, which they have done before with their computers, but never to the true deficit of the final product. They may have chosen lesser internals, or made that annoying "puck" mouse for the old iMac, but the antenna issue was the equivalent of them having had chosen a keyboard that didn't work if you rested your palms on it while typing, and then integrated it into the monitor. It was bad.

But they have completely transcended that issue with the newest phone. All of the beauty, none of the problems. If I didn't hate Apple so much, I would be making sweet, sweet love to that phone. But I hate Apple.

To me, it embodies the nature of great product design insofar as it is aesthetic. Good design is practical concerns combined with aesthetics. Practically, all design must come down to interaction, and there are two ways to measure this: the time it takes to achieve a set goal, and the amount of a set interaction that takes place over a period of time. For example, how quickly can someone activate a switch? The faster, the better. Or for the second type, how many photos are taken with a camera over a two hour time frame? The more, the better.

The first process is that of the engineer as designer. There is a goal that must be met and a time that mustn't be exceeded. The second one is more like a psychologist as designer. There is a set, quantifiable goal, but a nearly limitless number of ways to achieve that goal. The product can be made easier to use; it can be made of a particular material to foster physical contact; it can be designed to communicate a concept, like "industrial," "artistic," or "exclusive"; it can be made to piggyback with other products and foster interaction via their qualities (e.g. iPhone accessories); or it can be designed to integrate in with the extant aesthetic of a customer's house or clothing.

It is in that way that aesthetics can be quantifiable. By designing a "pretty" product, people are driven to interact with it. They want to use it. That is one of the biggest things that Apple achieved starting way back with the iMac. People wanted to use their products, so even if they weren't necessarily better, it didn't matter. Customers used the products more, they felt more in tune with the products, and as such the products became more integrated in with the customers' lives. Eventually, the products became part of personal identities.

Steve Jobs may not have been explicitly aware of this principle (I once thought he was, but after his biography came out, I no longer think so) but he did understand the concept of beauty. For him, he didn't want to make products that he thought would merely sell, he wanted to make products that were beautiful. He was shrewd in business and marketing, but for him, those determinations were easy. The difficult part was deciding whether the product that would sell could be made in an elegant and beautiful way. If not, don't bother making it. Concentrate on things that can be made beautifully.

Jobs obviously wanted to make a tablet for a long time, but only when technology reached the point where it could be made elegantly did he decide to make it. That elegance elicits interaction, which makes people want the product, which makes people integrate the brand in with their life, which makes them want more of that brand.

Apple, and its dedication to beauty, is the very definition of the Paul Randian concept of brand: customers build a connection between experiences with the company that provides goods and services and a unified personality that is created with marketing, thus producing a brand. This brand then becomes part of the experience, resulting in a feedback loop that, as long as the products and services remain strong, continually reinforces the brand. This is the key to Apple's success. This is the reason why I want to have sex with the iPhone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

HP's Got A Brand New Bag... Brand. (UPDATED)

Moving Brands has released its complete rebrand of HP. And it is amazing. The sheer scope of the branding effort is awe-inspiring. There is the usual compliment of ridiculous "associations" between some principle and some end choice, such as logo positioning and whatnot. Branding firms love to make it seem like they are operating on some fundamental concepts as opposed to "gee, that looks good." The brand presentation for Pepsi's new logo became almost legendary for this foolishness.

I can understand why HP wanted to rebrand itself. Public perception of the company is very low, and while everyone knows them, no one cares. The issue that I see is at the core of branding: a brand is not just a public presentation, it is a synergy of company, product, and image. HP's image has always been good. Their logo is perfectly iconic at this point, their advertising is high-quality, and they haven't commoditized their brand into a pile of shit like Dell.

That said, their products are cheap, their design is questionable, and their customer service is awful; truly, all of the things to which people attach brand significance are below par. For example, in customer service, HP usually places at or near the bottom in every survey that I can find. Likewise, anecdotally, my worst experiences with technology have all been HP products.

The recent kerfuffles with in-and-out CEO's, WebOS, and the first-we-don't-now-we-do PC division drives home that HP is not a company that will be capable of producing the quality of product and experience that will be worthy of this excellent re-brand. They are, in fact, incompetent and are succeeding simply because the massive machine that is HP will naturally keep churning until a major market shift happens.

But that is neither here nor there. What we are here to discuss is the rebrand.

UPDATE: The below video has been reactivated by MB. I hope to see the rest of the site come up, soon.

UPDATE 2: Moving Brands has reactivated some of their HP work on Vimeo. Many of the videos have been re-cut to exclude the unused logo. The original video is still on YouTube, though.

HP Particle from Moving Brands on Vimeo.

The sheer amount of work that has gone into this project is impressive. Even more impressive is the cohesive nature of the work. HP is a company with multiple personalities, and this goes much of the way to at least giving it a single personality. Moving Brand has posted a detailed work-up of the entire, three-year process and if it doesn't earn them significant kudos from you, I don't know what will. (UPDATE: MB has taken down presentation, apparently at the request of HP, which doesn't surprise me. HP's resistance to using this new branding only serves to make them look more incompetent.)

The thirteen degree angle used as an identifier is good and provides energy and a sense of motion to everything to which it is applied.

I assume that the eventual evolution of the logo to a single slash is more-or-less illustrative of the overarching concept and not intended to be taken seriously. If it is intended to be taken seriously, it is silly. There is bold simplicity and then there is nonsensically abstract. The single slash definitely skews toward the latter.

I do have what I think is a fundamental concern. The loss of the container shape, the circle, reduces the depth of the image. There is one-fewer vectors for communication. Its identifiability is thus reduced. This is certainly not an insurmountable issue; HP has more than enough marketing muscle to ingrain the image quickly into the public eye. This is still a problem that should be ideally avoided. Similar logos is an unavoidable consequence when a logo jettisons one of the primary identification carriers, the circle, and relies on basic shapes in a basic arrangement.

I think the biggest philosophical issue that I see is that this logo is very modern. In fact, I think that it is modern to a fault. They argue that one of their goals was timelessness, but the fact that the above logos show how incredibly trendy this look is, and the fact that nothing like this existed forty years ago, confirms that it is not timeless, it is modern.  The original logo has a genuinely timeless, organic quality to it. It is obviously just two letters and a container. That is fundamentally timeless. Applying a modern gloss to an old logo is fine. UPS did it. ABC did it. Apple did it. It works.

And speaking of apple, does anyone else find it funny that nearly every computer being used by the branding team is a Mac?

In deference to those who constructed this, I'm sure that they spent a lot of time with representatives from HP and made the conscious decision to go this modern, even if they don't want to admit it. No element of this is an accident. I still think that it is a mistake. If it was any other company, I likely wouldn't feel this way, but HP's logo is, essentially, perfect. Polish it. Manipulate it. Attach to it. But leave the core alone.

Since the full rebrand will not be implemented, we have some placeholder steps, including this custom typeface and an integration of the thirteen degree slant into videos, presentations, and print. It is a nice, energetic addition to HP's existing brand.

HP Journey from Moving Brands on Vimeo.

HP Identity and Design System from Moving Brands on Vimeo.

The overall implementation is excellent. HP is taking a brand personality that few other companies have. Their look is glowy, ravey, polished, and electronic. It looks high-tech, modern, and positively hip. It is here where I am totally fine with this look. Apple has refined beauty. Lenovo has rigid professionalism. Dell has shit. And all of the Taiwanese brands have desperate Apple copies. I think that the only aesthetic not being used that could be is an appliance-like aesthetic.

Again, though, the excellent implementation only highlights that HP itself is not polished, modern, and positively hip. They are a giant, soulless company run by fools. People will buy HP products and expect a certain experience and not get it. If anything, it's better to be faceless, because then people don't expect anything.

People go into an Apple Store expecting Apple. People go into a Best Buy and see an HP product, they like the package, or design, or marketing material around it, or maybe even the screen saver that's playing, but their experience with the brand exists in that moment. If that moment is good, for whatever reason, a sale may take place. People's experience with Apple exists in much more than simply the moment of product consideration.

That can be a very profitable place to be, though! Anonymity has value just as a strong brand does. Look at Acer, Asus, Toshiba, HTC: these are nearly faceless companies, yet they sell billions in product. In fact, a brand can be a burden in that a company is then forced to live up to whatever image that brand makes. HP should avoid that burden.

This brand is better than HP's current brand. But HP is still HP, and that is what they need to fix.

UPDATE: All of the videos and content has been removed from MB's website at the request of HP. I will leave the videos posted here, just in case HP decides to stop being stupid.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: An HP representative has sent a letter to Under Consideration's Brand New website about the new logo.

"HP is one of the world’s most valuable brands and has no plans to adopt the new logo proposed by Moving Brands. HP did implement some of the other design elements shown in the case study."

I laugh in their face. HP has one of the least valuable major brands. People attach little to the name aside from recognition and omnipresence. It is like ABC or CBS. Those brands have almost no value aside from their ubiquitousness. HP needs to stop kidding itself.

EVEN MORE UPDATES: HP CEO Meg Whitman has, after announcing poor finances, made statements about HP "rebuilding credibility." What was that about the brand being valuable?

Furthermore, an article has popped up on Business Insider discussing how HP appears headed for catastrophe.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Minimalism As Philosophy

I have read a number of posts on minimalism. I assume that it is becoming trendy as a sort of reaction to the explosion of crap that happened as broadband penetration in the United States really took off after 2006, thus allowing websites that were positively overflowing with images, sound, and interactive twiddly bits.

One general theme that annoys me is the assertion that minimalism should never be an aesthetic choice; it should be a functional choice. I think that this is total hogwash. An aesthetic choice is communicating something about you or whoever for whom the design is happening. If I am designing a website for a clothing company who sells all of their clothes in stark, warehouse-like settings, I choose minimalism for no other reason than it looks right when compared to the company's retail outlet.

A good designer uses any concept for any reason. It is the very definition of flexible construction.

That said, any concept works best when applied over all elements of the design. For example, a website may use a minimalist aesthetic, and that's great. The website is best, though, when that minimalism extends to the structure of the website as well. Anything else is unbalanced and at odds.

This is because any sort of design philosophy can naturally spring from ideals. If I want a website to be functionally as simple as possible, a minimalist aesthetic will naturally arise from that endeavor. It must. Any aesthetic gew-gaws will impact usability because the people visiting the website will be forced to process, interpret, and interact with those ancillary elements.

I mention websites only as an example, but this can apply to anything. Imagine a product package. Instead of just making "a pretty box," we approach the box by inquiring what is necessary of the package. First and foremost, we want people to know what is in the box from a great distance. We want the box to stand out from other boxes. And we want the box to be appealing. Those are the only things required.
To exemplify this I look to the recent redesign of Ivory Soap, which perfectly illustrates minimalism in practice. Their old logo, in the grand scheme of things, was not overly intense. In the mad crush of gradients, colors, and pictures on other brands, its simple blue background, faintly hinting of bubbles, and black "Ivory," was positively spartan.

Their redesign, though, is a masterpiece of minimalism. People can see the box from a great distance. It tells them everything about what's inside. And the overall package design is light, airy, modern, and attractive. It runs the risk of appearing like store brands, but the Ivory name is so well-known that I think that it overcomes this deficit.

Look at the various details removed. The logo is a simple, solid white. The shadow is removed. The background image, when after being compared to this version is revealed to be pointless, is gone. The various font colors have been removed, with only font weight left to add complexity and dynamism to the package. Truly, the red "simple" on the old package made no sense. The only further detail would have been moving the number of bars and the weight details to the side of the package. Thus reducing the front of the package to the absolute fundamentals.

This bold simplicity, where the, as Leo Burnett put it, inherent drama of the product is put front and center, extends to the advertising with this simple-yet-colorful advertising campaign.

Each image essentially has one color. When the images gel together as people are exposed to them all over the course of a campaign, it becomes a vibrant variety, giving life and complexity to the product even while the fundamentals of any given ad are simple. The most important element of the design that is illustrated by these ads is that they weren't just using minimalism for functional reasons; they did it for aesthetic reasons as well. They wanted to communicate "simplicity" through the very structure of the package and ads, and not just the poster content, but it's also just pretty. The colors are bold and memorable, but they are nothing more than attractive colors.

Minimalism is at the core of everything that I do, but I recognize that much of it simply "speaks" to me. Yes, I can intellectualize it. I can philosophize about it. I can build up some conceptual framework from which the design direction might spring. But, in the end, it looks good to me. That is fundamentally aesthetic.