Designing reality’s interfaces – Between the Tube map & Facebook

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC) The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)[/caption]
(The following article was originally published on Marketing Magazine's blog. Since the original publishing coincided with The London Underground's 150 anniversary, the broader theoretical aspect was cut out to turn this into a post about the Tube map alone. I'm publishing an uncut version here for your interest)
In 1931, a part-time engineer draftsman sat in the offices of the London Underground. Like designers of all periods, he was working after hours on a pet project. That project turned out to be with one of the most revolutionary information design concepts in history.
 
As most of you have guessed - the design in question is the London Underground map. The engineer turned design-legend was Harry Beck. An amusing/alarming fact is that it took about a year for "The Suits" to agree and trial Beck's radical, uncomissioned, concept. It was another year before it was published on a mass scale. The rest is history. Beck's map became the blueprint for public transportation maps worldwide and Beck himself spent the next 30 years tweaking his map to near-perfection. He was paid 5 guineas for his map - the equivalent of about £144 in today’s money.
Some things never change, indeed.
 
Train maps were a popular giveaway with newspapers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and looking at some historical maps will quickly reveal the scale of Beck's conceptual breakthrough. Navigating the increasingly intricate London Underground network was a design problem. It was waiting for the right solution for decades. Like many major design problems, it was born at the intersection of social change, technological advancements and rapid expansions in commerce. 
 
It seems 1930s spam was much better than what we get nowadays. Tube maps lived side by side with poster campaigns exalting the many benefits of travelling by underground, many displaying levels of craft rarely seen in today's graphic design. Maps were often given away for free with the evening papers to encourage the public to ride by train. They were a marketing application, a touchpoint - part of a campaign. "Swift and sure" exclaimed a logo tag-line on a 1908 version. Like most key touchpoints, maps weren't single sided propaganda that shouted at the audience; they were useful brand utilities. These maps were a tool to help guide the audience in a modern world of ever more complex urban living. A part of a more complex meaning system.
 
Inside and outside the tube, lavish posters with beautifully illustrated and type-set sang the praises of the London Underground - you needed awareness, you needed to tell people why they should use it, and once they tried it, consistently remind them that they have made the right choice. These are all familiar marketing challenges, but it was the map that sealed the deal. It gave the tube a user interface.
Two different answers to a marketing challenge. Working in tandem to create a meaning system. The rest is history.
 
Beck's tube map was a ground-breaking user interface for The Underground and, by proxy, for London. The tube map is an interface for reality. It's also an incredibly accessible and easy to use graphic information design piece. For 1930s Londoners, increasingly confounded by the underground labyrinth, finding Beck's map inside their newspaper is the equivalent of present-day Londoners finding a GPS navigator between the pages of the Evening Standard. Not unlike a CR code or a coupon, the map provided the means to purchase the full app. As the app's user interface, the map defined a large part of the customer experience.
 
The tube map reinvents London’s space. It is the reason why tourists often experience London as a group of loosely connected islands. That's why they will take the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, a journey far quicker by foot and more expensive by the meter than a Concord ticket, according to Lonely Planet.
Londoners have been using a Warp-Drive engine - they step through gateways, into an hyperspace where geographical space has no meaning, replaced by a conceptual network that takes them reliably from A to B. 
 
Media critic Neil Postman famously wrote:
'We converse about nature and ourselves in languages that make it convenient. We don’t see nature itself; our view of it is shaped by our language. Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.'
 
Look around and you'll see design, particularly visual design, is now the global language.
 
We tend to separate marketing and design but that boundary has always been blurry. Interface design may seem utilitarian and form still follows function, but the functions of the dominant interfaces of contemporary life are driven by commerce.
 
Interaction defines the customer experience of commercial products, promoted by business entities.  Think of what those interfaces have done to public space and private space, our sense of identity, community and many of our life-experiences, from romance to shopping...
 
When Facebook's designers made every press of the Enter key count as 'Submit Comment' rather than 'Line Break' they may have been doing it for a technical reason (possibly aiming to unify all messaging aspects of the environment: comments, IM, email), but they also transformed the commenting experience on Facebook into being more prone to impulsive behaviour and increased the drive for shorter, condensed, expression.
 
Postman would have found this age of interfaces fascinating.  The digital revolution introduced the method and metaphor of the distinction between hardware and software. What followed was a heightened acknowledgement of the role that the software user interface plays in the interaction between us and our technology. Design has always both expressed and shaped culture, but software interfaces have put this into overdrive. Software, as the metaphor suggests, makes design more malleable, fluid.
 
While the fundamental lexicon of user interface (UI) grows relatively slowly (though quicker than hardware), and indeed has stayed fairly consistent since the early point and click hypertextual interfaces, the syntax of UI is progressing so quickly you could almost claim it's nearing a singularity point – which would render it impossible to track. 
 
And so, design now introduces an unprecedented level of rapid change, liquidity and volatility to our cultural metaphors. 
What hope do we have to figure out post-facebook-humanity when the next transcendence is already approaching? When not even the current paradigm stands still?
 
Constantly evolving social interfaces mean constantly evolving cultural paradigms. What happens to identity when it is almost forced to leap multiple times within a single generation?
Design defines the operating system of networked humanity: reality's interface. Design decisions may send us down roads as different as splitting the atom for energy or for bombs; whether our life-style brings a global ecological disaster or a sustainable alternative.
 
And yet, it seems technology and commerce are left alone to drive most design decisions, instead of ethics, aesthetics and welfare. 
And Marketing, instead of joining the design project of reality's user interfaces, often settles for arguing over the desktop wallpaper.
 
There is, of course, an alternative, but it requires much kindness...

Definitive products, inevitable brands

Binder label: Food Title: Heinz Baked Beans with Tomato Sauce [back] Date issued: 1870 - 1900 (approximate) Physical description: 1 print : chromolithograph ; 13 x 8 cm. Genre: Advertising cards Subject: Boys; Canned foods Notes: Title from item. Statement of responsibility: Heinz Collection: 19th Century American Trade Cards Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department  Rights: No known restrictions. (Guest Column in The Drum, 1.3.2013: 'Ketchup is ketchup, so why does the Heinz brand mean so much?') Ketchup is weird, Malcolm Gladwell observed a few years back. It is served alongside mustard, but while mustard is a highly diverse product category, ketchup, as we all know is, well… ketchup. Yes, it is, essentially, a type of tomato sauce, but it isn’t part of that highly diverse category either. Tomato sauce lives by a completely different set of rules. So if ketchup isn’t like mustard, and it’s not a type of tomato sauce, what is it then? Ketchup is ketchup. Ketchup is weird. Ketchup is magic. And Heinz is its magic brand. Yet Ketchup is not the company’s only magic brand. Heinz dominates the Baked Beans category too. There are few definitive products in our world today, and far fewer still where one brand owns two of them. Maybe Apple has managed to achieve this with the Mac and the iPhone (with two product brand names), but you may struggle to find other examples in the mainstream world (Coke and Diet Coke are variants so don’t count). Both Heinz Baked Beans and Heinz Tomato Ketchup are operating in ‘categories of one’. Competition isn’t fighting Heinz through differentiation; it is forced down to copycatting. Heinz, with its dominant presence and rich, long heritage is just too strong. From a design perspective, Heinz marries its definitive products with brand identities that are textbook case studies in the long-term management of iconic brands. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Tend to it. It’s this custodian mentality that keeps these definitive brands alive and well. In 2009, Heinz retired the pickle from the Ketchup label, where it stood for over a century. An illustrated tomato replaced it. How many consumers even noticed that move? Have you? If you haven’t, it’s because the overall integrity of Heinz’s brand identity system is so carefully maintained. Maintaining the iconic shape of the label, choosing illustration over photography, carefully crafting any tweak to the classic typography to make it look even more classical-cool. The case for baked beans is similar. The development of the design has stayed loyal, increasingly going back to its roots and making the best of them – identifying what is truly iconic and adding the playful touch of illustrated saucy beans spilling out of the holding shape. There’s a lot of retro-style design in the world of marketing. Much of it is simply derivative. What effective retro does, is to recreate the past by identifying the timeless elements, distilling and elevating them to create something at once fresh, familiar and rooted in a long-standing truth. If you want an iconic brand, get your iconography right. Then celebrate it across your communications channels to the point of worship. Heinz’s marketing leaders know they are custodians of a heritage dating back to 1875. When they introduce change, or extend their product ranges, they do it with reverence. The delight of creating meaningful innovation against strict and well-argued constraints is all too rare in the marketing industry and the briefs it produces. More often we meander between “revolution” (eg the 2009 Tropicana fiasco) to meaningless tweaks, which slowly dilute the integrity of the brand (eg bursts, gradients, condensation marks and other offences). “What we’re looking for,” marketing managers often tell agencies, “is an evolution rather than a revolution”. Tough luck. There is no evolution in design. Evolution moves at a glacial pace. It’s a truly bad metaphor to hide your fear of change behind. You change or you don’t change. Just make that change count. Make sure you identify what made you great, and give it the respect it deserves. By respecting the heritage of your brand you are showing you respect the audience who remained loyal to it and the product that made it great in the first place. A 19th century Heinz Baked Beans trade card reads: “The beans are actually BAKED, not boiled. The quantity for each can is weighted to insure uniform proportion of beans and sauce. No such flavour found in any other.” That may read a bit quaint today, but communicating this level of care must have been truly differentiating at the time. A lot of the things that made the mass production of food revolutionary during the 19th century are taken for granted today. They are hygienic, table-stakes, no pun intended. The level of care and consideration people expect from food today is represented by brand design, which communicates a certain promise. Loyalty to a design heritage is a way of showing you still care about your original promise, that your product can always be trusted to deliver in the same way its audience expects it to. It would take a major cataclysmic event to topple Heinz from its double-leadership position. As long as any extensions are managed carefully, it’s set up for many more years of growth. And as Western diet, for better or for worse, expands into emerging markets, its success is almost inevitable. “The Inevitables” is Warren Buffett’s nickname for his favourite kind of company investment. A well-suited match, then. Finally, here’s a top tip: it’s a little known fact, but the 57 mark on a glass Heinz Ketchup bottle is placed on the ideal spot to hit the bottle so the Ketchup comes out faster. Just another design gesture in a long history of mutual respect between product, brand and a loyal consumer following.  

The Apocalypse is bad for business

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="344"]coming soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr Coming Soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr[/caption] (The following post was originally published on Marketing Magazine's Marketing Blogged blog. It has also been posted on Linguabrand's Science and Learning section, among a highly flattering group. This is a delayed cross-posting.) Expanding the definition and remit of sustainable marketing When initially introduced to c-suites and boards, the allure of sustainability was that it made a certain brutal business common sense. Performance driven business leaders don’t have to love trees to understand that ignoring environmental impact will eventually kill their business: Materials and fuels will get more expensive, regulations will bear down on them and other forms of public scrutiny will become increasingly unforgiving. Over the years, the remit of business sustainability has expanded from environmental responsibility to include other economic, social and almost any other aspect of responsible long-term resource management and social stewardship. However, sustainable marketing has so far remained focused on the environmental aspect. It largely stands for paper sources, non-toxic inks, recycling, etc. This is an oversight as it’s clear a large part of marketing’s impact on our society is not physical. I would like to challenge this narrow view of sustainable marketing by suggesting that just like businesses increasingly look beyond the environmental impact of resource management, marketing should do the same. The two new elements I would like to introduce into the definition of sustainable marketing are the cognitive and the cultural aspects. Cognitive overload is not sustainable A lot has been said about the scarcity of attention and the attention economy. We live in an age where we’re all bombarded by messages and constantly stimulated. This happens even before marketing adds its 3000-10,000+ messages per day (estimates vary) into the mix. As a reaction, our brains have adapted by becoming exceptional at filtering out messages (unconscious) and questioning them (conscious). The implication for marketing is simple: the more people are bombarded with marketing messages, the better they will become at blocking them out completely (e.g. banner blindness), and at questioning and subverting them (e.g. as we often see on social media). As the cognitive resistance of audiences increase, marketing which sticks to old methods, such as mass-advertising campaigns, will require more repetitions and bigger spend in order to achieve the same results it used to get. So far, marketing has largely reacted to this fact by sending out more messages through more types of media. It’s easy to see this isn’t sustainable: doing so only increases the deluge of messages in the world and adds to the “cognitive pollution”, further deteriorating attention resources and making people more resistant. Increasing the number and frequency of messaging yet again is cutting the branch we are sitting on. It is not sustainable.   Cultural vandalism is not sustainable To work at all, marketing must always remain fascinated with humanity. Strategic marketing has drawn from a wide variety of sources: from psychoanalysis and anthropology to critical theory and behavioural economics. With such a rich variety of influences it’s rather disappointing the application of what we’ve learned is often so crass. Once marketing discovered individuals and groups can be motivated by fear, shame and guilt and react quickly to simple, emotional messages, it got into the habit of constantly pushing humanity’s emotional alarm buttons. Marketing habitually targets people’s basest instincts: telling people they are ugly, smelly, not good enough parents and generally inadequate. It parades products and services as magic solutions to an increasingly oppressed and frequently depressed audience. Marketing is shouting at them they’d be fools to miss on this once-in-a-lifetime chance for redemption. For long, marketing has been content to push any emotional buttons as long as it got the intended response, ignoring the wider cultural and political context for needs like wellbeing, happiness, safety, money, sex or power. But again – this isn’t sustainable. Looking back at human history – divisive, tyrannical societies driven by fear, survivalism and close-mindedness soon decline into misery and chaos. The level of exposure and communication frequency many brands enjoy today is equivalent to that which was once reserved for kings and religious leaders. The ubiquity of marketing means we don’t only tap into meaning and emotions – we create them. This is a monumental responsibility. To have a future we must add to our fascination with humanity the elements of compassion and responsibility.   Change is the only alternative Sustainable marketing is not a matter of choice, just like with environmental issues there is no alternative. It’s time marketing owns up not just for the physical pollution it causes, but also to non-physical pollution. Just like dumping waste in a river is cheap and lazy, but will eventually kill your business, so are cognitive or cultural pollution. This new definition of sustainable marketing recognises that the easy solutions, those common habits of marketing, may contribute to a disastrous future for both business and humanity. Commitment to this new definition of sustainable marketing is challenging, but it is inevitable. We must grow up and own up. As a famous British brand says about environmental sustainability: There in no plan B. And just like some big conservative businesses have learned: if we can’t accept the fact we have to do it because it’s the right thing to do, at least we can acknowledge it is the only way for marketing to continue and work for our business. To put it bluntly: The apocalypse is bad for business.  

The Disappearance of Childhood: Postman’s blind spot

Grown ups are obsolete

Just finished Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood.

Postman is a wonderful writer, and the first part, about the historical invention of childhood is truly breath-taking. Just chock-full of amazing insights about the relationship of culture and technology.
I particularly found interesting how the same "dangers" are re-purposed again and again for each technology.

(Narcissism is, apparently, particularly popular, possibly because of the built-in hubris of any technological revolution. I'm sure the discovery of fire and the wheel promoted narcissism too. What with firelight being so complimenting and making us see human faces 24 hours a day and the wheel making us strong and taking us places... But I still need to think this bit through...)
 
However, as he moves to describing the disappearance of childhood he largely misses the mark.

Not because of his somewhat luddite view of technology or conservative views of society (you expect that from Postman) but because although the phenomena he describes to support his arguments are largely true, he completely overlooks the emergence of teenage culture as a transient stage between childhood and adulthood (quite odd for someone who was merely in his thirties in the 60's). As well as the increasing importance of this stage. And while this stage is "blurred at both ends" to our day ("tweens, anyone?"), and especially into adulthood, you can still see marked distinctions between the culture of prepubescent children (e.g. "toddlers"), pubescent and post-pubescent teenagers.
And any cross-overs don't change the fact prepubescence is protected on many levels and teens are often overprotected, regulated/policed by adults, and frequently demonised by the media.


Ah well, thankfully today we have people like Danah Boyd who approach youth with insight and empathy.

(Make no mistake, this book is still worth your time. All his books, with all their flaws…)

Marketing plots: the usual suspects (and two ways to beat them)

Judge me by my size do you?

This is a story about advocacy and rigid leadership-sets. It begins with a seemingly simple question: Why do "the usual suspects" keep winning?

"The usual suspects" is a marketing pattern/plot familiar to anyone in the venture capital business: 1. The best venture capital funds get more chances to invest in the best startups. 2. The best startups have better chances to making big exits with big multipliers. 3. Having the best exits further cements a fund's reputation as being among the best. 4. Repeat.

A virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on a VC's rank. A similar dynamic will be found within engineering: 1.The best engineering firms will get a disproportionate amount of opportunities to tender for bigger, better, higher profile projects. 2. High profile projects draw more attention to their best of breed work. 3. Having best of breed high-profile projects further establishes them as an industry leader. 4. Repeat. How about universities? 1. The best universities are/have the first choice of the best students and faculty. 2. The best students and faculty are mutually drawn to each other. 3. The work/results/success perpetuates the university's status as among the best. 4. It stays up in the rankings/league tables year after year. (The closer you get to the top of rankings the less movement you will find from year to year). The usual suspects plot is especially common in professional services and large B2B businesses. Notable categories are legal services (where the leader-set is known as "the magic circle") and accounting/audit firms ("Big Four"). Indeed, success begets success. But what else is there? The dynamic plotted here is the tendency of big scale advocacy-led categories to have highly rigid leader-sets. Two questions come to mind: First, what drives this rigidity at the top? And then - What can second tier players and challenger brands do about it? What keeps the leader-set rigid? The different categories mentioned are united by two dimensions: Success criteria: While you are likely to have many players, both global and local, and will see vast differences between small players and big players, they are still judged on similar criteria e.g. successful investments for VCs or successful projects for engineering, and additionally some generic criteria such as quality of service, efficiency, etc. Overall, brand reputation in these categories will be a compound of a multitude of highly contended attributes. Buying process: Usually tender based (or similarly structured), the buying process is rational, complex and cautious, even conservative. It also tends to involve multiple stages filtering candidates into a short-list for deeper investigation. So, while a somewhat rigid leadership could be said for, for example, the automotive category, car brands have a wider variety of segment-dependent success criteria and many more opportunities to differentiate their products and communications then most brands in our case. That's why while cars are also expensive, rational purchases and advocacy is important in that category as in many others, they do not show the same level of rigidity typical of the previously mentioned categories. (simply: you can have rigid leader-set without being advocacy-led, but you are unlikely to find an advocacy driven large-scale category without a rigid leader-set) When the two dimensions are combined, our cyclical plot is put into motion: Facing a complex and weighty decision, the prospects, often making the choice for an organisation, know they need to deeply investigate a short-list of contenders. To make the process manageable, they will often limit it to the more well known brands, or at least include more of those in the consideration set. Naturally, they will tend to prefer leading brands if they can afford them - the old adage that "no one has ever got fired for buying IBM" is usually true when a corporate chooses a premium service. As a result - the established leaders will frequently feature in the short-list and get more shots at winning the business. Being included and winning will further establish them as leaders and the cycle is complete. This how "The usual suspects" are born.   Breaking into the consideration-set So, if you're not a "usual suspect" what can you do about it? How do you create opportunity and consideration? At first look, this plot is so rigid that many people doubt whether marketing can make any difference. The full answer is too multifaceted for a simple blog-post, and, naturally, depends on your unique case. However, there are two simple action routes that are worth mentioning and are often overlooked. There are two hints leading down those routes: First, it's the fact that "best" is a shorthand for "reputed to be the best", so anything that influences your reputation can (gradually) move you up the ranks. The second hint is by the fact the terms "leadership set" and "consideration set" may overlap but are not the same. Combine those two facts together and here are two actions you should take if you wish to get to the point where you are "in the room", and in many tender processes this would be literally about getting to be in the room for a presentation, pitch or "bake-off". Invest internally to cultivate advocacy: Advocacy is more than word of mouth. It's positive, focused word of mouth, used with intent. Many marketing managers focus more on communicating existing advocacy - through brand communications using ever shrinking budgets. But even if you had the budgets they would build reputation, and reputation alone isn't enough to break through into a limited consideration set. What's the simplest way to cultivate advocacy over time? Investing internally. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you are in an advocacy-led category, it's likely that the biggest advocacy engine is your own people. Your talent creates your brand experience, and positive experiences create new advocates. Encouraging your team to deliver on your brand promises, not only will you cultivate advocacy, you will cultivate the right kind of advocacy, bringing your points of difference to the foreground. Your name is mentioned in the market in three ways - there are the times you talk about yourself. The times you are a part of a conversation about yourself and the times people are having a conversation about you without you taking part. The last type is likely to be the most frequent and also the one you're least able to influence through direct communications. The best way to influence throughout the three types is by investing internally and encouraging your talent to improve your brand experience. The right kind word from a past client or someone who have been in direct touch with your brand and had a positive experience is exactly what can make prospects check you out. It's stronger than anything else. Become the wildcard: Even when there are some good advocates saying good things about you out there, it's unlikely to happen at the right timing for you to be invited to a tender. If a prospect even asks a third party about you of their own initiative, you're half way there. But for most second-tier players this would be the exception to the rule. This is where top-of-mind comes in. Top-of-mind is often looked down on by B2B and professional services marketing managers (as well as branding agencies) as belonging to a crude world of FMCG, or simply as impractical without the benefits of consumer brand communications frequency. Top of mind is important as it will often be the spark that moves you from the long-list to the short-list. Prospects often want to include a "wildcard" in their short-list. They may do it to seem more considered by senior management - less automatic in their choice of candidates. They may do it just to "spice things up", because seeing the same brands every time gets boring. But whatever the reason, consideration sets tend to include a token wildcard candidate. By standing out and being different, you can increase the likelihood of being top-of-mind for the role of wildcard. After a couple of wins, you may start getting closer to being a usual suspect, at least for that client. With time and advocacy, you will climb the ranks. At this point you may think that the second advice is a bit obvious. Isn't it simply the classic principle of differentiation? To a degree - you are right. However, ask yourself this: From the total of your current actions and communications, how much is dedicated to setting you apart and making you come across as unique, and on the other hand how much effort is spent on ticking generic boxes just to prove you're as good as the first-tier players on things most clients take for granted to even remotely consider you? Thought so. These may be just two courses of action, but because they are so often overlooked, you will find they are likely to include surprisingly cost-effective activities considering how versatile they are. And what about the leaders, "the usual suspects", who are already "in the room" and likely to be named as top of mind? Those brands are big, established and often seemingly identical. Can they be content in their sameness while the RFP's just roll in? Not at all, but their story will be told another time. In the meantime - know that you can challenge them. No player is protected against a wildcard. Cross posted from "The Crossed Cow" (The Partners blog)