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

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

(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.

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. Continue reading

The Apocalypse is bad for business

coming soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr

Coming Soon, by Digital Trash on Flickr

(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. Continue reading

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?

Continue reading