BLA: S.O.S. Sameness
Pros and cons of the homogeneity of designs
Every once in a blue moon it seems, creatives try to tear out each other’s throats when discussing the pros and cons of the homogeneity of designs. The last time I remember this discussion being pulled from under a layer of dust was about a year ago.
There are two parties at war. On the one hand, you have those who defend “sameness” with every fiber in their being, on the other there are those who belief that every design should express that “special snowflakeness” we apparently all possess.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
The discussion on the matter isn’t new. Designers have been bickering about it since modernist designers came up with grid based designs and set a trend that is still the norm in editorial design. Of course, the fact of the matter is that sometimes the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true. However, other times, it may not exactly be broken, but it sure rattles a lot, and is due for a check-up. Let’s take a look at sameness in media, versus sameness in brand design.
Getting in people’s heads
The first and foremost reason to speak on behalf of sameness is that humans generally tend to look for structure. They need some point of reference to know how to react to certain stimuli. The simplest example of this is web design.
In western culture, we are familiar with a certain web structure: hamburger menu at the top left, underlines for links, swiping to dismiss, etc. All are industry wide paradigms that we have come to expect from digital applications. When the end-user doesn’t have that foundation to fall back on, the communication between him and the application runs the risk of running aground, leaving the user stranded in a place he doesn’t know how to navigate.
So, this basic sameness is necessary for fluent communication, but there is a possibility for creativity. As a designer, your role is still to make using an application as fun as possible, make your user feel something, maybe even grant them the pleasure of a LOL, just don’t let the LOLZ get in the way of usability.
Rise of the machines
However, there is a danger to this sameness in digital design. The industry has gotten wind of how to gain a greater efficiency out of sameness, namely AI. In the near future AI won’t be able to design new and exciting web applications, but it will come to play a role in the automation of design processes.
Automation of course means that we lose a critical eye when following industry paradigms. A machine won’t understand when to break free from common or platform native patterns and that results in stasis and inherently bland digital designs. Not to mention the human factor, that a lot of designers, who now do the grunt work, will risk losing their livelihood.
Another risk we need to take into account is the danger of becoming unnoticeable. Sure, we all know how to navigate a certain structure, but at the same time we become blind to it. We fall into a state of mindless consumption and digital brands fail to stand out. Or as Josh Topolsky sees it: “I believe an audience raised on BuzzFeed and on their iPhones and has seen this shit for 10 years is getting numb to it.” These BuzzFeeders will consume your content, but won’t connect to your brand. They will remember a funny gif, but not which brand showed it to them.
Getting in people’s hearts
That’s all well and done when considering the functional designs of a platform, but what when designing a brand’s identity? This is an exercise in more abstract thought. Does the notion of us all swimming in the same direction still work in this case? Our natural reflex would be to say that it doesn’t, right? In order for an identity to stand out it can’t feel the same as another. So, as a brand you have your unique logo, pay-off, color scheme, your type, etc. and you get it all meticulously defined and written out in guidelines. And in a way, you’re writing up a paradigm for your brand similar to what we do for web applications.
Recognizability and scaleability
Of course, sameness serves a purpose within the confines of your brands identity. Sameness within a brand, for instance through guidelines, creates consistency for your identity. It’s important if you’re a new player, to make sure communication comes from the same place. At the same time, you make sure that your communication is scalable, which is important for larger companies, and companies with that ambition. Hooray for consistency, but again there is a certain risk to it. You risk becoming anonymous, how paradoxical it may sound. Your brand then loses emotional credibility in return for corporate stability, or sameness, a big risk for human-centric brands. And you risk creating stagnation.
If you look at sameness between different brands, then it should be obvious that you want to create a differentiation between your competitor’s identity and that of your own.
Letting people into your heart
There is an alternative, throw out the rulebook, guidelines, even your logo. Go for a total unbranding. A few years ago, Starbucks realized that consumer appetites where shifting back to local run businesses and decided to unbrand some of their locations to sell Starbucks coffee as if it where coffee from a local corner-shop. However, they didn’t really change their identity as much as they disguised themselves, the strategy did not have the effects they had hoped for.
The real power of unbranding lies in the exchange between brands and consumers. It’s not you that should be getting into their heart, you should be letting them into yours. That way they will come to see your brand as one that can be uniquely them. Don’t force-feed people your identity, let them share theirs with your product. Let the consumer be your storyteller.
The ideal scenario lies somewhere in between. In that special perfectly balanced combination of a coherent identity, achieved through guidelines and a clearly defined position, and openness to human emotions and creativity.