Last week, Khoi Vinh wrote a controversial piece entitled “The End of Client Services” (HT Andy Jacobson). Although I don’t agree with “The End” part of his thesis, I do agree about how the nature of design and branding business is changing in our digital age.
10 years ago, the role of branding and graphic design firms was primarily to help their clients promote their products. There was a circle with consumers inside and another circle with products inside; the role of agencies was to provide an effective way to interface the two circles. This has changed. Today the design of products is an essential and integral part of the branding and marketing strategy, Apple being the best example of it.
This strategy has always existed for design-oriented businesses like fashion and furniture, and these businesses have always had their own in-house design departments. What is changing is that other businesses that traditionally paid scant attention to design (like computer companies) are now seeing the effectiveness of building their brands right into their products. In other words, “branding” is no longer a communication strategy that comes after the fact; it’s an integral part of their products. This means “branding” must come under the bigger umbrella of “product development”. This is what Khoi Vinh is essentially explaining. This is not a new idea. Seth Godin wrote a book about it in 2002 called “Purple Cow”. But what is new today is that it’s no longer just about physical products or services in person because the primary way that people interface with businesses is through websites. Websites are no longer digital versions of printed brochures; they are now computer programs that interact with the consumers. In other words, they are no longer a means of communication but are themselves the products. “Branding” therefore must be built into the user-experience of these websites. The companies that conduct a lot of business over the Internet need to have their brand integrated into the design and user-experience of their websites, which means branding and web design must be under the umbrella of “product development”, which in turn means it should ideally be managed in-house. Khoi is right. Although the majority of companies still do not use the Internet as a significant means of conducting their business, it is clearly shifting in that direction. Even small businesses like restaurants are gradually becoming concerned about having online ordering.
Where I disagree with Khoi is that “client services” in this area, I believe, will boom. It is not realistic or practical even for large companies to suddenly acquire technological expertise and insight overnight. To become Internet-savvy, the culture of the entire company needs to change. To get there, they are going to need outside consultants or agencies to make that transition. For small to medium size businesses, outside agencies will always be necessary because it does not make financial sense at that level to manage it in-house. Small businesses will need other small businesses to indirectly subsidize the development cost, and this can only be done through a third party agency.
However, what will change in my view is the scope of the work that “client services” must cover, or how agencies must package our services. We cannot just offer the “branding” part of it; we need to offer the actual “product” with the branding part built in. In tangible terms, it would mean, for instance, developing an ecommerce website. We cannot just offer to “design” or “brand” their ecommerce website. We need to actually build it. This forces a branding agency or a design firm to be a product development company with significant technological expertise. This is one of the reasons why I am insistent on not separating “design” from “programming” (or “engineering”) when building a website. A website is an industrial design product (like cars, microwaves, and airplanes); design, branding, and user-experience must be integral parts of it. It does not make sense to separate them. A design firm that handles just the graphic design part of a website makes no sense to me.
When someone asks me what my company does, I tend to avoid using the popular term “Web design”. Although “Web design” is still the best term for most people to understand what we do, I do not want people to think that we manage just the “design” part of it. Our world is so rapidly evolving that our language is not catching up fast enough.
—posted by Dyske
This morning, I noticed the typeface used on Cooper Union‘s original building. It looked similar to Foundry Gridnik, but not quite the same. I then remembered that their new building uses Gridnik extensively, so I realized that the designer must have gotten his idea from this original sign. Upon Googling it, I found that that is exactly what happened. Abbott Miller of Pentagram designed it.
When I first saw the new building, I immediately noticed the use of Gridnik and assumed that they used it because it’s somewhat trendy right now. Interesting that the trend had nothing to do with it. Since the original building was built, I’m sure this style has gone through many phases of falling in and out of trend. And, it’s back in trend again just in time for the new building.
Somewhat related is this factoid about the orginal building: Peter Cooper wanted a shaft for an elevator even though elevators haven’t yet been invented then.
By the way, someone should fix the kerning of the type under his statue. I’m not sure if that’s how it was created, or if it went out of whack over time. I have a feeling that Pete wouldn’t approve it.
—posted by Dyske
Everyone has an opinion about certain things in life like music, food, politics, and parenting. I think logo design is one of them. It doesn’t matter if you are a plumber or a lawyer, you would have opinions about logos. This is what makes logo design one of the most difficult challenges in graphic design. The larger the business is, the more difficult it would be to settle on a logo that can reasonably satisfy all the decision makers. Ultimately a logo should not be about pleasing everyone who works for the company, because what they like personally is a separate issue from how well it works in the market. A logo that everyone absolutely loves may actually fail miserably in reality. As a matter of fact, if all you want is a logo that you personally like, you could get hundreds of designers (or non-designers) to compete for you at websites like 99designs.com. You can then choose whichever logo you like the best, and be done with it.
Much of the job of designing a logo is about educating the clients about what a logo is and how it works. This process is what often makes it expensive, and the most people are shocked and outraged to hear that some company paid millions of dollars for a logo that they themselves could draw in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
Suppose you work for Pepsi and you feel that the company needs a new logo. How would you go about achieving it? A logo is like a face of the company. Since the existing Pepsi logo has been in use for decades, it’s going to be very difficult to convince everyone that Pepsi needs a new logo. Because everyone has an opinion about logos, particularly about the logo of the company they work for, the toughest part of the job would not be designing a good looking logo, but convincing everyone to accept the new logo. A design firm would essentially be functioning like a political consultant or lawyer to win votes within Pepsi. That is what you would be paying for.
The Arnell Group who recently redesigned the Pepsi logo for real had to come up with an incredible array of arguments to win the internal support at Pepsi. Most of these arguments are probably nonsense and the people at The Arnell Group probably knew it too, but without someone willing to get up on stage to propose a solution, there would just be a bunch of critics in the audience arguing till the cows come home. If your company is new and doesn’t have a logo yet, this would certainly be a more pressing issue.
Equally important to managing the internal politics is market research. With a relatively simple shape, it needs to stand apart from the sea of logos in the same market. Even if the new design is beautiful and everyone loves it, if it looks just like the logo of a well known competitor in your market, it would be useless, or even disasterous.
It also needs to be memorable. Even if the new logo is distinct, it may not be memorable. For something to be memorable, it needs to be relatively simple. Complex logos are hard to remember because we humans cannot retain too many visual details. We unconsciously reduce visual information to its essential elements. We take this ability for granted but it’s a skill that we acquire over many years in our childhood. This is why children gravitate toward cartoons. Cartoons tell them how to strip down visual information to its bare essentials, so that they can digest and remember only the relevant and useful information. When we see something, we don’t pay attention to all the visual details evenly; we extract and digest only the relevant information for any given context.
The logos you see above are of various universities around the world. Technically they are distinct but they all look the same to us because we don’t see the point of retaining all those visual details. Most of us couldn’t, even if we wanted to. So, in our minds, they are all a big blur like this:
Pretty much the only thing we remember about them is that they are all shaped like a shield. It’s a good thing that logos aren’t that important for universities. Harvard University, for instance, is one of the most recognized brand names in the world, but most people probably couldn’t pick out their logo from above. The only one that is clearly identifiable and memorable is the last one for Loughborough University. Since all that we would take away from these logos is that they are in the shape of a shield, they might as well get rid of all the details like Loughborough did.
In comparison, the executives in the airline industry are much more educated about the value of branding, so they generally choose much simpler logos as you can see below.
Now, let’s blur them in the same way and see what they look like.
Even when the same amount of blur is applied to them, we can still recognize them, which is important because they might literally be blurry when we see them far away at the airport or on a fast moving airplane. Simple logos are also flexible. It can be used black and white, printed on a T-shirt, embroidered on a hat, etc.. Below you see the different applications of the Apple logo I found on the Internet. Imagine doing this with any of the university logos (except for Loughborough); it would simply be impossible.
Simple logos also inspire imagination. After Japan suffered the devastating Tsunami, graphic designers from around the world were inspired to create symbols and posters to help raise money for Japan. The Japanese flag is one of the simplest flags in the world (if not the simplest). If it weren’t for the simplicity, this would not have happened, and the amount of money raised to help them may have been quantifiably lower.
This, however, does not mean that simpler is always better. The idea is to make it as simple as possible while making sure that it’s still distinct and memorable. The reason why Japan’s flag works well is because no other country thought of using a red dot as a flag. If there were many other countries with a single dot on their flags, it wouldn’t have worked so well.
The people who do not understand how logos work are often looking to be wowed by the logo when they hire a designer. They are looking for something that they could not draw themselves. It would require a supremely confident designer to propose something like the Japanese flag. In their minds, they are paying the designer a lot of money for their logo, so they want to feel that they got their money’s worth. What would satisfy them would be something like these:
These are the sort of logos where the client goes, “Yeah! That’s what I’m talking ’bout!” and I quietly say, “Yes, I know.” As you would have to agree, a lot of work went into creating these logos. In terms of the amount of labor and skills involved, you would feel like you got your money’s worth, but great logos are not about how hard it is to draw them. You are not paying the designers for their craftsmanship. You want to be clearly distinguished from the others in your market, be easily recognized, and be more memorable than your competitors. You want your logo to help you do that. The logos with wow-factors like the ones above are only going to help promote the designers, not your business. They are in fact generic and unmemorable in their complexity and use of cliché.
Lastly, what is a fair price for designing a logo? This is a popular question for obvious reasons. If I sufficiently explained how logos work in this newsletter, you would probably understand that there wouldn’t be any set price for developing a logo because you are not paying for the product but for the process to arrive at the final product. The final product may only take a minute to draw. You are paying for the process you and your designer go through to arrive at that conclusion. Depending on the designer or design firm, it could be $100 or $1,000,000. I would suggest that you figure out how much you are willing to spend for a logo, which would be a reflection on how much value you see in it. With the given budget, the design firm would figure out how deeply they could explore various options and conduct research. To be realistic, a logo isn't important for every business. It wouldn't matter much, for instance, for universities or corporate law firms, but it does matter a lot for most retail businesses.
—posted by Dyske
This is the route I ran this morning, tracked using RunKeeper. It wasn’t easy to find a route in Manhattan that would give me the optimal typographic contours. The fact that the iPhone GPS isn’t so accurate makes it hard too. I guess it would be more fun if this was done in a wide open field with no streets. That way, I can be really conscious of getting it right, such as serifs and overshoots.
—posted by Dyske
This is by far the most common technical question I receive: how to send image files like photos and logos. There are many different file formats and most people do not understand the differences. In this article, I’m going to tell you what you need to know in order to choose the right format for your purpose.
There are two ways to interpret visual information digitally. One way is to record the step-by-step instructions, like a cooking recipe. For instance, your computer writes down: “Use a blue pen with a thickness of 3 pixels. Start drawing a straight line at the location X=120 and Y=324, and end at X=450 and Y=1300.” Or, “Draw a red circle that is 300 pixels wide at the location X=324 and Y=654.” Given the instructions, another computer would be able recreate it later on its monitor. This method of recording visual information is called “vector”. But unfortunately, vector file formats are limited in what kind of information you can record. It would have to be relatively simple and flat. A picture of your face, for instance, is too complex to record in this manner.
—posted by Dyske
It doesn’t always make sense to hire a professional to design and build a website. Perhaps it’s a personal website, or it’s a side business that doesn’t generate much income, or it’s for a small non-profit organization. If you had to create a website yourself, what is the best option?
Unfortunately it’s not an easy question to answer because there are now so many different ways to build a website. 15 years ago, your only choice was to learn HTML, the language used to compose Web pages. Now, there are many tools that would allow you to entirely avoid dealing with HTML. Another thing you should avoid is getting your own Web server or even getting an account on a shared Web server. As soon as you get your own server, you immediately increase the number of things you have to learn. Since there are now many tools available that would not require you to have your own Web server, it’s not worth it. People often ask me, “I have a copy of Dreamweaver; Can I use that to create a website?” Again, don’t bother. Dreamweaver is a semi-professional tool, so the learning curve is still pretty steep. Given that there are other options, it’s not worth learning it either.
Below, I’ll introduce you to three different tools that would not require you to learn HTML or to get your own Web server.
—posted by Dyske
This year, one of the hottest topics on the net was “Google Places”. Last year, Google made a major change in their search logic and added location-specific results to their general search result pages. Search becoming “local” means that when you search for “pizza” on Google, the results you get are now different from the results that someone living in Texas would get. In the old days, it didn’t matter where you were physically, you always got the same results. This is no longer the case. This may sound like a minor change to you but it has some interesting and significant implications for small business owners. So, read on…
Apparently about 40 percent of all searches today have so-called “local intent”. If you search for “pizza” with the intent to find a pizzeria near you, it would count as a search with a “local intent”. 40 percent is a huge number. No wonder Google is putting a lot of effort into this. 10 years ago, if you searched “pizza” on Google, you were probably looking for a pizza recipe. Google was a tool to search the whole world of the Internet, not your own neighborhood. This meant that local businesses like restaurants didn’t have to be so concerned about “search engine optimization” (SEO), the art of moving your site up higher in search results. But now more people are starting to search “pizza” on Google to find the pizzerias closest to them.
—posted by Dyske
These days, many business owners feel the pressure to use Twitter, Facebook, and Blog to promote their businesses. They fear that, if they don’t jump on the social media bandwagon, they might become the only ones left behind. And, the marketers who promote these services know how to exploit this fear too. So, let’s try to analyze exactly what social media means for the average business owners.
First some basics. What is the difference between Twitter and Facebook? We can think of Twitter as a public social network and Facebook a private social network. However, they are gradually becoming similar to one another as they copy the ideas of each other. Whatever you publish on Twitter is for the general public, and whatever you publish on Facebook is for your “friends”. On Twitter, anyone can be your friend (or “follow” you). I only know about 10% of my “followers” on Twitter. The rest are strangers that I’ve never met. The exact opposite is the case on Facebook; I’ve met 90% of my “friends”. What is a bit confusing about Facebook is that they have so-called “Facebook Pages” which is the public version of Facebook where the content is for the general public, and anyone can “Like” it (become a follower). I have a Facebook Page for myself and my followers are all strangers I’ve never met. It’s important to note that when you set up a Facebook account for your business, “Facebook Page” is what you want to create. You should not create a regular account for your business. If Facebook finds it, they might even delete it.
—posted by Dyske
Roxanne and I started R+D STUDIO in October of 2004, four months before our daughter was born. I was pretty nervous then. The fact that we were expecting a child was a huge change in our lives already; to start our own business added a lot more uncertainties. At first, I was mostly freelancing for other design firms and agencies, but started building my own roster of clients. I wanted to get away from the big corporate world, and transition to the world of small business. I’m definitely happier now.
About a few years ago, I had started thinking about partnership, but never had the time and energy to make it happen. Ironically what eventually pushed me to finally do it, was an email from my accountant. He told me that I should ditch my S-Corp this year and form an LLC. Since this required a name change, I figured it’s a good time to form a partnership. I then started discussing the idea seriously with my friend Michael.
Michael was my roommate in college. We had another roommate named Janet and three of us lived together in a 3-bedroom apartment right across the street from our school (School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street) where we studied fine arts. We used to stay up all night debating about politics, art and philosophy, and Janet would tell us to shut up. We disagree about many things, and we often passionately argue, but that has never become a problem in our 23 years of friendship.
I do not think this is uncommon, but the hardest part of forming this new partnership was coming up with the name. Everything else was pretty straight forward. We spent about a month trying to come up with a good name. We couldn’t use “R+D STUDIO” because R & D stood for Roxanne and Dyske. At one point, we settled on “Double Baked” and bought two domain names for it. Then Michael asked one of his friends and she was like, “Are you high?” The connotation of the word “baked” hadn’t occur to us until then. So, we were back to square one. One morning, when we finished eating breakfast at a local Mexican food joint, I saw Michael unlock his bicycle, and I thought, “What about Cycle?” We sat on that for a few days, did some Googling on the word “cycle”, and decided to go with it.
So, this is the uneventful story behind what happened to R+D STUDIO.
—posted by Dyske