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Visual variety vs design trends vs UI standards for MVP branding

Opinions  •  
Mar 11, 2019
 • logged_by: Ira and Sean

This article is a best-ideas-cut of the discussion panel we had with:
Jinhi Kim — Communication Design Lead at BCG Digital Ventures
Eric Walsh — Design Lead at BCG Digital Ventures
Jan Pautsch — Director of Experience Design at Cogs Agency
Moritz von Volkmann — Director of Product Design at Onefootball Design.

Ira (moderator):

Everybody replied that you are very interested in the topic of visual variety for brands in the new web. Can you share few details on it — why it was interesting for you particularly?

Jan:

Of course this is something we work with at Cogs day-by-day — design, variety and design, globalization of design, etc. — so this is a very, very important topic.

Yet, I would differentiate between trends and standards. Maybe we come to discuss that later: I see a huge difference between following trends and following certain standards that we have in the industry at the moment.

And I think it’s fantastic to be here and to share ideas and best practices with clients who actually work with recruitment businesses in creative industries. It’s very much involved in product design.

Jinhi:

I feel force in the industry that we’re in. We see these trends, but we also see it outside of our industry. Just look at the high fashion brands that did a redesign recently. The logos looks all the same with just a different name, right? So I feel like we are noticing it right now, but it’s something we need to find solutions for in other industries that are a little bit less digital and for those that are new and unknown today.

At BCG Digital Ventures we create new brands or we create startups for Fortune 500 companies, and then we create brands for these kinds of companies. Unfortunately, it often comes to the design team of one. So we think a lot about how we need to build these brands so that a design team of one can actually work with it. So I’m curious to hear all your pain points and all your thoughts.

Eric:

It was interesting because I wasn’t sure if I agreed with variety being a positive thing. After very casual conversations that we had around the office around design, I had to sort of put it in an email in one sentence, and the thing is: using visual trends works up until a point. But then there does become a point where variety is really the only differentiator that you have. So I found it fascinating because I thought in order to come here and speak I’d have to challenge some of what I thought about variety before.

Moritz:

So, for me, I’m similar. I like the idea of differentiating between standards or patterns or whatever, and talking about variety in general. I like the topic because I have to discuss with the stakeholders on a daily basis why are we doing something as we always do it, versus, “let’s try out something new!”. And as you might know, even in bigger companies budgets might be limited, especially for design, sadly. In this case, people tend to always willing to go with a safe option. Of course, I don’t really accept that. And that’s, I think, part of the design job to constantly challenge that.

Ira:

I’d like to continue the topic “a design team of one”, since helping such designers is the main goal of our meetup.
There are a lot of companies hiring designers who are at the very beginning of their careers to create the entire brand visual language or to build customer experience for the entire service from zero. Did you notice any patterns in the results? In what industries is the influence of trends on the creative process seen the most or (maybe) welcomed the most?

Moritz:

Onefootball is all about football (that is a lot about emotions) and…

… trends, that are also closely connected to emotions, in my opinion.

Of course everybody in this industry thinks we need to be with the latest trends and so on. But I’m not sure if I agree with such an opinion in my company. It’s really more than just blindly following trends, right? Trends can be super powerful, if you want to leverage a certain topic, if you want to create a viral campaign, if you want to go with a certain wave to create a hype.

Let’s take my role of Experience designer.
I would say, being in-house, this title sits in between product design, strategic design, and visual communications. We have to take into account all of these different inputs and try and synthesize it in a way. One of the main pain points are:

1) the speed with which we design and launch to market our products, and
2) the range of stakeholders you need to pitch to on a daily basis.

First, we have to first get the vision across to our major senior stakeholders — our clients, our corporate partners. A lot of the time that’s a very small amount of time in which you have to bring the product to life, and attached to the product is some sort of minimum viable, but marketable, look and feel. You may have to adhere to certain standards, or you may have to say — what our favorite thing to say is, “This is just an MVP”. Obviously, marketing and something richer in its experience comes later. So we have to bring it down to its essence, find what is the brand experience — we do a lot of brand positioning.

But I think at the end, especially speaking as a product designer, there are certain design rules which we need to apply from time to time — or, all the time(!) actually. We need to sort experience challenges and business things out, need to follow requirements, need to listen to our users. Usually this does not go that well with the latest trends.

Coming back to branding and visual, I think the whole topic of visual is like— “the user likes” aspect, right? At least it is in Onefootball industry. I don’t really have pain points with following trends. For me it’s more about how do we tackle the topic within the company. Branding usually tends to be a topic where everybody thinks they have an opinion, like everybody thinks, ‘I know what I like, so everyone needs to like it’, or ‘It has to be trendy, because I’m a trendy person’.

This kind of discussion I have very often in the company and we need to educate people: “OK, well, that might be a your opinion, that might even be true, but let’s anyways ask the users and see what might be a good thing to do. I think that’s one of my pain points. Maybe you guys also have some pain points so that I can think of further pain points.”

Jan:

I’d like to add something else here. Coming from the client’s perspective (the briefing on the candidate profile) — there are pain points of dealing with skill silos. In digital agencies, there was a strong separation from the very beginning: strategic designers, product designers, research, interactive or visual designs. Yet, branding didn’t play major role in the past.

What is happening now? The industry is getting mature, and people with branding design backgrounds are really asked for, however, it’s not a specific position, but mostly seems to be an extension. Designing logos, working with colors, typography, etc. — it’s got a new value at the moment creating a horizontal layer of branding in Strategic Designer or Interaction Designer positions requirements. I appreciate this very much. And there is a very, very strong demand at the moment for brand experience designers, for instance, who are capable of doing some interaction design and UX. A pain point two years ago, now becomes a regular requirement.


‧ ‧ ‧


Hm… Okay, Jan, let’s imagine: without any in-agency work experience, having only in-house design positions in startups, I suddenly would like to join some company or ventures for a Strategic Design position. What skills or experiences should I highlight in my portfolio to get better results in candidates review?

Jan:

Well, I think the candidate coming from the edge is very interesting for companies looking for strategic designers. But you really will have to prove your research skills and approach, industry strategies knowledge, and (sometimes) visual design understanding. I know, for instance, that Strategic Designer positions we are working on mostly have nothing to do with visual at all. Yet, such extra focus is appreciated, but it is a different discipline.

Jinhi:

Probably the most important thing that I want to say tonight is it’s up to the client whether they want to be different or whether they want to be the same. We have a lot of people who are trying to break into a new industry, and they don’t necessarily want to innovate.

So what do you do if a client, after launching an MVP UI says: “Hey, we are fine with how we look. We’d like to stick to this trend and stay like this” (means: no further design process, while you know that staying “the same” may harm the client’s visibility)? How do you handle such situations?

Jinhi:

What I want to emphasize here is:

We have a lot of people who are trying to break into a new industry, and they don’t necessarily want to innovate. They may want to go in under the radar a little bit. And so we’ll do things in a particular color and we’ll see who exists in what visual space. And then we’ll ask them to position themselves in that color space. And then we do the same with a tone of voice space. Then you can continue to build up on that foundation. And you’ll see very quickly whether they continue to cluster — putting themselves within the clusters— some kind of an attitude toward being different is visually.

Eric:

Once the brand gets at the established MVP level, we start talking more about how the brand can express itself or even further: how can someone, when they reach a friction point, recognize the brand, or recognize themselves in the brand and have a moment of joy? How does a brand express itself not only through purely static visual, typography and color, but also through movement and micro-interaction. These are the things that I think, once the brand makes it way further and further along the process, it requires a team of people who have different skills. It has less to do with logos, and less to do with colors. But if the brand positioning statement was successful within the MVP stage, then it will stay alive throughout the entire production and implementation.

When the context wins over the brand positioning

(a story about the Coup brand colors told by Moritz)

Since we are talking about brand positioning while building MVP, I’d like to share the story how we designed COUP.

We had a lot of discussions at the beginning. All stakeholders said, COUP should be red: “People need to see it”.

So we tried it out — red scooters on the street. But the challenge appeared that there are a lot of red elements already on the street. And so we shifted a bit trying different colors.

At the end we ended in a mint-greenish tone that turned to be more visible than red. It was quite surprising, not based on positioning, and noticed and suggested by our UI/UX designer, who brought up the context perspective. His participation in the stakeholders meeting had greater impact than anybody could expect, and that’s why I think there’s a huge value in the entire design team taking part in the brand discussion.

Ha-ha! When I visited their website, the first thought was: “Seriously? Are you a scooter sharing service? You don’t look like ones…” So you see logo and visual first and then start reading that “hey-dude”-style texts on a website:

Ira:

You mentioned including UX designers into the branding process — I’m wondering what about people from other creative areas? On the last ProductCrunch meetup WeTransfer presented how artists have influenced their new look.

I’d like to ask first our special guest — Masha McConaghy. She has the most impressive experience among us (and all people I met before) on curating art galleries and bridging collaboration between artists and exhibition centers.

Masha, can you say few words about any collaborations between artists and digital products teams?

Masha:

The relationship between art and the commercial side has been out there for ages — mostly visible after the industrial revolution, then Bauhaus impact, and now it is integrating into the experience economy through interactive art. If a company has a connection to the art community, usually you can expect them bringing art as part of the brand (and as one of visual differentiators).

Funny or not, but I have met few artists who complained about some corporations using their artwork as part of their brand identity and not even attributing it. Yes, definitely, there is always collaborations between artists and brands.

Jan:

Art is always at the frontier of new mediums, including deep tech, VR and AR. For me, art is a window into something new. Just look at all the fantastic things they have have created for the Bauhaus exhibition at the Academy of Arts! I think this is the moment of our history when art comes into play again as a part of the product design, somehow establishing certain standards and opening new medias.

Masha:

Partially this is because artists are not scared about being judged, so they try more things. When you’re working as a graphic designer, you’re kind of restrained by your client’s wishes, tech requirements etc. Artist not.

Eric:

Exactly! In product design every stakeholder can say “No, that’s not usable”, “No that’s not looking good”, or else, and you then you need to go and test with users to prove you are right. Art is free to provoke standards and break rules: you can try out crazy stuff and nobody will say “No” if you call it art. Everybody accepts the concept, even if they don’t get it.

“Here you are — this is a business card!”

(a story from Eric)

About ten years ago, when I was still in Dublin, I was just getting started in digital design, moving from print. A friend of mine and myself co-founded an art gallery in an old and big mechanic’s workshop. And that was my first branding project that I covered entirely by myself — logo, collateral, printed giveaways and calls for entries, and then helping to curate the actual exhibitions. There were eight in-house artists that worked in the workshop and we would exhibit from the other side of the venue. All I heard from them was always connected to some inspirations taken “from nowhere” (as for me that time).

Once I was sitting in front of the screen (InDesign in those days) creating business cards for us. I was in the slight creative block trying to find a perfect layout. Suddenly, one of the sculptors — observing my efforts — came in, picked up a stamp with our logo, took a piece of paper from the ground, just stamped it and said: “Here you are — this is your business card!” Then he took another piece of parer — completely different in color and shape from the first one, stamped it again and said again: “And this is your business card too! Just add some details by hand”

It inspired me to start thinking in a completely different way.

Ira:

What you have just mentioned about the art facilitating another point of view, reminded me about one of Austin Kleon’s books “Steal like an artist”. In his blog he advised to “stop mixing what’s currently going on and start reusing stuff from the past” .

If there is a young designer coming to the industry, where do you advise them to look for inspirations outside of digital design bubble?

Jan:

I was just thinking about a quote from Tobias von Schneider about portfolios and how designers present themselves.

It goes beyond and outside the design trends, if you make it all about your personality. This is something you have to find out: who you are as a professional, who you are as a person, how you can fit into a company, into to a team, and then present that in the best possible way.

And then being very precise and on point with your work — about ‘stealing like an artist” — it doesn’t harm if you have stolen something, what is crucial — you have to prove what you have shipped that idea to the market, that market accepted it because this idea was really relevant. You also have to prove success and numbers and reward of your work. And it has nothing with presenting shiny final designs, but with presenting your own methodology and your own process.Again, it’s a lot about your personality — the main thing you, as a young designer, have to find out for yourself.

Ira:

Okay, I’m glad we made such a smooth transition to “portfolio” topic. You all hire designers to your teams from time to time. When looking through one’s portfolio, what details do you see as red flags?

Jinhi:

I’d say from the communication design perspective.

One of red flags for me is not giving credits to the collaborative projects. We all know that in agencies every project is always a team effort. In many startups the situation is the same. And if you just show the final results and don’t mention what exactly you have been engaged in, it’s hard for me to understand where is your real focus is.

The second aspect is your process. I love it when people show sketches, mood boards, how they got there, even though it’s not pretty and shiny. This is very important for me to see the way you think — from the first idea to final results. And in general it is OK if you show a remix of current trends, as long as it makes a point, and as long as it delivers the message that you’re trying to communicate. If it doesn’t, then it’s a fail. So I want to know what’s the main message and the idea behind the deliverable — behind the design that you show. And I want to know what your thinking was.

And one more thing I don’t like in portfolios are progress bars like “90% of Photoshop” and so on. Just don’t do it. Period.

Eric:

From a UI/UX perspective, it’s similar — the process is the number one that I’m looking that for in all portfolios. Sometimes people just copy UI and interaction patterns without thinking of what they are copying, and then you can read it “between images” of the final work, if they don’t support them with the verbal case study.

And (!) I would say, before you can be a truly successful visual designer you have to be really good with words. You have to be a good storyteller, because no one will really engage with just a website or a product or a logo. They fall in love with the story behind it. And that’s why at DV, you know, our brand sprint process, we always start with words, and emotions, and personal attributes or characteristics that you might find in a person, that you can — that you will, you know, recognize in a person, because, really, that’s what we’re trying to communicate. We’re not trying to communicate visuals. We’re trying to engage with people.

Next steps

No, we won’t host the next event as a “Dribbble meetup”. Instead, we will continue the promised series of design meetups under the new name — DWeb.Design as a part of DWeb Berlin.

The next event will happen in the mid May with the theme around typography and open source design. Join the group to stay updated!

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