Setting the scene
My designer’s mind was shaped in ad agencies where, if you are in the creative department, each concept you take to the presentation room is designed to “shake the market”, or at least “win people’s minds”. We didn’t know about John Maeda, were not reading Smashing Magazine and had no clue what Dribbble was— because it didn’t exist that time! Rather, Cannes Lions, Interbrand reports and David Ogilvy as a hero were central parts of our design lives.
Later, I spent few years in software development agencies doing a lot of the same — creating visual identities for digital products.
If somebody said to me at that time: “You will work full time in a startup”. I’d have answered: “Aaa-ha!” And if this person continued: “And this will be a blockchain startup”, I’d have continued too: “Double aaa-ha!”
However… 2 weeks ago I celebrated my one-year anniversary at Jolocom — a decentralization-committed company with a mission to help the world move into a better digital identity future using self-sovereign identities. To sound more “buzzy” — we are a blockchain startup.
With that buzzword in mind…
“So the journey begins”,
or The first trigger to host the Embrace variety meetup
The first milestone in our design roadmap was a visual rebranding with a pretty tough deadline — we were going to Austin in three weeks to present our company as one of eight best startups on the German Haus stage at SXSW2018.
Fortunately, Jolocom had its ecosystem positioning done on level “God” by that time, so when I asked our business developer, Kai Wagner, if there were internal lists I can use for the design research, I received way more than I expected: lists of direct competitors and companies working exclusively on identity management solutions (also not blockchain), partners, community players, and even a list of those startups who were about to present on the same German Haus stage at SXSW.
This was huge, and helped me conduct visual research, which I split into three parts:
- first — among other companies working in the area of decentralized identity;
- second — on local blockchain companies, some of our partners, key dapps on the market;
- third — general overview of the current state of visual design by searching relevant tags.
There is one very interesting moment in the process of research: before you make a deeper analysis of the message behind brand visuals, taglines and web interactions, you firstly act like a bot — or like a very bored user — clicking through the companies list “open link in new tab” until it gets difficult to navigate among those tabs. Then you click through tabs giving yourself up to 15 sec to browse company’s website.
When doing this research, two impressions were dominating in my mind: “Seriously?” and “Are you kidding me?”
With minor exceptions (like Ocean Protocol) everybody looked the same: bluish-purple shades, a lot of gradients, connected nodes graphics and isometric illustration.
Things got even more intense (and sad, and funny) when I went to Dribbble to simply search for the hashtags “blockchain” and “crypto”. That was the cherry on the cake.
Before showing my team brand moodboards during our first Making Design Decisions session, I told them about an exercise called shelf testing.
In agencies you always get an external design brief with a “Product Positioning” written by the marketing department that outlines the target audience, desirable perception in relations to competing brands, price group and the planned location on a store shelf.
So when you already have an internally accepted and loved by everyone packaging concept, before presenting it to client, you make a mockup (physical or with Photoshop): you put your packaging design on a shelf — right on its defined-by-marketing strategy place — step aside and try to answer two questions:
- “Will a potential customer used to their previous choices (save option of previous purchases) notice the new product? Would they be likely to take the package from the shelf to read product information? (if the price range is the same)”
- “Will a potential customer looking for a new product (or without previous buying experience of this category) notice your design?”
If any of these questions are answered with “No”, you as a designer have failed, because you pursued a safe approach to design and your concept is “just another one of the same kind”, and your agency has failed because it didn’t differentiate your client on the market. Long story short: client will never get back to you.
As I was showing design landscape analysis results to my team, we decided: whatever visual style we will choose — we should be different. So we defined a design tabu for Jolocom:
. . .
The second trigger…
… happened in July 2018 — thanks to 99U who published an interview with Erik Spiekermann.
It is very massive conversation on design, entrepreneurship, business in design and culture influence, but there was one particular question that caught my attention, and Erik’s answer on it completely “monopolised” my mind for the following days:
It was exactly what I was thinking for the last years but rarely speaking about it (outside of concept presentations and workshops with clients).
In the few months after reading the article, Erik’s words continued popping up in my memory from time to time till the third trigger.
. . .
The third trigger
I should admit: when designers publish bluish-gradientish interface designs without a unique concept behind it, I’m rolling eyes, but not raising a discussion.
Before moving to Berlin, I lived and worked in Warsaw for five years. The design community in Poland is freakishly huge and well-connected among cities — both graphic design and UX. For instance, the DribbblePL FB group has 1847 members comparing to 110 members in Dribbble Germany. I’m still in PL group — at least out of curiosity of what people I know personally are currently proud of.
It was early December when I saw another shot of a logo and brand guide (accepted, btw) for some crypto gateway service executed according all requirements of current trends in crypto space. I couldn’t fail to ask the author (who I know personally for a long time) in comments:was any design research of what is already out there in crypto done before choosing that particular graphic direction?
The response was:
Worse still, there were few designers in conversation with the same opinion…
. . .
Now let’s look at the situation from another party’s point of view — brands. New companies are striving to win their place under the sun (read: in the industry ecosystem). They are — spending a lot of money and time (sometimes investing all their private time and money, if we talk about early stage startups) to win audience’s attention. Branding done right is one of first ways to help new companies in achieving it. And we designers simply ruin these attempts — is it because we are seeking community appreciation or doing one more workflow “shortcut”? — by creating brand identities that are “just another one of same style”, forgetting that visual differentiation should be one of our design goals.
In such situations, as a designer, I feel sorry for brands. And, as a member of the design community, I believe we should not be silent if we can make a change.As a (not in-house) designer, you rarely can influence your client’s business model or value proposition. But as a designer you are completely in charge of helping businesses get noticed by early adopters.
All these thoughts, motivations and triggers finally resulted in the Dribbble Berlin meetup “Embrace variety”. It happened on February 11th at the new Betahaus. Theme “Embrace variety” turned to be hot — 1/3 of tickets were booked within 4 hours of launching the event announcement.
Talks were jaw-dropping:
. . .
More Dribbble meetups?
Well 🙂 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 is already scheduled —DWeb.Design Typonight where we talk about interactive typography in UI, the upcoming Women in Typography book and… we have a local type hero as a keynote talk!
“For the better design in the new web!” 🙌