In late fall of 2015, I sat on the rooftop terrace of Roger Black’s Hong Kong apartment on the steep hillside above Sheung Wan, enjoying breathtaking views and an intriguing discussion about design and business. At one point bits and pieces started to click together.
Different concepts, ideas, and fragments from almost three decades of practising design started making sense as a whole. I was not yet quite sure about what to do with this minor epiphany at the time, but it obviously began the process that resulted in this blog (and the upcoming book).
Roger is one of the most important designers of our time. He has designed more magazines and newspapers than most of us will ever read, and he was one of the first to start designing magazines for the web. He started as the art director of the original Rolling Stone magazine in the late 1970s, and to this day he’s designing major publications that define the (pop) culture of our times. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Scientific American, Panorama, and South China Morning Post, to name just a few. As early as 1989 he co-founded one of the first and still one of the best digital type foundries, Font Bureau.
With Luka Stepan, executive creative director at Gigodesign, we were on our way to the SZIDF design event in Shenzhen, a great thriving city just north of Hong Kong, dubbed “The Silicon Valley of Hardware,” and a city on the forefront of design in China. The Chinese have mastered the technical part of the production process, and are now focusing on the development of innovative products and their own brands. I stopped in Hong Kong for a couple of days for some meetings, one of them to discuss a startup idea with Roger and publisher Borut Rismal.
The idea at that time was to develop an online platform that would enable publishers to explore different business models. Marc Andreessen‘s 2014 excellent analysis of the situation in the publishing industry — which is still topical today — prompted the debate about the struggles of the publishing industry and the possible solutions to its problems. The entire publishing industry is searching for the right business model, but the catch is there is no one-size-fits-all model. Therefore, the platform should enable publishers, small and large, to build their media from different building blocks, with content, business, and design types of blocks that should be interchangeable and flexible.
I was far more interested in the business model side of the project, but Roger kept coming back to design. So we were discussing designing for the vast and still growing number of screens of all sizes, and emerging forms of content consumption. This includes everything from a tiny watch to gigantic desktop screens, virtual reality (VR) that creates the entire virtual world with no physical limits for the user, and augmented reality (AR) that projects the content directly on the top of our real environment like there is no screen at all or the screen size is infinite and without borders. Our real world is our screen, there is no more screen size to define the layout. How do we design for that?
It suddenly became obvious. We just have to revert the paradigm. Instead of designing from the outside-in, from the screen or page size inwards, we have to design from the inside-out, from the content outwards regardless of the screen size or the media.
Web designers are to some extent applying this approach through responsive and adaptive design, where design of the content adapts to various screen sizes. But still, their approach is limited to the web and more importantly, it is still based on the print-era page paradigm where the content is divided into several pages, and the screen size defines the page size and consequently every element on it.
Anyway. We never proceeded with the publishing platform, but that idea kept recurring to me over the next year, and time and again I saw the same pattern in all the design disciplines, not only in digital design. It works for the brand and corporate identities, where the modularity has been the name of the game for decades, it works for industrial design where parametric design is used to achieve a consistent recognisable form in different dimensions, and it is even applicable to the strategic level of brand positioning and communication strategy.
And most important, the inside-out design paradigm can unify all of these different design disciplines —that are in most cases treated separately— around the same task; to deliver consistent user experience at every point the user gets in touch with a brand. No matter if it is a logo, advertisement, landing page or an app, physical product, interior, or the after service support, the task is the same and should be treated as such, as one “project.”
User needs extend beyond design disciplines, inter-profession rivalry, or organisational charts.
By providing the right framework, tools, and “language” we should be able to deconstruct all the elements of a brand — strategic, communication, visual, industrial, interactive, services, and decision-making — to its basic building blocks and a set of rules to reassemble them again and again according to various circumstances and needs, creating adaptive brands that behave less as architecture and more like biology. Brands act as living, thriving ecosystems populated by different elements. The result of such an approach should be an adaptive, thus resilient and future-proof brand, more true to its vision, more focused at product decisions, consistent in communicating and delivering on their promises to its users. It should bring more value and clarity, better products and services to its customers, and as well for designers and ones who buy, employ, direct, and manage design it should help create and manage meaningful brands around valuable products.
The Brand Ecosystem Design Blog is a part of a book in the making. In the coming months, we’ll build up our case from looking at where we are and how we got here, to develop the framework, tools, and language to understand and manage the brand ecosystem.