In a perfect world, we wouldn't need to sell what we design--people would just know. When Industrial Designers imagine utopia, it's not only full of beautiful, functional products, it's also full of consumers who recognize them instantly and without prodding. Persuasion, in the form of logos, ad campaigns, and the ever-broadening array of activities known as branding, has attained the status of Necessary Evil to many of us. Designers--as we repeatedly tell each other in school, in the studio, and at conferences--are all about function, emotion and progress; persuasion is for shills.
Branding agencies are just as good candidates for performing product design explorations as design firms at this point, and there's probably enough work for both of them.
If we're honest about it though, we'd have to admit that branding and ID have been intimately related for a long time. Moreover, a lot of product designers have made their careers by getting in on the branding game in the past couple of decades. It shouldn't come as any surprise to hear that the same thing is starting to happen in reverse--branding agencies are doing product, and they're doing it fairly well.
Should product designers feel threatened? Depends on who you ask.
When Your Accountant Offers to Fix Your Car
Twist had a problem. By all appearances, the young Colorado-based company had everything going for them. Their line of environmentally sensitive sponges and cleaning rags had touched a chord with consumers, and was selling well at high-end grocery and housewares stores. They were getting attention from all the right magazines and blogs. But in order to expand, they needed a bigger brand with more product offerings; major retailers like Target said so, even as they expressed interest in carrying their line.
Like a lot of companies in this situation do, Twist decided to look for help. After a few months searching, they settled on Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, an award-winning agency that happened to have an office in Twist's home town of Boulder. Crispin, however (or CP+B, as it's sometimes abbreviated), is not a product design consultancy, it's an advertising agency, and has been since its founding in 1965. The proposal that got them Twist's account included a range of brand-building services, among them the design of new additions to their product line. And it's not the first time they've done this for a client.To most of us not deeply submerged in the eternally bubbling stew of modern marketing, this sounds kind of bizarre, as if your accountant were offering to fix your car in addition to doing your taxes. The popular impression of How Things Get Made and Sold generally has some engineers and designers over here, coming up with The Thing, and an ad agency over here, thinking up ways to sell it. Simple, right? And the fodder for some great fiction over the years, from thirtysomething and Max Headroom to Mad Men and Then We Came to the End.
That "two silo" method of design and marketing was more or less standard until recently, and while the history of its gradual erosion goes back several decades, the first firms to start messing with it in a substantive way were probably product design consultancies in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of the fastest growing European and American ID studios of that period, including Frog, Smart and Ziba, had the bright idea of offering a complete package of design and marketing to their clients: as long as we're designing your products, went the logic, why don't we help you package and sell them as well? It's an easy argument to make--good product design, after all, means knowing your customers intimately, so who better?--and it means you can bill more hours.
Convincing clients to agree to such a violation of the natural order might have been more difficult if marketing as a whole weren't undergoing some tumultuous changes right about then. The term "branding" was entering the popular consciousness in the late 80s (though the concept had been around for a while), Gen X was proving itself stubbornly resistant to the strategies that had succeeded so well with their parents, and shifts in technology and media consumption were slowly implying that broadcast TV, print and radio weren't always going to be the Holy Trinity. It's exactly this shake-up that Naomi Klein uses to set the stage for her anti-branding barrage in No Logo, a book that spawned a movement that pushed marketing even further out of its comfort zone.
It's an easy argument to make--good product design, after all, means knowing your customers intimately, so who better?--and it means you can bill more hours.
By the time No Logo was published, in early 2000, the game had changed considerably. Internet advertising was just gaining legs, and the anti-brand movement was manifesting itself in phenomena like culture jamming and ironic brand revivals (Hush Puppies, PBR, etc.). Product designers were doing things ad agencies used to do. And a lot of the ideas about what were meant by words like "brand," "design," "advertising," and "creative" were changing so rapidly as to defy common agreement. Given the situation, it seems obvious in retrospect that advertising agencies (and their modern mutation into "branding firms") would cross the gap to product design the same way the ID guys did in the 90s. And while it's taken a few more years, collaborations like Crispin's with Twist may indicate a coming flood.
Here in Portland, one of the most prominent predictors of that flood is Cinco Design, a branding and strategy firm of around 20 employees that boasts an impressive roster of clients for a company so young: the studio just celebrated its tenth anniversary earlier this summer, and features Microsoft, Nike, Electronic Arts and Fox Racing prominently on its list of satisfied customers. In ID circles they're probably best known as the company that does Nixon's line of iconic watches.
While Cinco doesn't actually design the entire line, they do a significant chunk of it, and plenty of other things too: packaging, print media, web content. Branding, in other words, which constitutes a much larger portion of Cinco's practice than product design does. Like at Crispin, the product arm is a small, recent subset of the firm, with two full-time ID guys having been hired on in the past three years, largely to help take advantage of the Nixon opportunity.
Before that, Cinco was a little closer to typical, though its founder Kirk James has been blurring the branding/product design border for most of his career. James got his start at one of the pioneering companies in the branding field, Burlington-based extreme sports specialists JDK. In an interview at Cinco's office--a converted parking garage across the river from downtown Portland, replete with bent plywood furniture--he described an early JDK project designing glove graphics for hockey gear manufacturers Karhu and Coho. An ardent fan of the sport himself, James took special interest in the project, and discovered an unusual opening: "They started asking us questions about how can we apply graphics onto the [goalie] gloves, and we said 'Well, how can we maybe update the articulation of the glove, and maybe solve some of the problems your goalies are talking about, being able to get a better angle on the puck?'"
"What you get is an amazing fashion piece that has integrity to its process, and can actually do that job, but is blowing up in fashion circles...We don't actually have spearfishermen breaking down our doors."
For the next several years, James stuck with this unusual polyglot approach, picking up some of the tools of Industrial Design as he moved along, from JDK to Nike, and eventually to the founding of his own company. Asked about the seeming contradiction of marketing and graphics specialists doing ID, he references their strikingly unusual watch designs, which are doing quite well in certain men's fashion circles. "A watch is an awful lot like an identity: it's got to have singularity to it, visually. It's got to have all the formal aspects to it, with regard to fit and function. But at the end of the day, these are pieces that are about personal expression...kind of like costume and theater."
That fine line between function and theater is perhaps most cunningly straddled by Nixon's 51-30 watch, a massive chunk of technical steel that's attained a sort of cult status, and is a personal favorite of James'. The watch was originally designed with input from spearfishermen on the California coast, even though the vast majority of its purchasers probably wouldn't know which end of a Hawaiian sling to grab. This sort of tangential marketing has plenty of precedent, of course, especially when the product is sports-related, but the 51-30 is interesting because it was consciously designed from square one as a fashion accessory, but still went rigorously through the motions of functional design.
"In the end," notes James, "you don't get a spearfishing watch. What you get is an amazing fashion piece that has integrity to its process, and can actually do that job, but is blowing up in fashion circles...We don't actually have spearfishermen breaking down our doors."
The Next Great Marketing Weapon
In 2002, the About Us page on Crispin Porter + Bogusky's website said this: "We are a full-service agency with creative, media, planning/research, account service and broadcast production." That's an ad agency, clear and specific.
The current site reads: "We're a factory. A factory that makes advertising and branded creative content...Here is some of our recent product." Still probably an ad agency, but possibly something else entirely. In the last few decades, "product" has become a word that can describe a toothbrush, a piece of software, or an advertising campaign with equal justification, and this trend of metaphor-as-synonym shows no signs of slowing. "Factory" may soon be just as malleable.
"Product is the ultimate communication tool," Winsor explained, "To me, branding and ID are different sides of the same coin. We're both satisfying the needs of the customer."
The reason this type of description suits Crispin so well is that, even more than most of the ad agencies out there, they've made their name by becoming ever harder to pin down. This is largely achieved by doing things not normally done by ad agencies and calling it branding. They filled a VW Rabbit with cameras and computers in 2006, and turned it into a free New York taxi cab as part of a Volkswagen promo; adding Industrial Design to their roster of services and calling it another form of brand extension isn't that much of a stretch.
John Winsor's title at Crispin is Director of Strategy in Product Innovation. He shuttles between the head office in Miami and the newer Boulder branch, where the Product Innovation Team lives. The Team consists of John and three designers: one with an ID degree, one with a background in set design, and one from advertising ("but he's always had a passion for product"). John himself was head of Radar Communications, a smaller branding firm bought by Crispin in 2007, and he's written a couple of books on the subject (Beyond the Brand and Spark) with another due later this year (Baked In).
What Winsor's team did for Twist was look at their existing brand and product line -- four items -- and create an "overall brand vision" that included graphics, packaging, strategy and designs for new products: Ravioli, Dish Trowel and Holy Spongey are a few of them, depicted here in digital renderings sent over by Winsor after we spoke on the phone. "We always try to over-deliver," he stated, "so sometimes that means expanding their product line."
In fact, product design as brand extension is the primary reason for the Product Innovation Team's official establishment in January of this year, and Winsor alludes to it as a good candidate for the next great marketing weapon. "Product is the ultimate communication tool," he explained, "To me, branding and ID are different sides of the same coin. We're both satisfying the needs of the customer." As CP+B appears to see it, good brand building means products that reinforce the brand, rather than solely the other way around; to neglect this step is to miss a major opportunity.
Other clients to receive the Product Innovation Team treatment have included Mini, who got a clothing line; Volkswagen, who got a customizable urban vinyl figure called The Fast; and Burger King, who got some new menu items, including the now popular Chicken Fries. A diverse portfolio for such a young group, and there's little about it to immediately suggest that it came from a bunch of ad men.
Fantastic, Pragmatic, and the Fuzzy Space In Between
Ad agencies designing products has a sort of apocalyptic ring to it for many traditional ID folks, who may bristle at the idea of product design as just another way of getting people excited about buying. The small mound of moral high ground product designers have seized for themselves over the years is largely composed of statements about making things work better, last longer, offer more relevance. If that makes them sell better, goes the argument, then great, but don't think for a moment that market appeal is the primary motive; that's what ad agencies do. This breeds wariness, and while it might have some justification, it's also a little beside the point: the marketing landscape has shifted dramatically since the claim was first made.
For one thing, the idea of what an ad agency even is has changed, as the above histories can attest. It's actually getting tough to find a company willing to call itself by that name, given its historical meaning. Rob Walker, who writes on marketing and consumer culture for the New York Times Magazine in his weekly "Consumed" column, explains, "The more you talk about traditional ad agencies, they're largely re-evaluating their business models, which were traditionally based on media buys. Everyone's trying to find a new model."
Crispin and many of its competitors resolutely avoid the term now, while Cinco is "Creative for Industry," and doesn't buy media at all (though it does list Advertising as one of its services). As the stigma of being attached to an outdated way of marketing gets ever harder to outrun, creative firms of every description become increasingly wary of getting too specific about what exactly they do.
What exactly is the difference between a product design studio and a branding agency anyway?
This non-specificity manifests itself in the type of staff that get hired, and this is generating a convergence of abilities across the creative professional landscape. While it's true that product designers are still a tiny minority in a modern branding agency, many self-described product design studios are mostly non-ID too. Discussions with employees at Ziba and Frog, for example, reveal that both firms employ perhaps one Industrial Designer for every eight or nine employees overall, the balance consisting of anthropologists, interaction designers, graphic designers, administrators, researchers, client wranglers...and marketing people. While that's no shock to anyone in the business, it raises a good question: What exactly is the difference between a product design studio and a branding agency anyway?
Traditionalists may contend that the underlying motivations are fundamentally different, that "real" design is foremost about serving user needs, not expanding brand identity. There are two arguments against this.
The first is that the day-to-day practice of industrial design is frequently driven by all sorts of things unrelated to user needs. Walker points out that for all the exceptionalism industrial designers may claim, their projects are often just as brand-directed as anything produced by a branding firm. "A product design consultancy is in the same boat as a marketing firm: they're both client services. Neither of them is getting paid by the consumer...in the end, clients are looking to expand their market share, not serve consumers."
The second argument, offered by both Kirk James and John Winsor, is that good brand-building does serve user needs. As Winsor explains, "Most of the product design that happens today isn't really about overcoming technical obstacles, it's about improving the emotional aspects of the product. We're not trying so much to solve a technical problem. We look for cultural tension, and try and build on that. Whenever we do design it has to build upon an existing narrative."
James extends the argument by proposing that firms like his may be the most qualified for addressing these concerns, "Branding agencies are highly attuned to satisfying emotional needs as well as fundamental functional needs. Meeting the needs of the fantastic as well as the pragmatic."
Two Final Words: Innovation and Authenticity
So, ad agencies are designing products now, and this trend has every indication of expanding for the foreseeable future. It's a pretty logical next step in the quest for flexibility and virtuality, and, it could be argued, is an indication of a maturing product and media market. As Walker is fond of pointing out, we are first world consumers, and most of our fundamental needs have been pretty well taken care of for the past 50 years or more. In his book Buying In, he offers the recent example of a Consumer Reports examination of kitchen ranges, in which every one of the 60-odd units examined scored "good" or "excellent" in performance and quality. There are plenty of markets like that, so it's easy to argue that all that's left are adjustments of minutia to affect the consumer's perception of the product; brand identities excel at maximizing that sort of thing.
But what about innovation and authenticity? This is worth bringing up because they're the two terms that pop up with the greatest frequency when talking with branding agencies about how to differentiate brands, but also the qualities they seem least qualified to provide--"authentic brand" smacks strongly of oxymoron to those outside the industry, and innovation often hinges on technological advancement, not the way it's depicted. From the industrial designer's point of view, the way to create innovative, authentic product is to either apply new technologies, or provide superior functionality, and neither of those is likely to come from a group of designers devising new products to fill out a brand. It doesn't matter whether they're working in a branding firm or an ID consultancy. The Nixon and Twist case studies both show some great design, of a particular type, but neither has revolutionized an industry; nor were they meant to.
..."authentic brand" smacks strongly of oxymoron to those outside the industry...
This, in the end, is why the good money is probably on the middle path. It's likely that a lot more branding firms will be hiring product designers over the next few years, just as ID firms hired lots of media and identity specialists a decade back (and continue to do). But this encroachment merely nudged branding firms into a slightly different path; it didn't wreck them. The trick with any attempt to broaden services is that someone else's expertise always looks easier to acquire than your own. This fiction has been plaguing product and interface design for a while now, as decision-makers often assume that expertise and success in one creative endeavor will automatically apply to another.
For something as focused and well-defined as a brand-building product design, hiring a few skilled designers to extend your service list can potentially work out, because the problem is so specific. When we look for examples of "authentic," "innovative" design, however, we're almost always looking at a different sort of team. The current poster children of innovation-spawned market success--the Wii, the iPhone, the Flip video camera--emerged from large groups of researchers, designers, engineers, programmers and manufacturing specialists who worked together for a long time, and knew both their brand and the applicable technologies intimately. This type of work cannot be emulated by assembling a team or hiring an agency and handing them a brand bible, no matter how good they are at their jobs.
On the other hand, despite the vogue for slapping the "innovation" label on every kind of creative endeavor, most design jobs don't really require it. Twist already knows what kind of products they make. Nixon does too: they make wristwatches, using technology that hasn't really changed since early last century. There are endless permutations of these products to explore, and like it or not, our consumer culture thrives on exploring them. Branding agencies are just as good candidates for performing these explorations as design firms at this point, and there's probably enough work for both of them. Clients seeking to hire a consultant, though, would be well advised to decide whether they're looking to innovate, or simply to extend. There's a difference.
lead photo: late night movie