Bridging the gap — When A met B.

by Timothy Maurer
Design Director at
Studio Naam


On an average day, in and around an average city where normal people like you and me live it is becoming abundantly clear that a lot of things are slowly looking, tasting and feeling more and more the same. This isn’t a shocking fact or surprising in any way. What is surprising is that the way we’ve designed our world significantly increases the potential to end up with boring and unimaginative experiences. This is partly the result of industrialisation and mass production. What is more daunting than that, is that as a side-effect of these unimaginative experiences, we’ve all started to think the same, more or less.

My direct surroundings are a compilation of neighbours owning the same shit as I do, from cars to couches all the way over to smartphones and shoes. All of this is happening at the cost of losing all the great insights still hidden in the quirky things, the outsiders, the non-compliant, the analogue, the ones that do things differently. Individuality must be losing some ground here. One of the many questions I ask myself is if we are intentionally or unintentionally stagnating the potential to become more well rounded humans and what is the role of the designer in all this?

A new kind of world is available where we can live in someone else’s perfectly curated Pinterest board or filter fueled Instagram feed. A world that in turn opens a completely new dialogue regarding insights and behaviours. Where on a daily basis we receive the news that algorithms think we need or want. Where ironically, we make less and less choices. Where we replace the need for information by an anticipatory system.

Is it this world so focussed on usability and easily attainable information, that it might be turning us into overly curated, single-minded, adventure-less and too well organised individuals? Shouldn’t we therefor be making a little room for the things we can’t control? The things which open our eyes and broaden our views.

As designers we actively build systems of anticipation and analyzation to gain insight and to observe. This allows us to make things easier and faster to use. All of this seems like a perfectly fine goal on paper. But isn’t it forgetting about something crucial? In all these systems and algorithms, we have to make room to accommodate for the unexpected, the counter-weight. The music, the emotion. In the same way that one needs a shitty day to appreciate the good ones. One can’t exists without the other. Balance, ying, yang and all that.

When it comes to design we are knee deep in a turf war between ‘function’ vs ‘emotion’. It’s a good place to be, actually. It means we haven’t really given our hearts to one or the other. To be honest, both camps make excellent points that need consideration. So how do we choose?

I noticed I’m quite often torn between these two sides. As someone who’s been running a design studio for a couple years and has a little experience under the belt, I can’t imagine what it would be like for junior designers or students, to find their voice in this. And the reason I discuss this topic today, is because it’s really important to address this early on, so you don’t lose any more valuable time worrying over this. If you haven’t already, at some point you will. I’m basically here today, to tell you, you don’t have to choose.

There’s something weird about excepting that you are simply right in between there, in the middle of all the turmoil, where the friction turns to energy, on that wonky and shaky bridge. Where we listen to both sides, take-away what we need. Ditch the fanatics and find our own path. Embrace that our brains too, are build up from ‘emotion’ and ‘function’. Left and right, irrational and rational. On this bridge there’s no such thing as ‘versus’, there is only ‘featuring’. Working together, both sides. We designers are the filter, the translator, the communicator.

Allright then, enough with the metaphors. Let’s play some devil’s advocate (is that also a metaphor?). A question to ask ourselves is: Why argue with functionality when you know it works? Analytics, numbers, methodologies, measurements; it’s science. It works. Patterns are good for users, right? They’re digestible, understandable, they make us feel safe, etc. etc. Easier is better, right?

These are all valid reasons for it to be an important part of the process. But it’s also important to see that growth in science can only exist because there is still room for surprises. The will to research is driven by emotion, not function. The magic of figuring out something, exploring and understanding new things will be gone the moment everything is figured out. It’ll lose it’s appeal like the analytics in a sports game won’t make someone a great player. Talent, genes and dedication will. There’s simply a lot more to it.

A small example in service language: A sales funnel optimized for conversion that generates an increase in sales is not the same thing as a pleasant experience that creates an ‘I will come back in the future kinda’ bond with the company. Simply put, it’s because the issue here is only being handled in favor of one side, and not the two way street it should be. It’s short-term solution thinking, instead of long-term relationship building.

Just like good old discounts will create a sweet conversion percentage for a little while. People will be on their way to the next store for the latest new deal in a heartbeat, and stay away if you’re not the cheapest the next time ‘round. You’re not creating a bond, you’re creating a fix. If you want to create a lasting bond, you’ll need to create an all-round (fancy word alert: holistic) experience that gives customers (a) reason(s) to come back. And that entails a lot more than just lowest price discounts.

Small side-note:
This is also known as the rise of the experience economy. It’s related to this topic because it helps to understand that there’s no one stop solution. You can’t get away with crap anymore. We are shifting from a world with products screaming at us, to a world where we buy the products that really intrigue us, move us and add to our lifestyle. Not the other way around.
We are also living in a world where crap products or brands have no place to hide anymore. If your product doesn’t live up to its promises, social media will have a field trip. If your product is great, social media will most likely become your biggest asset. Don’t create false expectations. Be honest.

Back to the main topic.

I often hear things like: “When people see something they don’t understand, they will inherently think it’s a bad thing. That’s how we’re wired.” This is indeed our functional side talking. My answer will always be that when we see something we don’t understand but it feels, smells and looks like something we would love to get to know better, we are always willing to explore, invest time in and set aside our fears. It’s in that moment that you create a real bond, a connection. A connection I might even want to share with my friends to impress ’m.

This is not just functional, it’s also emotional. Just think about why people buy Alfa Romeo’s or Jaguar’s, least to say they’re not really known for their functionality. It’s because there’s something about them that the owners love and value. Try and put that in numbers.

In order for something to have a lasting impact. You will need both function (utility + usability) and exicitement (pleasurability) to create a bond (desirability). That’s a bit of ‘service design thinking’ math. Now let’s get away from equations as quickly as possible.

To bridge both these worlds together. You’ll need a common language, a plan that solidifies who you are and what you stand for, a reason, something exciting. Something that defines who you really are, something genuine. A plan that incorporates all types of people (not just designers, but also the client, customers, employees, etc.) during the creation-process. A plan that is not just a pre-written methodology or a ‘deck’. A flexible plan that listens to all factors and sides, and is then tailor made to either anticipate (potential future scenarios) or solve a problem.

As a closing statement:

Start putting a ‘fuck yeah’ in your work. Surprise people, and yourself, go further than you’ve ever gone. Create the unexpected. Be the crazy one, bring the music.

Chaos. Love it, embrace it. You’d be amazed. Never forget you are human, we all are, so tap into that source every day. Create, understand and (re)live real memories, they are the source of the strongest of all experiences. Read and broaden your horizon. Be an all-round person, live and understand other humans and their emotions. Understand what makes people do things.

Get away from your personal rectangles. Find new shapes. Go out and look at the world.

What makes a great designer / client / product / brand / idea is a combination between head and heart, short term and long term thinking, function and excitement. Surprise yourself and the people around you. And shit, don’t forget to have a lot of fun whilst your at it!

Yes! This is goodbye… or is it?
Timothy.


Timothy is a Design Director at Studio Naam in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Always on the lookout for great (international) opportunities and selected work is visible at: www.timothymaurer.nl

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