Designing Digital Products with an Identity

Barton Smith
Dec 30, 2013 · 3 min read

Business cards, stationary items and even logos are becoming less relevant to the identity of a brand. Increasingly, it’s about the identity of the products we experience and use.

This was something I came to understand when working at Fuseproject, an industrial design agency in San Francisco. They recognize the impact of designing products with a strong identity that is instantly recognizable and builds desire in the consumer’s mind.

So I spent a lot of time thinking about what ‘identity’ means to digital products. How can you inject a personality into an app or website without creating superfluous embellishments that distract or degrade key tasks? There are three areas that I defined to help me design products that are more recognizable and desirable:

• Design language
• Brand signatures
• Marketing novelties

Design Language

A design language describes the unique (but subtle) treatment of core aspects such as color, typography, iconography, pattern, behavior, motion or transition. It’s the minimum you need to build up an identity, and is pretty common in most good products today. A good language is flexible enough to adapt to each touchpoint (app, email, website) or product (Nike Running, Nike Fuelband) while maintaining a familiar look and feel.

Treatments I developed for Game Golf’s design language included stacked bold titles, left aligned stats with vertical dividers, and a gold wash across the satellite imagery.

Brand Signatures

A brand signature is the “iconic” element that helps define or increase recognition of a product. It feels most natural and authentic when the signature is born from the key function of your product and is most effective when it’s repeated across other touch points. But be careful, they should celebrate your product strategy, not drive it.

Nike Fuel’s signature green to red gradating graphs
Path’s signature vertical line and round icons.

Marketing Novelties

Marketing novelties are slightly more contentious, but when used correctly, can be a powerful tool. They are simple elements in a product that often provide little functional value, but have the capacity to evoke emotion so that people want to talk about your product. This is important if the value of your product is not immediately apparent — perhaps you require a network effect, or need to build habits first. Again, be subtle.

When Path 2 launched, everyone loved to play with the compose button, while Automatic makes their car’s lights illuminate as you scroll, and Uber has an interactive waiting screen that people like to show to their friends.

Thinking about these details makes me more deliberate in my approach. But it’s important not to force them. For Game Golf, we didn’t have any novelties designed in and for Ouya we couldn’t find a product signature that fit naturally (beyond the startup sound). If these elements are too overt or feel arbitrary, the user will notice the designer’s hand at work, distracting them from the actual product.

Creating an identity is also just one part of the design process. It should be built on top of a solid product strategy, a clear architecture, good service, well thought out behaviors and, if applicable, effective growth mechanisms. But given that, it has the potential to add a powerful layer of emotion and memorability into your product.

    Barton Smith

    Written by

    Designer at @fiftythree. Previously @facebook, @fuseproject (Ouya, Game Golf) and @flud. Once an industrial design student, now just a wannabe.

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