The notion of ‘cool’
The impossible recipe.
“Can you make it cool?”
The phrase that tends to accompany an early stage briefing meeting with an eager new client.
Despite all of the grey, ticksheet, corporate questions that get fired at us in an introductory meeting or project briefing, it is always interesting to note that some new clients will invariably request that whatever we are being asked to design, that we ensure that above all else “can it be ‘cool?’. I’m not suggesting that this is the primary thrust and that all of our clients come in sounding like ‘Crush’ the laid back turtle from Finding Nemo, but there will be a part of any client discussion that prompts the “Can you make it cool?” question….or derivatives of it.
“A bit like an iPhone”
“It needs to feel like I’m opening an Apple product”
“It just needs to ooze cool!”
However it is phrased, and once the predictable aspects of cost targets, timescales, assembly requirements, consumer features and brand values have been drilled home, there remains an unpredictable, emotive desire to have the product be ‘cool’.
But what is ‘cool’? How on earth do you bottle it or liberally coat a new product with it?
I remember attempting to dissect something similar, a long time ago when I was at University. Alongside our major project, we were expected to write a mini-dissertation on a subject relating to contextual or societal design issues. I chose to deal with how you might define a ‘cult object’ and immediately regretted it. In thinking about this blog post, I dug it out (slowly…as it was in some indecipherable old QuarkXPress file format!) and had a read through. It still read relatively well (considering I was a spotty 20 year old with very little clue about anything) and I tried to find a sentence amongst the guff that might serve as a useful soundbite. The nearest thing I found was this…
“Cult items become so as a result of what they are. They are somehow more than the sum of their parts. How can someone possibly attempt to design a product to be more than it is, before it exists? It is a unique blend of factor X and a touch of magic.”
I also go on to talk about first order functional needs, diffusion culture and second order connotative needs, but I think I was probably disappearing up my own arse at that point! Still….I got a good mark for it, so I must have done something right! If anyone is dying to read the original, then let me know, but I won’t hold my breath.
Cool products may not always elevated to the upper echelons of ‘cult’ status, but they must at least evoke that ‘more than the sum of their parts’ character trait. If you think about modern products that are largely seen as ‘cool’, they all have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. But interestingly, all of the products that I can think of that would be described as cool, have never set out to be so…not deliberately. They may certainly benefit from being cool, but I’m darned sure that all the motivations and sheer effort that went into developing those products were not influenced by it needing to be ‘cool’. Take the iPhone for instance. Many would argue that it is a cool product, but the resultant design is testament to trying to find the best, holistic combination of solutions to a series of complex problems. Compactness, simplicity, the harmony of hardware and software, computing power, ergonomics…..etc. etc. Steve Jobs didn’t pop along to Jonny Ive’s office and say “Jonny, I need you to design the coolest goddamn’ product known to man”.
Coolness is invariably the byproduct of sheer commitment and a singular vision to create something that solves a problem or meets a brief. Products cannot contrive ‘cool’. They become cool because people who buy, use and advocate those products describe them as such. Any brand that sets out to describe and market their product as ‘cool’ immediately isn’t.
You have to earn it.
People have to promote your product to that category by their own volition and choice. They cannot be told. If we feel that a combination of indefinable elements — those sub-conscious emotional buttons in our brains are pressed — then we deem to call it cool. Those ‘buttons’ cannot be pre-determined and are subject to the fickle winds of trend, society, news, peers and association. Things that cannot be controlled.
Whilst we would never claim to be able to deliberately design something that would guarantee ‘cool’, the notion of how you define cool has been in our local press this past year with an initiative called ‘Rock the Cotswolds’. As a region often stereotyped as rural, royal and ‘rah’, a number of key local individuals and a regional magazine decided to try and promote all of the businesses, venues and individuals that contradicted these stereotypes and cast a new ‘cool’ spotlight on the region. Here’s an extract from their opening manifesto… “You might not appreciate is how cool the Cotswolds is. There are companies here creating, designing and selling in some of the hottest global industries. There are hotels and restaurants that would make London blush. There are fashion labels that rock the world. And global superstars who call the Cotswolds home. Rock the Cotswolds is shaking things up a bit. Challenging conventions. Opening eyes to make everyone realise that the Cotswolds is the best place in the UK to live & work with some of the most creative, clever & brilliant people around.” I was lucky enough to be invited to the extravagant launch party and an event focussing on the Creative industries specifically. I applaud the intentions and think that it is doing a good thing for an area that often get misrepresented.
However, much like new clients coming to us and asking us to “design us a cool product” with no appreciation of the effort and need to be clear about a product vision, there is emerging a flock of circling PR vultures keen to ride the ‘cool’ bandwagon. A desire to ‘grab a bit of that cool’ dust and use it to their own end. A peripheral groundswell who like the idea of being cool but don’t have the energy or intention to do it properly…they just want a piece of it! The very desires that drive people to simply want to be ‘famous’ or a ‘celebrity’ regardless of why. This is my worry for ‘Rock The Cotswolds’. People who want to be seen as cool will badger and hound to be associated with it for immediate publicity gain, rather than those businesses who are simply doing what they do brilliantly, being discovered and promoted. Being ‘cool’ is what everyone wants…from the early days of the school playground…but we need to ensure that the badge has integrity and is not ultimately diluted by those clearly not worthy of the honour.
Exactly like products that become cool by being perfectly suited to the task they are designed to fulfil, cool businesses and people are similarly respected for their singular passion for their craft or service. A business is deemed cool because their customers like what they do and describe it as such. For sure, you can attempt to contrive ‘cool’ by having an interesting office or an appropriately designed logo, but it is fairly short-lived unless that honesty and passion is manifested in all aspects of your business. The true ‘badge of cool’ comes from the people that award it to you because of what you do. Just as they award the badge to products that do what they do.
It’s a bit like having a healthy body. Sure you can do any one of a number of fad diets or blitz the gym for a few months, but an overall healthy body comes from regularly exercising, eating well, taking care of yourself and avoiding all the nasty shit we know is bad for us. There are no quick fixes. You don’t decide to be cool. You are either cool or you are not, and that is entirely down to your conviction, determination, passion, true personality and belief which is then appreciated by others. Just like the definition of ’cult’ objects earlier, someone is cool is as a result of who they are. It is exactly the same for products. Products are cool because of what they are, and what they are is down to the amount of effort, vision and true grit that went into creating them.
So, as we often relay to our clients, don’t try and be cool. Just try your hardest to solve the problem in the best possible way, with as much integrity and passion as you can, and hopefully that effort will be rewarded by those who use it.