On marketing to designers

This essay is about the things that designers care about

Design is nebulous; meaning there’s many variations and ways of working. Yet take any subset of designers, eliminate the extremes, and I’d posit that we’re less original than we’d all like to believe. Based on my particular observations I’d like to propose four methods that are effective when marketing to designers.

Four concerns for a designer:

  1. Context
  2. Quality
  3. Taste
  4. Delight

Context

The subtlety of design problems

Q: “Ought form to derive from the analysis of function?”
A: “The great risk here is that the analysis may be incomplete.”
- Charles and Ray Eames

I would argue that when a design prompt is proposed, 90% of the problem isn’t explicitly stated. Take for instance this prompt…

“Please design us a company logo” which actually means:

  • symbolic — define a single representation of an entire organization with many divergent layers of people, resources and skills.
  • style — match the company’s public persona while also serving as a statement of purpose
  • branding — differentiate at both the micro, we’re better than our competitors, up to the industry, come work at our company, levels
  • technical — predict all the probable and improbable use cases for the logo: billboard, website header, email signature, cut out of a six foot piece of steel…
  • longevity establish a timelessness that can’t be easily dated

And this is only a small part of the open ended constraints that aren’t usually expressed. The design process implies these constraints while also specifically serving the original prompt.

Designers routinely and subconsciously read from context. Design problems force a unique mental model where solutions are highly context dependent. Not only is the context inferred, but it itself is filled with ambiguous challenges like how do you know if this is timeless?

Takeaway — Contextual cues are often more important than the actual message

Squarespace — 45 / 60 seconds are spent zeroing in on the purity of craftsmanship. The product is nearly irrelevant until it is finally introduced seamlessly as an extension of users’ lives.

Apple iPod Packaging  this canonical example shows Apple acknowledging users’ implicit understanding of products

Mailchimp advertising on podcasts — I have yet to meet a designer that has never listened to This American Life, 99% Invisible, or Serial. While the subject of these podcasts has little to do with email, advertising through content association has been massively effective for Mailchimp.

Quality

Details as a marker for design construction

Stanley Kubric spent four arduous years crafting 2001: A Space Odyssey and inserted himself into every design decision including set and type design: George Nelson Action Office desks, Arne Jacobsen cutlery, Mourgue Djinn chairs and extensive use of Eurostile Bold Extended and Futura.

Beyond traditional design, Kubrick invented shooting techniques, collaborated with the Berlin Philharmonic, and built a human sized centrifuge all for the sake of authenticity.

For all his efforts Andrew Sarris called it “one of the grimmest films I have ever seen in my life …2001 is a disaster because it is much too abstract to make its abstract points.”

The problem with a film and for that matter a product is that the time scale for reaction is at odds with the depth in meaning. All the considered details while immediately observable don’t fully develop in a user’s first encounter.

It becomes a marketing nightmare since the design implementation isn’t measurable. You can’t A/B test quality, at least not on a reasonable time scale. It remains a need that is added through conviction and craftsmanship rather than corollary results.

Ultimately the aforementioned film critic Sarris reversed his opinion upon a second viewing of the film, and declared “2001 is indeed a major work by a major artist.”

Takeaway — Deep consideration for history, material, fit and finish

Formlabs — The very premise of the product’s existence is dependent on quality, a desire to create the most accurate 3D print possible. Their industrial design, web design, and branding all add to the notion that Formlabs unequivocally cares about quality.

Everlane — A thorough understanding of the modern consumer shows just how far Everlane went in researching retail. The value of transparency has become an anchoring brand strategy that endears customers to Everlane.

Paper — Although most consider Paper a complete flop, this is one of the first apps that actually reconsidered the paradigms of mobile usage. Every movement, swipe and transition is incredibly well crafted and reveals the extent to which Mike Matas and team went through testing tedious iterations for every element on (and off) the screen.

Taste

There are always design constraints, and these often imply an ethic

Taste is by far one of the most difficult and controversial topics that we all inherently subscribe to. Good taste requires talent and a curatorial eye, something which is possible to develop, but relies heavily on one caring almost too much.

Takeaway — Talent can be cultivated, hired or translated

Dribbble — While the platform is a solidly built product, it’s the displayed work that makes it so desirable to be on Dribbble. The founders reached out to their initial network to attract the most talented folks to sign up and they also used an invite system to curate the growth of the userbase.

Monument Valley — There’s only one Ken Wong (lead designer), but hiring the right designer(s) is merely a matter of having the ambition to create the most beautiful design possible — okay not that easy but there’s talent out there for the right incentives.

Pencil by FiftyThree — Taste is cross-discipline. FiftyThree created the award winning Paper app and for their next trick thought, why not hardware? Pencil is an industrial design icon showing how taste translates across mediums.

Delight

Useful pleasure

So delight is one of these awkward terms that sounds like sunshine and sugary orange juice, but what it really means is that someone says “that’s cool” about whatever you did. Like taste this is less clear about how one goes about creating delight, so on to the examples.

Takeaway — Delight is serious fun

jetBlue — Beyond even the clean use of Futura, the cheeky, playful copy and bright pop colors help to describe the fact that on all jetBlue flights snacks and drinks are free!

Product Hunt — from Cat Stickers in the mail to Happy Hour Meetups that are 5000 people deep, Ryan Hoover and team have developed a simple but crazy effective way to treat their users, give them free cool stuff.

Teehan+Lax (RIP) — I first heard about them not realizing I had heard about them: I used their free iOS templates. Their in-depth blog is another great resource for designers to read about a thorough understanding of process and what it takes to make great products. We’ll miss you T+L.


Final Notes

Designers aren’t terribly different from any other user but we do have some odd idiosyncrasies that make us a unique marketing challenge. If there’s one final tip I’d recommend, think about the implied intention of your meaning and don’t be so quick to use data as a resource in making early assumptions — like 2001, some messages take time.