There is a pretty important point to all of this seeing business. First of all you can analyze things and create objects that people will genuinely enjoy, and that’s kind of a good thing. Secondly, we tend to think that value comes from constantly adding new features but more often than not it’s just changing the story. And story, as we have seen, is totally driven by design.
Here it is again because this quote works in meetings and if you apply this mentality to analyze successful things you like then you will see that it is true:
“We tend to think that value comes from adding new features but more often than not it’s just changing the story.”
There are many examples of companies that explode because of a simple change in design. In 2003, Skull Candy was competing against some really sophisticated companies who put incredible amounts of engineering chops into headphones. What Skull Candy did though was take some of the cheapest headphones they could find, and then slap on an objectively cool skull logo.
Their change in graphics (discussed in part 2) let them play with the story, and completely change where the value comes from. It didn’t matter what they sounded like, it mattered what they looked like. If you broke them, so what? Just get another pair. They are pirate-y, and a literal steal if you compare them to other headphones, and who doesn’t like pirates? It wasn’t made for everyone, but the early 2000’s was the tail-end of grunge and ska, which were morphing into skater culture. So the story Skull Candy wrote fit in. By 2008, Skull Candy became one of the top headphone brands.
People love a good story. These two guys, Josh and Rob, bought $129 worth of random objects and gave them a detailed story description and sold them on eBay. They were able to sell them back for $3,612. The theory is that people would pay top dollar for objects that have a history and matter (see Significant Objects). Understanding how something is designed lets you understand the entire story behind an object, and tweak it in any place where the look and feel of an object doesn’t match the message it is trying to say. Creating consistent designs should become second nature so that you can put more time and energy into figuring out what the story should be.
Going back to headphones, another fairly important example is this: original iPod commercial.
Apple earbuds also came out at roughly the same time as Skull Candy, in 2001. To break this down a little bit: this product image has 2 major things going for it. First of all, this image could be the example photo for gestalt in a design textbook. You can immediately see that this is a person having fun, and is having fun because they are plugged into their iPods through their headphones. You can tell the headphones and iPod are special because their color makes them stand out from everything else. You can tell the person is having fun because of the color of the background. The objects are white so they have that sense of professionalism and gravitas, but the background is a saturated green giving this photo that balance of cartoon-y liveliness.
These design choices add together to create a story about freedom:
It doesn’t matter who you are, the person in the ad is a total outline. It doesn’t matter how you dance, the person in the ad is waving their arms in reckless abandon. It doesn’t matter what music you like, the headphones and the mp3 player are private and just for you. The only thing that matters is that you get to do whatever you want and have fun with it. Much like Skull Candy, Apple also went on to be a pretty successful company with their well designed products.
Our job as designers is to make that description integral to an object. The object doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather participates, with people, in a vast, wonderful world. Our job is to make it so that just by glancing at an object anyone could at least get a sense of the deeper meaning behind every line and color. Seeing design is about seeing stories.