Can you really convey luxury through digital product design?

Clients often ask for their digital products to look and feel luxurious. But when rendered on the same screens and downloaded from the same digital distribution services, is this really possible?

James Hanks
Nov 27 · 6 min read
Image courtesy of Gleb Kuznetsov, a designer who creates very slick user interfaces.

Introduction

This thought arose a few months ago during my final year at university, when working on a live brief set by a large private bank. The project required us to ‘disrupt’ the sub-sector by proposing a new mobile app that high-net-worth individuals could use to monitor and control their wealth.

Part of the requirements for this brief were to make it a ‘luxury’ product, though early research into the physical experience that private banks used to provide, soon led me to wonder what a truly premium digital experience might look and feel like — and if with current technology, it was even possible to match those standards. Fast-forward to joining Inktrap, I saw that some of our clients were asking for similar products, which led me to really wonder; how can the traditional concept of luxury be conveyed digitally and is this even possible?

A bespoke HSBC Private Bank lounge designed by the Campana Brothers back in 2008. Image courtesy of Dezeen.

The landscape is very different now

Over the past decade, regular mobile applications have essentially replaced many standard physical experiences (eg. booking a hotel room), but now these applications are even replacing experiences that companies used to invest enormous amounts of time and money on; luxury physical experiences.

Private banks, for example, used to consider every element of their lobbies — from the smell of each room to the texture of each piece of furniture — usually commissioning world-class craftspeople to manufacture them. Now though, in order to retain a millennial and Gen Z customer base, they will need to go almost entirely digital.

Mobile apps are developed using the same technologies and rendered on the same (or very similar) screens — good quality user interfaces are almost entirely ubiquitous now, as the biggest and most innovative tech companies generally target the masses, not just the mega-wealthy.

Airbnb’s UI is clean, elegant and evidently had a lot of time and money invested in it. A luxury interface, but made for the masses? Image courtesy of Airbnb Design.

Previously, digital products expressed luxury using skeuomorphism through mirroring real-world expensive materials; like gold, silver and rich wood textures, as well as using elegant, awkward-to-read serif typefaces. Following the advent of flat design, this now comes across as extremely tacky and is a fast way of making a product look dated, and almost dishonest in terms of its quality.

Most attempts at designing “luxury” digital experiences normally end up looking more like this. Image courtesy of (and no offence intended) Casino News Daily.

Even if a piece of designer fashion is manufactured using the same materials as a cheaper high street alternative, the place that one would go to buy it would likely be drastically different, and certainly feel like more of a luxury experience. But even luxury mobile applications are downloaded using the same digital distribution services. The process of downloading and using an app was purposefully designed to be this democratic, so it may take some time before patterns emerge for more luxury and bespoke digital experiences.

The Google Play store (left), a general distribution centre for digital products and Harrods (right), an example of a luxury, traditional department store. Images courtesy of Google Developers Blog and Graff.

So, what can luxury brands do to keep up, and are they even trying?

Perhaps this is an area that immersive technologies could innovate, given the amount of skill and effort required to develop successful examples, as well as the resulting impact of the experience on the user.

Unfortunately, most immersive technologies at the moment are used for marketing gimmicks — apologies, “brand experiences” — and rarely present a decent enough use case to make the clunky hardware and lengthy setup process worth it. Until the user flow for immersive technology is as simple and hardware as ubiquitous as mobile devices are now, I cannot see it as being used to create worthwhile luxury digital products.

Dior even created their own VR headset back in 2015, perhaps anticipating that this would be what would give luxury brands their power back. I haven’t heard much about it since, have you? Image courtesy of LVMH.

The value of intangible assets has continued to increase over time, with the digital revolution only spearheading this exponentially. If luxury brands continue to essentially offer the same service and product quality as their cheaper counterparts — will they be able to survive?

It might seem so by just selling an overpriced brand name alone, but in a truly post-digital world, will this still stand or will they be forced to reach another level of luxury? I think we’ll see a shift in how luxury brands attempt to retain their image.

Let’s think about what this shift might involve

Whilst the digital revolution has seemingly made good-quality design available to all at a very low cost; genuine, multidisciplinary craft still stands out above the rest, is rare and therefore valuable.

In order for a digital product to become luxury, it will need to be created by craftspeople applying these skills, as well as retain the good quality and practical UX design found in products like Airbnb. Luxury digital products will have an extra level of quality that is unnecessary, but delightful.

An example of this, is the Google Cloud Infrastructure 3D experience, built by Hello Monday*. It is a beautifully crafted website that combines the crisp Google Material Design language with a bespoke, rich 3D experience that is totally unnecessary, but thoroughly engaging and delightful to use nonetheless. It even makes use of subtle audio, which is rarely encountered online since Flash’s demise. Whilst it can technically be viewed by anyone, a lot of computers (such as my laptop) struggle to view it smoothly because it is so data intensive. Google generally targets the masses and avoids excessive and luxury design patterns, but this website certainly does not — its sole purpose is to showcase Google Cloud’s power and influence in the face of other tech giants.

The Google Cloud Infrastructure 3D experience. Image courtesy of Hello Monday.

Of course, due to technology’s rapid rate of change, even luxury products such as this will eventually become easy to replicate at a much lower cost (in terms of craft, time and money). I’m sure there are countless libraries being written right now that will start to make these experiences easy to create, but by then a new level of luxury digital craft will have emerged.

At the moment, luxury brands do not appear to be thinking too much about how they can meaningfully bring their luxury into the digital age. They either appear to offer the same quality design as economy competition (or even worse in the case of Monzo and HSBC Private Bank’s app) or, as outlined previously, jump too far into the future and experiment with gimmicky technology that serves no purpose other than to make them appear innovative and get a few shares on social media.

I think I know which one I’d go for. Image courtesy of the App Store.

Fortunately for luxury brands, at the moment they are still able to remain profitable despite this, giving them time to work out how they can start to effectively bring their brands, products and services into the digital age. The clock is ticking though, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

*Hello Monday documented their process of making the Google Cloud Infrastructure 3D experience, which can be found here. It’s a great, informative read for designers and technologists!

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like…

📄 What makes a good wireframe?
📄 So you’ve lost your design mojo? Well here’s how to get it back!
📄 Refactoring CSS

Before you go…

👏 Clap if you enjoyed this article, it helps others find it!
💬 If you have something to say, drop us a line on Twitter: @InktrapDesign.
📝 Sign up to our design newsletter Minimum Viable Publication, published every Tuesday at 1pm.

Inktrap

Thoughts, feelings and emotions from the Inktrap team

Thanks to Sam Lester and James Keal

James Hanks

Written by

I'm a product designer and developer based in London.

Inktrap

Inktrap

Thoughts, feelings and emotions from the Inktrap team

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade