Identity & Desire
You May Choose Either to Be Defined by Your Desires or Erased by Them
I am interested in how the objects we interact with shape and are shaped by our desires. Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” is a book that I would recommend to anyone, particularly the architects and urban planners among us; in my reading the book appeared to address the gamut of the human condition using one of the foremost devices of modern life, the urban centre, specifically the way in which it shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants. One of the most cogent points Calvino makes is his division of cities into two categories:
“Those that through the years and changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.”
Identities, be they those of an urban centre, individual, or brand, are like these cities; they may choose either to be defined by their desires or erased by them, if you chase who someone else is, or who you were, you are erasing who you could be.
Our story begins with a brand making a splash by doing something differently, being defined by its desire, and enjoying success because its value proposition is clearly differentiated by singular vision. The brand is chasing who it could be.
The brand grows, institutional momentum accrues, over time the organization supporting the brand becomes timid, it forgets what it means to be hungry and begins chasing the profits of the previous quarter. The brand moves from being defined by its desire for change to being defined by its desire for continuity, chasing who it was.
Chasing past successes is no way to maintain and build on vision, profits decline, people forget. The now stale institution looks around and sees a crop of younger, more agile, and more successful brands surpassing it. In a panic, the brand begins to ape these successors in an attempt at survival. This shift in strategy is the final step over the event horizon and into the death spiral, the brand moves from being defined by its own identity to chasing who someone else is.
What happened to Samsung this year (14/15)? For a long time they were everything that Apple was not, cheap(er), waterproof, and with a replaceable battery. The iPhone 6 came out with its larger screen and this coupled with the competition from a number of manufacturers on the low end of the spectrum caused the execs to panic, abandoning their differentiating factors and shedding their design language in an attempt to be a cheaper Apple. But the move alienated samsung’s base, people don't want an iPhone made by Samsung, they want either an iPhone or a Samsung, the resulting fallout took a significant bite out of their profits. The same fate awaits HTC, the arbiters of a (if not the) premier android handset design language, if they abandon it and embrace the uncanny valley in a frantic bid for survival I suspect they will erase themselves.
I see this same story repeat itself with individuals who brand themselves, a few years ago everyone was a storyteller, then everyone was a maker, now everyone is going to be whatever prominent designer interviewed by Core77 or Azure describes their practice to be. I think that, just like brands, designers compete best by differentiating themselves from the pack.
In the same way a city is made unique and unforgettable by embracing its nature a person benefits most from asking who they really are or want to be, and then clearly communicating the value that identity carries.
The problem with doing something different and continuing to grow is that we are paralyzed by success; we look to others who have succeeded for a roadmap, or more insidiously we are deceived by our own success, tricked into thinking we have made it. The uncertainty of growth is uncomfortable and this discomfort is quickly forgotten in the glow of accolades, the promise of a sure thing or repeat performance. It is easy to determine either the position or direction of a particle and in this respect people are a lot like particles; those in a very assured position often lack direction, and those with clear direction and momentum tend to be pursuing an uncertain position.
If you are a brand and find yourself getting comfortable always remember that somewhere (perhaps in a garage or a rented studio) someone is obsessively pursuing a vision that will eclipse everything you currently take for granted.
Grow your own unique narrative, seek discomfort, and execute on vision no one else can see, especially if that vision intimidates you. One day you will look back to see whether you were shaped by your desire, or erased by it.