Design and the Future of Advertising

Advertising is more alive today than it’s ever been. Traditional advertising however is dying a slow, painful and very public death. Hold on… I’m not stating that it no longer works; for certain parts of a brand’s marketing, traditional advertising can be — simply put — genius. Rather, I am a true believer that the world is getting a bit too complicated to just inject large amounts of cash into ineffective advertising campaigns no one really cares about. Advertising as we knew it no longer works. Stuff is no longer just standalone products. It has become so much more — or should I say less? The advertised product is merely a part of a customer experience with many facets. The reason why? Because a couple of creative designers changed the once known one-way communicational relationship brands had with consumers, into a two-way street. Consumers can now communicate back, and that’s one of the reasons why designers changed the way advertising works.

Can you guess who this next quote is from?

”Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like.
That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

It’s from Steve Jobs. Breaking it down, it really accurately formulates the core principle of the word “design”. When people think about design, it’s usually limited to styling. About giving shape, to a shell. Not giving a damn about what’s inside, and the guts that make it come to life. It’s so much more though. It’s about gathering information, encompassing all the high-level thinking designers do when they come up with a problem-solving idea how they can make something better. Every day ideating, trial and error, to catch yourself thinking “This sucks!” one minute, and the next you go “Wait, I have another idea, let’s make it better!” — to say nothing about all the planning, execution, once again trial and error, and quality assurance that follows.

Loads of companies create a market analysis in closed-off meeting rooms, trying to guess what people want. Instead, the best designers go out and actually find out. Sound crazy? Because it’s really not. A good designer is a trained spy, getting into the customer’s shoes or the user’s head to see things from their perspective. Some even go all the way, transforming into a fictive character, sporting a matching Pink Panther look. It’s called empathy. Using methods Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t even dream of. They know what goes on, with you, your friends, and millions of people out there! Sound scary?

The first film in the Pink Panther series had an animated opening sequence which featured the Pink Panther character. This character, designed by Hawley Pratt and Friz Freleng, was subsequently the subject of its own series of animated cartoons which gained its greatest fame when aired on Saturday mornings as The Pink Panther Show.

All of those insights they gather is — surprise surprise — presented in a visual, easy-to-read, sensational and nearly moving, don’t-get-emotional-now, way. Giving you a fresh and innovative perspective of your customers’ needs that inspires the company to think about creating a better customer- or user-experience. Forget spreadsheets and demographics, this insight gives you access to a face, a voice and a life of — exactly — a human friggin’ being instead of a number in your spreadsheet with boxes and arrows you relate to.

Who wants to hear
about promises anyway?

Advertising 101 coming up! Let’s take a look at the 1950s. The popularity of television went through the roof and companies could then advertise nationwide(!), showing off their newest products in motion instead of a static ad in magazines. Long story short, by the 60s, 70s and even the 80s, the sheriffs in advertising-land shot down bullseyes like they were imitating the sound of a woodpecker. Products had to simply look good. Forget about actually improving, they just had to look improved. This is where the designer comes in the picture. In these decades, marketeers hired a number of designers for this, and this purpose, alone. It was their role to translate the idea to an aesthetically good-looking visual. Design research you say? What’s this usability you speak of? Those terms were not often heard in advertising.

Imagine massive budgets for both advertising and marketing on one hand, microscopic ones for design on the other. Worlds apart from each other. Budgets based on the fact that messaging about products would communicate promises to the customer while trying to persuade them with it. Numbers showed return on investment and convinced the clients to keep pumping millions into advertising.

Advertising as we knew it is dead.

Today, even brand-communication as we used to know it is as cold as your ex-lover’s heart. In this day and age, the customer has way better resources than just blindly trusting a brand’s promise. More and more are they reporting on the delivery of that promise. Advising, encouraging or discouraging a product or service. The customer has the immense power of contributing to this huge discussion group to source the information they need.

Who wants to hear about promises these days? It’s all about hearing a real-world delivery, that’s where the power is at. The power of accessing a universe of information feels very normal to a lot of us right now, but if you think of it’s pretty surreal to be able to hold every little thing you want insight on in a device you can carry along in your pocket, or even on your wrist! Devices thought of by, exactly, designers.

The revelation of pocket-sized worlds of information resulted in more and more of the advertising and marketing budgets being diverted into design. Because it’s an authentic and trustworthy place to invest marketing dollars in. Why? Because people realise that the design of the product or service you’re offering simply is the advertising. When you look at it, the product or service eventually became the ad. And as designers become better at proving to be the ace in the hole for market-leading companies, so will the difference between design and advertising budgets decrease exponentially.

A scene from the award-winning TV show Mad Men. Set primarily in the 1960s, initially at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City.

Are you ready to tech things up a notch?

While working on projects in New York’s Silicon Alley over the past couple of months I stumbled upon a much greater example. I started working on a go-to-market campaign as the art director / visual designer for an innovative digital product and after a few months eventually ended up taking the lead redefining both their actual product and co-designing company strategy while doing so. It shows designers can take over more than just your company’s visual strategy.

Remember that Steve Jobs quote? “…Design is how it works.” While Steve ruled the product-design world, from tech-expert forums to renowned design-blogs, Apple has always just been light years ahead of the competition when it comes to industrial design and painting beautiful pixels. The lads in Cupertino spent so much energy paying attention to the surface of their products, that it seemed as they almost ignored a shift in the industry.

Instead of focusing on user interface design, giants like Google were already highly investing in UI’s nifty cousin, AI. That’s right, artificial intelligence, and the algorithms associated with it, became a part of the strategy for the tech giant while the other players where still mostly focusing on visual interfaces. That same giant knew something we all were too blind to see. It knew that taste in visual design was merely a temporary advantage. They knew that designing a host of functional, universally integrated services was harder to create for billions of users than designing pixels. While AI is all about algorithms, search, curation and deep learning — not what we usually think of as “design” — it surely was designed by a group of highly intelligent product designers.

A scene from the American television comedy series Silicon Valley where there is a company called Hooli, a parody on working for tech-giants like Google. It is a relevant, often hilarious take on contemporary product design and technology and the geeks who create it.

On the other side of that light year tunnel of success, the geniuses at Apple continued to ask themselves how well any of their products “work”. So they came up with Siri. Some of us know her as that fabulous virtual assistant (ask her when the world is going to end!). While Apple was introducing the world to Siri, tech giant Google kept on gathering big user behavior data. Before Apple could blink their eyes they introduced Google Now and Google Now on Tap. Imagine a supermind that can already suggest a route to a nearby supermarket because it knows you’re hungry and knows you love those all-bran stevia Fruit Loops, or pull up your flight reservation because it spied your travel reservation in Gmail. That’s Google Now. It’s a back and forth between companies who want to design products and services to improve peoples lives and make the world a better place (Silicon Valley pun intended).

It only took Apple a relatively short time to re-launch a more service-minded version of iTunes by adding the Apple Music service and by creating a new service-minded approach toward Apple TV — including a new and improved AI — that includes Siri and thus brings AI into millions of living rooms. Moreover, it introduces a new tech-wave of competitors starting to focus more on service design by adding Siri-like algorithms to their product. And that’s only the beginning of the AI-era. Will we all soon be living like The Jetsons?

The Jetsons is an American animated sitcom produced by Hanna-Barbera, originally airing in primetime on September 23, 1962. It was Hanna-Barbera’s Space Age counterpart to The Flintstones.

User Interface boosted by Artificial Intelligence, created by designers.

One day, not too far from today, these concepts and services will help you discover services you aren’t using but you seem to need, thus solving the problem of our time-consuming daily life, proposed by your super-efficient-nearly-best-friend virtual assistant and designed by that same person wearing that Pink Panther outfit I mentioned before. We’re moving into an era where you will have someone like Scarlett Johansson’s voice in your ear, available at any given time of day, like in Spike Jonze’s stunning movie “Her”. Social media giants already make tons of money on advertising apps. Imagine what Google could do, if its app advertisements were both highly contextual and immediately useful. The point is, whatever any of these giants do, together they have introduced what could become a powerful tool that’s designed to reduce user friction by answering questions before they’ve even asked. All of that, designed by people who once were merely artists tasked with executing advertising ideas.

Her is a 2013 American romantic science fiction comedy-drama film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze. The film follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an intelligent computer operating system, personified through a female voice.

Join the fun.

Back to Earth, let’s descend from the tech and product giants’ clouds. If you run a company, don’t be a boring leader. Designers are not just support staff or pixel pushers. They are a key-value to your company. Envision the future of your company by defining the outcome together with them. You’ll make the world a better, more beautiful, and more functional place.

Outside opinion is good. Designers don’t know everything — and dialogue is the key to results — but give your designer the freedom to create an environment and ambience for creativity and you will notice that he or she will let you play along in the creative process. Based on the insights designers gather, they will facilitate the ideation process and include all relevant stakeholders, company ideas, and by far sharpen — and even shape — the way your organisation works or communicates with its customers or users. Co-creation is key and this process will change the way companies work. By colleagues inspiring each other and by designers connecting the dots.

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Max Heirbaut is a global creative director & designer, shot taker and word slinger. He strives to create work that explores the various facets of design in the realms of digital and physical.

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