In the first in a series of articles on The Label, product design manager Louise From introduces Zalando’s new, more emotional design language.
Our ambition at Zalando is to be a brand that people love. For some, style is a chore; for others clothes are inextricably linked to identity and individuality. Some use workarounds, others use fashion skillfully and playfully to express themselves. At the end of the day what we wear affects the way we feel, so we knew that Zalando had an opportunity to play a more meaningful and beneficial role in our customers’ lives.
To help make this goal a reality, we wanted to build a stronger and more emotional connection with our audience. We started to tell stories and create experiences that empower self-expression and give people and brands a platform to shine. It was my team’s job to bring our brand’s inclusive, bold and playful personality to life through our visual language — and foster loyalty and engagement along the way.
Just another fashion site?
In the past, we had ensured that our digital experiences were visually consistent by adhering to strict standards for our images and user interface components, and scaling these across a large number of product teams. Though this provided a coherent user experience, it did not make us stand out from the crowd.
First-hand accounts from customers described how they struggled to differentiate Zalando from our competitors or to explain why they would pick us over others (aside from our trustworthiness and large product assortment):
“It’s difficult for me to describe Zalando, because it looks like other websites. I don’t see anything really specific.”
“Emotionally the brand feels somewhat empty”
When we compared our visual language to our major competitors’, we similarly saw very few differences — especially in our catalogues. We needed to set ourselves apart by creating a recognisable look and feel that reflected our unique personality.
Based on our learnings and findings, we set out to build a flexible yet coherent brand system that would help Zalando create more meaningful experiences for its audience. We aimed to create a visual language that would be:
- Distinctive: memorable, with a clear design point of view.
- Scalable: for a constantly growing and evolving company.
- Simple: easy to understand, apply, and expand.
- Enduring: no trendy drop shadows!
From discovery to definition
We kicked off our two-phased design exploration process with rapid design sprints to come up with visual concepts, before developing and refining the final design concept with input from stakeholders, experts, and designers from different teams across the company in a truly cross-functional effort.
Visual concepting via rapid design sprints
Putting pen to paper (literally), we began by cranking out as many visual concepts as we could in a rapid ideation session. We gave people a template to work on — a sheet of A3 paper with three squares representing a tote bag, a billboard, and an Instagram story, plus two input fields for the title and a short description of the concept. Naming the ideas was crucial, as it made people think in concepts rather than just visual treatments, while the description forced us to explore the potential behind the concept. Finally, getting the team to interpret the idea across three very different formats (and channels), helped us think holistically and systematically, rather than optimising for only one use case. We pushed for a high volume of low-fidelity sketches, asking each participant to create at least 20 ideas per day. This allowed us to produce a wealth of interpretations, moving beyond the obvious solutions into new, fresh, and interesting proposals.
After weeks of rapid ideation, we grouped hundreds of ideas into clusters around similar themes, and moved forward with six of the most promising concepts. We held a walkthrough with different stakeholders from the company, so that they could ask us questions, bring new angles or thoughts, and push us forward. Based on their input, we narrowed down our selection to three conceptual directions. Our small multidisciplinary team of designers then explored each remaining concept in depth, this time using design tools, and campaign and product photography to support our renditions.
Finally, we presented our refined visual translations to our stakeholders. One of the concepts turned out to be so rich, that we were able to create three distinct visual directions for it — a pretty strong indicator of its long-term potential. This was our winning concept.
Evolving & refining the final concept
We started to hone the elements of our chosen design language, and created a team of product designers with backgrounds in branding, advertising, design systems, and app design for this next stage. We are fortunate that Zalando’s design community is made up of incredibly diverse talent, and that we had this variety of expertise on hand.
Moving away from abstract use cases, we now applied our explorations to real use cases from our apps, taking into account all the content and data we would need to display. We were balancing free ideation with more realistic use cases, but we were also trying to push the envelope. It’s much easier to make a crazy concept safe than it is to make a safe concept crazy, so shoot for the stars!
Introducing The Label
And so we arrived at the final design concept, the one we were most excited about, the concept that laid the foundations for our new visual identity across Zalando’s products: The Label.
Fashion conversations tend to focus on the importance of brand labels, when much bigger conversations play out on the care labels; it’s where we find out what the item is made of, where it was made, how it should be cared for etc. We found its visual symbolism — and the simplicity with which it clarifies so much complexity — truly inspiring. It aligned perfectly with our goal to create design elements that would be distinct, scalable, simple, and enduring.
Taking inspiration from the care label, we created a recognisable language that reflects our brand personality and values. Our layouts, typography, colours, and iconography now provide our customers with experiences that are bold, playful, accessible, and unmistakably Zalando.
We will go into more detail about how we designed these stylistic elements in the rest of this series, so stay tuned!