Last week I had the opportunity to attend Contrarycon, a convention that, “aims to spur contrarian conversation and stimulate thought that defies the hive-mindedness of contemporary creative culture.”
More than any other businesses, design is at the forefront of evolving trends and technology transformations, regardless of industry. Contrarycon did a great job in stirring up conversation of what should happen next in the digital design world. The event’s talks were an interesting mix of personal reflections concerning the past, and insights into the future.
Above all else, there are a few patterns surfacing that focus not on what is coming next, but what makes things change the way they do. Those are the critical factors that are shaping design throughout time.
Design is all about controlling the total experience
Design is not just about choosing between minimalism or decorativeness, flat or skeuomorphism. Design is, as always, the control of elements and presentation. That hasn’t changed for the last few decades. What has changed, or rather evolved, is the amount of control and care one has over their work.
When talking about a font foundry, most people will think of companies that create and distribute fonts. But Ken Barber and his friends at House Industries do way more than just make fonts. When someone purchases a font package from House Industries, which are curated by theme, they will get the font disk inside of special theme-related packaging. For example, the Van Street font pack comes in “Fully-Paneled Interior” Street Van packaging.
They began custom packaging at a time when fonts were still delivered on floppy disks, and “User Experience” didn’t exist as a profession. They’ve continued this practice to this day, even when fonts are purchased by digital download. The folks at House Industries didn’t just stop at mastering the curves of every serif, they went further into drafting the experience once a buyer gets the fonts in their hand. The decision to create font packaging makes sense, but why a 3d cardboard van with fully-paneled interior, you may ask. The van packaging “is reminiscent of 1960’s psychedelia with a touch ’70s creepiness.” The moment when you hold something in your hand that carries an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and attention to details, and it makes total sense is when you will understand why designers spend such an effort into doing something most might think unnecessary. You will notice that the product, no matter how small or how many times you are going to use it, is worth every penny.
I bet the whole packaging thing sounds familiar. Steve Jobs was always fascinated by packaging. He believed that the un-boxing routine of a product was a crucial part of the customer experience and also a great way to introduce unfamiliar technology to the consumer. Apple even filed patents for their iPhone packaging. So, the street van is old and the iPhone is new. The Street van is super decorative, while the iPhone is minimal. But the real value that design brings to them isn’t the time or style they are in; it’s the care in the little details – it’s the experience. The future of design isn’t a specific trend to come. The future of design is when doing more than the bare minimum isn’t a personal interest but a universal culture.
According to Zach Goodwin, creative director of iStrategy Labs, the gifted talent of a designer is a way of thinking. Designer turned entrepreneur Chris Svetlik brought this talent to his business and proves its value across the board.
One of the interesting tidbits that Chris shared from his experience in running his bakery business, in his own words, was to “design for the (murky) reasons people love your product.” Customers come to his Texas bakery, Republic Kolache, not only for the traditional Czech pastries, but for the friendly Texan vibes mixed with his quirky Czech heritage. He doesn’t just do that in the flavor of his tasty treats, he does that in the details- seen and unseen. For instance, when people make an order, they receive a ticket number displaying fun facts and notable quotes about Texas. On hot summer days when the line is long, he even began giving out free water bottles, frequent wait time updates, and playing music outside. More than anything, Chris wanted a way for his customers to feel welcome. Those small touches helped initiate conversation and camaraderie between patrons and thus invoked a real sense of community.
Chris even went further by designing his inventory excel spreadsheets — something only he would see. How much design can you really do in excel? The answer is not a lot, but he did it anyway. He did so because he wanted a refined experience not only for his customer, but also for himself. Design is about improving many aspects of life, noticeable or not. The excel spreadsheet or the fully-paneled interior van packaging are not necessarily the most fundamental design elements of an experience but Chris and House Industries do them because there are possibilities of making things better.
The future of design isn’t just a random decision to care. The future of design is when caring for the quality of things, even at unnoticeable angles, becomes common sense.
The next wave of design agencies and designers
In his keynote titled, “Advertising Brands in a Post-Advertising World,” Zach Goodwin shares his vision of an ideal digital agency that he has been building iStrategy Labs toward. iStrategy Labs’ mission is to deliver compelling and interesting things that make people happy and avoid sameness. To make this happen, iSL decided to keep everything in-house, so the team gets to experience various mediums of design and content production. According to Zach, the amount of control and experimentation can make profound differences.
As a font foundry with a very specific design style, it might not make a lot of business sense for House Industries to open a clothing line. But they did. The experiment, even though short-lived, opened up many possibilities for them to see how far they could go. They played with typography as wall painting, printing on various materials, trying different styles of illustration. In their own words, it allowed them to do a lot of things that they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Not every agency has the luxury of having people of all fields sitting in one room to come up with the ultimate solution or the capital to open a store. With that being said, experimenting becomes crucial even at a small scale or an individual level.
Experimenting is the future, but it’s not new. In fact, it has always been the foundation of design. The nature of this profession is pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities. With the rapid advancement of technology, designers get more exposure to what others have done. Access to design resources is cheaper and easier than ever. The down side of it is that design is reaching the height of sameness.
For that reason, experimenting means more than just looking around for inspiration or trying a new trending style. Most inspiration comes from the work process itself. What this means is that the lines separating the different designer roles — be it visual, UI, or UX, etc — is getting more and more blurred. Creatives should open up to experimenting with not just new styles but also new media, and should equip themselves with knowledge from different parts of the equation outside of design. Being a designer is about crossing boundaries and the ultimate pursuit is not a piece of artwork, but a process and the total experience of the final outcome.