Endless and taste. Strategy and design.


Image: from Endless Studios’ case study.

Last week I went to Christmas drinks with Brilliant Noise’s design partners, Endless Studios, in their new Brighton offices.

When I go somewhere like Endless, I realise my own taste is largely of the know-it-when-I-see-it variety, and that the creation of beautiful things – from spaces to typefaces to whole brand schemas – is of a whole order of magnitude beyond mine. I know and like stylish, well-designed things – for them it’s a full time job.

If there’s one thing we need from our partnership with Endless it is their taste – they have it by the barrow-load.

The most cutting remark Steve Jobs ever made about the Apple’s great rival of the time was that they had no taste. Yes, they could produce brilliant technology, code by the milliion-lines, but when it comes to taste, he said, they were nowhere.

Taste happens by seeking out beautiful, brilliant things, said Jobs:

“It comes down to exposing yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring the same things into what you are doing.”

Good design creates beautiful things. Deeply beautiful – beyond the first impressions, beyond the surface, because good design means that someone has thought deeply about the created object, space or experience in every aspect. You feel the outcome, you see some of the outcome of a successful design process, but you may never see or understand all of it. Good design has depth and substance.

I recently finished Leander Kahney’s biography of Jonathan Ive. A recurring theme is the design of the inside of the machines by Ive’s team – sometimes to the consternation of their engineering colleagues – so that the circuit boards and innards of the computers were as elegant, in their own way, as the exteriors. That’s deep attention to detail.

When Endless designed the Brilliant Noise brand a couple of years ago, they made physical stencils of some of the shapes they’d created as part of the brand’s system. The shapes were made from the negative space between the letters of the logo and they began to develop them as a set of abstract icons. They also pored over photos and filters and ways of framing images – the right grid that things should align to, the right weight of Gotham for different documents.

I learned two things from them. First, the way that creating a visual brand is about looking at a system, a “kit of parts” that works with a steady logic – not just something that looks good. Second, that you need to go deep and explore an idea, a system of ideas, until you know you have the right answer.

I think I’d heard these things before, in relation to branding – but it wasn’t until I was part of the process of building a brand with design experts like Colin and Ben, the founders of Endless, that I grasped this as a threshold concept.

There’s a love affair between strategy and design. At least there should be. The processes are in parallel and can teach each other so much.

Samsung’s massive ad spend

This year Samsung spent a lot on advertising.

US$14 billion.

To give you some perspective, Coca-Cola spent about US$2.5 billion in 2012, across all of its brands, globally.

Want some more perspective? US$14 billion is more than Iceland’s GDP and more than Google paid for Motorola, according to an article from Reuters, which goes on to suggest that Samsung is spending a lot, but not necessarily seeing a return. It quotes Oh Jung-suk, a business school professor at Seoul National University.

“Samsung’s marketing is too much focused on projecting an image they aspire to: being innovative and ahead of the pack. They are failing to efficiently bridge the gap between the aspiration and how consumers actually respond to the campaign. It’s got to be more aligned.”

Apple spends a fraction of Samsung’s budget (about US$1 billion). Horace Dediu, an Asymco analyst says the lower spend is down to product strength:

“The stronger, more differentiated the product, the less it needs to be propped up by advertising.”

We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Designer Yves Behar said “Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal.”

To borrow from football, you could say Samsung is trying to do a Man City rather than a Manchester United – short-circuiting its rise to tech brand royalty with brute force spend. Following that logic, it won’t be concerned with the odd frosty reception for product placement or sponsorship.

Business model prisoners

While most companies become prisoners of their business models, one way to deal with this is to have a strong strategy that means you know when shift to new models and products when the time is right. 

Broadstuff’s “All you need to know about Apple in 3 easy steps” suggests that the Cupertino giant may have this kind of strategic fortitude, with the consequence that financial markets get huffy because it means quarter-on-quarter performance is not the first priority. 

look at Apple over 35 years and you will see that they:

1. Are typically a very early entrant, integrating a variety of existing systems in a hitherto poorly served early adopter sector with promise, to create an easy-to-use product.

2. Use great design to create a demand for a high margin product. In recent years they have also become “cuter” at doing software as well as hardware after being caught out by the MS-DOS ecosystem

3. As that market matures, retreat to the highest profit quartile. Follow the money, not the volume.

So great has been Apple’s performance in recent years that the markets have created their own expectations bubble about performance. 

Lazy narratives and how to be wrong

Apple-bashing is a game a lot of people these days.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball is challenging the emerging narrative of the company’s inevitable decline after the death of Steve Jobs. 

Apple was far from perfect under Steve Jobs. But in hindsight, critics and skeptics of the company now see fit to deem his reign flawless or nearly so. Here’s a guy on Yahoo Finance telling Henry Blodget that “Steve Jobs wasn’t wrong about anything ever.”

What you want is to be (1) right more often than wrong; (2) willing to recognize when you are wrong; and (3) able and willing to correct whatever is wrong. If you expect perfection, to be right all the time, you’re going to fail on all three of those — you will be wrong sometimes, that’s just human nature; you’ll be less willing or unwilling to recognize when you’re wrong because you’ve talked yourself into expecting perfection; and you won’t fix what’s wrong because you’ll have convinced yourself you weren’t wrong in the first place. The only way to come close to being right all the time is to be willing to change your mind and recognize mistakes — it’s never going to happen that you’re right all the time in the first place.

There’s some wisdom for us all in that…

iPad first impressions

iCrossing UK colleagues falling for the iPad (via @shortlisted)

Like most of the world, it seemed, I was perfectly prepared to offer an opinion on the iPad without having ever seen one. Like most of the pre-launch “analysis” I’m not sure I added much of value to the discussion around it, other than to caution that we will have to wait and see what its real impact would be.

Apple’s newest product became a kind of proxy war for all sorts of other interests: DRM, death/survival of publishing, Mac v PC (yawn) etc etc. Cory Doctorow’s discussion of why we should not buy iPads was both typical of this slew of writing and stand out brilliant. It got me thinking, it made me hesitate for a moment about buying one…

Now? Reader, I bought one. And all the hypotheticals fell away, and it became about being a user – and that’s a whole different matter…

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