Columns / Insights

Design for All Ages

Sam Becker
How did you first become interested in branding and design? As a child, I was obsessed with road signage, grocery store packaging and museum graphics. I was also passionate about the formatting of my homework assignments and the design of posters, art projects and collages. One of my earliest creative memories was of creating a cereal box for a Halloween school assignment. For whatever reason, my fourth-grade teacher asked us to refrain from making things that were too gross or scary. In the end, I was reprimanded in front of my classmates for creating a 3-D box of “rat tail soup” cereal with gory details and typographic accuracy. I was nine.

How has your experience as a programmer and app developer influenced your current work? Brands have never been more tangible. How a brand works, feels, sounds and integrates into your life is critical. I try to bring a developer’s mentality to everything we design. I’m constantly wondering: Are we building a visual system that functions? Are we giving other designers and developers the right tools to extend our work in the digital realm? What’s the brand I would want to receive as a developer? Are the guidelines clear and digital first? Do I trust the people who built this brand?

You’ve said that brands will strive to be “meticulously undesigned” in 2017. What does meticulously undesigned design look like across traditional, digital and physical spaces? How a brand behaves is more important than how it looks. When I say undesigned, it’s mostly in a superficial, visual sense. Successful brands are, of course, meticulously designed. They’re planned, orchestrated and delivered with remarkable consistency. The idea is that they should not appear meticulously designed to the consumer. Brands should feel authentic, unrehearsed and transparent. In a digital sense, this might mean having a spare, beautiful user experience that emphasizes jargon-free dialogue with the user and is peppered with true moments of delight. In a physical environment, this might mean allowing the neighborhood or the architecture of the building to take center stage. It may be less about the graphics and more about the entire experience: the story, curation, wayfinding and quality of customer service. In other words, the aspects of a brand that could be put into words and shared readily on Twitter.

If you can infiltrate popular culture, then you know you have a durable brand.”

What is it about meticulously undesigned design that appeals to today’s consumers? Today’s consumers have been marketed to death. They have a keen sense for when they’re being sold to and are very savvy about brand and design. Unsurprisingly, they want to be addressed with the immediacy and rawness of social media. For example, what can we learn from Snapchat? It’s a brand with a very strong engagement, but the whole experience seems effortless, almost invisible. There’s basically no promotion, no user interface and no rules of engagement. That is very freeing and appealing to its users.

What can designers learn from the resurgence of retro design? It’s fascinating how digital design has led to this resurgence of the old. As it turns out, what works in complex digital environments also works under challenging print conditions. It’s one of the reasons we’re seeing more flat color, simple typography and clever illustration. In a way, it’s a return to classic design principles. If you look at modern brands like Casper and Airbnb, you can’t help but see a connection to the ethos of Paul Rand or Charles and Ray Eames.

Do you think design would be different today if startups and small businesses hadn’t taken off like they did in recent years? Without question. In a lot of ways, startups have rewritten the book when it comes to business, brand and product design. At this point, it’s cliché, but true. Startups have challenged conventional wisdom, in ways big and small, and the results of those decisions are closely watched by big business and the public at large. Everyone wants to cash in on startup culture, and that is especially true in design. We have all benefited from the risks those companies have taken.

Startups are also very gratifying to collaborate with. The budgets may be tight, but you’re often working with a visionary founder eager to put her dent in the universe. For example, we’re proud of the work we recently completed for the new company EyeJust, which makes phone and tablet screen shields that protect your eyes and help you sleep better. EyeJust came to us with a mission, a brief and a timeline of a mere few weeks to launch a real physical product at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). That deadline created an important sense of urgency for the team. These constraints led to a very strong outcome and a brand that both we and the client are proud of. Before CES closed, EyeJust made connections with everyone from the tech giants—Amazon, Google, TED—to media companies like Nickelodeon, Bloomberg and Viacom. It also made Marie Claire’s list of the best products from CES. For a nascent brand, it’s had a great start.

The public has gotten savvier about design—take logo redesigns from brands like Google, Instagram and Airbnb, which sweltered in the limelight. Does this change what you define to be a design “win”? The process of launching a new identity has changed radically over the last ten years. It’s one of the largest changes I’ve observed in my not-so-long career. The big difference is, we are all stakeholders now. It used to be that you only needed to win over the boardroom when shepherding a brand into the wild. You now need bring everyone along for the ride: employees, consumers, nonconsumers, the media, influencers, and anyone with an opinion and a Twitter handle. Airbnb may have had a rocky start, but its team handled the brand’s redesign masterfully. They built a wonderful story and expressed it clearly. They gave the press an inside look by inviting them to an exclusive listing and sharing the work before it had launched. They took to social and made their case without seeming defensive. Once the Twittersphere smells fear or indecision, you’re done. In my opinion, a design “win” is when you have a universal story that anyone could truly appreciate. It should appeal as much to the CEO as to the most loyal consumer. If you can infiltrate popular culture, then you know you have a durable brand.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? This is something I heard repeatedly while studying design, but I didn’t begin to believe until much later: cultivate interests outside of design. You’ll always have time to learn your craft and become a master of typography or color theory, but who you are outside of design will have the biggest impact on your career. Don’t be afraid to spend countless hours learning something obscure like Objective-C for iPhone programming. Become an excellent writer. Become a good reader. Try new things with no reasonable expectation for how they will benefit your career. Steve Jobs said it best at his Stanford University commencement address: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward ... you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Also, as a parent of two kids, and at the risk of dispensing depressing advice, take the biggest risks at the beginning of your career. Work/life tradeoffs get more complex over time.

Sam Becker is the executive creative director at global branding agency Brand Union, where he has worked across technology, media, healthcare, law and fast-moving consumer goods. His most significant brand engagements have been with AT&T, Dell, John Deere, Shazam and Tyson Foods. Becker is a passionate designer, programmer and creative technologist and is well versed in Rails, Node.js, CSS/HTML5, JavaScript and Swift. His work has been recognized by the Art Directors Club, the Type Directors Club and the London International Awards, and he is a winner of the inaugural IBM Watson Hackathon. Becker has a BFA from Syracuse University in communications design.



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