Designing the Unseen Details

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Superior design means getting little details right — even the parts that no one can see. In his landmark biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells the story of Jobs’s obsession to detail in the design of the breakthrough Apple II personal computer, down to the engineering of the power supply inside the computer. Jobs wanted the Apple II to provide power without needing to use a fan inside the unit because he believed fans were distracting. So he hired an engineer named Rod Holt, who created a new power system that was more efficient and superior to a fan-based supply. Isaacson writes:

Jobs’s father had once taught him that a drive for perfection meant caring about the craftsmanship even of the parts unseen. Jobs applied that to the layout of the circuit board inside the Apple II. He rejected the initial design because the lines were not straight enough.

One of my favorite examples of designing the unseen details comes from Outpost Trading Company, which created this Beatles T shirt that depicts A Hard Day’s Night:

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The design really gets interesting on the inside, which no one but the owner can see. Beneath the Outpost Trading Company label is an awesome silhouette of the iconic Abbey Road album cover:

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The discerning eye might note that the Beatles look like they are walking the wrong way, going from the right side to the left, instead of the left-right sequence depicted on the album cover. But when you wear the T-shirt, the Beatles are walking left to right as they did on the cover — unseen to anyone, like a private joke shared with the shirt wearer.

The unseen details make the difference between an ordinary product and a special experience that rewards the buyer with a more personalized feel. Unseen details also create curiosity: I definitely want to learn more about Outpost Trading Company in addition to admiring the T shirt. Unseen details also send a message to customers: our brand trusts you. We trust you to take the time to notice something subtle about our product, and we trust that you’ll appreciate the effort we have taken to go the extra mile and do something other brands might not do.

These little details are often associated with premium products and services such as gourmet dining. But any kind of brand can embed unseen details in its products and services to achieve surprise and delight, as fast-food chain In-n-Out Burger has done with its “Secret Menu.” The Secret Menu originally consisted of custom-made food orders off the menu, available only if you knew to ask for them. The Secret Menu eventually became not very secret, but the concept still helps In-n-Out Burger position itself as a hip, even cult brand.

What are your favorite examples of unseen design?

Do Wearables Have a Fashionable Future?

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Roger Wood wants to turn wearable technology into a fashion statement. Wood is the founder of (ART+DATA) Design, and he recently joined OnBeep, a stealthy, secretive startup developing a new wearable device that will combine serious technology with fashion sensibility. Wood recently shared with me on LinkedIn how he and OnBeep plan to transform  notoriously ugly wearable technologies into something as aesthetically pleasing as a Rolex. The device, under wraps at OnBeep, promises to change the way people collaborate in groups. According to Wood, the spirit of the founders moved him to join the team: “Jesse Robbins and Greg Albrecht are passionate about software, and how it can transform the way we think about collaboration. Ideas are plentiful in Silicon Valley, but I knew within a short time that I’d want to work closely with them on something transformative and groundbreaking.”

The San Francisco resident has his work cut out for him: Forbes  recently declared that even the most appealing of wearables are too geeky and lacking in style.  There’s hope Roger might bring a fresh perspective to the process. He is the first senior executive to move from mobile to fashion, and back to mobile. He led design and brand ID work on the fifth-best-selling phone in history (Motorola iDEN), the successful luxury activewear collection (the Ralph Lauren RLX), then back to mobile with Hearst Corporation, where he worked on iPad and iPhone platforms in an aesthetically demanding digital media environment.

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An Immediate Impact

Roger is a user experience designer, trained in computer science, and possessing a strategic mind sharpened at Harvard Business School by famed Israeli game theory professor Elon Kohlberg.

In 1993, Wood jumped into the mobile industry with a splash at Motorola’s startup hit Nextel, where he led the design of the iDEN phone as product manager. The masculine design of the iDEN phones set a new standard, and the product became a global icon from Tokyo to Tel Aviv. The phones was a fixture in the country music and hip-hop scenes, and some of the biggest names in music used iDEN phones to stay in touch as they moved from one city to another. The iDEN phones appeared in more than 100 music videos and motion pictures, and became a cult product with 12-24 years olds.

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From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories

Album cover design is alive and well in the digital era. However, the role of the album cover has changed. The days are long gone when album cover art served to attract your eye amid a sea of vinyl in a record store. Now album covers, both virtually and in analog form, are part of an artist’s broader visual palette. For example, the cover of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, designed by Jeff Koons, permeates all aspects of her brand, including her Little Monsters website, social spaces, merchandise, and concert staging.

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Album covers are actually perfect for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music on the album, capture the personality of the artist, and grab your attention. I recently created a presentation that shares several examples of memorable album covers from 1957 to the present day. My presentation, Visual Storytelling through Memorable Album Covers, covers a wide range of artists from Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd. The examples skew toward the late 1960s and 1970s because that time was the golden era of the album, when artists and musicians collaborated on groundbreaking designs. But as Visual Storytelling through Memorable Album Covers shows, album covers remain a powerful expression today. I will periodically update the presentation to show you how modern-day album covers are still provoking, expressing, and telling visual stories.

I would love to see your examples, too. Please let me know about album covers that have made an impression on you and why. I’ll return the favor by creating a new collection of visual stories told through album covers.

Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the new mini iPod in San Francisco in 2004

If Steve Jobs were alive today, he would be the first to tell you he was not the only person responsible for making Apple succeed. But let’s face it: Steve Jobs defined the Apple brand, a reality that has been underscored lately by grumbling among the pundits that Apple is in danger of losing its swagger and cool (examples here and here). Maybe Jobs defined Apple too well. But the reason we can’t stop talking about him today is that he transcended the Apple brand and did more than sell products. He was a market maker. I recently introduced the term market maker to describe business people who act like artists and change the world with their personal visions. Successful marketers sell things; but market makers inspire people to act, to believe, and to live their lives differently. Jobs is one of four market makers, including Ahmet Ertegun, Anita Roddick, and Guy Kawasaki, whom I profile in my recently published white paper, How to Be a Market Maker.  Jobs influenced entire industries, ranging from consumer products to music. But is he so extraordinary that everyday people cannot relate to his achievements? I think not. I believe we can adopt a little of Steve Jobs at his best by living our lives with passion no matter what we do.

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Steve Jobs is the kind of market maker we might call a creator. Creators are directly involved in the development of products and services for a company. Creators have a vision for how the world should work and are bold enough to impose that vision on those around them through the products and services they develop.

By now Jobs’s life is so well known it plays like the plot of a movie we’ve all seen hundreds of times (and, of course, we’ll soon be able to see a real movie about him): his explosive early years at Apple, when his company introduced a new vision for fusing design, user experience, and computing; the exile from Apple, when he founded the revolutionary Pixar Animation; and his glorious second act as CEO of Apple, when the company completely disrupted industries ranging from music to telecommunications by introducing wave upon wave of innovative mobile devices that changed how we consume content.

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Throughout his storied career, Jobs, more than anyone, humanized technology. So great was his impact on popular culture, that upon his death, his image graced the covers of publications ranging from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone. Macs came along when personal computers were widely perceived as the province of a nerdy few. Apple did something that still seems astounding: turned an impersonal computing device into something warm and desirable.(My family still owns our clamshell iMac from the late 1990s — even though we don’t use it anymore, we just love having it around because with its sleek cover and aqua green finish, it looks like a piece of art.)

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With the iPad, Apple essentially made a computing device a natural extension of our sense of touch. The iPhone transformed the mobile phone from a boring utility to a playful toy that we can’t do without. In fact, half of all Americans now say we sleep next to our mobile phones.

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And of course Apple helped disrupt the entire music industry through iTunes and the iPod — liberating music from the limits of analog and empowering consumers to make music part of their mobile lifestyles. As Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “With Apple’s iTunes and iPod, [Steve Jobs] revived the single, put music libraries in fans’ pockets and posed a challenge to brick-and-mortar record stores and radio.” Record companies, betting on the long-term success of the compact disc, failed to respond to how Apple was helping to turn consumers from album aficionados to snackers of individual digital downloads. The music industry is still trying to catch up.

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Jobs’s legacy at Apple is so astonishing that it’s easy to overlook what he accomplished by founding and developing Pixar. Pixar would eventually do far more than create high-quality blockbuster entertainment. Pixar changed movie making. Pixar movies taught Hollywood how to gracefully fuse technology, humanity, and storytelling. The Pixar team created movies that somehow turned animated objects like toy cowboys into fully realized characters injected with humanity.

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In doing so, Pixar made it cool for anyone to enjoy a family film: single gay male urbanites, suburban parents, children, teens too self-consciously hip for Bambi — to name but a few demographics. Pixar has touched. Pixar launched animated movies that children can enjoy again as fully-grown adults — and that adults can enjoy for the first time without children in tow. By contrast, even Disney classics like Snow White and Pinocchio are forever remembered as animated family movies that children appreciate the most.

As Brent Schlender wrote in a Fast Company recollection of Steve Jobs, Pixar upended the entire business model of animation. Although Jobs’ contributions to Pixar were more financial than creative, the company succeeded because Jobs recognized that at its core, Pixar is a content company, not a creator of computer animation.

Steve Jobs best exemplifies a trait common to all market marketers: a burning passion. Steve Jobs “put passion into products,” noted James B. Stewart in one of the many heart-felt tributes to Jobs written in the aftermath of his death in 2011. In his acclaimed biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes the moment when unveiled iTunes to jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who turned out to be an indifferent audience:

“Watch what it can do!” Jobs kept insisting when Marsalis’s attention would wander. “See how the interface works.” Marsalis later recalled, “I don’t care much about computers, and kept telling him so, but he goes on for two hours. He was a man possessed. After a while, I started looking at him and not the computer, because I was so fascinated with his passion.”

Isaacson also recounts the time Jobs decided to make a major overhaul to the design of the iPhone as the project neared completion, telling designer Jonathan Ive that “‘I didn’t sleep last night because I realized that I just don’t love it’ . . . Ive, to his dismay, instantly realized Jobs was right.”

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In fact, Jobs expressed his passion for design in every aspect of his life. He personally supervised the construction of an old-fashioned brick factory-style building for Pixar, and according to Brent Schlender, if the colors of the custom-made bricks were not distributed evenly enough, Jobs made the bricklayers tear apart the bricks and start over. (But those exacting standards also had a down side. When people failed to live up to what he wanted, he could be brutal and insufferable, as you can read in Ben Austin’s Wired August 2012 cover piece, “Do You Really Want to Be Like Steve Jobs?”)

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All the market makers profiled in this white paper demonstrate passion.

Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, was passionate about human rights, and, in particular, women’s rights. The entire premise behind the Body Shop was selling cosmetics without sexism and eschewing the cult of youth. Guy Kawasaki is passionate about injecting enchanting values and practices in the work place — and if you’ve ever worked with him, you know he has an equally strong zeal for clear, simple communication. Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, was so passionate about music that he sometimes lived in the studio with the artists on his label.

It doesn’t matter whether you work for a pet food store or write for a living: you can be a market maker by acting with passion.

Visual Storytelling the Postal Way

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Pop quiz: name five brands that understand visual storytelling.

I’ll bet your list included a hip brand like Etsy. Perhaps you included a classically visual brand like Disney, or Tiffany, which has successfully employed Instagram. But I’ll bet the U.S. Postal Service didn’t make your list. Maybe it should. The USPS recently unveiled a commemorative Johnny Cash stamp as part of a new “Music Icons” stamp series. And the image, designed to resemble a 45-RPM record sleeve, looks positively badass. The Johnny Cash stamp reminds me that the USPS has been the master of visual storytelling for years.  Yeah, the U.S. Post Office is taking brands to school.

As reported by Today.com, the Johnny Cash stamp survived an arduous review process, with the decidedly uncool sounding Postmaster General’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory vetting 40,000 stamp ideas annually, and the Postmaster General providing final approval. To put things in more hip parlance of the day, the USPS brands itself by crowdsourcing consumer-generated ideas. (For more detail on the process, check out this link courtesy of the USPS.)

And the USPS wisely employs Pinterest to share some of its memorable stamp collections, ranging from Literary Masters to the Wonderful World of Disney. Robert Frost, Miles Davis, and James Dean – they are among the stars who live forever in the world of the USPS. And check out the USPS Facebook page to find out which stamp dominates its Timeline photo.

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The USPS is well ahead of its time in appealing to the era of Pinterest and Instagram – even enduring a quixotic attempt by the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps to stop the sale of commemorative stamps way back in 1895. Of course, the USPS is not the only governmental body that has issued hip postage Continue reading

Creating Art from Failure: The Design of the “Houses of the Holy” Album Cover

Great artists turn limitations into strengths. Case in point: the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, the subject of my latest post in a series that celebrates memorable album covers.

The story of this astonishing design begins in 1972, when Led Zeppelin, at the height of its creative powers, commissioned the Hipgnosis team, led by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, to design the cover for the band’s new album. Led Zeppelin had already recorded a diverse body of songs for the new LP, ranging from the soaring “Song Remains the Same” to the quiet, romantic “Rain Song.”

But Thorgerson and Powell were given access to none of the songs on the album. The only creative direction the band gave Hipgnosis was that the title of the forthcoming album was Houses of the Holy.

This was no small assignment. Led Zeppelin was one of the world’s most popular and powerful bands, with an image steeped in dark mysticism. As Thorgerson would remember in For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis, “Something large, strong, powerful, awesome and mythic was clearly called for but what would that be?”

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PSFK Challenges Brands to Do Good

On November 1, I was honored to appear onstage with Jermaine Dupri at the PSFK  Conference San Francisco 2012, where we discussed how Dupri’s Global 14 social networking site brings community back to social media. The entire conference featured designers, creative thinkers, and marketers who shared innovative ways to operate businesses and build brands. The underlying theme was that brands should seize the opportunity to do good, not just make money.

All the speakers demonstrated different ways brands can do good. Jason Oberfest discussed how Mango Health uses a gaming app to help people manage their health. Scott Bradbury of Brandstream asked marketers to “find art in everything you do.” Dupri and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb challenged everyone at the conference to embrace real community. Airbnb, the online site where people rent their personal residences to each other, creates relationships, not just temporary lodging.

Global 14 helps emerging musicians develop their careers and creates an environment for all members to share ideas, not just social updates. (“We have lost communication on social networks and have become a social notifying world,” Dupri said.)

Regina Ellis of the Children’s Cancer Association delivered the most powerful presentation, which concerned the business of spreading joy. She opened her talk by describing the loss of her own daughter to cancer — an experience that Continue reading

Celebrating Memorable Album Covers

Everything old is new again. In the classic rock era, musicians and their audiences met each other through record albums. For music fans, holding the vinyl in your hands and exploring record cover art was part of the joy of discovering new music. For musicians, the album artifact was an important way to express their art and sell albums. Apple destroyed that relationship by launching iTunes in 2001. But in the era of Pinterest and Instagram when people post 3 trillion images online a year, consumers are rediscovering the joys of record cover art, as we’ve witnessed with the resurgence of vinyl sales. To celebrate the apparent return of the LP cover, I’ve launched my own Memorable Album Covers Pinterest board.

Periodically I’ll feature selections from my board on Superhype. Todays’ feature is Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, released in 1962. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music an example of how smart design creates a memorable album cover. Art meets commerce in his LP cover, which was designed to sell by featuring the instantly recognizable Ray Charles face and name. Notice how the tilt of his head guides your eye to his name, which was featured at the top of the cover to make sure you could find the recording on LP racks in record stores. The stark red background, bold type, and powerful image make for an inviting cover of a classic recording.

I’m not going to comment on the quality of the music on each LP cover I discuss (although in most cases my opening the featured) record album led to a memorable listening experience) but rather the attributes that make for a memorable cover, such as:

  • Visually arresting design, as with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
  • Design that best reflects the content of the album, of which there are numerous examples, Pink Floyd’s enigmatic Dark Side of the Moon cover being one of the best-known examples.
  • A cover that captures the essence of the artist or even an entire form of music — for instance, the way Sticky Fingers captures the licentious nature of the Rolling Stones or how the cover of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols captures the spirit of punk rock.

Stay tuned for more. Please also share with me your own covers and reasons why you find them memorable.

Apple Causes Panic in the First World

Apple is such a well-oiled machine that a rare misstep by one of the world’s most admired brands is front-page news. Consider Page 1 of the September 21 The Wall Street Journal: “Apple Makes a Wrong Turn as Users Blast Map Switch,” reports the WSJ breathlessly alongside an article about the U.S. presidential election and an analysis of the widely reported September 11 assault on the U.S. Libyan assembly. “Apple Makes a Wrong Turn” focuses on Apple’s decision to replace a Google Maps applications with an apparently less accurate Apple mapping software in the newest version of Apple’s OS operating software (iOS 6) for the iPhone. Yes, that’s right: a consumer uprising about mapping software on their iPhones receive the same level of attention as a discussion of a tragic assault that claimed lives and raises questions about U.S. security. Do our smartphones matter this much?

Hell, yes. Consider these stats from the TIME Wireless Issue:

  • Half of all Americans confess to sleeping next to our mobile phones.
  • About 65 percent of people around the world would prefer taking their mobile phones over their lunches to work if forced to choose.
  • Eight of out 10 people say they cannot go a single day without their mobile devices.

Meantime, one of out 10 people studied by Stanford say admit to feeling “fully addicted” to their iPhones. And evidently the overwhelming majority of iPhone users are emotionally dependent on Google Maps. When it became known that Apple iOS 6 swapped Google Maps software with Apple’s own, a firestorm of protest erupted. A new blog, The Amazing iOS 6 Maps, shares numerous inaccuracies in Apple’s mapping software, such as the disappearance of Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, and wrong names applied to streets and landmarks. CNET and The Huffington Post joined the groundswell of consumer complaints erupting across social media, including people protesting on Twitter.

To be sure, it’s important that consumers hold companies accountable for their mistakes, and it’s galling when powerful brands like Apple and Facebook foist changes upon us without first understanding what we want and need. But the Google Maps flap screams “First World Problem.” We buy our smartphones to enrich our lives, and instead our smartphones lead us around by our noses. Apple needs to fix inaccurate information in its mapping software, but meantime we might want to test another solution: ask a human being for directions.

Why Your Brand Belongs on Instagram

Pinterest has become the go-to site for brands to tell their stories visually. But if your audience uses mobile devices, your brand belongs on Instagram, too. A new point of view, The CMO’s Guide to Instagram: Why Brands Must Be Visual to Gain Visibility, tells senior marketers how and why to make Instagram part of your arsenal of tools to share your brand.

In the PoV, my iCrossing colleagues Kashem Miah and Nick Burd discuss why brands such as General Electric, Burberry, and Starbucks have quickly embraced the popular photo sharing application to tell their brand stories via images of their products and people.

As Miah and Burd point out, Instagram’s easy photo editing function (turning mundane photos into stylish images) and its instant shareability have made Instagram the go-to choice for anyone with a smart phone and desire to share photos — akin to Pinterest for the 6 billion people around the world who are mobile.

It’s no wonder that more than 40 million Instagram accounts (including iCrossing’s) have been created since the application was launched in October 2010 — and why Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion.

“Instagram is creating an active community of visual storytellers, unlike any other social platform,” the authors assert.

The CMO’s Guide to Instagram includes best practices from brands such as Kate Spade NY and practical steps for getting your brand on Instagram. Is your brand on Instagram? Why or why not?