I have come to think of the invention of the internet as the ‘Digital Big Bang’ (I thought I coined this phrase, but there’s a book of the same name by Phil Quade[i] so I am going to call it ‘DBB’). The DBB exploded many traditional professions, with a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture forcing industries to evolve to maintain relevance.
I’m on a personal journey of evolution, beginning as a schoolgirl passionate about creativity. I first studied Architecture: creativity for living, then Graphic Design: creativity for communication, and I’m now halfway through a Digital Marketing Masters.
How is design connected with Digital Marketing? Do traditional marketers feel lost in a black hole of DBB, like us designers?
There has certainly been upheaval. Recent marketing job specs have included proficiencies previously associated with qualified designers. I’ve seen people with backgrounds as diverse as Archaeology securing marketing roles with design responsibilities. Should designers become all-rounders managing SEO, social media and Adwords, creating content for traditional materials and proving ROI? Or, do marketers take MOOC[ii] design courses from Udemy or FutureLearn to match competitiors? The lines are blurred. Expectations to be everything simultaneously add pressure. Post-DBB, there’s accessibility to free software like canva.com, allowing anyone become a ‘designer’, producing professional looking design work instantly. Social media has facilitated ‘overnight’ marketing successes, without previous qualifications, and perhaps just a little practise. Facebook and Google have user-friendly systems encouraging DIY advertising, with free analytics bringing power to the people when it comes to marketing.
Debbie Millman, in her 2019 Ted Talk ‘How symbols and brands shape our humanity’[iii] discussed design as a function of our species since the cave paintings. She examined how design evolved through symbols and flags creating belonging, to the dawn of branding with the Trademarks Registration Act in 1876. Millman believes that branding changed the narrative of design from a ‘bottom-up’ approach “by people for people” to ‘top-down’ as utilised by big corporations in search of financial gain.
This is where I believe that, although having come first, design was swallowed up by the marketing function, long before DBB. Marketing began to use the communicative power of design to deliver sales messages to consumers. ‘Form follows function’[iv] we were told in Architecture school, so if Graphic Design has become a ‘function’ of marketing, my purpose, which I had always believed to be one of communication is actually one of profit. Having always been wary of marketers, the very idea of design being ‘for profit’ doesn’t resonate with me. This is possibly the reason why I’ve insisted that design is separate from marketing. Ethically speaking, being a designer acquitted me as a creator of solutions for organisations, rather than implicating me as an accomplice to their sales mindset, which fundamentally I disagree with.
In her talk, Millman discussed how branding has turned around, with movements like Occupy Wall Street and hashtags like #MeToo gaining momentum online. This is where DBB has introduced democracy. People are now making the decisions, not brands, allowing customers not just to vote with their feet, but with their opinions too.
At the DMX conference in Dublin 2020 (I wasn’t there, but the DBB allowed me to access the slides online[v]), Lucy Molan, head of sales at Google Ireland, described customers as “impatient, demanding and curious”. Molan suggested that customers are demanding products personalised to their specific needs reflecting the shift in power to the customer, in a ‘many to many’ approach. Philip Kotler discusses a need for collaboration with consumers, who he says are “taking over the job of marketers”[vi] This poses a problem for designers. If people are deciding what they want, and they have greater access to design tools, who is driving the narrative of design? Has this also been handed over to the unskilled public? Are the experts of the design world, who have built up a plethora of knowledge and experience, expected to take cues about design from the do-ers and not the thinkers?
On design and democracy
Image source: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/clip-art-history
Clip-art originated in the pre-DBB age and I instantly took a dislike to it on an aesthetics basis. Day 1 of Architecture, we were told that we were now the ‘elite’ and expected to behave accordingly, meaning there were aspects of visual culture we were justified in disparaging. I put clip-art into this category alongside ‘Comic Sans’ and moved on. However, what I hadn’t considered was that regardless of my snobbery, people loved it. Many designers worldwide breathed a sigh of relief in 2014, when it went into ‘semi-retirement’ [vii]
When I first encountered emojis, I avoided them in protest, hoping it would prevent a repeat of the clip-art debacle. However, as others communicated with this new language, I felt the undesirable post-DBB feeling of FOMO[viii]. Simon Tierney, a self-confessed ‘late adopter’ of emojis recently discussed their invention by my fellow Graphic Designer Shigetetaka Kurita[ix]. Created as a way to communicate information concisely in an early DBB age, they have created a visual method that crosses the barriers of language, and the restrictions of text format to introduce ‘tone’. Tierney gave the example of using the influential heart emoji at the end of the words “I understand” to slightly change the tone of the text as illustrated below.
This ability to establish tone concisely led to widespread use of emojis, and a permanent exhibiton of the original emojis in MOMA[x]. It is an accomplished example of ‘form follows function’ and the ‘design for communication’ approach I support, aesthetics aside.
Image source: @tierneysimon on twitter https://twitter.com/tierneysimon/status/1176094597333889025
When speaking of curiosity in terms of the ‘Discovery’ stage of the customer journey, Lucy Molan showed that the trend for ‘cheap’ has moved to a trend for ‘best’. This may suggest that marketers and designers who have the ability to match the customer’s needs may prove valuable regardless of accessibility to DIY tools, with affordability becoming secondary to quality.
Design has become irrevocably intertwined with marketing. Post-DBB digital democracy, brought challenges regarding ego, forcing me, amongst designers and marketers, to review my personal values and my professional value. It’s no longer acceptable to preach from an ivory tower. Collaboration with customers helps to create products and services that add value to consumers, while moving from a selling mindset to the value-driven mindset spoken about by Kotler. Although customers now have a higher share of power, the pursuit of quality allows professionals to maintain relevance in the industry, provided they are willing to evolve with their customers and each other.
Kotler, P., Kartajaya, H. & Setiawan, I. 2010;2011;, Marketing 3.0: from products to customers to the human spirit, 1st edn, Wiley, Hoboken, N.J.[online] available from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/ accessed 23/04/2020
Millman, Debbie (2019). How symbols and brands shape our humanity [Video file]. available from https://www.ted.com/talks/debbie_millman_how_symbols_and_brands_shape_our_humanity accessed 23/04/2020
Newstalk.com Tierney, Simon, 23/09/2019 https://www.newstalk.com/podcasts/stuff-that-changed-the-world/stuff-changed-world-emoji accessed 23/04/2020
https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/clip-art-history accessed 23/04/2020
https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/arts/01iht-DESIGN1.html accessed 25/04/2020
https://www.thoughtco.com/form-follows-function-177237 accessed 25/04/2020
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=FOMO accessed 25/04/2020
https://twitter.com/tierneysimon/status/1176094597333889025 accessed 23/04/2020
[ii] MOOC: (Massive Open Online Course)
[iv]Often attributed to Le Corbusier, the modernist maxim coined by Louis Sullivan in his 1986 essay enttled ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ actually originally read “form ever follows function” but has been shortened to “form follows function” https://www.thoughtco.com/form-follows-function-177237
[vi] Kotler, 2011 p10
[vii] (Hubspot, 2017) https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/clip-art-history
[viii] FOMO (fear of missing out) https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=FOMO