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Posts tagged Weekend Ponderables.

Week-long Ponderable: What’s up with BP?

I've had a long-standing intution that BP (formerly British Petroleum) has something to teach us about design and advertising ethics, and I'm dedicating this week to figuring out what.

BP Logo

BP is the world's third largest global energy company, is among the largest private sector energy corporations in the world, that is one of the six supermajors (vertically integrated private sector oil exploration, natural gas, and petroleum product marketing companies).

Now just look at that logo: The lush variegated greens, the beautiful, regular geometry and the holistic gaia-esque overtones: I feel like I'm looking at the planet earth through the dreaming eyes of James Lovelock. Which are eyes I like: I have to admit the first time I came across a BP in my town, I stopped there for gas. There's no doubt something about this strategy works.

That said, is it just me, or is something about it a little fishy?

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PaulNov 15, 2008

A good time to sell less

Money's not cheap anymore, and if designers want to thrive in tighter economy, they need to remember where the value of design really lies. So, DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: What are you selling your clients this week that they don't need?

Sold Out (1929), cartoon by Rollin Kirby depicting the repercussions of the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
Sold Out (1929), cartoon by Rollin Kirby depicting the repercussions of the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

In an America whose economy is ravaged by the twin budgetary disasters of the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailout, money's scarcer than it used to be. Coupled with the success of the Democrats in Washington this week, and thus the looming possibility of near-term financial regulatory tightening, the conventional wisdom says that clients are going to tighten their grip on their money, and thus, designers are going to have to tighten their belts.

Schematically, a more challenging climate for business tends to mean a more challenging climate for design. But does this have to be the case?

This question is one that DLB ponders all the time. We think that a big part of the problem is the function that both clients and designers alike understand design to serve. Specifically, back in the old America, money was cheap. This meant design could be used in the service of long shots for maximizing profits: just-maybe type social networking strategies, fancy textures on every element of the webpage, the list goes on. Basically, design didn't have to be accountable for its ends, because companies could afford to bet on both red and black.

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PaulNov 8, 2008

"It’s Toasted?"

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: What's the appeal of an arbitrary tagline, and how can we use that in service of something better than the norm?

Mark Greif lambasted the television show Mad Men this week in the London Review of Books, admonishing us all for allowing ourselves to let Mad Men use the past to congratulate a largely non-laudable present. I won't take up Greif's systematic point, but I do advise fans of the show (as so many of us are in the design industry) to give yourself a moment this week and take what he says seriously.

Regardless of whether you agree with Greif, one facet of the show that is meritorious is the occasional opportunities it provides for us to analyze advertising strategies which, despite their putatively dismissable content (cigarettes, or say, Richard Nixon), are still at very much at play in our current landscape. Witness, for example, Lucky Strikes.

All through the first episode, Draper, as creative director, is racking his brains for the right pitch to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. Unable to bring even a single good idea into the meeting with his client, Draper asks the company president, who’s come all the way from Winston-Salem, to describe how tobacco is made. ‘We plant it in the South Carolina sunshine,’ the old man drawls, ‘cut it, cure it, toast it – ’ ‘There you go!’ Draper says, and writes: LUCKY STRIKE: IT’S TOASTED. When [Draper] pulls the stunt, you don’t know whether you’re supposed to be impressed or to feel that the whole advertising industry is unconscionable and stupid.

Behind Greif's rather contentious phrasing, there's a real question, one that's still relevant today. Namely, why is it that advertising seems to be able to "say anything it wants," not just in an ethical sense, but also in the sense that seemingly arbitrary taglines, slogans, and brand names?

Screen capture from Mad Men episode 1: Smoke gets in your eyes
Draper: "We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want."

Basically, I want to know what part of our collective psyche things like "Budweiser: Whaaaasup?" or "It's Toasted," appeal to, and whether or not we can employ that knowledge in the service of a less heinous goal than, say, flatly undeserving corporate advertising. That's what I'll be pondering this weekend, and I invite you to do the same.

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PaulNov 1, 2008

Weekend Ponderable: Two slows

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: What revelations are you already stumbling towards?

Nick pointed me yesterday to this blog post, by Chris Lott. It is a sort of manifesto (although apparently not the first) for what seems to be an emerging movement: slow blogging.

Slow blogging, on the concept drawn by Lott and his influences, means spending more time on posts, taking care to not distribute our thoughts half-baked. From the Slow Blogging Manifesto: "Slow Blogging does not write thoughts onto the ethereal and eternal parchment before they provide an enduring worth in the shape of our ideas over time."

Postcard from dawdlr
Image via dawdlr: Super-slow blogging.

I'd like to counter-propose that while this conception is motivated by the right kind of concern, it misses what's really good about blogging in the first place. I want to do this because I am deeply in agreement that blogging is an undersold platform for doing a serious kind of writing work.

The slow-blogging advocates are correct that the blog culture is often unthoughtful, and that a likely culprit for this is a supposed need to deliver an incessant stream of interesting content. The immediate and obvious (albeit unreflective) solution is to just "go lowest common denominator," and pound out aggregate blog posts until your fingers bleed. I agree with the slow-bloggers that this is non-optimal.

However, I find it overly reactionary that the correct response to this observation would be to write blog posts more like a magazine articles. The right solution here, I think, has to both take on board the legitimate criticisms of the slow bloggers and still allow itself to leverage the power of the blogging medium.

So I would suggest, as opposed to the proposed "magazine slow," something more like an interest-based (or "geological") model of blogging, where deep ideas are allowed to accrete over time from an ongoing public conversation in blog posts. The requirement for a "slow blog" would not be that each post is a criticism-worthy piece unto itself, but rather that each post contributes to an emergent argument. I would suggest that taking such a tack manages to handle both the depth and breadth concerns inherent to good blogging practice handily.*

* On an interesting side note, this is exactly what tag cloud navigation tracks. As themes emerge, they become more and more salient navigational elements.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I'd like call this kind of emergence-model slow-blogging slogging: Slogging means that by simply continuing to make small steps forward, you'll eventually get somewhere.

But of course, the key is taking the time to notice what themes are emerging from your posts. So, as you tune up last year's weather-stripping on your windows this weekend, why not spend some time pondering what your blog posts are already trying to tell you?

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PaulOct 25, 2008

Weekend Ponderable: Cause and Effect

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend, a slightly new twist on an old dilemma.

This weekend, I've got something for you to ponder. This particular ponderable has some moss growing on it, so you'll have to bear with me on that score, and take my word for it that this all starts going somewhere practical next week, and isn't just a completely self-indulgent thought experiment:

Dilemma, captured by Exploding Dog

Your firm was hired to design the next generation mp3 player by a global company XCorp. You, in your best attempt to be a responsible designer, went above and beyond the call of the specification, designing the device for manufacture with recycled materials. They were resistent at first, but you insisted, explaining the branding and sales value of ecologically-friendly technology, and you perservered, resulting in the first ever sustainable technology product from XCorp. Good for you!

The next month, you read in the New York Times that as XCorp entered the production phase on your design, they had shut down a factory in Allentown rather than retrofit it for the newly-required production techniques. As a result 300 jobs were lost, moved to a sweatshop in Cambodia.

Now, did your firm do the right thing? Substantiate your answer. I'll start to substantiate mine next week. Until then!

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PaulOct 18, 2008

Weekend Ponderable: Rebalancing the scales

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: You can probably afford to turn down a gig this year!

I've extolled the virtues of getting fired here at BlogLESS before. I think everyone should get fired from a gig for standing up for their principles at least once, and this weekend – while you're upacking your winter sweaters – I wanted to give you something to think about with regards to the seemingly less accessible half of this equation. After all, it's easy to get fired: it's harder, though, to quit.

So get out your pencil and paper, this is going to require a little math. And listen: Don't think you can do this in your head and internalize it. You can't. You've got to see the numbers. Otherwise, its all going to seem like sound and fury, which I promise it's not. The payoff is huge. The day I really internalized this was the day my life got a lot happier. A lot.

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PaulOct 11, 2008

Weekend ponderable: Advertising and rightness

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: What makes an advertising strategy right?

This weekend, DLB invites you to reflect on the following:

Susan Wojcicki, Google Vice President, (semi-)recently reflected on the future of Google advertising. Google advertising, she begins, has the "core principle that advertising should deliver the right information to the right person at the right time."

But what, precisely, does Google mean by right? Wojcicki continues, describing the strategy by which this goal can be achieved in three pieces. First, Google should "understand exactly what people are looking for, then give them exactly the information they want;" second, it should help people learn about things they didn't even know they wanted. Finally, the targeted ads should be effective.

Or else, Google advertising can be right if it can successfully anticipate consumer impulses and make the experience of going from impulse to purchase seamless, slippery.

So, this weekend, think about this: Is that right? Couldn't Google, with all its power, and propaganda of corporate ethicality, afford to take a slightly thicker ethical stance regarding advertising?

In short, is Google's advertising mission a good one? Is it simply neutral? Or is it, in its goal of enabling and seamlessly fulfilling consumer lust, actually some third option?

Then again, their official corporate stance is to "do no evil" — rather than, say, to do good.

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PaulOct 4, 2008

Weekend Ponderable: Towards Multiply- Articulated Brands

DLB has something for you to ponder this weekend: How can your brand address multiple registers of user experience — with multiple degrees of controllability?

Jonathan Baskin wrote an interesting post over at his Dim Bulb blog last Wednesday, about the relationship between brands in a search-driven world. His contention is that "search is the anti-brand," by which he means that while "corporate marketing is still focused on optimizing search terms to promote the stuff of branding, consumers are already past that step."

I would argue that even if there's a real trend to support this particular piece of hyperbole, it's not exactly time to throw in the towel on old-style declarative brands, at least in most industries (e.g. Nick's cheez-flavored crackers: ain't nobody increasing the profit margins on these with an internet search. Now, a catchy jingle...).

Nevertheless, Baskin is making an important point: The climate is changing, and there are contexts in which potential customers interact with a brand, which aren't subject to a traditionally branded experience. The challenge for designers inside of this climate is to evaluate potential responses to sort of brand DMZs. Which is exactly his point.

From where I'm standing, though, we can't just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional branding techniques are still relevant, and I believe will continue to be for the near future. They are going to provide the substratum for user experience in a variety of contexts, even if they don't work exactly the same way they used to.

Hence, your weekend ponderable: Meditate on the possibilities of a brand and design strategy that takes into account the multiple degrees of control possible in the various registers of user experience.

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PaulSep 27, 2008
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