What People Want Are Better Stories with Better Characters


Ahead of the Fall TV premier season, DC Group Head Rebecca Davis and Executive Creative Director Jose Salmeron take a closer look at Netflix’s successful political thriller ‘House of Cards.’ In this second part of the series, Jose Salmeron re-examines the role of content creators. 

In case you missed it, see Part I: Five Lessons from House of Cards 

In the first part of this series, Rebecca pointed you to a recent address at the Edinburgh Television Festival, a broadcasters conference in the UK. At the conference, Kevin Spacey challenged all content providers to listen to what the audiences are saying worldwide—as proven by the success of series such as Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the transformation (and perhaps decline) of the Hollywood machine as traditionally understood.

For some time now, I’ve personally been wondering whether we are witnessing a historic transition away from movies as a 1.5-hour self-contained format into something else, more serialized. Kind of like when novels went from serialized newspaper pieces to a codex form, only in reverse. Definitely, the distinctions across media are being blurred.

Falling in love overtime with characters is proving to be a huge determinant of the new popular formats: character as an integral part of the story. And audiences are very hungry for it. That’s why hit TV series are the new blockbusters, and why people binge on them using streaming services.

As content creators and marketers, we should focus on telling good stories and adapt the formats and platforms to each story’s requirements, rather than the other way around: our format might be a short video, or it could be a series of longer films, or a comic book with illustrated vignettes. All formats are in the service of the stories, and as long as those are good, people will flock to them.

If You Love Your Brand, Set It Free

This post first appeared on SmashingMagazine.com

The practice of branding is undergoing a deep transformation — a change brought about by our kaleidoscopic postmodern culture, the development of communication technology and rapid globalization.

In prior decades, brand managers aimed to establish their products and services primarily by way of consistency and repetition. A brand’s voice and message were to be the same, independent of marketing channel. The goal of the designer was to define identity systems that would ensure compliance and coherence in all of the brand’s manifestations, as codified in brand identity style guides.

The Reasons For Brand Consistency

This approach to branding was solidified in the mid-20th century, when relatively simple printing methods and communication technologies were available, marketing and advertising practices were not yet sophisticated enough to surround the consumer in a holistic experience, communication technologies enabled only one-to-many broadcasting, and companies didn’t face the customer-service challenges and scrutiny they do now.

It was a post-war time of optimism about the capability of standardization to drive progress — a notion whose origins stem from scientism, the industrial revolution and the workings of capital.

From that standpoint, it made sense for corporate identity designers to apply standardization and aim for simplicity to make the most of what reproduction and communication methods were available to them, and to ensure that their designs were defined in a comprehensive and consistent way.

From this school of thought hail historic graphic identities such as UPS, American Airlines, Mobil and Chase Bank, brought to us by Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli and Chermayeff & Geismar.

Embrace Brand Fluidity

But we now live in a different context. As Grant McCracken recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

“The consumer now appears to believe that the brand should earn its public attention the way all of us must. Say boring, repetitive stuff and you suffer the punishment that every bad conversationalist faces. First, we ignore you. Then, we exclude you.”

Our postmodern society is more fluid and diverse — a world bursting with myriad electronic media and display capabilities. A contemporary brand identity must reach beyond its visual manifestation in print or TV, to encompass how the brand speaks across a multitude of technology platforms, how it interacts with its audience and how people experience it at an emotional level.

Therefore, consistency — while still desirable — should not necessarily be the main driver of a brand identity system. In fact, we ought to consider total consistency an unachievable ideal: it’s impossible, and even counterproductive, to try to predict and codify all potential instances of a brand’s current identity. The vast number of stakeholders, marketers and agencies handling brand assets for the types of projects undertaken in our dynamic business and technology environments makes it very difficult to exercise constant control over how a brand is expressed. Better to embrace executional variance in a smart way, by establishing loose parameters that nonetheless can create a familial feel for an otherwise very rich group of brand applications across media and across continents.

This is not an entirely new concept. Precursors of this kinetic approach to identity design include Duffy & Partners’ work for The Islands of the Bahamas — in its own words, “a robust brand language that is endlessly adaptable, flexible and immediately recognizable.”

The Playful, Adaptive Brand

Brands should nowadays give themselves permission to be more surprising, to flirt with their customers, to listen to what they have to say and to cater to their desires. A modern brand should take leaps of faith, abandon self-obsessions and embrace risk. Conversely, by not doing this, the brand could become irrelevant in a hurry.

Because of the dominance of social media, brand identities can now be defined more by their customers than by the companies themselves. The ideal balance, however, stems from the ability to be flexible while keeping intact the core principles and attributes that formed the brand in the first place. Without such grounding, a brand becomes a changeling — morphing its shape to any external whim and impulse.

This fresh approach to defining a brand can be liberating for designers, brand managers and the public. It tends to result in more immersive, delightful and rewarding customer experiences, and it is at the heart of a recent spate of “loose” brand identity executions whose core elements nevertheless remain. Designers have yet to exhaust the full potential of this new method, but many instances already point the way.

Examples Of Fluid Brand Identities

Consider Irma Boom’s proudly “imperfect” book designs, Hella Jongerious’ organic products, Saks Fifth Avenue’s Pentagram-designed puzzle identity, Microsoft’s recent dynamic rebranding, the City of Melbourne, OpenIDEO, Sugarpova gummy candy, Barcelona pel Medi Ambient and EDP. All point to exciting new ways to approach branding and product development.

Logo for Saks Fifth Avenue and its graphic permutations based on slicing the grid. (Image: Brand New)

City of Melbourne logo variations. (Image: Behance)

Oreo, a particularly playful example, has been able to maintain its long-established brand idea of a happy snack time for both children and adults while successfully adapting to the fleeting social trends that surround brands in the current marketplace. With its Daily Twist campaign to commemorate its 100th anniversary, Oreo is posting 100 daily images on its social media channels of an Oreo cookie skillfully transformed to evoke a current event.

Oreo “Daily Twist” campaign. (Images: Huffington Post)

Likewise, to further distance itself from the failed Time Warner merger, America Online changed its wordmark from “AOL” to “Aol.” It kept its brand equity as one of the Internet’s pioneers, while featuring an ever-changing, colorful mixed-media background that evokes the dynamic nature of the Web: photography, illustration, colorful splashes of paint — all work to surprising effect, while maintaining the familiarity of the Aol brand across the company’s websites and other communication channels.

America Online’s new and playful brand identity. (Image: Brand New)

DC Comics accompanied its recent character revamp with a brand identity redesign that embraces the principles of variance and fluidity. The brand consultancy Landor explains its rationale for the change: “To represent DC Entertainment’s world, a place of opposing forces, we created a new visual expression that is a living identity easily adaptable to evolving characters and stories.”
The only constant is the name and typographic treatment of “DC Comics,” while the symbol’s fixed element is a peeling “D.” Everything else changes to evoke a particular character’s costume or the setting of a comic book series.

DC Comics’ new versatile logo. (Image: Landor)

In turn, Pentagram’s rethinking of venerable Mohawk Paper relies on a solid idea — the rotating cylinders of traditional printing presses — to then launch into an explosion of colors, shapes and patterns that ably reflects the versatility of paper as support and vehicle for communication.

Different colorful patterns for Mohawk’s new brand identity. (Image: Pentagram)

The Brand As An Ecosystem Of Interactions

Beyond formal considerations, a brand is also defined by experiential parameters (and now more than ever): how and where do customers interact with a given brand, online and offline.

The explosion of digital and social media in recent years, as well as the increased adoption of Internet-enabled mobile devices, has evolved the way brands are seen, tasted, touched and felt: Google’s “New Multiscreen World” study indicates that 90% of all media consumption happens on a screen — a full 38% of which is on smartphones alone. 90% of people use multiple screens sequentially to interact with brands (shopping online, managing finances, planning a trip and more). comScore’s own data establish that 61% of Internet users are online while watching TV, and do it on a range of devices — laptops, smartphones and tablets.

Consequently, smart advertisers use their TV commercials as launching pads for deeper online experiences, knowing full well that interested audiences will be able to access those sites immediately, right from their couch, and to share them with people in their social graph. Also, companies use mobile technology to take their campaigns right to the streets in a personal and highly dynamic way.

Consider popular marketing initiatives such as the Mini Getaway Tokyo and Stockholm, in which fans of the brand used their augmented reality-equipped smartphones to search for a virtual Mini in a massive treasure hunt, literally running around the city and competing against each other in order to be the person with the virtual Mini on their screen at the end of the contest — thus becoming the proud owner of a real vehicle.

Location-based treasure hunt app for the Mini promotional campaign. (Image: Popsop)

Or consider this year’s launch of the Ford Fusion vehicle (Disclosure: as part of the WPP Communications team, my employer, Ogilvy & Mather, had a leading role in this project), which was gradually unveiled using an iOS and Android app featuring a Fusion test-driving game that was unlocked by taking a picture of any Ford logo anywhere with your mobile device’s camera.

Ford Fusion tablet- and mobile-optimized game promotes the unveiling of the vehicle. (Image: AutoGuide)

Other companies adopt the practices of co-creation, asking their audiences via social media what their preferences are for product customization, brand visualizations and more. Or they crowdsource the creation of content. For instance, the country of Sweden recently handed control of its Twitter account to regular citizens to provide an authentic, unadulterated feel for what Sweden is about to audiences all over the world. Chevy, Pepsi and Doritos asked their fans to create their Super Bowl ads.

A New Process To Define Brands

How does one go about loosely, yet effectively, defining a brand identity? This new approach is not an excuse to dilute the importance of brand strategy. Establishing a brand’s positioning, personality and attributes remains critical to the success of the brand’s identity.

Writing a good brand manifesto is also still important. It sets the vision for that brand’s emotional and sensorial expressions, and serves as a reference against which to evaluate future variations from the theme. However, the design process is now more akin to generating algorithms or creating vector-defining equations than to painting pixels.

Not that generative art is now an indispensable tool for the identity designer, but certain aspects of this practice resonate with fluid branding: the designer will need to find what makes a brand pliable, what set of its attributes lend themselves to flexibility and variance, and then organically build on those.

Furthermore, brand identity definition is no longer a one-way street, and it can’t solely rest on visual aspects either. As we have seen with the Mini and Ford, the way a brand interacts with its audiences online or offline is as integral to its personality, if not more so, as the logo. For example, if a company has 10 locations worldwide — and assuming that this fact is integral to what the company is as a brand — then its logo might be graphically constructed by joining these 10 geographic points in different random configurations.

Such a brand might also promote engaging experiences that are deployed at a local level but that connect globally to a meaningful larger story.

Designers need to pick a few graphic elements or parameters that can nevertheless effectively represent a brand, and then let additional considerations vary accordingly: Are the company’s name and a single color enough to build an identity around — while elements like mark, typeface, illustration, texture and editorial voice adapt incessantly to the context they inhabit at any given time?

Allowing such a succinct and flexible identity to further evolve according to the brand’s interaction with customers is an approach that applies the notion of “minimum viable product” to the process of designing brands.

A simplified set of parameters such as those described above will greatly enhance the ease of use of brand guidelines (or style guides). These documents can thus be relatively brief and inspirational, while still ensuring an appropriate level of consistency. Style guides can set designers free to experiment, adding to the richness of the brand while reinforcing its inner coherence and staying power.

After all, the best way for a company to differentiate itself is to be subtle within the visually heavy landscape that currently surrounds us, to provide a cone of silence amidst ubiquitous noise, to bend when every other brand is trying too hard not to break, and to adopt an organic feel and a human scale.

Back To The Future: Classic Typography Is The Key To A New Web Design

Originally posted on WOMMA’s All Things WOMM blog

There is an urgent need for Web designers to focus on crafting great content and features, rather than on devising unusual ways to navigate their websites, or adding excessive visual accouterments. People no longer have the patience or appetite for such novelty items

When so many users prefer to strip our design and view the content using apps like Readability, or the iOS-supplied “Reader” button, we have a problem. If a portion of our audience insists on artificially removing our website’s look and feel, why not pay attention and give them a simpler design in the first place?

Smartphone- and tablet-optimized websites have demonstrated that they are easier to use than their current bloated desktop versions—they tend to feature smartly curated content served lightning-fast via simpler navigation schemas.

What if we could mix the robust simplicity of the original Web with the rich functionality of Web 2.0, and the speed and beauty we enjoy today in our digital experiences, all in one common package, so that even the need for elaborate responsive design would be reduced?

Step one to achieve this goal is to embrace a design principle that isn’t new. Oliver Reichestein and others were talking about it back in 2006, but it’s an idea whose time has finally come: Typography IS the interface.

Type and pictograms feature high semantic value. Other graphic elements used to establish an interface’s look and feel (think Photoshop effects and other “bling”) have low meaning and usefulness. Furthermore, text is the most malleable design element, and can help us ensure that Web layouts adapt to the myriad screen resolutions out there. These are reasons why we should consider typography and pictograms as the cornerstone of our UI design. Photography and illustration also incorporate much meaning, but we should use them to further elucidate—rather just pretty-up—the content.

To apply this principle we could look to modernist designers and typographers such. Otl Aicher, Josef Müller-Brockmann, or Armin Hoffman. Their still-relevant design approach established clarity and elegant simplicity as the paragon of good visual communication.

Using typography the way they did it means bringing clear contrast, modularity and a sense of proportion, tension and scale to the composition of our Web pages. It means removing excessive visual containers and other trinkets. We can instead employ color, size, and relative placement to establish visual hierarchy. By letting text grow outside of boxes, and by simplifying our layouts, we improve legibility and reduce clutter.

New Web custom fonts are now available, so we can break away from rigid system fonts. Finally, let’s set our type large: the beauty of the letterforms is more evident at higher point sizes—even for body copy. Larger type also helps everyone to read, no matter their age or screen resolution.

Consider Microsoft’s latest typography- and pictogram-based rebranding, among many examples: it shows that we have outgrown that pervasive tendency in digital design to apply a hyper-real style to interfaces. This approach resulted in a real world tangible feel called skeumorphism and which is not strictly necessary or, arguably, even appealing: just because interfaces run on devices doesn’t mean they themselves must look like devices.

Users are ready to be liberated from unnecessary visual noise, confining layouts, and navigation roundabouts. To this end, designers should apply their creativity and craft where it matters most: to concepts and their elegant execution. Good typography is where we should start.

A Simpler Way Forward for Web Design

After using apps and browsing Web-optimized sites on smartphones and tablets, accessing the Web on a laptop feels unnecessarily cumbersome. Getting to content is done much faster and more easily on mobile devices, as their interfaces are less cluttered. Yet, this clutter is there for a reason, which left me to wonder how Web designers approach, or should approach, design as a means of delivering content.

Capturing audience attention on the Web is now harder than ever. People are no longer delighted by overwrought graphic elements that compete with the actual content. Many site visitors use the “Reader” button on iOS devices, or apps such as Instapaper or Readability, that strip away the design to present just the text and images. In that sense, we’ve all put away childish things, and there is a yearning out there for elegant simplicity that Web designers urgently need to address if they want their messages to be seen.

Simplicity and usability are not just functional benefits, they generate satisfaction and leave a positive emotional impression in users. Our founder, David Ogilvy, would agree that effective interfaces don’t have to come at the expense of creativity. In fact, effectiveness is intrinsic to beauty and storytelling.

A few crucial Web design tenets are beginning to make their appearance. Some of them are topics that designers have been discussing for years but never totally embraced, while others really are new, and have been prompted by technological advances. However, when applied all together, these approaches can drastically change the way people experience the Web:

Ruthlessly Focused Content Strategies

Web designers need to concentrate both on what our audience needs and on the specific business goals of our client or organization. That’s where success is to be found. But somehow, we forget about this simple maxim when decision time comes. It’s tough to choose what features to cut, but cut we must…mercilessly. Let’s offer the content that directly satisfies user and business needs, and nothing more. This is liberating. There are way too many websites out there following the “kitchen sink” approach to content strategy.

As Luke Wroblewski advises, disciplined content selection can be achieved if we start a redesign by thinking first about the mobile version. Because of smartphones’ form factor and contextual limitations, designers are forced to be judicious when deciding what content to include on their sites, and this is a great way to make some tough decisions.

But what if, instead of adopting mobile first, designers pushed themselves to think of mobile only? It really is time to make even responsive design almost unnecessary by crafting “simple” design instead. Yes, design accommodations will always be necessary for each platform, but we will minimize the need for complex cross-device coding if we start the design process with unabashed simplicity in mind.

Easy To Use, Content-Focused Interfaces

Nowadays, people enjoy Web content on four different screen sizes (smartphone, tablet, laptop, and TV) and gratuitously heavy Web design is getting in their way. Consider the ubiquitous multi-column grids with myriad content boxes all over the page; multi-level navigation schemes; long rows of tiny icons and links; rollovers, overlays and flyovers; containers with shadows, highlights and heavy color gradients.

Content and brand identity, not so much the styling of interface controls, should define the look and feel of a website or an app. Design must work in the service of the content and specific usage context, and be subordinate to both: let’s take full advantage of scroll- and swipe-friendly interfaces that require less pre-emptive visual cues. Let’s use content to navigate to content, and rely on great typography to establish clear hierarchies and a beautiful look and feel. The resulting sites will be both satisfying to browse and lightning-fast.

Simple, Flexible Layouts

Web pages need to be malleable enough to accommodate a multiplicity of screen resolutions and form factors. This fact calls for an approach to page layout that favors smart fluidity: page elements need to graciously conform to whatever available screen real estate there is.

We should consider adopting a nascent trend that’s bridging the traditional and the mobile Web. This trend is the increased usage of two main layouts for content indices: the thumbnail grid and the single-column list. Both are very flexible, fluid, and consistent. And both harken back to modernist design—a philosophy of craft that placed more importance on function than on form, while acknowledging that without beautiful form, optimal function would be unattainable.

Also, left-hand vertical navigation fell out of favor a few years ago, when horizontal navigation became the trend. We abandoned vertical navigation because of the lower resolutions available at the time—horizontal screen real estate was at a premium.

That’s no longer the case. We now have retina-level resolutions, wide displays, and tablets capable of landscape layouts. If anything, we see too much empty space to the left and right of browser windows these days. Perhaps it’s time to bring back the left-hand navigation, at least for the desktop versions of our sites, alongside truly fluid grids.

Finally, vector-based design packages, like Adobe Illustrator or Fireworks, are even more useful these days when screen resolutions and sizes vary so widely. Photoshop bitmaps need to be redone when moving a design from resolution to resolution, but vectors, on the other hand, scale easily and automatically. Starting our designs using these vector packages could save us time down the road.

Typography as the Cornerstone of Web Design

What if home pages didn’t always and automatically involve a large photo carousel at the top? What if websites didn’t need to look like “websites”?

With the current and growing ability to use beautiful, custom Web typography, and given the fact that text will be the main building block of the Web for the foreseeable future, our recipe for visual design success should revolve around good typesetting and type treatments. Even system type families, like Georgia, Tahoma, or Times New Roman can be rendered beautifully, if designers apply classic typographic principles to their craft.

This means no more hard-to-click/press, tiny clusters of utility links all over the page. It also means embracing large, luscious typography to define the look and feel of a Web page, much like type is integral to the look and feel of printed matter.

Social First

Besides a “mobile first” approach, websites should be conceived and built from a “social first” perspective. The most successful digital experiences are social experiences, by definition. Social media is attractive because it addresses a deep human yearning for connection and relationships. The first impulse we tend to have when we find something that powerfully grabs our interest is to share it with our friends and loved ones. Hence, the urgent need to create relevant, engaging content for our audiences. Social media’s word-of-mouth effect will take care of the rest, spreading our message like wildfire among our target audiences.

The five tenets above are, in fact, fairly tactical ways to approach Web design from a different angle altogether, to achieve a degree of simplicity and relevance that will both delight users and inspire brand loyalty. This approach requires a certain humility on the part of content strategists and designers, but in the end, the results will corroborate our investment.

A Showcase of the Latest in Web Design and Technology: The Redesign of BPUSAthletes.com

Every four years, athletes from across the U.S. inspire us and capture our imaginations during the Olympic Games. More often than not, these are otherwise ordinary people who self-finance their preparation for an arduous journey that will change and enrich their lives. They represent our struggles as well as our triumphs, and they deserve a special place in our hearts.

BP has joined the family of U.S. Olympic Committee partners to sponsor Team USA, helping to fuel these athletes’ journey to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and beyond.

The Social@Ogilvy office in Washington, D.C., in partnership with BP, recently launched the BPUSAthletes.com website to showcase BP’s commitment to providing opportunities, support and critical funding to the U.S. Olympic Committee. We placed great care in crafting the site’s content in an engaging, emotionally-rich fashion, so audiences could develop a genuine emotional connection with the Olympic and Paralympic athlete ambassadors.

All athletes exercise a dual role every day: In training and in competition, they adopt a heroic dimension, but at heart they are ordinary men and women, just like the rest of us. The new site aims to be a true reflection of this duality, in how the athletes and their rich stories are presented. We follow these athletes, and can observe them at their most relaxed and approachable, while also experiencing their intense dedication in the practice of their sport. In that way, site visitors can truly learn what it takes to be an Olympic Team USA champion.

The site’s content is mostly comprised of video, but each athlete’s own track record, and even personal likes and dislikes, are also showcased via infographics, photos, and biographical articles. We set out to construct a site with incredible visual richness. We believe that the best way to connect emotionally with the athletes is by showing their lives, rather than narrating them at a distance—by expanding the canvas and letting audiences be immersed in the Olympians’ stories in a very immediate way.

This approach places visual design in service of the content, rather than relying on an overly-rich graphic interface to form the look and feel of the experience. We aimed to create an easy-to-use site with a humble, understated design, optimized for both traditional web and mobile web, using responsive design techniques.

One of the biggest challenges was to design and develop liquid layouts that adapt to different screen sizes and resolutions, while preserving the integrity of the underlying grid, and avoiding excessive and/or inopportune cropping. Lots of head-scratching and complicated math went into figuring out the aspect ratios and scales of each of the elements of the design.

As Social@Ogilvy’s Vice President of Interactive Technology Mike Mangi puts it: “The development team took advantage of new coding techniques to achieve the site’s responsive design layout. We used the latest HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript programming standards. This allowed us to code the site to scale for desktop and mobile devices. Grab the corner of your browser and drag it in and out to see how this works. You’ll notice the design layout of pages like Meet the Athletes changes, based on the size of your browser window. Depending on your browser size, you may see the nine athletes stretched across the screen, or you may see them in a three-by-three grid.

We chose not to rely on standard web video player embed codes, because they would have barred us from achieving full site-width high-definition video. Instead, we used HTML5 to render a custom video player. We also included video buffering to speed up load time for the 140+ videos on site. For the developers out there, we used AJAX linking to create smooth transitions between pages, and as a mechanism to integrate dynamic social sharing buttons.

Mobile users will find that the website is tailored to their devices, as well. We created a device-specific content experience optimized for users on-the-go. To keep mobile users on the site, we embedded videos in a full-screen player, so users are not pushed out of their mobile browser into a native application.

These new web technologies helped us bring the site to life, and provide an immersive user experience that not only prompted the user to engage with the content, but also to establish a substantive connection with BP’s nine Team USA athlete ambassadors.”

A Design Critique of Facebook’s New Features

It is remarkable how strongly Facebook’s periodic interface changes inevitably awaken users’ passions, particularly because the company’s product design has always exhibited great aesthetic restraint. This is a clear testament to the platform’s exceptional power to engage users. The latest batch of design updates, undertaken partly in response to the new challenge posed by Google+, were no exception and have met with the usual chorus of fan departure threats.

But, from a design quality stand point, are the recent changes all that bad?

The answer is, they are mostly positive: the new Facebook Timeline, inspired by famed infographics designer Nicholas Felton feels like one of those epochal moves that open up entire new horizons and ways for people to engage with one another. Some other updates, like the new friends activity column (aka the Ticker) seem tactical and reactive, if not downright redundant.

Facebook Timeline

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