This is another letter from the ever wise Michael Wolff. He writes them for Kyoorius magazine in India, but the themes are universal.
So, here’s another for you.
I’m a fortunate man. I’m lucky to have this opportunity to write to you personally and, if you read this letter, I hope that you’ll find some thoughts or inspiration in it that you can use.
I’ve worked as a design advisor and creative director for companies and organisations around the world, for many years. Some of these companies consist of hundreds of thousands of people and some, just a handful. Except for the time it takes; the size makes little difference. The principles remain the same. I’ve also been able to collaborate with a wide range of brilliant designers.
One way or another I’ve learnt quite a lot that helps me to develop and sharpen the value of what I bring my clients. Some of this I’d like to share with you in this letter.
Before I do, why do I write these letters to you? Of course it’s partly because the Editor of Kyoorius has invited me to write them, but it’s mostly because I feel that I’m writing to each of you personally, and each of you reads this letter individually. So I’m writing as many letters as there are readers and I write them because I hope, that by sharing my experiences, I can be useful to you.
The conclusion I want to share with you is that few clients grasp that my work for them is ultimately about sending out enticing invitations. These are invitations (like individual seeds) to the people who buy, work and invest in those companies and organisations, so that their brands can be created and developed (like growing plants).
Many people still think that it’s companies and designers that create brands. It isn’t. Brands are created by people from their experiences of umpteen invitations, including those created by designers and their clients. In this sense I see products and services as invitations and, just like this letter, each person internalises these invitations individually.
Brands are created from collective responses to a look, a feel and, most of all, a behavior; these are invitations. These invitations enable what we now call brands to form. They are built from moments of experience and how these moments are judged. Each judgment is a comparative one with an idea that’s already in the mind – in other words do these new moments surpass or fail to match an expectation.
For me the point of these invitations is less about selling and more about creating desire. Creating desire is more practical and much more fun. Desire is achieved by awakening curiosity, then by bringing people the pleasure of anticipation and finally enabling them to make the decision to buy.
This sequence can only happen if what’s behind it is real. It’s achieved by sharing countless moments of coherent and consistent meaning with people to create empathy, trust and delight. More or less in the same way that human beings choose to make relationships with each other.
There’s a lot more to say about the relationships we make through brands to the companies behind them, and the way these companies behave among themselves, and to the world we share. This is a deep subject for another letter.
I’m not usually brought in just to assemble and lead the best creative teams. And I’m not there just to inspire and co-ordinate self-expression for my clients. I’m there to support my clients to agree, to build and sustain a context where all the brilliant work created on their behalf, is then re-created in the thoughts and feelings of those with whom they communicate.
Implicitly the work expresses my client’s vision and purpose, and their intention and commitment to embody this in what they bring to the world.
Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Google, Haliburton, Harvard, Ikea, Jaguar, Ralph Lauren, Gap and many other leading companies may not realise that people create their brands for themselves; they may still think that they and their designers do it. But they’re only responsible for the quality of the invitations they send, and the palpable desire these invitations evoke in people. In the same way these confident organisations clearly enjoy being themselves. Did the name Halliburton make you jump? That’s raises questions of corporate morality and where that leaves designers. Again a subject for another letter.
Few of my clients even aspire to enjoyment when I start working with them. I feel that I’ve failed if I don’t manage to establish mutuality, shared enthusiasm and enjoyment between my clients and their customers. I see it as my job to make this happen. Sometimes my clients don’t realise how great their potential as brands in the world actually is; how meaningful it could be, or how substantial its financial value could be, and as a consequence they fail to fund and manage brand-building effectively.
Few companies and organisations appreciate that provoking desire is about using every conceivable medium, from the quality of their products and services down through all the subtle details that these entail. Few appreciate that every communication that supports these products and services; every nuance of every single detail of style, language and behaviour, matter. Fewer still realise that what they stand for in the world and how they behave is always being judged and rated.
Everything communicates something to someone and the more coherent and consistent these ‘multi-media’ invitations are, the more convincingly they will perform to nourish the growth of a brand.
If clients don’t like or love their own products, services and organisations, why should their customers? Equally, if they don’t treat their own people with respect and care, then their people are less likely to give their customers respect and care.
Today, communicating by ‘broadcasting’ and hoping for results is insufficient. As I’ve said, it’s not about selling, it’s about being desired and being bought. In my view what’s needed is putting on the shoes of those we’re inviting – customers – those who buy and create brands. Today clients need to understand their customers’ feelings and thoughts as if they were actually those customers. Paying for research, as a kind of proxy for this experience is no longer adequate.
This sensitivity to others is the key to effective brand-building. It can’t be done mechanically by algorithms or by some other arcane method of enquiry, it has to become intuitive – a kind of second nature in which the frontier between a producing company, their designers and their customers dissolves.
What makes building brands much harder is that when people see brave new concepts, they often don’t know whether they like them or not without someone else confirming their opinion. That’s the kind of word of mouth by which popularity is generated. I call it the gossip of approval.
I’m surprised how little we designers understand about, or even study, the nature of liking. I feel we often work in agreement systems where we can feel safe about what we like. Some people like what their parents liked. Others can’t stand it. What counts is what people want to have in their lives and for us to understand why.
Turning back to how I work, it’s my good fortune that often my collaborators are among the best writers, art directors, designers and coaches in the world. Each one excels and it’s my job, as the conductor, to ensure that together they all can.
I’m responsible to my clients for the resulting music to be what the audience will enjoy and will want to ‘listen to’ again and again and again. Each time they can experience greater and greater pleasure as they become more aware of their enjoyment of the details as these become familiar. That’s the way that brands get built. It’s like hearing new music for the first time and then, as it becomes more familiar and you like it, finding yourself humming it.
The challenge I have and the value I aspire to bring is creating the whole from the parts. Usually a piccolo player isn’t a French horn player or a violinist a trombonist, but I know if each one enjoys and knows the music, then the respect each player has for the music combines in their desire to embrace the audience in what will make a memorable concert.
The same is true for a successful brand. Store designers understand stores, graphic designers understand graphics, digital designers understand the digital world and advertising people understand advertising. These different realms are independent and interdependent, but few pull them together successfully. If you haven’t heard Itay Talgam’s exceptional TED talk on conductors and how people who lead companies can lead them like great conductors I strongly recommend you check out the following link:
What I set out to do for my clients is to ensure that all the instruments are harmoniously playing the same music. I charge for my time, but time is really a metaphor. My work really exists, like a brand itself, in moments of inspiration; moments of improvement; moments of discovery; moments of satisfaction; moments of practical advances and practical solutions; moments when a whole variety of disparate communications coalesce into coherence, and sometimes moments of unforeseeable breakthroughs for the brands I work with.
My definition of design is an all embracing one. It’s like looking through a multi- sensory zoom lens, and that’s usually beyond the scope of any single designer or design company. My definition is this:
Design starts with a vision.
A picture of an imagined future of whatever it is.
Then it becomes the process of bringing that vision to life and all that this implies, basically manufacturing or building things or designing and delivering a service of some sort.
Finally it’s an embodiment of an idea. A delightful park; a new kind of toothbrush; a beautiful wheel chair; a clear set of instructions; a multilingual physical and digital way-finding system around a city; a new electric engine; a perfect artificial limb; a simple driving license; an effective poster; an inspiring book; a compelling computer game or anything else you can imagine.
The results that all good design should achieve are improvements, progress, quantum leaps and ultimately satisfaction and happiness. Not forgetting rewards for the organisation, company or individual involved, and hopefully all of us, including you.
With my best wishes for your tomorrow and, as ever your future,