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Monday, August 12, 2013

Sexy Skeuomorphism vs. Functional Flat - fighting the fads

Recently you can't seem to have a random google without bumping into the new fad on the block - 'Flat' design.


First championed by Microsoft's ill fated Windows 8 and adopted by android smart phones and tablets in their droves, the clean, no-nonsense 'Flat' design ethic is spreading like a Pantone marker on tissue paper.  Originally flooding the world wide web world wide it now seems to be leaking into print design. Now Apple have further added to the 'Flat' mix in their recently re-vamped iOS7 design with the inclusion of Parallax and Transparency.

The current arguments pitch Skeuomorphic design (the iOS inspired addition of faux texture, life-like visuals, real world mock material) against Flat design (clean representation, no-frills, simple shades and flat colours) in a battle of the Fads, and at the moment the Flat's on fire!


In the red corner (with bevel edges and lighting textures - sfx: loud boo's interspersed with muffled claps)... Skeuomorphism!
Skeuomorphism developed through the need to direct the user towards the design intention.  Adding style hints to direct and manipulate the viewer.  Making a button look like a button, a notepad look familiar and clichéd. Giving a rich interactive experience that is recognisable.  Sometimes to better effect than others (iPad Game Center is a prime example of tacky Skeu'ing)...

The problems become evident when over use of gaudy textures and fake cosmetic techniques gang together to date and confuse.

And In the blue corner (with flat tone and lack of texture - sfx: loud cheers interspersed with muffled boo's)... Flat design!
Flat design aimed to cut through all of that and transplant an honesty and cleanliness that seems refreshing and structured.  Employing no gradients, bevels or shadows it champions a no dimension approach to layout. But, like our old friend Skeuo', it can be mis-used. Stripping out the user experience from the designers toolkit and creating a clone like repetition.  When badly executed, many a website interface becomes a series of bland blocks and depthless colour.

Where do we stand? As designers we feel the Flat mantra most closely fits in with our design philosophy, a minimalist, stripped back approach that seems to echo the tightrope we tread throughout many a client's 'plan of action' meetings.

But surely throughout these pros and cons, when arguing the opposing pugilists' virtues and vices we are missing the point - it's the client, their aims, their targets, their needs that should drive the designer.  What we as creatives should be asking is "how can I get my client's message out there in the clearest, most effective way?"

Skeuomorphism and Flat design must be elements in a designer's toolkit, used when appropriate, unwrapped for each client in each unique situation, adaptable and fluid.

Maybe we should find a middle ground, a 'Skeuoflatism'.  Taking the best of both worlds, Flat's minimalism and simplicity and Skeuo's user friendliness and descriptiveness.

Good design shouldn't be towed behind 'fads', it should be pushed forward by the desire to reach its individual end destination.

What are you're thoughts on this battle of the Fads?
Who's going to win?
Or is the ultimate winner the Design?

Mark Fletcher
Graphic Designer

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Developing your business


All too often I see so–called strategies that are the result of muddled thinking, so let me try to de-mystify the process of marketing strategies and show why it’s important to get the strategy right before committing time and money on marketing activities.  Marketing strategies should be straightforward, understandable and actionable and, once agreed, should be the touchstone for all marketing and business development activity.  They should also be brief.

The word strategy is frequently waved around and often abused, partly because the same word defines the overall process as well as one particular aspect of it.  There essentially three parts to a strategy – the objectives, the strategy (ie the means) and finally the plan.  If we can keep those three aspects clear we’re a long way towards our goal of marketing effectiveness.  There are always strategic issues at the beginning of any business development process so let’s consider the three aspects that make up a strategy:

1. Where are you now, where do you want to get to and when do you want to do it by
In other words, what are your objectives? Understanding where you are positioned in your chosen market(s) is very important in order that you can exploit gaps or weaknesses in your competitors.  We need to define our objectives, first for the business and secondly for the marketing.  These should be clear, measurable and, importantly, achievable.  Every single piece of marketing should be held up to those objectives to ensure that it will contribute to their achievement.  Those that don’t should be discarded.

2. Setting the strategy
This is how we are going to achieve the goals.  For example, if you are a law firm it may be that one objective for the business is to increase turnover by 25% in three years.  There could be a number of different ways to achieve this, such as increasing fee income from the top five clients; or bringing in lots of new clients; or raising fee levels to achieve the desired increase.  Each option will demand a different marketing approach.
The first needs people who are able to develop the skills of key account management.  The second needs a marketing programme to increase awareness and give people a reason to come to you.  The third needs a mixture of communication and negotiation skills.  In reality, the strategic developments are usually a combination of a number of different aspects for developing the business.

3. Creating the marketing plan
Having defined the objectives and set the strategy, the third element is to choose from the various media (in the widest sense) options open to us and create a plan. You can’t really decide which will be the most effective media to use until you (a) have agreed a sensible strategy and (b) have an understanding of the market in which you’re operating.  But some people try anyway - which is why many firms waste money on activities that don’t deliver more business.
Some of the elements of a marketing plan require larger financial resources and others may need a particular set of marketing skills to deliver.  For example, how important is social media to your market?  How smart is your client database management?  How often do your clients and targets like to be contacted?  What interests them?    Having the skills to ascertain the client’s needs and priorities is an essential element in winning new business in any market.

4. Evaluation
This is where the value for money bit comes in.  The effect of marketing activity should always be measured and viewed against the marketing objectives so that we can see if the activity has been a contributor or a loss maker.  Would it be worth repeating?  When the chairman of Unilever famously said, “I know half my advertising money is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” he should have fired his advertising agency and brought in a team who understood the value of measurement in marketing.

5. Being prepared to think differently about marketing
The way in which people absorb marketing communication has changed for ever.  No longer is there a battleground for resources between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ marketing (when did you last hear those tags?)  Today the smart money integrates communication far more successfully using traditional routes like advertising and PR along with new media and database driven campaigns far more sophisticated than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago.  Your existing and potential customers have become media gadflies and they cherrypick the way they acquire information.  And they have high standards set by other companies or entities that interest them so you need to be on your toes to keep up.  If in doubt as to where the cutting edge of new media is, do what I do and consult a young person.

It’s tempting to develop marketing plans based on what has worked well in the past.  But the bravest companies initiate change from their position of success, minimizing the risk using the best evaluation techniques.  And their discipline and diligence ensures they stand out from the rest.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Pause for a moment.  
No really, stop.
Slow down and take in your surroundings.Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you will see a constant presence that sub-concisely nibbles away at your awareness of the world.

Multi-talented: Big bold. Light airy. Man handling your attention. Subtly steering and manipulating.  Slowly tempting and teasing. Wrestling your free choice into submission.

The designers secret weapon... Typography.

You wake up in the morning to the neon glow of Matrix Bold Condensed on your digital alarm clock.  You consume the morning newspaper's headlines delivered to you in reliable, trustworthy Times New Roman.  You're assaulted by the high street's competing brand logotypes offered up in a wide variety of mouth watering flavours and choices. Then relax at lunch browsing the world wide web occasionally toying with the world weary Webdings font. Typography is all around us.  It drives and motivates us without us even being aware.

Good typography reminds us of the cliché. It reinforces the product and references the already established history of the genre it's trying to represent. Typography in its simplest form is communication, it should be legible and un-noticeable. But pushed forward into a marketing environment it becomes descriptive and visually representative.   
After legibility its job is to remind us through familiarity.

From a designers point of view typography should not call attention to itself unless its job IS TO CALL ATTENTION TO ITSELF. 

The consumer shouldn't be aware of it working, but it should, in conjunction with other brand tricks, reinforce their perception of the product/company/message. Used correctly it adds advantage to your message.  A flourishy French restaurant font wouldn't work on the side of a white van man's industrial sewage disposal service.

Here are a couple of examples. Which do you think is the Harley Street Children's Doctor and which is the Under 4's kindergarten in Tower Hamlets?

Kindergarten or Harley Street logo?

Good typography tells you about the product, works with the brand and reminds and informs.  An essential weapon in a designer's arsenal and, used correctly, firing your message out without the recipient even being aware. Focusing on the target.

Are you still looking around?  
Your wrist watch face, traffic signs, IPad even the label in your suit... It's all around us.

Mark Fletcher
Graphic Designer

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sick brand? Perk it up!

Branding is not fixed, it's a fluid thing that needs constant maintenance. We're sure you've invested a lot of time in your logo, corporate identity and branding but when did you last look at all the material you've produced? You need to check on a regular basis that everything is lined up with your target market, mission statement and market position.

This needn't be an onerous task but it needs to be done regularly. It's like client contact which you, as a good marketeer of course, allocate a fixed length of time to every day - don't you?

Regular reviewing of your brand is just as important. You almost certainly won't have to invest in a massive re-branding exercise but you will probably spot smaller items that you can tweak and adjust to more accurately reflect the philosophy behind the brand promise.

One of the main things to watch is the reality of what you're saying. Genuine messages speak to your audience and engage them on an emotional level. If you come across as too "businessy" and politically correct your audience won't warm to you as readily as they might otherwise.

You don't have to be overly trendy or edgy but you should be real and authentic. And this comes from liking what you do. If the only point of your brand is to make money then it will become obvious to your audience and sales will inevitably fall. You really have to like what you're doing.

If you can, try being friendlier and sociable. Make special offers for visitors to the web site. Give your customers vouchers and coupons whenever you can see a real reason and they'll respond because, if they're interested, people like to be involved with anything that's genuine and driven by the passion we were talking about a little earlier and driven by the fact that you do actually like what you're doing.

And, sorry to say this but it's necessary, ensure that you have a branding guidelines manual. Your brand profile is a unique presentation of your company and as such becomes part of your roi - return on investment.

There are some things about your brand that are cast in stone but there could well be other rules in the manual that can be broken to achieve good results - because branding is a fluid thing (where have I heard that before?) and the only really important thing is that you communicate the right message to the right audience. If you're not, it doesn't matter at all that your branding is consistent.