Is it easy to differentiate good design from bad? What promotes great design when a creative team is designing for a brand?
In this episode of Expert Opinion, managing director of our New York office, Andrea Fabbri, sits down with two creative minds to discuss all aspects of designing for corporate brands. Chief Creative Officer Michael Dula and David Kohler, creative director in BrandingBusiness’ New York office, have over 40 years combined experience.
Creating design for business is a process, a matter of connecting the dots.
Designing for a brand is about making human connections with a lasting, positive impression, and takes a team with innovative, creative thinkers.
The more the client shares about the details/direction of the company/business, the better the design can be to tell the story.
There are multiple touchpoints today – multiple areas and opportunities to instill design – but keeping the connection is important.
Design is another way to distinguish and differentiate your brand.
Great design for a brand means design that can evolve and continue to reveal itself over time.
Data and information are two different things. Data is great, but one must take the data and do something with it to make it informative. Data can help alleviate the fear of change. With data and information comes support for change.
AI and data cannot come up with heart and passion and the emotional (human) aspect of design.
Just as good strategy takes time to evaluate and develop, so does good design. The ideal client understands that after taking the appropriate time to think through the strategy behind the brand, the design phase also takes time to develop and come to life.
Andrea Fabbri: Welcome to Expert Opinion, brought to you by BrandingBusiness. Today we’re going to have a great conversation about design and the business value of design in our world today. And just to set the conversation, if there is one thing that I know after more than 20 years of building brands is this, that you may have a carefully crafted strategy that builds distinction, builds value, a great compelling narrative. But unless that strategy is expressed visually in a memorable manner, it is rather unlikely that customers will take note, particularly in today’s noisy environment. Or a product experience lacks engagement is not useful, is not memorable is not well designed, very unlikely that product will be successful in the market today considering the abundance of options.
So in today’s Expert Opinion, we’re going to focus on the business value of design. And we’re going to focus on fundamental questions, questions like what is design today? How do people see it? What makes great design, what inspires great design? And also, what stands in the way of great design? With me today, there are two great designers who I have a pleasure of knowing but also working with. David Kohler and Michael Dula. These are two creative officers with decades-long experiences in shaping brands, thinking products and much more through design. So I’m very pleased to have you both David and Michael.
Michael Dula: Hey, Andrea, thank you.
David Kohler: Great to be here, Andrea.
Andrea Fabbri: Alright, so Michael and David, I’m just going to ask the first question and I’ll let you decide who wants to go first. But it in this day and age, particularly given the work that we do, design is often associated with things like corporate logos, type faces, photography, illustrations, graphic devices, more recently UX or UI, user experience design, user interface design and so on, environmental graphics. A variety of elements that normally are used to express visually what a brand is all about. But is that it? Is that what design is all about? Is this maybe a limiting definition of design? Is there more? David, you want to go first?
David Kohler: Yeah, sure. When you cross that list off, they’re basically a list of deliverables. So they’re the end result of great design, but when I think of design, it’s more about all of these things working together. One of the great things that designers are trained for, and it’s an unusual thing, they are really good at making connections. In fact, if you’re trained properly, that’s what design is all about. And being able to understand these things and being able to connect them in a way that most people can’t. Because designers have an unusual way of thinking. We step outside of ourselves, and we think about the very process that we’re utilizing. And when we do that, we can also look at the problem, the context and people’s needs. And we can take these things and start to see unique ways to pull them all together and something that represents that organization in a way that they could only be represented. And at the highest level, that’s what designers can clearly do.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, that’s true and I’ve seen you doing that many times. Michael, what’s your take on my question?
Michael Dula: Well, Andrea, I think it’s a great question. I think David hit the nail right on the head. I think what’s important is to delve into what brand design is and the mechanics behind it. The elements you described are the basic elements of brands and modes where people experience them. But I look at it like this and David said it well, there’s a lot of components. To me, it’s a lot like music. It’s like you have notes and chords and timing and instruments and that’s really all fine and dandy, but I think it’s what you do with it, what you make of it, what makes that music magical and that’s really what the brand designer does. We’ve got to make something that’s very evocative, emotional and memorable. You’re creating long term experiences for those who you want to connect to. And it’s the same for brand design. A great designer is like a great conductor. Their job is to really take complex arrangements and bring it together and deliver with gusto. And I think fundamentally that’s the important part of the brand design.
A brand it’s entirely planned by design at every level and it functions by design, it continues to adapt by design. And that involves many, many, many different components that come together to create this very unique ecosystem for a brand so that it can be intricately planned, and it stands a test of time, it combines many, many things designer narrative and physical interaction, all those things. But you’re really, you’re designing a brand for real time experience and long time experience. Those two components. And it’s about experiencing a brand instantly and over time and in its own time and space.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah. Which is quite an interesting challenge today given the plethora of channels and touch points that can be leveraged. A question that we, as strategists, often have to address is what constitutes great design? Is great design subjective? Or do you think that there are elements that are objective, and if so, what are they? How can we think of those? So what makes great design? There is an element of objectivity that you can say that design is objectively great or what’s the line there of separation?
David Kohler: Well, for me, Andrea, it’s not subjective. There is bad design, and bad design is bad design; and then there’s good design; it’s black and white. It’s pass or fail. And that’s just the way it is. But when you get into the realm of good design, high-quality design, there it could be elements of subjectivity because there are many different ways like Robert Pirsig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “there are many ways to get to the top of that mountain.”
So if you pass rate your strategies right and your team is on and you have a high quality team, then there are many ways to get to the top. So of course, there could be numerous ways to approach something. But fundamentally, yes, there’s good or bad and that’s all there is to it. But with that, there’s so many possibilities. So there I would argue, yeah, there’s many different ways that great design can manifest itself.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, Michael?
Michael Dula: Andrea, you asked a really interesting question on subjectivity. And maybe the answer that moves into subjectivity is really about what makes great design. And I think that’s a very deep question. And you can’t deliver that with a one line quip that you can look up on the internet, which there are many of, but I think it really demands a more rounded answer. I think first off, and I think functionally speaking, design is built for human beings. And David and I both fundamentally believe in that. You’re building brands to connect to people of all different levels. Design is there to create a perception and that is to mirror the reality of where the brand is, what it has to offer and what it’s supposed to deliver. We always think about design as a perception that drives behavior and that in turn drives performance. So I think that that’s our behavior for how we do.
Michael Dula: But, brand design is, functionally, it’s supposed to leave a lasting impression that people connect to and they believe in and they trust over time and that’s a big bucket. And I think it’s important that David Knight take the time to go through what makes great design, but I think you need time to think. Thinking is incredibly important in design. You need time to create and iterate and iteration allows designers to see possibilities and make connections and make refinements so that the performance of the design aligns with the brand strategy and those two things are perfectly aligned.
It’s also … Dave and I both believe in culture and providing a culture that’s really powerful and strong to allow people to create. And I think it’s made by incredibly passionate people and those people are collaborative and cooperative and they’re transformative and they’re made by both individuals and teams and people that have this kind of never ending thirst to create something entirely unique and provocative. I think that’s what you have to do to create great design. And you have to have a really agile mind. You have to be a graphic designer and an architect and a structural engineer, and you have to have a tremendous analytical mind that crosses over many different disciplines so that you really have a good grasp of how to communicate, the psychology of how to communicate shapes, forms color.
So there’s many different things going on and I think, finally, you have to have a great client. You have to have a patron that may become your champion and they trust your guidance. It’s a highly, highly collaborative process and our discipline is highly collaborative as well. And it’s unlikely that you can accomplish breakthrough design without the trust and collaboration of a client who is committed to the effort into accomplishing great things. I think that’s the process that we believe in.
David Kohler: Yeah, I totally agree Michael. I would actually pick up on what you’re just saying. And when you talk about fundamentally what makes great design, like if you think of a design as a process, knowledge is what makes great design. You can’t build … when we talk about making connections, and we talked about … when you think of, like I always like to talk about, when we’re hiring for branding, we want to help a company. If you take all of the things that makes this company, their history and the people their goals, their expertise, their knowledge, their technology, you take all of these things, and if you assemble them properly and you thoroughly understand them, you can develop something that is so unique. Tangible and unique and accountable for this organization where not only does it help them reach their goals, but it helps express who they are, who the people are, how did they get there.
I explain to clients sometimes I use the Ramones as an example. And I talk about how the Ramones really just wanted to play 50s rock and roll but because of who they are, where they grew up their musical abilities, everything, they ended up creating a whole new genre of music. But all they were really trying to do is play 50s rock and roll. And when I talk to clients who say, “Oh, we’re in a given market, and our competition is similar to us, we’re worried about these issues here,” I always use that example. And I say, well, because of who you are, because of your history, because of your goals, because of all of these things. We know we’re going to end up in a unique place, what we really need to do is fully understand all of these and understand the dynamics in your marketplace. All of these things.
When you add all of that up, and we build a strategy properly, and then we start to connect all those things, we’re going to end up in a really unique, powerful place that will resonate. But you’ve got to believe in that process. Like Michael said, you’ve got to work through that process. And you’ve got to have the right information. The more transparency, the more flattened an organization is, the more they share with us, the more we know. Knowledge is power, and we connect all those things. And we use all of those things. Designers don’t forget anything. Or a fact, we learn it all, we probably forget 90% of it, but we hold on to what we know is most important, and the true things that we can build upon, and then we take those, and we create something that’s truly unique to that organization or that brand. And that’s what makes great design to me.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah. So I have a personal question now. Both of you have been around for some time, have had amazing work, amazing clients amazing successes. If you look back to when you started and you compare to today, is the power of design better understood today or is becoming commoditized? Sometimes I have the impression that, particularly when I work with clients, that the people expect things much more quickly than let’s say more than 20 years ago when I started. The value of design also seems to be diminished. Sometimes I compare the what on the corporate side, I used to be on the corporate side where I used to pay an agency to do a logo. Let’s say for example to work today, agencies get paid for the same logo. There is a substantial difference in negative. And so I wonder, do you see design as valued or more valued or less valued? Is design misunderstood? What’s missing or have I mischaracterized what I observe?
Michael Dula: Well, that’s a great question, Andrea. I think the only way that design is misunderstood is if there’s not a conversation or so developing very rich conversations with our clients and our teams and really, our clients are going to be the stewards of their brand and it’s vital that we work and we collaborate, and we cooperate. But what’s most important is the educational process along the way. And I think once you have that happen, really magical things happen in design. I think the world at large is, you have incredible imagery coming at you all the time. You have incredible design coming at you all the time. And it’s hard to distinguish sometimes what’s great design and what’s bad design. But I do think that what we were … if I can track back to a question you asked about subjectivity, design is vital especially when it’s not subjective, but when it aligns to strategy and it aligns to that that long term vision of what the brand is going to be. I think that’s where it’s most valued.
David Kohler: Yeah, I agree with everything Michael just said. And when you frame it by saying design is relevant today, that really frames it for me because it’s a funny thing because if you look back to a lot of the heroes that Michael and I both share, like people like Raymond Louis, Paul Rand, these were guys who would create not only a logo, they would create a whole physical experience. We’re talking guys who would create a brand for Westinghouse, and then design the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, these were the same guys that did this. So they really touched it, everything. But I don’t know if it was fully appreciated by regular business people or lay people at all. But that’s the way it was.
Then everything got much, much more complicated, way more people bought into it, I would probably argue to agree got commoditized. You use a design to create a logo, you use a design to create a website, you use a design to create a phone, whatever it might be. But the idea that these all flow together and they’re built from a core idea, when you think about how Paul Rand built IBM, and everything that’s manifested itself into and it’s still used today, they still use the positioning thing different today for everything they do or not thing different thing … excuse me, today. So you look at that, that’s how it used to be done. And then they got lost a little bit or it’s always been there by certain key practitioners, but then you take that you look at the historical side of it. Now you look back at today, I think it’s more necessary today than ever.
When you think about the speed of change, technology, empowerment to your audience, and it’s constantly changing and changing, there are very few people can understand all these deep things like a designer can and know how to scale it. Design can be scaled. Designers know how to scale ideas and concepts more than anybody, because that’s what we’re trained to do. So when I think about everything going on today, and that speed of change, and how does the client communicate across all these touch points, but make sure that everything they’re saying is exactly on brand and exactly what they wish to communicate in every single experience from a logo you see to an interactive experience to a physical experience, even the way people speak, all of these things, and it’s constantly changing. How do you keep up with that? Unless you have a team and particularly design involved, where people can really understand and know how to adapt and know how to grow these core ideas into just about anything. And so for me today, with all of these changes that happening, it’s more important than ever, to really help manage that.
Michael Dula: Yeah. Dave, I would really champion what you’re saying there. I think design is an imperative and anymore … I mean, people know what great design is, visual design, right? They know what great design is they know what bad design is, they can separate. Our world is so accustomed to seeing beautiful design and bad design where we have very highly tuned senses now. Aesthetic design is one thing though, and the by design proposition is another and it’s really, brand designers are really by design. It’s about the assembly so much more of aesthetics. It’s really all those different components that have to connect and have to be applied to different mediums. And they have to carry the instantaneous conversation to the consumer and they have to carry the long term conversation to the consumer at the same time.
So it’s really a cumulative discipline of building a brand with so many parts. That’s why that relationship to music earlier is that you can have extreme complexity but be able to put it together and synthesize it so that you have really a rich and dramatic and unique experience that you remember. So I think, to David’s point, design is more important than ever. The ability to distinguish, the ability to relate, the ability to gain the right perceptions, and be able to do that across mediums that are changing every single day. There are so many different touch points that a brand connects with. So, design is more important today. I would say if you don’t have design in your brand, it’s a non starter. So the competition out there in the world for design and for people that believe in the value of design is incredible, more incredible than ever. So in design is better than it’s ever been today. So the ability to distinguish a brand through design and by design is an imperative.
David Kohler: Michael, I’m thinking about it. I’m just picking up on what you’re saying about aesthetics. And sadly, that’s how a lot of people view design which is really viewing design as a commodity because we say to clients all the time. Well, and sometimes they’re taking back and when we say, “Oh, well, we’re making it look good. It’s easy.” I’m not worried about that. I know it’s going to look great. Where we’re worried about it, we want to make sure that the solution we put forward is right and it’s going to help you reach your goals. And that’s the challenge. When you create a design that not only reveals itself immediately, but then it’s so strategically right that over time, it starts to reveal itself. It can also grow with the organization. That’s great design. Making it look great, we can do that. We won’t put anything out there that doesn’t look great.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, yeah. And I suddenly understand that. So the question then is the following. And this is a bit of a provocative question to both of you. So we live in the age of data, big data, small data, data everywhere, analytics. And as a strategist, I feel that while as you know, both of you, I love data and how data can get you to a direction that gives you the confidence and conviction in the ideas that you’re presenting when a positioning strategy is developed. And then on the other hand yet I feel that data is constraining intuition, is constraining emotions, is constraining possibilities that maybe 2030 years ago people were much more eager to embrace and maybe that’s why he went to the designers because he had this kind of secret sauce, this magic power. And so I wonder sometimes, is this incredibly data centric world hampering intuition that drives design, is this creating a formulaic world where based on insights, everything maybe has to look in a certain way?
I’ll give you an example. You can go to a lot of software company websites today and practically every single website follows a formula like structure on the homepage or second level pages because by design, that is what the data says that is the best way of creating an experience that makes people understand what you do. On the other hand, though, the result is lots of website look alike. So it’s a bit of a provocative question, because I know that both of you love data. But you see where I’m going with this?
David Kohler: Yeah, well, it’s a funny. We love information as you know that. The more we know, the better we are. And the worst thing is, when you go into a presentation, and then somebody shares information with you that nobody shared up to that moment, and you’re standing there, like, okay, well, that makes half of what I’m going to show you today off target because every single bit of information you have helps you understand where to go and what to build. So I would separate two things there. That you’ve got data, and then you’ve got information. They’re very different things. You’ve got to take the data and do something with it.
But even having said that, so then you get all this information, but it truly is what you do with it. It’s not a means to an end. But it certainly gives us the ability when we … understanding helps us know exactly what to do and where to take them. So the more information we have, it’s fantastic. Even now, like I used to hate focus groups. Like the idea we would take stuff we do and go out there and do a focus group, the idea was an anathema to me. But then we started doing them. And then every time we do and everybody’s like, wow, I think you could go further. I don’t think you’re pushing it. And I’m like, wow, really? Somebody would pick our most outrageous idea, and then they’d say, I think we need to go further.
So being able to tap into knowledge, looking to a broader audience, helping move our clients along is a huge thing because the biggest issue we always face is fear of change. And data can help you overcome fear of change. So I guess, listening to everything I’m saying that’s probably the biggest change I feel in our careers that has happened is we can actually go beyond our clients world. We could say to them, “Well, I know you guys are saying this, but when we go beyond that we go to your audience and these outside worlds, they’re in a totally different place. And we can educate them about that. And we can start to get them to help them see a broader perspective and understand their brand in the bigger context.” So that’s an incredible thing that’s really come out of the last decade.
Andrea Fabbri: And I certainly appreciate that. Michael, what’s your take on my question?
Michael Dula: Well, I completely agree with David. I think, fundamentally, that’s the biggest change in design over the last 10 to 15 years. And I’m in the same position as Dave. You used to look at data and go, oh, my God, here come the focus groups and here we go. But data is there to provide clarity and not rigidity. And I think if you’re a great designer, you use it for clarity. If you’re a designer that checks the box and does this you’re not a designer that really designs with the passion from the heart to capture an emotional experience that’s going to connect, that’s going to leave a lasting perception. That’s how you create a distinct brand.
So that information goes into the designer’s head, you feel it in the heart, it comes back out. And you align that in terms of how you’re trying to convey the quality of the brand what is that emotional experience. Emotions and perceptions, you can’t do a check the box to those. It’s a feeling that you get. And that’s what I think data does especially coming out of brand strategy and brand positioning and you gain a lot of information through data. And it helps you to sort through the ideas and it helps you to differentiate brands and how to prepare those to go to market. And that information that is gained through data informs brand strategy and it turns right back around and it informs design and it makes for a compelling brand. Without it, you’re kind of searching in the dark, like we used to do. We used to gas it and we used to give it our best you would say your best gut intention, right?
Andrea Fabbri: There’s a freedom which hurts sometimes, right?
Michael Dula: Yeah, exactly. You just jump hurdles and you take creative leaps and sometimes it’s a hope in a prayer but you do that based on experience and intuition. Now you’ve got data which really helps give you a very good direction. It gives you a very good road. Now how you go down that road and what you want to do with it and what you want to drive and what that experiences, that’s up to the designer. But you really are able to cut through the clutter with data. I’m a big, big fan of data. I know Dave is too. So, again, clarity versus rigidity, you can’t allow data to freeze you up. You have to use it for what it is and it helps inform you. Dave and I would both say design is an emotional experience. It is all about passion and heart and understanding. Its head, its heart, it’s the mind and it’s making all those connections that at the end of the day, that’s how a brand is delivered.
David Kohler: Michael, Andrea is laughing here because you said something a few moments ago where you mentioned heart and then he saw me write on my computer, heart and passion so I didn’t forget to bring it back up because I wanted to really highlight that point you made. It is so important. People say to us now are we worried about the threat of AI or the threat of data being able to come up with these solutions. But the thing is, you can’t forget the human factor here, you can’t forget about the idea of heart and passion, commitment, all of these things that come out of it, that are real human attributes. And a machine, you can type in all the data you want, and the machine could spit something out, but it’s going to be lacking those factors. And those are the factors that can really drive it. That’s what forces us to push ourselves.
I always say sometimes great design moments are almost like an Olympic moment, where and what I’m talking about when somebody at the Olympics, you’ll see them do things far beyond their abilities, and reach a new, a new standard that becomes their base. And that happens in design. As we push ourselves and as we grow things, that passion, that heart, all of it comes into it. And we push ourselves to new heights every time we do it. And a machine is not going to do that. The data of things you could spit something out and we’ll add it all pulled together and give you an example of what it could be. But that human element, that idea of a team who works together and drives all these things and puts the heart and soul into it, then truly amazing things happen. And you throw that in with all of our experience and then the diverse talents of our teams, and all of this matter.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, and it’s true. And I agree. Sometimes I wonder, maybe because there is so much noise around, it’s difficult sometimes to discern great design, which then leads me to the question, what stands in the way? Both of you had to design programs for large, large fortune 100 companies, had to implement that across a variety of channels, not just advertising, environmental, but these days is social media and customer mobile interfaces and all kinds of interactions that had to be designed, understood, rethought, evaluated, reshaped. What stands in the way of great design? Can you talk a little bit about practical challenges that when you have to present your thinking, what are the obstacles that sometimes you face along the process? Whether it’s around the decision, whether it’s around the people, whether it’s around a taste. Again, going back to objectivity and subjectivity. Can you elaborate, what’s your take?
David Kohler: You want to go first Michael?
Michael Dula: Yeah, I’ll give it a shot Dave. Although I think that-
David Kohler: Yeah. It’s not a setup Michael.
Michael Dula: No, this is a good conversation here. I think Andrea what stands in the way of great design, boy, I would say what stands in the way of great design is if you don’t have a great patron. I think our clients are phenomenal and their ability to engage and be there with us through the process. And you have to have a great patron. I can’t remember whether it was Frank Lloyd Wright that said this but, without a great patron, you can’t do great work. And I know I’ve got the name wrong. But it’s got to be some great architect, designer, industrial designer, painter, whoever that is out there that said that because that is so vital to being able to create. If you don’t have that, you have nothing to create for and the heart and emotion and the appeal to … Most of design of creative design is based on momentum, and momentum comes from the heart, it just pours out.
It’s so incredible when that happens, it’s magical. And that’s always done collaboratively. It’s always done collaboratively. So that I think, is if you don’t have that great design is hard to achieve because when we talk about brand design, we’re not talking about creating a logo. And we’re not talking about creating an environment or something like that. It’s about creating all of it. So it’s a very long term. It could be six months, it could be a year, but it’s a long duration. And you have to have that partnership with your client and it’s a long road to travel but I think that’s where the best design happens. I think that’s that’s my feeling in terms of that would be the one single element. Dave, what’s your thoughts?
David Kohler: Well, I’ll tell you, Michael. Obviously first, I agree with everything you just said. And I’m not sure who said the quote that you’re referring to, but I did go to Paul Rand’s last lecture at Cooper Union and he absolutely said that. Everybody was talking about the great work he did. And he said, “Well, you need great clients to do great work,” and everybody is going, “Oh, come on. It can’t just be that.” And he’s like, “Well, what do you want me to say? You asked me; I’m telling you.”
Michael Dula: Hey David, so then I can attribute it to Paul Rand, right?
David Kohler: Yeah, well, we know now, that’s for sure. And-
Michael Dula: Okay. Got it. I was going to do Antoni Gaudi. And then I was going to do Vivaldi.
David Kohler: Oh, my God. Well, that’s the guy … How many times did he rebuild that church?
Michael Dula: Still building it.
David Kohler: Yeah, right. They probably finished it. But another issue that I see constantly is fear of change. A big and this is human nature. It’s not just a corporate issue. It’s human nature. What we do is we’re change agents, we are asked to come in and completely rethink an organization. And the first thing people do is you start to put these ideas forward as everybody keeps building roadblocks as to why this can’t happen. And so we have to sit there and keep removing the roadblocks and you have to do it. So we have to sit there one by one and saying, okay, well talk to me about that. Well, why couldn’t you do it? So let’s say we remove that roadblock? Then what would you do? And they’re like, “Well, nobody ever said that to me before.” I’m like, “We’re saying it right now. Say we remove that problem. Now, what would you do?” And then they say, “Well, if I could do that, then I would do this,” we’ll say, “Okay, let’s talk about doing that.” And then we keep going down that road, and we get there. But you really have to sit there and do that.
And it’s not a corporate issue. It is human nature. Because I had encountered this not only in work, but even in my personal life at times when we try to do things. People are afraid of change. And when you get in as deeply as we do building brands, and that type of change we bring about because we’re usually brought in to do something quite large. It could be small or large, but the impact is great. And that fear just always sets in and it’s to me, the biggest issue we have to deal with. In fact, it’s as we keep going deeper and deeper, I find this one of the number one things that we always have to overcome and build. And then when you do it, you build trust.
And then things start really jamming. Because then when everybody understands the power of it, and you talk about the power of design, people really start to understand it then, and they realize this is way bigger than that color you gave me, that logo you gave me, that brochure, whatever it might be. They start to see that they’re like, wow, this is powerful stuff. And in its entirety, that’s everything we have to do to bring these solutions to life.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, I completely agree. And in fact, I would add a dimension to this. I have several thoughts, but I often lament lack of courage and leadership particularly for what you said. Design is always about dealing with change that you’re bringing because suddenly things look differently. The message is different, the strategy is different, the position is different. So change management is a big component. But I am noticing more and more a lack of leadership and courage. I think my own view anyway is sometimes I wonder if all this incredible reliance of data is making people more careful and therefore less trusting when a direction that is being presented is quite uplifting or quite impactful from a design perspective is radically different than anything else around, which is sometimes an interesting oxymoron, right? Or because we’re brought in as strategists and as designers to create something that differentiates. But then when you do so, sometimes the differentiation is too much and then people like to go back to what’s familiar to them. And I find that contrast always very, very interesting.
Anything else, Michael? What stands in the way of great design? For example, can you turn a bad strategy into something phenomenal through design?
David Kohler: We do it every day.
Michael Dula: Yeah, I think the short answer is that you can make anything highly aesthetic, right? You can make anything look pretty beautiful. The problem is that you’re putting the proverbial icing on the cake and the cake is hollow inside. It’s got a dead strategy, right? The engine inside, it’s not there. It’s not powerful. It’s subpar. And eventually it’s going to erode it’s going to cave in. So yeah, you can do great design work that that looks like it functions. But the problem is if the brand is not functioning and it’s not built for time, and it’s not built for endurance, it’s going to fall apart.
And again, we’re not talking about building a poster, we’re not talking about building a single environment, we’re talking about building all of it, right? Every single component, that giant component, and design is not going to mask bad strategy. It’s not going to mask a bad and endeavor because the engine is not built. It’s foundationally not equipped to withstand the structure on top of it. So you have to think of it as really when we talk about again, design, brand design specifically, we talk about a totality, we talked about all those things that Dave and I’ve been talking about. All of it, and that’s what makes this brand design so complicated. But when we’re finished with a great brand, you have a brand that’s truly powerful.
And what Dave is spot on in terms of when he talks about what stands in the way of great design, and you have to look at it as it takes a lot of … I can’t think of another word, but it takes a lot of guts, right? You said courage, Andrea, to build a great brand. If you don’t have that courage, you can’t build a great brand. You can’t build a brand that’s this completely distinct. You can build a brand that looks like other brands, but you can’t truly build a breakthrough brand. And really, that’s always our task. Our task is always to create that incredible perception and exuberance of a brand that can really stand out from the crowd. And do it for the long term, the long haul. Not a week, not six months, not a year, but continually.
David Kohler: Yeah, Michael, you really hit on something nice when you talked about it being hollow, and aesthetics can be deceiving, right? Something can look really fantastic. But then, it can have no substance behind it, nothing you can really build upon and nothing certainly that could really fulfill the needs and the potential of a given company or brand. And when I think about that too, there’s a lot of issues that come out of it. The worst is, it will work on a strategy for six months and then it’s like, okay, we want a logo in two weeks. It’s like, what? Really? You spend all this time on this, and the whole future of your organization is based on this, and you want us to spit it out in two weeks, and have no time to think about it. No time to really grow it, no time to put thought into it. No time to build something that we know is going to work long term. And that’s critical.
We’re always kind of leery of shiny objects. You see something really good you’re like, well, that looks beautiful, but it’s not going to look beautiful in six months, and it’s going to get weaker and weaker as it goes. You really need the time to think it through and really build something with depth and strength. And we test it. When we have the time, we test this thing inside out to make sure all of our solutions are going to work. As we were saying before we step outside of ourselves and test ourselves test our thinking, all of this again and again throughout the process. So when we could do that properly, you can guarantee not only is it going to work today, it’s going to work long into the future. And that’s everything. We see stuff all the time.
I was so proud. You sent out an email last week, Andrea, with an example of a brand that you just launched. And one of our designers right away listed what was wrong with it, why it wasn’t going to work in six months, all these issues, I went straight up and I hugged her. And I said, everything you said is exactly right. Yes, you’re learning all this. And our whole team thinks like that because we know it. We’re very leery of it, we’ve done it. We’ve created things where we start to realize the weaknesses as time moves on, and we take all that knowledge and all that rigor into everything we do, but it’s so critical.
Andrea Fabbri: I agree. And as both of you know, I’m from a city that is Rome in Italy. I’m constantly surrounded by and reminded of the importance of design. Whether it’s buildings or paintings I’m constantly surrounded by all of that and manifestation of the human intention. As William McDonnell, one of my favorite architects and designers said, what’s striking about what surrounds me and I always marvel every time I’m back, some of these buildings have been around for 2000 years by design. The Colosseum is still there, by design. Sam Peters, unless something dramatic happens, an earthquake, it will be there for another 1500 years by design because Michelangelo projected it that way, designed it that way.
David Kohler: On CBS Sunday morning, I did a piece on Florence. And they were showing a loon that Leonardo da Vinci designed. They still use today. It still works, and they make of course of the most expensive textiles in the world. But the effects of da Vinci designed this loom and these people are using, they have five of them, and they use them all every day. You talk about impact design.
Andrea Fabbri: With impact, but also that what makes design great, right? So structure, vision, originality, innovation, but also standing the test of time. There are some inherent qualities that great design has. You were mentioning earlier IBM, you were mentioning GE, I know that we often talked about Paul Rand, some of these designers. I think they shared common characteristics, including a great patron. All the incredible beauty that Rome is completely filled by wouldn’t have been there without patrons that had the patience to withstand the neurotic nature of artists like Michelangelo, and many others without going to the list just to mention a few-
David Kohler: You guys had a few deep thinkers back then.
Andrea Fabbri: Well, yeah. And there were of course all kinds of other issues. But anyway, it this is a really fascinating.
Michael Dula: Andrea, I was going to say, one of … it’s a very simple way to think about brand design, which you’ve been conveyed metaphorically. And that’s when you look at those buildings that have stood the test of time, it’s its right structure, and its design, and its patrons. And those are really things that make for very enduring brands. I think this has been a great conversation about what brand design is because brand design is all of it. It is incredibly demanding. It is not a one off thing, and it is built to stand the test of time. David, I do not build brands that are fleeting. We don’t build brands that are three month brands or six month brands, we’re not in that business. And it’s so highly complicated and that’s where that whole structure and the design, the perceptive skin, the aesthetics and what comes through are incredibly important. But nothing is greater than structure because it’s the foundational support for all. I think that’s real important. So it’s been a good conversation because we’ve looked holistically at how brands are built. And we know that they’re not built in one day.
Andrea Fabbri: Yeah, definitely not in one day. And as you know, I say that a lot. Rome was not built one day…
Michael Dula: And you’re the one person that can say it.
Andrea Fabbri: Yes, I am!!! So in the end, design is great because it makes a strategy visible. It makes complexity simple, it makes ideas and complex things easy to understand, memorable, if things are done well. No matter what the interaction is, no matter what the touchpoint is. And interesting enough, design and the quality of the design and the consistency of the language, whether it’s visual or not, or the experience that it enables and that it delivers, it’s also an indicator of quality and consistency of the company. That’s why design is key, particularly in this day and age. And it’s something that I will never stop saying to CEOs and executives, who are indeed sometimes not just CEOs, it’s just in general executives, always confronted with the unfortunate circumstances of timelines and investors’ expectations and so on.
But if design is to be a manifestation of human intention, great design is a manifestation of great human intention and therefore of quality. So I’m always been a big proponent as both of you know. So thank you. This concludes what I hope is a great conversation, interesting, a lot of phenomenal insights throughout and I want to thank you David and-
David Kohler: Well, thanks for having me Andrea.
Michael Dula: Thank you Andrea.