Craig Mod is a product designer (best known for his work on Flipboard) and one of my heroes. Recently, I rediscovered a brilliant article he wrote a few years ago called 'Subcompact Publishing'. It's a rather wonderful rant about the stupidity of digital magazines.
He poses a simple question: physical magazines and books are simple to use. So why are most digital magazines and books so complicated that you need a set of instructions? Why do they take forever to download? Why are they full of motion graphics and video that get in the way of the experience rather than enhancing it?
Craig thinks the answer is down to a tendency that can be seen in Homer Simpson's car, The Homer. Given the chance to design his dream car, Homer just adds more and more layers of stuff on top of everything cars have ever offered. More horns, more cup holders, more soundproof bubbles for children and sisters-in-law.
As Craig puts it: "The simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It's the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived."
That's a pretty powerful thought. And one I fear we forget far too often when it comes to marketing and advertising today. Because when you look at the things we make and the ways we work, it's pretty apparent that by and large we've taken the things that have worked before and added layers to them. Longer videos. More content spamming people more often. More features crammed into the same product. New departments, titles and disciplines. We've created a world of Bloatvertising.
Looking at how we work and what we make through the context of now would, I'm sure, make us see the need for significant change. We'd obsess less about 360-degree integrated plans and, instead, focus on doing a few things well. We'd care more about creating experiences that are invisible and friction-free rather than finding the latest trick to be noticed. We'd get involved earlier and try to create communication products, experiences where marketing is baked directly into the experience, rather than communicating a product.
But I'd hope the first thing we would do is to stop trying to give the inanimate (and often intangible) thing we call brands tangible, human characteristics. We keep trying to make brands more human, but more humans are rejecting brands.
I've come to believe that this failure of brands is down to us blindly believing that brands that are more human are better. To my knowledge there is little, if any, evidence that supports this. This assumption masquerading as fact is stopping us building brands that are valuable to people. And it took an article in the MIT Technology Review to understand why.
Leila Takayama's 'Friendly Machines' is a perspective on why we get frustrated with the limited capabilities of robots. She argues that we need to stop being obsessed with trying to make human-like robots and instead spend our efforts making robots that are more human-friendly in their form, behaviour and function. Human-friendly rather than human-like. A subtle but important distinction.
Now this might be a stretch but you could replace the word 'robots' in the above with 'brands'. We keep trying to anthropomorphise brands (the brand's personality, tone, etc.) rather than trying to work out how we can make them more useful to people. Leila goes on to describe what human-friendly robots are: "They should be appealing and approachable. They should behave in ways that are easy for humans to interpret, and they should perform functions that meet human needs."
That feels to me a much better brief: to think about how we design brands for the context of now. Maybe if we think human-friendly rather than human-like we'll make people care about them again. Maybe to be truly valuable to humans, brands need to stop trying to be so human.