The changing language of design

Article theme badge DesignThe challenge for brand design is to balance sameness with difference by understanding codes and design elements, writes Jaid Hulsbosch, director at Hulsbosch. But this design language is changing.

 

The world has never been so design-centric. Design is everywhere and is literally all around us, in everything we do and in every environment we spend time in.

Design language is the system we use to navigate our increasingly complex world. This design language comes from all over the world and has been turbo-charged by technology.

Design language is now in new areas and has become the interface between technologies we have little or no understanding of and impacting our everyday lives. Apple has found its next market ripe for reinvention: the mobile healthcare and fitness-tracking industry. Apple’s interest in healthcare and fitness tracking will be displayed in an iOS application codenamed Healthbook.

Without design, the modern world would simply become unusable. Modern consumers are surprisingly design-literate and understand the complex layers of communication that travels through good design naturally and easily. They recognise the brands targeted to them, they navigate information easily and make decisions fast.

The challenge of brand is to balance sameness with difference, to stand out in a crowd whilst using enough of the design language that a target audience understands, to make it clear what a brand is selling.

This requires an understanding of the ‘codes’ that consumers need to navigate to make their choices. Utilising this understanding of the codes and design elements identifies what is simply decorative or gets in the way. By separating out what needs to be kept and what can be revolutionised is the job a designer undertakes every day. For example colour-coded bags of potato chips builds early taste recognition for consumers and chip flavouring in Australia is often shown as blue = plain; green = chicken; purple = salt and vinegar.

 

How design language is changing

The design challenge is that this balance of sameness and difference mentioned, is in constant flux as consumers shift the language they use. Therefore the communication elements change and what was once critical to navigation and communication can become outdated and irrelevant very quickly.

What is changing is the speed of this change with a resultant rapid design language change. Consistency used to be a positive, now its just boring. Today, design language is in a constant process of renewal, development, and revolution and often with no sentimentality for the past.

This changing language is also no respecter of boundaries, so language changes in the design of one category will very quickly flow into other, possibly completely unrelated categories. For example, the design of Apple products has influenced far more than technology products.

A huge range of factors shape the language of design both domestically and from overseas. It may be debatable but I think it is safe to say that western developed market cultures are at a stage where their exposure to design is greater than any culture at any point in history.

 

Semiotics in culture

An interesting phenomenon is the emergence of a global semiotic. Semiotics is simply the signs and symbols used in society to communicate. They are in reality defined by the culture within which they are used. For example a Peacock in western society is seen as showy, bold, cocky, arrogant, exotic, etcetera, while in Chinese culture it is seen as lucky. The point is that signs and symbols have strong cultural meaning.

It could be argued that this is what many cultures are fighting against as they see their cultural symbols being replaced by global symbols. Such as mass appeal beverage brand Coca-Cola and its recognisable red or white ribbons; or the emergence of now famous Nike black ‘swoosh’ as a sporting and lifestyle brand leader.

It’s a brand revolution that propels symbols of global power brands to be possibly the most recognized semiotic symbols in the history of mankind.

The world’s largest restaurant brand, McDonald’s and its iconic golden arches are found in 119 countries across more than 35,000 outlets around the world. Its global reach is from outside Windsor Castle in England, near the Palace of Versailles in France, near the Spanish Steps in Rome and even next to ancient sites in China.

What is emerging is the development of signs and symbols that have global meaning.

As design language becomes increasingly global it will be affected and shaped by influences that are often ignored or perceived as irrelevant. Balinese design has had a huge influence on the culture and aesthetic of Australia from fashion to food and architecture.

The semiotics of Germany has come to define much of what is high quality engineering. Japanese products may be as well made or better made but the defining semiotics of high quality/luxury engineering for is distinctly German. You will probably think of automobiles and examples such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

 

The local impact

All these influences affect our day-to-day life but particularly for Australia it’s a regional awakening of new markets that will impact our design vision. With a far greater influence we are seeing the rise of two countries, China and India.

Inspirational Indian design is being drawn from the vibrant patterns that have adorned Indian clothing, decorative objects and textiles for centuries. Both countries each have rich design languages and one of the strongest semiotic meanings of any culture on earth.

China and India are having an effect on our design language and this effect is set to increase dramatically over time. The modern fashion industry can drive change and interpret new trends and a pivot was the photograph in 2013 of Australian celebrity, Dannii Minogue wearing a creation by Indian designer Amit Aggarwal on the cover of her new album.

Another agent for change can be cultural events and a 2015 Sydney Festival highlight was the sold-out performance by the world’s greatest slide guitarist, Debashish Bhattacharya as he showcased the past, present and future of Indian Music.

Dramatic and continuous change to our design language and the semiotic meaning of signs and symbols in our society will continue to change rapidly and will probably increase in their dynamism and speed of change.

It may become impossible to keep pace with this speed of change whilst retaining relevance and not looking constantly out of date. The best way to predict the future is to play a role in inventing it. Shaping the design language of our culture, embracing change and forming language, rather than resisting change and struggling to be understood.

By understanding that design language is influenced by a huge range of factors and understanding this change will happen ever more quickly, we can start to lead the dialogue rather than follow it.