“Artificial cultures are instant. They’re big bangs made of mission statements, declarations, and rules. They are obvious, ugly, and plastic. Artificial culture is paint.
Real cultures are built over time. They’re the result of action, reaction, and truth. They are nuanced, beautiful, and authentic. Real culture is patina.” —Jason Fried, You don’t create a culture
I’ve been thinking about office culture a lot lately—how to develop it, how to foster it, and how to create it. I’ve long felt that a lot of company cultures feel fake—that if a culture is mandated or initiated from the top they are actually inauthentic within the company.
I’ve started to think about culture in the same way I think about interaction design. And like interaction design, culture is not static, it is ever-changing and always moving. Companies are built by teams which are built by departments which are people by people and each new employee adds a layer to the culture and they bring their own perspectives, insights, and backgrounds into the fold.
A principle I return to often in thinking about interaction design is the idea of frameworks and platforms. Designing frameworks means the designer has the first word, not the last. It means the designer gets to start the conversation but leaves room for improvisation and for others to add and contribute.
Real culture isn’t rigid and can’t be mandated. You can start the conversation, but each employee brings their own experiences to the table. Each new employee, each new voice will change your company culture in a small way and that’s okay. That’s good! Trying to enforce a particular company culture will be fake and leave employees disconnected from their work. All you can do is add your contribution and create space for the culture to move and grow and evolve and patina.
USA Today, the country’s second largest newspaper1 recently unveiled a new logo and brand system that spans their entire publication—crossing platforms between web, iPad, mobile devices, and, of course, the physical newspaper designed by Wolff Olins. Rebranding an organization this large is risky. Even riskier? Rebranding an organization so steeped in tradition in a field steeped in tradition, struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly digital world. It seems impossible for a rebranding of this scale to be successful right? Don’t you remember Tropicana? Or Gap? Those should be minimal compared to the backlash you’d think USA Today will get.
But the reception appears to be well-received2. The more I see the new branding and the more I read about the process behind it and plans for it to evolve, the more in awe of it I become. It’s bold, it’s daring, and, in my estimation, shows what the future of branding looks like.
Allen Tan has a great piece over at Contents Magazine on the struggles between full art direction on the web and the restraints of CMS templates. Using the metaphor of a tailor, Tan proposes templates that adjust to content:
If we compare digital editorial design to the craft of men’s shirt-making, art-directed pages would be bespoke shirts—luxury items uniquely made for an individual. On the opposite end of the spectrum are off-the-rack shirts, idealized designs manufactured en masse. Like article templates, these are ill-fitting, because standard-sized shirts can not fit every wearer’s body. But there’s also a middle path, which is to buy a good off-the-rack shirt and entrust it to a specialist, who takes the wearer’s measurements and then shortens and sculpts the shirt to fit. The shirt is, in other words, tailored.
We’ve learned that art directing articles online is a laborious and expensive endeavor but templated design separates content from form making for ill-fitted online publications. This concept fits into a lot of things that interest me: art direction on the web, frameworks, online content, and improvisation.
The idea of tailoring the form can act as the glue pulling design and content together:
Technologically, a tailoring approach isn’t very different from the design work we already do, but it opens new possibilities. By combining flexible templates with talented tailors, newspapers can begin to introduce strong design on a scale unseen so far: not the plain, minimalist layouts we see in read-later tools or Flipboard, but truly platform- and content-aware work. Magazines can benefit just as much, if not more, since tailored design can reflect pacing and rhythm across an entire issue as well as within individual articles. And, just as web type services allows rich typography to flourish online, tailoring permits designers to draw on more of print design’s history without ignoring the benefits of the web. By pushing hard on understanding what specific content wants, we will get to confront more interesting problems.
I read an article a few weeks ago about an interesting element of Shaker design. Inside Shaker homes, a simple wooden strip with evenly spaced pegs spans every wall. We’ve all seen this idea; we often hang our coats on this peg rail system, but the Shakers have built an interesting system upon this framework. Since this is a common element among all the homes, the Shakers could build objects to fit into it. Nothing needs to be nailed into the walls because the only requirement to participate in the framework was a two-inch diameter hole.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for a few weeks now ever since I read the article almost to the point of obsession. It reminded me of an article I had written a few months ago about the idea that designing for the web is like creating a platform that promotes conversation. As the designer, we start the conversation but the user gets to contribute and add to the platform we create. I started to wonder if this idea wasn’t just limited to web design and if these ideas about frameworks could be applied to anything.
“As a designer, I was told for years that people didn’t want to know about the design process, all they wanted was the end-result, but there’s been a change.” Mr. Béhar said. “People are so sophisticated about what they want and what they need, that they’re no longer happy to be passive recipients of designers’ work. They want to customize the things they buy based on individual needs, cultural differences, style and personality.”
I love it when I realize a concept I’ve thought about and written about for a few years can also be applied to something else. One of the principles in my manifesto is “The best work comes from the place between the known and the unknown.” When I wrote that, I was primarily thinking about tools and skill sets, meaning when your designs will be better when you are stretched to learn a new skill or tool because you will be more open to experiment, you will have a great chance of failing and thus, produce different results than if you stick to your usual tools, skills, and practices.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about this concept in regards to the designer and audience relationship. For years, design has been described as a narrative initiated by the designer, usually resulting in a one-way dialog—designer to audience. I believe this method of design is changing with the rise of interactive design and the design process is no longer one continuous narrative but a conversation between designer and audience.