Design with heart or we’re all lost: Why designers should beware rationality overtaking creative intuition

Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins. Follow him on Twitter @MoodyThinking

Last month I wrote about how design can be a powerful business tool; a smart lever that can solve big problems and make money.

What I didn't highlight was as much as great design is able to fuel commerce, it will only do so when it has been built with genuine emotion and spirit.

Great design is always made with heart.

Whether that's the heart that's behind the care and craft of a beautiful artifact; the heart that leaps off the page when something is made by someone who loves their job; or simply the way in which design can strike a chord with a mass audience. Awesome work is always heartfelt.

You could argue these two perspectives are at odds with each other and that I am being inconsistent.

However I genuinely believe that they aren't mutually exclusive; I think it's the reason why brands like Lego, Apple and Mercedes regularly top both popularity and profit rankings.

Consistency, however, is something I have precious little love for.

For years the brand industry and the world of marketing told brands that consistency was their very essence. Therefore the way in which modern businesses were set up to receive and disseminate design became distinctly Fordean. This was further facilitated by the increasing influence of big photo libraries, global colour books and the thud factor of guidelines that all claim that good brands stick to the rules.

Recently there have been multiple blog inches and fetishisation around the reissue of the 1970s NASA guidelines. It's great as a historic document of skill and energy that went into corporate identity, but it's useless as something to emulate in 2016.

We live in a post corporate world that has been disassembled by digital and fragmented by on demand.

Today a whole brand expression can be built on the back of somebody else's logo (a black Prius on a London street is 'branded' Uber as much as it is Toyota). Brands have shed the restriction of matching a solitary Pantone colour, so much so that they can greedily use an entire primary palette (Google is so confident in its colour palette it uses its 'own’ four dots). This is a moment when a TV channel is way more than just a number (Channel 4 and BBC Three have done away with digits in the same way viewers have on their remotes).

Corporate identity has been superseded by brand expression: monolithic consistency with measured coherency. But in many cases big business hasn't kept pace because it often clings onto old ideals.

The writer Aldous Huxley wrote about a Brave New World in which new technology and its resultant efficiency drained the humanity from society. The cookie cutter reliability of the production line gave society stability but what was left was antiseptic and heartless.

But don't reach for the rope just yet; this vision is far from being realised. Technology is helping to create amazing design and experience. But the challenge for the contemporary designer is to balance rationality with the radical, emotive, creative spark.

The aforementioned Uber is a good example of a brand caught in between two worlds. The recent ‘atoms and bits’ identity must have ticked many boxes in regards to articulating the brand proposition – it gave consistency and rationale to something that had grown organically – but in a way it lacks a little heart.

If it could have captured even a fraction of the warmth and humanity the brand expressed on a cold night back in January when its fleet of digital icons all bore a tricolour in solidarity with the Parisians, it would have been the rebrand of the year.

Huxley famously said: "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead." When it comes to the way design is too often articulated in the boardroom, this can sum up the fate of the emotional side of design.

Death by focus group, death by presentation, death by lowest common denominator, death by group think. Beyond the warmth of the studio, design can become cold, standardised, templatised, industrialised, rationalised to the point that the heart breaks.

Huxley would, I'm sure, have balked at using his anti-utopian warning to further an argument about better branding, but it's time to pioneer new ways for big business to further the joy and beauty of design.

Take PowerPoint (other software is available – and who knows why nobody uses it). Every brand that ever existed at some stage was gestated through PowerPoint. It's a great tool to show stats, to brief in strategic concepts, to house Dilbert cartoons. It is, however, unlikely to be the place a designer will blow the minds of their audience. Plenty of people will tell you that it’s perfectly possible to make a beautiful, crisp and well designed PowerPoint document and it is. But more often than not images are butchered, stretched and tweaked. Nuance is blunted and fluid narrative storytelling becomes rigid bullet points.

Substance over style, but when your substance is style it's a zero sum game. Users and customers don't see your brand through a PowerPoint slide so don't define creative through one. Make it physical, make it interactive, make it real, prototype the future in a way that gets people out of their seats.

There has never been a better time to be a designer. There have never been more tools or platforms at our disposal. But paradoxically it has never been easier to create something dull.

Beware rationality overtaking creative intuition, beware the 'design thinkers', the post rationalisers, the colour theorists and the comments box bore offs who just want to make you consistent with what the world has already seen.

It's a new world out there and as designers we need to be brave. Break conventions, break structure, break perceptions, break free.

But never break your heart.

Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins. You can follow him on Twitter @moodythinking

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