Friday, June 03, 2005


the special as enemy of the good

Once upon a time, design aspired to be "good". The Museum of Modern Art in New York promoted examples of "good design." Good design was aspirational, but accessible. If only everyone adopted good designs, the world would be a better place. Much of the wonderful Scandinavian design produced in the 20th century embodied this philosophy. Good design was moral, and also good business. Develop a good design and watch your sales enjoy healthy returns for years to come.

We don't live in this innocent world any longer. Last night I heard a speech on 'cult' design by Thomas Gerlach, director of the German firm via4 and former frog design director. Gerlach pointed out how many beautiful prize-winning, media-celebrated designs have little market significance. What does it take to design a million-seller, or "affengeil"? Gerlach suggested the answer is to develop a design with "cult" potential. The ingredients of a cult object are the object, the target group, and a ritual around the object.

Gerlach pointed out, with some astonishment, how some products and services can become cult favorites when they seem quite strange to non-enthusiasts. Why do people spend money on Jamba ringtones, or hire boxer dogs to take to parties? Numerous products and services with cult followings seem to mock established notions of what is good design.

The market logic of cult design is easy to grasp. There are too many products, making the market noisy. To gain differentiation, one needs to develop a devoted base of enthusiasts. The way to do this is to offer something that appears special to some target group. Someone in the audience pointed out how many cult objects are often polarizing, evoking as much hate from detractors as love from followers. But even widely liked objects can seem special if they are exclusive enough (perhaps due to price) to seem special. If the price falls due to the pressure of competitive immitators, such as is happening with the iPod, the specialness starts to evaporate.

The problem with ordinary "good" design is that it doesn't offer a social identity. One can't make a hobby out of owning something that nearly everyone else owns. People seem to have a need for things they perceive as "special" so they can tell themselves they have made a choice of their own, instead of taking the bog-standard on offer. The special object or service allows them to form implicit or formal relationships with fellow travelers of the cult. Sometimes people derive status, but they may equally just want an interest that has a social aspect to it, for example, a collector's club or swap meet.

Have we given up on good design that is meant to appeal to everyone? Does everything need to be special? Is market differentiation a reflection of individual needs and aspirations, or does it shapes those needs?

Excellent post. Quite thought-provoking.

I don't see it as a choice of "special" vs "good". I see it more as the universal craving for a unique identity expressed by those who feel that their identity is only defined by what they own, what they wear, and who they sleep with. :)

I will probably do a follow-up post on this myself because it relates to many of the the areas I cover in my weblog.
interesting post. i'm not sure that mass-market products are devoid of capacity to differentiate identity.

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