Trending away from Trends

11 Mar 2015 by Brian Slade

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A well designed future may be informed by trends but shouldn’t be slavish to them says Brian Slade.

At the start of each year, just as are getting back from that glorious summer break, there seems to be an ever increasing array of trend predictions - from retail trends, to sports, Oscars, careers, celebrities, cars, the work place, sharemarkets, technologies, the list goes on. I find these lists really interesting, as I’m sure half the things on them wouldn’t stand a chance of getting anywhere without these trend predictions and then our own innate human curiosity. Interestingly self-fulfilling!

The design industry isn’t without its own predictions. These need to be navigated carefully in order not to simply fall into the trap of being relevant one minute and not the next.

Until last year, some marketers had considered cross-device optimisation as a fringe benefit. No more. “Mobile first” is the catch cry for online design now. Agility marketing (likes and tweets) looks to increase as marketers and audiences talk ‘face to face’ more online than ever before and rich media and video become more commonplace. There’s a growing desire for simplicity and cleanliness in communications with flat simple graphics continuing to lead the way. Countering this desire for clarity is a resurgence of crafted typography with an expressive personality and humanity. The colour for the year is apparently masala (PMS 18-1438), with Pantone claiming it is appealing to both male and female, hearty, yet stylish, universally appealing and translating to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.

I think part of the trick is knowing when a trend is relevant to your communications task and when it’s not, but more importantly understanding what’s behind the trend and relevantly applying this to a project. As a rule of thumb it’s safe to say that if you’re working on a one-off campaign or communication that speaks to a more youthful audience you’ll want to be employing visual elements and language that resonate as being ‘on trend’. Having said that, part of a designer’s role is always going to be ensuring that the visual language they are using resonates with their primary audience.

Our work on the NZ Super Fund’s website is an example of this. The NZ Super Fund was set up for the Government to save now in order to help pay for the future cost of providing National Super to Kiwis. They have a clear understanding of what their audiences are looking for and speak to them consistently over a long period of time. Our design approach needed to be current but, more importantly, be relevant to many audiences and for a number of years to come. 

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Their primary external audiences include investment managers that follow them closely with strong relationship-based communications, interested members of the public and international and local media. We’ve worked with the Fund for a number of years on visual identity streamlining and various offline communications including their annual report which has achieved international recognition.

The website held quite different challenges, speaking primarily to audiences that look to track the Fund’s performance and understand its investment approach. Working closely with the client and undertaking user testing, we built on their existing website’s good bones by refining the IA (information architecture). We put a lot of focus on the UX (user experience), looking to optimise intuitive site navigation with an enhanced site search to achieve transparent, clear, accurate information. Gaining clarity through clear design thinking.

The design solution involved moving the existing abstract imagery to more human imagery of children, parents and grandparents interacting in natural New Zealand environments. Once again looking to the trend of connectivity and belonging, these give an essential reality to why the Fund exists. This approach also delivered on the inter-generational aspect of the Fund – saving now to benefit future generations.

Rich content such as video was used to explain more complex content, once again on trend but clearly functional and beneficial to the end user, putting a face to the investments.  The design uses a combination of subtle but important humanist design assets such as soft shadowing in the navigation and layered colour tones. While these go against the flat graphics trend, they create a warmer experience that supports the fund’s purpose. 

The NZ Super website is a well designed site that, although isn’t slavish to a trend, is clearly informed by them. It just takes a bit of courage and judgement.

- Published in NZ Marketing Magazine, March/April 2015