Facebook has recently started to feel a lot like my dialed-up, parental-controlled, You’ve Got Mail AOL inbox. I just wish the fake copyright “communiqué” spread via the statuses of my normally sane Facebook friends was as snarkily charming as the old email chains that once threatened “bad sex for the next seven years” unless they were forwarded to at least 10 Instant Messenger Buddies. Semper par, my 11-year old self compulsively clicked “Forward.”
The attempt to control online privacy via this (see here) pseudo-legal, paranoid post belies a deep mistrust of the polished graphics and seamless ease of corporate websites. “What’s behind the curtain?” we wonder—and then resort to the mumbo-jumbo virus chain of our lo-fi childhood.
To get back to that simpler, more authentic world, many digital designers have reverted to that 1.0 aesthetic. Deliberately clunky, GIF-heavy web design lets the consumer in on the joke.
By exposing some of their HTML guts, companies indicate that they aren’t out to trick you with ads that look like real websites, and they appeal to an increasingly DIY, maker economy.
Check out these additional examples of dial-up nostalgia:
“Frankenstorm” probably wasn’t the right nickname for Hurricane Sandy. Sadly, it’s pretty clear that storms of Sandy’s magnitude are no longer fantastical, once-in-a-generation monsters—they are becoming the norm. Frankenstorm implies that there is a certain degree of separation between us and the pandemics, cyborgs, and economic collapses typically confined to the realm of science fiction. However, it looks like we’ve caught up:
What happens when we get a dose of (anarchic) dystopia? Apparently, we buy more stuff—stuff that allows us to operate independently of established systems and outsmart a future that is starting to look like our wildest imaginations. In this autonomous age (#LaissezFuture) there is a greater demand for brands that provide personalized, proactive, intuitive service.
II. Some Examples
Disaster-preparedness retailers certainly took note. Sales figures for The Ready Store, purveyors of self-sufficient, disaster retreats Practical Preppers and Vaughn Concrete Products, and Eton emergency radios have boomed in what the New York Times dubbed the “Mad Max economy.” Wal-mart and Costco now have a purchaseable “year’s supply of food,” much of it freeze-dried.
Smart thermostat Nest, the Volvo XC70, and MIT Media Labs’ Proverbial Wallet model all rely upon predictive data to save energy, prevent impulsive spending, and filter clean air for their users.
Price tags for 3D printers—machines that incrementally “print” layer upon layer of an object—have steadily dropped over the past two decades. The Makerbot Thing-OMatic is an affordable, easy to assemble and operate 3-D printer, which enables people to “fab” whatever they want out of plastic. It has attracted a vibrant online community that trades designs and tips on how to produce shiny little toys in just a few hours. Beyond trinkets, 3D printing holds the potential to turn homes into customized mini-factories—a vision not far removed from the self-sustaining disaster retreats sold by Practical Preppers.
This year, Berlin-based start-up Changers released a portable solar-powered phone and tablet charger. Consumers can transfer energy from the sun to their mobile device, measure their energy consumption by connecting their charger to the Changers website, and accrue energy credits to use as currency on partnering retail sites. In addition to being environmentally conscious, the Changers charger reflects an increasing consumer desire for self-regulation in all aspects of life.
III. What this means for brands
As more people embrace customization and alternative methods of making money or saving energy, brands should act as facilitators as much as producers.
- Make your product a personal service, not a just physical thing (ZipCar and AirBnB).
- Create a platform for communities, and adapt to the needs of your consumer (Google Crisis Map, Barclay Share Card).
Kate Welsh is a strategy intern at Wolff Olins New York.
How does a corporate behemoth build trust in a world that is—to put it lightly—increasingly skeptical of big businesses?
Last week, Wolff Olins had the opportunity to meet Camille Kubie, the founder and former leader of GE’s visualization team, at our weekly Share in New York. GE, inspired by MoMA’s 2008 Design and Elastic Mind exhibition, decided to take advantage of the massive amount of data that they had accumulated from the sale and usage of their industrial, healthcare, and energy manufacturing products (GE sources their data from sensors attached to their products, as well as reports from utility companies and the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency). They believed that consumers wanted to see more transparency from corporations, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
Kubie showed us Smart Money’s “Map of the Market” and Aaron Koblin’s gorgeous visualization of flight patterns as her inspiration. Both manage to synthesize almost laughably huge amounts of data—the stock market and global airline flights—and present them using innovative visual displays and rich graphs and maps. One of GE’s early experiments with data visualization engaged consumers with their own energy costs. A visitor to the site could choose a home appliance and see how much its usage cost in watts, dollars and gallons of gas per year, month or day, state by state. If I stopped making toast in the morning, I could save 19.65$/year. (ATTN popcorn popper users of New York: That appliance uses more energy than your unit A/C, refrigerator, and computer combined.)
GE has definitely tapped into the “turn everything into an infograph” trend. Since the 2011 launch of the community platform Visual.ly, which allows users to easily create their own infographics, the Internet has become saturated with data visualizations as varied as one about the borough-to-borough artistic merit of graffiti in NYC to the process of hearing loss. In 2011, GE’s “Stats of the Union” was the second most popular iPad app in the U.S. Kubie herself uses the visualization platform, visualizing.org, which uses beautifully designed visual analytics to illuminate weighty policy issues.
Infographics utilize the idea that the brain can more easily process dynamic images rather than lists of numbers. But the best visualizations do more than animate bits of data. They elicit visceral comprehension and moments of insight that make viewers want to discover more. News outlets such as the Guardian, The New York Times, and Newsweek have made high profile use of data visualizations (see NYT Olympics Men’s 100 Meter Sprint, Newsweek best countries)—thus solidifying their positions as prescient, intellectually curious idea generators, rather than just news aggregators.
What does this mean for brands? GE successfully engaged people who might otherwise never think about the greater implications and responsibilities of the global manufacturing company—except in the context of the financial crisis. Brands can take engagement a step further. Data visualization helps companies gain insight into consumer behavior, but they can also show how their products respond to their consumers’ needs. GE could show how a new line of washing machines saves water and money. A foundation could show the far-reaching impact of their grant making. Data visualization can do more than offer a patina of transparency—it can help a brand achieve a higher purpose and become more useful to its customers.
Kate Welsh is a strategy intern at Wolff Olins New York.