Free sandwiches and not enough focus

The supermarket shelf is a competitive space and brands invest huge amounts of money to reduce the risk of a failed product. A common way of doing this is to use focus groups where a few members of the public give their thoughts on the product. This can be done using interviews, groups or online tools, and each method has their own strengths. However, the difference here is one of scale, not of approach, and I think the industry is ready for change.

Most designers across most disciplines have had their work out into focus groups. This is pretty normal in the design process and is done for a number of reasons ranging from actually trying to figure something out to going through the motions in an ass covering manoeuvre, and most points in between. While design process and tools have grown and adapted hugely over the years, the process for carrying out focus groups has not. Typically a few members of the public  get paid to look at the designs in a room while eating free sandwiches and being asked questions by a moderator. The design and brand team sit on the other side of a two way mirror and observe them, take notes and then integrate this into the design process. Depending on the quality of work and research this can be useful in varying degrees, and all of this is fine. BUT this process is expensive and time consuming, and so often is not a part of the design process but only verifies preconceptions.

BUT, with the growth of AI, there must be a more efficient way of doing this. Focus group testing in this way must be the only kind of research where we choose not to learn, and do it from scratch each time. It seems odd that we choose to invest time and money to learn something in huge depth but don’t record this except in the intuition and experience of the designer. With advances in AI, eye-tracking data, natural language processing and sales data, it seems that a set of models to bring an AI focus group quickly, iteratively and cheaply into the design process must exist, and if there isn’t, someone should make one.

We imagine designers won’t love this idea as their creativity becomes a slave to an algorithm, and people that run focus groups won’t totally love it either as they might think it doesn’t get the subtleties of human interactions, but these groups are so small they are never representative of the buying population, so what are we really doing with focus group testing anyway? The number of times products that tested well have gone to bomb in stores suggests that this approach is a bit broken already.

We think that an ‘augmented focus group’ could harness the best of creativity and researching with focus groups, into the design process. A data driven AI approach could help to really focus design efforts at an early stage to allow for more expression later on.

We are certain that a learning algorithm could unlock a faster and better way of designing. Can someone help?

Working with startups

It is often said (by creative agencies!) that your work is only as good as your client. There is a little truth in this, but it is the responsibility of us as the creative agency to allow our clients to be the best they can be. When working with startups, this is particularly true. Unlike larger clients, with well-defined processes, startups often have ill-defined processes (if any at all) and need a slightly different approach.

Here are some thoughts on our experiences of working with startups to ensure everyone gets the most out of the relationship.

1. Explain the process

When we work with startups, we find it invaluable to spend time outlining our approach and co-creating an approach together. Doing this in detail by outlining what is required and delivered during the process clarifies things for everyone. This brings agency and client together, working with common understanding and terminology. Nothing in the process is too trivial to spell out in detail! As the creative agency, we need put aside (for the moment) what we think our client needs, and focus on what you think you need. You will understand your business better than we could, and part of what we need to do is give you confidence that you are on the right path by influencing it, rather than dictating it. A detailed description of an approach, with timescales and deliverables, will go a long way in allowing the creative process to integrate with your wider goals.


2. Understand the category - not just the task

Typically a startup will be trying something new and you will certainly be an expert in aspects of this business. However, working in a new category means that established ideas and processes can be challenged. For a creative agency to do this with any credibility requires a broad understanding of the category beyond the purely creative. Understanding the technical, operational and competitive landscape will go a long way.


3. Be interested

Startups are interesting! They are doing new things in new ways. You will certainly bring an energy to what you are doing, and be taking risks in doing it. We need to be at least as energetic and excited as you are. As a creative agency, we often provide a moment of levity for you during your challenging journey. By making how we work a joy for you, we can more easily do better work, and make it more enjoyable for us too.


4. Be versatile

A startup requires a versatile team with the experience to tackle tasks beyond their prescribed roles. No task is too menial, and we will certainly all be learning things along the way. You will be improvising and be bootstrapping and we should be ready to do the same. In order to become truly useful, we have had to become PR consultants, social media strategists and recruitment advisers for our clients at various times. We certainly aren’t experts at everything, but we have experience and a network of collaborators to call in when required.


5. The benefit of experience

From experience, we will see potential problems or blocks coming in the distance. It could be simple advice around allocating future budgets, or more complex strategic issues. We can help identify and address these situations before they become more serious.


If you are a startup, then drop us a line if you need some support. 

If you are not a startup, but want to think and act like a startup, drop us a line too!!!




The Rise of Quiet Design

In an increasingly busy world, quiet design is on the rise. From minimalist design styles to paired back ingredients and simplified messaging, new brands are beginning to favour the revered Bauhaus ethos of 'form follows function'. New product ranges are appearing that are innovatively subverting our traditional value systems, selling quality products at an increasingly affordable price, thereby revolutionising industries that have long enjoyed huge mark-ups, from eyewear to beauty and fragrance.

The movement is increasingly apparent in the design field, from branding to packaging and product. Here we look at a few key examples of the emerging trends:

Wise Men's Care is a new personal care range that combines stripped back branding with eco credentials. Design studio Ethos has created a range that offers innovation on many levels: their products are made from natural and healthy ingredients, whilst their paired-back packaging limits the amount of plastic used.

Each product is available in two different refillable containers - a reusable glass bottle, designed for the traveller, and a more robust cardboard container for the intrepid outdoorsman.

British designer Jasper Morrison has developed a soap product in a similar vein. His 'Soap' product, for Brooklyn-based design brand Good Thing, is a simple, translucent glycerin soap, sold in a mould of four, that can be snapped and arranged around the house at various locations.

The soap itself is similarly stripped back; it is made from only a few materials and is fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and gentle on the skin.

A.N. Other is a Miami-based fragrance company that creates limited edition fine fragrances at an affordable price. Socio Design was tasked to communicate this ethos, via brand strategy, name, identity, packaging and e-commerce.

As a result of their 'direct to consumer' model - no retail overheads here - the brand can instead afford to work with innovative perfumers. The brand creates collections of four simple limited edition fragrances every year - woody, oriental, fresh and floral.

Socio Design uses the term 'default design' to explain their visual language for the brand, communicating the concepts of modern luxury and staple goods through the design cues of 'utility'.

The new American company Brandless are on a mission to reinvent the staid consumer packaged goods marketsw with products offering 'better stuff, fewer dollars'. The company aim to highlight the unseen 'BrandTax' each consumer pays when buying traditional national brands. Their one-price-fits-all approach applies to everyday food and household products.

Their mission is to focus on 'just what matters', translating to standards such as fair-trade and gluten-free, whilst also being kind to the environment through packaging design and materials used. The brand partners with the Feeding America charity, donating a meal each time a consumer places an order.


Brandless founders Tina Sharkey and Ido Leffler state:

“With Brandless, we wanted to invent something completely fresh and new. Something that puts purpose into every product and message shared, and models a new kind of relationship between people and the companies built to serve them–directly, with integrity, transparency, authenticity, and democratized access.”

Topline Tools has similarly revolutionized the hardware and DIY marketplace with clear, concise packaging that stands out from a traditionally 'visually manic hardware environment'.

Parsons Branding have created a minimal range of packaging that uses simple linear product illustrations to communicate clearly to an often time-poor consumer. The range is simple and uncluttered, communicating top quality at an affordable price range. The redesign includes product-specific illustrations, and re-written product instructions which aim to take the confusion out of DIY.

Quiet branding's rise across many different industries offers key points to consider for any brand:

  • Do Good: Consider the environment in packaging design choices. Consider refillable or biodegradable packaging, and the use of less printing ink and materials. Ethical considerations could include fair-trade and charitable partnerships, which further enhance brand values

  • Simplify: Your consumer is likely to be time-poor and visually over-stimulated. Consider ways in which your packaging can effectively communicate what it is, how it functions, and core brand values. For example, natural materials could communicate a product rich in natural ingredients

  • Luxury Quality: Many brands are moving into the 'luxury quality' space, disrupting traditional business models by offering quality ingredients and luxury branding at an affordable price. Consider how your branding could communicate this ethos, through luxury yet utilitarian design