Got Style? Design Technique applied to Marketing Aesthetics

Ask a room of people to define  “Style” and you’ll get an interesting mix of opinions – usually the room divides into two main sets of ideas. The first common idea is that style is purely subjective, like being “cool”, you either get it or you don’t and if you need to ask then you don’t get it and likely never will.  The widely held alternative idea is that style is an aesthetic category that you can ascribe to an object. It runs into the idea that style is a kind of taxonomy, and objects fit into one or another category. For example when people tend to want a “craftsman” or “Georgian” style house, an “electroclash” haircut or a “David Carson” distressed type style of graphic design. So idea number two is that style is a ready made outcome to be selected (as in “in what style shall we build?”), it by definition categorized and consumable as a whole.

There is of course a third alternative, one that proves more useful for designers, and proves more useful in identifying, evaluating and executing a communication agenda: style based on the idea of technique. In this case style relates to a method for solving problems when faced with alternative possibilities during the design of an object. A “craftsman” home is recognizable as such because during the design process fundamental decisions on the form of elements such as joints, columns, frames and trim were made in accordance to a consistent set of functional and aesthetic principles, or if you will: a set of techniques. When this set of techniques is dictated by the desired outcome “I want a craftsman home” these techniques amount to a set of rigid, wrote, principles and approach idea number two above. When, on the other, hand we apply the notion of technique to a project in which the end form is not pre-determined but instead has a fluid outcome – like the responsiveness required to manage a brand identity – technique becomes a manner of expression where the possibilities of the medium being used can be explored. In that case “style” is a manner of expression, a way of solving design and communication requirements based on intention and original investigation through the appropriate use of the techniques of a given medium.

This week’s reading, an excerpt from Schmitt and Simonson’s Marketing Aesthetics provides a systematic approach to brand identity management based on tracing the relationship between corporate expression and customer impression.  The authors’ proposed definition of “Marketing Aesthetics” is “the marketing of sensory experience in a corporate or brand output that contributes to the organisation or brand identity”.  Their evaluation criteria for the effectiveness of communication is grounded in the tradition of a psychological method.  What is central to this method is an understanding of the integration process that takes when individuals are confronted with isolated impressions of a given entity which are then assembled into a cohesive impression of the entity as a whole.  While this idea originates from the study of the perception of individual expression it is here attributed to organisations and brands. The framework is based on the manipulation of two aesthetic concepts which we will discuss in the next class: styles and themes.

Style, for the authors refers to a manner of expression of the components of a brand’s identity. The expression of a particular style is the result of an integration of stylistic elements, like colour, shape or smell for example, into a consistent pattern of use in the context of a given brand.  Each identity element, whether signage, packaging, web site or physical environment is also evaluated by the consistency of its adherence to themes, which tell the story of a brand, or say something about its positioning or express any other message.  This evaluation requires an understanding of the techniques and metaphorical potential of each medium: the form of product design rather than its function; the peripheral messages of communication design rather than the primary ones, and; the symbolic aspects of spatial design rather than the structural. This idea leads us away from the analysis of the objects themselves and towards their metaphorical quality.  The system requires faith that design somehow invests the objects with a secondary or deeper meaning, and that these meanings can be consistently assembled into clear pieces of communication.

1. Bernd Schmitt • Alex Simonson: Marketing Aesthetics: the Strategic Management of Brands, Identity and Image, FreePress, 1997.

Note on the Project Due Date: Since it turns out that there will be a class during the May long weekend the Project 1 deadline will be extended by one week. The new due date is May 23rd, 2009.  Conceptual Roughs will be due on May 16th.

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