Great Design Shifts Perception

creative director, design, reputation

One of my favorite quotes about identity comes from American architect, author, and designer, Buckminster Fuller. “Ninety-nine percent of you who are,” he says, “is invisible and untouchable.” No matter how much we think we understand, there is always something unseen and overlooked humming beneath the surface.

Great design can function in a similar way. A logo or a car engine each has a tip-of-the-iceberg function that appears obvious. But behind every glyph and gear, there is an invisible force that has the power to fundamentally shift how we think about and move through the world. Great design can empower, provoke, and transform public perception – even if we don’t realize it’s happening.

Today, we’re speaking with Emotive Brand’s Creative Director Thomas Hutchings. With over 15 years of experience in the industry, Thomas has made his career challenging preconceived notions of design by crafting original and innovative ideas. He is the Founder of Studio January, which focuses on creating experimental graphic art pieces, as well as the former Creative Director over at Landor.

The basic definition of perception is “the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.” How do you view the relationship between design and perception?

Perception is all about understanding. One challenge is that 90% of people don’t really understand what design is. The other challenge is that the world is saturated with bad design. For many people, public or modern art is their first introduction to design. They’ll see a stool in the middle of an art gallery and think, “I don’t get it” or “I could do that.” What art and design share is that both are attempting to make people think deeper. Design is a key tool for making someone stop, think, and challenge their own preconceived notions of what something is or how it should work.

When you think about just how just many brands we interact with each day, there is so much noise. We filter out way more than we take in. As a result, some people think the only way to stand out is by shouting louder than the rest – but that just creates more noise. It’s much more about disruption. Designers need to work harder than ever to make their ideas and applications stand out by disrupting our expectations.

Regardless of what the creative brief says, shifting perception is the number one goal of design. I always tell my clients, “Don’t underestimate the power of intrigue.” Design activates intrigue. It’s the thing that keeps our heart beating and our brains ticking. It can’t be something that merely washes over us.

What examples have you seen of design transforming public opinion?

In my own work, I think about the brand Accenture. We helped transform them from a legacy B2B brand to an innovation brand. Before, they weren’t in the conversation with Apple and Google, and now they are. We really wanted to challenge the B2B space and blow the whole thing up as if they were a consumer brand with a load of color and expression. Within their brand, they had the greater-than sign tucked away in a small corner. We isolated that sign and said, “That’s your call to action.” By bringing it front and center, it instilled that boldness of being greater-than and turned their platform into a call to action for anything.

Out in the world, I think about what Tesla has done for the perception of electronic vehicles. Before them, EVs were thought to be slow or uncool when compared to gas. In addition to the obvious technological advances, their design completely shifted this perception. It’s everything from the sleekness of their design to their naming model. I mean, they have something called “Ludicrous Mode,” which could only have come from the mind of Elon Musk.

Dyson challenged everything in vacuum design and even how they talk about it. They baffle people with science to stand out and gain the head-nodding credibility. Their work completely challenged the idea of a basic commodity from the ground up.

Patagonia, as well. They implemented radical transparency and a no bullshit, honest approach and look to make people think harder about their choices in life. They also use digital designed experiences in an amazing way to take people on compelling journeys. They have some of the best digital experiences I have ever seen, and it’s proof that you don’t just have to be brash in design to stand out and shift. You can be intelligent, witty, or just down to earth courteous.

In our work with brands, we deal with startups that are often trying to get people to trust in a process that is new or potentially uncomfortable. Whether it’s cryptocurrency, data privacy, or tackling mental health in the workplace, how can design help bridge the gap?

For me, that comes down to tonality. Startups have a way of grabbing the headlines, but people want to know, “Is this legitimate? Is this going to disappear next week?” For the last five years, almost every client tells me, “We need to appear credible and trustworthy.” It’s table stakes.

The interesting thing for me is in how you establish that credibility. What’s the tone? Who are you? Are you childish, colorful, ridiculous? Are you serious, professional, safe? The tone doesn’t always correlate in the way you’d think, and a perfect example is the difference between Lyft and Uber. Lyft has this fun and community-driven aspect to its design, whereas Uber went more clinical. Yet at the end of the day, Uber is the one suffering a greater brand discrepancy. There’s a balance you need to strike. You don’t need to be boring to gain credibility. And really, it comes down to how much you invest in the raw talent of your design team. Design is so closely tied to your brand’s reputation. There’s no room for error.

What category or vertical do you think could benefit most from a design-led perception shift?

Marijuana is a very confused space at the moment. Perhaps because of how contentious it is, all of these different brands have no idea who they are. Some look like real chemical companies. Others, upscale apothecaries. There’s no defined role in that space and no one is leading the charge. When you think about the automotive space, you have an understanding of the design parameters. People know you need an emblem on the front and the name on the back. Marijuana has no common understanding of the space. You go from 70s-style psychedelics to something that looks like a tech startup. It’s lacking a point of view, and that’s where design can come in. It can offer that pathway or bridge for understanding something’s place in the world.

To discover how great design can shift perception for your brand, contact Founding Partner Tracy Lloyd at

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design firm in San Francisco.

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