Media Design: What It Is, Why It Should Matter To You

Defining media design -- and why it matters now more than ever

TiVo's chirpy clicks and "dwops" are a familiar and even welcome sound to millions of consumers addicted to the ad-zapping set-top. But the system's ad-skipping feature and ability to time-shift television viewing aren't the only things that appeal to devotees: TiVo's intuitively and elegantly designed interface make it an easy-to-use no-brainer for most consumers. Even its long-form sponsor/content showcases -- basically infomercials for advertisers and promotions for TV shows and films -- are well-designed and executed.

TiVo's latest plan, which enables subscribers to digitally record TV shows that can be viewed on a video iPod or Sony PSP, is further evidence of why developing user-friendly media designs should matter to marketers, content providers, and media companies.

What does TiVo know that the cable company wonks who churn out those endlessly scrolling, mind-numbing grids of programming data don't? That good design and intuitive interfaces, seamless navigation, and ease-of-use features can pay off in spades. Design savvy can make or break consumer adoption of new products and services, lure or repel advertisers, and enable a business to flourish or flounder.

In a world of highly fragmented and do-it-yourself media, every word, pixel, still image, and streaming video vies for consumer mindshare. That's why a pitch-perfect and emotionally reasonant TV ad, high-resolution digital billboard, crisp retail point-of-sale display, interactive kiosk, seamless search tool, plot line, headline, product placement, broadband video program, RSS feed, or electronic programming guide can tip the balance from disgust, frustration, or total indifference and toward interaction and engagement, Madison Avenue's buzzword du jour.

The effective design and implementation of a product placement, branded entertainment experience, or message within a video game can make the difference between a hit and a so-so seller. Poor implementation can translate into complete consumer turnoff -- a fate worse than death for a marketer.

Design for maximum engagement is the name of the game across multiple media platforms, ranging from video-on-demand and satellite radio to search engines, video blogs, and wireless text messaging. But not all media designs are winners. Early versions of the AltaVista and Lycos search engines were as cluttered and unnavigable as Grand Central Station at rush hour. Sure, Apple is big now -- but remember the Newton? What a clunker. Without such early bombs, Apple might not have evolved into what it is today: a kingpin of product and media design. And a thumb-killer called the BlackBerry might never have made it to market. Call it design evolution.

Just as industrial design is integral to creating hit toys, cool gadgets, comfortable furniture, and streamlined kitchens, media design is now more important than ever as content becomes available on a variety of devices and across multiple platforms, ranging from high-definition television sets, video iPods, and RSS feeds to broadband video advertainment, blogs, IP/TV, and more. And with all those consumers creating and distributing their own content, marketers and media companies need to wake up to the realization that since they can't control how people are receiving messages, they need to be even more concerned about the design of those messages.

For example, what are the implications for that "Desperate Housewives" episode you ed-ed when it goes from that huge flat-screen monitor to running on a 4.3-inch screen within the PSP interface? What happens when you have no ability to navigate via the all-important remote control? Do you miss those familiar clicks and "dwops"? What happens to all those clear and precise directions? And hey -- where is that warm and fuzzy TiVo character when you need him?

As multiple media and platforms begin to overlap and converge, it's critical for content providers, designers and creatives, media planners and buyers, and marketers to pay more attention to the way media is designed. It affects not only the way consumers interact with media delivery systems but also the way they engage with content, brands, and each other (think instant messaging environments, chat rooms, blogs, etc.). Good design can make a message; bad design can break a message. Whether it's TiVo's menu, Google's homepage, Target's TV spots, Apple's video iPod, DirecTV's in-flight entertainment system and Mosaic interface, or JetBlue's ticket kiosks, effective media design can create a powerful and visceral connection that keeps consumers coming back for more.

The evolution in media design and the proliferation of media platforms are likely to have a profound effect on TV ratings. TiVo, the video iPod, wireless content delivery, and on-demand TV present huge challenges to television research and ratings giant Nielsen Media Research. For years, Nielsen rated TV programs by offering a representative panel of u.s. consumers a diary to keep track of their TV viewing habits. Now companies like TiVo can provide exact usage numbers to networks and advertisers, calling into question the quality of panel data in an age of real-time data reporting. That said, Nielsen says it is expanding its tools to cover these new forms of TV usage.

There are surely implications for all the stakeholders -- consumers, Madison Avenue, advertisers, programming distributors, content providers, and enabling technologies. But first, let's rewind for a moment and ask: What is design?

What Is Design?

"Design in a broad context is really about translating a company's values into their products and services," says Mick Malisic, marketing director for frog design, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. "Do your consumers value what you value? It's more complicated than that, but it's basically building emotionally engaging experiences to bring your values to the consumer. It needs to be culturally relevant and also engage with the consumer's lifestyle, experience, and needs."

Graphic design -- a company's logo, its product packaging, an outdoor billboard, animation in TV commercials -- has always been an important tool to engage consumers. But when good design is crucial to what a media company provides, like the ability to easily scroll through a DirecTV programming guide, chat instantly with like-minded Yahoo! music fans, or download movies on demand, design moves beyond the way a company looks and becomes what a company is.

For brands hoping to flag their messages within the context of these media, design has become the single most important way for a brand to get chosen over the competition. Great design is specifically engineered to first engage, then enable, entice, and enhance the experience of the consumer. And as the availability of content segues beyond preordained timeframes, spatial limitations, and formats, designers must think not only about how the content is designed but how it will be received, on what device, where, under what circumstances, and by whom.

Information about consumer preferences enables brands to invoke the most important design mantra of all -- simplify, says Liz Danzico, director of experience strategy for American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), a national association of designers. "Simple is the new black," she says. "It used to be that the more information a brand could provide, the better. A plethora equaled strength. You went to a homepage or the megastore and it was the portal. Now the strength of the brand is being an expert filter. Marketers can understand what people need, and why, and how. Then they can manipulate experiences in a way that will be meaningful," Danzico explains.

So design becomes much more than producing visuals consumers will relate to; now it's about providing an entire experience that's perfect for them. "It's a different world than 20 years ago," Malisic says. "Look at what JetBlue did to the airline industry. Look at what Google did to Microsoft." Malisic points to Google's groundbreaking departure from the ad-cluttered homepages of search engines like msn and Yahoo! "That stark white space is brilliant design," he says. "It's about focus. It's deliberately simple. They know what their users value."

Peter Rivera, vice president and group creative director of network programming for America Online, has learned a great deal about what consumers value. For example, eye-tracking research shows that increasingly, people tune out rectangles online -- all kinds of rectangles. That means banner ads.

"People move around or past them to get on with what they need to do," Rivera points out. The eye-tracking studies involve placing interfaces in front of people and using special scanners to create maps of where their eyes go. The goal is to help optimize a design for maximum scannability. "Since part of design is prioritization, or what the eye sees first, it can be indispensable," Rivera adds.

For AOL and other online content providers, integrating advertisers' brands more thoroughly into the programming is the goal. "Sponsors want to be engrained in a brand experience, but not an intrusive experience," Rivera says. He cites American Express' integration with AOL CityGuides, in which AOL re-skinned entire parts of CityGuide New York's interface to accommodate AmEx's launch of a New York City credit card.

When the homepage relaunched, Rivera recalls that the page tested well in design. But when the screen went live, he says, "We realized that some folks couldn't find the e-mail button to get their mail, so the design team made it more prominent and changed its position. It seems small, but when you consider tens of millions of users, small things can become very large." For Rivera and company, each week prompts 20 or more such tweaks across the service. Design on this scale is a living, breathing organism.

Engineering Engagement

Founded in 1969 as primarily an industrial and product design company, frog design has grown to six studios worldwide. Its business model, like that of most of its clients, has evolved to address the importance of consumer engagement with media. Malisic says frog not only functions as a design consultancy but also helps clients reinvigorate their business or expand into new markets and formats.

"For maybe a dozen of our clients, the task is to tell them where they'll be in five years," Malisic adds. "What will the experience be, what will the consumer want, and how will they connect with them in a new way."

For a host of design studios, this means not only knowing what consumers will see and experience, but understanding how they'll receive the content as part of an overall brand experience. To that end, the Los Angeles-based design firm Schematic consults on information architecture and even motion graphics for a variety of consumer and entertainment brands. "More and more, companies come to us asking us to provide prototypes. They want us to look at their technology and then provide them with a prototype of what it would look like in the future and envision the experience," explains Dale Herigstad, Schematic's executive creative officer.

Herigstad points to the importance of rich media and multiple formats to create interactive experiences that are simple, powerful, and engaging. "Our firm's focus is on the user experience and how people experience the brand," he says. "Regardless of platform, we strive to create a seamless design so there is a single brand experience." He adds that Schematic is interested in interpreting user experiences "across a range of platforms, from cell phones to interactive walls."

Although the word "'interactivity" suggests a Web-based application, designing interactive experiences can be as simple and as critical as assigning functions to buttons on a remote control. Whether it's for the Web or not, David Lai dubs what Hello Design of Culver City, Calif., does "interaction design," explaining: "Ultimately we call it interaction design as opposed to Web design because it's a much broader field, including touch-screen kiosks, cell phone interfaces -- anything you can interact with. And not only with the computer; it's also interaction with other people."

The studios that create these entertainment interfaces automatically have to think in several formats at once, knowing that an interface they create for a television screen could eventually be adapted for a PSP or a wireless display. They also have to think in more than one medium. Rob Bynder, a designer who worked on the PSP interface, performed what he calls a "landscape analysis," or a survey of how people were receiving information and content over a variety of delivery systems, including Microsoft's Xbox, personal digital assistants, and TiVo, to discover how best to serve the varied and changing needs of PSP users.

Making Meaning

Whether it's addressing an audience with specially designed features or developing a universal aesthetic, great design should create a perceived benefit for consumers, says Hello's Lai. "What it does for a brand is add tremendous value," he says.

Take, for example, the case of method soap. Eric Ryan, the founder of the award-winning line of home cleaning products, was inspired by Nike, whose advertising and design famously made the drudgery of exercise glamorous. Method's distinct look is in line with its environmentally responsible roots, from on-shelf displays to its Web site. "They are innovating how they package and design the overall experience," Lai says, adding, "They've elevated a commodity item with good design that will add value for brand. That they actually care about good design is a key selling point for their customers."

"When the products can be differentiated in the market through innovation, it's the most powerful opportunity," says Mark Rolston, senior vice president of design at frog design. This often goes beyond simply caring about design. Sometimes, he says, innovation creates a new model which becomes the industry standard. "If we really do it right, people say, 'Yeah, I couldn't imagine it any other way.' In that situation, you get incredible loyalty and adherence to the brand that's deeper than the voice of the company --it's the way the company works."

It goes even deeper than that, argues frog's Malisic. Great design creates an emotional connection that's tough to beat. What Apple has done with the iMac, iBook, iTunes, and iPod, perhaps more successfully than any other product or service in history, is design an entire experience. Consumers and envious advertisers see it in everything from the matter-of-fact packaging and all-knowing nerds behind the Genius Bars to the way files transfer seamlessly from a clean iTunes interface into the signature on-screen menu. Of course, special attention is also paid to the spotless white devices themselves.

Design "really is about loving something," says Malisic. "You can get emotional about functionality when something is easy to use and serves your needs."

Thinking Across the Formats

Design firms are frequently tapped to brainstorm on and adapt emerging technologies for consumer use. Marketers and media companies that invest in this process make a bet on building a stronger connection with consumers. When companies effectively leverage design across multiple formats and platforms, they engage their consumers more deeply, says AIGA's Danzico.

"Orbitz is actually giving you the service of purchasing flights and travel options online, but they'll send you text or [wireless] phone reminders," she says by way of example. "In becoming part of the other devices you have, Orbitz then becomes part of your life."

Cross-format design has become the hottest corner of the design world, and one of the most challenging. Frog's Rolston has been working to make Hewlett-Packard's photo capabilities more synergistic. "Our job is to translate interaction across everything that hp does," he says. "As an example, the style of interaction for a pc-based photo application must be translated to work on a retail kiosk. Our job is to also convert that experience to television-based interfaces so a user can browse photos on TV or handheld devices."

A similar trend is emerging with entertainment content. Rolston cites the high-definition DVD battle. "There's a huge political rift. Hollywood is looking for a consumer mode -- you buy the disc, you watch the movie, just like today's DVDs. Another group that represents the technology companies wants to see it as a more interactive media: You put the disc in and that media can move throughout the home," he explains. "You can copy it to the network and watch it on other devices, transcode it into smaller formats for handhelds. This whole idea of transcoding and transferring media -- people on the content side don't want to face that, but that's the business today."

It goes without saying that these developments will eventually reverberate on Madison Avenue, where even the new media and emerging contacts agency players don't always know where the best media opportunities are anymore.

Redesign and Reinvent

"The technology changes so much and so fast that you always have to redesign a year later," says PSP interface designer Bynder. "Say all of the sudden there's a new cell phone out that has a four-inch color screen. Why can't you just watch TV on that? Right now the PSP is just another gaming device with a beautiful interface and WiFi capabilities, but as wireless networks become more saturated, the PSP could access dynamic information and become your personal media player." Bynder imagines a single device that plays broadcast and recorded video, satellite radio, recorded music, and podcasts, as well as browses the Web, manages chat and messaging, and serves as a phone.

Sound far out? Not quite. And imagine agencies that have to devise media plans for such a device.

Beyond such devices, there is the rapidly changing open-source and consumer-created media universe, where designers will have create models that can accommodate more authors. "The most dramatic shift is the sense that media is going from a consumption medium -- you see a commercial, it's done; you see the movie, it's done -- to a more participatory world," says frog's Rolston. "It's not a utopian notion. It has a very pragmatic effect. Content is constantly evolving: It's delivered and mashed up and edited and annotated."

Rolston cites Google Maps, a mapping feature that's evolved into an editable community. "Google releases a bit of technology so you can find people and places, and because they released it in the right technology format, other people go in and make new and interesting ways to view that information, like adding 3-D map fly-overs." It's something the designers had to anticipate to make it useable for consumers.

Advances in motion graphics will change gaming and create the potential for more dynamic branded experiences. "Video game technology has had a huge impact [on design]. Game engines are spreading into other technology, portals, and experiences," says Schematic's Herigstad.

Next story loading loading..