Generally speaking when it comes to putting together a design language the goal is to understand what your brand image wants to be, and what physical attributes are best associated with your current or future devices.
From there, you can start to try and craft “Rules” around what the devices should look like. What visual elements are key to your designs and distinguish you from the competitors. Cars are obviously the easiest examples of design guidelines, whether its the Alfa Romeo triangle grille, the BMW C pillar “Kink”, the bangle butt, etc. Even in terms of simple things like Apple’s radiused corners. You could imagine if some designer showed up with a iPhone with big chamfers on the corners and crowned surfaces they’d be thrown off the roof.
Once you start to establish what elements you want to carry over visually you can start looking at details. If all of your products have buttons with the same functionality, those buttons should all “look” the same. You shouldn’t make the power button of one a triangle and make the power button of another a circle, unless of course theres a very compelling reason for doing so.
After you’ve established rules you can go through and figure out how to apply them to the physical design and put everything next to each other and see if it “hangs”. This also applies to colors and materials. Do you have an accent color and a primary color? If those colors are different is it for a good reason?
Generally you can go out and look at families of products and see this instantly and know if they’ve done a good job or not. Heres a great example for Black and Decker tools. Note the use of color, the treatment of lines and angles, logo treatment and placement, etc.
Think continuity of the first, second and third graphic read within the family.
If Modern Man were in proe-warsztat’s shoes he would first do comprehensive image comparison based research and analysis to gain a better visual sense of what brand product line and product family specif design DNA, characteristics or identity is about. For example, if Modern Man were designing a collection of small kitchen appliances he might look at the aesthetically and functionally distinctive Breville product line and perhaps more specifically Breville’s current family of coffee and espresso making related products. For a broader sense, Modern Man would also consider exemplary brands including Bang & Olufsen, Bodum, Dyson, Global (knives), Braun (not Ryan), Apple, Muji, Campagnolo, BMW and Porsche (or Volkswagen AG).
Modern Man would identify what are the potentially common functional or user experience related details shared among the various products within the family he will design. Next, he would start sketching, in a sense, a glossary of functional forms and features that look related and can be successfully shared among, repeated or adapted to fit multiple products thus creating a common visual language.
I always try to make design languages “descriptive” vs “prescriptive”
What do I mean by that?
The Hofmeister kink above is an example of a “prescriptive” aesthetic design element. “Put this shape at the back of the DLO on a car and wala! You designed a BMW!” … uh, no. Truth is, any of those cars without a Hofmeister kink is still a BMW and many cars with a Hofmeister kink are not (Lexus, I’m looking at you). The kink is an affectation for tradition that humans have to prove something to themselves “See it a BMW, it has the Kink”, but in reality there are so many more descriptive elements to the BMW language.
So what is a “Descriptive” design language. A descriptive design language is one that does not have rules. There are no “use these radii here” type of guidelines. Instead there are a series of notions that add up to a desired effect. Chief among those notions should be a strong understand of who this language should appeal to, how they see themselves, and who they aspire to be. From there you can develop the character of the language. Is it fast or slow? Technical or emotive? Organic or angular? Minimal or complex? Functional or magical? Rational or whimsical? With those notions in place you can start to build out an example library of other objects that achieve the goal of capturing that character. Summarize these notions into a clear and concise proposition of who this language appeals to and why, and perhaps layout some key trigger words that conjure mental imagery similar to your example set. You can also put together an “ingredient board” wish would dive deep into the specifics of your example set (UIs like this, typography like that, materials such as this and so on". From here you should be able to hold up all of you concepts for a series of products and force rank which ones fit into the example set and ingredient board the best.
Get good at it and you can do it all in your head. Typically some documentation has to be done for others though.
Yo’s description of ‘descriptive’ is very good and accurate. On the front end typically there’s some idea of ‘brand’ - which encompasses all that he said about who it appeals to, what it aspires to be, character, etc. The goal with the ID and family is to be authentic to this idea, to breathe life into it and make it live.
You also have the benefit of being able to work on all these pieces yourself. The complicated part is trying to communicate this ethos to other designers, and have them all do something for a family of products.
Authenticity is key, and should trump all other applications of form/color/device/logo usage.
On hand-held products or things that relate to the human body, consistency in the interface between hand and product, even with varied and sometimes questionable ergonomics, can be a strong way to reinforce consistency.
An easier way to think about it is that in your descriptive language you are trying to make an extended family of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and so on. There maybe some family resemblance, a particular nose or set to the eyes, some inherited genes, some similar behaviors, yet each is an individual with lots of variation. The other alternative is prescriptive language which is like having identical twins but one gets super skinny and the other over weight. You can’t just re proportion the same set of features and expect it to work in every situation with the same degree of success.
Thanks for writing that. Nothing gets me more frustrated when colleagues measure an element on one product and simply copy it onto another getting all the proportions and sometimes function wrong. Defending it with “it’s the design language is it not?” “No. You don’t get it do you not?” Or a graphic designer making a package too oversized for product because he couldn’t fit the suggested logo size in the brand manual.
I usually tell them to compare the front views of all Volvos/BMWs/Audis. Nothing is a traced copy of another, yet they all sort of look the same (and good).
Got to be the first time that word has been used on the boards… Impressive Modern Man.
Back on topic, I agree, this is a very insightful thread. This sort of theory is exactly what these boards are great for, and I applaud Yo, Modern Man and Cyberdemon for starting things off on such a positive trend. This could have just as easily devolved into a “Hire a real designer” thread. I’m glad it didn’t.
First, I think it’s useful to distinguish identity from character. Some character-traits (e.g. “playful”, or “laid back”) can apply to an entire family (and brands always have a few of these generally applicable, defining traits), but there’s also differences in character that are perfectly allowable within a (brand) family. You can have the one rebel daugther or fun-loving son, to continue Michael’s metaphor, that clearly stands out but also clearly belongs.
Second, I always try to couple objective features of the product with how those are subjectively experienced or characterised, in discussions about brand and form language. Everybody can agree on statements like “these products have more straight lines than those” or “our products have significantly larger buttons and switches than those of our competitors”; these can be true. But whether those large buttons make your products look “robust” or “toy-like” is up for discussion. Not everyone has the same idea of what makes a product “magical”, for instance. And terms like “minimal” and “complex” are highly relative.
Mixing objective statements and subjective evaluations in discussions about form makes them frustrating and unproductive, in my experience. Things like an ‘ingredient board’ such as Michael suggests are great tools to avoid this, and create a shared understanding in your team or with your client about what sort of forms your products will use to achieve which experiences.
You can also make an extra set of those ‘ingredient boards’ (or collages) that is almost what you mean, but not exactly. Helps to clarify things even further. Plus, it’s usually fun to try and parody yourself a bit in these .
Depending on the product, I think material choices play a bigger role in tying together a line than form. Using Apple is a lazy example, but I’ll do it anyway. 10 years ago, Apple simultaneously sold the translucent blue iMac, the original white iPod, the big aluminum PowerMac, and the titanium PowerBook. All of those things share a lot of form commonality, but they all use very different materials, and if you put them all in a line, they don’t really fit together. Walk into an Apple store today, and you see anodized aluminum, glass, and that’s about it. Everything they make is instantly identifiable, even as much of the unique form language has been stripped away.
To answer the “how to start?” question I would probably choose the product that has the most functional requirements and start designing that one in the most detail first until you are at a point that you are reasonably happy with the way it looks. The reason for this is that:
a - it will take the longest to design so it makes sense to start first
b- the other products that have less functional requirements tend to be easier to modify aesthetically to reflect and match the more complex rather than the other way around.
I think there tends to be two trains of thought with language when it comes to materials.
If you go with very simple forms, you tend to let the materials speak for the design.
The flip side is if you have highly detailed form, you can usually let the materials be secondary and while they’ll still be in common you let the surface detailing speak to the language.
I deal with this example a lot because generally we have zero budget for CMF on a lot of our products so the ability to use more premium materials is tough if it doesnt carry some type of functionality with it. (IE we can get metal parts if we need metal parts, but otherwise everything is black plastic on black plastic)
The simple answer is from a core positioning strategy built from customer needs/company capabilities/and competitive offerings.
The positioning strategy is the foundation for the brand language.
The brand language dictates the the design objectives and criteria.
Features/color/form/material/finish/etc. is determined by the design objectives and criteria.
The customer is not responsible for ideas. That is your job.
The customer should primarily give you the problem. What are they trying to accomplish. They can also tell you how they are currently trying to solve their problem and what products they use to solve the problem. They also should tell you what they like and dislike about their current products.
On a secondary level, they may or may not have ideas on how to solve the problem. If they do, you evaluate the exact same way you evaluate your ideas, how well do they conform to the core positioning strategy.
Rinse and repeat as necessary with the only limit being budget and timing.