• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022

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Why we need to design for more friction, not less

Stuart Barnes Truenorth Square

Stuart Barnes, strategy director at independent brand and design consultancy, True North, explores the importance of friction in brand design. He argues that agencies need to proactively build-in imperfections and friction into the strategies, visual identities and experiences they create.

In design, we like to think that we are solving problems, achieving harmony, making things work seamlessly.

The importance of removing friction from interfaces and services has come to influence all aspects of how brands present themselves, from their visual identities to their products. Recent streamlining redesigns of software, car and finance brands are evidence of this influence.

But this singular pursuit of simplicity and convenience undermines brand building.

Branding is a game of memory and associations. With the tools available – images, words, objects, environments, processes – it’s the attempt to corral and cajole people’s brains to make the emotional and rational connections that will help them recall our brand most readily and most richly, at the time most needed to influence their behaviour.

Unless your client is already the automatic and unassailable choice, their potential customers need to experience an amount of friction to prompt them to feel, think and do something new.

These moments of friction are exactly where brands take shape. Having to negotiate something is what causes the brain to make new connections, to become open to different possibilities. If we don’t need to think about a thing, that thing may be useful but it's invisible. And if a brand is invisible, it’s a commodity.

Value is created through friction

Aiming for the removal of all friction is to focus only on transactions, not building relationships. Being treated as a transaction is not the basis for being valued or feeling valued. It’s not a sustainable way to treat people, or to build a brand.

Our brains are wired in such a way that we are already biased to trust and to like fallible people more than those who appear perfect. We remember people with features that seem unusual or odd, better than we remember those that conform to notions of ‘beauty’. Character beats perfection.

We need to proactively build-in imperfections and friction into the strategies, visual identities and experiences we create. To get it right means including a certain amount of wrong.

When you buy a Fjällräven jacket, you’re also accepting the inconvenience that you’ll need to wax it yourself (despite the premium price point). It’s part of the outdoors, self-reliance ideal you’re buying into, and one of the characteristics that drives affinity and makes the brand feel more authentic than competitors.

The UK’s National Lottery online ticket shop was recently redesigned to introduce more friction, after research found that the smoother the process was, the less repeat purchases happened.

The restaurant Dishoom’s unpredictable reward scheme is a playful, highly effective interruption: where you roll a dice at the end of the meal for the chance to not have to pay your bill.

Friction enhances experience, increases spend and creates loyalty.

Aim for brilliant imperfection

It is our job to ensure brands retain the means to surprise, to stimulate and to interrupt when needed. Yet too often when it comes to a brand’s visual identity, they are too wonderfully resolved, with nothing left for the user to think about or do. Easier to swallow, but hard to distinguish.

The identities of leading car, software, even university brands seem to hinder rather than help them in communicating distinctively from each other. Even the recent refresh of Burger King, whilst beautifully executed and distinct from its archirival, risks being just too perfect, too smooth, to offer the variety to keep surprising and delighting over time.

In Zen Buddhism there’s a useful idea we can borrow and apply to planning visual identities. ‘Satori’ is a sudden break in logic that brings about revelation or understanding. That break or interruption is caused by something small and out of place, perhaps even preposterous. It elevates the experience we’ve been comfortably, unconsciously consuming into something more ‘important’. We experience this with art, music, film, but too often we actively eliminate such interruptions when we design for brands.

Whatever the market category, we should aspire for identities and guidelines to contain as much capacity for surprise, contrast and variety as Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ - a four-minute-masterclass on how to hook an audience through unexpected shifts, whilst always remaining coherent.

To get it right, get it a bit wrong

Kalevala is a Finnish jewelry brand whose recent refresh seems willfully at odds with its category, and works brilliantly well because of that. Its heavy, medieval, gothic typeface and earthy, mossy colour palette is almost the opposite of our expectations of modern luxury brands. And the unusual oval framing device used for images contrasts with the other elements of the identity, rather than harmonizing with them. It feels like it shouldn’t work, but it does. You can’t help but be drawn to it. And that’s before you encounter the wood and moss instore.

Of our own recent work at True North, I’d point to the identity for Our Future Health, the UK’s largest health research programme. It’s built upon an ever-changing mosaic pattern, which is left open to multiple interpretations depending on the context of its use. The pattern is even sometimes presented as a tangible object, held in photographic hands – not intended to be realistic, it’s the slight awkwardness of the contrast which helps make it engaging and unusual.

We also recently relaunched Make Smoking History, a stop smoking service which now looks, sounds and acts like a sports brand. That dissonance is the basis of the brand’s ability to prompt re-evaluation and to change behaviour. In response to the launch campaign, 74% of smokers in the target region took some action to quit.

Imperfection, inconvenience and friction need to be actively designed into brands for them to work better. If we only design what people already expect, if we don’t ruffle feathers, we don’t create the basis for them to make changes. If we don’t insist on evaluating our identity concepts for their ability to prompt uncomfortable responses rather than likeability, we’re not advising clients properly for the long-term.

Brains need some grit for brands to gain traction.