Design for Desire

Nathan Hendricks, vice president, chief creative officer of LPK, feels strongly that brands that understand desire can make powerful connections with the people for whom they design.

by Nathan Hendricks, chief creative officer, LPK

Think about the last time you had to buy a gift for someone you didn’t know well. What did you buy them? Was it a gift card? Now think of the last time you wanted to give a gift that wasn't quite so lame. If you're like me, you probably talked to someone who knows the receiver better than you: What do they like? Do they listen to music? Do they have a hobby?

This strategy, while not as lame as the gift card approach, produces some of the most uninspired and forgettable gifts we all receive. It's also very similar to the approach that produces much design today and why designers and marketers spend a sizable chunk of their careers working on brands that, like uninspired gifts, no one truly cares about. They are the mediocre majority.

Mediocre Can Get Ugly

The problem is, mediocrity usually begets something worse than mediocre. Truly lousy brands, like truly lousy gifts, are quickly dismissed or forgotten. However, a mediocre brand hangs around and devours resources, pumping out dismal products and generating just enough revenue to avoid being put out of both its misery and ours. I characterize the output of mediocre brands as psychic trash, and there is an awful lot of it. According to statistics compiled by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, we are now exposed to three times the branded content as someone living in the early 1990s. Every day, across the globe, brands are producing this kind of mediocrity, cluttering our lives and gorging landfills in the process.

Leave Mediocre Behind
Think about the best gifts you've ever given. You probably knew and cared for the receiver. You knew their hopes, fears and aspirations. You also put thought and effort into the gift and couldn't wait to give it. These are the uncommon gifts we cherish and remember.

This is how we need to think about designing for beauty. How do we do this? Like most answers, it's right under our noses. More precisely, it's right behind our noses, in our emotional brain.

Desirable Behavior

Many of us cling to a Renaissance notion that our primitive behavior is held in check by rational thinking. However, in their work to track human happiness, Harvard researchers Matthew Alan Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert confirmed in the May 18, 2010 issue of Science magazine that nearly half of our waking cognition is purely unorganized, emotional thought. This isn’t simple daydreaming, but the stream of consciousness within which most of our decision-making floats. It includes the decisions we make about what to buy. Rationality is just a thin layer of thinking that obscures the true source of our actions: desire.

Desires are universal. They’re the biological adaptations that compel us to do what keeps us happy, healthy and socially connected. Dr. Steven Reiss, an emeritus professor of psychology at The Ohio State University has identified 16 basic desires that guide almost all of our meaningful behavior. These desires are the yearnings and cravings that ensure our survival as a species. They inspire the stories that connect with people across culture, class and time. Brands that understand desire can make powerful connections with the people for whom they design.

The Pleasure of Beauty
Sex. Power. Status. Desires are difficult to discuss in polite company. People rarely talk openly about them in focus groups. What you can glean from those conversations, though, is pleasure. You hear it in the language people use to describe their thoughts and feelings. It’s in the adjectives and adverbs they choose to define objects and experiences. Pleasure is powerful because it is the feeling that comes with satisfying desires, those things that are compelling us to do, to act and to buy.

Beauty is a particular form of pleasure that leads us to our desire for sex, power and acceptance, just to name a few. It’s critical that those of us designing for beauty brands find the pleasure in people’s language because it points us to the specific desires they hope beauty will fulfill. If you can establish this pleasure-to-desire relationship, you'll gain profound insights into why people really want a product or service. Desire is the ultimate “why,” and it delivers the level of knowledge and inspiration needed to create brands that are cherished and not forgotten.

Design a Gift of Uncommon Beauty
Once a brand has established its pleasure-to-desire relationship, it can realize the full potential for design to help people predict the pleasure of using a product or service. Semiotics and its study of the signs and symbols that affect behavior can provide fertile material for even more precise design decisions. In this way, brands "design in" desire, forming powerful and often intangible connections with the people they serve.

With branded content now living in every corner of our lives, better design is more important than ever. Embracing the potency of desire injects a new level of inspiration and humanity into products, their design and the ways they are marketed, reducing the levels of psychic trash we contend with on a daily basis. My hope is that understanding the power of human desire and the design mechanics behind it will produce brands that feel less like a gift card and more like a cherished gift of uncommon beauty.

Author Bio: Nathan Hendricks is vice president, chief creative officer of LPK, an international design agency based in Cincinnati.