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Can we prevent prevent decay?
Getting old, maintaining cars, and keeping design from getting out of hand.
We either age gracefully or ungracefully, but we age. We decay, and so does the world. As soon as anything comes into existence, it starts decaying, and it seems like there is nothing we can do about it… Cars decay, buildings decay, food decays. Some things decay faster, others slower, but everything does. And design is no exception.
In a creative process, ideas change. And they tend to lose some of their original quality throughout the process. Especially as they pass through feedback rounds, with large (or very large) groups of people. In part, because when put on the spot, most of us tend to focus on finding things to criticize, even if we wouldn’t criticize a thing if not under pressure to contribute.
Also, as ideas move from strategy to design, or from design to engineering, or from one person to another, they become more and more of a compromise, and less and less the original vision.
But… what if I told you that there is a simple formula you can use against decay?
The (Johnson) formula
A tech billionaire named Bryan Johnson has been spending around $2 million per year in an attempt to reverse time and stop aging decay. It seems to be working. His team of 30 doctors and scientists monitor every organ of his body, and manage every single thing he does, eats, and excretes. They are confident that he has (or they have) been able to reverse aging.
Johnson is in his mid-forties, but according to their own benchmarks, he now has a biological age (at least) five years younger, with an aging speed slower than a ten years old kid. And, despite how expensive and complex it seems, he did this by following a fairly simple formula: regular monitoring, and corrective measures – with, of course, a ton of discipline.
Eccentric, I know, but don't we use the same formula when it comes to conserving other things? Like cars, for instance. Cars go through routine check-ups, where everything is monitored to make sure they're up to quality standards and free of any major issues. And the more and more they are monitored, fixed, and maintained, the longer they'll last. On the other hand, if we don’t take care of our cars, they decay and eventually end up in a scrapyard or sold for nothing. Again, set standards, regular monitoring, and corrective measures. Sounds simple, right?
It works for brands
The best brand and marketing professionals also apply the same principle to brands. Brands can be viewed as memories, associations in consumers' minds. And since the natural state of memory is decay, brand associations also decay.
When the De Beers slogan "A Diamond is forever" was introduced in the late 1940s, it transformed diamonds into a symbol of eternal love. Seventy years later, they still repeat the well-known slogan. But would it still be well-known if De Beers had only used it once, and never reinforced it? I’m sure it would have been forgotten by now.
For slogans like "A Diamond is forever" or "Just do it", their ongoing use is often enough to make sure they stick in the minds of consumers. But, it's not so easy for all the other things that brands want to be remembered for, but don't necessarily “verbalize”.
To address that, marketers spend a lot of time monitoring brands through quantitative consumer research – NPS, perception, loyalty, awareness, etc. Then, they benchmark the results against competitors and industry references, so they can evaluate whether they’re on the right track, or if corrective action (usually in the form of new creatives) is needed to counter decay.
It can work for design
Coming full circle back to design, I find that managing decay in the field of design is especially hard. Because design work happens at scale, with large teams and several different stakeholders. But we can definitely address it by adopting the same approach.
It starts with setting standards, which in this case means establishing and documenting strong company-wide design foundations (principles, guidelines, design system, templates, etc.). Just like Johnson's team of doctors monitors and benchmarks his organs against existing standards for perfect health, we as designers also need a reference of quality to which we can refer.
And with monitoring processes, we can benchmark new design work against those foundations. The goal is to avoid deviations, nothing should be implemented without proper approval. Ok, you cannot really avoid every deviation. They will happen and need to be corrected. But, in this step, it is equally important to understand why they happen, so that we can move from correcting every single thing, to preventing most of it - preventive measures scale much better than corrective ones.
It is difficult - or even impossible - to make sure that ideas stay unchanged throughout the process. But you can make sure that the foundational work improves over time, rather than decay.
If we can do it with cars, brands, and even people, design is no exception. It just takes discipline, a process, and a dedicated team.
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