Sans-serifs as comfort

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Design parameters for branding have changed a lot. Screen legibility and name suitability for Instagram weren’t exactly top of mind for Paul Rand. Last year this caught up with the fashion industry. The effects yielded this wide-spread image below.

From Bloomberg

Bloomberg wrote a good round-up of the discussions around these design changes. They were divided, as expected. The first camp said that it was dull and generic. The second camp said that it was classic and indicative of luxury. Bloomberg quoted Armin Vit that called it “like wearing a black-tie tuxedo” which is a good, albeit generous interpretation.

The startup scene has a less glamorous past and design heritage. Less to lose, I suppose. Instead, they’ve skipped straight to the sans-serifs. Eliza Brooke at Vox put this elegantly back in 2017:

If there is one style of corporate branding that defines the 2010s, it is this: sans-serif lettering, neatly presented in black, white, and ultra-flat colors.

From OH No Type Co’s Twitter.

She is right. And it has been a very consistent design trend since (although there’s a slight indication of change happening). While reading Lean Luxe, I found an article in Fast Company that poked at this, calling it blanding:

The formula is sort of a brand paint-by-numbers. Start with a made-up-word name. Put it in a sans-serif typeface. Make it clean and readable, with just the right amount of white space. Use a direct tone of voice. Nope, no need for a logo. Maybe throw in some cheerful illustrations. Just don’t forget the vibrant colors. Bonus points for purple and turquoise. Blah blah blah.

Glossier.

You’ve seen it too. So, why is it like this?

Sidestepping the obvious critique of companies being boring and unwilling to take risk, I think there’s something else at play. There’s a global corporate aesthetic developing that implies a set of values and perceived modernity. Look at Sildenafil and how differently it can be packaged. It’s the same product.

Roman Health
Pfizer

The aesthetic implies that it is young, modern, quick, delivered to your door, available on your phone, cheaper. Even if it isn’t necessarily any of those things. It feels like you’ve bought things like this before. And in the case with Roman, it also turns one of the least desirable packages to have in your bathroom cabinet into something you could leave on your nightstand.

We’ve seen this before, but in interior design. Coffee shops now look the same everywhere in the world. Exposed brick walls, industrial chic, and the odd (often knock-off) design classic here and there. It isn’t exactly original. But it is familiar and comforting. And that serves a purpose in its own right.

Brooklyn? Paris? Actually Bandung, Indonesia. Photo: Unsplash.

The Economist defended this development as being less about the world going generic, and more about making connections to a grander collective of people and values:

For the people who live in towns and cities far from the top-tier of globally-connected metropolises, these spaces signal membership of the world beyond the narrow boundaries of their homes. The Ukrainians who hang out at the Molodost Bar in Odessa don’t look around and complain that their neighbourhood looks like Brooklyn. […] On the contrary, the global aesthetic that these establishments bring to their towns contribute to a sense of connection with their peers in Copenhagen and San Francisco.

I think this is what is going on with the sans-serif branding too. It plays to a familiarity of experiences that your customer has already had – or felt like they’ve had – before. And while it does little for differentiation, the branding serves the purpose of charging your brand with a long set of values and traits that otherwise would be difficult to attain. Just like the exposed brick and the Kees Van Der Westen espresso machine does in a coffee shop.

Branding should serve a purpose. Originality can be one of them. But there are others too. It’s lazy to assume that the choice of certain colors and fonts means the designer hasn’t considered the options. They may simply have opted for a different purpose. Like offering the comfort and familiarity of a sans-serif font.

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2018 without review

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Years in review

For the last seven years, I have written an annual review of the year that past. It’s been a summary of what I’ve done, music I’ve listened to, places I’ve visited and so forth.

I won’t be doing that this year. During 2018 I’ve found myself wanting to share less in public forums. I feel distinctly different about it now compared to previous years. Sometimes it feels like I’m contributing to a bigger whole that I don’t agree with, and don’t want to encourage. Taking a slight step back has been unexpectedly liberating. Which in turn has posed more questions around how I’ve been using these channels before.

What I’ll be looking for in the new year are ways to increase the serendipity that the social sharing has offered. I’m not sure turning things off completely is the way to go. Perhaps it’s rather to change the way I use and think about them. Or find other tools that can help. I still miss Dopplr that helped with the serendipity of travel, for instance. There’s room for innovation in this space.

Onwards to 2019 then. I’m curious to see how I feel about this at the end of it.

Introducing: Enjo

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Along side my practice, I have spent the past few months working together with a great team to create a new type of product in the mental health space. Since I spent seven years working with kids, it seemed only right that I should work with parents this time around.

The app is called Enjo, and we are launching today.

Enjo offers instant emotional support to parents. It does that by helping you reflect on the positive – and often overlooked – parts of your life as a parent. And then it listens, learns, and can help you change perspective and feel better when you’re feeling down. The best part is that it actually works. The predecessor that Enjo is based on has a published scientific study that shows that using it for just two weeks can lead to a 24% reduction in stress. Quite something.

If you’re parent, please try it out. Give it a few days and see what it can do for you. Enjo is free and available on the App Store now.

The Techlash

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The Daily

San Francisco, 2012. I had just moved from Sweden to set up the US office for Toca Boca. Part of the reason for choosing this part of the US was the proximity to Apple. We needed to get to know them, and we needed them to know us.

On one of my first visits to Infinite Loop, I visited the store. As a long-time Mac user, this was an exciting moment. I bought a water bottle with the Apple logo on it.

Since then, much has changed. But I wasn’t ready for my reaction the other day when I was about to take a walk, and reached for a water bottle to bring. The Apple one was there, and I hesitated. I instinctively didn’t want people to see me with merchandise from there.

The Techlash is real. The Economist wrote a good run through in the beginning of the year, and even the promoter-in-chief Techcrunch wrote that their own industry was full of “hubris and hypocrisy”. But while it has been a topic in the media, the aversion to tech is creating a rift that seems overlooked by the industry at large. My sense is that they think it will blow over and/or become the new normal. Facebook releasing Portal in a flurry of hacks and privacy intrusion says just this to me. Either they don’t think consumers care that much, or that there’s never a better time than now anyway (of course, Portal has already had its own issue with data privacy). I think they’re wrong – people do care – but the big wave hasn’t hit yet. If you’re looking, you can see it.

Interestingly, they don’t seem too concerned about their number one priority either – their own self-interest. Where the talent will go and what brand names look good on a resumé. After endless and contrived “we’re changing the world” mantras for companies that are essentially ad servers, it is an increasingly hard story for employees to tell themselves. They’re making a lot of money, they have a comfortable work environment, but they are not changing the world. At least not in the way that they intended.

I have personally experienced so much arrogance from these companies. Heard so many stories too. I can’t help but think of another industry that was arrogant, looked down upon people who were on the outside, and the dealings of which put society at risk. That industry crashed in 2008 (but seemingly learned nothing). It’s not a bold prediction to say that the similarities indicate this coming to a head in tech too.

I didn’t leave the house with the Apple bottle in the end. And while there’s still an iPhone in my pocket, I wonder how many others are hesitant in Silicon Valley right now. People asking themselves if they’re in the right place, working on the right side of the issues, changing the world in the way they wanted to.

When they’re ready to pay the price to abandon ship, change could come quickly. As with the consumers at large.

What I’ve been up to

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It’s now been five months since I started my new practice. So, what have I actually been doing?

Firstly, it’s been amazing to be free to pursue new opportunities and ideas again. I do my best work when I get into this flow. I can filter incoming things and seek out areas where I want to go without hinderances. Secondly, this newly found freedom has allowed me a much more flexible work style which has been really great for the family at large. No looking back, in other words!

Here’s a selection of projects that I’ve worked on since April:

  • I did a mobile audit for a New York-based e-commerce company. Did an assessment of all mobile products, and suggested a realignment of strategy and focus going forward.
  • I worked on a new monetization strategy for a kids product based in the Middle East. Understanding the complexities and specifics of those markets was super interesting.
  • I hosted a strategy workshop for a German cable channel. Together we aligned what strengths to build upon for a new digital offering.
  • I’m continuously working with a large kids company that is looking to enter the digital space in a more long-term and strategic manner than before. This is a transformational journey with a very strong foundation to build upon.
  • I presented market trends and a competitive analysis from the Nordic media market, for a client in Finland.
  • I evaluated and wrote a report on a gaming related investment opportunity for a large strategic player.
  • I’m a regular contributor to the media show “Fönster mot medievärlden” on SVT (Swedish National Television), where I comment on tech and media from a Silicon Valley perspective.

There are a few other things that I can’t get into at the moment, but hopefully more on that soon! If you think I can help you in some way, take a look here and please get in touch.

The 30 podcasts I listen to

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The Daily

I’m a big podcast listener. It’s a priority of mine. I thought I would share what I regularly listen to. Also – if you haven’t upgraded from Apple’s awful podcast app, this is the time to do so. I like Breaker and will be linking through them.

Always

Desert Island Discs, from BBC: A genius audio format that has been running since 1942 (yes, really). Wonderful interviews and the music tells a parallel story along with it.

Global News Podcast, from BBC: The best global news summary available.

Hidden Brain, from NPR: Fascinating and makes me want to write down notes throughout each episode.

How I Built This with Guy Raz, from NPR: Entrepreneurship stories in a very tight and well-produced show.

Invisibilia, from NPR: The highest calibre of storytelling and an elegant production. Unmissable.

Planet Money, from NPR: Magical producers that can make any topic interesting. A podcast about finance, economics, and money for people that think they’re not interested in any of that.

Revisionist History, from Panoply: Malcolm Gladwell does his thing, and he does it so well.

Serial, from WBEZ: Serialized long form journalism. Always fantastic.

S-Town, from WBEZ: A one-off podcast series, but the best one I have ever heard so I couldn’t leave it off the list.

This American Life, from WBEZ: A radio institution that still earns and deserves that position with almost every episode.

Where should we begin? With Esther Perel, from Audible: Relationship and Sex Therapist Esther Perel does anonymous couples counselling.

Often

Dear Sugars, from New York Times & WBUR: A classic advice line. Thoughtful and empathetic.

Death, Sex & Money, from WNYC: As they often say themselves, “a show about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more”.

Here’s The Thing, from WNYC: Alex Baldwin is a pretty bad interviewer, but the conversations are entertaining. And he was a great voice.

Marketplace, from APM: A succinct run-through of the daily news from an economics perspective.

Pod Save America, from Crooked Media: A liberal rant about the madness that is our current news cycle.

Radiolab, from WNYC: Great storytellers, but have gotten a little stuck in their signature soundscape.

Recode Decode, from Recode: Amazing guests on this show.

The Daily, from New York Times: One great news story a day.

Sometimes

Fresh Air, from NPR: Terry Gross is a good interviewer, and often gets great guests.

FT Big Read, from Financial Times: I’m a fan of the FT in general, and this is a convenient way of reading/listening on the go.

In Our Time, from BBC: Worth it for Melvyn Bragg alone, but pick a topic that sounds especially interesting and/or weird. Cephalopods, for instance.

Makrorådet, from Dagens Industri: A Swedish podcast about macro economics. Good for a quick refresher of what’s going on in Sweden.

Modern Love, from New York Times and WBUR: The famous column in podcast form. Lovely essays about love and relationships.

More or Less: Behind the Stats, from BBC: Making sense of statistics, and anchoring it in the news.

RSA Events, from RSA: This used to be very thought-provoking, but has gotten stuck in the same topics for very long now unfortunately. I hope they find their way back.

Sommar & Vinter i P1, by Sveriges Radio: A classic Swedish radio show where people get to tell their life story. Very hit and miss, and the majority of people all tell the same story: “sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned them”.

The Axe Files with David Axelrod, from CNN: Great guests, but a slow format.

The Inquiry, from BBC: Takes on a specific question and tries to explain it. Smart format but doesn’t always get to the explanation that you’re looking for.

The Longest Shortest Time, from Stitcher: A parenting podcast that picks up interesting topics from time to time.

Know your platforms

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It can be hard to understand what the big platforms´ incentives and interests are. This is partly why designing platform strategies for your business so hard. Are you aligning with what they are doing right now, or where they are going? Can you afford to be opportunistic in the short term, even if the long term outlook is bleak?

This is such a complicated question that Jan Koum, WhatsApp CEO and Facebook board member, found the direction unclear.

From the Washington Post:

“WhatsApp will remain autonomous and operate independently,” the founders wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. “And you can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication.”

Eighteen months later, the promise not to share data evaporated. Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the phone numbers of WhatsApp users, along with analytics such as what devices and operating systems people were using.

Facebook is a data company that sells advertising. It’s what they do. Even when they’ve said that they won’t.

Know your platforms when building strategies for them. Ignore them at your peril.

The more the merrier, except in luxury

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While we’re on the topic of luxury, I found an interesting quote about that this morning. It illustrates the difficulties of scaling luxury brands, since they – in a sense – grow weaker with more customers. When designing with scarcity as a variable you are treading a very fine line.

The same principle could be applied to information, which was what I was alluding to here. If everyone has it, it loses some of its value. It creates a disincentive to share broadly, which in itself hinders growth. This could be why perceived digital luxury is so rare. No one is telling you.

Hermès – type community is, in essence, a top-down group that is centrally controlled by the brand and directly linked to the company’s product. Every time one customer buys a product the community grows by one. The problem with those types of communities is that they get weaker as they grow.

(Quote from WWD, found in LeanLuxe)

An 11 year old future of luxury

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The Daily

I wrote the post below 11 years ago – in 2007 – for a publication called David Report. I recently found it by accident and was struck by how some of these themes have continued with me since then. The thinking about specific, yet somewhat mundane, knowledge as a currency. As something valuable to trade, store, and use – and not to waste. Information wants to be free but getting there isn’t always a straight line. The incentives for sharing can blur this force. I tried to describe this below.

What do you think? Does this thesis (still) hold water today?

When knowledge is the real luxury

In a connected world, information is the currency. Luxury, therefore, is not about the excess of anything but rather the complete opposite. Knowledge that is concise, and on point. It’s knowing how to find it which is the admirable factor.

Times are good. Money is flaunted everywhere. 28 inch rims, chain pieces, designer outfits – the whole thing. But these consequent overstatements of wealth have turned them into commodities. When the pièces de résistance can be acquired by the masses, real or fake, it devaluates its worth. The bling is officially dead.

Luxury is about desiring the best, and most exclusive, of anything. And while mainstream luxury up until now has focused on material things, the new luxury is to be found within the realms of experiences.

Imagine looking for the best cappuccino when visiting a new city. Money can not buy this information, as there is no one to pay in order to get hold of it. You either know how to find out, or you don’t. Probably, the coffee is to be found in a back alley with a barista that makes her own perfect blends. And a cup of it is probably not more expensive then a tall latte at Starbucks. Luxury is no longer a monetary matter.

The shift in wealth – from money to information – distorts the way our society is built. The current class system falls apart when the participants of it no longer recognise what is valued high and low. The new rulers are the ones with the most knowledge, or the ability to obtain the necessary information. The ones that are most connected.

Back to the cappuccino example. Imagine if everyone knew that this was the best coffee in town. The place would be packed. The coffee would taste just as good, but the complete experience wouldn’t be. Partly because it’s crowded and you have to wait in line to get your coffee, but also because it’s nothing special any more. The exclusivity is gone.

Because of the factor above, the incentives to share this new wealth outside your network, are very few. This type of networked knowledge is the complete opposite to the old saying “the more the merrier”. The fewer people in the loop the better. Assuming that it’s the right people, obviously.

Sharing this knowledge wouldn’t necessarily be appreciated anyway, as the experienced luxury will vary from each network. There is no longer an it bag, or one furniture designer. It’s all about story and context. There is luxury for everyone to be found, within the chosen framework of taste or feeling.
So if you want to experience luxury within the next few years, you better make sure that you’re connected. With the right people. For you.

New: Digital Strategy & Consumer Culture

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It has been six months since I left Toca Boca, and it is time for my next chapter.

Today, I am starting my own practice focused on digital strategy and consumer culture. I am interested in the near future and how to develop products and services that fit within it. I think this is best done by thoroughly understanding mobile and web, and adding to that a broader understanding of culture and its impact on consumer expectations. Simply knowing one of the two is not enough any more.

I bring a unique perspective in that I have both run extensive research and strategy projects, and developed entire companies of my own. I can look at macro trends without losing touch with the realities of running a business. I’ve done, and enjoyed, both.

I want to work in an independent and flexible manner. That is when I perform best. I’m happy to form alliances – temporary or otherwise – if that makes sense.

Below are some examples of areas where I can be helpful:

  • Advise executives that want to change or expand their digital business. They may want help in doing so, or a second opinion on what is about to be done.
  • Research, write, and present reports on changes in mobile and consumer culture for executive teams.
  • Develop strategies and plan for how to best perform on mobile ecosystems such as Apple App Store and Google Play.
  • Advise funds or family offices on the fit and viability of potential investments in the consumer and mobile space.
  • Develop strategies for products and services designed for kids and families.

I’m staying in San Francisco for now, but not anchoring this business to my surroundings. I hope to find interesting work from people and companies all over the world.

If you have worked with me before, I hope you will keep me in mind for future projects.

If you haven’t worked with me before, you may want some more formal information about me and what I have done prior to this. You can find that here.

If you have an idea for a project or just want to say hello – please do!