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Reconnect with the Idea of “Creating for Tomorrow”

Six elements for building a successful brand that innovates and stands the test of time.

For a long time in human history, the future had no place in the present. It was a make-believe world composed of stories, ideas, and theories that were at odds with people’s day-to-day lives — a “tomorrow” that could never be touched, seen, or heard.

That all changed in 1939 when Raymond Loewy designed a new car for the Pennsylvania Railroad. No one had seen anything like it before. Its inventive form and elegant lines defined a new aesthetic — “streamline moderne.”

Streamlining quickly became a popular design movement, signaling the future had arrived — it symbolized speed, advancement, and, soon, everything from office buildings, coffee shops, cars, refrigerators, and even toasters looked like they were flying through the air. Henry Dreyfuss’s streamlined iron brought Flash Gordon futurism to an everyday chore. Tomorrow was not only on its way — it was finally in our hands.

Throughout the 20th century, the future kept arriving in every part of people’s lives. Coco Chanel reached for clothing, challenging fashion with a future-facing answer for what liberation and femininity could mean. Graphic designer Aaron Douglas used book and magazine covers to insert his bold vision of a better tomorrow for African-Americans in homes across the country. Industrial designer Dieter Rams made appliances we wanted to keep out even when we weren’t using them. The list of designers expressing hopeful ideas of the future through their work grew and grew.

“These earlier generations of designers gave us extraordinary gifts,” says Brian Collins, chief creative officer and co-founder of COLLINS, brand and design consultancy. “They showed us what design could be, how it could make things better, and why that mattered. When the world asked, ‘What things may come?’ they answered, ‘Here they are!’”

Installing the future

According to Brian and Leland Maschmeyer, Chobani chief creative officer and co-founder of COLLINS, great designers don’t invent the future. Instead, they sense where the world is going and what it needs, and install that future for the rest of us.

But despite this power to influence daily life and the richness of design’s heritage, we seem to have traded big, inspiring visions of the future for the crutch of increasingly popular, easy-to-sell, one-size-fits-all processes.

“Search the word ‘designing’ and the internet throws up endless dreary photographs of people playing with tiny, multicolored sticky notes,” says Brian. “Design reduced to a generic, commoditized process. Dumbed-down rules. Empathize! Ideate! Prototype! It’s easy. Simply rinse and repeat.”

This not only risks belittling the purpose of design, it also turns our potential contribution into something far less meaningful and influential than it could — and should — be.

However, Brian and Leland believe it’s time for designers to reclaim their imaginative, soulful connection to the future and how it’s built.

Reconnecting with tomorrow

To reinterpret the future for their own work, Brian and Leland looked to the past, trying to determine the last time a collective, energized, creative force captured the spirit of tomorrow. The answer: NASA in the 1960s.

“One of the things that has most fascinated us as a culture and a society has been space,” says Leland. “But our relationship with space travel before the 1960s was never focused.”

Initially, “space” was a place in our collective imaginations for adventure, flying saucers, and alien encounters. However, after a series of successful efforts by the Soviet Union to conquer space during the late 1950s, space became the front line of the Cold War.

America responded quickly, fueling the “Space Race” by launching NASA. But when President John F. Kennedy arrived, he reframed the threat with a different story — one of humanity’s exploration of a “New Frontier.” Suddenly, space became a place for discovery, not war. Astronauts would set sail into a “sea of peace,” full of opportunity and benefit for all of humankind.

To expand this narrative and capture the imagination of the country, NASA smartly drew from a range of archetypes, and tapped talented designers to express them. For example, images of the first astronauts closely mirrored portraits of early European explorers to promote the idea of scientific discovery. Those iconic silver space suits deliberately pulled from the mythos of 1950 science fiction heroes. Even something as small as mission patches on space suits were thoughtfully designed to embody the spirit of bringing peace to the stars.

“As NASA was putting man on the moon, the creative class was putting everyone else out into the galaxy and into the stars,” says Leland. “It was a collective effort, binding all these narratives and forces together — making the New Frontier tangible in people’s everyday lives.”

Designing for the future you want

Facilitating these kinds of collective efforts can start new conversations in our design culture and change the way we think and design for the future.

“What’s particularly interesting about this to Brian and me is that when you start dialing back and take the specifics out of it, you see the future itself more as a framework or a construct,” says Leland. “What you get is six really interesting elements to start thinking about the future and how to bring it about.”

These elements can be broken into two levels. The first three elements form the core:

  • Means: a technological force of change that is feasible and possible.

  • Want: an immediate, motivating desire.

  • Belief: the higher order ideal that motivates the change or action.

In order to link the core elements, you need three connecting elements:

  • Story: a playbook for action that lets you know where it’s going.

  • Symbols: the visual language that carries meaning and lets you see the future.

  • Systems: the tools that let you touch and live the future.

For example, when Brian and Leland began working with Spotify, it was a strong, thriving product, but it wasn’t a strong brand… yet.

Spotify’s origins had a means — the streaming technology itself. It had a want — the music people desired. And it had a driving belief — the leaders at Spotify wanted to help reinvent and support the music industry.

After watching how earlier streaming service models had failed artists and musicians, Spotify believed it could do better, and could pay musicians for their streams. All of these elements shifted a dramatic identity shift, evolving Spotify from looking like a tech startup to behaving like a music company — and help usher in “the sound-tracked life.”

Connecting stories, symbols, and systems

Spotify made this move with help from the three connecting elements of story, symbol, and systems. Hearkening back to the vibrant, psychedelic posters of 1960s rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the company created a set of new symbols with bold typography, expressive visuals, and intense color. It developed a new story by using playlists and advertising in a personal, experience-driven way that found the right “music for every moment.” And that story bled into new systems, including personalized playlist creation, live performances, and peak music experiences.

With these future-facing elements now in play, the revitalized brand accelerated Spotify’s growth, leading up to their successful IPO in 2018.

In the case of Chobani, Leland describes a similar process of discovery that turned a great product into a great brand. The yogurt company had the means — good food with great power — but needed to reflect on its founder’s upbringing and benevolent relationship with food to uncover the want and belief that had been with the company since day one.

This discovery ultimately led to the future they wanted to “install” — universal wellness. Then, by realigning the brand’s story, symbols, and systems to better express that idea, Chobani unlocked a new way to win more people’s hearts and minds in supermarkets.

The company’s dramatic rebranding was widely celebrated, with the AIGA blog calling it a “significant shift in the aesthetic landscape.” More importantly, it has driven more growth for Chobani.

“We learned a lot by studying NASA’s early design strategies,” Brian explains. “They had to put a man on the moon by 1969. And they had to convince everyone that their view of tomorrow was not only worth buying into right then, but across the decade ahead. Every company we know faces the same challenge.”

That said, you don’t need to wait for a client brief to design with the future in mind. Brian and Leland encourage today’s designers to use this framework as a jumping-off point for whatever future inspires them — from renewable energy, to ending hunger, to starting a company.

“Start thinking about the future, and which future gets you excited. Build from that. There are so many vital ideas waiting for the enthusiasm of good designers to work toward,” says Leland. “We integrate and link a company’s belief, means, and want through symbols, stories, and systems. Designers champion the future. We are in the service of it. And we install it every day.”

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