And what design can do about that
Right after posting another picture of himself, this time holding a stack of books he knew he’d never be able to read till the very last page, he garnished the picture with the caption: “finally during this quarantine, I had time to get my hands on these”. By gently crafting his identity on the cyberspace, he certainly wasn’t lying. The cyber-copy of himself was an attempt to get closer to his ideal self.
The modern man seems to have detached from his own identity a while ago. As the internet opened up a world where identities are produced on demand, the human-being trapped himself in a Shakespearian dihcotomic loop: to be or not to be? But also to feel or not to feel, to think or not to think. To post or not to post.
Multiple identities of a single user are let floating in the invisible space of the world wide web, waiting to be rejoined by the erratic activity of algorithms. When this happen, all packed in a string of numbers, they fly to the first available server to be immediately unpacked and processed. “We’ve got our target costumer” rejoices the marketing department. Individualism, paradoxically, has become another form of massification: behind the democratic desire of being ‘unique’, silently hides an economical essence: diversity is an economic return, since it guarantees an infinite number of niche markets (Tatoulian, 2019).
The migration from Earth to the cyberspace collapsed the reality as we used to know it: we are left hanging among two different worlds. In one, everything moves at speed light, in the other a single change can requires up to million of years. Compressed by the hypertrophy of the real world and the simultaneity of the Internet, everyday we confront with a repertory of infinite identities of ourself.
“A white collar commuting to work tweets about the last exhibition at White Cube. Since she was at college, she always had a particular affinity towards art, and although this never flourished, she managed to keep it alive with occasional posts on her twitter page: “The art chronicles”. Her followers imagined her as a 20-something years old dressed head-to-toe in Margiela clothes. And that’s how she felted too, except that this identity was ‘real’ only in her online world.”
This is not far different from what brands do on a daily basis. Carefully engineering their digital image, they rely on the infamous social media managers to build their presence online. A common practice requires them to follow a strict set of rules, mostly tied to the world of aesthetic. Color palettes, voice tone, logos.
They pursue consistency, yet they’re missing to grasp that in the cyberspace, social profiles, pictures, captions, logos, likes, comments, platforms, color palettes, voice tone, pixels, algorithms: they are all fragments of a broken mirror. We never experience ‘identity’ as a whole; rather our experience of it goes through the single interaction we have with these fragments.
Brand management has become the ultimate practice to glue all these fragments together. The quintessential experience of walking into an Apple Store has become a landmark for the industry. Yet what we are missing to understand, again, is that the brand is only a part of the consumerist market. Therefore those who wants to offer a full experience of their identity have to take into account not only the brand itself, its touch points, statements and set of values, but also every single component that contributes: all the people inside the company, lawyers, corporate executives, suppliers, technicians, but also raw materials, softwares, technologies and ultimately the consumer itself.
During my bachelor in Economics, I remember an heated exchange of opinions with my marketing professor about the risk for a company to run a corporate social responsability campaign. According to him, all the risks were to be evaluated on the basis of consistency: how much consistent is this campaign for the brand? How relevant can this campaign be for our target costumer?
I answered back suggesting that brands should stop evaluating their campaigns by simply taking into account the brand and its costumers. Instead, since you can never manage to take into account every single actor that will interact with the campaign, I was in support of a more libertine “if you feel right, do it” approach.
My belief is that a company’s identity can’t be reduced to merely its brand experience. Instead, the identity is the result of a broader interaction that happens between every single actor in play: human and non-human objects that every second build new relationships among each other.
Controlling every single interaction is obviously impossible, but being aware of the existence of these interaction is crucial.
If you can’t engineer your company’s identity, then what comes in help is Lindbloom’s science of ‘muddling through’. Originally developed for decision-making, the ‘baby-steps’ theory rejects the idea of radical change in favor of marginal change. Applied to practice, this would mean that instead of focusing on its consistency, companies should instead be committed to develop a broader awareness of their interactions within the outside world, and find in them the quintessence of their own identity.