What is Design? (Not Again!)

May 8, 2009 § 8 Comments

In high school, when I would get in trouble for skipping class or being late for curfew or (gulp) was pulled over by the police while driving, I would design excuses to get out of the worst part of trouble. In this case, my close friend and I (whom I was often in these situations with), would think about what the discipliner was thinking, then we would think about how to shape the information, however truthful, to fit their worldview. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was probably my first foray into the world of design, a talent that, given my various successes, I honed quite well.

Thinking about it this way, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that children design all the time. They spill their brother’s drink and, when confronted, will make up a story about how it happened. Whether or not it works is a different matter, but nonetheless, it’s still a design. The lack of sophistication in thought process is actually their undoing here, not their desire for a well-designed story. They simply don’t yet have the mental processes in place to make a story that fits their audience.

And so we come to the crux: What is (effective) design? (Not again!)

Quite simply it’s: You + Your Desired Outcome ≥ Your audience’s wants/needs.

Now, there are many ways to achieve this. The ways, shall we say, are mediums and actions being greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction. The medium is whatever form you choose: Web, Print, TV, Movie, Product, Software, Furniture, Writing, Architecture, and so on. The action is making in your chosen medium to be greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction.

With that, effective design is ≥ your audience’s reaction and desired action. Less effective or ineffective design is ≤ your audience’s reaction and desired action.

How so? Design is merely moving your audience to your chosen destination through a medium. Yes, this is dangerous to say because you can take this all the way to those in obstructive and destructive power, like Hitler. Hitler was a great designer for a certain audience. Not so much for another audience (or two or three). Still, he anticipated his audience’s wants/needs and formed an entire ethos around that to unspeakably destructive ends.

But there are also good designs, those that foster life and love, independence and life-easing dependence. But it’s always a question of “Who is my audience?” Your audience needn’t even be human. Heck, it needn’t even be animated objects. Your audience could be trees and you design a way for trees to flourish.

Where design differs from strictly art is that oftentimes, the artist’s audience is him/herself. It is the audience’s responsibility, then, to come to the artist, not the other way around: The artist to the audience. Now, the artist can create baselines, guidelines, for the world of design, like the Bauhaus art, craft, and design movement. They broke things down to their simplest element, lending designers a baseline idea ever since. In this way, you could say they were artists for designers.

And who is a designer? Anyone who projects an audience’s needs and takes actions for a desired audience reaction and action. To me, anyway, it’s really that simple.

It’s just that some of us are better at anticipation than others. And some of us have better mastery over the making aspect in certain mediums. And judging effective or ineffective design is an extremely qualitative process and subject, but like the Supreme Court once famously said about pornography: I know it when I see it.


The Mount Everest of Drug Names: Abilify

December 16, 2008 § 6 Comments

polio_vaccine_posterAs a son of a doctor, my dad would often bring home random swag branded with drug names that left me as the only college kid I knew who would wear a shirt for anxiety medicine while using a pen with a Viagra logo on it. (Feel free to make inappropriate jokes about the relationship between ink and pens.) However, having all that swag around led to a familiarity and a mild fascination with all the different drug names and how the drug companies come up with them.

So, over the years, I’ve casually taken note of how the names of drugs have slowly changed from names that sounded scientific, like Amoxil, to names that sounded like a brand of bedtime tea, like the sleeping pill Lunesta. A few weeks ago, though, I sat stunned when I saw a television ad for the new drug Abilify. After initially laughing at the name and cheap-looking logo, I soon realized that the paradigm of drug names may have just shifted quite dramatically and it deserved a little more thought and research.

The first paradigm shift is in the phonetics of the name, “Abilify”. More often than not, drugs contain the letters V, X, Y, or Z, which make for interesting syllabic twists and unique names. As my dad would soon inform me, in the past 10 years, a lot of drugs started sounding the same (with names like Zyrtec, Zantac, and Xanax; Prevacid and Prevacol; Lotrel and Lortab—and on and on), making it clear that Abilify stood out in this context. Abilify obviously only contains the letter Y, and it’s at the end of the word. This is the only drug I found that ends in a Y.

Consider, out of the Top 199 drugs, the names contain:

43 instances of X
15 instances of Z
42 instances of V
25 instances of Y

That’s 62.8% of drugs with an X, Y, V, or Z in them. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that’s 100 times more common than those letters occur in a standard English dictionary.

The second shift is that it’s the first prescription drug name that’s a verb. Yes, the very first one. (Aleve works as a verb also, but it’s over-the-counter). What makes Abilify a verb? According to Oxford American Dictionaries, adding the suffix -fy to a noun “form[s] a verb denoting making or producing”. (Think: Amplify, Falsify, Deify, Horrify.) So, you are no longer taking a drug, you are actually making your body/self/life “able”, allowing you to “Abilify your body/self/life”.

While I don’t mean to denigrate someone’s needed medicine to balance themselves mentally, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

But all of that doesn’t constitute a paradigm shift until this last part is factored in. After this research, I began parsing out how drug names are created. (For all you branding, marketing, and design dorks like me, you should get a kick out of this.)

In general, the history of brand-name prescription drugs goes like this: Prior to the mid-to-late 1980s, the prescription drug brand name was often a derivative or shorthand for what the scientific name of the drug is. For example, the drug Amoxicillin was given the brand name Amoxil, while the drug Naproxen was given the brand name Anaprox. These sorts of names made the drug easier to pronounce, yet still sounded “scientific”.

Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1980s, the names started changing, This time, the drug names were derived from what the drug did. For example, the drug “Prevacid” is a drug for those with ulcers or persistant heartburn. It works by preventing your stomach from making acid. Take the words “prevent” and “acid” and you have “Prevacid”.

Not too much later, in the late 90s, drug companies changed the name game again. Only this time, they went for how the drug will make you feel. “Celebrex”, for example, is derived from “celebrate”. In Italian, the drug “Allegra” means “Cheerful, Lively”. On the further reaches of this movement is the sleeping drug “Ambien”, derived from “Ambient”, which connotes relaxation.

The reason these shifts are significant is because brands tell stories, they have an implicit and/or explicit meaning and we consciously and/or unconsciously absorb these meanings. Basically, it’s rhetoric. So, as the drug companies have fought to be heard above the noise of the marketplace, they’ve become increasingly savvy in telling the story of their drug through unique names that appeal to different aspects of the human psyche. And since the names tell stories, they all follow Aristotle’s ancient storytelling techniques of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos to a surprising degree.

The Ethos of a drug name is that of phonetics. That is, the credibility of the name is tied up in the sound of the name, that it sounds like a thing of science.

The Logos of a drug name is what the drug does, or treatment, like Prevacid.

The Pathos of a drug name is appealing to how the drug will make you feel, your emotion, like Celebrex.


Of course, not every name fits neatly into one of these boxes as there are crossover names. But, each drug name so far fits somewhere in this spectrum. Which brings me back to Abilify.

Abilify does not sound scientific in any way, shape, or form, so it loses on Ethos/Phonetics. As Logos/Treatment, it also fails gloriously because the name doesn’t tell you what it does. As a matter of fact, any drug that helped you in any way could be called Abilify. Think about it: Headache? Abilify. Muscle Tear? Abilify. Diarrhea? Abilify. High Blood Pressure? Abilify. The name literally means nothing. You could “Abilify” your car, for God’s sake.

So, that leaves us with how the name of the drug makes you feel, its Pathos/Emotion. Making yourself feel “able” is definitely a feeling—a good feeling, which is nice. (As an anti-psychotic medicine, it hopefully makes those people feel very good.) The feeling it connotes is one of empowerment. But, as a verb instead of a noun, it shifts the paradigm from a “thing” to consider to something to “do” to get better. And with that, it becomes not about Phonetics, Treatment, or Emotion, it becomes an Idea, which, in turn, requires action to make real.

The risk with a drug name that requires action, is it shifts the customer out of the realm of passive story-receiving to one of active story-making. A story where you are the active player, not the name telling you the story. And I have absolutely no idea how this fits into branding as storytelling or if I’m way off-base, but my immediate feeling is that making the customer an Actor brings a brand name into a form of Interaction, which really complicates things. And it also places it at great risk for being a total and complete failure, the kind of thing that goes down in medical history as “The thing to never do”.

However, on the other side, if Abilify has any success, then drug names could change drastically from here on out. In other words, drugs could then be named anything that doesn’t sound medical or scientific and doesn’t have a direct logic to a treatment, but is just an abstract Idea.

Finally, if my analysis is way off-base, then at the very least, Abilify sits at the highest tippy-top peak of Emotion, the Mt. Everest of drug names, either daring and smart, or risky and stupid, but where there is room for only one flag: Abilify.

Thinking About Thinking

August 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

How do you think? Think about it: How do you think?

Interesting that we can think about our own
thinking, yes?

That is designing.  


I wrote this recently as a backlash to the over-thinking and over-intellectualization of design, ridiculous as it may be. At first, I hedged a bit at posting it because I didn’t want to look like a giant toolbag, and then I hedged a bit more because it occurred to me that I’m going to over-intellectualize it myself in the following paragraphs, but I decided I would go ahead and put it out there, make an argument for it and see what happens.

I’ve debated whether “thinking about thinking” is merely reflecting, but I’ve decided that it isn’t. We think how we do sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of blindness to alternative thought patterns, and one might be predisposed to think of thought as a fixed enterprise, but that’s not true. Thought is action. Sometimes it’s passive action, sometimes active action, but it is action. And how we think affects our perspective, our outward physical action, how others treat us, and our greater interaction with the environment. 

As an example, in the movie “X” starring Denzel Washington as the Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, there’s a moment where he’s in the jail library studying the Koran (I believe). At this point, Malcolm X has not yet gone through his personal evolution into the Civil Rights leader he will later become. And as Malcolm is reading, he has an epiphany, looks up and says to someone in the library, “You mean I can change the way I think?” 

And through that epiphany, he starts a transformation to who he would later become. By reflecting, reshaping, and ultimately redesigning his life by thinking about how he thinks and making a change in order to have a more meaningful interaction with his environment.  

You could argue that there must be a step after “thinking about thinking”, where one takes action on whether to change his or her previous thought pattern, and this may be true. I’m not sure, but that may be true. If so, you could simply add one small phrase to keep it simple and elegant:


How do you think? Think about it: How do you think?

Interesting that we can think about our own thinking, yes?

Make a choice.

That is designing.  


Thoughts, anyone?

Dudes and Achievers

August 4, 2008 § 2 Comments

Today, I had the good fortune to stumble upon Jeff Bridges’ website, a website unlike any I’ve seen (specifically his “Stuff” section). Nearly everything on the site is handwritten and hand drawn, apparently all by The Dude himself. The handwriting and drawings are large, which creates an interesting effect of obviousness and friendliness. Quite frankly, it shatters the third wall with its humanity.

Contrast that with this website, a multinational marketing firm’s named MRM Worldwide. They have a splash screen that you can’t bypass. A soundtrack is played. Little firefly things fly over the links and a 3-D interface is used (which is fun for a minute, but a tad annoying and long-winded). Color-wise, they use a regal purple and gold. This is a sleek, sleek site meant to show the power of the firm, their technical skills, their worldliness. And it shows. Good for them.

But what hits me so harshly is that MRM’s website feels vast and unreachable, making me feel tiny, while Mr Bridges’ site feels rich and tangible, like I’m in a 1-to-1 situation with him. Consider:

• MRM shows me the whole world—a deeply impersonal scale. Mr. Bridges shows me notes and hand drawn pictures—a deeply personal scale.
• MRM uses purple and gold, a color scheme that makes me feel like I’m approaching a king. Mr. Bridges uses black and white and whatever color is needed for a picture, like I’m sitting next to a dude at a coffee shop.
• MRM has an interface that acts a bit aloofly, like it doesn’t want me there. Mr. Bridges’ site is straightforward with big words and pictures, like he wants me to surf around and chill.

Of course, they both have very different audiences, striving for a different effect. But, I wonder if MRM couldn’t use just a little less “wow” factor and think about their audience a little more. After all, marketing is all about connecting with people and if they can’t walk the walk for themselves, then how is that going to look to a potential client?

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