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Taking Tech Branding Beyond the Cliché

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Clichés in the branding of new technology have become so familiar that their purveyors are ripe for parody, even outside the insular world of tech. But it’s still possible for emerging and established brands to find a unique language amidst the babble—and even to enjoy the process.

Just ask the team at Aperto, a Berlin-based digital agency acquired by IBM in 2016. “Exploring the essence of a technology requires a large amount of curiosity and imagination, a small amount of naivety and maybe a little artistic abstraction (or nonsensical playfulness?),” says David Linderman, Aperto’s Executive Director of Creative and Content. Linderman’s insight comes from decades of experience across three different countries, including stints as Creative Director of the high-profile agencies Hi-ReS! and Huge.

We caught up with Linderman over the phone to absorb some of his expertise in the process of branding new technologies. True to form, he went above and beyond, providing a masterclass in finding and harnessing creativity within the work environment.

Taking New Approaches with Old Tools
Sometimes the most surprising mode of communication is one that’s tried and true. Back in 1996 in Hamburg, Germany, Linderman founded Fork Unstable Media, an agency with a user-centric approach to creating meaningful interactive experiences for all manner of businesses, museums, and nonprofits. “We were very curious about technology, new technology, and we were also living in a time when—just like now, basically—every six months it seemed like something new was replacing the old stuff,” Linderman recalls. “So quite often we’d use old tools, too, and we would abuse them, or use tools [in a different way than] they were originally designed for.”

With their puckish sensibility and exploratory approach, Linderman and his team made a name for themselves as experimenters with interactive media. Once he began to work with other studios and to observe their cultures, Linderman says, he witnessed other successful creatives taking the same tack. “They had a very similar way of taking on the joy and playfulness in doing stupid stuff, but creating really powerful statements with their choice of tools,” Linderman recalls.

Linderman points to the GIF as an example of an extraordinarily simple tool with major communicative power—one that manages to feel fresh and of-the-moment without trying too hard. “I think the way we live today, we’re quite often talking about how amazing technology is and the latest and greatest, but there’s also a whole lot of fun in playing with older technology as well. And we’re using it as a form of expression.”

Finding Humor in the Creative Process
Bored creatives make for a boring brand. Along with experimentation, Linderman cites humor as the foundational component for all of his creative work. “I can link a whole bunch of ideas to that process of just being silly and nonsensical and basically… mucking around,” Linderman says. “Then all of a sudden somebody has an idea, everyone laughs at how crazy it is, and then five minutes later… it turns into some mammothly cool, really useful idea.”

Linderman’s cohorts at Aperto leaned in to creative chaos during an offsite event for the company’s design community last summer. In a picturesque park in Berlin, he divided the group into teams and provided them with strange or mismatched materials, challenging them to create a weird service or product. “At first they started thinking of super stupid ideas. Like really, really, stupid ideas,” he says. “Many times, when people were presenting, you were getting tears in your eyes from laughing. But other times when you’d walk away and it was like, ‘You know, it’s really not that bad of an idea.’”

Back in the office, Linderman encourages strangeness and silliness early in the creative process. “The search for stupidity is not what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s just the idea of, let’s do something, let’s not be serious and see what happens. And quite often it brings you to great stuff.”

Resisting the Impulse to Oversimplify
In 2010, Linderman was tasked with developing a visual language to represent IBM Watson’s decision-making process in a round of Jeopardy! In collaboration with Hi-Res! in London and Ogilvy & Mather in New York, Linderman conceived an illustrative data visualization that celebrated the intricacies of the AI’s computing. “We were trying to find beauty in the complexity and also… opening people’s imagination up to all of the amazing things that people can do with [Watson],” Linderman recalls. “That was celebrating the achievement of the engineers at IBM.”

In the struggle to communicate challenging concepts to a broad audience, many tech brands resort to using hackneyed, grandiose language. The same can be said of visual branding that seeks to streamline and beautify at any cost. Today, Linderman says, branding too often reduces complex technology down to over-simplified representations—and frequently to their detriment. “There was a time also when very complex things that weren’t understandable were also beautiful because you could imagine something into them,” he says. “And that I think is the alter ego of minimalism—this beauty in something complex that you’ll never understand, kind of like looking up into the sky at night.”

Leaning in to Imperfection
Not all of Linderman’s offbeat ideas have brought him resounding success: Most notably, his wish to saddle IBM Watson with an infatuation for “toasters or refrigerators or maybe women or something” was left on the cutting room floor. But Linderman recalls that the impulse was driven by a desire to bring a few charming flaws to the product, which he argues is a valuable component in creating work that captures real human interest. “Our industry is moving more and more towards perfection, which also leads to very generic expressions of personality,” Linderman says. He argues for resisting the urge to round off the rough edges, advocating instead for brands that look, feel, read, and sound winningly human. “I think sometimes training these things to have mistakes… or small personality disorders, that can become something that people love,” he says. “To me, that’s maybe something we can use for the future when I design voices or personalities or intelligences.”

In the end, he argues, experimentation with different personalities may mean abandoning the quest to deliver the ideal product for all consumers. “We have lots of things for lots of different people for lots of different times, and trying to find a product for everyone around the world at the same time I think is kind of going to be futile in the end,” Linderman says. Surrendering a one-size-fits-all approach could ultimately open doors to new and better possibilities, he argues: “That’s why so many… companies become interesting, because they make their products more customizable, or more you.”

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