Big Tech is honing a reassuringly handcrafted aesthetic

“This trend sits amid a wider move by Silicon Valley brands to elevate their design cues, shedding the thrown-together logos of their early formative years to adopt more sophisticated, grown-up design aesthetics, defining their brands for the long haul with more rounded personas. What’s clear is they are now trying to leave their mark.” — Silicon States.

What’s happeningand why

Tech brands are increasingly trying to blend in, carving out space in our homes and on our bodies to integrate into everyday life. Now they are shifting the dialogue away from the idea of giving up part of ourselves to a machine—data, images and even bodily fluids—and towards services that are made to fluidly and reassuringly reconcile themselves to the user. Information is presented in playful, non-threatening ways, complete with carefully constructed imperfections and idiosyncrasies.

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Softwear by Google. Photography by Thomas Straub. Courtesy of Studio Edelkoort
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CGI artist Alan Warburton argues in his film Goodbye Uncanny Valley that “the battle for amazing CGI has been won.” He says that “as computer graphics get better we believe all images less.” Amid an increasing climate of distrust, confusion and fear around Big Tech, we are seeing Silicon Valley tap into innocent, naive illustration and handcrafts as a way to reconnect with audiences and reassure them, showing them something they can understand and get on board with.

Ever since Google’s rebranded logo showed us a tiny figure running on screen to tweak the angle of the letter e, the brand has been finding ever more engaging ways to communicate to its audience that Google is nothing without the human at the end of the interaction.

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Softwear installation at Salone del Mobile 2018

The latest edition of design trend bible Viewpoint (created by futures research agency, FranklinTill) presents tactility as its Big Idea:

“We unpack the status of touch in the modern world and put forward a compelling case for its reinstatement as one of our key senses. No other species has hands as sensitive as ours but today we are just as likely to use these miracles of evolution for clicking and swiping as for feeling and interpreting. Designers are recognizing this deficit and drawing on original combinations of material, texture and formwithin both the physical and virtual spheresto re-establish touch’s claim to supremacy alongside vision.”

Tactile tech

At a panel discussion for Google’s Softwear exhibition at Milan’s 2018 Salone del Mobile design week, the brand’s vice president of hardware design, Ivy Ross, spoke to Dezeen about the increasing need for tactility in a screen-filled world: “We try to create products that have a sensory experience and we’re all craving that right now, to ignite our senses.”

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Google's Project Jacquard collaboration with Levi's

The exhibition brought together Google’s new Home hardware products, styled by trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, who first predicted the notion of Softwear—a more tactile style of tech product design to integrate with homeware—in the 1990s. A sort of proof of concept, manifest in Google’s product showcase, the exhibition presented wall hangings by Kiki van Eijk to present the textiles used within the gadgets.

Further examples are plentiful:

  • Google’s interest in blending tech with other lifestyle sectors is also apparent with the 2017 release of its Project Jacquard collaboration with Levi’s, transforming denim into touch-sensitive smart fabric
  • Ikea entered the tech market this year with its Eneby Bluetooth speaker, which can be hung up or carried by its handle, and comes with a gray-flecked fabric cover
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IKEA Enerby Speaker
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Intel “Signal in the Noise” campaign by TBWA/Chiat/ Day
  • Tinder’s “Invention of Together” campaign, by production company Buck, portrays a fantastical history of relationships throughout humanity, complete with handmade sets and animated Stone Age characters getting to know each other on the back of a knitted dragon (albeit a computer-generated knitted dragon)
  • Famous for its “Intel Inside” slogan, tech brand Intel is now looking outside with its “Signal in the Noise” illustration campaign by TBWA Chiat Day. Appearing in subway stations, airports and an ad in the Wall Street Journal, the series sought to demystify AI with hand-drawn motifs: “Each incredibly detailed print entails a true fact about Intel-powered AI. In a sea of similar figures, one object doesn’t belong – the outlier that AI can locate quicker than the human eye can.”

UI (understanding interfaces)

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Sony's Hidden Senses
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This year we have seen technology companies and designers challenge assumptions around technology with speculative design projects, including, for example, what we know to be a user interface. Nendo’s torch for circuit manufacturer AgIC, Sony’s Hidden Senses and Microsoft’s Project Zanzibar all present inherently paper-like interfaces imbued with seemingly magical properties.

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Paper Torch by Nendo, AgIC, Takeo
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  • Even Apple is referencing the handmade with its tactile and expressive multi-award-winning “Welcome Home” ad, directed by Spike Jonze and starring singer FKA Twigs. In the ad, Twigs’ home begins to stretch and morph as she dances to her HomePod after a miserable commute and a hard day at work. It would be reasonable to assume that the multicolored stripes which appear, as walls slide and furniture stretches apart, are CGI, but Ad Week’s behind-the-scenes video reveals that it is, in fact, good old-fashioned set design, with printed card and walls pushed by hand (with just a touch of hydraulics to bring it to life)
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Apple store opening at the Dubai Mall
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  • It’s also telling that one of the key press shots used to promote the opening of the mega Apple store in the Dubai Mall includes an artist using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to sketch a performing musician

Curvy bodies

Brands are increasingly opting for comforting curved and rounded forms.

At the Softwear panel discussion, Ivy Ross describes the design of Google hardware as rounded with a matt finish, and “like holding a pebble in your hand.”

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Softwear by Google. Photography by Thomas Straub. Courtesy of Studio Edelkoort
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Again, further examples are numerous:

  • Google Pixel Buds and the pebble-shaped Home Mini speaker have comforting rounded shapes and woven textile covers and cables
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Airbnb Samara
  • An enigmatic matt-finished bulbous product is presented on the website of Airbnb’s in-house design studio Samara (perhaps a key?) alongside a statement about the studio’s mission: “to conceive services and ideas that promote Airbnb’s values and vision”
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Honda 3E Robotics concepts
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  • Honda presented its 3E robotics concept at the CES consumer electronics show this year. The name stands for Empower, Experience and, unsurprisingly, Empathy, and the latter is a curvaceous cartoon-like robot on wheels (3E-A18), with a skin-like exterior and anthropomorphic interface that “communicates with rich facial expressions”
  • Like Big Tech, the financial sector is also struggling to maintain consumer confidence. This year, UK bank TSB launched its first experiential marketing activation as part of its “Break Free” campaign by Joint London. Giant inflatable Studio Ghibli-style fat cats, representing the Big Five leading lenders, were driven around the streets of London for the surrealist stunt

Hand-drawn comms

From new chatbot admin assistant Anna’s hand-drawn logo, designed by NB Studio, to Facebook’s collaged explosion of color and hand-sketched type for International Women’s Day, tech brands are putting hand-touched signifiers at the heart of their communication to connect with millennial audiences.

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Softwear installation at Salone del Mobile 2018

Winner of two Pencils at this year’s D&AD awards, “iPhone People Talking Pixel 2” by Google Creative Lab replays authentic feedback from diehard iPhone users who have been given a Google Pixel 2 phone to test drive. Each observation is brought to life by a different animator, produced by Anyways, the agency arm of creative blog It’s Nice That. The result is a set of charming and witty films that use animation, line drawing, stop-motion and clay modeling to create moments that evoke the characterization mastered so successfully by director Nick Park, in films such as Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit.

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iPhone People Talking Pixel 2 campaign by Google Creative Lab
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For its rebrand by design studio Collins, file-sharing service Dropbox enlisted animation expert Animade to bring to life its repositioned focus on “making the everyday extraordinary,” with playful animations of collage-style and pencil-sketched animals reminiscent of children’s storybooks.

Conclusion

Big Tech brands are increasingly favoring an impeccably designed visual language that celebrates imperfection and tactility.

The overall aesthetic is human, soft, fun and refined. Rather than using primary colors, it relies on a more muted digital palette. In May this year, WGSN forecasted that Neo Mint green will be the color of 2020, with coral also set to be seen in proliferation. The perfect companion to the influx of soft gray hues, it references human skin and is bursting with energy. A full range of contemporary colors is beginning to emerge to complement Millennial Pink.

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Softwear installation at Salone del Mobile 2018

In an increasingly digitized and homogenized world, it is little wonder that illustration as a medium has broken beyond the constraints of greetings cards and wrapping paper to be adopted by companies wanting to stand out, express brand personality and encourage product engagement.

Please look out for the upcoming debut book Silicon State, by The Innovation Group’s worldwide director, Lucie Greene.