The human brain has one core function: keeping us alive and thriving. At its core, this comes down to distributing our energy in the form of calories to things that will help us stay alive.
Naturally, there's a lot of things vying for our attention and subsequently our energy. So when we don't see something that clearly outlines how it can help us find food, shelter, enhance our relationships, or help us become a better version of ourselves, we tune it out. Why? Because our brain is protecting us from giving away energy to unworthy recipients.
Without clearly defining your message and how you emotionally impact a customer, you become a calorie thief.
The beauty of being literate is that it opens up the door to improve... always. That being said, a lot of startup founders and creatives overlook the fact that marketing masters and branding savants have put their thoughts on paper for the whole world to access. When it comes to differentiation and being rebellious, these are my top three choices:
Zag by Marty Neumeier
Neumeier is the granddaddy of all branding brooks. His cornerstone guide, The Brand Gap, set the record straight on what branding actually is and why it matters in business. He followed up with Zag to hyper-focus on differentiation. The significance of Zag lies in the step-by-step structure that walks readers through how to be different. Granted, he does not dive extremely deep into every step (i.e. crafting a logo or a name), but you'd be foolish not to follow the principles listed in these pages.
Positioning by Ries and Trout
An oldie, but a goodie. Nearly every 21st century marketing book I've read has referenced Ries and Trout's strategies within Positioning. A word of caution, this book is super heady and can seem boring at times, but the examples provided from actual companies within this book are eternally applicable. Expect to learn a lot of great terminology and systemized thinking that will explain all of the marketing efforts you see everyday.
This is Marketing by Seth Godin
This was the first Seth Godin book I had ever read, needless to say it did not disappoint and I rated it as one of my top five books read in 2019. Marketing has almost become synonymous with spammed advertising, clickbait laden emails, and down right annoying. Seth's definitions of service-oriented marketing and the frameworks for niching down are the most clear and articulated I've ever seen. Furthermore, he uses real-world examples to demonstrate how it is the most generous brands that win, not the ones with the sexiest ads or the most keywords.
There are big elements of design and there are small elements. Both are necessary if you want to use design as an asset within your startup.
Design is the process of crafting with intention. This sets the trajectory for allowing design to be an integral part of your startup. In fact, it speaks to the idea that it should be intrinsically woven into every decision the company makes. If you act with the purpose of achieve a specific goal, you are designing. The opposite would be aimlessness or choosing to craft without purpose.
While such endeavors can lead to interesting results, it's not the best mindset to adopt with investors breathing down your neck or crucial deadlines looming int he background. Choosing to adopt a design-driven mindset is what allows you to measure progress and iterate with precision. In short, design turns wandering ideas into obtainable goals.
That's way different than making things prettier.
Yes, this concept tends to be confined within the areas of improving the aesthetic of apps, websites, interiors, products, or brand identities (a bunch of small elements), but these outlets don't give it power. Look beyond aesthetic and focus on creating things with purpose. How you want them to make people feel, what you want them to do, the goals a project is supposed to achieve.
I guess the main point is this: if you see design as only making things look pretty, even the things you want to look pretty will fall short of expectation. But, if you decide to see design as crafting with intention, you will be able to get results... and maybe make something beautiful int he process.