Forget the cat, look at the tail.

Original Image by Danielle Liss.

I am intrigued by Chris Anderson‘s The Long Tail. (Long tail on Wikipedia)

People working in the communication business would know that the client’s marketing budget is usually allocated according to the high moving products or services. As the long tail opens up infinite possibilities, as a designer, I am compelled to rethink my role, especially in anticipation of the change in the dynamics of marketing.

I am a designer. I am also a consumer.

Like any other designer, I started my career wanting to design books and magazines, logos and identities, CD sleeves, etc. I want to rethink this.

Have you seen porcupines mating? – DHL EVP, Dick Metzler

If you can visualise porcupines mating, it must be a very painful thing to watch. The porcupines are referring to the creative agencies and the media agencies. Simply put, we are entrusted with the task to tell stories about brands and we have to look for the space to tell the stories. We are familiar with the things we do – we perform well in our quest to telling brand stories in the most ideal space (like happy mating porcupines). But we many times forgot about the audience who may not even care about watching the mating porcupines.

Where is the audience?

The audience is vanishing.

I am 35. Married. 1 daughter. I don’t have time for socializing. I don’t have Astro (Malaysia’s Satellite TV). I don’t listen to the radio. I hardly read the newspapers. Many years ago, I have stopped my subscriptions to The Economist, Asian Wall Street Journal, Wired, Newsweek, Times, Rolling Stones, Spin and Fast Company. TV Commercials and press advertising can’t reach me unless I intentionally set out to see them. I can’t remember what was the banner ad that was running on my Yahoo or Gmail accounts, even though I just checked my mail a few minutes ago. I am “the vanishing audience” for marketers.

I am, however, the new type of netizen. I watched Prison Break Season 3 Episode 7 and Heroes Season 2 Episode 7 on Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after they are shown on US TV. I have RSS feeds to major newspapers around the world, carefully tabbed as Google personalised homepages. More than that, I also have feeds from Pitchfork and Rotten Tomatoes. I am digesting more info at a faster rate than my magazine subscriptions days.

In front of my computer I am at the centre of the world. I choose the things that are related to me. A large part of my life is online and a large part of my life is ending up online (for instance, this transcript). You probably know me very well if you read my blog regularly. You may even know who my friends are by checking my facebook, even though I may not know you at all. We are connected via the net, not socially, not in real life. For the simple fact that our lifestyle is changing rapidly and possibilities are opening up every day – this affects our profession.

For example, those designer pet projects:

Think CD sleeves. Think Neville Brody, Vaughan Oliver, Malcolm Garett, Storm Thorgerson, Peter Saville, Mark Farrow. Not too long ago I wanted to join the list. In the days of iPods and iTunes, and when I recently found out that in Japan, 99.8% of music downloads are to mobile phones – I have to reconsider my stand.

Think great logos and identities. While I still admire and would still want to do good in this area, I am increasingly questioning the relevance of this. Take a look at Wolff-Olins “no logo” approach in their new identity and you will get what I am at.

Think books and magazines. Which designer doesn’t want to be a Brody, Carson or Frost? However, I am increasingly convinced that the fine points of book and magazine design are disappearing. I am a net traffic stats junkie – I have been looking at how traffic comes into a web through different entry points. The user chooses whatever he wants to read. How do you do narrative sequencing when entry points are practically unpredictable? I also looked at the era of user-generated content which probably signals the end of book planning. Try this – if Design Observer is a book, how would the publisher determine the page count?

Think branding and grand mission statements. No matter how much money is put into corporate propaganda of how great a product is or a company is, as long as someone starts a Blogspot entry about yourbrand* sucks, the branding campaign is gone to waste. On the same track, there’s no point having a fancy camera brochure with complete specs, when the net-savvy generation would probably do their research via google in the most likely sequence – compare specs with competing models, check online reviews (especially from the blogosphere) and lastly, compare prices from every possible supplier. An ad would merely open the first door, but if 20, 200, or 2000 reviews on the net say that the product is good, then it is good. (check the wisdom of crowds)

Think demographics. When I was a little kid, I could only remember Snow White as the movie with 1 man, 1 woman, 1 witch and 7 dwarves, and from the seven, I could only remember the grumpy one. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if a little kid could tell you all the names in Heroes or Lost (which I can’t). Are kids smarter now? Maybe they are so used to having too much information and from a young age, they are accustomed to selecting only the information they want. Have we studied them enough to come up with a new demographic profile or do we still classify them as “kids – sell them the product placement toys and happy colours ala McDonald’s style”? (check Everything Bad is Good for You)

The point I am making is, as an individual, my lifestyle is changing because of the net. As an individual, I now have access to information that influences the way I think, the way I see and most alarmingly, the way I spend my hard-earned cash.

This brings me to the issue of being a designer, or in this case, the issue of being someone involved in the visual communications sphere. I am afraid to say, the rate of change in thinking and in adapting is not on par with the rate of change in lifestyle. It is time to let go of what we hold preciously as something we do best (as designers) and look at the reality. It is even more urgent now, given that the group that grows up in the internet age would eventually graduate as consumers, or like what we always call them – “target audience”.

I heard about the story of the ice cubes in a glass of water. Designers often think that they are cool as ice – as if we have a special ability to be different – creatively, aesthetically or analytically. But like ice cubes, we are gradually melting in the glass of water. We signed on Facebook, Friendster, MSN, Stumbleupon, Kaboodle, Yahoo, Gmail, etc etc. Are we really any different? We have to stop thinking about things as technology fads and start accepting them as part of life, then only we can better prepare ourselves as visual communicators in the future.

We may never become true digital natives, but we can and must begin to assimiliate to their culture and way of thinking. – Rupert Murdoch

Personally, the future has never been more exciting and challenging for a designer. For the record, I enjoy every moment of this phase.

A transcript of the talk I presented at Kakireka.