FUSE Conference 2008 Addresses Design, Culture, and Branding
The lineup of keynote speakers included both design superstars (Chip Kidd, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser) and the socially conscious business leaders who love them (Peter Thum, the founder of Ethos Water; Seth Goldman, the co-founder and president of Honest Tea). There were also some in-between folks from the media world, such as bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell and fashion editor Kate Betts. All manner of less trendy corporations and design outfits were represented at the conference, both on and off the podium. The unlikely mix in the audience was acknowledged by Glaser when he prefaced a slide showing his anti-Bush "IMPEACH" buttons with an apology to "those who are not left-wing."
Of the speakers I saw, Gladwell did the best job of speaking to all of the conference's tribes simultaneously. He worked without a podium, hardly even glancing at his notes as he paced the stage. He had good reason to know his stuff: A Google search shows he's been giving versions of this speech for at least four years. It's a good one, with some surprising insights gleaned from his years of research on human behavior. Gladwell's talk was about how spaghetti-sauce producers influenced consumer reality in the 1970s by introducing alternatives to the traditional, "authentic" sauce (Extra Chunky et al). It's not hard to trace this development in consumer culture forward in time to our own day, in which a surfeit of choice threatens economic progress with a lasting fragmentation of the marketplace.
I thought of Gladwell's talk during a presentation given by Wende Zomnir, executive creative director of Urban Decay Cosmetics, on the last day of FUSE. Urban Decay had their Extra-Chunky moment of consumer connection when they first came on the scene in the mid-'90s with enamels and lipsticks in dark, unusual shades. "Beauty with an Edge" became the company's slogan, and Urban Decay's edgy appeal was cemented with its goth-glamorous product names, e.g. "Asphyxia," a pink-purple eye shadow. After pop culture's "alternative" moment passed, the company had to avoid going the way of Sassy and other relics of the period. Urban Decay's management adopted adaptable signatures (models in UD promo art are never pictured holding the product, only wearing it) and a "holy trinity" of elastic, overarching brand attributes--"Feminine/Dangerous/Fun"--to guide the company's growth into the mainstream marketplace. Zomnir summed it up this way: "We pretend that we don't appeal to the masses, but we do."
A recent example of successful innovation-in-the-mainstream from the Urban Decay catalog is the Hot Box Mini Makeup Kit, which conceals lip gloss, eye shadow, and mascara in a case whose size and shape echo those of a cigarette lighter. The kit's name was suggested by an Urban Decay assistant after the initial title, "The Walk of Shame Kit," was deemed too racy for underage makeup buyers (and their parents). The Hot Box won the fifth annual International Package Design of the Year award at the HBA Health and Beauty America Show in 2004.
Fashion, though, isn't always fascinating, as Kate Betts showed during her talk on Wednesday morning. She was invited to speak about "tracing design trends around the globe," but her demonstrated knowledge of the subject was--literally--limited to licking her index finger and sticking it in the air. Thirty minutes spent with Patsy and Edina from AbFab would have been far more illuminating. At least the blinkered insularity and name-dropping on that show were funny. Betts seemed unaware that she was describing herself when she said: "Fashion is tribal. People in the fashion world use code and only speak to each other." Come to think of it, my notebook does contain one AbFab-worthy Bettsism: "Fashion designers move around the globe in packs, like scavengers."
The generally dark global mood has led Betts to proclaim that Black is yet again Back. This made me realize how savvy it is for designers to choose to dress in that color. That way, they're always either trendy or ahead of the next inevitable Black resurgence. Corporate types looking for their own Extra Chunky moment could do worse than to rub shoulders with this crowd.
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