Polarizing design is breakthrough design

When people evaluate design, what determines their decision of when something is good, great or excellent? What about the flip side when it is bad, terrible or absolutely atrocious? 

Who ultimately decides what’s good or bad when evaluating a design? 

Let’s start with having an opinion

One of my favorite adages is “The opposite of love is not hate – it’s indifference”. If you fail to get either a positive or negative reaction to something that you’ve done or created you’ve probably played it too safe. When you intentionally create something that has too wide of an appeal verses a select audience, it usually is met with apathy to all. Someone has to emotionally care enough to respond – good or bad.

We’ve all been at the point of apathy at times in-person or perhaps in-practice as a designer. To get there you probably had to be less internally opinionated and more diplomatic in driving to a solution. Perhaps you even had to make compromises in aesthetics, tenants, values and purposeful beliefs. Yet, your perspectives and principles are how your true audience relates to you. These shared beliefs create the positive or negative attraction, attachment and emotional reactions to why someone truly loves something or hates it. 

When you push the envelope, you breakthrough 

Human-centered design has always been a dichotomy. The iterative exercise of creating something visionary and new, that has practical application and purpose. And, yet due to its newness it can be met with resistance or acceptance. This is because humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to behave as creatures of habit. There are rewards that come from embracing this primal behavior, such as efficiency in performing daily tasks and routines and creating a familiarity with our surroundings. From that, we create an emotional and physical platform of stability and comfort, something all humans desire.

However, our universe does not operate on this principle. Nature’s constant is change, sometimes disruptive, violent and chaotic. Whether it be something benign and predictable like the seasons of the year, or disruptive like an earthquake, these moments leave an indelible mark of uncontrollable change. When caught up in them, people respond with a heightened sense of awareness. We become fearful, more alert and aware. When disruptive change strikes people, it can break habits, mindsets and forces people impacted by change to see, think and create beyond the familiar, beyond what’s comfortable. This can be a hard adaption for those who aren’t prepared for embracing something strange or wonderfully new. 

Note the advent of the first automobiles as a breakthrough design example. The very first versions looked and functioned more like a horseless carriages because that was the transportation paradigm standard of its day. Here we are 135 years later and they have generationally evolved to shed all of their guilted-Victorian era, horseless-ness in favor of modern, futurist led, design style cues born out of speed, performance and brand personality differentiation.


To hit an intended target, there are different tools to use and ways of achieving and measuring success. For example, let’s examine the difference between a shotgun verses a rifle. Both are designed to reach their target, but with different methods. A shotgun is designed to propel and scatter buckshot within a certain radius, whereas a rifle is cross-hair precise. When properly aimed, both hit their desired target with different results. Designs too can be creatively engineered to attract, appeal to and hit their targets in much the same manner. An effective design that hits its intended targeted audience, in time can be influential and spread in appeal to impact the world.

 Here are a few polarizing, breakthrough examples:

Tesla's Cybertruck

Elon and his team designed the Cybertruck to appear "ugly" to some on purpose because they believed and understood that “Beauty” or the “love” of something – lives in the eye of the targeted beholder. What proof do we have of this? Absolute love or outrage from the public based on its non-traditional design style cues. This reaction makes it successful because it found its audience. Since its unveiling, it has over 200,000 pre-orders by people willing to wait two years for its arrival. These people are made up of a majority of non-traditional truck owners or enthusiasts. It has also spawned an ever-growing underground network of first-follower designers that either enhance and augment this creation to create fan-based hybrid designs. Elon did not just create a new paradigm in truck design standards, he also created a movement with people.

Brutalist Architecture

Disciplined in design tenants around “form follows function,” Brutalist buildings are bold architectural statements. Primarily constructed from concrete, they command attention through their monolithically solid, unadorned, and undecorated design. As with most architectural movements, Brutalism arose out of the rejection of current architectural standards. Sort of a, “I dare you to build it” mentality. Brutalism in its pure-form is an extinct form of architecture and there is such distain by those who despise it, some of the remaining examples are endangered to be forever razed. 

That said, many of the design tenants of brutalist architecture would inspire modern commercial and residential architects of our day, from noteworthy talents like Tom Kundig to mainstream consumer product companies like Crate and Barrel through their CB2 branded line of interior design offerings.

Alternative Limb Project 

When something catastrophically goes missing like a limb on our bodies, our instinctual human reaction is to replace it with something as visually and functionally similar to what the form originally was. 

Sophie Oliver’s Barata saw something different. She envisioned that “less could be more” if only she could make people feel empowered, not ashamed due to personal tragedy. She accomplished this by embracing the idea of personalization through the missing human forms with a precious, one of a kind, fully functional prosthetic work of art. Each design is uniquely imagined and conceived much like a tattoo, based on creative input from the individual recipients. Provocative designs that incorporate tentacle hands, cyber lit-glass, feather encrusted or ornamental faux ivory carved creations. Radical in personalization, these bespoke designs were not meant to appeal to a mass audience. Rather, their intention is to make a statement, an outward expression of the inner spirit and soul of the person for whom it has become an extension of their whole persona. These futuristic creations will push humankind in society forward by supporting body diversity and celebrating the potential of our artistic imaginations and individuality.

Here are a couple of compromised, indifferent examples:

New Coke

One of the upside-down, stranger (but true) things that happened in the mid 80’s was this branding debacle. Coca Cola, the undisputed leader in carbonated beverage soda category tried to reach beyond its core audience by appealing to Pepsi drinkers a radical design formula flavor change (it tasted like a cross between Coke and Pepsi) to its 100 year old product. 

Result = Neither audience cared for the change and it spawned a deluge of protests and even law suits from around the country. 190 grueling days later, Coca Cola revered back to the original calling it “Classic Coke”. Moral: core value differentiators are what make you truly authentic and original. Disregard or throw them aside and you become disingenuous to those core-beliefs and loose credibility with your audience. 

2012 London Olympics logo

Intentionally designed to appeal to a younger audience through its Neo – 80’s retro design quality, I used to personally refer to this logo abomination as “Memphis design meets amphetamines.” At the controversial time of launch, it was staunchly defended by the Olympics chairman as “designed not to appeal to everyone’s taste immediately,” which was in actuality, why it failed to work for something as event-focused and timely as the summer Olympics. This is a great case in point where the “rifle” design approach failed to appeal to a wider, but targeted “shotgun” group of people who could equally identify and embrace its symbolic presence for the event.

I might add, the Memphis design movement made a hyper-kitschy-comeback as of late but it looks like it forgot to bring its retired friend, the London Olympics logo along for the public acceptance ride. Why? Because that identity was designed for an event that only lasted four weeks. Wha wha!

Here are my key design takeaways if you want to be breakthrough and reach your desired audience: 

Be polarizing, not compromising. 

  • If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything.

Know your target. 

  • Don’t just hit it, breakthrough to it!

Make progress. Not egress.

 - Re-imagine the traditional. Shockingly break conventions.

If you'd like to talk design or brand strategy, drop us a line. We'd love to chat. 



David Bates | Creative Director


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