Everyone wants cool designs, but do we know what coolness is? This article seeks to explain the definition of coolness and further describes (with examples) each characteristic of what is perceived as cool. Last but not least, we describe how to make cool designs even when working with very different projects.
Table of Contents
Warren and Campbell defined coolness in 2014 as "a subjective and dynamic, socially constructed positive trait attributed to cultural objects inferred to be appropriately autonomous". Let's start breaking down this definition by emphasizing the four main features described:
1. Being cool is subjective. Hence, not everyone shares the same idea of what is cool. In other words, what person A considers cool might not be perceived the same way by person B. We can think of million examples in which this happens (e.g., with music, movies, fashion, etc.), and design is no exception. For instance, while some think brutalism is cool, others might perceive minimalism as cooler.
2. Coolness is dynamic. Coolness is far from being set-in-stone and infinitive. What is cool today might not be cool tomorrow, and vice-versa. Do you remember WordArt? It was once the coolest feature Microsoft Office had, and then it became super uncool.
3. Being cool is a quality. According to Warren and Campbell (2014), being cool is not just good; it entails an additional quality. A design might be great, but the real question is: is it cool?
4. Coolness is autonomous. In this sense, Warren and Campbell define autonomy as a "willingness to pursue one's own course irrespective of the norms, beliefs, and expectations of others.". Thus, can design be authentic? Of course! Design has the ability to introduce new perspectives and to communicate new and disruptive ideas. Cool design is authentic.
In 2019, Warren, Batra, Loureiro, and Bagozzi published "Brand Coolness", a scientific research article that identified a set of characteristics that are typically associated with cool brands. Even though marketing scholars carried out this research, the science behind coolness has been explored and applied in several fields, such as fashion, tourism, technology, and the motion picture industry.
According to the authors and the respective quantitative studies, cool brands are perceived as energetic, rebellious, original, extraordinary, aesthetically appealing, subcultural, popular, iconic, high status, and authentic. Let's take a detailed look at each characteristic and analyze it through the world of design. Full disclaimer: the examples provided to explain each characteristic might not be perceived the same way by everyone. After all, coolness is subjective and dynamic.
Energetic design demonstrates the ability to innovate at all times. These designs are always one step ahead, standing out for bringing something new and for transmitting loads of enthusiasm and excitement.
In an article about "People, Products, and Epiphanies", Jens Riegelsberger - UX Director at Google Design -, describes the importance of enabling design teams to find their eureka moments, which consists of sudden sparks of energy that lead to innovation and creative designs.
"The hard truth is that the road to innovation winds past many failed attempts, goes through valleys of doubt and uncertainty, and has many forks with no signposts. Without the energy released by eureka moments, it's hard to sustain the momentum required to "stay the course" and achieve true innovation." - Jens Riegelsberger
Is the design challenging the norms? If so, then it is most likely introducing some cool aspects. Designs challenging the norms and conventions are often perceived as irreverent, revolutionary, and rule-breakers - and yes, that is cool!
When David Carson - American Art Director - started working for Ray Gun (an alternative music and lifestyle magazine), he introduced many design experiments, especially through typography, that did not follow any editing rules. In fact, there is this rumor that in 1994 the magazine interviewed Bryan Ferry (an English singer), and Carson found it so boring that he decided to publish it using an illegible font, Zapf Dingbats, which consisted of symbols.
Later, in 1995, Carson founded his studio and worked with well-known brands, such as Nike, Microsoft, MTV Global, Warner Bros., etc. Despite working with popular organizations, Carson continued to push the boundaries of design and creativity with rebellious ideas.
Original designs represent something that was not done before and constantly seeks to reinvent. As one of the respondents from Warren et al. research, mentions "the uncool will be doing tomorrow what the cool has done before".
It's Nice That is an organization part of The Hudson Bec Group that seeks to enable creativity to thrive. In that sense, It's Nice That features original designs from several artists worldwide in their website, bi-annual magazine, monthly talks (Nicer Tuesdays), and social media.
Cool design is useful and extraordinary. Thus, it is not just about what the design demonstrates but also about what it means for the audience and the users; what they get from the design. It implies a purpose to be useful in some way resulting in tangible or intangible benefits. Due to their usability and extraordinary trait, these designs are often perceived as being of higher quality.
Space 10 is a research and design lab that aims to improve people's everyday life. They do so by designing and researching ingenious solutions to major societal changes affecting our planet and people.
5. Aesthetically Appealing
As mentioned, coolness is subjective, and the examples provided so far might not always correspond 100% to others' perceptions. That is especially true for this characteristic. Being aesthetically appealing is at the core of design, but there is no single, strict definition or way to do it. Typically, to make designs aesthetically appealing, designers consider color, balance, pattern, shape, movement, etc. These factors can determine the aesthetics of a design; however, it is vital to consider functionality and usability simultaneously.
A design that looks good and is perceived as beautiful favors to be regarded as cool. For instance, one of the major aspects that contributed to Apple's success was its elegant design. Apple is considered a cool brand by many people because its product designs and communication are recognized as beautiful and stylish.
Designs that represent or describe a certain subculture are typically considered cool. These designs distinguish themselves (through particular traits) from other subcultures or more mainstream interests. A subculture can refer to, for instance, people who enjoy extreme sports or a specific type of music.
Rinny Perkins (also known as Rinny Riot) is a multidisciplinary artist whose designs are inspired by artworks from the 70s. Her work is highly marked by the intersections of feminism in Black and queer womanhood. Therefore, she aims to describe a subculture and uses her visual art as a disruptive tool to represent women in media.
Designs that are trendy and popular tend to be highly admired by people, and, in turn, people tend to admire what is cool. According to the authors from the "Brand Coolness" research, cool brands usually start by being subcultural, but then, as they are discovered, they may transition from niche cool to mass cool.
Nike, for instance, is considered a popular cool brand with a big emphasis on design. Even though Nike is already a mass cool, it continues to innovate its design to sustain its popularity (and coolness) as well as to ensure that the design reflects and communicates the brand's values. In 2020, Nike launched "Nike: Better is Temporary" to explain the brand's internal design philosophy.
There is definitely something cool about iconic designs that have been part of our lives, take us to specific memories, and remind us of certain moments, shared cultural values, and even identity traits. Iconic brands and designs carry an extra symbolic meaning, being consequently considered cool by many people.
A good example of a design that became iconic is Coca-Cola. Years pass and Coca-Cola's strong red and indistinguishable logo are immediately recognized worldwide. The design has not suffered drastic changes and has conquered an iconic status.
High-status designs are cool because they transmit exclusivity. Hence, the designs communicate a concept, a product, a lifestyle, and a status that is not available for everyone, consequently making it more luxurious, desirable and thus enhancing the perception of coolness.
For instance, Prada, Louis Vitton, and Channel are known for communicating their high status through exclusive designs representing a fashionable a chic lifestyle.
Last but not least, coolness is authentic. In fact, according to the Warren et al. research, "authentic" was the most associated characteristic with coolness. Authenticity is cool because it refers to brands and designs that are true to their roots and remain consistent without losing what makes them unique. A cool design does not need to try to be cool; it simply is.
Apartamento Magazine is an interiors magazine that started in Spain (2008) and soon conquered worldwide attention for documenting "the everyday charm of the humble home". It features people, their homes, and how they live inside those homes. The magazine's authenticity lies in the stories that people express and share through their living spaces, thus entailing a unique mix of architecture, design, and people.
Now that we know what each coolness characteristic consist of, the question is: does a single design or design strategy have to entail the mentioned ten characteristics to be considered cool? Not at all. It would be challenging for a cool design to be popular and simultaneously subcultural, or iconic and original. Then, how to make cool design?
According to Warren and colleagues (2019), to enhance coolness, the aim should not be on including as many characteristics as possible but instead increase the ones we already have. For instance, if a design is already considered high-status, let's make it even more high-status. In other words, cool designs are the ones that stand out tremendously in any of the mentioned characteristics. Even though a design may not reflect the ten characteristics, it is quite common to have two or three major traits. Apple, for example, is aesthetically appealing but may simultaneously be considered popular and extraordinary.
At Imaginary Cloud, to make our designs cool, we research and learn as much as possible about the specifications and objectives of each design project. This helps us identify the cool characteristics we should aim for and establish a design strategy that reflects them. For instance, the Lectus project entails two main coolness characteristics: extraordinary and aesthetically appealing. Hence, the mobile app's design reinforced those traits through a clean, minimalistic, and colorful design.
Another good example is the Frontfiles project - a platform for independent journalism - during which our goal was to design a cool platform that is:
- Rebellious: as an independent journalism platform, Frontfiles provides a collaborative network of media activists, witness citizens, and freelance journalists. Hence, being a groundbreaking platform that challenges conventions.
- Authentic: Frontfiles has a unique and authentic concept that seeks to keep journalistic work autonomous and independent.
Acknowledging these characteristics, together with Frontfiles, we designed a platform that entailed clean and thin black lines, basic sans-serif typography, blue highlights, and white background. Simultaneously, usability principles were - as always - considered to provide readers and collaborators a good experience.
Coolness is subjective, dynamic, autonomous, and perceived as a positive trait. Everyone wants to be cool and do something cool, yet we do not really know much about what makes things cool and why some things are cool and others not.
The research carried out by Warren and colleagues (2019) provided us with important insights that we should consider in our design projects. To enhance coolness perceptions, we should identify the main cool characteristics of the project and accordingly create a design that reinforces those traits. The key is not to have a bit of all the characteristics but rather to excel at the ones we already have.