Excerpt: Where I harp on copycat design trends used by small businesses. As a consumer, I find the formulaic environments to be predictable and boring which causes… “Sameness Fatigue”. What happened to providing a unique customer experience?
Both my kids (now young adults) have been design-aware since an early age. Just a few years ago, they would roll their eyes at any business that would use the Papyrus font either in their signage or collateral. This became a reverse scavenger hunt game when we were traveling: any restaurant using Papyrus in its signage was deemed unworthy of our patronage.
Yep, the use of certain fonts would determine our dinner destination. I blame myself for allowing this elitist attitude. But, unfortunately, I had to agree. Any business that cannot think beyond the MS Office pre-loaded font book will probably not be any more creative or caring in providing a worthwhile service, product or customer experience. With so many choices, why choose Papyrus?
New clichés in design. This, again?
Let’s be grateful that this particular font’s popularity has faded. But, new cliché branding marks are creeping up to a nearly identically irritating level. The most noticeable is the “nouveau rustic hipster look”. Indeed, these days, when we are presented with a menu or the guest check that is inevitably pinned down to wooden clipboard with some sort of old-school attachment (rubber band, vintage clip…), we look at each other and think, “Really? This again?”. It’s not original anymore. It’s not been original for a while.
You know exactly what I’m talking about because, wherever you are, you have been to a restaurant or café that looks like this: exposed brick, reclaimed wood, industrial and/or vintage furnishings, Edison bulbs, chalkboard menus and handwritten signage, cold brew coffee and, as much as I love them, avocado toasts. Yes. That place(s). It was adorable in the beginning.
Admittedly, the faux rustic, vintage, hipster look is not an unpleasant one. It’s comfy, recognizable… And, herein lies the problems.
Sameness problem number one: How are you different and worth the visit?
We expect these elements of sameness from the restaurant chains and the Starbucks of the world. It’s essential to their brand recognition. As customers, there is comfort in knowing what to expect, that standards will be abided to, that settings and offerings will be familiar. But this from the indie neighborhood coffee shops? Shouldn’t “sameness” be their anti-christ? Shouldn’t the “me too” copycat aesthetics be everything that goes against the very nature of being an indie entrepreneur? Especially true with small businesses where so much is riding on their individuality.
Sameness problem number two: Faux authentic
We all know that it’s fake. Fake works at Disneyland. In the coffeeshop/restaurant setting, while it’s meant to look authentic, we all know that, in all likelihood, it’s faux, it’s pre-fabricated, it’s copied from someone else’s once-unique idea. It feels manufactured. Like the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. There is nothing to admire from another wannabe. Real fans, self-proclaimed ambassadors or loyal customers for this type of business will be as rare as the bud vases with a single billy button are omnipresent on these restaurant tables.
Sameness problem number three: Bored to tears
As design trends become ubiquitous and they will, sooner rather than later, also become boh-ring. And, they become stereotypes. Stereotypes, unfortunately for those who embody them, become fodder for eye rolling, comedy or outright dismissal.
For your amusement, in the comedy example, this commercial series that not-so-subtly derides the “urban lumberjack”, aka lumbersexuals.
OK, so that was a little off-topic but, had to share. And no, this is not an attack on hipsters, their fashion choices or the restaurants they open. It’s just that they are purveyors of today’s most visible trends. But do they all have to look identical?
So, don’t be a stereotype. Or a formula.
Another way of saying this is to call these ubiquitous design trends “formulas”. Of course, businesses would naturally prefer to use a “formula” they know – or perceive to know – to have worked or been popular. So, design choices become paint-by-number formulas that end up feeling generic. Generic is boring, especially in the context of the hospitality industry.
Besides, savvy consumers don’t like to think that they have just become another number in the formula to attract and convert them as customers. They (me/we) spot that a mile away and we’re not falling for it.
This article on Verge.com has identified the “sameness syndrome” and has named it “airspace” as it refers to Airbnb spaces. It mentions that these rental spaces are starting to all look alike, no matter where they are in the world. It’s at the same time fascinating and deplorable to think that, in this age of globalization, given our exposure to so many cultures, instead of being inspired by other cultural aesthetics and customs, the majority chooses to copy the “formula”. At a time when we have more tools than ever to be creative and unique, we choose the same thing? What happened to providing differentiation points, unique offerings and settings that delight customers? Shouldn’t that be the guiding principle?
Same is easy. Different, not so much.
I’m reading “Truth in Comedy“, the bible for improv comedy. Let me draw a parallel from Chapter 6 where it states that, in improv, we must always be one step ahead of the audience: “Always assume that the audience is going to get the easy joke….If an audience sees a set-up coming, they’re less likely to laugh at the joke… Give them something they don’t expect...”
Out of respect for their audience, improv performers strive not give them the joke that is too easy. They try to go one further. In this analogy, the joke represents the copycat-designed Airbnb room and the laugh represents the customer satisfaction payoff (ratings, room rates, repeat guests). In either context, “easy” is not gratifying for any of the parties involved. Stay safe and your payoff will reflect that. Instead, these indie businesses should be giving us a real reason to visit. Repeatedly. Give sameness and lose your identity, your edge.
I know how hard it is to be a small business. Which is the very reason why it’s so important for them to place all the odds in their favor and come up with something that’s all theirs.
Delight us, surprise us. We’ll tell our friends and we’ll be back for more.