The recent courtroom skirmish on patent infringement between consumer electronics giants Apple and Samsung has one straightforward lesson: Design matters. With billions of dollars at stake, the design of digital technology is a critical ingredient in determining marketplace success.

“The 19th century was defined by the novel. The 20th century was defined by cinema. The 21st century will be defined by the interface," says Sander Ejlenberg, creative director of IceMobile, Amsterdam, a mobile app development firm, quoting the lines used by digital artist Aaron Koblin at a TED (a non-profit for ideas worth spreading) conference.

Ejlenberg was one of several speakers at the recently concluded Kyoorius DesignYatra in Goa (30 August-1 September), the eighth edition of India’s largest annual design, branding and visual communication conference, which for the first time included a day dedicated to digital design. Presentations and case studies highlighted how, and why, some of the world’s largest companies are investing in the design of their digital properties. Speakers also shared more insight with Mint during conversations at the conference.

Humanizing digital technology

photoFor Ejlenberg, mobile phone applications are “key to providing a unified experience" for users as the main point of contact between consumers and service providers. To be successful, apps must be simple, easy to use and relevant to user needs.

He cites the example of the new mobile phone banking application for ABN Amro, one of The Netherlands’ largest banks, designed by his firm IceMobile. The app was far more “visual, less like a spreadsheet", than competitors’ applications, says Ejlenberg. Straightforward navigation, and more images, made it easier for consumers to check their bank balance and make payments. The result: Usage increased “exponentially", and consumers wrote in with feedback such as “this is my reason to switch from my current bank", he claims.

At Google, making technology user-friendly has been elevated to a mission statement. “My brief is to remind the world what it is they love about Google," professes Robert Wong, the chief creative officer at Google Creative Lab, the company’s in-house creative agency. This entails translating Google’s technology into the right platforms to meet different needs.

The platforms include www.exquisiteforest.com, a Google-supported online collaborative arts project, and Life in a Day, a documentary film made from submissions by Google users across the world. “At Google, we’re putting tools out there. When we launch something, we don’t know how people are going to use it. So it’s not about making the object, it is about making the platform, " Wong explains. And unless a tool is “effortlessly designed, it won’t work", he adds.

Design a new brand identity

Design can also help a brand reinvent itself and find a new voice through a renewed identity. Or so hopes Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone manufacturer which recently launched Nokia Pure, a new typeface for its handsets.

Nokia Pure is a suite of fonts that seeks “to cover the majority of script systems used in the world", explains Aapo Bovellan, director of brand and marketing at Nokia. Pure is available in 13 scripts, including Devanagari, Bengali and Tamil, covering the languages of around four billion people.

Creating Pure entailed designing several thousand characters from scratch. Indian languages, with their many conjuncts, are particularly challenging, says Bruno Maag, the creative and managing director of Dalton Maag, the London-based typeface design specialists behind the project. Investment in typeface design is justified for a global technology company such as Nokia, he says. “Why do only the Latin script when Nokia has a billion consumers? Typography is the bedrock of communication, it can really connect people."

The new multilingual font is functional, elegant and cohesive, but as consumers often take typography for granted, must be accompanied by breakthrough products to meet Nokia’s aspirations.

Align design and business strategy

Microsoft is pinning its hopes for marketplace success on a similarly overarching design strategy: to devise a common design language for all its products, whether the Xbox or Windows, or its online service Bing.

The new design language is underpinned by the “One Microsoft" philosophy, says Rodney Edwards, principal design manager at Microsoft. Edwards leads a team of designers creating media applications for the new Window 8 OS, launching in October. The design and development of these applications “represented a radical departure for us", he says, with its “touch-enabled form-factor". The application interface has roots in editorial magazine layout, with an image-heavy layout, and clean navigation. Success will depend on how neatly Microsoft integrates the media apps with other offerings, and more importantly, if it can stay ahead of consumers by providing intuitive details which both surprise and delight users.

Market considerations were the primary motivations for the new design initiative. “Customers have multiple touchpoints with the brand. Why would we express ourselves differently across products?" Edwards says, adding that design and the broader business goal are also aligned.

“The big business issue now is ‘how do you build the ecosystem’, and leverage products and service together?" points out Edwards. A common design identity would encourage greater adoption of all possible Microsoft digital tools.

Creativity and technology are clearly a powerful combination for any brand wanting to create a digital dent in consumer minds and wallets.

Write to Aparna at businessoflife@livemint.com

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