On Being Cool

| By Editorial Staff

What makes one brand’s design “cool” and another conventional is surprisingly tough to describe. One thing is for sure, just being different isn’t enough.


A product or company’s “cool factor” comes down to four main characteristics:

  • “Cool” is a social perception, not an inherent quality. Electric cars were once looked upon as the vehicle of choice for geeks and tree huggers looking to replace their VW microbuses. Now, just ask Tesla or even Leaf fans how cool they are.
  • Being cool is relative. You may have gone with that Prada handbag instead of the Kate Spade on Amazon, but there’s definitely a cool factor to buying your Prada from the boutique on the Via Condotti close to the Spanish Steps. (Relative “coolness” also happens when you choose this season’s Pyramid bag over last season’s tote.)
  • Coolness is almost universally positive. Nike radiates cool from New York to Shenzhen to Lagos.
  • Assigning something the “cool” label generally implies it’s unique, rare or at least outside the norm. While it’s key, being unconventional alone is not enough to be cool. If a design or brand is too far out on the fringe, it runs the risk of being not just uncool but strongly disliked

Being cool requires balance. Companies like Airbnb and Zipcar made us consider new approaches to travel, but in ways that are socially acceptable.

Knowing your audience’s “cool” spectrum is key to design success. It’s alright to go a little outside the boundaries of what’s considered normal. But don’t let your design cross what your audience would consider the limits of abnormal.

It’s difficult to stay cool, too. A design that starts off as cool (think Groupon) shifts the lines of conventionality, and then gets imitated so much that it becomes conventional, and no longer cool.

One-time consumer rebel Apple is a master at creating universal appeal. Just when you think they’ve lost too much of their cool factor, out comes the iPhone 5S with a fingerprint sensor. Watch how they keep shifting the norm, pushing for a new limit, raising the bar.

You don’t have to be Apple (or Nike or Prada), just take a lesson from their playbook.

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