Mary Stevens has worked on product development at Herman Miller for more than 30 years. In that period, she’s seen a major shift in consumer attitudes toward design.
“Customers, in general, have become much more aware of design,” she said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday. “They now come to us with a design problem themselves, whereas in the past, they’ve relied on design professionals to tell them what they should be thinking.”
As the customer has become more vocal, brands have changed their approaches to ensure they’re open to outside input. Jill Braff, president of Brit+Co, says social media has helped democratize the process.
“Obviously, social media has changed things for all brands,” she said. “We think about Instagram a lot because it’s so visual. If you can create a certain aesthetic in collaboration with the consumer, they feel like they’re on the same page as you.”
Although consumers are there to serve as sounding boards for ideas, they can quickly turn into a brand’s biggest critic. Hint founder and CEO Kara Goldin learned this lesson when her company first launched. An early version of the Hint water bottle featured clear labels.
“My idea was that if we’re just using the skins and oils of fruit, it needed to be a very clear product with a clear label,” she said. But the clear label wasn’t the hit she expected it to be.
“Because of the lighting in grocery stores, the consumer couldn’t see the clear label,” Goldin said. “Consumers didn’t actually tell us they didn’t like it, but they showed us with their wallets.”
Shortly after, Hint moved away from the clear labels into various colorful ones that spoke to the different flavors. Goldin explained that brands need to maintain a direct channel of communication with their customers. The key, she says, is that when a company decides to make a design change, it needs to clearly communicate why it’s necessary.
Braff, whose Brit+Co brand has a highly engaged loyal follower base on social media, added that great design evokes an emotional connection with the consumer.
“The truth is that if you can get someone to laugh or experience a strong positive emotion, they’ll take action,” she said. “That’s exactly what creates loyalty to your brand. Every company should be consistent with their aesthetic as well as consistent in evoking the same emotion time and time again.”