Introducing Radical Design Changes Without Getting Destroyed

There’s been a few episodes on this show where I’ve talked about how people respond to design. In a couple of episodes, I even talked about some of the feedback. It’s a tricky thing to get right. It’s even more tricky when people are super-passionate about the existing thing you’re redesigning.

Snapchat was a notable one from this year. Instagram angered people with a new app icon. Even Apple got flack for switching from skeuomorphic to flat design. In each case, those companies found a way to get people to calm down and move forward. It must be acknowledged that this is tough to get right for any designer.

How do we go about introducing a radical design change without getting our heads bitten off?

First, its helpful to look at what’s working. The new Gap logo infamously threw out a brand that people were more attached to than previously thought. The new sans-serif logo with a box was such a radical departure, it jarred longtime customers (and the rest of the internet). So it’s helpful to know what people like about the current design. This may help determine if something or a few things need to carry over into a new look. You may even find that a design refresh may work better instead.

Apple mostly took this route. Yes, the visual changes were a radical departure, but the functionality stayed the same. People were primarily angry about the new look. However, we adapted quickly and things calmed down after a while.

On the flip side, Snapchat got people riled up. Why? The look was altered and the functionality changed. They didn’t alienate their users once — they did it twice. In the last few months, Snapchat has backed up towards the previous design iteration, but it’s going to be tough introducing anything new moving forward.

The last thing to consider is that the noise and anger may just be that. Maybe it will pass.

This is difficult to gauge and get right. If most of the initial reaction is positive, it’s likely that you can power through. People don’t adapt to change well, but with time they may get familiar with the new surroundings. It’s up to you and your team how far you want to weather the storm.

Tropicana is an excellent example of this. A number of years ago, their redesigned juice boxes didn’t set well with their customers. They did try to wait it out and hope for things to return to normal. Unfortunately, the sales numbers said otherwise and the old design was back on the shelves not long after.

There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the new design on its own. However, it didn’t resonate with their customers and it showed badly. To this day, Tropicana has been careful about radically changing the look of their packaging. I suspect that if you compare what they have now to what they had before the botched redesign, there would be a minimal difference.

It goes without saying (and it’s the point of this episode), that there’s no right or wrong way to introduce a radical design change. You’re very likely to get heat from people no matter what. But what is important, is that you listen to them. In every good ending, the brand listened to the feedback and made their customers feel heard. Sometimes they had to fully revert. Other times they could compromise. No matter what, its important to keep communicating and making sure the exisiting clients are happy. They need to see that the brand can improve without feeling like they’re being left behind.

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