An Open Source: Smart Home; Visualizing the invisible

Rachel Wilson, Director of Design 

Rachel is LIFX’s Director of Design. Responsible for the visual identity of LIFX, she works across all areas of design including marketing, the app, packaging, industrial design and manages a team of multi-skilled, multi-lingual, multi-channel resources that influence greatly how customers experience LIFX. This week discussed how she and her team bridges the divide between visual and technical elements of IoT using design.

Close up head shot of Rachel Wilson in black turtleneck sweater. Sitting just below a mirror with an LED Strip around the edge which is bathing her in pink light

How do you simplify the visual communication of an experience that includes, software, firmware and hardware for a new user? 

I think, in general, truly good expression makes hard work look effortless and complexity feel approachable. It's a hard ideal to achieve and a particular sleight of hand is needed in the world of IoT, where many parts of an experience can be technical, foreign or even laborious.

When we think about an experience like ours, there are many parts of the user’s context that will vary greatly, so a part of the communication strategy needs to be to create a foundation of understanding with each touchpoint. By comparison, there are lots of products out there that already have plenty of context. You don't need instructions for sunglasses, a toaster, a computer mouse, a bank card or a reclining chair. If we made handbags, sure, someone could try and wear it on their head, but given the long established tradition of the product itself, we could be confident that it wouldn't accidentally become the world's worst hat. But we aren’t in the business of bags—we're in the business of making lights that change the way you see your home and technology’s role in it - and it’s still a very new thing to the users we attract today. So really, the thing hardest to acknowledge as an industry: it’s all too easy for a smart home product to become a bad hat if you don’t communicate well in each stage.

When I am planning aspects of the visual communication, I try to remove distraction, and anything unnecessary. It’s helpful to step out the different parts of the journey users have with our products into stages. I am a hierarchy obsessed designer (my background is in graphic design) and that certainly helps with the visual executions we plan. I always try to think about where the eye is going. Where will the gaze land to create what we need in that moment as it moves across the visual landscape? Too many warring elements is going to create chaos and information overload, so we split communication across the various stages the customer will find as they progress. And we ask ourselves a lot of questions. What do they need to set their expectations and create understanding in a store? When they arrive home and open the package, how do they know what to do next? If they open the app, will the steps in a first product set-up be bite-sized enough to read but enough information to understand what they need to do? Mostly, what do they need to see now?

I think the core of it though is that we always look at the experience as a work in progress. It can always be better - we can always help reduce the amount of accidental "bad hat" experiences in tech. And my team and I work hard together every day to learn more and be better at it.


Are Smart Home products tech products or lifestyle products?

This is an interesting question - I think I would have had a different answer a few years ago, but in 2020 I’m going to say that those are no longer mutually exclusive or even different categories. Many things are both, and I think the treatment of brand we see emerging in the space between these two tells this story too. I wouldn’t say a smartwatch was either firmly tech or lifestyle, or a smart speaker was more voice robot than sound experience. From ubiquitous wearables to FinTech app solutions that make banking more lifestyle money management than home-office number crunching, we’re seeing tech and lifestyle products blend. I think this shows that as a society we’re coming to terms with the idea that tech inevitably IS our modern lifestyle, and that we expect a level of clever technology to touch most things, even if they aren’t smart themselves. And more importantly still, it means that companies are coming to terms with designing with the belief that consumer tech is mainstream.

That said, perhaps the question between the lines here is ‘Are Smart Home products for tinkerers and the tech-savvy, or are they now the purview of everyday people?’ I would say from my experience at LIFX that they’ve been in the process of this shift for a few years now, but with brands like Sonos, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Apple, and all the others working alongside them to accelerate this and narrow the divide, we’re now reaching the moment where ‘Smart’ is just a matter of choice when it comes to products for the home.


So how do you bridge those two worlds in your creative approach?

Bridging the worlds… Well, I think it’s evident from my previous answer that I would see it more as a new world coming into focus. So my creative approach is really to try to see that world as it materializes and solidifies and understand where LIFX could fit into it. I imagine what that world might look like next year - or the five after that. And I try to contribute interesting things to the landscape wherever we can as a brand and as a design team. We’re at such a pivotal point in history where the line between devices and people blur and the digital world is just as real to us as the physical one. Because of this, there are so many interesting opportunities for new ways design can shape experience, form a sense of identity and build a relationship with the user.

So we’ve been playing on this bridge between worlds and exploring what is emerging for a while now, which means you can expect to see this come out in our latest work. Our new packaging coming in the back half of this year demonstrates how the app and the broader experience can come together visually, as well as how we represent products and even how the products themselves look and work. In terms of the things that have already gone live, it’s in the way we worked to humanize the expression in the app with illustrations (props to our good friend Bonnie Eichelberger for her beautiful work), and in the way that we’re working closer with amazing people who use our products to show real set-ups.

I have a tight team with diverse skills and backgrounds and I think that helps inform what we’ll make of all of this. At LIFX we are playful—that’s not just a brand line, it’s the DNA of who we are as a team. I work with people who make me laugh every day (often), and who give a new meaning to 'genius at play'. And after all, isn't that the best kind of people to have by your side as you explore a strange new world?


What brand do you admire most - and what could other brands learn from them? 

At risk of being generic, if you asked my designers, they'd definitely be able to tell you how often the word Nike leaves my lips or pops up in a visual reference  - and this from a girl who's sneaker collection looks more like an Adidas catalog (sorry Nike, my foot is too wide!)

Nike just does brand in a way no one can touch, with so much humanity and futurism and nostalgia and all sorts of mismatched things that shouldn't co-exist but somehow do (flawlessly) that I can't help but love it. I live right near a Nike concept store so that could help - their visual merchandising is so on point I stop and photograph it whenever they change their windows. 

I also religiously follow Spotify, I think there are commonalities between the two that make sense there - use of type, expression, concept advertising, great copy and color/texture. (And I'm told an ex-colleague of one of the team, Australian designer Chris Doyle, is partly to thank for that. Thanks Chris).   

I think what we can learn from both of these examples is that you're never selling the thing itself. What these brands do so well is visualize the people that use their products, and demonstrate what those products give them the power to do or be. It takes something that is, at its core, practical and makes it something that has the power to change your personal landscape. They become part of how we see ourselves and experience the world. They both have a strong sense of community and the people behind the product. And they know who they are. Maybe even unapologetically. Many brands are so afraid to scare anyone off that they end up being a perfect fit for nobody. If nobody hates you, nobody loves you either.


What piece of advice would you give to a new Smart Home brand hoping to stand out as high quality option in the industry right now?

This is something I've maybe alluded to already. I walked the smart home floor at CES in January this year and after that I would say simply, look outside your category. Look at the amazing work people are doing in all sorts of industries. Look at brands that connect with people and make something that seems pedestrian become magical. There is so much 'sameness' in Smart Home that I'd love to see newcomers take the category by storm and push some boundaries. Don't be afraid of color (easy for me to say - we have all the colors), don't be afraid of being different and don't be afraid of having a personality. There are a lot of devices, but there are only a few brands out there in the space making a splash. It's my goal that we're also one of them.