Crypto Design is Holding Crypto Back
Like the cannabis industry, web3 needs to broaden its design aesthetic to achieve mass adoption
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Andrew Braswell, senior product designer here at Blackbird Labs, Inc. Andrew will be using the space below to talk web3 UX design and why he’s pushing us to evolve it. We hope you enjoy it and, as ever, we’d love to hear from you: either in the comments below, on Twitter, or by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve done design work for a lot of different brands — Apple, Google, Beats by Dre, to name a few. The breadth of my work has created many opportunities, for which I’m grateful. One such opportunity was getting approached by cannabis startups in the industry’s pre-legalization days (daze?). Back home in San Francisco, as policy and regulation measures were taking shape, the burgeoning industry was trying to formalize itself. From my current vantage point at Blackbird I see some parallels between cannabis and web3, particularly regarding aesthetic paradigms and, in particular, the challenges legacy paradigms create.
Weed has long been synonymous with stoner culture, which has a very distinct visual language. Lava lamps. Tie-dye. The dancing bears of The Grateful Dead. And so on. Whether or not you enjoy that aesthetic, I’m sure we can all agree it’s a bit sloppy and dated and not on par with an industry that in 2020 alone grossed over $17.5 billion in domestic sales. It was time for weed to shed its hippy trappings, but in my discussions with these early-stage cannabis brands they remained hellbent on maintaining the DayGlo drug vibe of a bygone era.
Fortunately, weed has woken up. A recent New York Times story profiles several cannabis entrepreneurs and their retails spaces, which adopt a design-forward aesthetic one would expect to find in an Apple store or the lobby of an Ace Hotel. From Toronto to LA, this new crop of dispensaries resemble spaces dreamed up by Jony Ive, with details and an overall mood that match an industry that’s scaling toward mainstream adoption.
That said, they’re not reinventing the wheel per se, but rather aping design from existing industries in order to become more approachable to mainstream consumers. According to the Times:
“Superette, which has six locations in Ottawa and Toronto, is a playful brand that borrows elements from quotidian retail environments.
“One of the locations is mirrored after an Italian deli, and it has green and white checkerboard flooring, deli cases and even tomato cans and olive oil canisters as props. Another is modeled after a 1960s supermarket, and the Superette team has a Blockbuster video store themed dispensary in the works.
“Drummond Munro, Superette’s chief brand officer, said that the brand is intentionally aiming not to be ‘revolutionary’ or ‘innovative.’
“‘We’ve started choosing themes and aesthetics for the stores that already fit within the existing retail landscape,’ Mr. Munro said. ‘We thought, how do we make people feel as familiar with our stores as possible? So we decided to just give them elements they already know how to interact with.’”
From my perspective, web3 faces a similar design challenge to that of the cannabis industry. Right now, the overall look and feel of web3 reflects that of weed in the early days of legalization. No, there aren’t any dancing bears (please, apes and penguins only here, kids), but it’s an aesthetic that caters to heads rather than the masses. Think garish neon colors, retro futuristic artwork, and eight-bit renderings of anthropomorphic animals, all of which is presumably meant to evoke some post Internet utopia. In reality, these designs function as a form of aesthetic gatekeeping that excludes everyone other than the IYKYK crowd. In order for web3 to scale, laymen need to wade through a morass of blockchain jargon, concepts, and other hindrances before we hit critical mass, and the job of the designer is to make these UX experiences as demystified and easily digestible as possible.
Design should not be dismissed by members of the c-suite. According to a 2018 McKinsey report, design-forward companies “outperformed industry benchmark-growth by as much as two to one.” Not only that, but these companies also incorporated regular consumer feedback to create user-centric design. In other words, brands in the web3 space need to continue to leverage their community, especially as we scale beyond early adopters fluent in web3 jargon to a more mainstream customer base — yes, we have to listen to the n00bs, too.
I come from a skateboarding background. And while I think the skating industry has done an amazing job fostering community and supporting local shops (something Blackbird will strive to do with its restaurant partners), it is a sport very much grounded in IRL experiences. Thus I look elsewhere for design-specific brands as my digital Northstar. Gamified fitness app Step’n does a great job making the web3 aesthetic more digestible to a mainstream audience without turning off its core crypto users. And both Coinbase and Robinhood incorporate branding and UX that appeals to a broad range of consumers, unlike other DeFi companies which are too future-forward to be relatable to the clients they should be courting.
If I had to choose one brand for inspo, it would have to be Nike—as cliche as that sounds. They could easily stick to simply selling kicks and they’d be fine; instead, they’ve iterated on websites, apps, you name it. All of which has culminated in .Swoosh, their new web3 platform that’ll allow community members to co-create (and earn royalties) on new products. What I like best, however, is the way Nike does these things. They’re never first to market. Instead they wait, they watch, and finally they execute — boom! Resulting in products and experiences that are always user-friendly first.
At Blackbird, we often say we’re building a web2 platform that’ll utilize web3 tech. We want everyone to use it, unlocking a magic that will make dining better than ever before. This is where UX design comes in. How do you design a product that’s revolutionary while at the same time capable of speaking to an audience far broader than the heads deeply invested in blockchain? That’s what we’re working on.
Senior Product Designer
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
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Love the perspective here!
It’s also interesting to consider how design could help eliminate some of the stigma surrounding web3. For example, when you’re using Stepn it’s easy to forget that “crypto” is even involved, could be further abstracted away, etc.
The McKinsey piece reminded me of the “design value index” (https://www.dmi.org/page/DesignValue).
The retro look aligns with mainstream appetite for throwbacks — Stranger Things being the most obvious example. Nostalgia marketing is a tried-and-true mainstream marketing play, so I’m not so sure its design that’s holding crypto back.
Rather, it’s our focus on unique selling points that don’t resonate with the mainstream; ownership, decentralization and immutability will never be as important as convenience, ease-of-use and novelty to mainstream consumers. We really need a wholesale rethink of web3’s core brand messaging, alongside its visual identity.