The science of cool: 5 simple steps to boost your design’s cool factor

There are hundreds of magazines and publications dedicated to showcasing cool graphic design.

But what exactly makes a design cool? And what does it bring to your brand or product?

The science is in. ‘Cool’ may be hard to define but we now know what makes design ‘cool’ and therefore how to boost your design’s ‘cool factor.’

What is ‘cool’?

Many of us use the word ‘cool’ on a daily basis to talk about the temperature, to describe a colour, to show acceptance, to talk about someone with a calm demeanour. We also use the word ‘cool’ to express positivity towards people, places and things. But it’s more than just positivity; there’s an edge or distinction that sets ‘cool’ apart.

Look at the packaging design for these paintbrushes.

1. Paintbrush Simon Laliberte

“Poilu” by Simon Laliberte


“Blue Hawk” packaging by United DSN

Poilu is distinctly cool. Simon Laliberte understands his consumers and has cleverly designed the packaging to play on the word poilu (French slang for hairy) making the brushes appear like a man’s moustache and goatee. In comparison, Blue Hawk by United DSN is quite standard. It’s very well designed but it’s certainly not pushing any boundaries (which probably works for the brand, distributed on a mass scale in Lowe’s home improvement stores throughout the States).

Thus, cool design can be positioned as pushing the boundaries in an appropriate way; as being unconventional but not too unconventional.

Herein lies the key to making cool design: know your audience and understand the limits of what they perceive to be unconventional. Not everyone is going to love the Poilu packaging, but not everybody needs to if you’re targeting a niche market.

The Science Behind The Theory

Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell, marketing scholars who are dedicated to understanding “what makes consumers tick” as Warren puts it, have done the research to understand what leads consumers to perceive brands as cool.

First, they identified four traits of cool design (below). Then they carried out six experiments comparing consumer products, coolness ratings, and participant reactions. They found a relationship between ‘coolness’ and ‘autonomy’ and concluded that cool design expresses autonomy in an appropriate way.

Simply, the brand, product, or design diverges from the norm – but not too far from the norm.

In fact, think of cool design like a colouring-in book: get creative inside the lines; just don’t go outside the lines.

The Four Traits of Cool Design

01. Coolness is socially constructed

People, design, clothing, events are not inherently cool; rather, people perceive them to be cool. As Warren & Campbell write, “objects and people are cool only to the extent that others consider them cool.

3. Find your way to oz

“Disney: Find Your Way To Oz” by Unit 9

Cool design is therefore based on some form of consensus. For example Awwwards gives out daily, monthly, and annual awards to agencies based on popular voting. The winning websites – such as Unit 9’s interactive Find Your Way to Oz which won the FWA Project of the Year 2013 – are cool because others consider them cool.

02. Coolness is subjective and dynamic

What consumers perceive as cool depends on the individual. Consider these wine bottles.

4. Simpson Mondrian bottle

“Wine, or Maybe Not” by Constantin Bolimond and Dmitry Patsukevich

5. Logan bottle Ward

“Logan Signature” by Ward Design

Constantin Bolimond and Dmitry Patsukevich created a series of bottles in which the packaging draws on both The Simpsons and the works of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, while Ward Design created a wine label with the brand name Logan intricately embroidered on it. Do you think one of these is cool? Both of these are cool? Or that one is cooler than the other one? It will depend on your values, your taste, your cultural context.

Coolness also changes over time.

What is cool one year can be uncool and dated the next year. Indeed, what is cool one month can be uncool and dated the next month. ‘Cool’ changes because people’s perceptions change; it is about timing and context. This means that design is constantly changing and in fact being or staying ‘cool’ is one of the key drivers of change in design. It forces designers to experiment, to be creative and to push their own boundaries be it coming up with new design concepts refining existing designs.

03. Coolness is perceived to be a positive quality

There’s no denying this one. How many times have you heard yourself say, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ whether it’s about an edgy piece of design, a great t-shirt, or an event that’s taking place. You’re not referring to the temperature. Rather, you’re making a statement that expresses positivity or desirability.

6. Rayban Never Hide

“Ray-ban Never Hide” by Cutwater

Ray-ban’s “Never Hide” campaign by Cutwater is a stand- out amongst other print advertisements for sunglasses. It is colourful, vibrant, and in-your-face compared to its competitors, which are often black and white with an air of cool, calm and collected. They’ve done something different and you just can’t help by say, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’

04. Coolness is set apart from others

Finally, coolness is more than just a perception that something is positive or desirable. Coolness is a quality that diverges from the norm without diverging too far. It is unconventional while still playing by the ‘rules.’

7. Bicycle Juri Zaech

“Write a Bike” by Juri Zaech

Juri Zaech’s “Write a Bike” typography project translates bicycle frames into words personalising each bike. Writing someone’s name this way is unconventional, yet it doesn’t change the familiar form of the bicycle and therefore plays within the rules of what a bicycle looks like.

Warren & Campbell explored this elusive fourth trait in their experiments and found that coolness – or cool design – expresses autonomy without being too conventional or too risky.

How do we create designs with these four traits?

Here a five simple steps to boost your design’s cool factor.

01. Find a natural gap in the market

Consider what you are designing and the people you are designing it for. Are there similar products or designs in the market but nothing that stands apart from the rest? If so, identifying this natural gap – or niche – will help focus your design efforts. It may only be a simple difference between your design and existing designs but this may be when it is most effective.

8. Waldo Trommler Paints 1

“Waldo Trommler Paints” by Reynolds and Reyner

9. Waldo Trommler Paints 2

“Waldo Trommler Paints” by Reynolds and Reyner

Design agency Reynolds and Reyner created a brand identity for Finnish company Waldo Trommler Paints to enter the US market. They took the phrase “we must stand out” and created an eye-catching identity that played on a wide array of bright colours, bold typography, and easy-to-understand symbols. The result is a design that is unconventional enough to be considered cool yet does not stray too far from the typical paint can we are accustomed to.

10. Wrapping Paper

“Cheeseburger” by Gift Couture

Wrapping paper company Gift Couture saw a gap in the market for ‘wrapping paper sets.’ So they created a series of themed papers that coordinate together to create sets like the Cheeseburger with the bun, meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. Good enough to eat!

Why should you do this? Finding a natural gap in the market will set your brand or product apart and grab your audience’s attention. An unconventional design for a somewhat ordinary product can infuse it with the desirably quality of ‘cool’ and ultimately be the trigger that excites consumers.

02. Understand your consumers

For cool design, it is essential to understand your audience in order to play in the realm of what they perceive to be acceptably unconventional. What do your consumers consider normal or conventional? What are the limits of what your consumers consider abnormal or unconventional? You may implicitly know these boundaries, but cool design really explores these boundaries.

Research will help you understand your current and potential consumers or clients and will provide valuable information to tap in to. It may be as simple as asking questions about likes, dislikes and hobbies, or noting what they wear or places they like to go.

11. Adidas Originals Stan Smith

“Stan Smith ‘Pride’ Pack” by Adidas Originals

Adidas Originals understands its faithful consumers by proudly standing up for the LGBT community. The new Adidas Originals Stan Smith “Pride” Pack celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stan Smith shoe and the 50th anniversary of Gay Pride events in the United States. In 1965 gay rights activists gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the first ever LGBT picket. As Adidas Originals published on Instagram, “with a story rooted in history, we’re putting a foot down for equality.” The classic white shoe features rainbow-coloured threads running as well as laces and an insole with a multi-colour gradient. These shoes are stylish and the subtle use of colour makes a statement that is widely recognized to be in support of gay rights.

12. Become Someone Else

“Become Someone Else” by Love Agency

Likewise, Love Agency understands the customers who shop at classic bookstore Mint Vinetu. To target these readers who identify with great characters in literature, Love Agency created an advertising campaign with the theme “Become Someone Else” and immersed readers’ faces in books so that they visually took on the face of the character.

Why should we do this? Understanding your consumers will help you determine what they want and their limits of convention. The more you understand, the more informed your design will be; and ultimately, the greater chance of success your brand or product will have.

03. Endeavour to appear effortless

Cool design should appear effortless and natural (even though it’s not). Read a fashion magazine or blog and you’ll see the words “effortless cool;” you may have even received a creative brief with “effortless cool.” Either way, you’ll know that “effortless cool” is certainly not effortless.

Cool design should also appear to not rely on the approval of others (even though it does). Returning to Warren & Campbell’s notion of autonomy, coolness is the extent to which the product or brand expresses its own character irrespective of the norms, beliefs, and expectations of others. They proposed that this willingness to be individual is the extra quality that defines coolness.

Apple was voted the #1 cool brand in the UK in September 2014. What made Apple the coolest? The products are functionality focused, beautifully designed, and in the words of Dan Frommer, “Apple products are cool because you don’t have to figure out how they work — they are natural and human.”

13. Mac vs PC ad

“Get a Mac” by TBWA Media Arts Lab

Apple’s “Get a Mac” advertising campaign draws on this ‘human’ nature by pitting the effortlessly cool Mac against the clunky and uncool PC. We can gage autonomy by looking at the attire of the Mac and PC character: the PC’s lack of autonomy is expressed via standard office attire while the Mac’s show of autonomy is revealed through his casual clothing. The Mac’s look is effortlessly cool and irrespective of what others may think.

14. Wo Hing General Store

“Ho Wing General Store” by Manual Creative

Agency Manual Creative created a brand identity for Vietnamese restaurant Wo Hing General Store, which plays with the delicate nature of noodles and the tubular neon signs associated with Chinese street food. Director Tom Crabtree described the work as “interesting enough to provoke curiosity, simple enough to understand,” capturing the essence of what makes cool design.

Why should we do this? Consumers perceive autonomy as cool when it appears effortless and falls within a bounded range – not too low, not too extreme. Cool design that hits this middle range of autonomy has its own character but still takes the broader context into consideration.

04. Adapt to the times

What it perceived to be ‘cool’ comes and goes. To stay cool you need to keep an eye on cultural trends and developments for tapping into new markets or targeting markets in new ways. You also need to stay up on what is emerging as ‘cool’ in the world of graphic design.

15. Ebay and Starbucks logos

Evolution of Ebay and Starbucks logos

Cool design has recently shifted from complicated to minimal design, futuristic to nostalgic typography, organic hand-drawn to sharp, vectorised illustrations, and the evolution of world-famous logos is a clear way to see some of the shifts. Brands such as ebay and Starbucks have refined their logos to keep up with trends, appear cool, and ultimately remain relevant. These logos reveal the return to minimalism – the emergence of flat design (eliminating shadows, transparency effects, overlays, gradients) as well as simplifying imagery and beveling.

16. Cacao Barry

“Cacao Barry Tocantins” by Zoo Studio

Cacao Barry Tocantins is a limited and exclusively reserved chocolate production from Amazon cocoa plantations. This exclusivity is reflected in the packaging and brand identity created by Zoo Studio that reflects the popular trend of handcrafted products and design. Each chocolate bar is packaged in a paper paste box tied with fine rope and sealed with wax.

Stay aware of trends by taking time each day to read design blogs and magazines, follow designers on Twitter and Instagram, regularly search projects on Dribble, Behance, Fubiz and Ffffound, and design something new everyday. Take notice of trends and collect successful examples – bookmark them, pin them, add them to your Tumblr – to find commonalities and track the shifts in graphic design.

To find inspiration Unit 9’s interactive director Anrick Bregman says: “I search and search until something stops me in my tracks. In books, magazines and films. And online of course. And sometimes you just need to wait for it – with a nice cup of coffee. It will come.”

Why should we do this? Being aware is staying relevant. Keeping up on the game will help your designs be fresh, current, and cool as simple aesthetic changes can make a world of difference.

05. Look to the past

‘Coolness’ comes and goes; and sometimes it comes around again. Mad Men spurred a renaissance of 1960s interior design, 1970s macramé is back in fashion, and letterpress has certainly been having a moment. Therefore, one way to anticipate what will be cool is to look at what has been cool. Looking to the past – and reinventing it in a contemporary way – is both familiar and unconventional and nails the ‘cool design’ brief.

Hipster design hit the streets and the web with gusto when designers tapped into a new market of people and created a hugely popular design trend. Hipster design draws on stylistic elements from a variety of styles and eras: the nineteenth century, the Wild West, the nautical world, the natural landscape, the list goes on, to create a crafted, bespoke style. By combining washed-out colours, banners, and letterpress typography with a constellation of badges and symbols, designers created a nostalgic aesthetic for the contemporary world.

17. Forefathers Group

“Forefathers” by Forefathers Groups

Design agency Forefathers Group capitalises on Hipster design with the name of it’s company, its tagline “New Design Frontier… No Guts. No Glory,” and its ability to create “timeless and unyielding” results.

18. Seattle Cider.jpg

“Seattle Cider” by DEI Creative

Similarly, DEI Creative went hipster for Seattle Cider (“not your standard cider”) with a washed-out landscape and a product called “Vintage Washington Heirloom hard cider.”

19. Nordik Impact Festival

“Nördik Impakt 13” by Murmure

1930s Art Deco proved to be the height of cool just a few years ago with the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. French agency Murmure embraced the elegant, decadent style for the graphic identity for electronic music festival Nördik Impakt 13. They played with black and gold and reflective light effects to create a show-stopping invitation and poster.

Why should we do this? Key styles of the past come back into fashion at some point. Determine the reason it was popular then (think about the historical period and the culture of the times) and think about if it has relevance to today. One tip: when you look to the past for design inspiration, don’t reproduce it, reinvent it.

Are you ready to add the cool factor to your design?

Cool design demonstrates an understanding of your consumers’ limits of what they perceive to be conventional and unconventional and will hit that sweet spot right in the middle. However, as consumers’ perceptions constantly shifting, so do their perceptions of ‘cool.’ So keep on the game, look to the past for inspiration, and be creative as you design the next ‘cool’ thing.

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