Apple has just dropped an invitation into every notable tech journalist’s inbox. It’s an invite to the announcement of the iPad mini. The date has been reported on, but (as per usual) that’s secondary to the laborious, fetishistic analysis of every pixel on that invite.
Apple doesn’t just invite people to its events. Apple creates buzz through Columbo-level clues, hints, and nods to both future and past tech. It knows exactly how to get everyone – from consumer to competitor – slathering down their enraptured chins. And so do we.
Think you know all this already?
Prove it by designing an Apple invite yourself.
Shiny, shiny Apples
You know about an upcoming Apple product launch before the day itself for two reasons. The first is a steady, monotonous drip-feed of leaked parts and bits of paper with display sizes scrawled across them, while the second is the official announcement invitation from Apple, plastered across every publication currently troubling the web for server space.
That invite is normally when things go bananas. The date (October 23rd) is something to get your hair did for, sure, but that’s a minor detail. The game’s in figuring out what Apple’s going to launch from the visual clues. In the last five years, there’s rarely been an Apple keynote invite that hasn’t revealed the product in some way ahead of time.
And that’s why it’s clever. Once you give yourself a reputation for that sort of thing, people will expect it next time, and the time after until beyond the end of days. It becomes something far bigger than just sending an invite out. It becomes an interaction bigger than just reading a date and putting a note in your diary. It turns an email into a game.
Mr Cook, some examples please?
The Beat goes on
Signposting an event in September 2008, this invite marked the real start of Apple’s now rarely-subverted penchant for clue-giving. The event itself brought about the first generation iPod touch, and there’s three elements in the design to look at. Firstly, the bloke in the picture is clearly holding the recognisable iconography for an iPod (rather than iPhone). Sure, it may not look anything like an iPod touch, but it still lets us know that we’re talking MP3 players here.
Secondly, the use of Cover Flow – Apple’s album browsing mechanism. Cover Flow is a feature on the aging iPod Classic, but it was always a bit clunky, and doesn’t have the shiny black background as is found on both iOS devices and THIS BLOODY INVITE.
Lastly, the seemingly cheesy tag line. At first glance, it’s nothing but a lame reference to a recognisable song lyric. But put this through your head mangle: as crap as that line is, it’s a perfect reassurance to Apple fans that, despite the success of the iPhone, which was launched the year before, the iPod line would continue on.
Well, clearly it’s something to do with visual media, rather than music. Those searchlights, whether the property of 20th Century Fox or just a gala movie premiere, are unmistakeable. That’s all you can glean, but that’s all you need to.
It’s a picture that sets the tone, lets you know what to expect and drops you off without revealing any more. Sure enough, ‘Showtime’ referred both to full HD movies on the iTunes store, and a preview of the Apple TV box.
Let’s talk iPhone
This is just perfect. More perfect than most of the others, in fact, because it’s just annoyingly, upsettingly clever in the kind of way that makes people hate Apple. And Apple probably loves that.
Those oh-so familiar icons point out the time, date and place (this event was being held at Apple’s HQ, which is the pinned point on the Maps icon), while there’s a fourth that tells you everything you need to know.
That ‘1’ notification normally means you’ve got a missed (new) phone call. Here, coupled with the tagline, it means we’ve got a new iPhone. It’s simple, it’s clever, and it confirms with nothing more than a wink and a nod that there’s a new handset coming. This is art.
The competition catch up
It’d be one-sided to suggest Apple is the only company in the world pulling this trick, but it is definitely the company that has the biggest reputation for it, and the only one that enjoys such huge online buzz and rampant speculation based on nothing but an invite.
Rightly, it’s a tactic that’s inspired others. Samsung, which is trying so very hard (and by all rights succeeding) to position itself as the Apple for people who hate Apple, has adapted its communications to ape this style.
This is a Samsung invite circa 2008:
This is just noise, really. It’s like being struck about the head with a keg full of words. For all its earnestness and genuine enthusiasm, it might as well be in Samsung’s native Korean.
Move forwards to 2012, and we’ve all grown up:
Look at its little clues! Bless. The Samsung of 2012 is restricting its mad way with words to just a tagline and a dribbling of telltale blobs all over the shop in fine style. As well it should. This kind of drip-feed is pure common sense, but it’s baffling just how many PR, marketing and comms teams still don’t appreciate that.
Don’t forget about Asus
Asus too, has begun to tease and hint and play about with its mail-outs, even if it is in an uncool, slightly heavy-handed way.
It’s like watching people wake up from the Matrix, isn’t it?
HTC is a recent newcomer to this simplistic, revealing style of communication too, although you’d be well within your rights to question the extent of its insight. The initial outreach ahead of the event that launched the HTC Desire HD, for example, had a blurred, barely visible silhouette of a phone peeking out from behind a thick plume of smoke.
But it didn’t take long for the web tinkerers to figure out that switching the contrast basically revealed the whole handset. Now, was this just dodgy photoshopping, or was it an incredibly clever piece of visual trickery creating interaction? Hats off to HTC if it’s the latter, but either way, the lesson learned could only have been a positive one.
(Image via MobileMag)
It’s not just visual
Ok, so you think you’ve got a clever visual that’ll spear your intended audience by the nose; what now? The best examples above work thanks to a well-executed match up between the aesthetics and some snappy wordplay. Invites are an advert, but so are emails. Every sent email is an advert of sorts, whether you want someone to do something, go somewhere, click on a link or simply read what you’ve got to say, there’s a similar thread running through it all.
In that respect, there’s a motive to make sure that only the words you need end up on the page, flyer, pdf or body text. Correspondence that needs to get noticed needs to be spartan. If anything, the more vague you are, the more people will show intrigue. What’s left out is the key to the mail-out becoming a game, but remember this caveat above all else: cry wolf too many times and no one will show. Apple drops hints and clues, and stays incredibly vague, but it also doesn’t invite anyone to bad events.
As noted author and all round advertising god Jef I. Richards puts it: “Creative without strategy is called ‘art.’ Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising’”. The two disciplines aren’t that far apart – they’re only separated by that extra layer of interaction.
The psychology of the game
‘Oh, I was enjoying this article until they started using generic, pithy quotes.’ Alright fine, we’d best talk to someone on the inside. Enter Olof Schybergson, CEO and founder of design company Fjord – the people who’ve built brand experiences for the likes of Flickr and Mastercard. Olof knows that the invites are just the tip of a far further reaching, all-encompassing ‘ethos’.
“Apple never misses an opportunity to excite and intrigue people with the design of its event invitations,” he says. “On the surface this is simply a great marketing ploy, but it is the psychology of the design behind these initiatives that merits a much closer look.”
Olof argues that just making a clever invite is pointless if that psychology doesn’t slap every single touch point across the face: “Today’s consumers appreciate the aesthetics of design more than ever before, and this changes the way companies communicate with their target customers – by focusing on what resonates with people visually and artistically, rather than simply allowing the technology or business to drive how customers are approached.”
“Whether designing products or content, it is essential to observe human behavior and identify opportunities to make messages, systems, services and products that will win the hearts and minds of consumers.”
Lofty words but, according to Olof, it really all boils down to this: “If this process is executed effectively, the product, as Apple has already discovered, becomes the art, creates its own buzz and sells itself.”
Playing the game for real
Ready for a test? Here’s an open invitation (pun intended): below is a brief brief (yes) to design a tech event invite. We’ve set out a date and a focal piece, and want anyone willing to have a crack at it. There’s no prize here; it’s an exercise in putting what you’ve read above to the test, even if the invite you produce is only in your head.
Of course, if you’d like to mock something up, we’d bloody love to see it.
Date: October 30th
Launch event for: Apple 40-inch TV Set
Features: Siri control, iPad and iPhone control, apps
Event held at: Apple’s HQ, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California
Upload your designs to Imgur.com and tweet the link to us @Electricpig. There’s a good sport.