Target’s implausible new target

eames chair.jpg

Most people don’t say things are “well designed.” They say they’re “attractive,” “smart,” “beautiful,” “pretty,” “lovely,” or, my personal favorite, “really great looking.”

Generally speaking, we don’t use the term “design” unless we own, or want to own, an Eames chair (as above, but then you knew that). “Design,” the term and the concept, is, that is to say, the preserve of the architect, the interior designer, the marketing professional, the graphic artist, the product developer and design manager.

Thanks to the work of Virginia Postrel and others we now know that design is becoming an ever more ubiquitous aspect of the marketplace and the life of the consumer. Even hardware stores, the great bastion of male artlessness, now use design as a selling point.

But, for all this, “design” remains an insider’s term and concept. Or so I thought. And then a couple of weeks ago, I saw the new ad campaign for Target. The tag is “design for all.” The text:

Design inspires
Design shapes
Design shines
Design creates
Design transforms
Design moves
Design fits
Design protects
Design comforts
Design colors
Design unites

This is the first time I remember seeing “design” made the public face of a brand and an explicit “value proposition.” The insider’s lingo has become a brand building strategy.

It makes good sense a the company that has featured the work of Michael Graves, Mossimo, Isaac Mizrahi, Amy Coe and Cynthia Rowley to take this position. It is a superb way to mark the difference between Target and Wal-mart, as we have noted in this blog before.

But the Design campaign represents an interesting marketing challenge. Brands routinely seek to claim a cultural meaning: Marboro and the great outdoors, Pepsi and youthful irreverence, Gillette’s Venus and the goddess. Usually these meanings are well marked and well known. This makes the building of the brand much easier.

But the notion of design that Target wants to claim is not well defined. It is in fact a little obscure. In a classic, anthropological problem, this obscurity is hard for us to see. We know what design is. It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone does not. It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone uses it “lower case ‘d’” as it were. (As in “do you have this plate in another design or pattern?”)

So the Target campaign has to do two things at once. It must fashion (more exactly, refashion) the consumer’s notion of design, and then claim it for the brand. This is a little like building a suspension bridge as you cross it. It is not impossible. Ah, yes, come to think of it, it is impossible.

Never mind. Target, bless them, will try. And, bless them even more, Target will, in the process, make a small contribution to higher education in America.


For more on the Target campaign, see Debbie Millman’s treatment at SpeakUp at
Sorry, I can create the hyperlink. Something’s up with MT. Please paste.

6 thoughts on “Target’s implausible new target

  1. Troy Worman


    You make an excellent observation. Design matters, no doubt, and Design Review should occupy a milestone in any project regardless of industry.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. ken

    Target it seems to me, is attempting to tap into a larger American cultural movement – design for everyone. Although surface level responses about things like “oh how pretty”, it is what people talk about next that is interesting. The next level of discussion by new connaisseur consumer is about design. Stores like Design Within Reach are tapping into this same market of design for everyone. If you have ever talked to owner of iPods or Apples, the 2nd thing out of their mouth beyond “this is so cool” is what a fantastic design. The design importance of design for everyone has been growing since the mid-90’s. The fact that a major big box store can use it as a brand, and possibly succeed, just shows how in-gained it is into the American world-view. Target’s brand/ad shows that design is “crossing the chasm” so the real question is, where does designess of things as “designed” not matter in America. Indeed, one of te fascinating things about design for everyone, is the move away from European notions of “design” as priviledge and not-ordinariness to really the American concept of thougtful design for everyone, ala Target and Apple, who are re-inventing “american design”.
    The immediate question that should follow is, does design as design matter in Asia, and if so, in what ways? how is it the same/different than the USA or Europe?

  3. Skeptikos

    It would seem to me that anyone who has sat on two different couches, driven two different cars, riden on two different bicycles, or worn more than two different pairs of shoes in thier life knows the meaning of Design. I just bought a new pair of western style boots. I had tried on several pairs (just this past weekend) after several tries resulted in less than a comfortable fit, the salesman (and store owner) said, well, I think I know the problem…you normally buy you boots in “ranch” country (I had just told him my last pair came from a rancher supply store in a town of 700 in Nebraska, and had lasted me ten years)…most of the styles sold in the midwest are DESIGNED for style. There is a brand that just we started to carry, DESIGNED by folks who came from Nike. (I don’t know if this is true (
    It seems odd, that he would use Design in a “D” sense, unless he knew what that meant.
    I think you might be missing the fact that Target is a common denominator marketer, and would not be using such an ad if it had not been vetted in market testing.
    If you know of an American who does not know the meaning of design vs. Design, please introduce us, I would be much more interested in how that individual has managed to stay out of the common stream of US thought. Also, there is a little group out there called “Intelligent Design” supporters. I suspect that most folks understand exactly what than means (if not in the particular way that group uses it).

  4. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I’m not sure that a little ambiguity in the meaning of design isn’t a good thing–as Victor Turner pointed out long ago, the multivocality of ritual symbols allows rites build solidarity in the absence of consensus; a similar ambiguity in the meaning of design might make the campaign appeal to people who almost certainly couldn’t agree on what constitutes “good” design. (I mean really–a Michael Graves toilet brush with curvey handle??). Not to mention (and this might be an area worth exploring for market research), I’m not sure that the words people will respond to positively in an ad are the same as the words they might use.

  5. ken

    >>as Victor Turner pointed out long ago, the multivocality of ritual symbols allows rites build solidarity in the absence of consensus;

Comments are closed.