Spotify Wrapped 2021 was an example how not to use algorithmic design
Spotify’s Wrapped 2021 campaign made a big splash in the design community this year. If you haven’t been following it, then keep on reading for a thorough digest. If you have been following, please read anyway! Articles panning this year’s campaign abound, but while I agree with many of the criticisms, it’s not really fair to call it a “design nightmare” as Creative Bloq did. Actually, Spotify made a pretty exciting overall campaign — just not nearly as exciting as what they achieved in 2018. I discovered several interesting things looking into it that are a credit to the designers at Spotify. However, Wrapped 2021 is an example of letting design tools run away with a project, setting a bad example for amateur designers who can’t distinguish between the good and the bad.
Image Credit: Spotify Wrapped 2021
What’s Good? What’s Bad? What’s Interesting?
Every year Spotify Wrapped is a colorful campaign that offers personalized designs with unique color combinations and typography. Best of all is that Spotify taps into the data it collects on user habits and lets that data dictate custom Wrapped experiences. Wrapped 2021 continued that trend using a colorful ribbon design with custom text that threaded through square-cropped images of music artists or album covers. On the one hand, it’s a fun element and many of the results have a bright energy. I really like the spiral formation, for example. On the other hand, the design feels inelegant at best, if not completely slapdash. The ribbon and square-cropped imagery just do not integrate with one another, and there’s no shortage of criticism for the horribly-squashed text on the top-5 stories design. The colors are great as always, but ultimately that’s not enough to offset its failings for me.
Image Credit: Spotify Wrapped 2021
Although much of Wrapped 2021 design didn’t quite land, we can still gather a bit of design inspiration from what Spotify’s team created in the campaign. For example, there is nothing wrong about experimenting with algorithmic design. It was really cool to learn how Spotify adapted this text-generation tool by Kiel Mutschelknaus to a custom algorithm for their use. I also used it to make the cover for this blog. Although many of the generator’s presets are set to the worst kind of woke defaults (a Black Lives Matter flag, and a Save The Country Vote preset), some are very stylish. My favorites are actually the default cylinder effect and then the outlandish Space option (I went down the rabbit hole on that one). The generator was originally a personal project that Kiel made to practice generative design, but Spotify picked up on it and approached him to make an iteration for their campaign. Wrapped 2021 is a testament to the value of designing for yourself. It’s where you grow and learn new skills. You never know which passion project might boost your professional career.
Wrapped also demonstrates what a small design team can accomplish if they keep their eyes on the prize and their skills fresh. I was blown away while reading an interview on Spotifiy’s blog with their Global Head of Brand Design, Rasmus Wangelin, to learn that their team is between 15 and 20 people. With my team at PragerU, we often assume our competitors have huge teams that enable such robust projects, but Spotify cuts through that narrative. It also showcases the value of planning ahead. Creative and marketing leads should consider that Spotify Wrapped is a project that begins in June. Success is about working in advance rather than being in-the-moment or focussed on what’s trending. Despite design criticism, Spotify Wrapped 2021 was definitely successful. It shows that the difference between a team that can launch huge campaigns and one that can’t isn’t man-power. It’s about the level of skill, proper organization, and investment in creative ideas. Perhaps Wrapped 2021 was a design flop, but it was definitely a marketing win.
The Best of Spotify Wrapped
Image Credit: Spotify Wrapped 2018 on Behance
Given that Wrapped is such a unique application of design and data, I want to compare what went wrong with 2021 compared to the 2018 campaign. In my opinion, Spotify Wrapped 2018 is one of the most elevated examples of design in the 21st Century, setting a standard which Spotify has yet to live up to in subsequent years (see the video below). Both campaigns used data to personalize graphics but the 2018 tempered algorithmic decisions with time-tested design considerations. Wrapped 2021 leaned heavily on a handful of ostensibly fun data-driven features that gave mixed results. Both the interactive card game and audio aura concepts were hit-and-miss with the audience, and the text treatments ranged from unremarkable to disastrous. It obviously left a lot on the table with their text generator tool.
Compare that to 2018, where data and algorithms were used to dictate everything from color schemes, to animations, customized layouts, tailored grid systems, within a carefully-crafted set of design restraints. For example, both campaigns featured adjustable type settings but how different they were. In 2018, if your favorite artist had a very long band name like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones then your layouts would all adjust to accommodate multiple lines of text or another more appealing arrangement. In 2021 you got scrunched text resembling an illegible barcode. In essence, the approach to Wrapped 2018 was to apply design thinking to cool new technology, while the approach in 2021 was to let technology run amok with design. The gap is palpable: 2018 was a campaign that added value with every new iteration and gave creative people around the world a clear guide for how to jump onboard (see the following images). 2021 is inherently self-limiting, because how far can you really go with bad typography and a ribbon graphic?
Image Credits: Spotify Wrapped 2018 on Behance
Bad Designs Teach Bad Lessons to Bad Designers
Am I harping on the campaign’s design too much? Isn’t design just the pretty paint job on top of the marketing objectives that really matter? I hear that a lot actually. For example, email campaigns are often described as doing better when there is less design. In reality, it’s clunky design that gets in the way of performance whereas an artful approach tends to be accepted without notice and aids performance. So, before you say that design isn’t that important, remember that Spotify’s Wrapped campaign was originally the much-less-successful 2015 campaign called Year in Music. It didn’t take off until 2017 when it was rebranded with inspiring design work. Not only does design make a difference in the bottom-line, it has the power to drive cultural shifts for better or worse.
The problem with launching a major global campaign featuring bad design work is that it leads to bad cultural trends. Unfortunately the Wrapped 2021 campaign has inspired many amateurs to take the lazy route in their work. These designers are more star-struck than thoughtful and take for granted that because Spotify did it, the work must be good. Take the words of one designer on Instagram called @kel.lauren, who determined that the squashed text created by Wrapped 2021 was a license to stretch type:
Image Credit: @kel.lauren on Instagram
Let’s get something straight here: good design is not built on offhand assertions that “not all type is meant to be read” or that “design rules are meant to be broken.” That’s a mindset of someone who takes type-as-form to the extreme and forgets that in nearly all cases type IS meant to be read. Unless you abstract type far past the point of legibility (Wrapped 2021 stopped at merely illegible) nearly everyone will try to read a body of type when it is presented to them. After-all, “type is a primary vehicle of communication.” Furthermore, letter design and typography are complex art forms in-and-of themselves. There is an attitude and beauty expressed in the form of letters that is destroyed by mindlessly stretching them around. There are actually correct methods to altering letterforms, but the “stretch that type” crowd are too lazy to put in the work. So I would like to say, if you’re feeling inspired to make some bad designs inspired by the worst of Wrapped 2021, don’t. If you are going to say that design rules are meant to be broken, please understand what you’re breaking in the first place, and know how to do a good job of it.
When we revisit the Wrapped 2018 campaign, there are myriad examples of type being used for a graphic effect beyond basic communication, but their first impulse was to adjust the grid and layout in order to respect the primary role of type. That’s what makes 2018’s typography so much stronger than the 2021 approach of distortion first, communication second. Two examples prove the point. Firstly, the 2018 campaign featured an appealing typeface called Hello Circular that was just expressive enough to give their campaign a youthful, energetic flair without distracting from the campaign’s other elements. The right font can make or break a campaign. Hello Circular perfectly echos the rounded shapes that feature in Spotify’s logo and branding, but it’s still edgy enough for even moody emo-punks to embrace. Secondly, the campaign successfully translated into 21 other languages without losing that flair. Meanwhile, the deleterious “stretch that type” crowd has yet to justify the fact that Wrapped 2021 is even harder to digest for non-english audiences thanks to mangled typography.
By focussing on grid and layout, Wrapped 2018 was able to translate effectively into multiple formats and languages.
Spotify Wrapped 2018 official typeface “Hello Circular”
Every campaign isn’t going to be a cut and dry case of good or bad design. Spotify Wrapped is a chance for us to see interesting new ways that data and design can create a fun experience for everyone. Much of the knee-jerk design criticisms out there should be taken with a grain of salt because Wrapped 2021 did deliver on a fun experience that engaged people around the world. Of course it had some bad execution, but failing now means succeeding later and there’s no telling where future campaigns will go thanks to Spotify taking creative gambles on algorithmic design. With better versions of Wrapped to look back on, hopefully more designers will take this as a learning opportunity rather than a rosetta stone for good design. Love it or hate it, I think it’s fair to go either way on this one. But if you learned anything from Spotify’s Wrapped 2021, please don’t let it be something as pedestrian as “stretch that type.” We can all do a lot better than that!