You’ve probably heard us say that “two-day free and fast shipping weren’t an expectation that you created for your customers; that was something that Amazon did without your permission.”
And, sure, that argument has been made time and again — customers have expectations, and if you don’t meet them someone else will.
But what are the next generation of customer expectations? And how does AI, social media, and multiplayer collaboration tools create new and unanticipated customer expectations?
Today on Insiders we’re going to break down an emergent subcultural behavior — something we’re calling Mockup Culture — and we’re going to examine how it, and similar behaviors are a new form of individual participation that leads to group expectations.
By pitching products in a public arena with varying degrees of feasibility, the culture of mocking up is extending fantasy into reality and shaping new customer expectations.
What is Mockup Culture?
Mockup culture is a new form of meme where graphic designers create images of new digital products, or alter existing ones, to make critique about consumerism or technology.
In the culture of mocking up user interfaces (UI), we no longer see the meme template of the early aughts. Instead, we see familiar shopping and social media interfaces, lightly-yet-plausibly modified, to gain additional features that result in funny critiques about the modern world.
In one mockup you can pay to skip the line at Starbucks. In another, the cost of a meeting is displayed in a calendar invite as a function of the salaries of those in attendance.
Perhaps Uber Eats rolls out a “leftovers” feature, where you pay 60% less for (ahem) “gently-used” food.
Those participating in mockup culture are thoroughly versed in the current digital economy. Like the art collective MSCHF, the modern dadaists are using the very medium that is the ire of their critique in order to make a statement. MSCHF uses shoes. Mockup Culture uses digital interface design.
Because mockup culture centers in on popular user interfaces, it often takes aim at human behavior. Many pieces coming out of this emergent subculture on Twitter, Dribble, Are.na, and other places where designers congregate, make commentary about commerce itself, and the consumerism on which commerce depends.
Tools Drive the Aesthetic, Even for Mockups
It cannot be understated that digital UI design is now a medium for artistic expression. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan said it best: “the medium is the message.” By using a tool like Figma or Framer to produce plausible design iterations, mockup culture seeks to steer the discourse amongst industry insiders.
The designs look native because they’re produced by the very tools that create the genuine artifacts.
Some aesthetic decisions, and the genres that emerge as a result of them, are due to the tools themselves. The tools enable a certain type of “look” which becomes more pervasive as a tool becomes more popular amongst designers. This can be felt no only in UI design, but in commercial print and even CPG packaging designs, as some have pointed out with the recent refresh of the General Mills snack portfolio.
“I honestly think a big driver in [design] modernizations is that most young designers literally have no idea how to make things Iike the old packaging style,” says Jesse Tyler, co-founder of brand studio AllTrue. “Do you think the popularity of Figma has an effect on the work packaging designers produce?”
In the early days of desktop computing, commercial graphic design tools were unopinionated in the way that they provided value to the graphic artist. Early web designers didn’t have the common UI patterns that we do today; so every blank Photoshop canvas was brimming with potential of what it could be. This resulted in freeform exploration — a time before the web had patterns, genre, or an identifiable aesthetic.
Why did web designers of the early 2000’s use drop shadows, text embossing, and lens flares? Because those were easily-applied effects in Adobe Photoshop.
We see the same effects in eCommerce. Ecommerce helped to mature a freeform World Wide Web. Now thirty years hence, we have a “lingua franca” of eCommerce — a specific and identifiable visual language that is an expected universal means of design for enabling online purchases. These design patterns have created mass consumer expectations. Shopify helped to contribute to this in the modern DTC era by providing opinionated templates that specifically limited flexibility.
To design for these common use cases you need two things that the standard Adobe toolkits lacked in the olden-days: pattern and component libraries, and multiplayer collaboration.
Modern UI design tools include Figma and Framer have both; and their respective communities have used those tools to create a new visual language of the internet.
These tools have created a new aesthetic because the tools enable that very aesthetic. If you have ever wondered why so many of the websites and projects launched from 2019-2022 had motion gradient backgrounds, blame the tool. Figma creates this with ease.
Mockups and Hyperstition
Hyperstition is, simply, the ability for a crowd to manifest reality.
This could simply be in the form of a public protest or activism. The “Snyder Cut” is an example of hyperstition — social media activists effectively willed a non-existent product — in this case, director Zac Snyder’s supposed 4-hour cut of Justice League (2017) — into being. The reality was that it never existed, and the Warner Bros. studio followed through on producing it due to overwhelming interest and demand.
From Insiders #78: Brands and the Snyder Cut:
"This newfound customer obsession, and the need for innovation while competing downstream with challengers, is causing this reactionary [hyperstitious] behavior. Give the people what they want from a product perspective, because structural change in how we go to market, and how we hire and employ take much longer to institute."
Before we knew the definition of hyperstition, we were seeing it in action. Today, mockup culture extends hyperstition into reality by pitching products in a public arena with varying degrees of feasibility.
Creator Aleks Living uses the design tool Framer to build his mockups, which make commentary on our behavior as consumers. In many of his works we see a sense of delusion mirrored back to the audience — you aren’t even aware of your own consumerism. This black mirror effect gives us a new context by which we see the world; not as a consumer, but as the product of the consumption itself.
This behavior is often called "consumer blindness" or "consumer myopia." This refers to the phenomenon where individuals fail to recognize or acknowledge the extent of their own consumption behaviors, often due to a lack of awareness or attention to the impact of their choices.
Consumer blindness can manifest in different ways, such as overlooking the environmental or social consequences of one's purchasing habits, ignoring the ethical implications of certain products or services, or failing to recognize the financial burden of excessive consumption.
In the context of social media, mockup culture is telling us that our perceptions may not always be the reality of what is being portrayed. We see the world through a particular filter — mockup culture may be attempting, instead, to portray the world of digital interfaces in the raw, with no filter.
This self-aware tenor, and its ironic nature, lead us to believe that mockup culture is a form of metamodernism. Metamodernism is a cultural philosophy that explains the emergence of “ironic sincerity” in art and media.
Mockup culture as an art form is a form of metamodernism. In future articles we will explore the concept of metamodenrism in detail, and its implications on commerce.
Heightened Expectations: Generative AI Breeds Discontent
So far we have explored mockup culture’s artistic critique on the world around us. But as the memetic desire of participating in consumerism grows, and the ability to generate new images grows along with it, we see a new type of behavior emerge.
Media theorist Henry Jenkins coined the phrase and behavior of the modern economy as the participatory culture. From his book on the subject, Convergence Culture (2006):
"The term ‘participatory culture’ contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship. Rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands. Not all participants are created equal."
Generative AI is driving the creation of new mockups that are both hyper-realistic and unattainable, but the participators are normal people. This extension of mockup culture to be inclusive of an average-joe-or-jane elevates the medium from critique to formal hyperstition.
Thanks to the advancements in generative AI and text-to-image software, we can create new and interesting hyperstitious collaborations between brands. Often, what is able to be imagined creates an elevated sense of expectation.
This creates a sense of discontent among consumers who are unable to purchase the products they see in the mockups. The expectations generated by these hyper-realistic mockups are leading to new market demands and an increased pressure on brands to deliver on these expectations.
The average consumer has felt buyers’ remorse. Mockup culture accelerates this into dreamer’s remorse.
As a result, mockup culture is creating a new paradigm for customer expectations and the way brands respond to those expectations.
Or will they? Midjourney creator on Twitter, Nick St. Pierre (@nickfloats), creates theoretical collaborations with luxury brands. From western-inspired luxe wear to a Cheetos collaboration, St. Pierre is able to visualize what we otherwise could only ever imagine.
Brands like Gucci are no stranger to innovation. Luxury brands are often early-adopters of new technologies and visual art mediums — generative AI is both.
Mockup culture is just one example of how the rapid development of technology and AI is creating new and unanticipated customer expectations. Like the technological advancements that enabled Amazon to surprise and delight consumers, a new type of expectation is being born. And with it, more opportunity to fall short of expectations.
By extending hyperstition into reality and shaping new customer expectations, mockup culture is a new form of individual participation that leads to group expectations. As generative AI drives the creation of new hyper-realistic and unattainable mockups, it is creating a new paradigm for customer expectations and the way brands respond to those expectations.
Finally, here are some of my favorite creators in the mockup culture space. I believe they are driving progress forward in UI, while clearly making metamodernist critique on the structures of capitalism that enable them, and their tools, to exist.
- Gil Greenberg: Shopify mockups
- Levi Eirenberg: UI Mockups
- Jordan Singer: Figma-based UI Mockups
- Aleks Living: Framer UI Mockups of Apps and Experiences
- Soren Iverson: Consumer App UI Mockups
- Shane Levine: Figma Apps, Experiences, and Apple Watch Mockups