Design and Disruption
How to gatecrash an established industry like banking.
The internet has given a new generation of entrepreneurs the opportunity to disrupt longstanding industries. There are few sectors more established than banking, but new apps are taking on the financial establishment and they’re using design to do it.
Is there an industry more established than banking? We should probably rephrase the question. Was there an industry more established than banking? The idea that something like banking could be disrupted by a wave of alternatives would have seemed ridiculous only a few years ago. New banking apps like Monzo, Revolut and Starling are doing exactly that, and a key part of their disruption strategy is the use of bold design.
Before the internet many established industries had huge barriers to entry. Imagine what you would have needed to start a bank 30 years ago - premises, capital, staff, etc. And then you'd need customers. How would you even begin to build trust? How would you convince a potential customer to bank with you and not the 400 year old bank around the block?
These barriers have largely disappeared. Life online has transformed us to the point where we’re prepared to rethink how we do everything. Our love our convenience quickly overtook any concerns we may once have had over security. Banking on a mobile app feels totally fine.
But how exactly are these new banks winning the battle for new customers? With design and branding. New banking apps are creating a clear contrast in visual identity between themselves and the established banks as part of a wider design led strategy.
In terms of visual appearance, the differences between the traditional banks and the new banking apps are pretty dramatic. Take a look at the online presence of HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, etc. They are very similar. Small text, conservative imagery, lots and lots of tabs offering dozens of products and services. These sites are deliberately bland because “dull and boring” is a shorthand way projecting safety and trust. The message is “your money’s safe with us - just look at all the grey.”
But take a look at Monzo, Starling and Revolut. They have reinvented our idea of what a bank is and - crucially - what it should look like. All three of these apps use colour and imagery in dynamic and positive ways. There is life and energy to these brands that didn’t exist in the banking sector until now. The messages are also straightforward - “banking made easy” and “feel good about money.” Everything is clear, pleasing to look at, and incredibly easy. The UI/UX offer a totally different banking experience.
For the new apps design is also a big part of building trust. These banking apps might be new, but they feel familiar. They look like our other apps, they’re easy to access, and we feel comfortable using them. Contrast these feelings with the way we might feel stood outside a high street bank. Open, warm and welcoming. Opaque, cold and forbidding. The contrast in user experience is massive.
The most striking use of design we’ve found among these new banking apps is at Lunar Way, based in Denmark. It's the best example of the whole strategy. Their homepage is a bold splash of blue with one simple message in huge typeface “Things change. Banks should too.” It’s brave, daring, and hugely subversive in the context of the banking industry.
Are the older banks asleep at the wheel? Not all of them. Some of the old timers are catching up. Natwest and Deutsche have recently developed much more vibrant visual identities that carry the freshness and vigour of the new apps without diluting their established brand reputations. How they will continue to look and feel, and whether other established banks will follow them, will be fascinating to watch from a design perspective. It feels like an “evolve or die” moment.
It will also be interesting to see if the new banking apps eventually make the transition from online to the high street in the same way as Amazon Go. If they do the older banks may end up struggling to defend their own territory. Which banks will be the biggest in the world come 2030? Whether old or new they'll be using design in clever ways.