Designing for Generation Z

For years now, Millennials have been the most researched and targeted demographic group in the history of brand marketing. Today, Millennials are approaching middle age, and as their needs shift, Generation Z is stepping into the spotlight. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they’re now coming of age and represent 25 percent of the U.S. population, making them bigger than Boomers or Millennials. Today, we’re talking to VP and Managing Director of our New York City office, Janice Jaworski, about designing for Gen Z.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to “Think Retail.”

For years now, Millennials have been the most researched and targeted demographic group in the history of brand marketing. Today, Millennials are approaching middle age, and as their needs shift, Generation Z is stepping into the spotlight. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they’re now coming of age and represent 25 percent of the U.S. population, making them bigger than Boomers or Millennials. Today, we’re talking to VP and Managing Director of our New York City office, Janice Jaworski, about designing for Gen Z.

Janice, welcome. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Can you maybe start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Janice: Sure. And thanks for talking with me today. As you mentioned, I’m responsible for SLD’s New York-based operations. I’ve got over 25 years in the brand design and communication space. And I really enjoy growing brands and products, developing experiences and, of course, the top and bottom line.

As a creative person at my core, I really enjoy bringing visual experiences to life and those experiences hopefully resonating with the audiences they’re targeting. And in my spare time, I make jewelry and I take part in art shows across New England.

Melinda: Well, that’s super interesting. As I mentioned in the intro, for years brands have been absolutely obsessed with Millennials, and now we know or we think we know a lot about them. Can you tell us how Millennials changed the way brands approach design?

Janice: From my experience, I’ve seen Millennials really having this higher demand for what we call a positive experience than in previous generations. They have truly a very limited attention span, so the creative needs to really resonate and it needs to resonate instantly, both visually and verbally. They grew up in this hyper-connected world, so smartphone is their preferred method of communication. So, we really need to think about creating content that is designed and developed with that smaller, more dynamic format in mind. It’s all about transparency for them. They prefer brands that share their values. In the creative that’s done, that transparency needs to really come through in the voice of that brand.

And from what I understand, Millennials don’t really trust traditional advertising. The trust that they get really comes from friends and family more than what marketers are saying. So, responding to reviews and blogs on social media versus taking marketing claims literally through ads or on packaging is more what they’re leaning in on. I guess from a creative perspective, it’s really about minimizing or eliminating any excessive claims in jargon.

And they truly are concerned for the environment, and what this has done is created more sustainability efforts in recycling actions when it comes to printed communications and packaged designs.

Melinda: If we fast forward now to Gen Z, in Canada we would say Gen Zed, but we’ll say Gen Z for being inclusive, how are they different from Millennials?

Janice: I think they’re looking for even more authenticity and, of course, value and truth. I think they have a higher degree of sensibility than their idealistic Millennial counterparts and they’ve got this focus on saving money. So again, that value piece is key. I think the way design should interpret these two skews is to really communicate that authenticity and value by not being gimmicky or superficial, being more real, more true.

Melinda: You mentioned finance, and that’s a question I was gonna ask you about. Gen Z is supposedly more financially pragmatic and even more risk-averse than other generations. You know, we’re talking about things like drinking, drugs, sex, all that stuff, they’re less interested in it, less likely to get into it. How does that impact the way designers approach a visual story for a brand?

Janice: I think again, it’s this idea of being more pragmatic, being a little more sensible. Their interest and their consumption of content is at the highest that we’ve seen in any generation. Their preference for video content is very, very high. I think what they’re interested in is really learning something new, being cheered up or possibly being entertained. This is where YouTube is quite dominant as are Instagram stories. So, I think when creating content or developing a website, you must have video to reach this audience. I think that the way in which the video is speaking to that audience really must be all about selling an experience that’s right for that individual, not selling products. That’s where they’re going to really fail with the Zs.

Melinda: My kids are in the middle of this generation, and when I think about them and the type of things that they’re interested in, like the shows or videos that they watch, the music they listen to, the people that they admire, they’re all outside of mainstream pop culture. Thanks to the vast variety of platforms, there’s so much niche content available that pop culture as a superpower, ones that brands have often utilized, is in decline. How will that impact design choices for brands?

Janice: When it comes to using any kind of influencer or a pop culture icon of some sort, I think this particular generation is much more interested in that micro-influencer over the celebrity influencer. Those would be those with like 2,000 to 50,000 followers with a very specific niche like you said, or a focused passion of some sort. That definitely has more appeal. With that being said, I think that the type of content needs to be more familiar, more approachable versus it being sort of that loftier unattainable celebrity-endorsed kind of content.

Melinda: Right.

Janice: Taking it down a notch to just like pure imagery and creative development, I think where Millennials really loved those beautifully staged images, very carefully curated, I think the Gen Z culture is not interested in that. They’re looking at things that are a little more unfiltered and have a more casual, natural approach. Forget those perfectly poured lattes or those Instagrammable backdrops. I think it’s something that’s a little bit more natural and raw, more original and more real that will go with this audience. And so as designers, we need to adapt to creating more fluid and unrestricted design approaches and applications.

Melinda: When we’re thinking about social media, obviously, that’s key for any brand trying to reach this group, but Facebook is not relevant, even Instagram is less interesting to this generation. How do they engage with social media and how can designers adapt their work to make it more social ready?

Janice: I think the idea here is brevity or abbreviation or culling down and editing. With the short attention span of the Gen Z, we need to create content that has immediate impact, and that’s why I think GIFs and memes really resonate with this audience. So, bringing it down to something that is more impactful and creates a quicker reaction because of that attention span is how we’re going to really reach that audience.

Melinda: In spite of being more conservative in some ways, Gen Z are even more oriented towards social justice than Millennials, and their biggest concern is climate change. So, what do brands need to do to meet their expectations around climate change?

Janice: This is a very important and key priority for marketers. I mean, they need to really be socially responsible. These Gen Z’s are going to opt-in for brands that are more socially responsible over those brands that are not. Again, authenticity in that messaging is critical, it’s key. I think sustainability and recycling will take priority more so than it’s ever before. Again, when we’re talking about printed communications or package design, this group is much more attuned and more focused on supporting brands that are really delivering something that’s socially appropriate and responsible.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. And if you think about some of the people of this generation who have made a big impact, Greta Thunberg is like at the top of the list, she’s probably the first person that would pop into your mind and she’s basically dedicated her entire life to climate change at the age of 16, so it’s easy to see that that will be really, really important.

So, unlike Millennials and more like their Gen X parents, Gen Z are more skeptical or may be indifferent to brands, and it will be harder to win their loyalty. What can designers and brand marketers learn from Gen X that could be applied to Gen Z?

Janice: Both generations have attention spans that are very short. A statistic I read the other day is a Gen Z’s attention span is about 8 seconds and that’s four seconds less than their Millennial counterparts.

Melinda: Wow.

Janice: Yeah. So, I think this idea of first impressions really counting is critical. And the brands and those marketing their brands can either grab that attention in that short space of time or miss, right? And while they’re grabbing the attention, it’s not to hear about why a product is so fantastic or amazing, but how it will benefit them and what kind of experience will the brand bring to that Gen Z audience? So, again, it’s immediate, it’s attention-grabbing, it’s honest, it’s authentic, and visual codes and cues must relay that and own the delivery of that kind of an experience.

Melinda: And I would assume that like Millennials, their trust in traditional marketing is even possibly lower?

Janice: Absolutely. Not interested in it for sure.

Melinda: So, Gen Z is also really ethnically diverse with almost half of North Americans in this demographic being non-Caucasian. What implications do you see this diversity having on brand design?

Janice: I think it’s really important to reach this broad and diverse population through multi-lingual messaging. And wherever you can, use imagery that will appeal to a broader audience while still being targeted, because imagery will have to play a larger role to tell the story, especially when words cannot. So, designers need to think much more visually than they ever have before.

Melinda: If brands, marketers, and designers really want to understand how to reach Gen Z, what would be the 5 big must dos on your list?

Janice: I think at the top would probably be to really promote entrepreneurial values, meaning the brand and business must have a purpose, a genuine purpose. I think the next would be to really focus on selling a true experience, an authentic experience, not sell products. I think the third might be video. Your communications must include dynamic content and video has to be at the top of that list. I think next would be to communicate in a personal and really relatable way using words and imagery that are more authentic, more natural, and less contrived. And I think to round this up, it would be to really engage with consumers. Brands need to really talk to their consumers and offer a true feedback loop. I think our Gen Z is highly attuned to a conversation, a genuine one.

Melinda: And having grown up with Twitter always having existed, they’re used to being able to get that access, direct access?

Janice: Absolutely.

Melinda: Well, great. Thank you so much. I hope that this has enlightened our audience a little bit on Gen Z. Thank you for joining us.

Janice: Thank you.

Melinda: The bottom line is Gen Z is not going to be fooled, not going to be sold, and not going to be pandered too. They’re a tough crowd. If you want a marketing and design mantra for this generation, you might want to use “keep it real, keep it short.” But distilling a strong authentic, meaningful brand position into a single image or a nine-second video is easier said than done. Brands are going to need to bring their A-game and really hone in on what they stand for in that single image, single word, or single second. That’s not asking much, huh? But given that they spend between $44 billion and $143 billion per year, depending on your source, it’s probably worth making the efforts.

Hopefully, my conversation with Janice has been illuminating, and if you have more questions for her, you can reach out to her through our website, which is and just look for the connect button and you’ll find her there. Thanks for listening.