Tag Archives: design

Truth, beauty, purpose

noun_82995What makes for compelling communication?

Whether it’s a data visualisation, a written story, or a Hollywood movie, you need to create something of lasting value.

I think that comes down to three things:

  • Truth
  • Beauty
  • Purpose

That sounds unbearably pompous, even as I type it, but should it? Most of us are conditioned not to talk in such grand terms, but it’s by creating work that has, in its own small way, those attributes that we create value for others and find value for ourselves.

Thinking deliberately about all three helps us to make the most impact with everything we do. Let’s look at each in turn…

Truth

Authenticity and trust are essential for your audience to give what you’re saying credence. That means being clear on what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s vision. Do your own actions support what you’re saying? Have you got the right experience to make your case?

Sometimes it means proving your argument, but it always means making sure you’ve tested your case properly. Do you know the margin of error for your data? What was the response rate?

Truth is not the opposite of lying, it’s the opposite of bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit” explains. It takes work.

To be true, a story must be:

  • Honest
  • Credible
  • Built on solid foundations

Beauty

Aesthetics provoke “oohs” and “aahs”, but they’re not simply a case of style over substance. Beauty attracts attention, makes your message memorable, and creates value in its own right.

As John Heskett points out in “Design: A Very Short Introduction“, the idea of form versus function has led us to undervalue the importance of design as a deliberate act of creating meaning for users. Utility (what something does) and significance (what it means to us) are much more helpful concepts, and remind us that value is always embedded in culture.

One of the best ways to make your story memorable is to find a beautiful image, metaphor, or phrase that captures its essence. Bobette Buster, in “Do Story” calls this the “gleaming detail”.

To make your story beautiful:

  • Polish and refine your first draft
  • Remove anything superfluous
  • Encapsulate the truth in a “gleaming detail”

Purpose

Great stories are not just a sequence of events, they have a universal quality that makes them stand for more than themselves; they have purpose. The opposite of purpose is the dreaded “so what?” which you must pre-empt if you want your message to land.

Start by being clear on what you think the central point is. What is the heart of your message? What’s your product for? Boil it down to an elevator pitch or tweetable length, and polish that until you’re totally sure about it. Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in your audience’s shoes.

Be ruthless in removing anything that doesn’t contribute to that central message, however interesting or even insightful it might be, but spend time to explain the “why” as well as “what” of your message by sharing a passionate vision of the future.

To be purposeful:

  • Focus on a clear central message
  • Be clear about the action you want your audience to take
  • Paint a vivid picture of the future you’re striving for

Value

Truth, beauty, and purpose are the attributes which connect the disciplines I am most interested in aside from understanding customers—design and storytelling. Good stories and good designs are those which use all three attributes to add value to the world.

They’re not alone in relying on truth, beauty, and purpose. Anything we create, and I believe nearly all work should be creative, comes down to those three things. That’s why they’re as important for our own sense of value as they are for the recipient.

Everyone in the world of customer research talks about “actionable insight”, and that’s where I think this way of thinking is invaluable. Insight gives you truth, but it can’t do the rest on its own. You need to team insight with storytelling and experience design to drive action.

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Van Halen were design thinking pioneers

noun_106427Van Halen used to insist on a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown sweets removed as part of their rider. It’s a story often used to illustrate what absurd primadonnas they were, usually as a precursor to Dave Lee Roth smashing something up if the request wasn’t complied with.

It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind as an example of design thinking.

According to Dave Lee Roth himself, there was method in their madness. Van Halen’s staging was huge, complex, and unusual. The demand for “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)” appeared towards the end of a multi-page contract specifying the exact technical requirements of their stage show.

It was there as a test.

If the band arrived to discover brown M&Ms, they knew that their contract hadn’t been read properly. What else might have been missed? Were the girders strong enough? Was the floor? If the brown M&Ms were there, then there was a good chance some important, and potentially dangerous, technical errors were too.

It’s a great example of design thinking because it combines an understanding of human psychology (people are too lazy to read the contract) with an innovative solution. It’s simple, pragmatic, and effective.

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Design is calculating

shapesI’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Shape”, by George Stiny.

One of the arguments that Stiny makes is that when we design with shapes we do a kind of “visual calculating”. It’s very different from the kind of calculating that we do with numbers, but it has a validity of its own.

As one of the blurbs on the back says,

“…Stiny’s book shows us that even the simplest shape is both ambiguous and perfectly clear.”

—Jonathan Cagan

This ambiguity means, for example, that I can add a square to a square and end up with four triangles, rotate the triangles and create a square with a cross through it. That kind of visual play is easy to see, hard to explain in words, and impossible to fully describe in numbers.

I think, by analogy, something similar applies to experience design. It is the emotional heart of a customer experience which matters. Great experiences aren’t made by processes or rules (terrible ones often are), they’re a creative act of design that happens when you interact with customers and empathise deeply with what they want.

It’s almost impossible to describe this process in words or numbers, but we know it when we experience it as customers. That doesn’t mean it lacks rigour, just that it’s a different kind of logic than our models are able to capture. As Stiny says, it’s always personal.

“Seeing and saying what I see are always personal. There are no rote results, whether I copy what I see or call this something else—descriptions don’t count. My eyes have only their own way of knowing. That’s a good reason to calculate, and it’s why calculating works in design.”

—George Stiny

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The best design advice

noun_62505While having a bit of a clear-out of my desk at work, I found this snippet I’d saved.

“No one gets it right the first time.”

It’s from a very short answer Dan Saffer gave when asked for the best design advice he’d ever had, and I think it applies to pretty much anything. The advice came from Marc Rettig.

It’s deceptively simply, and dangerously easy to forget.

The things we admire—whether they’re charts, infographics, presentations, photographs, websites, songs—rarely appear fully-formed in the mind of a genius.

What we see is the final version. Maybe it’s version 2, but more likely it’s version 42.

One could argue that professionalism, or craft, is about honing the process of getting from first draft to final product in the fewest possible steps.

The art is learning to enjoy the process as much as the outcome.

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