Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Manifesting vision

In addition to the exploratory role of future artifacts frequently described here -- adding experiential dimensions to our map of alternative futures -- they can also be applied in a more targeted way, to persuade an audience of the credibility and desirability (or otherwise) of a particular vision, within a company for example. Not a huge conceptual leap, of course, but this post is about an example of precisely such an application.

The story comes from graphic designer Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram and author of Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design, and was recounted by Ryan Freitas (formerly at Adaptive Path, now with Plinky), at his blog second verse back in April 02006:

Having been charged with naming and creating the identity for United Airlines' low cost operator ("LCO" in industry jargon), Pentagram created a presentation that walked the client through their creative process and arrived at their recommendations on the name and brand direction. The deck was intended to get "everyone nodding at the same time," according to Michael, and included something I thought was brilliant:

They actually mocked up FAKE articles from the WSJ and put them in the deck. The first was a reminder of just how late United was entering into the market against established LCOs like Southwest and Song. The second was after they'd presented their recommendation - an article lauding United for it's [sic] bravery in pursuing a compelling and unique identity in the LCO space.

Those articles were almost as compelling as the direction itself, and I’m certain they had quite a bit to do with how well the idea sold within the organization.

Not long thereafter, in an email conversation with Adaptive Path president Peter Merholz, Bierut elaborated on the mockup strategy:

Being able to make vivid counterfeits is one of the joys of being a graphic designer, and one that we don’t take enough pleasure in. One of my partners in London once mocked up a whole issue of Fortune to help a client see his business differently.
I never talk about "educating the client." I hate that phrase. Almost always it's the designers who need the education, not the client, not the audience. Yet designers and clients both tend to recede into their areas of expertise, and it takes work for us to wrench each other out of it. Making prototypes that help people imagine the effects that design decisions will have in the real world can be a very potent tool. Those fake Wall Street Journal articles were supposed to do exactly that: remind a client who had spent six months showing themselves Powerpoint presentations that there was a real world out there filled with people who didn’t share their fascination with their business strategy or, actually, care at all whether they succeeded at all. It's a good reality check, and it helps to shift the design work from an internal exercise that’s done for management approval, to work that’s done because you’re seeking results with real people in the real world.

Apart from a slight distaste for the phrase "the real world" (probably my own sensitivity owing to hanging around universities, a category of institution widely thought to be entirely unrelated to said reality), I think this point is marvellous and bears repeating: Making prototypes that help people imagine the effects that design decisions will have in the real world can be a very potent tool.

Yes indeed. I'd be interested to hear from anyone with similar experiences to share.

A parting thought: curious how it takes a "fake" artifact to bring the "real" back into view.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Findability features FoundFutures
> Reality prototyping

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