10.04 visual/verbal presentation
Oct 2004 GRC verbal + visual presentation (draft)
Firstly, the departure from user-centred design methodology that stifled a creative design process emphasised a need to investigate the motivations and passions commonly identified amongst graphic designers. I will elaborate this point further through the practice-based project, Dear John. Secondly, I have begun to frame my interest in audience engagement through the role of empathy – emotionally placing ourselves inside the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their eyes – in an attempt to harness the creative and conceptual shifts this allows for designers.
Empathetic thinking is commonly used in cultivating lateral thinking – Asking “what if…?” is an easy but powerful way to get your imagination going, and can be applied to thinking ‘what if I was the audience?’ This playful challenge can often yield practical results, allowing the designer to exercise their creativity whilst seriously considering the audience. I used this approach in one of my classes where students were asked to identify a communication problem and to empathetically consider the people affected by this problem to suggest alternative solutions.
For example, some students chose the problem of the elderly not clearly understanding instructions on taking prescription medicine; others chose road rage as a communication breakdown between people; and some were as simple as finding the toilets in a crowded shopping mall. Here is an example of Anthony’s empathetic thinking (read out).
From what was observed and discussed, this studio exercise prompted students to consider the audience in various effective ways. It highlighted common obstacles of generalisation and assumptions, and allowed these challenges to be discussed at length that provided fertile ground for debate of the skills required as a graphic designer working within the field of Communication. It engaged them creatively, fuelled their sense of play, given them a new perspective to the problem, provided alternative ways in developing ideas and enabled them to consider other audiences who may also be affected, but were indiscernible at the beginning of their research.
Here are some quotes by some for the students – we used an on-line forum in conjunction with this project, enabling discussions to spontaneously take place based on things that puzzled, intrigued or challenged them.
Empathetic thinking seemed effective for students who managed to get under the skin of their audience, as it forced them to consider the audience’s circumstances, their state of mind, health, happiness and social circles – concerns that are often difficult to define but is a practical and beneficial understanding that allows greater aptitude to the lateral creative solution that was required as an outcome.
However, empathetic thinking strategies does have it’s shortfall – it is a creative thinking tool using hypothetical scenarios based on knowledge and familiarity we already have of the people we are empathetically considering, making the task harder for those we don’t know much about.
In my last presentation, the discussion followed was sidetracked by attempts in defining Communication Design, which I would like to clarify as NOT the intention of my research topic.
Graphic Design, which evolved from Graphic Arts often taught in fine arts schools, has historically emphasised form-making, artistically exploring creativity via an artefact. However, I am interested in exploring the contemporary shift to frame Graphic design practice within the field of Communication and how this shift prioritises the relationship between designer and audience, to enable them to design communication strategies to engage the audience and meet the communication objective.
There has been tension in the past where I was eager to criticise graphic designers’ attachment to the artefact of beautifying and styling to make things look really really really good looking with little content or consideration to communication, and this was perceived to be judgemental of what form is.
It is widely understood that graphic designers value the crafting of form an artistic exploration of creating conceptual or aesthetic beauty. There has been tension in the past where I was eager to criticise form as merely beautification and styling with little content or consideration to communication, and this was perceived to be judgemental of graphic designers’ attachment to form.
Dear John project had brought this issue to the fore. Form, in this project, was t-shirts, animations, stencils, badges all housed by a website, and was pivotal in seducing the 18-28 year old age group in interacting and engaging with the messages. From observation, the designers’ empathy for their audience was based on a thorough understanding of how the audience will interact with form, how engaging, playful and seductive it could be and this consideration of the audience permeated the communication strategy as well as the creation of form itself. We had an understanding of how this networked community keep in touch with one another and we utilised the activity of forwarding funny jokes and picture e-mails as a strategy to reach as many people. Form in this sense had fulfilled the communication objective by being a seductive, aesthetically beautiful artefact to initially seduce the audience, and further facilitated the communication by the humorous content to entice them to share the fun with their friends. This is reflected in some of the popular items on the website, which deployed humour and wit to create messages that parodied the person writing a Dear John break-up letter. The tone and use of language, certain factual specificity and visual style gelled together in creating a space to tell a story which resonated with people in different ways. (Pole dancing patriot, Kids letter). Added to this was the diversity of artefacts we designed, reinforcing the diversity of voices that will speak to different people in different ways. (Howard is naughty, SMS)
In June 2004, I attended a Sustainability workshop conducted by Doug McKenzie-Mohr, an Environmental Psychologist. The workshop highlighted common obstacles shared by the attendees – NGOs, Local Governments, Community groups, water, forestry industry representatives – their messages were not getting through to their intended audiences. Their anguish seemed far more pronounced as their messages on energy, waste, global warming etc, required urgent attention to curb the degeneration of the environment, locally and globally.
One example he illustrated was a series of TV advertisements, posters and flyers distributed nationally across Canada. The campaign cost the Canadian government $200 million dollars to fund, involving months of planning, resulting in a professional piece of communication that used humour to make the message about energy conservation accessible to their audience. The communication deployed was clear and made sense as we watched the replay of the advert. However further surveys post the campaign launch revealed that, despite the massive expenditures, these campaigns had little or no effect on energy use. The statistics were horrifying and alarming. Similar examples were also shown with the same devastating results, sharing the same problem of how the communication strategy in changing the behaviours of the audience was failing.
This had specific resonance to my topic as I continue to explore the role of a Communication Designer. Re-examining the unsuccessful ad campaign, the design of the artefact used had little to be critiqued in it’s messaging. Where it had failed, was the way the strategy was designed – long before the brief landed in the graphic designer’s inbox.
Furthermore, McKenzie-Mohr also says, “Information campaigns proliferate because it is relatively easy to distribute printed materials or air radio or television advertising. Advertising, however, is often an extremely expensive way of reaching people. In one distressing case, a California utility spent more money on advertising the benefits of installing insulation in low-income housing than it would have cost to upgrade the insulation in the targeted houses. The failure of mass media campaigns to foster sustainable behaviour is due in part to the poor design of the messages, but more importantly to an underestimation of the difficulty of changing behaviour.”
He criticises the ’simplistic’ way human behaviours are considered, quoting a study conducted by the United States National Research Council, that this view of human behaviour overlooks “. . . the rich mixture of cultural practices, social interactions, and human feelings that influence the behaviour of individuals, social groups, and institutions.”
This critique echoes the tension I experienced with Defeat Howard an organisation with a similar objective to Dear John, were applying a conventional strategy to communicate to its audience by presenting facts about Howard’s policy leading to innocent lives being lost. We had an opportunity to work together as they required assistance in producing adverts in local papers in marginal seat areas. Our suggestion was to use similar strategies as Dear John; written in first person to communicate specific humanitarian reasons why Howard shouldnt be re-elected, but also make sure the ads do not look immediately like a political announcement. We argued that the intimate, first person story will stand out from the didactic, polemical language of political party announcements, and would work for those fatigued by rhetoric or overcome by cynicism. We emphasised that it should not be about facts that simply draw parties into denials and counter attacks, but should instead play on the voters moral responsibility to make the humane decision. Conflict arose within Defeat Howard to the strategy we proposed – some constituents strongly disagreed with our approach complaining that the strategy was only appropriate for our target audience. However, we believed that our strategy would work for any audiences as long as the form was designed appropriately and communicated specifically towards their audience, and for this reason, we proposed their advert to be written in a serious tone, referring to specific issues and to look as if a middle-class female hand wrote it, possibly a former Liberal supporter.
Defeat Howard insisted that they had a thorough understanding of their audience and a clear communication objective. However, from observation, their strategy did not accommodate ways in engaging and initiating response from their audience, assuming that the factual information will be enough for this to happen. This conviction possibly stems from a certainty that the strategy works for them the committed and politically active community of people involved in Defeat Howard. It also highlighted their shortfall of not allowing the head-space to consider the kind of voters they were aiming to communicate to who were undecided and less-opinionated.
From observation, Defeat Howard were intent on talking AT their audience, overwhelming them with facts to ensure they will listen and remember, assuming that the importance and seriousness of their messages will make the audience take note. Extreme leftist organisations and activist groups also suffer this shortfall in their messaging. This attitude of talking AT people is poor communication; we often switch off to people who talk AT us. Yelling and shouting belong to this category bold, uppercase, underlined and obliqued). It is argued that being invited to talk, to be involved in an exchange of dialogue and the shared language understandable to both parties, is a more effective attitude to communication. This observation adds further agency for a communication designer to understand this basic level of communication and utilise this within their strategy and designing of the form. The mobile tee attributes its success to the hand-drawn illustration that had nave and child-like line quality, drawing in the viewer closer to the design itself to engage a personal and intimate discourse.
In contrast, Defeat Howard utilised a strategy of reading information intensive documents on their website and had received a thousand hits on their homepage whilst being live for over a month. In comparison, Dear John had received over 4,000 visitors with 150,000 hits to the site in a matter of 2 weeks of going live, indicating most visitors were also downloading or forwarding the items available on the site and actively spreading the messages through the networked community.
I found these statistics very rewarding but also expected. Lisa, astonished by this blaze comment argued that Defeat Howard, a group of committed politically informed activists with years of inside experience would seem to have advantage over us on paper. My confidence in Dear John was based on the inherent faith of the skills we already possessed as Communication Designers to gain an understanding and knowledge of how to persuade and engage with the audience and to work out the issues to communicate to them, and was not hinging on how politically informed we were. Added to this is the utility and function of form which were designed to speak to the audiences in different ways.
What am I going to do?
I have begun considering the options of what I will be working towards by thinking about the audience I would like to communicate to and using empathetic thinking as part of the design process to create a piece of communication design that makes it accessible to different audience groups. This proposal is in part the recognition and shift I have made since I have embarked on the exploration of the topic that process and form are both crucial agents to effectively consider and communicate to the audience. It is intended to bring together two polarised discourses of design; one based on the design process emphasised by user-centred design, and the other which is form-making emphasised by graphic designers. I believe that the projects that I have undertaken provide rich materials and sources of learning, and therefore seems a logical step to now consider how I could communicate what I have already learnt or discovered. I have identified one of the audiences as the academic practitioners in Communication Design so that the case studies and findings become a valuable and stimulating resource in curriculum development and teaching practice. Another community are the design practitioners who are working under realistic constraints of clients, and how the case studies will become a practical tool to utilise and be inspired from. The third community are communication design students. I intend to approach this by writing up each project I have undertaken as case studies and design how and what I would communicate to the different communities.