The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


Conversational Icebergs …

One of the things I am continually amazed at, is how few people know how to listen.

By that I don’t mean they’re not hearing the conversation, they’re just taking it all on face value.

The older I get, the more I have realised professional conversations are like icebergs.

What’s actually being said is often under the surface … clues, hints, admissions.

As someone once told me, people speak in words that are often designed to protect themselves rather than reveal themselves – and yet, if you listen really carefully – you can sense what is trying to be said … what they want you to really ask.

Police interrogators get this more than anyone.

Their ability to listen – and read visual cues – is what helps them solve their cases … whether that’s people who don’t want to be committed of a crime or people who are finding it hard to admit a crime has happened.

Subtext is everywhere.

It’s part of the reason I loved living and working in China, because everything had meaning.

To be quite honest, the easiest way to separate the people who appreciated Chinese culture and those who pretended to was to test their ability to read the invisible conversation that was going on during the conversation.

That or if they continually mentioned Confucius.

The ability to listen – and visually focus – is an incredible skill.

It lets you ask better questions.

It lets you discuss subject matters others may be finding hard to open up about.

It lets you judge situations through the context of the other parties body language.

It’s something rarely talked about in planning when – in many ways – it is the embodiment of planning, however it is also very easy to get trapped into.

Where you think nothing said is the truth.

Because if you think that way you’re doubley doomed – not just because there’s no way you can understand what someone is trying to communicate if you don’t listen to what they’re saying, but because the temptation would be to invent the subtext you want it to be and then you’re going to be in an even worse position than if you just took everything on face value.

As author Margaret Millar once said, “Don’t be one of those people who get so obsessed with what is being said between the lines that you don’t read the lines”.

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Microsoft Are Microgood …

Microsoft used to be the joke of technology.

Or maybe the ‘beige of technology’ is a better description.

Creating products for mainstream mediocrity.

To be fair, that perception was driven more because of their marketing than their technology … but it’s fair to say they were certainly lacking that slick sheen that turned other tech companies into Rock Stars.

But a change has been happening in Seattle over the past few years.

OK, less on the marketing side and more on the tech … but a change all the same.

Where other companies are trying to hype up small degrees of change, Microsoft have been trying to push a genuine innovation agenda. But not innovation just for the sake of innovation, but stuff that has a real purpose as demonstrated by their new controller for X-Box.

Now you may argue making a controller that helps those suffering from physical difficulties is a small market, but on a global scale I would imagine it adds up – especially when there is no real viable alternative out there. [Or one that I know of]

But that’s not the point here … it’s that they did it.

Even more than that, they did it with real understanding of the audience they’re catering to.

They spent time and money on producing a product that offers a genuine solution to people often ignored.

[You can see how this affected their process by going here]

For all the talk tech companies give about wanting to ‘help humanity move forward’, few do.

Or should I say, few do if it requires doing something that has a more ‘niche’ appeal.

Yes, I know some are doing stuff that we don’t know about, but to make a physical product specifically for this audience is a big deal … especially in this commercially obsessed World.

So well done Microsoft, this is brilliant.

Brilliant for millions of people who want to play but have been ignored.

Brilliant for showing the power of design to solve problems … again.

Brilliant at showing you use technology to evolve humans rather than devolve them.

Brilliant at being more innovative than your competitors.

Brilliant at making me feel more towards you than I have in years.

As I’ve said for years, products have done more to grow brand value than advertising.

Don’t get me wrong, advertising is hugely powerful and important, but it all starts from doing something good, not something average.

That used to be obvious. Sadly, I don’t think it is anymore.



It’s Called Artificial For A Reason …

So this is sort-of following on from yesterdays post.

Specifically the last line of yesterday’s post.

The bit about AI/VR.

You see a few weeks ago, I was invited to speak on a panel about the future by Frog Design.

No, I don’t know why they asked me either.

Anyway, it was a great panel and I learnt a lot of stuff but where things got a bit sticky was when the subject of AI came up.

OK, I was the reason it all got a bit sticky, but that’s because I feel companies are approaching AI with the sole goal of enabling the lazy.

Yes, it’s still early days but automating the most common/basic of tasks feels such a waste of potential.

I get they have to get people used to things before they can push them to new things, but to focus on such mundane tasks doesn’t naturally push the industry to explore the bigger possibilities of it.

My suggestion was that I’d like to see it being used to take people to new places.

New opinions … thoughts … possibilities … experiences.

More inspirational intelligence than artificial.

When you ask for news headlines, it reads you how different news sources see the same story.

When you ask for a countdown, it plays you music you haven’t heard before until the timer is up.

When you ask for the weather, it tells you some places you can go to, to take advantage of the climate.

In other words, make you benefit from the AI beyond the fact it’s performing a function that saves you approx 0.3 seconds doing. Kind-of like the premise behind user-unfriendly tech I wrote about a while back.

Of course to do this means that they have to do more than just follow the data.

It means they have to add something to it.

Context. Insight. Humanity. Creativity.

Things that companies are seemingly valuing less rather than more.

To be fair, Amazon are trying to do this with some of the more quirky aspects of Alexa … but I still would like to see more being done, because not only does this add real value to the tech, it means brands have a chance to build additional value with their audience rather than sit back and watch their engagement get less and less.



Photographic Planning: A Picture Tells A Thousand Presentations …

One of the best things about moving to America was that we were able to bring most of the stuff we had in storage around the World back to one place for the first time in over 15 years.

While opening boxes upon boxes of DVD documentaries was a bit heartbreaking given they are now all available online for free, there was some delight and one of those was getting my hands back on this …

Sign of the Times is a brilliant book by photographer Martin Parr.

Martin Parr is one of Britain’s most significant photographers, best known for his sharp eye and cheeky sense of humour.

Over his 30+ career, he has focused on capturing ordinary people doing ordinary things and because of this, he has become known as a social commentator and recorder of Britain’s finely nuanced class system.

In the 90’s, the BBC aired a documentary called Signs of the Times.

In some respects it was an early version of reality television … a fly-on-the-wall documentary that aimed to document the personal tastes of people in their British homes.

50 people were chosen from 2000 applicants with a real focus on capturing a diverse range of ages, races, genders and social backgrounds.

Anyway, from that show came the book and anyone who grew up in the 90’s in the UK who sees it will resonate with so much of it.

Not just in terms of the aesthetic, but the energy, values and priorities of the times.

I’ve long been fascinated with this approach – we even did a similar type of project at Wieden in Shanghai – because for me, it not only helps communicate who we’re talking to in ways others can truly connect to but – because of the contextual lens – it provides additional insight into how the audience lives and what they value.

It’s why it was so important for me to make a coffee table book of photographs from our recent America In The Raw study, because while some probably saw it as an indulgence – especially given you needed to see the accompanying presentation to truly understand what we found and what we think brands can/should do – my view is that without it, you can’t truly connect to the stories that shaped our thinking and then all we’ll end up with is a deck rather than the influence for change.



Strategy Is Knowing What Not To Do …

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, when I was in NY, I was invited to speak at design gods … Pentagram.

Whenever I’m asked to speak at something, the first thing I think is ‘why?’

The second thing I think about is ‘what right have I got to talk about this subject?’

And the final thing is ‘what am I going to talk about’.

In the case of Pentagram, I didn’t know what I could say that would be of any interest of them.

Then I remembered the only reason they asked me to come is because of my relationship to a certain, famous rock band so instead of doing a deck – where, let’s be honest, they would be judging the design of each slide rather than listening to what I said – I bought 12 iconic albums on vinyl [they’re the ones in the picture above] and talked about the relationship they had with the music and the fans of the music under the heading, ‘Design is not decoration’.

Now I have no idea if they actually learnt anything from my talk, but it certainly created a bunch of conversation and debate and for me, that’s a big win.

Actually, getting out alive was the big win, but seeing some of the most talented design people in the World talk about the relationship between music, design and fans was something I’d pay for just to witness.

Which is why one of the best lessons I learned about strategy is less about what you are going to do and more about what you’re going to sacrifice.



A Picture Tells A Thousand Data Points …

One of the things I love is hearing anecdotes of how people got companies to do things they initially didn’t want to do.

It is particularly of interest to me when those anecdotes are based around creative approaches to achieving their goal.

Recently I heard one that I think is of particular brilliance.

While the move towards electric cars is inevitable, the reality is that unless manufacturers make their cars highly desirable – in terms of appearance, function and excitement – it’s going to be a slow sell.

Let’s face it, Tesla’s success has little to do with how they’re powered and more to do with the fact it borrows from the sort of ‘future tech’ we were sold in cartoons as little kids.

Silent? Check.

Gull wing doors? Check.

Central computer screen? Check.

Self driving abilities? Check.

Hyper-speed button? Check … even though they call it ‘insane’.

But as cool as this all is – and it is – the reality is it comes at a price that most car manufacturers can’t get away with, so they have to try and find ways to offer desirability but at a lower unit price.

Which leads to this story I heard recently …

Because of the batteries needed to power the new generation of electric cars, the reality is most cars will be designed to be slightly taller to accommodate them. In turn, what this means is that to stop the cars looking slightly weird, they require bigger wheels – which adds a huge cost to the manufacturing process.

So the story I heard is that the designer of one of these cars was being told by his board that they would not sanction the bigger wheels as the price was too high.

He tried all manner of ways to get them to change their mind, but they felt it was a purely aesthetic issue and one they could live with.

So as a final act of desperation, he decided to do a presentation to the board about the importance of perspective.

In his presentation, he showed 2 pictures.

This …

And this …

The top he said would be how their car would look with the smaller, cheaper wheels.

The bottom would be how their car would look with the bigger, more expensive wheels.

Or said another way, one would look weird, one would look normal.

Apparently the board smiled.

Then approved his recommendation.

The reason I’m saying this is that we live in times where there appears – at least to me – an over-reliance on data to explain/decide/justify everything.

Of course data is important, but unless you do something with it that your audience can relate to, it’s pointless. And that’s why I love the above story so much because what the electric car designer did, was remind us how visual storytelling can influence or frame an argument in in ways data alone can’t always achieve.

Worth remembering next time you are writing a deck and filling it with a 100 pages of data explanation.



Why Am I The Bald, Beardy, 4-Eyes That All Other Bald, Beardy, 4-Eyes Are Measured By …
October 23, 2017, 6:15 am
Filed under: Attitude & Aptitude, Audio Visual, Comment

I was recently tagged on instagram by someone called ‘leatherslife’.

For the record, I don’t know this person and – as far as I know – have never met this person and yet they seem to have a level of insight on me that is both impressive and frightening.

[I’m ignoring the fact it also means I’m utterly predictable]

Anyway, this is what they said …

Yep, poor John Boiler – ex-W+K ECD extroidinaire, founder of 72&Sunny and my office neighbour – was [initially] mistaken for me simply because he is a bald, beardy and 4-eye.

Imagine having an amazing career, doing incredible work and starting a phenomenal company and being mistaken for a birkenstock-wearing Brit … well, mistaken until I open my mouth, show my work or reveal my footwear.

Terrible for him, brilliant for me.

Thank you leatherslife.