The thinking behind what we do

Understanding What Makes People Tick

I recently listened to a Radio Lab podcast on the way we perceive colours. It featured the feisty mantis shrimp, which is blessed with the most complex visual system of all species on the planet. Its 16 colour cone receptors easily top our paltry three, and it has eight times more receptors than a dog—which only sees in hues of blue and yellow, and not red. The mantis shrimp perceives colours beyond the visual spectrum of all other animals.

Like the mantis shrimp, humans have unique receptors. We filter the world not just through our senses but also via our beliefs, attitudes, values, memories and experiences, gender, culture and countless other factors. This filtering occurs in a split second; what we’re left with is our ‘own reality‘, our unique view of the world. In other words, a representation of an event is not the event; it’s our filtered version of it. We then make our ‘representations‘, or simply have ‘thoughts’–either remembered or constructed–and these can be visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, gustatory, or auditory digital. Most people use the word ‘thinking’ to mean internal dialogue, but you can actually think using any of the above six modalities. This whole process takes place outside our conscious awareness, automatically, moment by moment, for our entire life.

As designers, we must recognise that humans hold many values and recollected experiences.

Not so long ago, we pitched an idea for a campaign to a client. The main image was that of a horse and, in hindsight, not such a great idea. The tag line, ‘If you wanna ride’, was based on a cheesy 1980s song, White Horse. (The song was originally rumoured to be about cocaine use, and we were a little worried that the client might have trouble with the drug reference.) It was a comic campaign in the vein of the amusing horse photography work by Julian Wolkenstein. The client rejected the idea outright, not because of the drug reference or because it was simply terrible, but because they had had a bad experience with a horse as a child. The campaign idea was left dead in the water.

So how does one person’s emotional response about a horse differ from another’s? It’s complex.

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we consist of two selves: the experiencing-self and the remembering-self. The experiencing-self is considered ‘the present’; it’s made up of psychological experiences of about three seconds: we might smell, see or hear something. The remembering-self is the storyteller and directs us to our memories of those experiences. The challenge of a good campaign or brand is to influence an audience’s experiences and memories and move them to action, whether it’s to buy a pair of shoes or attend an exhibition. We need to trigger an emotion and we can only know how to do that by understanding the audience.

We used this type of thinking in our erectile dysfunction campaign, where we used sharp but nostalgic imagery and iconography from the audience’s halcyon days. Most other campaigns from the competition were patronising and old-fashioned. Imagine this: man sitting on park bench in the sun, golden retriever at his feet, staring into the distance, his wife’s hand in his. This could be a description of an ad for P&O cruises, superannuation or health insurance. The message? You are old and should be grateful for what you’ve got.

View the Hard Facts Case Study

Our competitors had forgotten that people are living longer. Baby boomers are revving up rather than slowing down. Their interests, ambitions and passions excite them just as they do everyone else. They are healthier and they simply don’t look, act or feel old. In fact, the term ‘old’ is dead. Design can awaken and activate new ways of perceiving, but to be successful it must permeate the senses. The designer’s role is to translate our emotional memories into the patterns of the everyday. The most effective design is a form of psychology for the masses: it finds a way to affect particular internal representations and, in turn, generates desired behaviours.

Related content

AMS: Leading an unmotivated and complex consumer to a life-changing product

suzanne boccalatte