"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Thursday, March 13, 2008,10:25 PM
Lessons From Sao Paulo's Streets
How vandals, savers, cyclists and salarymen are informing the design process
March 10, 2008

-By Paul Bennett

You've all heard about what happened in Sao Paulo right? That's where the mayor ordered all the billboards removed, saying they were "polluting" his city. What's left is an eerie ghost town with empty skeletal frames all over the place. But the interesting part is the city itself is filling the void.

A colleague of mine told me about the graffiti -- almost a human height-size layer that covers every surface with messages, images and symbols. There's even a guy who does these cool art installations in the sewers, adding a new dimension to the notion of "underground art." She described it as "Everyone talking, everywhere."

S?o Paulo got me thinking. The word "pollution" is a pretty loaded term, but one we've also had thrown at our industry. What have we, as designers of stuff and experiences, learned that potentially has meaning and lessons for designers of messages and communications? Can we apply what's happening in places like Sao Paulo, where people are taking matters into their own hands, and see how we can use that as inspiration for our own design process? I think so. There are three core ideas that might have resonance as this debate increases:

1. Let 'em in. Something that has always inspired our work as designers is people, and the idea that they are not passive consumers of design, but active designers of their own world, creating their own work-around solutions to, well, pretty much everything. We don't just view this as "research," we view it as the fundamental fuel and inspiration for all aspects of our design process. Again and again, we see people doing something interesting and personal to them, and therein lies the kernel of a big idea.

Recently, when we saw people "rounding up" their monthly bills and paying the nearest higher dollar amount, we saw an opportunity to help them save money without extra hassle, and from this was born Bank of America's highly successful "Keep the change" service. Acknowledging people's intrinsic creative capacity and desire to participate at all levels is tough to do, but very rewarding. You're not less of a designer because a "real person's" idea gave you the leg up, you're a better one. People want to recognize themselves in brands today anyway, so as designers we need to let them make it their own and personalize it.

2. Dialogue is the new monologue. "Co-creation" is a very overused term right now, but bringing consumers into the generative cycle of a project really is worth it. Let them create experiences that they can share, tell each other what works and what doesn't, get involved in how to make it, talk about it, fix it and, ultimately, be the real stewards for your brand. "Selling" is over. "Telling" is so last year. It's all about asking. And listening. And acting on it.

When we were asked to create a new cycling category for Shimano, the first thing we did was ask people who don't traditionally ride bikes what kind of experiences they were missing (I know this, as I was one of them.) What was missing was a simple, almost nostalgic sense of the bikes you had as a kid, the ones where you closed your eyes and imagined you were flying, liberated from the technical hysteria (and all that Lycra) that perpetuates the rest of the category. And so was born coasting, a new industry category populated by simple, elegant bikes, community Web sites and grass-roots suggestions for finding safe places to ride. It's been a big success: Ellen DeGeneres gave away 300 coasting bikes on her show, to much audience excitement.

3. Create the theater, not the play. This is the tough one. It's all about letting go and relinquishing control. People are taking control anyway and talking about you behind your back, so you might as well acknowledge it and make it a positive. Host the conversation, good and bad, don't try to "moderate" it. Instead, use it as a feedback loop, one that you can listen to and learn from where to go next. Designers love this kind of feedback. We find ourselves again and again in the position to influence or even create how a product is marketed and communicated to the outside world as honestly and authentically as possible.

The best example I've seen of this in years is by Japanese mega-agency Hakuhodo, whose "Cool biz" campaign encouraged Japanese salarymen to take off their ties to assist in bringing the Kyoto Protocol to life and help stop global warming. (Simple theory: Take off your tie, be cooler -- both literally and metaphorically. Raise the air-conditioning temperature in the office, save the emissions.) Brilliant. Theater, not play.

So back to Sao Paulo and the whole "pollution" debate. What have we learned from all of this? We've learned that as designers of stuff and experiences, we're on a journey as an industry -- a journey that has forced us to fundamentally reframe our role. As designers, we've learned that by involving people in our process, we have enriched our craft and engaged the inherent desire of people to design their own worlds. We were also first to understand that we ourselves were guilty of creating the problem of too much meaningless stuff. This realization is forcing us to move past the thing itself to focus on the things we help people do for themselves. Simply stated, we want the stuff we design to mean more to people. It's good for us, and it's good for people.

Ultimately, our work, our industry and, most importantly, we personally will benefit. In fact, we already have.

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