Designers can be quite passionate about their ideas. They can also be blind to those ideas not being the best solution to a client’s problem or for reaching the designated audience of customers or prospects. There is always a danger of designer ego or passion leading ideas astray from the creative brief. That makes it important to teach creative people the skill of professional detachment—separating ego from idea, and keeping the focus on the work, specifically on achieving the desired outcome.
The skill of detaching your own perceptions and biases from design projects and ad campaigns should be taught in every design school. Designers need to be able to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” as needed… which is pretty much on every project.
The Actor Is Not The Character
I think of it as similar to what actors do to play characters that are nothing like their real selves.
First, you study the character as written. In designers’ cases, you learn all you can about the customer/target audience.
Next, the actor must search for the key that will help to find the character’s motivation. For creative people, this means using an account planning insight to discover a customer’s “reason to buy or believe.”
Finally, the actor uses that key to “build out” the portrayal of the character into a believable expression of a real person. Designers develop a strategy that will deliver a persuasive message to move their customer to action.
Sometimes, an actor will be able to use pieces of their own life experiences to relate to the character they play, just a designer may feel a connection to some customer insight or trait. But the actor must always be aware that THEY ARE NOT THE CHARACTER; just as the designer is not the customer. When an actor forgets this separation, s/he can start to seem a bit wigged out (think Ronald Colman in “A Double Life.”) When a designer forgets this, they can lead clients down the wrong, very expensive path to a strategy that is aimed at the wrong people, or will achieve an unintended result.
Designer Biases and Egos
Designers are human beings, just like the people our messages aim to reach. We bring inherent, subconscious biases to our work; training in critical thinking, and tools like design critiques and customer testing, can arrest our impulse to create the ideas WE like, as opposed to ideas better suited to appeal to the designated audience. Designers can become distracted from audience focus by their own preferences and interests, to the point of investing expensive hours in off-target work—and even fighting tooth and nail for misdirected ideas, despite all evidence that they are not right for the brief.
In design school, our design professor assigned us to arbitrary groups, then gave us a campaign challenge in which we competed to “win” the account. Our project was a marketing campaign for Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, NY, with the brief requesting a message to attract new audiences to horse racing.
Three members of my team were ardent horse lovers, raised on children’s books of the era, but we had never been to a racetrack, and were too young to have ever placed a wager. We became focused on what we found most fascinating—the history of the sport, highlighting great races that happened at the track, and famous race horses that ran there. The other group focused on the allure and excitement of placing a bet and cheering your horse home. Guess which campaign was deemed more appealing to new race-goers?
Lesson learned: if it’s about you, you’ve probably targeted it incorrectly.
Dogfooding and False Assumptions
There is an industry term for this kind of misguided marketing effort: dogfooding. The term originated from early computer product testing, when products were developed internally by having company employees test each new iteration (i.e., eating our own dogfood). The term has evolved to mean assuming falsely that the designers of a product are the same as the end user—the people for whom the product is ultimately being sold to. Dogfooding embeds all kinds of inherent biases built on a false consensus. It also encourages designers to ignore or disclaim a need for research, or even deny what research tells them.
Research and account planning can help design teams by setting objectives and guiding us toward the desired outcomes. A clear, precise creative brief can help ad agency creative people pursue ideas that fit the audience, even if those ideas feel “wrong” to the designer. Make sure your agency uses all the tools available to rein in personal biases and enthusiasms, and keep the customer top of mind, always. We are not the customer, but we can learn to walk in their shoes to build successful, on-target campaigns.
Find sample creative briefs in our online Resources/Creative Forms/Templates.