I came across a lovely quote from Eliel Saarinen (apparently a famous Finnish architect) this morning. He was quoted by Russell Davies in an article about Rural Computing.
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
I really like this idea as a way of thinking about what we do.
I think context is interesting for us in two ways. Context should play a much more important role in how we understand consumer behaviour and the relationship people have with the things we advertise. And context should also play a much bigger role when we plan the how the work we produce is most effectively experienced.
I’ve never been able to articulate it very well, but I think everyone who works in the industry is conscious of the artificial, at-least-one-step-removed nature of what we do and how we do it. We often talk with a degree of self-awareness about the artificial nature of advertising agencies, and we know that as a sub-species we advertising people are very different (rather privileged, certainly sheltered) from the world-at-large, the audience for whom we are working.
We also often note that how we learn about the things we advertise is a bit contrived, as opposed to the way that ‘real’ people relate to them. We might use a new soap, eat a new bread or drive a new car with the genuine intention of learning about it so that we can better promote it, but by necessity we do it in a slightly artificial way, actively learning about it, rather than passively experiencing it. (I don’t say this as a criticism, because by definition our experience is different.)
I think we also see the same with research, where we conduct focus groups with the genuine goal of learning more about people, but in a very artificial way. We most often put people in a sterile, neutral environment and ask them to talk and explain, rather than observing ‘real’ behaviour in its genuine context. It’s like animals in zoos, or golfers in driving ranges – it approximates reality, but it just can never be the same and is therefore not as illuminating.
I think this is a real limitation because nothing is experienced devoid of context – the room makes a big difference to the chair, just as the road makes a big difference to the car.
Then there’s the context that media delivers to an execution that I think we need to place much more focus on. (I’ve written about this before.) And I really like the analogy with a room in a house as a way of thinking about it.
You can design a room in isolation. You can have a very specific brief for a living area – natural light, hardy surfaces for kids to crash into, muted colours for relaxation, ample wall space to display art etc. And you can do a great job of meeting this brief without giving any thought to the remainder of the house. But at some point you have to open the door and let the room function as part of a greater whole. And while the room might still function really well, it may be that when the rest of the house is considered you find it could be improved slightly to work more cohesively with the whole – more aesthetically consistent, easier flow from room to room. It might only be 10% better, but that will still be 10% improvement based on thinking about the room in its bigger context.
And that’s exactly what I think we miss when we separate creative and media thinking. We’re effectively designing rooms and then looking for houses to put them in.
This certainly doesn’t mean we get bad ads. We just get ads that potentially aren’t 10% more effective. Which when you’re dealing with the fine line that separates OK from truly effective, is actually a big margin and a huge sacrifice.