Red pill, Blue pill or a Babelfish?

Morpheus > “Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo > “The Matrix?
Morpheus > “Do you want to know what it is?
Neo > nods
Morpheus > “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to Church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been put over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo > “What truth?
Morpheus > “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell, or taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
Morpheus > “This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back.
Morpheus > “You take the blue pill….the story ends, you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to.
Morpheus > “You take the red pill….you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Anyone over the age of about 26 will immediately recognise this as the memorable scene from The Matrix. Anyone under 26 will probably refer to this film as ‘retro’.

So why on earth have I started this blog post with an old film script?

In deciding what to write about, I have been considering a number of topics, but one particular subject that resonated most as a subject for discussion, was the infernal battle between designer and client. I say battle in the nicest possible way. I’m talking about the wall of misunderstanding, the metaphorical ‘behind the desk’ entanglement of cables, the push-me pull-you of Dr. Doolittle if you will.

I’ll use another anecdote to preface my ramblings…

Many years ago, Square Banana was invited to work on a great new project for a large energy company. It was to help them define, design and develop a product that monitored both gas and electricity for domestic consumers, and at the time, there was very little to benchmark such a thing. At the initial project meeting, there were the usual suspects from the client side, all comfortably surrounded by their powerpoint slides, line management, gantt charts and ‘targets’. All very lovely people. But all completely clueless about this rather superfluous and fluffy world of ‘design’ (cue exaggerated air finger action). I had been introduced as someone who knew how to ‘manufacture the idea’ – not a designer of any sort, and notwithstanding the fact that nothing currently existed in any shape or form on which to comment or advise. I won’t bore you with the details, but one such chap, over the course of the subsequent months and as the project progressed, took a keener and keener interest in what we were doing and how we were helping the team ‘create’ someTHING.

In one such project meeting, I happened to joke – when he had taken the mickey yet again about ‘you designer types’ – that with all the work we had completed on supermarket type products, it took me hours to get around the supermarket, what with my tendency to pick up and play with products to see how they worked, how they felt, how they were made, how they were assembled, what materials they had used etc. etc.

The pedantic nature of a product designer and the obsession with every aspect of an object, no matter how tiny.

A week later he returned to the project meeting, made an energetic bee line for me and promptly started to reveal how he had been to the supermarket and had suddenly become obsessed with the finer details of everything he put in his trolley. He had annoyed the hell out of his wife, turned everything upside down, bought things he’d never before considered and generally been a bit of pain. By his own admission he had gone from a man whose mind had never before given a second thought to the reasoning behind everyday objects, to a man possessed. He had become a mini-evangelist for product design overnight. The veil of – as he put it – his ‘so-called’ ignorance had been lifted from his eyes and he saw the multi-faceted world of design in an almighty enlightenment explosion.

But what struck me the most from this, was not the delight in seeing someone finally appreciate the finer nuances and wider impact of the discipline I hold dear, but that he had managed to exist up to that point in his life with literally no consideration of any of this at all. Nothing. He said words like ‘design’ when describing his new phone, but he really meant ‘colour’ or ‘shape’ or ‘shiny thing’. His understanding of what made something exist was binary. It was management, spreadsheets, factories in China and retail outlets. It had not been my intention, but by making him aware of the stuff that he had never before noticed, it literally made him see the world in a completely different way.

Like Neo, he had taken the red pill. He was tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Unfortunately he was useless at dodging bullets in slo-mo, but I’ll forgive him that. And to be honest I wasn’t sure if I’d done him a disservice or not. He never really seemed happy in his role ever again!

This particular incident (if you can call it that), made me realise that whilst it is very easy, as a designer, to lament our lot and curse the client who doesn’t seem to understand the subtleties of our work, realise the beauty of that particular surface or ‘get’ the emotional touchpoints carefully engineered into a product, we should maybe take a walk in their shoes for a moment. From my experience, every designer who is committed to their craft is a bonafide, paid up consumer of those darned red pills. They see the world slightly differently. They spend their life tumbling down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and can see the world ever so slightly differently. This isn’t always a good thing mind you, but it is – from what I can see – a universal truth. Designers don’t become so because it is a stable profession, or because it promises to pay well, or because it will help them become Prime Minister. They become designers because it is the way they are wired. The red pill has monkeyed with their DNA and created a monster. A rather pedantic, obsessive, LEGO loving, calm-ish, pencil wielding monster I’ll grant you, but a monster nonetheless.

So when faced with these monsters, we should maybe sympathise with our clients. Imagine being on their side of the table, attempting to understand the myriad phrases we utter forth, and it all blurring in an incomprehensible sentence of perplexity. We know what we mean, and we are darned sure we’ve explained ourselves fully, but we come from a background of creativity, visuals, spatial awareness and 3D. Many of our clients live in a world where ‘prototypes’ are mere sentences, ‘3D’ is what their new TV does, ‘modelling’ is a rather chilly profession and ‘research’ is Google. And whilst it is easy to mock, I can well see how what we do must seem alien. Magical but alien.

I’ve had countless introductory meetings in the past, where half way through a presentation there is a realisation that both sides are simply talking different languages. We might be using the same words, but these words have different meanings and the inferences and insinuations cause ripples that, if you are not careful to intervene, can become tsunamis of misunderstanding. Sometimes it is easier to admit mutual ignorance and ask ridiculously stupid questions (on both sides) in order to ensure that everyone is absolutely clear about what we are all here to achieve. More often than not, professionals fall into using terminology from their specific industries and are guilty of not actually knowing what it means, or in fact using the term incorrectly – an even greater cause of misunderstanding and confusion. Maybe we should all approach our explanations as if attempting to phrase them with words that a 5 year old would understand. It’s a great leveller and empties the pompous wind from the sails of the egocentric.

So when faced with, what might appear to be a client who just doesn’t ‘get’ design, have a quick think about their world and how it might differ quite tectonically with your own. When you are exasperated by the ongoing budget battles, spare a thought for the guy who has to somehow trust the fact that they are paying out future profit share to a bunch of people promising pretty pictures of things called ‘concepts’, created in a magical world of solid works, in the land of WarDrobe. It’s no wonder they get a bit jittery!

I’m not a particularly religious chap, but maybe the design industry has done a fairly good job of creating its very own little Tower of Babel. Where’s that babelfish when you need it?

I have to admit, I’m just as guilty as the next person of sometimes laying blame upon the ‘other side of the table’ when discussions become complex and stilted, or the project doesn’t quite progress through the design phases that you had hoped for, but if I’m being honest, maybe I haven’t done enough of a job to introduce them to my box of red pills.

Welcome them to Wonderland and get them to ride the rabbit hole with a Babelfish.

And don’t ever say that I talk a load of gibberish 😉

One thought on “Red pill, Blue pill or a Babelfish?

  1. Good post again Russell. Hope you’re well.

    Had a similar issue with a client when telling them we would make a mockup. The expectation from the client was a full blown prototype! It’s making things so clear and idiot (to the non designer) proof it’s not lost in translation.

    Keep the posts coming.


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