In 2008, students designed Wikipedia posters as an assignment for an art-direction class taught by Holly Shields at Texas State University. Flickr user mikeedesign explains how the posters were meant to mitigate the perceived unreliability of Wikipedia: “Our concept was to present an everyday person as an ‘expert’ on a specific subject in order to show that whether the information comes from a university professor or from an avid gamer, it is still reliable. […] We felt this approach humanizes the experience of Wikipedia.”
I love these posters. They depict the rabbit-hole glory of exploring obscure entries about a topic you find fascinating. However, your mileage may vary — for instance, my dad dislikes the TSU designs. To him, scribbled thought-trees look like a disorganized tangle of information, not something he would ever want to read.
Much as I personally enjoy them, the posters fail when it comes to People-Optimized Marketing. The text is certainly not readable at a glance. And although the sight may provoke your brain to twitch — “What the heck am I looking at?” — the posters won’t arouse emotion unless you already adore Wikipedia. It would also help to have the models smile. Cancer patients and veterans don’t have to be grim! People in tough circumstances can still feel joyful about their hobbies.
Many marketers don’t consider how normal human beings will interact with their advertisements. This dilemma spans the profession, evident in the work of creative directors, designers, copywriters, account managers, etc. People-Optimized Marketing is a rubric for considering how marketers’ output will perform, based on simple principles.
Effective advertisements make the viewer think, feel, and act. In order for those reactions to be provoked, the visual design must be clear and interesting.
How do good ads make people think?
Curiosity gaps coax viewers into thinking. Ads should give the viewer just enough information to prompt them to finish the story, drawing connections in their own mind. Guide the viewer toward a particular narrative without spelling it out entirely.
How do good ads make people feel?
Emotional responses are simple. For the most part, people care about other people, preferably specific people with faces and personalities. Ads can also use symbols and connotations to evoke particular moods, like this ad that shows buildings about to domino into catastrophe:
How do good ads make people act?
Most ads won’t get the viewer to make a purchase right away. Rather, good ads give people what they need to act later. The product or service is identified, the brand is clear, and ideally the product is positively differentiated from what the competition offers. Triggers are another important consideration, as discussed in Jonah Berger’s study of virality, Contagious.
What makes an ad well-designed?
Design is more subjective than the other categories. In general, prioritize clarity and simplicity. Viewers need to be able to read the caption (if there is one) and identify the branding. I’ve written about this extensively when it comes to billboards. If you can make the design interesting or beautiful, that’s icing on the cake! Remember, cake needs frosting to be delicious.
Are these hard-and-fast rules?
Obviously not. People-Optimized Marketing is more about attitude than specific mandates. That said, ads that neglect to make viewers think, feel, and act are missing the opportunity to really engage viewers.
Click here to see all my posts about People-Optimized Marketing.
The Society for News Design crowned Facebook “World’s Best-Designed Digital”, although without specifying digital what. Presumably “digital experience” is what they were going for. Here’s some malarkey from the announcement page, on how to qualify as “World’s Best-Designed Digital”:
“You must be thoughtful and meaningful, but fast. You must be clear, engaging and engaged. You must be available anywhere and everywhere. Now, more than ever, your audience is in control.
From desktop to mobile to app, this year’s winner works. […] It provides a richer news experience than any one ‘site.’ It is redefining ‘community,’ by evolving our relationships with the news and each other. […] It is the platform that you love, or hate, or love to hate. But increasingly cannot live without. This would not be possible without world class design.
This year’s winner is Facebook.”
SND’s choice is particularly interesting because Facebook’s mobile website and app are both garbage, meaning the judges’ concept of “design” must be quite… expansive. If they were examining beauty and ease-of-use, Evan Williams’ website Medium would have won. (Or, you know, an actual news site. I mention Medium because it was a contender.) Apparently aesthetics and UX were not high-rated factors:
Presumably Facebook won because they have billions of users.
Twitter commentary from the #OmgMedia crowd was wry and pithily outraged:
The best reactions emerged on Facebook itself. SND posted that their announcement “was met with tepid applause” and asked, “Do you agree with the decision?” The response was, basically, “No.” Sue Apfelbaum said it very well:
“All the nominees might provide news and community, but to liken the New Yorker to Twitter, or NPR to Facebook, is hardly a fair comparison. Imagine we were talking about food and not this stuff we’re just lumping together and calling content—Andrew Losowsky and I were riffing on this analogy.
What this award does, essentially, is compare fine dining with someone who hosts an excellent potluck. It could be an amazing potluck, where all your favorite people are, and everything you need to serve your dishes is provided for you, and the ambiance is just right for socializing, but it’s still up to those guests to provide the feast.
On the other hand, fine restaurants source their ingredients, produce menus to nourish and please customers (in these cases 24/7), staff their establishments with chefs, food preparers, and servers, and create an atmosphere as welcoming to the first-time diner as their regulars. Would you really put these establishments in the same category?”
[I edited the quote for readability; see the original on FB.] A+ analogy; Apfelbaum has it right. We don’t even need to talk about Facebook’s bad design. The crux of the matter is that Facebook is a coincidental conduit between journalists and audience, not an entity that creates and sustains those relationships on purpose. Facebook is a news middleman, not a creator or a consumer!
Commenting on the same post, Leah Nicole protested:
“The decision was an insult to digital news teams that invest a lot of time into designing and understanding the audiences they serve.
And it’s difficult to believe a social media site with an algorithm focused on ‘trending topics’ would be compared to news teams producing real journalism.”
Whereas Ted Han asked:
“What aspects of Facebook are responsible for its praiseworthiness (even if it’s a gestalt) in a news context […]? […] Facebook certainly is the platform among platforms for the conveyance of news (and everything else) to an audience… but why stop at Facebook? Should Google win an award for having a fast secure browser? Should Apple be lauded for killing Flash? Android/iOS for giving people access to news content anywhere/everywhere?”
IMO the answer to these queries is… no. Let’s refrain from blending categories until they’re senseless.
Meta blogging note: I’m discovering that one of the things I want to do with this blog is highlight ideas or ways of approaching ideas that are really good (for example, Martin Weigert re: Apple Watch). I’m even happy to post tidbits that don’t ascend to the level of “idea” but which are interesting nonetheless (Ben Thompson re: RSS users).