Monday, September 20, 2010

On Code Monkeys, Technology, and Your Audience Culture Vocabulary

Over the years I've run into a number of former colleagues who say something like, "I still remember that fill-in-the-blank design that you did. It was so funny. That was great." I even had a colleague from my work 10 years ago approach me recently, asking for help in creating an new cool t-shirt. It's a narcissistic temptation to take on a project like that, but keep in mind that the project path is filled with pitfalls, not the least of which is your vocabulary.

While we are all extremely proud of the creative genius that lives inside of us, it's easy to forget that your creative trophy was the unique convergence of ideas in time. There was you and your audience. Your creative piece said something in a language that you held in common. You could understand, they could understand, it wasn't too far out and it wasn't cliche.

Creatively, the danger you face when you try to communicate with a culture that you aren't immersed in is, that even when you use the words, you won't actually be communicating. If you don't live in the world of code monkeys, you won't really be able to talk with the animals. It's like when your parents tried to talk to you using 'your' vocabulary -- they just sounded silly. But just as generations of parents have tried to communicate with kids using 'their' vocabulary, marketers, designers, and communicators try to connect and capture audiences that they don't understand. Probably the most common result is cliche.

Now the cool thing about cliche is that many people can't really tell the difference between art and cliche. Often, if you create a "cool" work of art that is similar to "cool" stuff that your audience has seen or design in a context that is familiar to them, they will accept it -- perhaps even be very pleased with it. As designers, this is our bread and butter, the thing that keeps food on the table -- but don't confuse this with the art that speaks.

Great Ideas Aren't Limited to Niche Specialists...
While it may seem like I'm saying that you need to have an niche specialist in order to produce memorable creative, that's not the case. A one dimensional view of a niche will also produce flat creative. Great ideas connect with our humanity and communicate to the parts of us that exist beyond stereotypes and categorizations. They draw upon our cultural knowledge, carrying us in a rhythm that we understand, only to surprise us with something new.

As designers and communicators, ultimately our most effective connection point is that common humanity -- we may be engineers, we may be executives, or we may be consumers, but we are all human. Sure, we may want to believe that fart jokes are low-brow humor and that we're above it, but this same commonality helps carry many Hollywood movies and sell iPhone applications. That's not to say that your next ad campaign should be based on a fart joke -- but it might make more sense than those initial ads for the Palm Pre.

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