Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Complexity of Simplicity - Pt 2

According to the received wisdom, one way to ensure that a communication is simple is to reduce the number of elements in it to the absolute minimum. There's a popular diagram that begins with a layout of a standard car ad. All possible elements - headline, subhead, visual, body copy, logo, stapline, starburst etc - are included.

The elements are then gradually removed, until only the picture remains. Even in layout the point is clear. The last frame is considerably more impactful and engaging than the first. Why? Because it's "simple".

But in practice, this economy of style has a tendency to make the experience less simple for the person receiving the communication (I'm not saying this is a bad thing; indeed, ads are generally the better for it).

This isn't an ad, it's a T-shirt design, but I think the point holds true:

The shirt withholds a crucial piece of information: that the Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. If that had been added as a subhead, the layout would have been more complicated - less graphically "simple". But it also would have been easier to understand - "simpler" from an interpretive point of view.

Of course, if the shirt were more explicit, it wouldn't have been as funny. Indeed, I suspect most Americans, who automatically know what the second amendment is, would think it pretty lame (it is, after all, a fairly obvious pun). But when I saw it for the first time I had to think for second, and it's that extra second, that wafer thin layer of obscurity, that made me laugh.

I'm not an Art Director. In fact, I'm renowned for my lack of aesthetic sensibility, so having a clean layout isn't something I makes me feel funny in my special place. But, just like my AD and every other creative I know, I've been known to spend hours crafting a concept so there's just enough information in it to allow the audience to complete the meaning themselves, but not so much that it patronises them (one of the strengths of this approach is that it allows you to say things you'd never say explicitly).

That's often where we part ways from clients, who when they say "simple" mean "I want everyone to get it".

Of course, as the example of the T-shirt illustrates, if you spell it out so clearly that everyone gets it, there's often nothing left to get.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Deceptively simple - Pt 1

Some years ago I was involved in a planning session for a customer loyalty program. The particular tool we were using (I'm guessing something similar exists in most agencies) was a Path-To-Purchase type thing. Essentially, you attempt to identify every step, mental and physical, the prospect must take if they are to complete the transaction. Then you figure out the obstacle most likely at each stage to prevent them from proceeding to the next, and attempt to devise something to overcome each of these obstacles.

This was not the first time the client had done this exercise, but the aim this time was to "simplify" the model. In its previous incarnation, it had existed as two parallel diagrams, one mapping the customer's physical experience from the moment they walked in the store, the other mapping the process that began the moment the subject of the loyalty club was raised. To the client's mind, this was unneccesarily complicated. He wanted to collapse the two models into one, choosing the point at which the staff overture was most likely to be made as the starting point for the second process.

The model was internally consistent, but the distortions it imposed on the real-world experience of the shopper became more and more obvious as the session went along. For a start, it foreclosed discussion of the biggest question - when was the most effective time to tell the customer about the club - a concern that started creeping into every stage of the investigation and sending out its own little logic trees,each of which looked remarkably similar to the last. It also led to confusion about customer's motives - were they focussed on the transaction they'd come to complete, or the shiny prospect of the loyalty club?

The diagram grew denser, blacker, ever more convoluted.

Eventually, screwing up all the courage my three weeks in the business had given me, I stood up in front of the whiteboard and suggested it would be more useful if we split the process back into its original dual track.

Three clients. A junior planner. An account director, an account manager and me. Yet the room was uncomfortably silent, until the account manager said to me, in her best "let the grown ups talk" voice.

"Yes, but we're trying to make things simpler."

The rest of the room nodded sagely, and the session resumed.

The plea for simplicity in advertising is unanswerable. I think it probably should be. The logic seems sound - people are busy, distracted and uninterested, so if we want them to listen to us, we should strip our messages down to the bare essentials.

But the word "simple" seems to hold within it a number of often competing ideas. The one-track diagram was simple in one respect - it worked in one dimension and probably had fewer steps. The two-track diagram was more complex on the face of it, but at each step the working would have been shorter and clearer.

Perhaps it would be easier (and perhaps we could communicate with each other more clearly) if we identified what those ideas were.

I'm also not sure how far beyond the actual final communication the aesthetic of simplicity should extend. Is there any reason (besides making it easy for the client to grasp and quick for them to complete) why a planning model should strive to attain it? What (and I know this is at least a bit heretical) about a brief?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Something like a statement of intent

I've been an advertising copywriter for three years now, and in that time I've encountered a number of oddities in the way we do what we do, elephants in the room that I think cripple us as creatives and through us our clients, rendering engaging, persuasive work the exception rather than the rule.

There are too many factors at play to list exhaustively, among them industry-wide structural problems, the way the people who fill the various roles across the industry are incentivised and trained, and the ever-present individual ego. Not all of them are soluable. But the one thread that binds together all of the obstacles to effective communication I've encountered so far is sloppy thinking.

Too many of the presumptions we work from are unchallenged, too many of the concepts at play in our world are vague and amorphous. We don't make distinctions that need to be made, and I'm fairy sure we make some that aren't sustainable.

There will always be a part - perhaps a fairly large part - of our thought process as creatives that is unobservable and unquantifiable. That's as it should be. It's a big part of the fun. But there's more reasoning in our jobs than we let on, especially in the way we evaluate an idea once we've had it, and the ways we craft if from the initial glimmer to the finished product.

This blog, then, is to be my attempt to get my own head straight about what i think about what we do every day.