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Designing for the Crisis of Trust

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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President and Chief Operating Officer, The Freeman Company Chief Executive Officer, Freeman

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#18 Design What You Do to Tell Your Story

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

It’s a sign of the times that the word “optics” — which refers to the properties of light that let us see things — has been hijacked to describe “how something seems.” It’s used as shorthand for situations in which the actions people witness don’t jive with what they’ve been told. Countless celebrities, politicians and brands have been pilloried on social media for #BadOptics. Public shaming via memes, Facebook rants and #twitterstorm posts are the new norm. 

This wasn’t an issue 25 years ago, when the sausage-making part of the working world was hidden in the factory. Today, however, living in the age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, everything is recorded and published. Progressive enterprises understand this phenomenon and are intentional about designing not only their brand narrative, but everything they do to tell their story. 

“This concept rests on the insight that the connected world fundamentally transforms communication,” Bruce Mau explains. “The everyday crisis that we're having right now in America is a crisis of trust, that we can't believe what they say and what they do are the same thing…. The real thing that you should be designing is what you do.” 

The examples in our industry are easy enough to find. Many convention venues have been renovated to achieve LEED certification. As part of their conferences, associations often create charity events that support relevant causes and support the host community. Groups like Gender Avenger act as watchdogs that collect, report, and broadcast information about gender balance in conference presentations. 

Bruce describes this as going from a paint culture to a transparent culture. “The new world is a world of total transparency,” he says. “We should work as if everyone can see everything, because they can…. what you do is actually who you really are, and what you say is often of little consequence…. So, designing how you do that is really a critical piece of defining our product.” Another way to think about it, he advises, is “Turn the sound off and just watch the action — that's who we really are.” 

This is the perspective we need to adopt when considering each opportunity to design a brand experience. If a car manufacturer talks about the quality of their brand, everything about how they engage with people must reflect that quality — the exhibit itself, of course — but also every sensory experience that contributes to or detracts from the message. We must be mindful of the fact that we reflect who we are from the moment we approach the assignment. 

Here are some examples specific to our industry: Organizers for an information technology trade show cannot afford a snafu with registration software. But they can proactively survey attendees to learn about favorite conference apps. A teachers’ association would look silly if they published anything with typos or grammatical errors. But they could create a space on the show floor where they reveal the process used to check for errors, and even invite teachers to share and collect strategies that work with students. As design-thinkers, we should never offer our clients products or services that violate fundamental design principles. But we can bring them fresh ideas on how to proactively remediate past oversights or outdated exhibits. And we can use tools and systems that reflect our design perspective. 

At Freeman, if we want to be known for inventing the meaning of live experience, we have to do it. That’s why we’re investing in new display systems, new technologies, new ways to collect and understand data, and new acquisitions that bring fresh ideas and approaches. It’s why we established the Design Leadership Council. It’s why we are aligning our organization to better surround our customers with multidisciplinary support.  

When I first got into the business, we were urged to “walk the talk.” Our new mantra must be, “design what we do.”

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