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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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#8 Design the Invisible

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.

One of the common misconceptions we learn to overcome when we embrace design thinking is that “design” is restricted to the creation of a visual object or work of art, crafted by a single, discreet individual. Bruce Mau reminds us that design is often team-based and has more to do with designing the systems you don’t see.

Moreover, Bruce describes the ability to design the invisible as “a totally liberating experience. So much of design is really bracketed by what we see…. In some ways, the highest order design is what you don’t see…. When you get in your car, you don’t want to know how it works… you want the experience… The Holy Grail of design is to be behind the scenes — under the surface.”

Ironically, the most elegant designs are those we don’t even notice.

It’s gratifying to consider that this is what Freeman has long been known for. We were doing design thinking before we knew what it was. When I watch our team at CES planning everything from load-in to load-out — storing the crates in a certain order, thinking through every aspect of risk management, considering every logistical detail — this is the essence of what design means. Our success at CES is the result of hundreds of thousands of decisions that remain invisible — decisions that allow a vast and complex show to happen right on schedule.  

Plans for any big brand experience call for incredibly robust design. And the proof of success is that the design remains unnoticed. To quote Bruce in the book Massive Change, “For most of us, design is invisible. Until it fails.” Think about that the next time your paycheck is magically deposited into your bank account, and be grateful for the invisible payroll design that makes it happen seamlessly.

The notion of designing the invisible may have been around a while, but it was championed by the 20th Century artist Marcel Duchamp, who wanted to release himself from the “tyranny of the eye.” Duchamp said, “What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It's not what you see that is art; art is the gap.”

Bruce explains how this notion of exploring a creative practice unlimited by what we see gets at the heart of designing experiences for all five senses. “We can think of the whole experience as a design project. It’s not limited by the visual. And there are even things you are not aware of that are part of the design. All those systems are essential to our modern practice.”

What are the implications for those of us committed to designing the future of brand experience? An article in the Harvard Business Review cites research by the American Society of Association Executives pointing to declining membership across the board. The trends explored in the article underscore an opportunity to help our association clients become more relevant. It’s evident that many of the content and networking opportunities that used to be enjoyed as proprietary are now easily delivered online through streaming video, social networks, etc. And millennials who attend an event are looking for a different experience than the associations have traditionally offered.

So, the question we must ask ourselves as design thinkers is, how do we make the live branded experience the lynch-pin of the relationship? How do we leverage our expertise, our technology, our digital assets and data, to create experiences that simply can’t be held online? Many associations provide education and certification. How can we make this more meaningful at a live event than they could get online? How do we deploy the whole bandwidth of live experience to make participation in the live experience irreplaceable?  Why would we design anything less?

The answer isn’t a new logo or new projection device. It’s not a thing. It’s a process. A system. A template. The answer is an invisible design structure that elevates everything so well… no one knows it’s there. But the experience itself is unforgettable.

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