A few days ago I started a full-time job at Wieden & Kennedy London. My parents are happy. And I get to work with some of the most intelligent and creative folks in the world. And I get to head up the strategy on Nike Women. This, among a handful of other accounts is going to be a pretty neat adventure.
Basically it means I try to connect brands with culture. Little-c culture. It’s not really about Art and Music and Food and Architecture… but why people do the things they do, how they do them, what’s going on in their heads while they do so. It’s the behaviour, stuff and un-spoken rules that surround us every day.
But to understand culture, brands have to first start with the right questions. Looking directly at the problem rarely solves anything. For example, a client once came to me completely obsessed with owning “social television” (like Zeebox, etc). The real question was actually, TV is already social (connecting people, shaping their values, generating fear, etc), we just don’t understand how.
Most brands operate within an orthodox approach to their market/ing. They want to know about positioning: “how are we positioned within the competitive context?” Frankly, if this is their starting point, they may have already lost. A better question is usually, “how is everyone else doing it, and how are they missing the mark?” Culture is an (increasingly) quickly moving target, and brands are often slow ships to steer. So if a brand is really upping its game, the place to start is understanding where culture has moved to - and indeed, where it will be going next. This is not about trend forecasting, but it’s not a million miles off. It’s about understanding the political, social and economic influencers over people’s value systems; and then being able to visualise how this is going to manifest through material culture and in specific ways.
What I do is bring brands closer to this culture; to their culture. Every brand is just a part of a much bigger culture - and acknowledging this humble position is a good place to start. I like to say to my clients, “We should be so lucky to be a part of this (these) culture(s)”… be it Fair Trade, artisanal foods, cycling, fitness, product design, indeed - television watching or even something as big as “English culture”. Permission to influence, amplify, shape and change culture is something a brand has to earn. It earns this permission first by respecting and understanding culture, telling great stories, creating great product, and then creating, or at least supporting, the communities that form within the culture.
But it’s not just about what a brand can do. It’s about what a brand should do. To get here, a brand must have a cultural pursuit, or a purpose. This pursuit guides behaviour, and clarifies the role a brand has in culture, in its customer’s lives, businesses, homes and communities.
My team and I work with brands who really want to have a role in culture, not just selling stuff. It’s a good place to start. So, this is my round-about way of saying, if you want to do this, let’s do some work together. Drop me an email collynahart @ gmail.com
Photo via trendtablet.com
I’d love to see gender statistics on the first round of people to buy one of BERG’s Little Printers. Mostly because I’d like to find out if there’s any sort of early gendered difference in the way people are using (and appreciating) the device; but perhaps with early adopters it doesn’t matter as much. A typical hypothesis might be something along the lines of: female brains will typically use the device to connect with other people whereas male brains will typically use the device to do stuff (ie. puzzles, read the news, get the weather forecast, find out how many people are in space).
Until that first delivery of a loving message from my friend Ruth, “Collyn smells!” came whirring and flashing out, I didn’t realise how much I’ve been craving tangible keepsakes of my friendships and conversations. Only once in a blue moon do I ever receive post that’s not a bill, bank statement or something I’ve ordered, so the idea of a regular dose of tangible friendship carries a lot of weight with me.
Already my refrigerator door is heaving with little smiling-faced notes, and I’m trying to figure out a logical system for deciding which messages to keep and which to turn into make-shift post-its before throwing them away.
To me, little printer is a social object. It has more in common with a friendship bracelet than the big laserjet nestled about two feet below. To me, Little Printer has already come to represent friendship. I couldn’t care less about the day’s forecast or news headlines. This thing is how my mom can write me a daily lunchbox message from the other side of the planet. It’s how my boyfriend can tell me he loves me and ask why my skype isn’t turned on.
Little Printer is truly liminal, in the space between the online and offline. But its online-ness is not what’s interesting because, its online-ness is a hygiene factor. Of course it’s always on. What’s interesting is its offline-ness. LP is pretty much defined by its ability to leave traces of itself… but itself is almost invisible: I don’t see little printed messages, I see my friendships, scattered around my home, my wallet, my books…. I’m not looking at a device.
And it’s the first social media I’ve experienced which isn’t governed by fear and anxiety but instead by wonder and love. I’m not afraid of missing something. There is no ‘refresh’ button. There is no constant stream of ads and updates and hashtags. Every single message delivered feels like a gift.
Little Printer is humble. It knows it’s less important than the messages it carries. In a world of smartphone bravado, that’s a tremendously refreshing proposition.
I see the gadgety “subscriptions” of the device as less about doing stuff and more about rationalising that you can do stuff. But the true social value (perhaps ever the only true value), is always going to be in how it connects people in interesting new ways. But perhaps what’s so neat is that it’s actually quite an old form of exchange. Telegrams never stopped feeling special. But as their usefulness and ubiquity waned, that special feeling disappeared too.
The instantaneousness of email, messaging, texting all just seems so tedious. I’m more afraid of missing out than I am excited by receiving something. Perhaps this is the demise of a generation defined by moments, instants, pop-ups, temporaries and lots of here-today, gone-tomorrow cultural activity. Give us permanence. Give us slow. Give us tactile and forever. Give us generational hand-me-downs. Give us a way of being offline without feeling disconnected.
For decades our mobile phones got smaller and smaller. And then, with the advent of the iPhone, seemed to pop back to an appropriate size for the average human hand, a size which is now roughly the de facto size of all smartphones on the market.
I wonder… if the physical size of the iPhone was about proportional appropriateness, is Little Printer a pop back to connected appropriateness?
I’ve been banging on for years now about how authenticity isn’t enough of a driver to entice people to buy things. Authenticity, honesty, transparency, heritage, tradition are what you need to focus on and communicate if you’re trying to help people self-actualize or become more of who they want to be. So where do you go when you run out of heritage brands to pillage? You go into the Unreal and invent some new ones.
Like so many things, Fake Heritage is a phenomenon that began in the hipster trenches of Portland, Shoreditch and Brooklyn but have crept into the mainstream. You’d be forgiven for assuming these brands had just been around for decades. Their graphics look like distilled visions of the 20th Century. Who knew that they were all invented in the last 8 years?
Brands such as Murdock, Hendricks Gin, Rapha, Aubin & Wills, William Fox & Sons, Best Made Co., are just a few brands that have trade on the look and values of a time gone by. There are, afterall, only so many Kiehl’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, Brooks Saddles and Barbours out there which have actually got a long authentic history to draw on. People buy these things because they feel authentic. But they also buy them because they are inventive and a little bit unreal. One thing all these new fake heritage brands have in common is their fantastic storytelling. And it’s the stories people want to participate in, not just the look and style.
What are social objects? I think most of us have a pretty decent grip on “social media”, but objects?
I’d like to hypothesize that almost everything in our lives has a social role beyond basic function. It might be the food we eat - how we eat it, the TV we watch - and how we watch it, the clothes and brands we buy… they all play a social role. Essentially these things and behaviours mediate our relationships with other people.
The question is not “how do you make stuff social”, but rather, how is stuff already social? In what ways does it bring people together emotionally or physically? As an example, I once had a research and strategy brief around social TV… “no no”, I said, “this is not about social TV. TV is and has always been social. What you don’t understand is how and why. And how and why this sociality is evolving.”
My favourite social object right now is the friendship bracelet. It is a social object at it’s most basic. You buy or make two. You give one to a friend. The bracelet will always remind you of that friend. They are cheap, practically free if you make your own… no wonder the friendship bracelet has become one of the most popular types of jewelry in the the last year. A friendship bracelet is a physical manifestation of friendship.
Another brilliant social object is the badge. Not like Foursquare “badges”. Those aren’t badges. They are just bits of code that live on a website. I mean real, sewn, fabric badges. The stuff of scouting and summers in the woods. They are social because they are representative of doing something. Congratulations, you can build a fire. Congratulations, you can raise a baby sheep. Or in the case of brands doing badges, Congratulations, you just rode your bike 500kms between Christmas and New Years. It’s a souvenir of being a part of something money can’t buy.
Being a part of something is one of the most satisfying and gratifying feelings. And this feeling is what social objects are great at celebrating.
So how are you creating social objects? Do you really understand the social role of your product? Do you celebrate it?
In 2004 I wrote an essay called “The Lance Effect: American Symbolic Masculinity and Lance Armstrong” for which I can only find my old notes. This annoys me to no end. But I like the idea of sharing my notes and thought process. So I thought I would publish them here… please forgive my naive grad-student feminist politics and rhetoric, and please forgive that this is an un-finished and slightly disorganised brain-dump.
The Lance Effect
My contemplation of this topic began when I was riding the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic in July of 2004, just following Lance Armstrong’s initial Tour de France 2004 attack in the mountains. During the ten-some-odd hours of my ride I was constantly reminded of this cycling superhero by the Foundation bracelet that loosely clung to my sweaty and road-grime spattered arm. It struck me as ironic that I, an aficionada of masculinity in crisis discourse, would be wearing a bracelet largely supporting the research in finding a cure for testicular cancer. I have never worn any support or ‘cure’ ribbons, so my initial reasoning for wearing this one was brought about mainly by my general support for Lance Armstrong as a truly amazing cyclist and human being rather than for support of the organization or its cause. To defend myself momentarily, I certainly agree that all the various ‘cures’ are needed and have donated my small share, but I have tried to maintain a large amount of impartiality to wearing those symbols employed for their support. It is also my belief that many of those people wearing the Foundation bracelets wear them, at least in part, for similar reasons to my own: simply that Lance Armstrong has captured the imagination of Americans, cyclists or otherwise, and to show their support for his accomplishments and endeavors. I venture to suggest that “Lance” is no longer just a man, but an icon signifying American masculinity as a whole, supported not only by his devoted fans, but by the whole symbolic system devoted to the promotion and maintenance of masculinity in this society plagued by a crisis in masculine gender identity.
Although it is just one of the many areas of cancer research funded by the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and certainly not the most serious of cancers suffered by the cyclist, most people only really pay attention to his battle with and recovery from testicular cancer. In many ways, he is just as famous for recovering from testicular cancer as he is from winning six back-to-back Tours de France following that recovery. Next to castration, testicular cancer is one of the most prevalent symbols for lost masculinity. Testicular cancer, while being a very real, and deadly problem, is embedded with moral and social meaning beyond its status as a physical ailment. It is, in effect, symbolic for the gradual usurpation of a solid, controlled, masculine gender identity by all things feminine or feminizing. Testicular cancer is symbolic, not of a singular incidence of lost masculinity, but in the case of Lance Armstrong, of an American national crisis of masculinity. Lance’s has become that body which stands in for the American national body as a whole and as such carries the symbolic weight of the whole of American national lost masculinity.
Mention of testicular cancer brings to mind the images and symbolism of testicular cancer found in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, and the subsequent David Fincher film based on that story. “Men remaining men, together,” proclaims the sign for Jack/Tyler’s testicular cancer self-help group. One of the primary features and evidences of masculinity in crisis, as articulated by writers as diverse as Robert Bly and Susan Faludi, is the reemergence and maintenance of homosocial activities where the function of the homosocial activity is the symbolic establishment of a masculine identity that is free from its socially bound opposition to femininity. In that sense, men can identify themselves as masculine without the need for women to identify as feminine. The project to deconstruct gender as a performed and performative activity has been central to much feminist and philosophical discourse, primarily forwarded by the gender performance theories of Judith Butler. Her claim is that gender, like so many other social roles, is a performance, articulated and constantly rearticulating itself in order to make sense within and to the world surrounding it. Performance theory is premised on the notion that there is nothing inherent about gender beneath the surface plethora of images and symbols apparently designating between the sexes. A biological woman can identify and appear as feminine, in much the same way she might identify and appear as masculine. She is thus articulating femininity in her performance of her female gender, just as much as she may be articulating masculinity in her performance of her male gender. This is not to simplify gender performance to acting “in drag,” where one sex literally puts on the social mask of another, but that gender is something that needs continuous rearticulation and must therefore be maintained in the everyday activities designated to and designating of gender specificity.
The dichotomy of femininity and masculinity is thus performed as a binary opposition, maintaining each other as they simultaneously maintain their own. Masculinity in crisis discourse has, in response to this claim, established that masculinity, in the face of performed femininity, is exposed as merely a performance rather than something inherent within men. Masculinity thus loses its claims over its own identity: men lose their “manhood” as they lose their ability to know what it really means to be a man. If men are not masculine in opposition to femininity, then men must remain men together through homosocial activities.
Professional road cycling is one of few remaining sports exclusive to men in the world. There is almost no professional road circuit, at least nothing close in magnitude to the size and importance of something like the Tour de France exists for women. As an avid road cyclist, I find this point rather frustrating, but my own feminist investments demonstrate one reason perhaps, why it is a professional road cyclist rather than a soccer player, climber, hockey player or otherwise who has come to the forefront of determining an American sense of masculine identity. Cycling, like American football, is one of the few remaining professional sports designated to the realm of male homosociality, totally exclusive of women. Professional road cycling, and its ultimate instantiation, the Tour de France, is made up of individual competitors, coordinated and sponsored within multinational teams. Each stage of the race, and the race as a whole is all about personal survival, but also involves a high degree of dependence upon
The Lance Effect
In the study of popular icons, academics and cultural critics frequently confront a conflict between their own person investments in a field or discourse, and their own personal feelings about the subject in discussion. This conflict is often reflected in the enthusiastic, deconstructive measures taken to dissect the very core of the being at the center of the discussion, and the simultaneous attempts to admit the very humanity of that given celebrity. [Example needed] It is, in fact, difficult to separate oneself as an academic and cultural critic from a subject at hand enough to analyze and understand the effect that person has on the society and culture within which the icon lives. I identify my personal investments first and foremost as those of an amateur cultural analyst, and second as an amateur triathlete and cyclist. Thus, when I stumble quite unexpectedly upon the subject of Lance Armstrong and the multiple effects he has had upon American society and its culture, I am torn by my strong desire to leave the topic alone, as sacred, somewhat untarnished iconography, and by my inner instincts to rip open the topic and uncover some kind of meaning buried beneath its apparently pristine surface.
Professor Michael D. Bristol, one of my most cherished mentors, once asked whether or not Shakespeare was “just hype,” or if, in fact there was something more profound about the effect Shakespeare has had upon society at large. It is the same question I pose with regard to Lance Armstrong, not simply as a man, but as a cultural effect raising him and the idea of him to level of the “big time,” to the level at which he ceases to be a mere celebrity, but becomes a phenomenon that changes the way a society interprets itself both as individuals and as a whole.
Critics and writers as diverse as Susan Faludi and Robert Bly have generally agreed that over the last fifty years, in particular, American culture has suffered from and attempted to cure itself of what is typically understood as a ‘crisis in masculinity.’ This ‘crisis,’ has been located in different fields of study and has various different interpretations based upon the analysts’ own individual investments; however, the general consensus is that some kind of masculine identity crisis has challenged American masculine culture as a whole, most acutely following the Second World War, and has grown in intensity with the rise of feminism since the late ‘60s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Lance,” unlike the celluloid icons of the Reagan era or the earth-splitting warriors of the subsequent Bushes, has answered, if not fully attacked the crisis in masculinity in America more effectively than any icons or ideologies to date. “Lance” is no longer just a man, but is an icon signifying American masculinity as a whole. This phenomenon is supported not only by devoted fans, but by the whole symbolic system dedicated to the promotion and maintenance of masculinity in this society plagued by a crisis in masculine gender identity.
The first thing most American people think of with regard to Lance Armstrong is that he recovered from testicular cancer. In most of Lance’s publications the topic is cancer, or surviving cancer, whilst winning six consecutive Tours de France comes across as a side note, or moreover, as proof of his recovery from cancer.
The Lance Effect Doc 2
-The lack of a father:
The waif from the father (estranged) has the same affect as “princesses” (like Diana) who are uninhibited by the parental figure- uninhibited by the father and able to overcome that overwhelming presence in an Oedipal relationship. The successful son is necessarily the son without a father, but this simultaneously leads to a crisis in masculine identity. There are no homosocial (father/son) paternal bonds. Man is left to become a man by himself, or, with the help of other men in his life.
In that sense, he is not betrayed (read: castrated) by his mother, but by his absent father. The totally absent figure.
Chuck Palahniuk: “men remaining men together”.
Total symbolic castration. But also a de”manning” or emasculinating of the father/son relationship.
-“the Uniballer,” “Lone Star,” “One Star,” etc.
-Who is this really? This is the National Body. The body of America. “Lance” is the body of national masculinity in crisis in an attempt to rise to its challenge.
-Texans and the National Body: GWB and Arnold?
The Hard-bodied cowboy. Alone on the road (range). This is a maintenance of solidity (being alone –without women). Lance’s is one of both legitimate and illegitimate fluidity. Sweat is legitimate, even his semen is legitimate, because it has resulted in the form of two sons. (Imagine the different effect if Lance had a daughter?)
Nostalgia: the cowboy myth what has been lost? Masculinity.
Lance’s response is the response of America: eradicate fluidity in identity: disavow loss, disavow fluidity; eradicate both literal and symbolic cancer that eats away at a “solid” masculine identity. (“Solid,” because it was never solid to begin with.)
So, what are the symbolic mechanisms at work?
- Lack of a father role of mother and (ex)wife
- Testicular cancer (Tex-ticular)
- His name: “Lance” (the phallic object itself) and “Armstrong” (Nostalgia of the first man on the moon- the original modern cowboy)
- Cycling itself: having something hard between one’s legs (the fetish), and the peloton, the homosociality of it all.
- The Lance Armstrong Foundation (what the hell is this about Golf??) Why Golf?
-Homosociality and its role in society (replacement and symbolic initiation acts between men) “men remaining (becoming) men together.” Eve Sedgwick
Texas as the “masculinity in crisis” state: It suffers from mass nostalgia (a mass awareness of something lost in the past –such as the latent memory of castration does) but this nostalgia is a different lost past: it is one of losing the lone ranger, John Wayne, so they have replaced him with Big Tex: Lance. In his own right, Lance is a cowboy but has replaced the horse with a bicycle. Either way, the animal or the machine is a fetish, a replacement, one such that he cannot cope with the loss without something extraneous to fill the role of the phallus.
-The lack of a father (his status as unimpeded by obstacles [read: Oedipal relationship to his mother] is simultaneously what creates his celebrity status as well as his crisis in masculinity.
-Superfluous replacement fathers in the book, Images of a Champion: his coaches, agent, teammates (especially those whom have been lost), his mother, Eddy Merckx, the photographer (who thus technologically mediates the distance between the spectator and Lance).
This whole modus operandi is what turns Lance into “Lance,” that phallic weapon appropriated, then alienated by those technologies around him to stand in as a replacement for symbolic lost masculinity in America.
-A movement from plurality to singularity is taken not as a weakness, but as a strength. His singularity is thus his honed masculinity.
@thisisycn hosted a wonderful evening of planner reading inspiration last night and I wanted to share my talk about Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.
What is bullshit?
We are often accused that our jobs are full of it.
We spew hot air this way and that.
But as strategists we like to know why… we are drawn to theory, even the theory of our own humbug.
I was assigned to read On Bullshit in my second year of university. So by no means am I alone in having discovered this gem: there are cultural studies grads running around the world of media and journalism knowing full well what crap they spew.
But its theory is fundamental enough that it’s worth sharing.
So what is bullshit?
Is it lying?
What lying and bullshit have in common is the deliberate intention to deceive.
But that’s about it.
For a communication to be a lie, the intent must be to deceive the audience about the subject - the content - of the communication.
So if I tell you I have red hair, this is a lie.
But if I told you I want red hair, this is bullshit.
Not that red hair is bad - in fact I quite like red hair.
But to express that I want red hair is deceiving you not about the content, but about my state of mind.
I’m deceiving you about my mind.
Likewise, if I tell you how tremendously important football is, I am not lying.
To many people, football is very important.
But to me it is not.
By telling you how tremendously important football is, I am not trying to convince you of the importance of football. Im trying to convince you we have something in common.
I recently did a project on the social role of television in Britain and this very question came up. Is football really that important?
Yes. Yes it is.
But not to me personally.
Football is important because it gives British men (for the most part) something to talk about.
Our research proved that only a small fraction of the men who like to talk about football actually care about football.
They talk about football because they want to have something in common with each other despite class, occupation, political or racial differences.
They are not deceiving each other about football.
They bullshit about football so they can deceive each other about their varied states of mind.
The social role of football is bullshit. And in this country, that makes it very, very important.
Bullshit is not a lie. Bullshit is a social tool for connecting with each other by pretending to think certain things.
In our jobs we must pretend to think things every day.
We bullshit with clients and collaborators. We bullshit among our own teams. We bullshit to try ideas on for size.
If the idea doesn’t fit, we can always put it back.
We bullshit to connect. And this makes bullshit sometimes a very very good thing.
We bullshit everyday about the weather. We are not lying about what a horrible summer we’ve had. We are lying about the fact we care.
We pretend to care about the weather, just as we do with football… simply so we have something to say.
Why is it that the vast majority of articles circulating on gender and cycling seem to focus on the fairer sex? Yes, us girls. Obviously, gender goes both ways and I want to now revisit a topic I once explored as an undergraduate: Cycling and Masculinity. I know I run the risk of alienating many men who read my work, but I would ask that you don’t take this personally. Women have to deal - on a daily basis - with the media picking apart our every move, every look, every activity. We are also our own worst critics: harsh judges of everything from other women’s pimples, unsightly cellulite, outspoken passions to being too fat, too thin, too obsessive, or not caring enough. Presumed “feminists” are also given an unfair share of criticism for speaking their mind when it comes to resisting these harsh judgements of our gender.
I would be a rich woman if I had a penny for every time someone called me a lesbian for riding a bicycle. Somehow the world seems to view most dedicated athleticism by women as a blot on our femininity. So I’d like to turn the tables for once, and look critically at the sport which seems to embody so much manliness.
Ten years ago I wrote an essay entitled “The Lance Effect”. In the midst of Armstrong’s many consecutive Tour wins, I was curious how cycling had shifted in the American popular imagination from being stereotyped “something gay Frenchmen do” to the height of masculinity. One man, with no balls, had managed to capture America’s hearts and minds. He wasn’t just a hero, he was a survivor. Everything about Lance Armstrong - his name, his working-class Texas upbringing, his all-American looks and abundant family to match - was symbolic of the kind of man American men wanted to be.
Writer and celebrated critical theorist Eve Sedgewick, coined the idea of the “homosocial continuum” in the mid-1970s, a way of understanding the point at which otherwise Platonic relationships between members of the same sex cross over into homosexual relationships. Women, she claimed, have a much longer homosocial continuum than men. Female relationships could get very close to being homosexual without actually becoming sexual. Men, on the other hand, have a very short continuum, whereby heterosexual men maintain strict physical and emotional boundaries within their friendships.
Homosocial relationships are everywhere. Any time women do ‘girl nights’ or any time a group of men get together for ‘male bonding’, they’re engaging in homosociality. It just means they do stuff with people of the same sex. In a term: ‘Bromance’.
In order to maintain psychological boundaries on the homosocial continuum, members of both sexes partake in homosocial bonding. Doing so, they constantly test and control their own personal sense of sexual identity. Wherever there are extreme instances of male bonding you find a culture in which notions of masculinity are in flux or being threatened.
British ‘Stag Nights’ or American ‘Bachelor Parties’ are a good example of an initiation-rite-as-homosocial-bonding. On the eve of a man’s impending couple-dome and ‘lost freedom and man-hood’, a big group of boisterous young men take to the streets to enact the most extreme form of homosocial bonding they can think of. Often dressing the groom-to-be in drag, visiting strip clubs and presenting various and often sexual challenges, the party pushes the homosocial continuum to its limit. How close can they get without actually crossing over into homosexual relationships with each other?
Of course, women enact homosocial behaviour as well, but that is a separate topic for another very different discussion.
Any sport, played between members of the same sex, could be interpreted as homosocial bonding. Perhaps never more-so than when sports are played largely to the exclusion of women.
Sport has always been a socially acceptable way of enacting (playing or performing) behaviour that’s otherwise uncouth. Wars became football matches. Sporting events became an opportunity for young men to demonstrate their masculinity and thus their potential success as a sexual partner. They couldn’t very well go off and survive battles that were no longer being waged to prove they were the most successful men. Going even further back, some sports (like cycling) became symbolic hunting expeditions. Stripped of their genetic right to be hunter-gatherers, the big cycling event (or even the weekend ride) stands in for the very basic human need to demonstrate masculine success and potential as a mate.
I won’t go into it in depth, but the acclaimed evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has spent a lifetime’s work empirically proving that virtually all of human behaviour is done with the explicit or implicit goal of reproductive success. If that’s the case, sport like cycling makes perfect sense: Men have been stripped of the activities their genes spent thousands of centuries evolving around to prove their sexual fecundity.
Once upon a time, back when all humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes on the African savannah in groups of roughly 150 people, young men hunted, fought with neighboring tribes and participated in initiation rites (all of which more or less performed the same function psychologically) which have all been permanently etched into our genes. Some might claim humans have evolved since then, but the problem is, as Kanazawa explains, evolution requires both a very short life span (like that of a fruit fly) and a very stable environment in which genetic mutation can take hold. Humans have a very long life expectancy and our last truly stable environment was the African savannah, hundreds of millennia ago. Our biological brains still think we’re living in the savannah even if we may consciously know we’re not.
Men are playing sport because it makes sense to their genes. They also play sport and go through initiation rituals (like stag parties) to the exclusion of women because their genes don’t actually know any better.
Sport and homosocial bonding are inherently related to potential masculine reproductive success. At least our brains think it is.
For a long time, competitive sport has been the exclusive remit of men and boys. And it’s not just socialization to blame. Yes, girls are taught from a young age to be cooperative and learn how to empathize with others while boys are taught to be physically competitive and independent. But our biological brains have programmed us to be this way as well to both survive and be reproductively successful.
Women have never had a survival or reproductive imperative to play sport. However, in the world we live in today, much has changed since the African savannah. Male brains may have a hard-wired need to experience homosocial bonding and competition with other men, but women run the risk of lacking independence, bonding with other women, self-confidence, health and fitness, and a general inability to compete for work in a world largely dominated by values of masculine independence and competitiveness.
In the world we live in today, a woman’s social value still (rather peculiarly) seems to be based on her appearance. Her looks may be the primary indication of her reproductive potential according to our rather stupid savannah brains, but so too, most of these stupid savannah brains don’t think she needs to play sports.
Men are not playing sport because they want to. They are playing sport (and trying to be competitive throughout all other areas of their professional lives) because their genes are desperate to attract a mate.
But not all men are created equal. Some are significantly more successful than others, and rarely is this more visible than in the world of cycling. With its various teams, heros, domestiques, climbs, roads, Grand Tours, Classics and Fantasy leagues, there’s a lot of cycling culture for the less successful to borrow and pretend.
Writer and strategist Max Gadney once proposed the existence of something he calls a “pretending layer”. The pretending layer is essentially the way people buy stuff and participate in certain activities that allows them to pretend to be someone else. They’re not faking it by falsifying their identity to others; the pretending layer is largely a very personal and internal experience. Many men will buy an expensive deep-sea watch to pretend they are in the Navy Seals. They might pretend to be Jason Bourne on their daily commute through Waterloo Station.
With all its kit, culture and technology, the pretending layer is thick and strong in cycling. Weekend warriors can pretend to be Mario Cipollini or Mark Cavendish just be wearing the kit or riding a certain kind of bike. They drink their coffee in a way that allows them to pretend to be “Euro”, or “pro”. In fact, the pretending layer is so strong that most cycling brands have designed their whole marketing strategies around it (consciously or not). Put a hero in it and people will buy it so they can pretend to be a little bit like him. Their silly savannah brains are confusing being a reproductive success with what a reproductive success looks like. You just couldn’t buy a pimped out Pinarello on the savannah.
Of course, the pretending layer applies to other aspects of life, other sports, and women too do a lot of pretending. But I find it fascinating how seriously all this pretending gets taken. Male cyclists are pretending to be their heroes by wearing the kit; they’re pretending to be (and perhaps even trying to prove they are) reproductively successful by going on all-male rides around a little park.
So next time some guy makes a wise-crack about women riding bikes, just remember his game, and probably his reproductive success too, is all just make believe, enacted by a prehistoric brain.
With the passing of 2011, it’s easy to fixate on what’s next; forgetting all that’s been accomplished in the last 12 months. I tend to make resolutions when and where I need them, not always around the beginning of a new year. Sometimes it’s when I decide I need a change with work, to refocus my priorities, or to - yes indeed - shed a few pounds. What I try to do is remain grateful and present with all the neat stuff that’s actually be achieved to-date. Perhaps it’s a mini State Of The Union; a personal catch-up; sometimes I even take myself out to coffee to compile it. First I make a little list of things I really happy about or even proud of, and then I go on to make a list of where I see myself in a year’s time. It usually works, and even when I’ve made some pretty spectacular bets, have come up good 12 months down the line.
In the last year, I have made some incredible girlfriends. I can’t believe that at this time last year, I didn’t know TC, Eryn, Claire, Gem, Arabella and even those I knew before like Sarah, Josie and Big Ring Burner Rachel Turner… I feel a lot closer to. For this, I am super grateful. In a year’s time, I hope I can be an even better friend, and especially to not let work or couple-dom get in the way of these amazing relationships.
I’ve started my own business. Yes, as a consultant, so it’s not like a bricks and mortar shop yet, but it’s something. And even though it scares me shitless on a daily basis, I love almost every minute of it. Being a bit of a strategic gun for hire has meant getting to meet some incredibly creative, talented and extraordinarily smart people. I’m very very grateful for this. I feel smarter because of them. I’m also sort of proud of myself… if cautiously so… for not being afraid to do this. In a year’s time, I’d like to be doing more work overseas… particularly in China and North America. I’d also like to make more money, but I want to learn to live on less, and really appreciate the stuff I already own.
I’ve fallen in love. As trite as this sounds, love is awesome. In a year’s time, I want to be even more in love. I don’t ever want to take love for granted. But I know that I couldn’t have found love if I didn’t find myself first, and it took a deep and at-times sad period of loneliness to do this. As work has taught me, it’s like a roller coaster: falling to the depths of the unknown are what allow you to create momentum to get to new heights. I think I had to learn how to be happy alone to learn how to be happy with someone else, and yes, for this I’m incredibly grateful. Grateful as much for the loneliness as for the love.
I’ve learned how to bike race. I can’t believe that at this time last year I had never lined up on a start-line, never been dropped by a peloton, never sprinted for a finish line. All of this is new. And yet it feels like I’ve been doing it forever. Reminding myself that it’s new puts things into perspective. There is still a lot to learn, there’s still room for improvement. It also reminds me of all the women out there who are going to be heading out for their first races in the early spring, and who by the end of the season we’ll think of as old-hat. In a year’s time, I would really like to have my Cat 2, perhaps even my Cat 1 license. This is ambitious, I know, but I’m in better shape than I was last year, and I know how to race now. However more than points chasing, I want to help a lot of other women find what I’ve found in the sport, so I want to do a lot more group rides and skill sessions and let other people learn through my failures, and let my failures become permission for them to also go out and try something hard.
In the coming year, there are a few things I will do.
- I will ride the route of the Giro Donne with some of my closest friends. This will be hard, but it will be an experience of a lifetime.
- I will race and complete the Cape Epic without any major injury. Knock on wood.
- I will buy less, but better. Coffee, meat, clothes, bike kit, furniture.
- I will turn my phone off at night.
- I will read more novels.
- I will actually read all the magazines I have subscriptions to.
- I will continue learning how to be more present and listening better.
- I will spend more time with my girlfriends, new and old.
A lot of brands at the moment are facing exactly the same problem as each other: they have a very loyal, interested, listening and active core market.
This is supposed to be a good thing. They have surged to initial success because of their popularity in their respective cultures. They seem to do all the right things. They tell the right stories. They are switched on. They are social. They are also completely and utterly stumped as to why they their businesses aren’t growing.
I’ve written in the past about Culture Gaps, and in the last couple months have been trying to unpack this idea a bit more. I’ve described Culture Gaps essentially as cultural opportunities for a brand, something bigger than a brand - something that drives the way people think and feel about the world around them - and this is then something the brand and its offering becomes a residual champion for - an expression of.
Following this line of thinking, what so many of these successful niche brands are failing to do is understand how to translate their success in a very focused narrow market into success with a mass market.
I cannot emphasise how important it is to recognise that your brand - as it is right now - might be really off-putting to most people. It’s not that they don’t want to be a part of your brand’s culture. In fact, they probably are already a part of your culture, but what you haven’t realised is that your culture is much bigger than your very specific version and vision of that culture. Success requires humility.
People don’t buy a brand because they buy into a brand’s story. They’re buying a brand because they’re buying into the culture the brand is doing a good job expressing.
Niche appeal to a mass market seems non-sensicle… except we see it all the time. Starbucks, Patagonia, Innocent…. They all did it. And most continue to do it. They set out with specific, niche focus, but somehow translated into having much wider appeal.
1. Humility: recognise your brand is lucky to be a part of something bigger
2. Get better at championing that culture. No, be the best at championing that culture.
3. Know the people who populate your culture (this means accepting that not all of them are part of your obvious niche market… most of them will look and feel a lot more “mass”. That’s okay. Love them too.)
4. Use that knowledge about your people not to design explicitly to their “mass” tastes, but rather to have enough confidence to have a unique vision and way of doing things that cuts through the crap but doesn’t put them off while you do it.
In a nutshell, putting culture at the heart of your brand allows you then to grow the culture in the vision of your brand. It’s not about being user-centred, it’s about be culture-minded.
… just a thought.
Utopia is not a distant thing but an attitude with which you try to transform the world.
Our job is to create this attitude. Optimise utopia.
Effective lateral thinking is only possible by those people who can imagine and are excited by possibilities, not by those who fear change.
We call the space, between not knowing and wanting to know more, the magical gap. Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our need for a sense of wonder rises above self-image and authenticity, through a threshold of referentiality to a higher latitude of possibility.
I love projects like this, asking people to condense those things most important to them down to a handful of belongings.
Lucky Charms, Jif peanut butter, Betty Crocker cake mix, Aunt Jemima, Shake n’ Bake, Crisco, Pop Tarts, Goober jam, microwave popcorn. These are among the products apparently most-missed by American ex-pats living in London; or at least this is what Selfridges’ “American” Food Hall selection tells us.
To those who aren’t familiar with Selfridges, it’s London’s rather grander department store version of Barney’s, and of its many departments, its food hall is probably the best. Food from all over the world, the best place in London to buy fresh fish for sushi, cheese, deli foods like no where else, perhaps a bit like a larger, more comprehensive version of Dean & Deluca. And they sell Lucky Charms. (Note, Lucky Charms is the only cereal on offer in this section).
But I do wonder who had the interesting job of choosing 20 SKUs of American products to meet demand. When people leave America, are these really the 20 products they miss the most? All highly-processed, relics of a 1960s America defined - it seems - by foods most of us longed for as children.
There are dozens of other foods I’d love to see on these shelves, but yeah, on some infantile level, this selection of brands has homed in on our desire to buy all the stuff we probably couldn’t (read: weren’t allowed) when we actually lived in the states.
Infantile urges for pink, sugary, artificially-flavoured food seem to have defined this particular “ethnic” food selection. But I also wonder about Selfridges’ cultural role as a permissive parent. It fits with its store-wide indulgence positioning. I can’t speak on other “ethnic” food sections, but I wonder if the selections are equally indulgent, submitting to the infantile urges of …wherever… somehow, I doubt it. I’m probably reading too much into this, but if they’re stocking it, it’s because it sells. And knowing the buying prowess of Selfridges, they probably buy these products specifically because they’ll sell better than any thing else. hmmm…
I really like this list from Wondermark, especially “Projects are Stackable: It’s not that I’m starting something new before finishing something old — I’m nesting the new project inside the old.” Ideas nest too.
I’ve made a habit over the past few years of following textile trends, not because I want to know what people will be wearing or how they’ll be decorating their houses, but because anyone with half a brain can decipher shifting cultural codes from the stuff we cover our bodies in. It doesn’t require a degree in textiles or fashion to realise that how people dress themselves and their homes is directly correlated to how they feel about the world around them.
Instead of laboriously scavenging through various textiles books, fabric shops, trend books, Style.com or religious reading of the Sartorialist (most of which I do, anyway when I have time), I also attend a twice-a-year go-to trends presentation by the incredible Li Edelkoort.
The former president of the design programme at Eindhoven, former Creative Director for Jil Sander, and venerable consultant to most major brands (most of whom deny following her advice as closely as they do), Li is pretty much as close as it comes to being a cultural dowsing rod.
While I’m as cynical as most when it comes to trend forecasting, believing that with enough influence, the industry leaders might be capable of producing virtually perfect self-fulfilling prophesies, Li continues to out-pace these assumptions. And I’m not just saying this because I also write for her magazine, Bloom, but because she has an incredible knack for pattern recognition and sensing the way people feel long before anyone has the nerve to express it.
Some call her a guru, which doesn’t really do her justice. If our job as strategists and culture makers is understand where cultural gaps are about to appear, Li’s job seems to be to clarify what might otherwise be a cluttered set of thoughts and random notions. She identifies, in the words of Shopenhauer, what everyone has seen but not yet noticed.
Your job, while sitting in her audience and afterward, is to think laterally. Let your imagination wander. What does it mean for the cultures of washing/driving/eating/love-making/communicating/drinking when we are obsessed with fossils? Or water? Or birds? It is not as simple as this, but when Li expands each topic by variations on a theme, suddenly the patterns will appear. You will notice influences, you will notice culture gaps, you will notice icebergs before the ship needs to turn. If nothing else, you will spend a few hours being inspired to think visually - a skill most strategists and planners could improve.
Most of Li’s presentations cost about £300, but on 25th of May she will present her 2011 work called ‘In Flight’ for £36, organised by the lovely folks at KMAUK. I highly recommend any students of planning, planners, strategists and creative directors-in-training to check it out…. TICKETS HERE
Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is that we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long have we had them? […] Only when agriculture came into practice - and that’s not very long ago in terms of the whole history - did a place achieve meaning and value and permanence. But land is tangible, and tangibles have a way of getting into few hands. Thus it was that one man wanted ownership of land and at the same time wanted servitude because someone had to work it. Roots were in ownership of land, in tangible and immovable possessions. In this view we are a restless species with a very short history of roots, and those not widely distributed. Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, to be somewhere else.
Please excuse the long-winded quote. It’s from John Steinbeck’s non-fiction about America, Travels With Charley, first published in 1962, and possibly one of the most eloquently articulated passages about roots and mobility in American culture - as it was at the time.
Mobility has been a dominant cultural paradigm in American culture for a very long time. It still dominates, to a certain extent. But the pendulum swings the other way, too. The story of mobility, movement and restlessness is instrumental in and perpetuated by some sort of existing power system. Essentially, mobility is a myth. I like myths, they’re fun to pick apart. Steinbeck’s brief but succinct evaluation of mobility and rootedness takes mobility as self-evident. “But OF COURSE we’re a mobile people! And here’s why…” The historical evidence may go a ways to explain why we’re mobile, and why the story of mobility resonates so powerfully with Americans, but why do we keep telling this story, over and over again?
Yeah, it sells cars; and “progress,” the close sibling of “mobility,” promotes status anxiety … but let’s be more intelligent than that.
Americans are obsessed with mobility, but more and more, they’re (we’re) also obsessed with rootedness, origins, heritage and permanence. Genealogy and family tree services have boomed in the last couple decades. The question “Who do you think you are?” now refers to a question of the past rather than one of potential. For the Great Meritocracy that is the United States, this is quite a development.
The questions this change throws up are quite significant. Dominant myths usually play some sort of important role, having some purpose in our minds beyond being a nice story to tell. So, if mobility was a dominant myth, what role was it playing? What, in effect, was it covering up, or disavowal was it facilitating? And if mobility was a story that allowed us to ignore some other unconscious component of our national composition, what does a change like this imply?
First off, I’d argue mobility, or a lack of roots or rootedness, helps Americans unconsciously both create and control a lack of race. There are many, many races populating American soil. But many multiples does not equate a negative singular. Ask anyone what the American “race” is, and you’ll just find blank faces, or perhaps some PC regurgitated muttering about “melting pots” and “multiculturalism”. I’d argue the culturally dominant “race” in America is still caucasian. Or let’s just call it “white”, for now. “White” is a total misnomer, and of course, there are a lot of other contributing influences over the American contemporary gene pool than North-Western, Anglo-Saxon Europe. But most of the “America” portrayed within and outside of the nation’s borders, happens to be played out by “white” people.
So, simultaneously, we play out our culture as “white” people, but continue to say, “we have no origins, we have no roots, we have no race… we are, in all this hubris, claiming “we’re above race.” “Look at us with our token Black guy in the White House!” Is America a so-called “post-race” nation? Americans are more obsessed with race than virtually any other nation of people. This isn’t to say Americans are racist, but race, in all its dimensions, is almost constantly on the American mind.
—- With every paragraph, I’m infuriatingly aware I can’t do this topic justice in a single blog post… but I’ll press on. —-
In a quick leap of the unconscious mind, “mobility” connotes “lack of roots.” And if roots imply a sort of racial heritage and origin, mobility essentially facilitates the myth of the post-race nation. We come from no-where and everywhere at the same time.
But what of rootedness? We suddenly find ourselves wanting to come from somewhere! Mobility has slowed to a near stand-still… both social mobility and physical mobility. Americans have stopped going places (both meanings). Forget travel; this isn’t about travel, this is about where we call “home.” And it seems American culture has cast its collective gaze backward, inward, indeed to its roots. This seems severely at odds with the myth of mobility. Americans have been predominantly united not by where they came from, but the idea of where they’re going. We might have all come from somewhere different, but the journey has brought us together.
So what happens when “journeys” just stop making sense? We’re just not going any where as a nation, or as a culture. Yes, individuals may still go places, but as a whole we’re collectively slowing to a halt. We’re more grounded, more obsessed than ever with land and property and permanence. We’re more rooted. Social mobility is almost non-existant in reality (though - as a myth - is still pumped out through our media and popular culture). Perhaps we’ve land-grabbed all we could, now we’re just obsessed with hanging onto it.
What happens now is we start looking for other ways to connect with each other.No longer united by the journey, roots start making a lot more sense. Race, heritage, genealogy, family trees start getting emotionally profitable.
But as a nation of people relatively ill-equipped to talk about race (for centuries dominated by either overt or latent racism, an un-intended consequence of our surrounding cultures), this throws up all sorts of interesting new artefacts about cultural identity. We’ve been disavowing race (and racism) for generations… it’s not going to be an easy transition. Our roots have always been there, but we’ve tried our best to ignore them. Now, we’re doing our best to ignore the fact mobility just isn’t what it used to be.
We’ve been going through a period of transition for a couple decades now, we’re much less finding our collective identities through wild-west cowboys and road trips (what remain are of the world of parody and absurd comedy); and far more looking for America in our heritage. As we become less-connected to some imagined genetic “purity” the more important that imagined lineage becomes in our collective unconscious.
I fear some Americans will (and do) take this cultural shift as an excuse for latent racism to become overt.
Humans, as social animals, will always look for connection, even if connection comes at the expense of division - because we’re also tribal.
At the risk of this becoming a book… and because I can’t do this topic justice, I’m going to stop.
Image via i.klee
Something interesting has been going on in the world of car colours. I’ve noticed several cars in the last few weeks with matte black paint jobs. The kind of black that disappears in the dark. Light doesn’t reflect off it. Nothing shines. It looks a bit fuzzy; soft, even. It’s a bit like chalk-board black.
This matte look has extreme militaristic connotations. Its indefinability is like that of a warship’s grey, or a stealth bomber’s black. The relationship between auto design and jets is nothing new, with many car designs throughout the last 60 years directly referencing the aerodynamic, flight-specific shapes of air and space-travel.
I’m not exactly well-versed in the world of auto trends, but this matte black seems like quite a departure from car paint trends of recent years. It’s not just a colour change, it’s a textural, material change. Cars have typically been on a mission to look more aerodynamic, more sleek. Every curve designed to reflect light in a way to look like it’s “in motion”. But here, now, is a car that has rock-like qualities. Designed to both absorb and blend into its urban surroundings (specifically urban because I’ve only seen this on a handful of BMWs, one sport utility BMW and a 3 Series sedan, and a GT sedan), less a beacon of motion, more so a moment of dissolve, blur and invisibility.
This is probably a dramatic next stage manifestation of the trend for grey cars… utilizing texture and what are likely new paint technologies to achieve a visual quality desired but unattained by conventional grey. Grey signaled invisibility in an urban environment. It was subtle. It was austere.
Matte black makes cars almost invisible. Invisibility is a shield, both physically and emotionally - in this case, more emotionally. Signaling an implicit need for emotional security over physical security. Though counter-intuitively, this matte black is much harder to see in traffic. Are cars so safe now they don’t need to look safe? Is emotional safety derived from not-being-seen more important than the physical safety of being-seen?
It also signals an extreme masculine subjectivity in the form of optic control. The driver of the matte black vehicle is in a position of visual power compared to his surrounding (non-matte driving) people. He can see, but isn’t seen.
Oddly, this isn’t just a trend in cars. It’s also cropping up in bicycle paint jobs too. Somehow, the stillness, silence and fuzz of matte has replaced the false motion of shiny paint. It’s more masculine, harder-looking, safer-feeling, and exactly the opposite of almost everything else on the road.
Update: I wonder how much this has to do with comic book illustration style?
Don’t look for gaps in the market. They don’t exist, never really have. (Yeah, that old thing about markets sometimes not existing in gaps…) Look instead for gaps in the culture. But this means you have to first find the culture.
I spend most of my working days finding and articulating cultures. Little cultures. Behaviours and ideas that stick and spread, ever-evolving and shifting and morphing at indecipherably small increments.
Product design should definitely look to find a gap in the culture. But so too should marketing and comms and even retail for that matter. We should be fostering and building cultures not markets. Clearly we *all know this*, but I still find this language is greeted with novelty every time I explain it.
Each time a brand goes out to say something or do something or make something, they should know exactly what kind of cultural legacy they’re leaving behind; something future archaeologists can look back on and puzzle over. What culture did you create? You didn’t make pies. You didn’t make shoes. You didn’t fly planes or sell cars… you either invented or fostered a culture. Chances are, it was a culture that already existed, but there was something missing. Some galvanising piece that articulated exactly what that culture could be… or better yet, could stand for.
The problem with cultures is even the smallest thing that is slightly off-culture (and hell, we’re talking about a moving target here), won’t appeal. The trick seems to be anticipating where the culture is going and be there right on time. Not before, not after… the culture will have moved.
So please stop talking about gaps in markets and behaviour being off-brand. If it’s a gap in the culture, sure. If it’s off-culture, will it be on-culture soon? Or has the moment passed? Is there a cultural legacy you’re planning to leave behind… or is it just stuff?
Image via Trendtablet
After last week’s revelations about the Japanese man who donned a wetsuit in the middle of the tsunami’s destruction to swim out and rescue is wife and mother, I’ve been thinking a lot about bravery.
Bravery is experienced almost universally across cultures. In most, it’s a highly gendered characteristic, celebrated chiefly as a sign of masculinity. It’s an outward show of virility and potential success. Most cultures distinguish between risk-taking and bravery although often reward them in the same way when done successfully.
Though this post isn’t about bravery in general, it’s an observation that unlike in the US - where bravery is embraced and rewarded in the same way for men and women alike, in the UK, bravery is a strictly male thing. Women and girls are actively discouraged (it seems) from being brave. This bothers me.
Two weeks ago, I spent my Sunday with a wonderful new friend, 6 year-old Maddy, and her brother and father, standing by the side of a road handing out water bottles to bike racers in the Wally Gimber. Having 3 brothers and awesome parents, I’m pretty sure Maddy is going to grow up to be an amazing girl, full of gumption and gall, maybe become a bike racer like her dad, or a successful attorney or writer or astronaut. Mostly because it’s quite difficult to impart wisdom to boys about being brave (as is their cultural rite as boys in England) without some of it rubbing off on her.
Encouraging bravery is necessary if you’re trying to promote self-confidence because it’s all about believing in yourself, regardless the outcome.
I don’t have too many gripes about English culture, mostly just amused observations about its quirks. But the English discouragement of female bravery is fundamentally horrible. It turns us into a culture of co-dependent, self-depricating, shy and (sadly) often un-interesting individuals who would rather be glamour models than business women. (I pray this isn’t the fate of little Maddy).
Female bravery is looked down upon because it means standing out from the crowd. (Humiliation is fine if it happens en masse, but unbearable if it happens to you all alone). English women like to make mistakes in large groups (note the monstrous occasion that is the English “hen-do”), and they don’t mind looking the fool, but looking the fool in the promotion of one’s personal or professional success means looking ambitious (and there is little less English than appearing to try hard). Bravery requires enthusiasm and caring. The English might be good-humoured, but (see my previous point), enthusiasm and keen-ness is hard to swallow for a culture that invented “cool” (not caring).
That being said, I know a few amazing, keen, very brave English women. I raced with and against some of them yesterday.
England needs brave girls. It needs to promote a culture of bravery, regardless of gender. Bravery breeds intelligence, self-confidence, independence and ambition. Where are our role models who can displace the glamour models? I’ll puke if I see another female olympic athlete pose nude for some boy mag. Don’t turn our bravery into just another way of producing a beautiful body. Acts of bravery can be small. They can mean letting us make mistakes. Let us learn how to fail, for failure (as most the big British business minds will tell you) is the the currency of success. Let us not be perfect, for perfection sows the seeds of doubt. Let us race against the boys. Let us do things alone. Let us not compromise ourselves or what we believe in. Let us not be afraid our bravery will signal some sort of un-femininity.
In our marketing, can we learn to celebrate our desire to be brave? English girls are in shackles, wanting to be brave, but up against a culture which doesn’t let them. Which brand is going to realise this first?
“Storytelling” must take the prize for most over-used strategic-creative bullshit. But the fact is, lots of us use it, and it works. Our brains like stories.
Interviewing Tony Dunne a couple nights ago, we inevitably fell onto the topic of storytelling in design and it got me thinking about different types of storytelling. Or perhaps different purposes of storytelling.
1 The first type uses design to tell a story. We see this all the time in branding, packaging and retail in particular. The design implies there is a story out there which is communicated thus through colour, through a specific graphic style, through imagery, through shapes, etc. It would be quite difficult to pick out any sort of ‘narrative’ from this, but an overarching ‘story’ seems to permeate the stuff that gets made.
2 A nuanced variation on the first type, the second is when design uses narrative to create an experience. Much more visible in say, architecture, retail, exhibition and interior (the world of big things you can move around in), because people more literally can become characters, actors, agents - and their movements, motions and emotions can be choreographed through the dynamic space. It’s in these experiences one might find explicitly designed “events” or cinematic qualities (suspense, pacing, surprise, etc), treating one’s existence in the space like a story that needs plotting out. Turn a corner and WOW! This approach sort of argues that narratives are the best way of communicating a complex idea in an emplaced context like a historical event in a museum or a brand in a store.
You don’t need narrative tools to tell a story, but if what you’re designing is an emplaced experience, these tools become pretty important.
3 The third type uses story to create a design. Here we can invent possible worlds, with different sets of assumptions about human existence, different laws of physics, different biologies. It’s from these worlds we’ve written that some of the most inventive design emerges - because it’s been designed for a world that doesn’t exist. (Or perhaps in the case of scenario planning, is a world that doesn’t exist, YET.) Once the design is created, the story can then fall away like scaffolding.
4 The fourth type tells a design through a story. The world of design fiction and site writing designs us impossible objects. Things that cannot exist physically are manifested through written stories. These story-things are not real nor fake, but likeable untruths which we conjure in our minds.
This list is incomplete, as it should be…
Image by Raquel Kelmanzon
I’ve recently been re-watching the Wire (to get through the winter training season on my turbo - known as an ‘indoor bike’ to the normal world), and one particular narrative trope keeps coming back: the double story. I feel like I’ve seen this a lot lately, not just on the Wire, or even just on TV, but everywhere.
A double story is essentially a long-winded parallel story, replicating characters, even lines. The most obvious is often found in visual montages, where - for dramatic effect - the double stories will be juxtaposed cutting from one back to the other. It seems, particularly in the Wire, this double story is the big narrative that runs throughout the series, coming to a climactic head a various junctures when the two stories get closer and closer to one another and then in one dramatic montage are, quite literally, visually spliced together again. We’ve all seen these double stories… it’s nothing particularly new.
But why are we telling these double stories? They seem to be one defining characteristic of most successful television programmes these days.
Double stories make people feel intelligent because they confuse us, forcing our minds to read a narrative for connections. We unintentionally start thinking more laterally when we watch double stories. It becomes difficult to clearly delineate good vs. bad and other such comforting facts because every character archetype has both two versions. Neither one is easily defined because they essentially act out the exact same story.
I’m a little ashamed to say it took me a second watch of the Wire to be able to articulate that this is the show’s big narrative. The beauty of a double story is that it works on very very simple levels (like Black guy/White guy) as well as nuanced, complex levels. No audience member left behind!
We’re not just talking about so-called ‘complex characters’; in fact, the characters aren’t exactly complex. But we read them as such because each character is in fact two characters, acting out the same narrative in parallel. The double story trope weaves two separate entities into one, enabling a narrative to feel more complex than it actually is. We feel conflicted because our minds are forced to reckon with one idea in two separate ways, at the same time.
Perhaps this double story is working out some sort of zeitgeisty social schizophrenia. I’m not entirely sure, but I reckon we like to think of ourselves as complex individuals, but the double story seems to identify that we actually like to think of ourselves as complex multiples. The ability to be one thing and also be something else entirely different simultaneously seems to be a uniquely 21st century phenomenon.
Double stories don’t just happen in TV and cinema, though. I’d like to see more of this employed within exhibition practices, in particular…. perhaps where it’s most necessary to tell a complex idea.
The trick of the double story is that it has ‘multiple entry points’… or something. There are lots of ways to find a first connection with a character or singular idea within a double story. They provide lots of options (“which is more me?”) and then only once you’ve identified the most relatable entry point and have become immersed in the narrative, do you realise how conflicted you’ve become. But by that point you’re hooked and feel the need to embrace the complexity.
Double stories make lateral thinkers of us all… and that’s quite nice.
Image via TrendTablet
Really sorry, I’m trying to collate all the digital fragments of me into this one place, and it might take a bit of time. I’m going to keep all my regular writing here, and you can still find my collections of things over here.
Panic, as a state of emotion, is one that is at its most valuable when it is shared. A person who is panicking needs to express his anxiety, his hysteria.
Public hysteria is what follows shock at the onset of a massive, spectacular disaster like what was just witnessed in Japan. First an enormous earthquake. Then a tsunami watched live on TV around the world as it spread its lethal waters for miles inland. Then a weakened nuclear reactor plant fails and explodes. It’s fucking horrific. And I haven’t even mentioned the tens of thousands of people who’ve died and even more injured as a result.
Hysteria is actually quite a derogatory word, and one that has fallen out of public media parlance in recent years because of its connotations with sexism. Yeah, that’s right. Sexism. Hysteria was originally the word used to describe the psychological situation of a woman when “her uterus was out of place”. We’re talking about the ‘science’ of hundreds of years ago. So, let’s re-cap: a woman’s uterus starts wandering around her body; clearly that’s why she’s mad. And by ‘mad’, it might mean she’s just being a bit inconvenient for someone. So I’m going to use this word with caution.
But in some ways, the use of the word ‘hysteria’ is somewhat apt here. It’s a kind of raw, emotional panic that seems unstoppable. But it’s also often “caused” by a load of nonsense if you look at the situation rationally. Hysteric panic is self-perpetuating because people like to share their panic. Panic is a dish best shared between friends. Even better, though, when it’s shared between relative strangers.
Panic lives in the same emotional register as ecstasy or glee. Especially when and because it’s experienced with others. There’s a fantastic book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. In it, she discusses the need for public out-pouring of emotion. Mardi Gras, Carnival, parades, street dances, barn dances, you name it… people love coming together for no particular reason beyond the ability to share in an emotional experience with one another. Usually, and thankfully, this seems to happen around positive emotions. But we live in such emotionally addled societies these days… all work and no play (and our play often happening in isolation)… and we take ourselves so damn seriously! Perhaps what we need more than anything is to share an emotion. It doesn’t even matter which one it is.
Panic lives in the same emotional space with ecstasy and glee because it’s something we almost physiologically feel the need to share with others. Especially with strangers. Panic unites people. It gives them a reason to connect… more simply, a reason (an excuse?) just to talk.
So, back to Japan. A lot of people are panicking. But really, the news media are manufacturing this panic. They know it will get people talking. And what gets people clicking links, buying shit and turning to God? Yep. That’s right. Word of mouth.
Most of what is being said and written in the news is highly sensationalist and inaccurate at the best of times. We should know better, but we don’t. We should do our research. We should listen to the scientists, not the journalists. So many shoulds… but we too-strongly crave the opportunity to connect with others to think rationally about how or why we’re doing it.
This is not to discount the very real and horrific tragedy of what’s going on in Japan. It’s awful. But let’s at least think about why we’re panicking before we run for the hills.