Sensing the shift

Few of us spot the big cultural and creative moves when they start – fewer learn to exploit them early. Change takes time to sink in, says David Bernstein

‘The design community seems slow to grasp innovations that will shape the future,’ says Design Week’s editor (DW 12 July), while hoping that this month’s ‘digital day’ at the London Design Festival will help accelerate a change of mindset. Don’t bank on it, Lynda. Paradigm shifts are rarely recognised as such in their youth.

When television became an advertising medium in 1955 few agencies appreciated its future-shaping potential. Advertising wasn’t a topic of conversation until it invaded the living room and became a part of showbiz.

Not everyone saw it. Three years after the first commercial, an agency chairman proclaimed that the medium would fail. Instead, it went from being a means of communicating product difference to itself being the difference. As a commentator observed of lager drinkers, ‘they are drinking the advertising’.

The significance of a major change is seldom immediately apparent. The marketing communications industry’s obsession with ‘new’ may blind it from recognising the truly unprecedented. The usual task of a creative team is not to communicate something new, but to find a new way of communicating something.

The key question to ask of any product benefit is, ‘Is the difference one of degree or of kind?’. Being human and content with the familiar, we assume the former. Being marketing professionals and trained in positioning, we tend to promote the new in relation to the old. Being good communicators, we take as our starting point the known and explain how the innovation differs from it so that the hitherto unknown can be mentally accommodated.

But ’twas ever thus. Marshall McLuhan, communications guru of the 1960s and thankfully back in favour, said we proceed via the rear-view mirror: ‘To live right on the shooting line, right on the frontier of change, is terrifying.’ So we explain the new in terms of the old and call radio the wireless telegraph and the automobile the horseless carriage.

This may be OK as a staging post, but it should not prevent us from continuing the journey. I am culpable, having regarded my PC as a glorified typewriter rather than a means of connecting with a global communications network.

Difference of degree, difference of kind. The former is a modification, the latter a breakthrough which challenges, then changes, basic assumptions. The invention of writing, the alphabet, papyrus and printing each had profound consequences, democratising communication by taking power away from the priests and scholars, just as today digital technology is reducing the power of the professional media elite. Each of us can be our own programme planner, camera operator, writer, director and presenter. The multi-purpose mobile phone is a paradigm shift. As McLuhan knew, ‘A new medium is never [simply] an addition to an old one, nor does it leave an old one in peace.’

It takes time to realise what’s happening. McLuhan never claimed to be a futurologist, but he did believe he was more aware of the nature of the present and the seismic changes underfoot. He urged his audience to ask not ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’, but ‘What’s going on?’ There’s a question for the design community.

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