Betting on a gut feeling

Clients and designers spend millions on rational research into consumers’ purchasing habits, but Richard Watson argues that great design, great products and great companies can only exist if instinct – and the courage to run with it – forms part of the sc

Woody Allen once said that half of success is just showing up. I disagree. Half of success is timing and the other half is common sense – two fundamental truths that can easily be applied to design.

Timing is important because conditions are always changing, and looking to the past to predict future success is a dangerous game. This year’s new design is often next year’s bin-end. Unfortunately, most clients will have none of this. All too often the objective is not to rock the boat, and solutions based on what’s worked before are usually the order of the day.

These solutions may not have dramatic effect on sales, but they won’t get you fired either. This means that if you’re a whisky manufacturer looking to change your pack design, you simply hire a design consultancy which has created ten whisky packs before, ask it to look at what the competition is doing, copy it and you won’t go far wrong. Unfortunately, what the competition is doing may be insane, and even if it isn’t, by the time you’ve copied it the game’s probably moved on.

This mirror vision would be stamped out in an instant if people just used a little common sense once in a while, but this seems to be in very short supply at the moment. In fact, common sense is in such short supply that I think there is a conspiracy going on to fool people into thinking that design is complicated when it’s not.

Some clients and designers will have you believe, for example, that successful design comes out of a formulaic process which is based on a mechanistic observation of purchasing behaviour, competitive analysis and the rational interpretation of data. In other words, design is a science.

“Success” is simply a matter of deciding what to say and then researching a number of alternative routes to find the “winner”.

The problem is that finding out what to say is the easy part. What really counts is how you say it. Design is not a science; it is an art. Consumers rarely behave in purely rational ways, and they rarely buy products purely for logical reasons. If they did, Which? would be the largest selling magazine in the world and brands would not exist. My mum could tell you this. In fact, my mum could tell you more about most products and why she buys them than most brand managers could.

The trick is knowing what to ignore, and the best way of finding out is simply to act like yourself in Tesco, in a hurry, on a Saturday morning.

To put it another way, in order to be successful, clients and designers alike should use their hearts a little more and their heads a little less. Gut feeling and instinct, at the end of the day, can tell you more than thousands of pounds worth of research, and it is the ability to trust, interpret and ultimately exploit the hunch that creates great design, great products and great companies. But just try telling this to Procter & Gamble.

If you think this is clap-trap, consider an example. Who in their right mind would bet on a company started by a school teacher, selling cosmetics packaged in old urine bottles in a shop next door to an undertakers? Nobody. But Anita Roddick’s driving belief has always been that what’s important and interesting to her will also be important to other people, and to this day The Body Shop does not have a marketing department in any form that would be recognisable to P&G.

In fact, the retail industry is littered with examples of successful entrepreneurs who have run with a hunch and built vast companies as a result. Entrepreneurs whose idea of market research is to open a shop and see what happens.

So am I advocating that clients all rip up their copies of Nielson research data and that designers throw out process altogether and do absolutely anything they like? No. All I am suggesting is that clients and designers alike try to act like the ordinary consumers they are.

The role of common sense is to understand intuitively basic human motivations. If this means you reject the next brief that says “the shampoo for today’s woman”, so be it.

If it feels good, do it.

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