Fine tune your instincts

Adrian Shaughnessy thinks designers can rapidly develop an understanding of a client’s needs if they follow Michael Gladwell’s advice

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference became a must-read for marketing people, who sensed it contained a new blueprint for promoting brands and flogging consumer goods. Gladwell is credited with promoting the use of ‘viral’ marketing techniques, and he now enjoys Zeus-like status among US business people.

Gladwell’s new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, while intended for the general reader, contains much of interest to designers. Gladwell says his book is about ‘rapid cognition… the kind of thinking that happens in the “blink of an eye”‘. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Gladwell introduces his readers to the notion of ‘thin-slicing’, which he defines as being able to make snap decisions that are surprisingly accurate. At its most simplistic, thin-slicing is the ability to get out of the way of a lorry bearing down on you at speed; at its most complex, it is the ability to make an accurate character assessment, in a matter of seconds, of someone you’ve just met for the first time.

Gladwell gives many examples of thin-slicing. He cites the individual who could tell if a doctor was likely to be sued for malpractice by hearing short excerpts from the doctor’s conversations with patients. He discusses the tennis coach who could predict a double-fault by the body shape of a player about to serve and the near-instant recognition by art experts of an elaborate, cleverly executed fake statue.

Gladwell asserts that we are traditionally encouraged to dismiss fast thinking in favour of prolonged contemplation, a supposition he challenges. He even hints that by reading his book we will learn how to thin-slice more effectively and thus improve our lives. Clearly, designers will benefit from learning how to thin-slice. We often need to make rapid decisions. For instance, when we meet clients it is vital to decide quickly what they want from a relationship. If we can read their intentions correctly, then we can adjust our approach accordingly. Often we need to have ideas on the spot. If we can do this, it will be to our advantage. It demonstrates nimbleness of mind, and helps cement relationships early on; we always tell our clients we want time to cultivate ideas, but to survive we know we have to move fast.

But the problem with thin-slicing, as Gladwell notes, is it often proves disastrous. It seems that if thin-slicing is to work effectively it must usually be accompanied by ‘specialist knowledge’ (the examples above are all by ‘experts’) and free from manipulation by others. Which brings us to focus groups and market research: Blink has some illuminating, original things to say about the way market research is conducted. Focus groups are an increasingly popular way for clients to evaluate new design: after all, as Gladwell states, the best way to find out how consumers feel about something is to ask them directly. Well, that’s true up to a point. But, as demonstrated by the numerous examples Gladwell provides, to get an answer that means something, how and what you ask is the most important part of the equation.

Gladwell devotes much space to the ‘New Coke’ debacle. This marketing disaster was caused by the Pepsi Challenge – Pepsi invited drinkers to take a ‘sip test’. The result was that the instant sugar rush of Pepsi did better than Coke. But tests where the entire drink was consumed gave the opposite result: Coke was preferred. The outcome of the ‘sip test’ was that Coke panic-launched the ill-judged New Coke. It’s hard to care about the clumsy machinations of fizzy drinks corporations, but the lesson here is; asking the public what they think about something doesn’t always get you the right answer.

So, when a piece of design is shown to a focus group for comment, what value is the response? Gladwell writes illuminatingly about Herman Miller’s Aeron chair – its revolutionary design tested badly in research. It was called ‘ugly’. Yet the company stuck with it, ‘trusted their instincts’, and ended up with the best selling chair in its history. Herman Miller triumphed because it dismissed the results obtained from short exposure times, and relied on prolonged exposure to deliver a more accurate response.

Blink is a book about perception. But it’s not about the way we see with our eyes, it’s about the way we see with our minds. Gladwell has some interesting – and disconcerting – things to say about the manipulation of perception, which he treats in an oddly amoral manner. But for designers there is much to contemplate in this readable book.

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