The honeymoon period

Tim Rich finds weddings are a fertile ground for a bit of consumer research, but is glad the heightened design sensibilities on show don’t last longer than the afternoon.

It’s summer and once again the English countryside is full of slightly bemused men in suits. Each one is glancing at his watch every three minutes then loosening his tie and squinting into the sun-baked distance. Nearby, a woman is trying to wear an elegant hat wider than the stationary car she is falling out of. She is carrying a shining box adorned with a fountain of ribbon.

More men and women arrive. They join the loose throng of suits and hats. They are creating a sweet ‘n’ sour cloud of perfumes and aftershaves. They are all wearing dark glasses and looking at their watches every three minutes. They talk about each other’s clothes. The noise of their communication increases until the distant, but increasingly animated, wheezing of a church organ drags them away.

Beware, for these are the tribe known as Wedding Guests and they shall be disturbing the peace in every sleepy village each Saturday between now and September.

Of course, every so often you will have to pretend to be one of their number. You too will be required to grind your car around cow-dung’d lanes looking for a hamlet called Crogmorton-on-the-Mire or Titterly Botton or a church called St Barnabus’s-in-the-Field. But from a professional point of view, it is always worth the blood, sweat and gears because weddings and their receptions – particularly those social cocktails of urban and rural held out in the middle of the Shires – are essentially a walk-in, interactive customer research group. Through the day you are able to quiz a wide selection of people on everything from their shopping habits to their Internet knowledge.

Little do they suspect that you are, in fact, cynically gathering marketing insights and amusing anecdotes about design work you didn’t do (“so the ring-pull lid actually sliced off her entire hand?”). In fact, they’ll think you’re charming for being so interested in their consumer horror stories and their league table of favourite brands. Or, for those of a business-to-business leaning, a tale or two about the flash Johnnies who did their company’s last corporate brochure.

At what other time can you gain access to an alcohol-fuelled opinion binge featuring such a multitudinous range of consumer experiences and prejudices? There are so many different “types” to interrogate, from the gloomy teenager who has been staring into an ever-replenished pint of cider all afternoon to the glam 40-something who has told everyone at the wedding that St John’s wort has changed her life.

Having spent week after week at your desk trying to turn a written representation of consumer’s tastes and expectations (otherwise known as a brief) into a tangible object or piece of communication, it can be so refreshing to find yourself out and about among the rabble – sorry, the target group. And it’s not just their opinions and experiences that you can gain – you can see all sorts of user-product interaction going on too. Over there, for example, a young man is attempting to simultaneously flirt, record someone’s phone number, and explain how easy his personal electronic organiser is to operate, while pushing its buttons with the tip of his little finger, peering into the screen and swearing.

One reason why weddings are such a happy hunting ground for a designer in search of target market feedback is that they bring out the design sensibilities in us all. No one is short of an opinion. From the flowers in the church to the typesetting of the order of service. From the car that takes the beaming couple to the reception to the labels on the bottles of wine at your table. Then there’s her engagement ring. The dress. His tie. Her mother’s hat. The best man’s MG. And the vicar’s socks. Otherwise normal people suddenly become sensitive to the niceties of objects. Perhaps this is how we in the design industry want punters to be all the time?

Of course, it doesn’t last. As in that well-known footwear industry promotional vehicle, Cinderella, the fantasy comes to an end as darkness draws in. By midnight the amateur aesthetes have turned into sweaty winos doing the cancan or lusty lagernauts wrestling an exhausted bridesmaid around the dance floor to Three Times a Lady.

But then, perhaps it’s also a bit of a relief when the tribe reverts back to normality. It would be wearying if the general public went around being opinionated and sophisticated about the design of things every day of the year. I mean, that wouldn’t be very English, would it?

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