Skip to content

Uncomfortably hard

The chair is a designer’s acid test. What’s the equivalent for our disciplines?
It would have to be conceptually simple to grasp and yet profoundly difficult to master
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

In the Danish Design Museum in Copenhagen, there is a long, high gallery devoted entirely to chairs – banks of them, displayed from ceiling to floor, individually framed, like art.

Design historians in general, and the Danes in particular, have a thing about chairs. They are totemic: the most “culture-bearing objects”, according to the museum’s curators. And they are deceptively hard to get right: “the acid test” of a designer.

That point is emphasised on one of the gallery walls with a quote from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “The chair is a very difficult object. Anyone who has tried to make one knows that. There are an infinite number of options and problems. It is almost easier to construct a skyscraper than a decent chair.”

What is our equivalent in the marketing and communications disciplines? What is the task that you would give the would-be practitioner as the acid test of their innate ability?

It would have to be totemic – a unitary part of your particular discipline that stands for the whole; conceptually simple to grasp and yet profoundly difficult to master.

What is your craft? And what is its “chair”?

Advertising creative
It has to be the slogan – basic, spare, elemental and yet elusive: the more you approach it with the straining, conscious mind, the more it recedes, leaving verbal flotsam and jetsam in its wake.

Some will be too long: how do you get an entire brand edifice down to three or four words? Some just seem worthy, or “salesy”, or far too slick. Most are forgettable, interchangeable – the kind of thing an algorithm could create, and probably does.

How did anyone ever come up with the great ones? “Say it with flowers.” “Beanz meanz Heinz.” “Just do it.” What’s the formula?

There isn’t one, of course. And the ever-growing list of flat-footed attempts soon convinces you that it is easier to construct a three-act play than a decent tagline.

Consumer insight. The rookie might seize upon a colourful verbatim from the research, not appreciating yet that if consumers can articulate it, it’s not really an insight and, worse, not acquainted with Freud’s dictum that “we are largely invisible to ourselves”.

Experienced practitioners know to set the bar higher, to aim for “breakthrough revelation” rather than a mere finding or observation.

But it’s one thing to aim, quite another to achieve. If you put too much originality into it, or work back from some desired goal, you’ll find yourself open to challenge on rigour.

What’s the answer? More research? Different methodologies? Just hanging out there looking and listening? All of the above – and that inner voice that tells you “Of course!” when the real, surprising thing comes along.

Segmentation strategy. How hard can it be? A lot harder than tagging a seemingly attractive cohort with a catchy name: “mildly messy mums”, “home-haven hunters”, “disorganised divas”. Never was there a sub-discipline in which form has so often, and so expensively, traduced function.

And “discipline” is the operative term. Can the segment be reached in media without too much overlap? Is it large enough to still achieve economies of scale? Are the needs of people within the segment homogenous but different from the needs of people outside?

The marketer who cannot fuse both imagination and rigour to craft a sane segmentation strategy won’t – or shouldn’t – last long.

Digital marketer
See “Marketer”. Your fashionable channel specialism does not absolve you from mastering the basics. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Account manager
The apology.

Graphic designer
The corporate mark makes a pretty good “chair”, with its combination of “options and problems”. At first, it seems like anything goes. In a while – as you try to imagine its application across business cards, screens, packs, vans, badges and buildings for the next 20 years – it seems like nothing does.

Product designer
Well, this is where we came in. Your “chair” is a chair – and if you need inspiration, you know where to go.

Problem solving

“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem.”
– Steve Jobs

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
– Albert Einstein

“You have to misbehave to make breakthroughs.”
– Paula Scher

“The best ideas start as conversations.”
– Sir Jonathan Ive

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
– Buckminster  Fuller