1. Thoughts from the Zeitgeist

When Change Feels Stable

#14 Design the New Normal

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Most people I know consider themselves to be rational human beings who make their most important decisions based on objective information, weighing the pros and cons, and then making their move.  For better or worse, this is a myth. If people were really all that rational, we wouldn’t engage in all those behaviors that we know are unhealthy (smoking? overeating?), our wardrobes would consist of strictly practical garments (jewelry? neckties?), and we would probably live in a different house (easier to maintain, cheaper to heat and cool).  The truth is, we are not the reason-based animals we think we are.

Bruce Mau invokes the lessons of neuroscience: “… the way that we make decisions and conduct ourselves is mostly not governed by the region of the brain that is responsible for reason. In other words, most of our behavior is governed by the reptilian brain that looks for cues in the environment on how to behave…. Most people make decisions based on emotion, not reason. What really happens is that you have inputs that will trigger behavior.”

In short, we tend to do what other people are doing.  We tend to dress alike. We adopt trendy brands. If we see a mass of people screaming and running away from something, we’re likely to join them. If a fire alarm goes off and everyone ignores it, we assume it’s not a real threat. Our brains have developed to take our cues from the group — it actually overrides our own individual will.

What does this mean to those of us designing brand experiences? Everything. When Bruce encourages us to “Design the New Normal” he’s applying what we’ve learned about neuroscience.

It means, if we’re smart, we’ll design our shows, conferences and exhibitions in a way that doesn’t scare our audiences and constituencies but engages them emotionally. Once again, scientific research points the way. Bruce references the work of Professor Paul Dolan — best-selling author and an internationally renowned expert in behavioral science. Prof. Dolan brings new meaning to the term, “SNAP decision,” which becomes an acronym for Salience, Norms, Affects and Primes.

Here’s what that might look like if we’re designing an innovative new customer experience:

  • Salience: We make sure our content is relevant and that people care about it. That means they have to notice it and make a decision to engage with it. Think: the Madonna Curve.
  • Norms: Since we tend to do what other people do, if we want audiences to adopt a certain behavior, we need to make it feel normal. The easiest way to do this is to demonstrate it. That’s why our live events are so powerful – we can make the most radical innovations seem normal (i.e., not scary) by showing other people using them.
  • Affects: Emotions outweigh logic almost every time. We can tell people the scientific facts behind our agricultural breakthrough, or we can show them how it saved a farm family in Burkina Faso from starvation.
  • Prime: Our lizard brain is searching for signals in the environment. We can “prime the pump” — nudge them in the direction we want or reinforce the desired behavior— by placing cues in the environment. Think about Disney – they’ve designed “the happiest place on earth” so that people don’t seem to mind standing in line for a majority of the day. They have redesigned the norm to make standing in line acceptable.

Buckminster Fuller said, ‘I can’t change mankind, it’s too difficult, but I can redesign the environment in a way that encourages the right behavior.’ That’s the secret to this design principle. In fact, it’s the secret to everything we do when we create a live brand experience. But as Bruce reminds us, not everyone who likes to hear about radical change wants to experience it.  We need to bring innovations into our design in a way that doesn’t scare away our customers or their audiences. We need to make the innovation feel normal. When we use proven templates and methodologies that drive innovation, like our Learning Cycle, those things help mitigate the fear factor.

“If we want to change the whole enterprise – the whole industry – we can’t just do avant-garde things,” Bruce says. “They want predictability, they want results that they can count on, and we want to produce that. So, designing for the norm is really important, understanding that what we’re really doing is slowly shifting them to a new place.”

When we embrace the idea of designing the new normal, and combine this concept with all of the other design principles – such as Break Through the Noise and Compete with Beauty — we can design events that are worth attending, and worth attending every year, because we’ve kept them relevant, engaging and inspirational. And we’ve designed them so that the only thing people are afraid of is missing out.

When continuous change and unrelenting innovation feel normal, we’re doing something right.