Don’t let the halo dazzle us

2015-03-08 15:00

There’s a thin line between innovation and exploitation. Dan Wieden, one of the headline speakers at this year’s Design Indaba, made his name by coining one of the most recognisable advertising phrases in the world: Just Do It.

This simple, catchy and all-encompassing piece of copyrighting genius has sold a brand to you on the premise of action and a healthy lifestyle – and not at all on the reality of Nike’s often deplorable business practices.

When you leave motivational conferences such as the Design Indaba it’s important to keep this in mind, to keep your wits about you. The most powerful element of the indaba is putting a face to those design geniuses you have admired for so long.

Sometimes, understanding the humanity of an industry leader can restore a bit of the faith you may have lost in how creative giants attain their success. Meeting them forces you to ask how you can learn from such successes and failures – to remain critical of even the most inspiring rags-to-riches talk; to determine who, among the curated selection of speakers at an event such as the indaba, really spoke to your head and heart.

Once the conference has come and gone, it often leaves the creative community tripping out on inspiration. Right now, in advertising agencies, universities, design studios and marketing offices all over the world, individuals are sitting at their desks trying to avoid the annual post-indaba design-tweak craze – a desperate urge to critique and improve on everything not working perfectly around them.

It starts at the indaba, when you start noticing that everyday things you normally don’t think about aren’t happening the way they should. Suddenly the cup you’re drinking coffee from that leaves a small dribble of beverage on your lip becomes a total design failure. “Hark! A call to design!” you think.

Hella Jongerius is a Dutch industrial design superstar whose chairs and table designs are among the most replicated on earth. She issues a plea to quality by saying simply: “There’s too much s**t design in the world.”

After this revelation, every chair in the conference hall seems like it was designed by a child. You sit down on a stackable event chair and think: “My bum hurts; the fabric makes my back sweat; this chair is hard to get out of; imagine the trauma it must cause the elderly. I simply must redesign.” The beginning of the talk that follows Jongerius is filled with notebook scribbles detailing how your new design will revolutionise the event-chair industry.

Before long, the next speaker says something interesting and you’re like, “Whoa, what am I doing? I need to be an advertising executive.”

And then the cycle of analysis, critique, redesign and manufacturing returns until, of course, you attend the next talk.

After three days, you have been an anarchist architect, a revolutionary industrial designer, an idealist student, an artist reconsidering the effects of a postcolonial African identity and an advertising powerhouse with the mettle to change the way the world consumes. You leave the conference venue and treat everyone around you as though they may be the next Pritzker Architecture prizewinner. Instead of seeing construction workers as humble bricklayers, they assume the role of craftsmen; coffee makers stop being kitchen staff and become baristas.

You head downstairs to the expo floor and every object you encounter is no longer simply well made or desirable, but is actually the best thing ever invented. Even the sandwiches you buy from the array of indoor food trucks are more than sandwiches – they’re ambrosia delivered by the design gods to your humble lips.

There’s a name for this supposedly heightened sense of enlightenment. It’s called the halo effect, coined by American psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s. It produces what is known as a cognitive bias in which the observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand or product is tainted by “the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity”.

The idea of a halo, of course, normally refers to the ring of light around the heads of biblical saints in Catholic iconography. But the effect of the modern-day Thorndike halo on our lives has been widely studied to understand the biases it creates in education, politics, employment equity and mental health. At the Design Indaba, the halo can take ordinary ideas and make them seem epic, just because they’re presented on a stage.

To get the most out of the indaba, we should letthe halo fall so we can learn for ourselves that anything can be achieved if you work hard enough. Anyone can be an industry “saint”.

When you’re back at your desk, trying to consider the ways to #MakeChange in your own capacity, don’t be seduced by fame, efficiency or the charm of a great line of copy. It’s your name on the label, so Just Do It, but Do It Right.

The Design Indaba offers a rare chance to make contact with genius, but we should be wary of the powerful sense of bias that can overcome us – known as the halo effect

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