What role does visual design play in a cultural insights and innovation agency? Crowd designers Elizabeth Holdsworth and Salem Khazali share tips on how they help to make our work impactful...
Designing for a cultural insights and innovation agency throws up many creative challenges and, over the years, we’ve learnt some lessons. Of course, each project is different, and every narrative requires us to flex our creative muscles in new ways – from decks to zines to adult colouring books. But there are some common ways of thinking that we’d like to share with you below. Adopt these and we believe that the insights you deliver will benefit.
Who, what, where?
As creatives, we always start with the same basic questions – ‘who, what and where?’ This set of questions unpacks like an enchanted toolbox, as in fact there are many more questions inside these questions. Who is the client and who are the stakeholders? What form will the research take and what are the hypotheses? Where will the work go once it’s delivered? Where’s it likely to be seen?
These magic questions get us immediately thinking about who the work is for. Because the point is really about the audience, and where we’re aiming. It’s like the hole at the end of the golfing green – it’s a long way away at the moment, but we need to know where the insights will eventually land.
Design is purpose
Being purposeful is key to good design.
We’re not just making things look pretty, stylish and trendy, or even tidying things up, so they are clear, legible and structured. Designers do all of those things, sure, but these are just by-products of what we are really doing – which is something far more fundamental. We’re visually communicating meaning and intention.
In its broadest definition; design’s really about purpose. One dictionary we looked at says: ‘Purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.’ The example cited is of a search for ‘the appearance of design in the universe,’ showing that design can be interchangeable with intentionality – meaning amid chaos. This world we’ve constructed is our design. It’s our design to act this way. Tell us, dear reader, did you come here by design?
Working for a brand means understanding their voice and visual language, so that we can present the insights in a relevant way. Beyond this we need to think about culture and ask about how the brand positions itself in the world, and how the deliverables reflect this intention.
Aim to be flexible
As much as having a clear overview of what we need to communicate, we need to build fail-safes into the design process. The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ comes to mind. Client needs can change rapidly, so another habit to get into is to learn not to see your design choices as precious. This is relevant to most fields of design; however, brands are often keen to adopt the latest trends, when they can do so authentically, and so must you be.
Keep it minimal
The best work is brave enough to say a lot with very little and if you look at great pieces of design, it’s nearly invisible. Working in insight, we often feel we need to show clients that we’ve earned our fee. Often this means we write a lot, and in design terms, it means cramming many things onto one page. Don’t be afraid to strip things back. Once you do this, the message you’re trying to communicate will be much clearer and, importantly, will connect more profoundly.
To talk more about the role of design in insight and innovation, get in touch
From launching an NYC office to unveiling our thought leadership study for Spotify, we’ve had an amazing year at Crowd…
At this time of year, everyone’s waistbands expand a little. At Crowd, we’ve been happily growing all year. Of course we can’t talk about all the incredible projects that have seen our team travel from South Korea to Argentina and back again (several times). What we can say is that we’re happy to welcome several weighty global clients to the roster.
January kicked off with the release of the Power of Audio project on Spotify for Brands. The study, which saw us travel to US, Brazil, Japan and Manchester, investigates and celebrates the role of sound in our lives, as well as looking at what the future of audio holds for brands and consumers. It’s a great example of the power of socialising insights: the trailer has been viewed 326,000 times on Twitter and counting.
At Crowd we believe that understanding visual culture is essential for getting to grips with consumer culture. In February, Matilda Andersson, head of insight and innovation, shared our thinking when she presented ‘A picture paints: understanding visual culture’ at Atlantic Monday, a Festival Of NewMR webinar.
March saw us proudly open an office in New York, headed by former Flamingo Kiosk NYC lead Hollie Jones. The move to Cooper Square consolidates existing US client relationships and has already resulted in building several new ones. We’re off to a great start, with Hollie joined by Isabelle Kage of the Insight Strategy Group and senior consultant Tom Eccles from London’s Socialise team joining them both in January.
Our first Rise breakfast event in London took place in March. ‘Superfans’ saw Anna Chapman, Socialise director, map the journey of fandom, drawing on our work around influencers and passions.
Gender empowerment has been a huge theme this year both within Crowd and in wider culture. In May, associate director Jake Goretzki discussed the changing face of masculinity in ‘How to speak man’. His session explored changing attitudes to masculinity and, in particular, what being a man means among millennials.
In June, products and services expert, Tom Morgan teamed up with our service designer Essi Mikkola to discuss how we tackle consumer journeys at Crowd, combining a cultural, behavioural science and visual approach.
At Crowd, we’re well known for our work researching millennials and increasingly Gen Z, so it might seem a little odd to debunk traditional demographics with an event called ‘Agelessness’. But as an insights and innovation agency, we know that as the world changes, so do our beloved cohorts. In September, our brand and communications expert, Eleanor Sankey tackled this delicate subject by exploring the idea that understanding consumers by age traits can be a little limiting at times.
Over the year we hosted a number of Rise events in London and Amsterdam. Each one, supported by Crowd content, including downloadable PDFs. Please email email@example.com if you’d like to be sent these.
What better time than the summer to make a short film about what we do? Edited by our head of film, Tom Eccles, it’s definitely worth just over one minute of your time.
September saw the launch of CrowdStars our global network of thinkers, influencers, creators and culture-shapers. We work with them to shake up conventional thinking within businesses in areas including immersive workshops and co-creation sessions, expert interviews and forecasting.
In October Sabrina Qureshi joined us as online communities director. We’re not actually new to online communities. We’ve been running them for years for the likes of IKEA, Booking.com, Sony Music and Channel 4. But now we’re giving the offer an even stronger position within our business – recognising the value of online communities in developing deep and continuous relationships with target audiences for our clients.
Catch us at the MRS day devoted to discussing and debating social media behaviours and trends on February 8, 2018...
Our head of insights and innovation, Dr Matilda Andersson, will be presenting at the event; furthering our recent agelessness work and looking at the role of social media in forging cross-generational communication.
Social media is often described as the new bus stop or park bench: a space for teenagers to hang out with each other, away from their parents. However, Matilda will be proposing that social media can also be important for bridging gaps between generations, bringing them closer together. Her insight is grounded in demographic trends, which show the gap between young and old decrease as Gen Z grows up faster, millennials delay adulthood and Gen X and Boomers live in very different ways to their parents.
Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell on how we get out on-the-road with stakeholder teams, immersing them in the lives and culture of people…
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We’ve been on an impressive roll running client immersion sessions recently. In the last month alone this work has taken us to South Korea, China, Argentina, India, South Africa and Indonesia; as well as out and about on Crowd DNA home turf in New York, Amsterdam and London.
When set up carefully, there’s something incredibly powerful about this type of work (sometimes we call them immersions, other times safaris, consumer meet-ups, road trips or similar; we should probably fix that). Rather than listening to, reading about, or watching what we have to say, or peering from behind the glass in a viewing facility, the client is truly getting in there with people and with culture.
The benefits of this might sound obvious, but it’s incredible how often the potential for these sessions is overlooked. You can’t really sleepwalk through them, and that’s key. It requires client teams to lean in. There’s sometimes even a sense of friction to begin with, of people being out of their comfort zone, but that’s a useful ingredient. Played right, this leads to true alertness and receptivity to what’s going on around you.
There’s not really a one-size-fits-all method for this type of work. Sometimes we might just be connecting with ‘regular’ consumers; at others we will include influencers and experts; or base it more around visiting stand-out locations than interacting with pre-recruited participants. They can be all wrapped up in a few hours, or take place over a number of days. So yes, we’re big believers in custom design over off-the-shelf solutions. But nonetheless we thought it worth trying to get down a few notes on what we think are the important factors:
Planning does make perfect in this field. All participants – the public and client stakeholders alike – need to be given the right level of detail on what will happen and what’s expected of them. Sometimes we’ll produce a project intro video, talking through the plan. We also create profile packs so clients have good background info on the people they’ll be meeting – the more context and anecdotes they have, the easier it will be to start conversations.
We work hard to get the mix of locations just right. You want to be going to the places that the target audience in question really does go to and/or to the cultural hotspots that will change thinking and present powerful new stimulus. This takes meticulous upfront research and attention to detail.
You’ve got to be realistic, too. While there might be ten good spots to head to, if time doesn’t allow for it, don’t do it. There’s no point turning the whole exercise into a needlessly frantic dash about town – and people need reasonable time to share learnings and talk between each interaction. Oh yes, and it’s worth knowing exactly where you’re going – getting lost in Kyoto, Mexico City or Helsinki isn’t a crowd pleaser.
Not too much planning!
So all of this planning is essential, but you also have to leave some gaps in the process. The serendipitous moments along the way are often where the magic happens. If the client wants to check out a different store than the one planned, or has struck up a particularly good conversation that warrants more time, you need to build in scope for such things to happen.
Don’t write a discussion guide – this can hinder the experience of actually meeting people on their own terms. Instead, arm the clients with provocations about the topic of interest as conversation starters. These could be false facts, quotes from previous waves of research etc. This type of stimulus is great if conversation starts to slow down, but, as not too prescriptive in form, also doesn’t limit clients from feeling they have the license to go off-script.
Setting the tone
These projects are about experiencing an environment with all senses truly switched on, not just having a conversation. Tell clients to observe and take note of the spaces they find themselves in, body language, relationships between people, media, music, food, what others in the space are doing.
Encourage clients to be interested, curious, flexible and to have fun. It’s not always going to run perfectly. There will be awkward conversations, silence and even some boredom – but mixed with laughter, fun and great interactions. Let the consumer lead where possible and allow them to be the narrator of their world.
If you’re dropping into a distant city with a bunch of clients, looking to immerse them in how people and culture works there, sufficiently deep expertise in the topic matter is vital. This might well come from previous waves of secondary or primary research that you’ve conducted. It can also come from working with on-the-ground contributors – people who can articulate the details of the experience and unlock scenarios that may otherwise be out of reach. For instance, we might work with local lifestyle journalists and bloggers, or even independent tour guides who specialise in showing people an alternative view of a city.
Everyone will need a way to gather, disseminate and reach conclusions around the wealth of material they are exposed to. We’ve recently had great success setting up WhatsApp groups in these types of situation. Our client stakeholders get to share images, videos and noted insights as they go in a fluid and low friction fashion. Better still, we can use the channel for logistical purposes, following where everyone is and, for instance, whether it’s time to advise a particular team that they’ve probably downed enough shots in that location and should move on!
We also arm teams with Polaroid cameras in some cases – of course, people can take pics via their phones, but it can be useful to achieve a focus on what’s important by limiting the number of shots available to them. We might give them budgets to buy items as they go – inspiring and surprising material that they can then share and discuss later.
Something ultimately needs capturing out of all of this fine work. Talking over findings, post-day, at dinner, can be the way – though be mindful of burnout. It can often be just as beneficial to share the findings over breakfast, as the start of the next day – people are fresher and it primes everyone for the next set of adventures.
It’s the job of the stakeholders to gather and share ideas. But it’s ours to collate them and author, or co-author, the take-outs. The final record of this type of exercise varies – a blog, film or booklet; a simple Google Docs round-up; a workshop session to feed ideas into the innovation pipeline – but it’s vital that there is an end product.
We’d love to discuss ideas for how to make a project of this kind work for your team. Email hello@crowdDNA.com if you’d like to chat and hopefully we can take you some place exciting.
At our next Rise breakfast session in London, Crowd DNA’s products and services expert Tom Morgan will explore three things that often get overlooked by brands when they consider the consumer purchase journey...
To understand how consumers make decisions on the path to purchase, brands need help to decipher a complex journey. In this session, we’re focusing on three things that often get overlooked: cultural shifts, behavioural factors and the power of visualising results.
Tom will help you to understand consumer decision-making processes better, learning how to influence them and ultimately to unlock actionable findings for your brand.
If you’d like to join us for coffee, croissants and an insightful journey along the consumer path, please contact Jason Wolfe. And feel free to bring colleagues along for the ride.
What does an image showing all the objects a person touches in one day say about them? Crowd DNA's Essi Mikkola investigates this visual methodology...
As an insight agency, we’re always looking for new and innovative research methodologies. We came across a book calledEverything We Touch: A 24-hour inventory of our livesa while ago. With thisproject the artist and industrial designer Paula Zuccotti seeks to answer a question: can your physical footprint tell your story?
Sharing narratives with brands who want to better understand their audiences is our job. We’re particularly interested in understanding the true behaviour and how to bridge the attitude-behaviour gap – what consumers sometimes say they do vs. what they actually do.
Inspired by Zuccotti’s revealing photos, we decided to test the methodology to see how it could be used in our future projects. For this experiment, I asked a friend (Jack, 32, east London) to photograph one by one the objects he touches most on an average day, and we made a collage out of the images.
Below, Jack reflects on how the image is a combination of reality and aspirations that might not be visible to people in his life:
“It feels quite exposing seeing my closest objects laid out like this. I think a lot of them reflect the person I would like to be – or even the person I would like to be seen to be – by the outside world. Health foods, running gear – I’m not sure my closest friends would see me as that healthy vision of ‘wellness’ (puke) that these imply – though I do try.”
Some of the objects are made by brands that I do genuinely love and would advocate – Viz, Elektron Instruments, Sunspel, Patagonia, Surrey CCC. Others are things that I feel every other 30-something middle-class idiot has – Apple products, cycling gear, Kindle, a thoughtful book about the environment that I’m struggling to finish.”
Running a quick round of semiotic and cultural analysis on our Crowd DNA team resulted in the following analysis. Health foods, choice of book and a Patagonia backpack echo an archetype of an east Londoner with a healthy, creative, conscious and liberal attitude to life. Viz and the Surrey Cricket Club booklet provide more subtle hints of a ‘geeky’ character and the type of education, we hear from our native English colleagues.
“Definitely on the edge of cool/geek (in a nice way) Why? There’s a Surrey County Cricket yearbook.”
“County cricket is for the HARDCORE – people who really, really love cricket. Add the FM radio and Viz, I’d definitely say public school.”
“The copy of Viz is the outrider here, Holmes. Very unusual for someone under 35. I’d suggest a) found it on the bus or b) definitely has older brothers.”
In order to avoid any natural bias, we’d have to shoot the task, as it’s easy for the respondent (in this case Jack) to pick objects that project a story of himself he wants others to see vs what actually exists. I also started to think how we all have different identities with our family, friends of different gender, and colleagues, and whether this could be communicated through one image. Yet another topic is what role brands play in consumer’s lives around the world, and how these choices are becoming more and more political.
In the end, the most interesting outcome of this experiment is actually realising what kind of stimulating conversations an image of one’s personal objects can spark between the person, someone who knows them well, and a researcher. This methodology not only has the potential to reveal various dimensions of a personality, it could also add another interesting layer of analysis when applied to a global project; it would be amazing to see the juxtaposition of identities from around the world. And because the output looks great, it’s a truly engaging way of socialising insight.
We love fresh ways of sharing narratives and building empathy with people, and this work from Lost Time Media, an immersive journey through Toronto's multi-cultural Bloorcourt neighbourhood, gets a major thumbs up...
To borrow from the website: The World In Ten Blocks arrives at a time when documentary makers are creating immersive online experiences that explore different territory from traditional narrative films. Situated somewhere between the cutting edge of virtual reality and the old-school elegance of point-and-click adventures, Ten Blocks drops users right onto Bloor Street on a sunny afternoon and allows them to navigate a curated tour of the neighbourhood.
A plethora of videos, photos old and new and text are all woven together by the stop-motion-esque experience of taking your own walk up and down the street, stopping in on shop owners and absorbing the ambience of being there.