We can push back against the desire to use statistics as the ultimate arbiter of what is and isn’t creative
We all love a good lie and, let’s be honest, as an industry we’re pretty effective liars. You could say we’ve built our profession on lies.
There are the myths that people can be lumped together as mass markets or simple demographies, the fibs we’ve squeezed in around effectiveness to sell in an idea, the lie of the big idea as the be all and end all to each and every creative problem, and the lies we’ve told consumers to get them to buy our shiny new products.
Yet these aren’t the lies I want to focus on. You’ll be familiar with Benjamin Disraeli’s three levels of falsehood: lies, damned lies and statistics. Statistics, in his sense, was the persuasive use of numbers to bolster weak arguments or to disparage results that don’t agree with a particular desired outcome. And it’s this pernicious use of data that was highlighted in a recent New York Times article, ‘Data, not design, is king in the age of Google’, in which Douglas Bowman, ex-head of design at Google (now head of design at Twitter), raged against the engineering-driven culture there, where data trumped everything.
Whenever he came up with a design decision, no matter how minute, Bowman claims he was asked to back it up with data. Every pixel change required different test pages, different groups, with the page resulting in the highest click or dwell time being proclaimed the winner. “Data eventually became a crutch for every decision,” he said, “paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.”
This is perhaps an extreme case, and you have to ask yourself why he didn’t take a look at Google.com to get an idea of how much freedom he’d have as a head of design at that particular organisation. Yet this highlights the angst you might feel as the fun, passion and intuition is squeezed out of any design process — the ‘I know the blue looks better but the red got a 0.003% higher click-through rate’ effect.
Fortunately it doesn’t have to be this way. We can push back against the creeping desire to use statistics as the ultimate arbiter of what is and isn’t creative. Instead it’s possible, and desirable, to find the beauty and creativity within the data itself. You only need to look at the stunning data visualisation work of the likes of Stamen, Dopplr (the social network built on data) or much of Aaron Koblin’s work for the likes of Radiohead to see how visually powerful and creative the careful and considered use of data and information can be.
These skills are becoming essential, just as the need for our standard output of high-end content, graphics and visuals is called into question by the more lo-fi, tactical, quick-and-dirty approach often demanded by social media. This is where the throwaway phrase ‘a good idea can come from anywhere’ takes on some substance. Every role in the design, creative and development process has the opportunity and requirement to find the inherent beauty and creativity in each aspect of its output.