Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Who is the Audience in Your Head?

In high school, my boyfriend's brother, Thomas, was a (young) professional magician. Their back guest room, where I would stay, had a wall plastered with paper plates, each with a drawing of a face on it. Some faces were smiling, some were confused, some were looking another way. Thomas would practice in front of them. His show was wordless. He had no instructions to give or laugh lines to hit. And yet he'd perform his tricks for the faces diligently--and it paid off in 1997, when at the age of 19 he became the youngest person to win the world closeup magic competition.

While not all of us are destined for such greatness, we all design and create for others. In museums, attention to the visitor--her desires, his preferences--has grown over the last few decades. We're up to our ears in curriculum frameworks, ADA recommendations, and target outcomes. But what does that really mean about our design practices? How many of us have Thomas' drive to hang the faces of our visitors on cubicle walls?

Do you imagine a set of "target visitors" when you design--and more importantly, how do you pick that target? Is it a group of leaders in the field whom you hope to impress with your work? A group of disaffected naysayers whom you hope to rattle into engagement? Or a demographic to whom you need to sell more tickets?

Ze Frank recently posed this question to several designers, filmmakers, and artists here, asking:
When you make things with an audience in mind, do you have internal representations of that audience to help guide you in the process?

Here are my favorite gleanings from the responses he received, followed by commentary and a challenge for you to share your own response.

There were a couple of great comments about the tension between focus on the audience and opportunity to create something truly great.
Designer Alan Chochinov talked about when to use the audience and when to forget them:
your "imagined audience" can often come into conflict with the imaginings of the designer, and where your question of conjuring (or vanquishing) an imagined user becomes a central one: Lead or follow? Serve or direct? Comfort or subvert? Placate or persuade? My personal feeling is that a good designer is able to keep the imagined (and hopefully researched) audience front of mind at certain stages in the design process, but then be able to turn them off at other stages, allowing the designer's vision, passion, and muse to take center stage. All cliches, those, but you'd be surprised how often they get back-burnered by a short-sighted client or set of focus-group data. Alas, for designers then, "the imagined audience" is both blessing and curse.
And filmmaker Emily Ziff talked about the difference between authentic and overly marketed audience engagement:
I realize that when I am clearly able to identify the target audience for a piece of work as something outside of myself (even if the demo I'm referencing describes me), when I read or see something and think immediately 'this was made for women over 30', it is generally because somehow the work has failed for me. In those instances I am reacting to the work as a piece of business. The construct is suddenly made transparent, the foreign sales estimates go whizzing through my head, followed by an image of some agents in their offices thinking they've got a winner (maybe they're high-fiving??), and then a quick calculation of whether I think they do--all that in the moment when I am struck by who the piece was made for. When I do not have that ah-ha moment, it is generally because the piece is succeeding, because all I'm feeling is that the piece was made, not for "me" the demo, but "me" the complicated human struggling to make sense of the world, the universal "me" insofar as there can be one, and I feel satisfied.
Karen Koolhaus, a theater director, and Jakob Trollback, a designer, talked about designing for both the choir and the great unwashed. Karen offered the following gem channeling her friend Brian Parsons (a London theater director):
I try to please 4 people when I make theater. 1) A blind person - the language must be taken advantage of by the actors in a way that illuminates the story for the audience just by listening to it. 2). A deaf person - the staging must tell the story clearly on a visual level and all design choices must be beautiful/effective to look at. 3) A person who does not speak the language - that person must "hear" and understand the moments and emotions between the actors without knowing what they are saying. 4) My mother, who hates most theater. If she likes it, I know I've done it right.
And Jakob writes about the difference between a skeptical audience (useful) and a hostile one (time sink):
I learned a lot about the importance of reading your audience when I was a DJ. Itís hard to imagine a shorter feedback loop. For more remote work, I switch between thinking of an appreciate audience that will understand my expressions, and a clueless, if not hostile one. In my head, the appreciative audience is challenging me to evolve further, to find new ways to tell a story, while the skeptical audience is forcing me to find different contexts in a hope to break through. I have wasted much time in the past refusing to comprehend the opinions of adversaries. Failing to understand why people think and act the way they do and that there may even be some kind of strange logic to it makes it almost impossible to influence anybody.
Filmmaker David Kaplan talks not about his audience but his professional associates with whom he shares drafts of his work:
One curious thing that happens when I give out a draft of a screenplay to one of these people to read is that they don't necessarily have to say anything at all in order for me to read it in a more critical way. Simply the fact that I know they are reading it makes me see it differently, less indulgently. It's the same with screening early cuts of films. No one has to say a word; you can feel how the film is working as you sit through it with them in a dark room.
And Paul Budnitz, clothing and toy designer, drops people out of the equation entirely and writes about how his work measures up to products he admires:
What I do is I look at the thing that I'm working on at this moment, and I think of all of the similar things out there in the world that I think are awesome, and I say to myself, "is this thing that I made at least that awesome?

Reading all of the responses, I was surprised to see that the vast majority (not reflected here) threw their audience out the window as a perceived obstacle to truly innovative design thinking. This may be legitimate in some cases, but it also reflects narcissism (I know what's best) and a lack of interest in the value that audience can bring to designing a great product. I love the "blind, deaf, non-native language, mother" metric that Brian Parsons uses, because it acknowledges not just the variability but the deficiencies of audiences--and our responsibility as designers to accommodate and tackle those deficiencies. Yes, many of the designers profiled who "design just for themselves" are successful--but they were hand-picked to answer this question. I wonder how many young artists, poets, designers have the same Ayn Rand-ian attitude and will never make it far enough to be asked about their process by others.

My feeling as an exhibit designer is that I need to work somewhere between artist and product designer. With art, the audience is generally considered to get in the way of greatness (though that also leads to a highly insular art world that may not attract the unanointed). But products are successful when they are useful and used. Museum exhibit designers are somewhere in the middle here--trying to create exhibits that are both highly usable and also challenging content-wise. Usable art. And I think that works well when we acknowledge the negatives of either the "art" or "product" approach--avoiding slipping into narcissism or audience profiling. Ultimately, as Emily Ziff points out, we're successful when we create something human, something that can snatch people from all walks of life and give them a spark of something wild and surprising--something we all secretly wish to have and be a part of. For me at least, it's this interest and trust in other humans, in their desires and abilities, that drives my work.

What about you? Who's in your head, and what are they saying?

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