December 22nd, 2010

Translating Ideas: Using Concept as a Project Anchor

The benefits and pitfalls of using concept statements to help your project get to launch.


Ceci n’est pas the same pipe. Pipe picks courtesy of Waqas Ahmed, Etsy Ketsy, and Pipe, Adam Coster

All creative teams, many in the business of designing communication, have at one time or another struggled to communicate their own ideas to others. With each idea seeming to call out for its own unique telling, how are we to form any lasting methodology from the many tools and formats at our disposal? In this post I’ll focus on one such tool, concept statements, and discuss some of its benefits and pitfalls.

Becoming Real

“Translation always involves some change to the core conception of an idea.”

In October Adam Greenfield gave a talk at AQ on the topic of ‘Becoming Real’1. The talk was inspired by a theoretical framework by Bruno Latour about the progression of idea to “project” to “object”. Latour writes of two requisite processes for this progression: the “recruitment” of talent and resources, and the “translation” of the original idea into a form that recruited parties are willing to support.

The creation and delivery of a presentation is perhaps the most common occasion of and trigger for “translation”. An idea must be articulated to be presented, yet because it is not yet an “object”, the very presentation of an idea will change it.

One potential “translation” is that in preparation for the presentation, the author finds weaknesses or uncertainties in the idea, or at least its ability to be presented, and decides to change the idea rather than present badly. Selective representation of the idea by its author and differing stakeholder interpretations of this representation will trigger additional translations as forms are changed, features rejected or requested.

Creative agencies have long attempted to maintain consistency and economy by normalizing the presentation of ideas in a set of translation tools, in hopes of controlling possible outcomes and responses. Clients may embrace or even demand this (through structured pitches), to have their minds blown fairly, predictably and portably, allowing for structured discussion and decision making.

There are many such translation tools, of varying degrees of utility for any given idea or audience of stakeholders. Some so closely resemble a finished object they may be mistaken for one, while others are so abstracted they may seem to be describing the entire universe. Perhaps the most ubiquitous tool is concept, but while we probably all have an intuitive idea of what a good concept is, upon analysis it proves to be a shy and elusive creature.

Concept: What’s it all about?

In his discussion of Latour’s “translation”, Adam recounted a collaboration between Japanese camera manufacturer Canon and industrial designer Jasper Morrison, which fell apart when a Canon designer asked Morrison what his concept was for his camera design, and Morrison replied there was none.

Adam supposed that this failure of “translation” stems from a uniquely Japanese use of “concept”, or rather コンセプト (konseputo), as a requirement for the acceptance of ideas by project stakeholders. In my own interactions with Japanese clients, I’ve largely escaped any curiosity in “concept”, and suspect the “concept” checkbox appears more ubiquitous in the large agency environment Adam worked in, where normalization of presentation formats and business processes are required.

I’ve always had mixed feelings for concept. In my lighter moments back in art school I would joke that “concepts are like armadillos, it doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as you have one” (cleaned up for this blog). I’ve seen classmates fly through critiques articulating concepts no more profound than “I waited for the watermelon to rot, then took pictures of it.” I’ve also seen classmates field dressed by instructors with their own lofty concept, revealing a laziness or protracted delusion so embarrassing the entire class must look away.

In the professional world, concepts take forms from the concrete to the poetic, and yield everything from misunderstanding and disappointment to inspiration and guidance. A concept statement can be a description of an observed behavior or motivation, it can be a cocky challenge, or a metaphor.

A good concept: You know it when you see it, know it when you don't.

For project teams, a strong concept can be like a slogan for a political movement. A measured semantic fuzziness in a concept allows for shared ownership by a diverse team, as each person can develop their own interpretation. There are few words in English open to more interpretation than “hope” or “change”, yet as concepts, they retained enough specificity for a supporter to examine an initiative and say “This is change,” or “That’s not change” — and enough power to keep millions of supporters moving forward in unity.

But the slogan that gets you through the primary may not work in the general election, nor yet in office. Campaigns and projects are allowed to shed or rearticulate concepts. As ideas move through project phases and eventually to “object”, stakeholders grow in number and diversity, with varying command of domain knowledge, attention and commitment. An articulation of a concept may inspire an idea (audience: yourself), another may allow you to recruit talent and resources (audience: internal stakeholders), and a third may allow you to launch and gain acceptance from consumers (audience: the world). Through each phase, your understanding of why an idea works should deepen, allowing you to express its value in fewer, more powerful words.

My ASICS: “How am I doing?”

Henning Fischer Lead design strategist at Adaptive Path for My ASICS

In 2010, AQ had the pleasure of our first collaboration with user experience giant Adaptive Path, in the redesign of a digital service for runners called My ASICS. The redesign began with an exhaustive consumer research activity and product definition phase, both led by Adaptive Path. The conclusions of these activities were shared with the project team via a series of presentations consisting of “concept architectures” and “experience principles”. At the time, this seemed like a baroque elaboration of “concept” to our gang of designers and engineers on this side of the pond, anxiously waiting to dig into code and pixels.

Yet many times, during a spirited disagreement over how a feature might behave, where it should live, or whether it was worth building at all, when there was no self-evidently superior viewpoint, someone would quote Adaptive Path, “People track to train as well as to understand their running,” or “My ASICS is about your running and not anybody else’s,” or even “How am I doing?”, melting away any doubts to reveal the right course of action.

And so, Adaptive Path’s articulations of the concept of My ASICS allowed us to make decision after decision until we reached an “object” that does just a few things, but does all of them with a clear, consistent point of view, based entirely on the needs of real runners.

So what made each of these concept statements such a powerful anchor for My ASICS? Let’s take a moment to break each one apart.

The first, “People track to train as well as to understand their running,” explains a phenomenon. It has an agent (people), actions taken by the agent (tracking and training), and an underlying motivation (to understand their running) for these actions. It specifies the end user of My ASICS (people who run), behaviors My ASICS can support (tracking and training), and a desired outcome of the service (understanding). By inference, we can also conclude that My ASICS is not for people who are not already running, does not care what music they are listening to, nor is it primarily concerned with improving performance. Eleven jargonless words later, we already know quite a bit about what makes My ASICS different from competing services.

The second, “My ASICS is about your running and not anybody else’s,” provides additional focus. This is a service that will have succeeded if it helps you understand your running. It is not trying to start a competition or latch onto some real-world social relationship. Again, just a handful of words, no jargon, plenty of direction.

The third and my favorite, “How am I doing?”, is a question My ASICS hopes to answer. As with the first two, this question is as powerful for what it doesn’t ask as for what it does. It is not one of five questions, it is the question. It demands a concise answer and can be used to judge every form field, pretty visualization or cutely worded factoid that stands at the gates of My ASICS, punishable by exile from the service.

While each of these statements is worded specifically enough to be meaningful, it is also of note that they are not specific to the point of limiting the service to just a few people. Had they spoke of “marathon runners” instead of runners, or “How fast am I going?”, we would have ended up designing a tool too narrow to be useful, for a market too small to be commercially sustainable. Over-specification might have also detoured the project into debates over features or target users, long before such conversations would be of any use.

As you can see, it was the plain English of these concept statements, as well as their balance of specificity, that allowed them to survive, and supplied much of the focus and confidence the project needed to move forward. When My ASICS launched earlier this month, the project had lasted eighteen months, involved dozens of contributors from a wide range of professional backgrounds, spread across three continents.2 Many, many projects of this size do not launch at all, yet Adaptive Path’s conceptual framework had the durability to guide and reassure these contributors again and again, until launch became an accepted inevitability.

Conclusion

When presenting an idea to a mixed group of stakeholders with the goal of gaining their support, there are many communication tools available to a presenter. Each tool draws attention to a different quality of the idea, and implies a different level of precision and completeness.

A concept statement has the advantage that it can’t be mistaken for the finished object (being just a few words on a screen), while it can still contain the right balance of specificity to conjure a shared vision of the object. As we’ve seen, this balance refers as much to what is included as what is excluded from the idea — which are both deceptively tricky to get right. But if a concept is specific enough to provide direction, yet fuzzy enough to encourage wide adoption and interpretation, it will likely outlast any other project artifact in its usefulness and memorability.

Footnotes:

1. Many would say that this is too long or involves too many “cooks”. I’d agree, if ASICS was a web startup and not a multinational shoe manufacturer with over 5000 employees. Project complexity is the trade off you make for substantial funding, a preexisting fan base and decades of running science research. Some would not make this trade, but I consider it a bargain.

2. The title and focus of ‘Becoming Real’ echo ‘Getting Real, the first book by 37 Signals, arguably one of the most effective shippers on the web through the last decade. Both works agree that only the “object” is real, only the “object” is worth anything and everything that comes before it is a disposable, easily forgotten artifact. But in ‘Becoming Real’, Adam steps back from the assumptions and prescriptions of ‘Getting Real’ to describe five possible strategies for getting to “launch”, into one of which 37 Signals fits pretty neatly (DEY or “Do Everything Yourself”). While ‘Becoming Real’ accepts “translation” and its resultant distortions as inevitable for most project teams, ‘Getting Real’ takes aim at “translation”, urging entrepreneurs to choose processes and business decisions to avoid “translation” almost entirely.

Chris PalmieriAfter studying graphic design and Japanese language and aesthetics, Chris moved to Tokyo in 2001 to begin his design practice.
He co-founded AQ in 2004 to bring design basics to cultural organizations with bilingual websites. In his current role as managing director, Chris works with clients to clarify their ideas, oversees the creative process and designs.Read more posts by Chris Palmieri

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