Building tools for translating intentions
Of the many gut punches delivered by Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a line spoken by the Commander, Atwood’s archvillain, that hits particularly hard. “Better never means better for everyone,” he explains to Offred, the protagonist. “It always means worse, for some.”
This cynical view sums up the current state of public debate. Whether it’s the result of false promises, unfair policies, a lack of resources, or some combination thereof, we’ve reached a moment when better means worse for far too many people. As a result, even promising new ideas meet quick and fierce opposition due to engrained skepticism and uncertainty. Listen to a political candidate describing their opponent’s supporters, or a developer talking about the community groups fighting a new condo tower, and it’s hard to believe the opposing sides are even speaking the same language.
While we may all use the same words, our intentions can lead to wildly different meanings — causing plenty of confusion. We all come to the table with our own beliefs and assumptions. If we’re able to understand what’s genuine and honest about what someone with different priorities is advocating, we can see them more clearly as people rather than as obstructions or even enemies. In order to move forward, we need to get better at helping people translate their intentions.
At the same time, brands are starting to recognize the need to develop practices that are genuinely purpose-driven and relevant to their business. Today, communicating purpose to your audience isn’t just about saying the right thing; virtue signaling doesn’t cut it anymore. This presents an opportunity for forward-thinking brands to use the design and branding principles they employ to reach consumers to develop tools that help people with different ideas and priorities work together more effectively.
This was the inspiration for one of the projects we’re most proud of here at ThoughtMatter: our redesign of the U.S. Constitution. We recognized that, while widely available digital and pocket versions of the Constitutions mean the document is literally accessible, the dry way in which the content is presented means that it is not necessarily emotionally accessible for contemporary audiences. While the Constitution is central to civic literacy and many people can (and do) quote pieces of the text, few have actually read it in its entirety — and even fewer truly know it well.
This is a classic branding challenge: brilliant product, lackluster positioning. So, we set out to put design to work in making the Constitution feel fresh and engaging, without actually changing or editorializing on the content. The idea was to create a tool that would improve the general public’s ability to have more productive debates about American democracy by making a foundational document easier to understand.
Beyond the blatantly fractious political realm, how is this idea playing out in other fields? Let’s start with the world of urban development.
“Imagine what could be done if groups historically in conflict with one another worked together toward common solutions,” wrote Jon Christensen and Alessandro Rigolon in a recent L.A. times article. The two educators present what they believe to be effective strategies in limiting gentrification in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods that have seen upgrades to their public spaces. One of these solutions: make the planning of parks and affordable housing a collaborative effort, inclusive of multiple entities. Christensen and Rigolon suggest the process should be led by a coalition of nonprofit groups, government and public agencies, as well as private developers from both the parks and affordable housing sectors.
Here, you have people on many different sides of an argument, all with very real and genuine concerns and priorities. If resources are constrained, what matters more: a park or affordable housing? Transportation or the arts? In order to reach the most equitable solution possible, community organizers, advocates, and residents need to better understand where each side is coming from.
Already, there are creative solutions being developed to improve processes like these — specifically, through gamification. Istanbul-based architecture studio SANALarc, for instance, created the card game Imagine Guidelines, which “[gives] players a shared vocabulary and base of knowledge with which to talk about their city.” The game is designed to increase local residents’ capacity to participate meaningfully in city planning. Similarly, New York’s Center for Urban Pedagogy created a hands-on toolkit called What is Zoning that provides activities to help communities visualize and understand zoning language and laws.
Both of these tools offer ways of making complex policy more straightforward, giving people from different backgrounds a chance to have clearer, more informed discussions about important issues affecting their communities. Tommi Laitio, executive director of the City of Helsinki’s Culture and Leisure Division, believes in the power of gaming to increase citizen engagement in city planning. “A game-like environment with specific rules,” he explains, “can help create a more equal playing field, and make sure you hear all the different voices, rather than having a general discussion where the most vocal people take the floor first and set the agenda.”
Many brands are looking for meaningful ways to get involved with efforts to address climate change, where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Generational divides have proven to be a huge obstacle. On sustainability and issues surrounding climate change, many senior citizens are actively resistant to new environmental laws according to a recent Pew Research report — a phenomenon that is more about perspective than politics. “As conservative millennials increasingly indicate concern over the effects of climate change,” the report explains, “people aged 65 and older are most likely to say environmental laws aren’t worth the cost or effort.”
As comedienne Sarah Silverman underscored in her Great Schlep campaign during the 2008 presidential election, it can be daunting for younger people to have serious conversations with their grandparents. This presents a largely untapped opportunity. Suppose a communication-focused brand with a large millennial audience launched a campaign to encourage people to call grandma to talk about climate change. Imagine an Apple- or Google-designed conversation guide or toolkit to help younger people build understanding with elders around this critical issue.
Think back to Heineken’s Worlds Apart Campaign, which featured ads consisting of pairs of individuals with differing views on subjects like feminism, climate change, and LGBT rights. Each pair assembled a bar together and then sat down for a beer to discuss their differences of opinions, through conversations full of clarity, perspective, and context. The results were vastly different from how those same conversations might have gone on Twitter. Heineken was able to tap into the core emotional value of their product — beer as a social lubricant, a thing you consume together over conversation — in a way that genuinely addressed social issues. It gave participants the tools to translate their intentions, and see each other differently.
So how can we get groups historically in conflict to work together toward common solutions? It starts with tools that build shared language. Once that language is shared, opportunities can be created for these groups to share space for meaningful discourse. You and I may use the same words to describe completely different opinions. In order to find common ground, we need tools that help us say what we really mean.