The Method Actor Approach to Design
I spotted that expression in a recent interview with branding luminary Michael Beirut of Pentagram. Despite being a practitioner of this rather compulsive form of design thinking for as long as I can recall, I have never quite paused to acknowledge it in words like that before.
Design has evolved from its most basic (graphic design, signage, typography) into an entire category of problem-solving, founded on empathy. Design as a function has crossed over into meaningful territory, becoming a legitimate grown-up discussion. It’s less afterthought, and more the commercial (or social) ideation process itself. Governments, businesses and social movements are leveraging design as a key differentiator, because it connects systems with emotions. Design thinking completes the cycle from need to want, and organisations have long circumvented this with pure business theory.
At my Dubai-based firm Xische & Co, we are often incredibly fortunate to find ourselves involved with ventures that exist solely on PowerPoint slides up until that point. The point in the lifecycle of a project where there isn’t even a brief yet, let alone the need to involve a design firm.
Earlier in the year, this familiar scenario was at play once again when we were invited to absorb the inner workings of the UAE’s mission to Mars. In meeting after meeting, before anybody from my team ever lifted a pencil, we just sat there, and listened. To a lot. Global history, space exploration, genesis, impact, hierarchy, risks, values, key players, big picture, nationalistic spirit, cultural sensitivities and in this case, quite literally rocket science. During the ears-only phase of any project, we always have two choices. We can either bore ourselves silly for reasons aplenty (it’s not our problem, it doesn’t impact our work, there is no design brief). Or, we can start imagining, role-playing, empathising, believing, questioning, reacting, and by the time we’re ready to even participate, reach a state of being.
We cease to exist as agency, outsider, listener. We start to exist as project, brand, client. It turns out there is such a thing as going Brando even in the world of design thinking. A method actor doesn’t pretend to play a role, but immerses himself in character so fully (on and off the set) that actor becomes character. Behaviour becomes reflex, and the script becomes suggestions, rather than instructions.
When observed in the design business, a sudden but subconscious divide occurs within our team quite early in the process. In the eyes of our team (the agency), the client-facing colleagues become increasingly indistinguishable from the actual client. The Mars Mission, for example, instills such deep empathy, that the team starts asking questions an agency ordinarily wouldn’t, seeking answers that are not supposed to be our business at all. As the internal divide arises within the agency, the external agency-client divide disappears. We find ourselves sitting on the same side as the client, championing the same cause, fighting for the same values, invested in the same goals, and sweating for the same deadlines. And clients can see it.
The cherry on top is when I take a moment to realise just how profound it is to have the knowledge no civilian outside of our closed chambers will have, until public launch of something like a nation’s yet unannounced mission to another planet 100 million miles away. If storytellers (I don’t like the term marketing professionals) shifted their mindset to appreciating the audacity of this opportunity, then as Beirut puts it, there’s a thrill that has little in common.
And traditional consulting isn’t the only way there anymore.
Brando would be proud.