"Method" Designing

by Tracy Doherty, Senior Director, Strategic Global Design at MWV

How can we create intuitive design for a set of data we have algorithmed and stereotyped into a boring, made-up person?

 Good design is empathetic, intuitive and human.  It makes sense and sounds simple. But how do you get there?

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At MeadWestvaco (MWV), it starts with research. MWV’s consumer and market insights group goes out into the marketplace on a regular basis to gather insights through in-depth primary research. They study what grabs consumers’ attention on the shelf, how they use and store packages at home and which attributes influence satisfaction throughout the product lifecycle. 

This qualitative, quantitative and ethnographic data serve as the foundation of our innovation pipeline, guiding our creative process and go-to-market strategies. But the challenge with consumer research data is that by definition, it’s just data—numbers, charts and focus group read-outs. 

Our challenge as designers is to unravel those reams of paper to translate the spreadsheets and graphs back into the individual people they describe. It’s not a new problem; it’s a classic case of research science bumping up against creativity. The question is how best to bridge the gap.  

Years ago the advertising industry tested one approach. They began creating “personas” to help funnel demographic and attitudinal user-groups into small sets of unique fictional characters.  These characters—“Jenny” or “Amanda” for masstige beauty companies and “Jake” or “Logan” for beer makers— truly “put a face” on market research data and helped designers, art directors and copywriters get to know exactly whom they were trying to reach. 

Not only did these characters have names, but addresses and families and jobs. We knew what kind of cars they drove, where they shopped and what they were likely to be doing at any given point in a day. Agency strategists even built experiential “rooms” with curated collections of all the items “Jenny” would have in her kitchen and bedroom and “Logan” would have in his refrigerator and the back seat of his car. 

At the time this was revolutionary—a real meeting of scientific and creative minds that helped generate some insightful design and clever advertising.  But over time, “Jenny,” “Logan” and their friends became generic, trite and predictable. They ceased to inspire us.  

Recently at MWV we’ve been pushing the level of consumer data character development a little deeper.  From sitcom to drama.  From surface to soul. Because we believe the best design is truly empathetic, our global design team strives to understand the human condition.  It’s not just about what functional attributes of a package influence repeat purchase, but the way people live, how they sense, move, think and feel…and why.  

At MWV we’re experimenting with what you might call “Method Designing.” Like “Method Acting,” in which an actor uses immersive techniques to truly embody a character, our designers recreate the sensory, psychological and emotional experiences of consumers. The goal: bring alive many unique observations from the same research.

Based on the results of the research, we start with one main character – a “Jenny” or “Logan.”  Then each member of our team is charged with identifying a real “Jenny” or “Logan” in their own lives—an aunt, a friend, a brother-in-law—and developing immersive experiences to better understand that person’s interaction with our packaging design. 

The diversity of our design team means we create multiple, individual versions of “Jenny” that are still consistent with the overall theme.  Our “Jennys” are more multidimensional. They have more of a soul and a personality, making them more inspirational for creative design. We explore how the intended package or brand benefit — “safe” or “attractive” or “surprising” — shows up via physical cues for each “Jenny.”  What can we learn from non-packaging formats in our “Jennys’” lives?  And how can we translate those cues into package design?  The process of fleshing out and describing each sub-character leads to more real discussion and better problem solving.

Layered upon in-depth consumer market research data, we are finding this “Method Designing” approach is generating intuitive and empathetic design that works for “Jenny” and “Logan” and also for Elizabeth, Priya, George, Thomas and Carmen...helping our CPG customers leverage packaging design to better connect with their consumers.

by Tracy Scott Doherty

Tracy Scott Doherty is the senior director of strategic design at MWV, the brand behind the brands you know. The global packaging company helps shape consumers' experiences with products in healthcare, beauty & personal care, food, beverage, tobacco and home & garden markets.

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