Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wanted: Persuasive design research

A recent column (in Dutch) by Tim Driesen (@mrtimp; creative at Famous, Brussels) got me thinking - something the author should be credited for. Tim wrote down a desperate cry for help: advertising (at least in Belgium) is in desperate need of intelligent creatives. In recent years, he observed intelligent talent entering the business, but mostly in the strategic departement. At one point I did feel a strong relevance of his post for my own work in academics. His diagnosis of the problem revolved around two key issues, I believe:

  • Students from an arts education are of course pretty creative but, on average, less intelligent
  • Students having an academic background have lost their creative talent and ability to think outside the box

The second is of course something that reflects on my job. Point taken, mrTimp. I will make my students think out-of-the-box this year. Not sure they will all be much in favor of it, but I already have some ideas about how to accomplish that.

However, I see one more problem and it has nothing to do with the intelligent students that should be interested in creative jobs. It has to do with academic research not being interested in creative design. Strategic insights on advertising delivered by academic research largely fall into two big categories:

  • How to make people think about the message? Here, relevance is key. The more relevant the message, the higher the likelihood of deep processing. This is all pretty basic stuff. It has been given different labels, but we know this for about 25 years and there are tons of research on it.
  • What happens when people think deeply about the message? Here, the body of evidence is still growing and new insights pop up every year.
Academic research has, however, neglected to look at the persuasive effects of message design. There are only few exceptions to this. Some of my favorite researchers on this topic are Laura Peracchio and Joan Meyers-Levi. They, for instance, showed the effect of picture rotation (of a product featured in an ad) on persuasiveness (see there 1992 paper; that is about 15 years before Twitter got launched). Granted, their research is not always easy to wrap your head around. Also in my own ongoing research I try to unravel some persuasive effects of what appears to be purely creative decisions.

I think the manifest lack of this type of research is also to be blamed when we talk about academic students not being attracted to creative jobs. Too little of this research could give students the false impression that creatives and designers are solely dealing with usability (which is of course important in itself) and strategists are dealing  solely with persuasiveness.

I appreciate any comment you might have!


  1. Thanks for your comment, Tim. Food for an interesting discussion, I'm sure.

    Speaking about relevance, I think we are neglecting the existence of creative relevance. Creative relevance starts where academic relevance ends.

    So I'm looking for profiles that only exist by accident and not by education. Recruiting in no man's land, that's a problem. And the academic world is to blame in a way. Because of the ongoing separation of creativity and knowledge.

    More than ever we need creative relevance in advertising. Creativity isn't enough anymore. (In fact, it never was, but ten years ago we still got away with it.)

    I'm not going into psychological details, I'm sure you're better in that. But if I can be of any help convincing your students to start thinking 'creative relevance', I'll be happy to do so.

    Tim Driesen

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