Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Versus

May 4, 2007

Few things are as compelling or as fruitful as a rivalry. Any landscape, no matter how vibrant or contentious, is merely tepid without the conspicuous presence of two, and only two, powerful and clearly defined antagonists.

I wrote recently in my article for A List Apart about how contrast is the defining element in design; the mechanism by which all things and ideas acquire meaning. Along these same lines, I think there is value in examining definitive examples of contrast and how public attention, gravity, and success follow once rivals have been clearly defined.

You will find this circumstance to be true of just about everything in life: sports, politics, culture, literature, business…but it is especially true of, well, everything. Seriously.

Case and point: Apple vs. Microsoft

Much has been written about how Apple succeeds because of its enlightened designs. Bunk. Good design fails every day in the marketplace. No, friends, Apple succeeds because it has come to represent the diametrical alternative to that represented (or perceived to be represented) by its chosen and logical rival: Microsoft. Apple succeeds because of contrast. Some of that contrast is actual, factual contrast and some of that contrast is manufactured out of whole cloth in order to provide the marketing or cultural argument necessary for success.

The strongest, most compelling sorts of choices are binary choices (choices between two options). Every other sort of choice is weaker and less compelling, and decreases in value and interest for every option added to a choice.

By the same token, if not for Apple, Microsoft would have only achieved some fraction of its current success, provided no other rival had adopted and professed such a diametrically opposite set of marketing or cultural ideals. Apple succeeds because the company invested early on in ideas – carefully crafted and hand–picked ideas that exploit the ways human beings process information, find interest, and make decisions. That is the design that accounts for Apple’s success.

Think about it: Apple’s 1984 commercial did nothing to explicitly define Apple. It did something far more powerful; it presented a definition of Apple’s chosen rival (IBM), implicitly defining what Apple represented. This is called contrast. Equally powerful, however, is that this commercial and the idealistic seeds it sewed did far more than define how Apple would present itself. It mandated how Microsoft (the current “IBM persona”) would have to present itself, going forward. This way, Apple controlled both sides of the equation, as it does to this day. Masterful.

So, you might wonder, what is it that Apple is exploiting here? How do they work this magic and what element of human nature are they manipulating? Let’s examine this next.

Human Nature

We human beings assign relative values of strength and interest to the choices we make. The strongest, most compelling sorts of choices are binary choices (choices between two options). Every other sort of choice is weaker and less compelling, and decreases in value and interest for every option added to a choice. Furthermore, binary choices are far easier to make than choices with several options.

The number of options involved also affects how humans deal with the psychological results of making choices. After making a choice between 6 options, for instance, it is more likely that you will suffer some sort of remorse or insecurity about having made the right choice. However, after a choice between only two options, you will most likely feel strongly that you made the right choice and be far happier with the result.

This characteristic of human nature defines the way that many elements of our lives are governed and crafted. For instance, in the US we have two major political parties. This will never change. There is a segment of the population that chooses to look beyond the contrasting values represented by the Republican and Democrat parties, or the conservative and liberal ideals they hold, but this percentage of the population will always factor in the single digits.

For instance, if you’re designing a website for a client and are not allowed to present the ideal number of design comps: one; present the next most powerful number of designs: two.

In any situation, the most compelling circumstance always involves the two most powerful rivals. The most compelling (non–war) world stage rivalry ever: USA vs. USSR – the two most powerful rivals. Horse racing is exciting and compelling, but no event in horse racing has ever matched the drama and contrast represented by Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral. No modern boxing match was as compelling as the deeply contrasting matchup between the inarticulate, immoral thug, Tyson and the intelligent, handsome and polite Lewis.

Binary choices, folks. This is the essential ingredient in any successful marketing or ideological challenge. The greatest number of ideals, values, or opinions will ALWAYS be most easily divided into two camps. Learn it, know it, …use it.

Putting this information to use

Designers can use this fact of human nature to make more compelling presentations to their clients. For instance, if you’re designing a website for a client and are not allowed to present the ideal number of design comps: one; present the next most powerful number of designs: two. This provides a choice of directions without the discomfort and insecurity invoked by seeing several options.

Another example of the ease of success with a binary choice comes from parenting, because our natural preference for binary choices is not a learned behavior, but rather a part of our DNA and ingrained in our human psyche from birth. For instance, regrettably stupid parents may open the pantry and ask their 5-year old, “So what would you like for breakfast?” The near unlimited nature of that sort of choice guarantees dissatisfaction for a child. Far more intelligent parents will say something like, “Would you like cereal or eggs for breakfast?” The one method always leads to an argument and the other almost always leads to a calm and happy start to the day.

Heck, I even write in such a manner as to inspire a binary–based response. I can say with some certainty that readers of my articles either really like or really dislike my writing style. I don’t tend to leave room for tepid responses to what I publish. That’s by design.

So, armed with this bit of wisdom, it should be clear how to best present your company or organization or political party or the hero in your novel or your product: Instead of just describing the value or qualities of what you’re offering, describe how it contrasts with the value or qualities of a specific rival.

Craft a binary choice for your target audience and you will reap the greatest rewards possible. Do something less distinct and your rewards will decrease accordingly. Always.

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