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“Brown Paper and String” Moments

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This chapter is from the book

I own a digital watch that is, on the face of it, a ridiculous design for a device with the sole purpose of telling the time. Other watches get straight to the point. We look at them, they tell us the time, we’re finished, thank you, goodnight. Yet this watch—well, it requires some work.

This watch requires that I use my other hand to get it to reveal itself: I must press the button on the side to get the current time. Wholly inefficient, compared to most other watches. Surely no one would want a device that requires more effort to use? Surely this would be a commercial disaster? Of course not. Why? Because we’re humans, full of “flaws” like emotions and taste. We’re not machines that make decisions based simply on efficiency.

I actually bought this watch for the experience of using it. It’s just much more stimulating to use than other watches and, more importantly, it’s more enjoyable. It looks, to me anyway, better than any other watch I know, and when other people see it they want to touch it because it is far more interesting than your standard time-telling devices.

To my mind, that’s because we crave experiences. It’s the experience of an object, the little special details, which make us want to interact with it in some way, physically or emotionally. This is particularly evident when making purchasing decisions, something that logic would suggest should always be guided by price.

  • Surely no one would want a device that requires more effort to use? Surely this would be a commercial disaster? Of course not.

Of course, we know that that is not the case at all. There are many different considerations going through our minds when we choose to part with our hard-earned cash—this is what branding is all about. But I think the decision can usually be brought back to how we experience the product, even when buying something as mundane as cheese.

Even though it is just a block of cheese, there’s a brand experience contained in the small details of how it’s presented.

It does for me anyway. Here’s some cheese I bought from the “top people’s store,” Harvey Nichols. While the cheese does indeed taste lovely, to be honest it would taste just as good from a store down the road that sells it at a lower price. But look at the experience of getting to the product.

First, there’s the beautiful wax bag, not some cheap paper or plastic thing. It reminds me of when we used to have family-owned corner cheese shops. Then the cheese itself is wrapped in high-quality paper that just feels great in my hands and gets my mind thinking, This is a bit special. The finishing touch is the Harvey Nichols sticker that seals the wrapper—not a gummy cash-register price tag slapped onto plastic wrap but a specially designed label with the sole job of sealing food wrapped in paper. These little elements combine to suggest that this product is a cut above the rest, that cheese bought from this store is a premium thing.

All that wrapping pleases me because someone somewhere has designed that experience—and yet it’s only cheese! But now the act of eating the cheese is not solely about the process of eating; it is wrapped in an overall experience that makes it much more interesting.

  • The actual process of getting to the end, the journey to the goal, is what makes being there a much more special experience.

Then there is my favorite bookshop, a true antiquarian bookseller that has managed to stay alive despite giant competition. I could buy books from less-expensive places and, while I do buy many books online, when I can I buy my books from this very special place. All because I love the experience of buying a book there.

As soon as you step in, you feel that the shop itself is a place of wonder. Impossibly high shelves are stacked to the ceiling with stories and knowledge. A little winding staircase takes you up to three tightly cramped floors filled everywhere you look with books in old bookcases. As you climb, you feel that you’re on some kind of adventure, as if you’ve stumbled upon a secret passage to a literary discovery. But what I really love about this place is what happens when you buy a book there.

Rather than simply put your book in a bag, as the clerks do at nearly every other bookshop, the booksellers wrap it in brown paper using a hand-built paper-wrapping gizmo—a roll of brown paper stuck to the wall—and then they tie it up with string. Wow. Suddenly this book is something special: a kind of gift to be unwrapped rather than hauled out of a generic bag. It seems almost magical.

The experience of the book becomes a special user journey simply by adding some brown paper and string.

The three experiences that I’ve described share a common characteristic. The actual process of getting to the end, the journey to the goal, is what makes being there a much more special experience.

You can apply this concept to your work, even in small ways. Take, for example, a piece I made for a BD4D event in London. BD4D, which stands for “By Designers For Designers,” is a sort of creative movement started by designers Ryan Carson and Ryan Shelton. Every few months they put on free events all over the world with the sole aim of sharing and celebrating creativity. At each event, there are a handful of featured “creatives,” who usually make something and then talk about what it is and how they made it. I wanted to present a timeline of Alfred Hitchcock films in a much more interesting way than simply as a list. I wanted an extra experiential layer that added to the whole experience.

Borrowing from Hitchcock’s The Birds, I used birds sitting on an abstract telephone wire to represent his films. When the piece begins, the birds fly in and land on the wire, and you can see all of Hitchcock’s works by rolling over them with your mouse. But the little extra bit of detail—that “brown paper and string” moment—comes when you select a decade or a certain actor. The birds that represent the irrelevant films fly away, leaving those related to your selection on the wire. It is a simple, atmospheric touch that makes the request for information a mini-journey in itself, heightening your expectancy a bit as you wait for the final revelation. Of course, like a wristwatch that simply tells time, I could have made this straightforward, no-nonsense information retrieval. But I believe that doing it this way was more involving and, well, more fun.

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