I used to make my living as an advertising copywriter, working with art directors to create ads for magazines, newspapers, outdoor, radio, and (a very little) TV. At that time it was common for non-profit organizations to ask ad agencies to do pro-bono work for them. The situation was win-win-win: the client got creative work that they would never have been able to pay for, the agency got to associate itself with a noble cause (can you look anything but good by doing pro-bono work for Mothers Against Drunk Driving?), and the creatives got a chance to do something more fun/ imaginative/relevant than coming up with 20 new ways to describe the benefits of spiral-cut ham.
One agency I worked for had the pro-bono account of the U.S. DHHSOHS (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Smoking and Health). The campaign we were working on was targeted to young, low-income mothers, and its goals were to a) educate this target audience that smoking did, in fact, hurt the baby; and b) encourage them to stop smoking.
I was having a hard time. One day, I found myself sitting in the office of the art director, Betsy, trying to drum up ideas. If I were young and pregnant and poor, what kind of message would I connect with? It had to be brief (we were working on a bus/train poster at the time). It had to be eye-catching. It had to be clear and direct. But it couldn't be preachy. As a single, middle-class, college-educated guy, I didn't feel like I had much in common with our target audience. So I tried different ways of putting myself in this person's shoes. I'm on the bus. Where was I going? What would I be wearing, reading, doing? What would get me to look up and notice the ad? What would make me feel like I was being treated respectfully? What might get me to thinking about quitting smoking?
Desperate for a way to emotionally connect, I decided to play-act. I stuffed a crumpled-up jacket into my shirt, and sat down, looking over the top of my faux-pregnancy belly. That thing was noticeable: it was right there in front of me, all the time. It was inside me. But it was also... part of me. The baby was part of me, but would be its own person soon. Betsy was not amused. In fact, I think she was a little embarrassed. A colleague walked by, took in the scene, and said, "Oh, god. A method copywriter." (If you're not familiar with the school of method acting, try this link.)
Silly? Maybe. But my intent was sincere. As I sat there imagining this soon-to-be-baby and me, imagining how I loved it, I thought of the most cliched icon for love: a rounded red valentine's day heart. But it wasn't just one heart here, right? It was two. Mine, and my baby's. In just a few minutes I came up with a line: "Pregnant? That's two good reasons to quit smoking." Betsy sketched out a thumbnail for a layout: a big red heart, with a little heart snuggled up next to it, with those eight words of text in black, on a dotted white background. The client loved it, and it went on to get heavy placement in Chicago public transit. Unfortunately, by the time the thing finally went to print, I was already working for another agency. I wanted a copy for my portfolio, but in the pre-digital age, that was hard to do. One day, when I was on a nearly-empty bus, I saw the ad, got up, slipped it out of the metal strips holding it in place, and went back to my seat. An elderly lady huffed, frowned, and shook her head, but the driver hadn't seen anything so I got away with it.
Here's a copy I found online (this one formatted as magazine ad)
There are several morals to this story:
1. Don't be afraid to look silly. If your intent is sincere, let people laugh.
2. It's really, really important to empathize with your audience. You can't know how to communicate with them if you have no idea of who they are, what they feel, what they're doing, what the world is like for them.
3. Make sure that you get portfolio copies of your creative work before you leave any job.
I've found that moral #2 has been helpful as an exhibition developer. "Know your audience," is a writing-instructor cliche, but I'm talking about more than just knowing about them. It's feeling with them: it's empathy. For screenwriters and actors this is standard operating procedure: many writers create detailed backstories about their characters that are never published: they're just tools to help the writer get into the character's shoes.
In working with exhibition teams at The Field Museum, I try to put this technique to work. Much to the consternation and/or amusement of those around me. I often think out loud in the character of an imagined visitor. I get out of my chair and move around. I ask the team questions: is this something I need to tilt my head back to see? What did I encounter right before this, and what comes next? How much text have I been offered/assaulted with in the exhibition so far? Do I get the humor of the headline? Do I want a headline here to be humorous? Is there a five-year-old tugging on my hand and wanting to go the museum store? Do I need a cup of coffee, or have to go to the bathroom? Would I like to sit down at this point? Have I gotten to touch anything in an exhibit in a while? O.k., so, I'm walking up to this thing and wondering what it's supposed to do. I'm not reading the interactive's headline because, like most people, I prefer to learn by doing. There's a reason that people say, "When all else fails, read the directions."
This is not goofiness; it's not playing around. The things that I think about as I imagine myself to be a certain visitor, the questions that I ask the team, all have the capacity to directly affect my experience while in the exhibition. Even conditions such as needing a cup of coffee (or feeling like you do) are relevant: there are plenty of things I might be willing to pay attention to, if I'm full of energy, well-rested, well-fed, healthy, relaxed, happy, and calm. If that isn't the case (and I can't remember the last time that I felt all seven of those adjectives at once), then we have to imagine our visitor as approaching the thing in question in less-than-ideal circumstances. We have to try to imagine not just what they're thinking, but how they're feeling.