A ten dollar tale

I interrupt normal, vaguely-serious blogging for something a little different. This is a post that can only be described as a yarn – a slightly obscure, design-related yarn, but a yarn nonetheless. But if you know me, you’ll know I love a good story, and this will all make sense. Hopefully.

As a kid, I’d always get a kick out of my dad drawing stuff for me. It was all the kind of stuff that you’d expect from a parental effort to entertain a small, hyperactive boy – shooty things, sporty things, utterly fantastical things… that sort of fodder – and it spurred me on to draw too. I don’t think there’s anything more directly responsible for what I decided to study at school and university than all that scribbly fun in my childhood, and in my pa, the man that showed me how much fun pen and paper could be. But drawing isn’t why I’m doing what I do now. Drawing was what made me want to become an automotive designer, and clearly, this is not the blog of someone who draws cars for a living.

Some time in primary school, I got the flu, as happens when you’re sitting in an environment that loves nothing more than an good, infectious airborne virus. Shit happens, but I was laid up for nearly two weeks in bed, distinctly unwell, with the prospect of missing some genuine Easter holiday time as a result. At some point in this, my dad did something that at the time made me want to kill him, but looking back, was the first moment I can remember ever really being part of a designed experience, even if he didn’t know that’s what he was doing. He told me that he’d got me a present, but that he couldn’t tell me what it was. Yet.

If you have kids, you’ll know that this was like flicking a lit match into a puddle of petrol. So, spirits buoyed by the prospect of Lego (I always assumed presents were Lego until proven otherwise, and I still rank Lego only below Hendrick’s gin as a birthday present), I felt less hammered with the flu and spent a good 50% of my time asking if I could get my present yet. The answer was always no. My expectation of this gift grew – there had to be some reason why I couldn’t just have the damn thing now. We were now talking about some seriously big Lego.

Then I got woken up by my dad. I didn’t really follow what was going on at all, but even with the curtains drawn, I knew it wasn’t the right time to be getting out of bed. Something was awry. Half-asleep, I was told that my present was under my pillow. Now, big boxes of plastic play-bricks aren’t something the Tooth Fairy can generally slot in discreetly, so I didn’t follow – I followed even less when I reached under, and felt the rough scratch of a piece of tough paper in my hand. Currency. Fake currency. Or more precisely, ten Disney Dollars. Seconds passed, and I still didn’t get it. Where the **** was my Lego?! Then, with a wry smile across his face, he asked “where can you spend it?”.

Early morning. Disney Dollars. Grinning father. Slightly slow son. The answer was Disney World, Florida. He threw my rucksack onto my bed, told me we were leaving in 20 minutes, and left the room before I could react. If I could go back to that moment now, I would applaud.

What he did with this embodies so much of what I love about the idea of designing for experience. As it transpired, the holiday was booked just before I became ill – my folks ferreted around and managed to dig out a last minute bargain, and once I was laid up with the lurgy, my dad decided to get a bit creative with the idea. He saw the need – phlegmy, glum son that he wanted to be happy – and decided that he wanted to draw on the idea of  anticipation to distract me from how horrendous I felt. Remember here, we’re talking about a decade before Disney started running adverts that showed parents telling kids about their holidays by painting on walls and using fridge magnets. My pa appears to have been something of an experiential trailblazer. Not bad for a veterinary surgeon (albeit one with a heavy involement in amateur dramatics).

Although all this is a throwaway experience designed to tell a kid he was going on holiday, I still think about it when I’m trying to design the experiences within a project. The ideas of building anticipation, over-delivering to delight those using what you design, and the value of playful interactions – especially with simple, meaningful touchpoints – are all lodged in my head. This all came flooding back to me at Social Innovation Camp when our group’s project sent a dozen text messages to people across the room, showing the core capability of the concept in a way that rippled round the audience with a buzz of chatter, smiles and excitement. I found myself grinning like an idiot.

I don’t know the thought process my dad went through when he came up with his ten buck idea, but regardless – what he did was about shaping an emotional response, and coming up with a way of making someone who was feeling miserable feel incredibly happy. He absolutely nailed it, and I think that’s a great bit of design.

(Image courtesy of Kurtixo)

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