“Designers are more powerful than politicians, lawyers, banks – because you can give a voice to relevant issues.” Dave Meslin

Dave Meslin, a local civic reformer, spoke at CreativeMornings Toronto last month about redesigning city politics to be more inclusive and participatory. He was awesome: He was a comfortable, informed speaker and during the talk he practiced what he preached by being open and inclusive, inviting volunteers to the stage to demonstrate his ranked ballot initiative (RaBIT). He also carried an earnest call to action for a targeted audience; he wanted designers to lend their skills to local causes. “Contact young activists,” he said. “Join an existing group.” He urged designers to go out and find a poster someone designed that looks horrible, tell them it sucks and that you want to help design it better. Why not?

Powerful persuasion

Meslin’s call to designers to lend their design skills to community causes implied designers do this for free outside their fulltime jobs, which is not a particularly uncommon request. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but it was useful to see how a skillful politician persuades an audience to do something in his favor.

I often think of design as solely a communication medium. Complex and amorphous ideas are whittled into a medium that is concrete, actionable, usually simpler and more digestible. But persuasion, of the same ilk as Meslin’s, is also an important piece and I sometimes forget that. Getting the message across is about getting an audience to understand your particular perspective and then getting them to do something for you. I would argue that being a good designer is probably 75% persuasion.

Creating successful design work can be as much about convincing clients and users, funders, partners, bosses, colleagues and consumers that your work is worth reading, watching or buying as it is about making something that is functionally and aesthetically beautiful. If young designers could master persuasion, they are more than halfway to the ball.

Two kinds

I see persuasion in design broken down into two important techniques. In the first, a designer convinces their audience to open up to a possibility. This is the marketer’s playground – where the initial reaction to a visual is so important. Where the TV watcher doesn’t change the channel. The shopper doesn’t throw away your free giveaway. The web visitor doesn’t click away or get distracted.

The second act of persuasion is closing the possibility. Seems pretty simple, but so many projects miss this vital piece. What do you want people to actually do when they get there? What does Dave Meslin want us designers to do once we trust him? In healthcare, what do we want to happen now that we’ve got people to download our app? The design must convince people that the designer’s vision is worth investing time and energy into.

What does this mean for healthcare?

Dave Meslin skillfully accomplished both techniques above, but it wasn’t obvious to me at first. It wasn’t until I tried relating his call to action back to healthcare that I really saw what he was doing. During the Q&A I asked what challenges designers might expect to face if they joined old guard politics and tried to do things differently. He answered, None – or none other than we might face with our usual clients.

I was satisfied with that answer and leaned back in my chair thinking, Yes, that’s right, it’s not that hard, just do it! But is that the truth? Not really. Designers in politics, like designers in health, have a behemoth old guard to reckon with. You think what Obama’s digital team has done, for example, was easy? It has required an enormous amount of buy-in from the top as well as collaboration from all corners of the US and between many different departments rooted in their old way of doing things. The same is true in healthcare: the value of design can’t be realized without support in the right places.

Meslin’s talk revealed the power of persuasion, of willfully suggesting we forget what is hard about a task and do it anyway because in the end it will make a difference in our lives. This kind of persuasion is something we designers can get better at, particularly if we think hard about what we want our users to do once we’ve convinced them to be interested. Do we suggest they buy our product, join our team, sign up for our event? Do we suggest healthcare providers collaborate better, patients take better care of themselves, or that more people join our cause because it is something worth believing in?

I like that I believe all these are possibilities, and that maybe is the best trick of all. Thank you Dave Meslin for that.