“Don’t think of an elephant” and design

George Lakoff‘s Don’t Think of an Elephant is a political book, but the concept is applicable to many more situations. Lakoff argues that by accepting someone else’s way of talking about an issue–their words and their metaphors–you constrain your responses to what fits in their model of the world. Once you hear the world “elephant”, you can’t help but think of one, and it influences what you do next.

From the intro:

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge.

I most often observe this in the design process. The tendency of most design teams in business is to accept the language and framing of the market leader, or of your most prominent challenger. By using their framing, you set yourself up to at best create a second-rate version of their product. And worse, by taking your cues from their finished work, you’re really mimicking their thinking from months or years ago. As one of my design mentors often says, “You can’t get new ideas by reading Techcrunch.”

If you really want to design something new, I think it’s important to consciously strip out language and models from your work and communication that have been framed by existing products and companies. Invent your own language, frame the situation yourself. Then you’ve got a chance of doing something new.

It’s natural to want to check out the competition. But as a designer you need to be aware that every time you do, it constrains your thinking.