50 pennies for your thoughts

The reverse side of the UK’s new 50p piece, to commemorate the coming of the 2012 Olympics to London, features a crudely drawn high-jumper in mid-flight. By the standards to which we are generally accustomed, it’s a terrible piece of art. In normal circumstances it deserves to be vilified by the press, the public, and the more disaffected members of the design community, such as me. Rather like the 2012 logo, it should inspire conversations about wasted money, lost opportunities, and yield some damning indictments of the decision-makers involved.

But in this case, no such conversations need take place. That’s because the drawing has been produced not by a well-remunerated corporation, but by a child. It is the work of nine-year-old Florence Jackson, from Bristol, who was one of 17,000 children who entered a BBC Blue Peter competition to design the new coin. The media, the public, most (not all) designers, when they know that it is designed by a child, will soften their eyes and celebrate rather than criticise its flaws. And, even if they missed the press release, no one’s going to be in any doubt about its youthful provenance because the design is so obviously juvenile. Crude, puerile and naïve her art may be, but in the context of such a competition these are exactly the criteria that the competition judges would have desired. Indeed, I am confident to assume that many more accomplished submissions will have been rejected for being too good; not childlike enough. This competition was never about the quality of the design but what it is that the design represents.

This highlights a crucial aspect of human judgement that applies to design and much more widely beyond. It’s the reason why brand consultancy is not only the most important discipline in the marketing mix but a critical component of modern business strategy. It might even help us to define what “brand” means. Yep, I’m making a big deal of this one, because I think Florence has hit on something important here.

To up the ante a little from 50p, let me ask you a question about another piece of art. If the Madonna of the Pinks that hangs in The National Gallery turns out, as some suspect, not to be by Raphael but a fake, is it worth less than the £22M it cost to buy? Philosophically, the painting could be said to exist in two parallel universes. One, where it marks a brave and progressive watershed in the history of religious portraiture that inspired not just art but generations of social history. Another, where it is simply a derivative work by a talented, yet insignificant forger. Physically, the two universes of the paintings collapse into one – its tangible attributes are the same. Intellectually, they are forever apart.

Old Masters may be an extreme example but the point is this: we judge things not for what they are but for what we think they mean. To truly understand something we need to look beyond its tangible qualities and consider its intangible attributes too. We seek to explain what we see (hear, touch, taste, or smell) by giving it a back-story – a meaning beyond the physical experience it provides. The Madonna of the Pinks is not just a well-executed painting of the Madonna and child but a landmark moment in art history. Florence’s coin is more than a badly drawn picture, it represents the hope, potential, and the carefree joy that only a child would have the courage to see, yet to which all adult human beings aspire. 

Don’t just take my word for it. This aspect of human intellect is a fundamental philosophical concept. In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle defined hypokeimenon, literally meaning the “underlying thing”, as the quality that sits behind a thing’s physicality and persists through any change. In the 13th Century John Duns Scotus described haecceity, literally “thisness”, as the quality of a thing that differentiates it from another with identical form (where its form expressed in generic terms is called quiddity, or “thatness”). Neuroscientists have explored these concepts in their analysis of how the human brain makes decisions, examining the complexity of the relationship between rational and emotional processing. Some, like University College London’s Dr. Chris Frith, even suggest that rational decision-making is an illusion created by our own brain to defend us from the incomprehensible reality of our truly irrational selves. The scientific and philosophical facts are clear: things are not as simple as they seem.

And this helps us explain what a brand is. A brand is the complete set of criteria upon which the human brain decides. (Note that lower order mammals don’t use ‘brands’, just sub-conscious instincts; they don’t ‘decide’.) Brands are a complex interdependency between rational and emotional propositions where each works to shape and explain the other. They are about hypokeimenon (essence), haecceity (differentiation) and quiddity (experience) and touch not just logos and marketing but every aspect of what an organisation thinks and does. It follows then, that managing a brand requires profound and holistic consideration, with the intellect and imagination of a deeply enquiring mind. If we are to believe Dr. Chris Frith, then it’s the most important thing that any business should consider, overriding all the rational considerations that businesses typically prioritise in their plans. 

Of course some philosophers (the empiricists and phenomenalists) disagree with this point of view. For them, a thing is no more than its tangible self: The Madonna of the Pinks is just paint on canvas, worth no more than, say, 50p. They would consider a conversation about brands to be an exercise in vanity and a waste of money and time. Such people should be introduced to Florence. Sometimes it takes the perspective of a nine-year-old to help you open your eyes.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 15 October 2009.