Myths, the Hero and Design

In a world of stripped of rites of passage, where we no longer move through the cycle of separation, initiation and return, where the daily expression of the journey of discovery is almost null, shopping becomes a surrogate for the search for meaning. It is by no means the only expression of it, of course, but it is a defining element of who we are, whether we are engaged in it or reaction to and rejecting it.  Consumption and the act of shopping have become a postmodern replacement for the lessons learned through folktales and through myths.  A hero in myth ventures forth from the world of common day into a world of supernatural wonder: the hero comes back from the journey with the power to bestow boons upon others.  Shopping is the hunt, the religious experience, the co-created ritual story telling in a postmodern world.  But we crave something less superficial than simple consumption, we crave engagement.  It isn’t always about simply getting things – that’s a simple matter of a few clicks.  It is increasingly used as an expression of self and the quest for cultural, shared meaning that is growing harder to find.  Social media and reality TV have changed us to a voyeuristic population, but these are windows into the mundane or the freakish, not windows into the collective dreams we once shared around the camp fire.

Strange as it may sound, myths matter to design, marketing and brand development.  They align our world at speak to the collective dream.  A dream is the personalized myth; myth is the dream depersonalized. And it is at that level that a brand can manifest itself as a character in the storyline of a person’s life.

The characters we identify with in myths, folktales, etc. are the primordial self, the bold statement of the relationship between the person, society and the cosmos.  The principle work of the person wrapped up in the universal storyline of the human condition writ large is to retreat from the world of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties of being really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what Jung called the “archetypal image.” Steve Jobs and the Apple story represent the archetypal hero; from the birth of the company in a garage, to the struggle against the monolithic beast, to exile and the valiant return. And upon his return he is transformed into the magician, the sage with the experience and vision to transform his world and the lives of all the people he touches.  We build shrines to heroes because they are more than the local boy done good; they spread a message, an image, a lesson that goes beyond the local to the universal.  They speak to the absolute conditions of the human condition. And that means that like their brands, the spaces in which we sell our goods are bound, or should be, by archetypal models as well.

If we speak to archetypes when constructing a retail space, we do more than produce a nice experience. We create an expression of the deeper elements of what it means to be human in a world where dangers are ambiguous and the thrill of discovery is subservient to the soccer practice and the gas bill. But shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and meaning that underscores the need to purify, change and be reborn.

By transforming the retail space into an archetypal motif, shoppers come to see it as a focal point in their lives.  At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. Settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame. The visible layout of the space needs to reflect cognitive and cultural frames that allow people to construct and revisit stories, the goal being to produce visceral responses that can’t be ignored or denied. Products need to be designed and displayed in such a way as to make them visually reverential.

The retail environment becomes the fire around which we gather to take part in the spoils of the hunt. Black Friday becomes the story of cattle raid of Ulster.  The quinceanera is Cinderella. Buying a home is the descent into the underworld and the trial of the guardians at the gate. Esoteric as it sounds, this sort of thing has ramifications for how you design, be it an object, a space or a message.  It means thinking of the store front or the online portal as a liminal space where people learn something transformational is about to take place.  It means providing customers with a stage upon which to act out a role rather than simply buy a product, which has implications for lighting design, space between shelves, fixture height, even the glass in the windows. It has implications for how we define loyalty programs and how we interact with our customers – how do you continue the story a week after they leave the store?  How do you create and sustain communities? How do you create the sensation of the story telling around the hearth when people are distributed over vast areas?  All of this means far more than deciding whether or not to use an end-cap to sell your batteries, your beer, your socks, etc.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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