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SXSW: Class panel

I was really impressed that this even was a panel at SXSW, and I was very impressed with the moderator and how he set up the understanding of class which the panel (& audience) was operating under. On the downside, I think that this is a very difficult topic to talk about, and as a result a lot of panelists got a bit defensive.

Moderator introduction to the topic

There is a class system in this country: first class

But in other ways, we’re all equal (TSA) – there are times when something complicates or flattens the class system

Why talk about class?

– We look at a lot of websites like MySpace, eBay, CL and say “it’s underdesigned” or “it’s not designed”
– Maybe that’s not it, maybe it’s that these sites are targeted towards a different class market

We are “elite” designers, and we design for the elite
“Vigilante redesign” – > Mike Davidson’s total CSS MySpace page overhaul
or CL redesign done before Craig Newmark’s eyes at SXSW 2006

When we talk about class, we say “taste”, “good design” / “bad design”
(I’d point out that there is a value judgment implied here)

Why talk about class? It lets us talk about
– Education
– Economic power
– Cultural literacy
– Social standing

“A class consists of a large group of people who occupy a similar economic position in the wider society based on income wealth property ownership education skills or authority in the economic sphere.” (from classism.org)

Points out that a construction worker can make as much as a lawyer but not get as much respect – it’s not all about money

“Class” indicates “high class” vs. “hoi polloi”
– High class: born into it, landed aristocracy
– Low class: working class
This is a definition that assumes class warfare

The American mythology of class is that we don’t have a class system.
But we use euphemisms to avoid talking about class, because it’s uncomfortable.

highbrow/lowbrow; successful/disadvantage; privileged/underprivileged/white color/blue color; tasteful/vulgar; business/economy = all euphemisms for class: watch out for “airquotes”

Joe six pack vs. latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York times-reading

Can be defined economically: upperclass/ middle class / lower class

Socio Economic Status (SES; numerical measure of class includes career, neighborhood, income)

Sociology: Class by Paul Fussell (I’ve read this, it’s kind of dated, early 80’s, but witty and illuminating if you’ve never thought about the topic)

Top out of sight : wealthy, behind gates & tinted glass, we don’t know them or see them
Upper class
Upper-Middle class
Middle class
High prole
Mid prole
Low prole
Bottom out-of-sights: homeless, destitutes, society tries to ignore and remove them

Most Americans say that they are middle class and want to be upper-middle class

Paul Fussell: Class X: I’ve transcended class, I can drink PBR ironically, I can wear shorts to work, etc. (this may have been true before the mainstreaming of boho/bobo culture)

We make class judgments all the time.

New York Times vs. New York Post / National Enquirer
Economist vs. People
Fine wines vs. Budweiser
Harvard vs. art correspondence
Rothko vs. Bob Ross
Cartier vs. Zales

** aspirational aspect of design: even a coffee creamer company can adopt the aesthetics of a really high end like Cartier

Slide of low-end, back of the magazine, late-night infomercial products like bust enhancers and “apply directly to the forehead”

Store environments: The Apple store is a high-class environment that intimidates / specifically excludes a particular brand of consumers


1. Are designers out of touch with this class hierarchy?

Do you design for yourself, or your audience?

Koi (NYTimes): we do a lot of user testing and talk to our audience a lot.
We’ve never really sit down and talked about class using any of the metrics that were used today; it may be true that we’re working using a class viewpoint, but it doesn’t apply to the work we do on a daily basis.

Liz: The best way we learn about our users is to talk to them, go to their offices, go to their homes, watch them use the product

Brandon (WWE): Core audience will buy anything with the WWE logo on it, we have a more extreme sports audience that we’re trying to reach out to.

Wrestling used to be a traveling carney show; we still are, but now we’re publicly traded. Our customer is “our guy”: can we do that, or will it make “that guy” uncomfortable?

Koi: We don’t really have “an archetype” for our product; there’s a kind of nytimes.com reader, but when we’re working on basic feature design and usability, we don’t resort to generalizations about people based on knowledge and earnings. It’s not useful and I don’t know how we could make it useful.

Liz: When we created personas, we used to include information about the music our personas listened to, the car they drove, etc. but now we talk almost solely about behavioral personas.

Q. Do you respect your audience? Are they your equals?

WWE guy: Well, they’re not your peer group, but you need to find what is great about your product that your audience likes. I wasn’t a wrestling fan before working at WWE, but now I really love it, so I can find the common ground between what I like — as a wrestling fan– and what other typical wrestling fans like.

Within the industry, inside they call them “marks” (carney tradition), which is pretty derogatory but entirely accepted. There are also “smart marks”– customers who are more aware– which allows you to sort of pull back the curtain on Wrestling and do some behind-the-scenes stuff.

Ultimate Fighting Championship is gaining a lot of traction on WWE.

How can you get into the shoes of someone whose class experience is different from your own?

NYT guy: you can’t think of yourself as different from your customer- if you start obsessing over class, you concentrate on your audience as “Other” which makes it very difficult.

Liz: Users always say they do one thing and then do another thing. One guy was always talking about financial services content vs. Britney Spears, and how he was tired of looking at celebrity content. But then when we tried to remove that from his homepage, he really wanted to keep it.

Moderator: products targeted at lower class, designers rely on numbers and usability and focus groups, whereas high class products don’t do anything like that and only design – like haute couture or Apple?

NYTimes guy: Uh, no, we spend a lot of time on analytics and analysis!

Alice Yeah, I’ve never worked for a company that didn’t do user testing or metrics, no matter what the product!

Q. Appropriateness and aspiration: do you move towards your audience, or draw your audience closer to you?

Brandon (WWE): I want to take a magazine that’s profitable, and not broken, but needs to expand to more casual fans who won’t be embarrassed about having it. We try to get to the ESPN/Maxim level of design.

Moderator talks  about the Steven Johnson theory of how TV today is more complex and multilayered because broadcasters stopped talking down to their audience or thought of them as idiots.

“The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” Paul Rand

You’re immersed in a certain kind of design aesthetic all your life – is this learned based on what you’re exposed to?

Is what’s good or bad intrinsic?

No: Design is appropriate for the business and the brand (NYT vs. CL).

Liz: We can make a snap judgment about a website based on our expertise. The film folks down the hall might be very sophisticated about judging whether a film is good. We might not have that same expertise, but we can still appreciate things we like or don’t like.

Moderator: Do low-class people live in an environment with bad, ugly design?

Brandon: Everyone chooses design that they’re most comfortable with. What people are comfortable with is a learned experience.

Liz: If things are usable and helpful, it doesn’t matter if they’re ugly or beautiful.

The questions were pretty good, but nothing really outstanding.

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