It being an election year and all, let’s get topical: what do bad politics and bad design have in common?


Focus groups!


That’s right. In both politics and design, the use of focus groups often produces uniformity of outcome, increasing the likelihood that your new design/manifesto will look eerily similar to other work, fail to excite the end user and ultimately lead to a disinterested audience.


You won’t find Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (i.e. stand-out individuals) in a focus group, or be able to hear them above the clatter of the crowd, even if they were. True innovation relies on those willing to take risks away from the safety of groupthink – as Jonathan Ive explained: “They (focus groups) just ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.” Radical design is obviously riskier – but it allows you to change the concept of what is considered normal (see Apple). No design work ok’d via the sanitising effect of a focus group is going to achieve that.


“Focus groups are all about reference points. Make it more like this, less like that. Whether it’s business, social business, or charity, breakthroughs are defined by the absence of reference points, and leadership is defined by the courage to leave all of the reference points behind.” Dan Pallotta


While we doubt the compatibility of focus group work with innovative design or brand work, we are not saying that we don’t think you should get a range of opinions. In fact, when we design anything at all there are frequent formal and informal opportunities for evaluation for all stakeholders. We place huge value on honesty in-house and with regards to our clients, we would encourage them to go away and ask people whom they trust will give an honest answer. It certainly allows you (and us if we get the feedback) to progress with an increased range of context.


And if you do take the formal focus group approach, just make sure it isn’t the only method of validation. Trust your designer, trust your own opinion and trust the contrary advice you receive – it will give you a far better chance of creating something truly unique.


Let’s end with the words of a serial innovator: “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they rely too much on research, like a drunkard uses a lamp post for support rather than illumination”.
 David Ogilvy