Against Best Practices

I've had this post in mind for a while, so I guess it makes sense as my first one. 

If we've worked together on a project, you know that I am out on "best practices." Out. I'd like to avoid a long-winded diatribe on why that's the case [spoiler alert: long-winded diatribe ahead]. In a nutshell, I'm firmly in the camp that the notion of 'best practices' lacks respect for context, imagination, and rigor. It's repackaging a lack of creativity and confidence as risk mitigation. And I hate it.

What does 'best practices' even mean? No singular practice is a best practice. Best for what? For whom? For when? By what measure? According to whom? How do we even know it was ever the best? It's entirely contextual, and to ignore that is to prep for mediocrity. When you design creative work according to best practices, you design towards a nonexistent mean. Adhering to best practices means that you're set up to get a product that's inoffensive and palatable, and you're setting a low ceiling for how remarkable your own work can be. In essence, you're sabotaging the possibility of creating excellence from the start to reduce the likelihood that you will fail outright. Do your homework and bet on yourself if you believe that you're talented and capable, and you're better off. 

But back to that 'nonexistent mean' thing. Your consumers, users, or audience may, in the aggregate, be pretty average. But they aren't average when it comes to your brand and the relationship you want to build with them. I expect that your goal isn't to appeal to their averageness. Doing so means that you're crafting your work and your brand to be indistinguishable and forgettable. You appeal to something exceptional about your audience's interest in your category to develop some connection with them. Assuming that you can do that by designing something towards a composite of average sets you up to fail. 

Cultural sociology instilled a deep reverence for context in me. The conditions in which we live, and have lived, influence how we act, perceive, and intuit in a given situation. Socialization and whatnot. Here's a deep cut on the topic of context and action that just so happens to be from my favorite book:

Not my favorite book cover, though.

Not my favorite book cover, though.

Because we do not occupy identical or similar positions in such social contexts (we can be and have variously been ‘son or daughter’. ‘school pupil’, ‘schoolfriend’, father or mother’, ‘husband or wife’, ‘lover or mistress’, ‘colleague at work’, ‘goalkeeper’, ‘member of an association’, ‘attendant at church’, ‘worker’, and so on) we live experiences that are varied, different and sometimes contradictory. A plural actor is thus the product of an - often precocious - experience of socialization in the course of their trajectory, or simultaneously in the course of the same period of time in a number of social worlds and occupying different positions.
— p. 31

Context matters. A lot.

This isn't to say that we all need to start studying singular consumers in all facets of their lives for the sake of advertising. Interesting for social theory building; not as good for selling stuff. What I'm saying is that it's this respect for the complexity of contexts in which consumers encounter our brands and products that we must keep in mind, and leverage to create work that will meaningfully plug and fill gaps in their lives. What's best for some is certainly not best for others. And what worked once may not work again.

Pause. While I don't believe in best practices, I certainly do believe in guiding principles. It would be silly not to. Rules of thumb, if you will, like the following:

  • Don't make dumb shit
  • Test early and often, but maybe don't
  • Don't ignore the truth
  • Probably start X type of project at Point A, but maybe not, if the situation calls for something else

These are just some best principles by which to ideate and create. Much like a good creative brief, they enable you to create within a framework where you, well, won't make dumb shit, without imposing any particular practices or parameters that may not be what the situation warrants.

When we talk about using "best practices," what we're really saying is, "This seems to have worked better than other things we've done in the past, so we'll do that again," or, "The other guys did it and they're doing better than we are, so let's do that too." And that type of thinking makes me want to self-immolate. Ultimately, it's all contextual. Work to understand your audiences as whole people, and their trajectories into coming into contact with your brand's category. You'll never get the full picture of a single person because of sheer complexity. But pushing to know your consumers and the places from which they're coming allows you to design and create with their emotional states and goals in mind (another post coming on this soon), and to create something that will really matter to them. Know your consumer or audience, know culture, know your brand, know your goal, and create good, smart shit.

Consumer Emotions & Goals in Creative Strategy: Part I

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