Live in the leading

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series by design thought leader Stefan Mumaw from his HOW Design presentation, “Think Like a Villain: A Creative’s Guide to Winning Through Villainy.”

There was a time before computers, even before typewriters, when the printed word was set by hand. Meticulous typesetters would lay out lines of metal letters to spell words, sentences, and paragraphs, and then those letters would be inked and pressed to paper. To create space between the lines of type, typesetters would lay lead strips of varying widths.

This became known as the leading, the space between lines of type. Leading is never shown on the paper. The thickness of the strips were less than the thickness of the type, so when ink ran across the letters, it would not touch the inset leading. It was hidden to everyone but the mastermind, the typesetter who knew the importance of the space in between.

As creatives, we tend to focus on the letters and forget about the leading because it’s unseen. But villains, they study the entire space. They are looking for the things other people forget, discard, or fail to see. Villains have learned to live in the leading. To them, it is the shadows. But to us as creatives, it represents an opportunity to see the things others don’t see. When everyone else is focusing on the poster, the devious creative is studying where the poster will be hung, what it is made of, the potential size and shape, and most importantly, who will look at it.

Villains understand that the great variable in any endeavor is not the facts, it is the people. Facts are iron-clad; they do not change. If they intend to rob a bank, the bank never moves. The walls are made of the same material today as they will be tomorrow. The location of the vault is in the same place every day.

People, on the other hand, are the great variable. The guard moves randomly. The tellers are on shifts, or call in sick, or go to the bathroom. The number of customers changes perpetually. People are unpredictable and emotional, but they are also malleable, habitual, and behavioral. As creatives, the facts of the things we make are the same, but understanding what moves people can be the difference between success and failure and present the clearest opportunity to operate in the leading.

Villains understand that the great variable in any endeavor is not the facts, it is the people. Facts are iron-clad; they do not change.

In our industry, personas are created to provide a shorthand for audience understanding. We group people into audiences to help us develop creative most-likely-to-motivate behavioral change in that group. But our typical segregation is demographic rather than any other sociology. We group people by age, gender, and economic standing and then make assumptions about how those groups collectively see the world. It is a wide brush but one we need because we have to create a singular solution that is relevant to everyone in the group. To help make that brush a little more pointed, and dive deeper into the motivations of an audience, try segregating audiences by loves and fears.

Take your typical demographic audience breakdowns and add two more categories: loves and fears. Then go through the exercise of listing what these audiences love and fear as humans, not just consumers of your brand, product, or service. When you do, you will find some similarities between audiences but better yet, you will find opportunities to impact areas of their lives that they weren’t expecting.

Maybe a consistent fear across your audiences is relevancy, that as the audience ages, they fear staying relevant in the eyes of the people to whom they give authority. That becomes a need. How does your brand, product, or service help them stay relevant? Or maybe a thread you notice between your audiences is a shared love for control. How does your brand, product, or service help them feel in control? Using loves and fears as a way to associate people rather than blind demographics allows you to work in the leading, to notice patterns, and use those patterns to develop creative that changes behaviors.

So? One thing villains know is that people are the key to achieving their goals. They understand their motivations, mostly to exploit them. As creatives, we should look to understand our audiences, not to exploit but to move, not to manipulate but to empower. While others are focused on the thing they are making, we should be focused on the people we are moving.

Throughout this series, we have explored how villains think, and how we might be able to learn from their process to improve creatively. In the quote above, Charles Adams theorizes that normal is an illusion, because what is normal to one person might be abnormal to another. And he’s right. It is up to us, as creators, to know the difference so that we can create work that is truly…villainous.