Moral judgement and package design research

ts-brooks-190David Brooks had a great piece in The New York Times earlier this week that discusses the rising role of morality, and the corresponding decline in philosophic deliberation, in the everyday decisions we make and the impact that these decisions have on our collective culture. As I read the piece I was struck by the possible implications of what he calls “moral judgement” for package design research, and the way consumers express preference. 

He begins by saying, “Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.”

Ever been to a focus group, and hidden behind that mirror, watching consumers talk about package design? Then let me repeat that, “seeing and evaluating  .  .  .  are linked and basically simultaneous.” My focus group experience suggests it is very hard for consumers to analytically describe what they have just emotionally felt in response to a proposed design.

He goes on to say, 

“Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.”

Again this sounds like he is describing the classic concerns about focus group testing. But it gets better. He ends by saying,

“Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

If scientists who study human behavior “still struggle” to explain why people can’t communicate certain kinds of emotions, usually just the kinds of emotions we as designers try so hard to tickle with our work, then pity the poor focus group moderator.

The best moderators I have worked with don’t even try to hide the likelihood that the information they gather from consumers, in that dehumanizing little conference room in some strip mall, is at best a collection of well recored emotional anecdotes. Valuable I would argue, even if it does not necessarily lead anyone, moderator, marketer, or designer in a straight line to the proper solution, but merely informs us with some small bit of new insight.

The designer behind the mirror must have the tools to decode those messages and recreate them in a meaningful visual language.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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