During my teenage years, I was primarily interested in the arts, not the sciences. I was fascinated by design and language, and how these related to human behaviour and business. I grew up and worked in a wholesale, retail and distribution family business through my childhood and teens, and I became curious about advertising as a career. During this time in the 1980s, it seemed that there were many iconic TV adverts. There was one that many Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers in the UK will remember: The Guardian’s award-winning ‘Points of View’ commercial, screened in 1986. It featured a skinhead running toward a suited businessman. This was an era of diverse youth sub-cultures in Britain – skinheads, heavy metal, punks, casuals – and each came with a set of stereotypes. As the camera cuts, viewers’ initial impressions are challenged.
I remember being stunned by this advert. Seeing a ‘skinhead’ running was enough to form a set of opinions about the person and his intentions quickly, based on first impressions. I still think it is one of most important advertisements ever made.
Three years later, I discovered Adbusters, an ecological magazine “dedicated to examining the relationship between human beings and their physical and mental environment”. My interest in design and behaviour changed, and I turned away from advertising as a career. When it came to choosing a university path, I chose to study psychology rather than graphic design, and became interested instead in design and human work, particularly in humanistic psychology and human factors (both arguably also dedicated to examining the relationship between human beings and their physical and mental environment). But the Guardian advert stuck with me, especially working with people in complex sociotechnical systems in the context of safety, design and culture.
The ad speaks to holism, the idea that systems and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. It also speaks to the local rationality principle, that people do things that make sense to them given their goals, understanding of the situation and focus of attention at that time. There are some important practical implications for almost any human work, among them (from here):
- Listen to people’s stories. Consider how field experts can best tell their stories from the point of view of how they experienced events at the time. Try to understand the person’s situation and world from their point of view, both in terms of the context and their moment-to-moment experience.
- Understand goals, plans and expectations in context. Discuss individual goals, plans and expectations, in the context of the flow of work and the system as a whole.
- Understand knowledge, activities and focus of attention. Focus on ‘knowledge at the time’, not your knowledge now. Understand the various activities and focus of attention, at a particular moment and in the general time-frame. Consider how things made sense to those involved, and the system implications.
- Seek multiple perspectives. Don’t settle for the first explanation; seek alternative perspectives. Discuss different perceptions of events, situations, problems and opportunities, from different field experts and perspectives. Consider the implications of these differential views for the system.
When looking at any human situation, I try to keep in mind the narrative of this short advery, and encourage others to do the same.
An event seen from one point of view gives one impression. Seen from another point of view, it gives quite a different impression. It’s only when you get the whole picture that you fully understand what’s going on.
- Systems Thinking for Safety: Ten Principles (A White Paper)
- The Principles of Punk Rock at Work
- If it weren’t for the people…
- Empathy: A core condition for humanistic design
- Human Factors and Humanistic Psychology: Distant cousins