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Old Media Genius

When you’re coming to design user experiences some things are no brainers.  If you’re in the business of selling tangible things then more often than not it helps to have an image of the thing your selling, unless it’s so generic and popular it’s entered the national consciousness – paper clips perhaps or metal clothes hangers.

This rational argument however has been undermined for over twenty years by my uncle, Alan.  He runs a mail order business near Burnley selling cloth.  The ‘catalogue’ is printed and distributed roughly once a quarter.  I say roughly because it’s give or take a few weeks.  He doesn’t raise expectations by promising to get it out any any specific date.  And he doesn’t promise he’ll have what you want in stock – if he doesn’t he’ll send you something similar.

At any one time my uncle has around 300 different types of cloths to sell.  Woollens, polyesters, cottons, polycottons, lycra, satin, corduroy in a variety of different designs, mostly seconds from the high street but some imported from Yorkshire, even ‘abroad’, though that’s only under duress and if it’s absurdly cheap.  He’s a man of principle 😉

Rule 1. People generally like to see cloth before they buy it – because it’s aesthetic – it looks and feels a certain way. 

Broken Rule 1. Anyway, he breaks the logic of good rational design because he uses no images to display the cloth.  Just text.  Description. Words.  He’s been doing this for over twenty five years to a loyal audience of approximately fifteen thousand people, mainly older women.  To whom he is a God.  A God.  Fan mail arrives daily, often accompanying the order forms.

So you’d think that no images would mean that people would not invest.  However, the costs saved by not having images [or much colour at all] is passed on the consumer.  He sells cheap stuff most of which is used by ‘craft’ types to make things – seems they quite like the element of surprise, guessing what the cloth could actually be like from the description before them.  It’s not like betting on the horses but the idea’s the same – it’s a gamble.  Of course he didn’t do any research to find this out initially, he just kicked it off, found a niche and over time he’s developed his own logic, his own space.  I like that.  Recently I thought about helping him to take the whole thing online and mapped out the strategy – with images being integral.  Then I sat back and thought about the audience and the business and realised that that just wouldn’t be right.  Too much would have to change – stock control being one.  But the relationship with the audience would also change and I didn’t want that.  I’m still thinking about a solution…

Anyway, I mention this because I’ve just found an old catalogue and I’m also reading a lot about design software and ‘experiences’.  So I thought I’d share some random examples of his literary finery with you, taken from the Easter 2004 edition:

"Oh My Goodness What Have You Done"
"Did I get carried away, or should I have been carried away.  I have
got hold of this fairly strange fabric.  It’s very light, has lycra in
i, it’s German and whilst I havn’t seen this particulart cloth I have
seen cloths like it in skimpy see-through garments in some exteremely
posh shops up here in Manchester.  When I say up here in Manchester we
aren;t in Manchester of course, we’re much further north than that.
But I have been down to Manchester from time to time to see what I
might waste my wife’s money on, and we may well have seen this cloth
with some accoutrements, but I don;t really know. It’s an exteremely
lightweight jersey in sage green with I suppose you might call it a
raindrop pattern which is lots of water type splashed on it, some of
which are surrounded in black and then some in shades of the base
colour green, the odd lemon one as well. Difficult to know what to do
with this but it is an awfully expensive cloth so do forgive me if I
ask you for 2.00 a metre. Approx, 60" wide."

"Anyone For Dinner"
"60" wide polyester fine rib black taffeta, very much of the sort that
reveres for dinner jackets used to be made from.  These days they tend
to be of a bit poncey satin.  This is more manly but if you want to
wear it as a ball gown it then becomes very unmanly. 3.00 per mtr."

"Going Gracefully"
"When traversing lifes highway, and you’re too old to take a ‘gap
year’, incidentally do you ever remember ‘gap years’ when you left
college/university. or did yuou just go to work as folk tend to do, or
used to tend to do.  Most kids these days don’t even know what clogs
are, let alone early starts and late finishes.  Anyway, you come across
hidden treasures, whether they be for the home, the garden or simply to
put away somewhere because you don;t know what to do with them.  I
hasten to add that these following cloths don’t come in that category
.. [and he then goes on to list a number of cloths]."

It’s bonkers stuff.  Conversing asychronously with his audience as any
good online communities producer would, only this guy does it better
with old media.  The moral?  Perhaps this oh-so-clever world of digital
media can learn something from older, odder ways of working and
relating to people.  Perhaps then we wouldn’t get the paint-by-numbers
dulldum web sites we have and that people churn out daily.