Malcolm Gladwell on Design, Success and the Perception of Success

According to Malcolm Gladwell, 1930s-era bank buildings and the desk of his mathematician father are very much alike.

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He cited both as examples at the AIGA Business and Design conference last Saturday, when we discussed the connection between design, the perception of success, and success itself. (Success is the subject of The New Yorker columnist's new book, Outliers.) Specifically, what is the importance of a person's physical space in defining not only how that person is going to perceive institutions, but how that person is going to perform intellectually?

First, institutions. Early in the 20th century, Gladwell notes, before the FDIC existed to insure deposits, banks used design to conjure the perception of success. "It was a time when people were worried about the stability of financial institutions. One of the ways banks communicated their stability was that they created these large, grand, solid, conservative classical buildings. Now the banks don't do that at all. I wonder if as a result of this crisis we're going to see…banks need(ing) to use their architecture and design as a symbol again. Because we've lost faith in their decision making."

Next, a person's performance itself. For quite different is the use of design to effectively make human pursuits successful. "The thing that's useful about design is that it can help us match environments to moods or tasks or states of the mind," Gladwell suggests. His mathematician father, for example, was a professor who worked out of his study at home. The room was a "deliberately constructed space" that had to suit his pursuit for precision, use of imagination, and requirement for an "elegant, simple, clean place to make that kind of thinking possible. Design is more than a mater of taste; it has a cognitive and emotional function."

In this challenging economic environment success is as hot a commodity as, well, natural gas. Perhaps then it's a time in which a tidy, calm-inspiring and thought-inspiring environment is all the more crucial for a driven person's sense of well-being and successful direction. "People respond to cues in their environment. The surroundings send a message; they shape behavior in specific and broad ways," Gladwell notes. 

Outliers investigates "the success of people by not talking about the individual at all, but their surroundings, context, environment, culture, family history" and other factors. The book will be released November 18.

 

 

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