A Productive WRECK: 5 Customer Engagement Insights from a Crashed Car

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

[Oscar Wilde, from “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” 1891]

At LiquidHub, I work with a team of designers to translate businesses operations into visual representations. Our drawings communicate insights to improve performance and help leadership make smarter decisions. Our work involves drawing and modeling, but it is not art – I am adamant about this distinction. Our work is not a personal exploration; it is in service of a client who needs to solve a problem. However, if as Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art…,” there may be lessons we can learn from art that can be applied to our work. This led me to question, “What if Business Imitated Art?

In the fall, Philadelphia Contemporary presented me an opportunity to explore this question, inviting me to lead a dialogue with an artist on his work. What follows are five insights I gained about improving business operations and how to better engage customers.

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Art Imitates Life

Wreck – a life-size sculpture by Jordan Griska – is a polished stainless steel replica of a luxury car after the impact of a crash. Wreck is a troubling piece to contemplate because it is both beautiful in its material perfection and frightening in the tragedy it implies.

On October 30th, I led a dialogue with Jordan Griska about this sculpture before it was relocated to its permanent home on a private collector’s estate. Wreck is the latest piece in a growing body of Jordan’s work that appropriates the imagery of everyday objects and explores the intersection of art, technology and culture.

Business Imitates Art

Returning to if business can imitate art, I spent time after my conversation with Jordan reflecting on how his work can serve as a model for customer engagement. Here are my five insights:

Insight #1:

A seamless customer experience requires a well-designed infrastructure.

Spectators viewing Wreck are mesmerized by its near-perfect mirrored surface of stainless-steel shards. Each fold in the surface is practically seamless with pieces fitting closely together with a minimal joint. From the outside, the spectator is completely unaware of the sophisticated structure supporting this seamless skin. The piece is as beautiful looking underneath its surface as it is from above.

Jordan talked about his iterative process to find the right materials and the right fabrication methods to achieve the desired visual effect. We discussed the tradeoffs of time, budget, durability and different technology solutions. He also shared stories about the painstaking process of cutting, polishing and assembling the skin over its steel frame and all of the blood and pain involved. When I asked him about the relationship between the sculpture’s structure and skin, he joked about how beautiful it is underneath and invited me to take a look. Clearly, he was as proud of the internal structure as he was of its outward appearance. Looking at the underside, I was struck by how meticulous the finish was, even though it was never meant to be seen.wreck

When customers participate in a well-designed, seamless experience, they are often only aware of the outward-facing components of the service – this is the magic of the experience. They shouldn’t be aware of all of the pain involved, but that doesn’t mean it is not equally important.

When designing customer experiences, one must carefully consider both the customer’s perspective and the internal infrastructure that creates and sustains the experience. Creating this infrastructure requires careful design, research on different technologies and approaches, and the expertise to make strategic decisions and implement the solution. A truly successful experience needs to be like Wreck – as beautiful and carefully considered underneath as it is on the surface. At the end of the endeavor, your team should be as proud of how well-designed the experience is behind the scenes as they are of what happens in full view of the customer. This is what creates experiences that last.

Insight #2:

Technology is the means to an experiential end, not the end itself.

Wreck, like many of Jordan’s works, uses technology as the dominant image. In addition, technology is essential to the actual creation of Wreck in the digital modeling of the form, fabrication of the components and assembly of all of the parts.I asked Jordan if technology was the medium, the message or both? For him, technology is the means toward a visual effect and the delivery of a powerful cultural message. Technology itself is not the primary message. Wreck’s imagery of the automobile and the technology required to craft the sculpture enable him to provoke more potent messages about our culture of luxury consumerism and subverted mythologies of freedom and the American dream.

When designing customer experiences, it is important to maintain a perspective on what is important to the customer. Your customer is not buying technology; they are buying the value the technology provides or the emotions the experience elicits. Does someone viewing Wreck really care about what technology Jordan used to model the car and how it was made? This information gives the viewer an interesting context to appreciate his achievement, but only after they appreciate the more emotional and intellectual messages.

Technology is a means to deliver a service that fills a need or solves a problem for the customer. When making decisions about designing and implementing a customer experience, ask yourself if the solution is about the technology itself or the value the user derives from it. Always prioritize the user’s needs.

Insight #3

The context of use impacts user perceptions and defines user experiences.

How does an artwork’s context impact our appreciation of it? The art world often responds to context by negating its existence. Art is displayed in neutral white galleries, removing the distractions of an outside environment. Unfortunately, life is not so simple.

Wreck2When I asked Justin about the role of context in his work, I learned that it is often an unknown. Part of the excitement is seeing how the work reads in its setting. Wreck was commissioned by a collector to be displayed outdoors in his garden. In this context, Wreck is an exquisite “car on blocks.” In the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, Wreck is a luxury representation of squalor. For Philadelphia Contemporary’s exhibit, the first choice of display was 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s main train station. Parked in the main hall amidst the constant flow of travelers and commuters, it would have been a commentary on mass transit, car culture and road safety. When a suitable location at 30th Street Station could not be agreed upon, the exhibit moved to Pier 9. In this setting, it appears to be a sparkling victim awaiting its fate at a chop shop. In each case, the context impacts the potential meaning of the piece, how a viewer might engage it, and ultimately their satisfaction with the experience.

When designing customer experiences, the experience cannot be considered a discrete entity separate from its context of use. Context directly impacts user perceptions and ultimately impacts success. In our increasingly mobile culture, context is often outside a designer’s control – be prepared for variability.

Insight #4

Never be rigid in your vision, allow constraints to provide new opportunities.

After hearing about the painstaking process of creating Wreck, I was curious about the choice of material. The polished stainless steel is beautiful. I was surprised to learn that this was not Jordan’s first choice. Originally, he envisioned Wreck would be made of transparent glass, but the cost and fabrication time were prohibitive and he had to find a suitable alternative.

Looking back at the material evolution of Wreck, one appreciates the value of constraints as opportunities. Although the material choice was dictated by cost, the reflective surface provides much more than the value of the expense saved. Assuming the original selection of transparent glass was intended to dematerialize the presence of the car, the mirrored stainless steel achieves this goal in a way that further enhances the viewer’s experience. Oscar Wilde wrote, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Wreck’s mirror finish fractures reflections of the viewer and the surrounding context in the folds of its multifaceted surface. One can literally see themselves in the scene of the accident.

Wreck3

In any design endeavor, be prepared to accept constraints and view them as opportunities to improve the outcomes of the project. No great design was ever created without constraints. Constraints force you to consider your choices more carefully and to deploy your resources more wisely. In designing customer experiences, the limits on the experience can ultimately serve to expand the user’s enjoyment and satisfaction.

Insight #5

Fundamentals should always be questioned. This leads to innovation.

Lastly, one of the most basic lessons learned from Wreck is that fundamentals should always be questioned and not taken for granted. In Wreck, Jordan tackled the fundamental questions at the root of creating art, What is art? and What is beauty? He questions our concept of art by painstakingly hand-crafting a representation of an object of mass production. In art, the singular original is always more valuable than serial production. The automobile is mass produced, it is not art. Furthermore, Jordan’s method of production embraces the potential of digital fabrication to easily create multiple replicas. Once the code is written, reproduction is a matter of pushing a button. Is Wreck art or production?

In addition, Jordan also questions our concept of beauty. Wreck is beautiful, but not in any conventional sense. Wreck is sublime. It captivates us with its display of destruction, fear and potential death. It is a thrilling kind of beauty that stays with you long after viewing it. I have been contemplating it for three months.

When considering how to engage customers more effectively, follow Jordan’s method and question the fundaments: What does it mean to engage a customer? and What is a customer? Questioning these fundamentals shifts the exercise away from simple, superficial answers to a more meaningful exploration of users and their needs.

Answering fundamental questions about art and beauty drove Jordan’s choices and enriches the viewer’s experience. In his artist statement on his website he says,

“…I complicate the ways in which we think about these objects and their associations. In this way, my work increases awareness of objects’ pasts and symbolic qualities as they relate to American identity in order to invite viewers to imagine alternative futures.”

How can you take up Jordan’s challenge, question your fundamentals and imagine alternative futures for how you engage your customers?

Special thanks to Harry Philbrick and Tina Plokarz of Philadelphia Contemporary for inviting me to lead the discussion, and to Jordan Griska for a great conversation.

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