Corbyn, windows and digital design

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the UK’s Labour Party has had a useful side effect in opening up an area of digital design and usability that can confuse people.

It is the tension of the familiar and the novel. The old and the new.

Everything that is old is new again

Corbyn’s election in 2015 had the odd effect of suddenly seeming to shift everyone back the 80’s. A time travel experience of rediscovering forgotten arguments about class, money and fairness that haven’t existed in public discourse for years.

This effect was amplified and probably enabled by the cracks in the publci realm caused by the 2008 financial crash and the 2015 general election result (the Conservative Party won an unexpected term without the need for a coalition).

This rupture brought Corbyn out and the New Labour candidates fell into to it with bewildered screams.

An explanation of how this rupture happened and how a seeimingly unreasonable candidate succeeded was offered.

It is called the Overton Window

Reinstalling windows

The Overton Window is not a new idea. Joseph Overton used it to describe the acceptability of political ideas. A spectrum like this:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

What is important is that the window can move. The public viewpoint can shift. The unthinkable can become policy over time.

For example, what were viewed as ridiculous ideas from the Monster Raving Looney Party (a real UK party) in the 1960’s are now embedded in UK law and placed there by Conservative and Labour polticians with public support.

The edges shift. The unacceptable becomes acceptable. The unfamiliar becomes normal.

It’s that shifting that is useful to understand when discussing digital design and usability.

Pattern matching

People like familiar things. Their mental models are developed over a lifetime of experiencing things as they expect.

That is why airline websites look the same. People go to them to book flights and they have a fairly strong view that their journeys have beginnings and ends, dates and time, homes and destinations.

And yet…

Humans also seek out novelty and difference. The familiar sinks into the unnoticed.

Design becomes a commodity. Value collapses

Opening windows

Thus Corbyn, Overton Windows and change become relevant to digital design.

Not merely do you become aware that old patterns can become fresh. A fact well known to the Fashion industry.

Also, that there is a model for change. The Overton Window shows that familiarity is not a fixed idea. People shift. Hippies become Yuppies. The unacceptable becomes normal.

Be aware of the diversity of ideas and designs. Play with them in active designs.

Those apparently foolish, liminal ideas and fragments can become part of the familiar.

Radical and innovative ideas and designs are often already here. It’s just we cannot see them.

Designers can help everyone by opening windows and showing them.



Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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