Designing With Respect – How A Fish Hook Might Change Your Approach To Advertising

Stone Island Flowing Camo Hooded Field Parka (Green Camo)Late last year I was touring a new exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum called “Tools Extending Our Reach.” It was a collection of ingenious tools crafted by humans throughout history, from prehistoric stone arrowheads to newly available telescopes that allow us to look at the surface of the sun in real time. The gathering showed the myriad of ways wherein tools may help amplify human abilities.

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I like to look back into the history of design for ideas and inspiration. I believe we are able to better understand how to navigate the longer term by studying the past. While the scale and scope of the challenges we are facing today are new, some of the core problems we’re looking to resolve remain the same.

One tool in the exhibit particularly struck me — an antique fishing hook designed and used by the indigenous people of Alaska to catch one of their main food sources, the Pacific halibut.

[Photo credit: Halibut Hook – Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert © Smithsonian Institution Collection of John J. McLean:1881 Baranof Island, Alaska Department of Anthropology National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC, E45990.]

It was crafted in the late 1800s and is in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It might look primitive, but do not be fooled. The design is more sophisticated that lots of today’s fishing hooks, and here is why: it was designed to only catch fish of a certain size. It left the small fish for future seasons, and it avoided the large fish that were too big to haul into the canoe. Essentially, it allowed the people of that community to practice sustainable fishing, providing them with many seasons of prosperity. That alone makes it an enchanting, inspiring design artifact.

But a second aspect of this halibut hook also captured my imagination: in addition to its ingenious functionality, it also has a beautiful carving that depicts the spirit exchange between the Inuit people and the fish in the sea. This community believed that in the event that they showed respect to the fish they were trying to catch, more would come back the next season.

So what does an ancient halibut hook must do with the way forward for advertising?

Earlier this week at IAB MIXX, I spoke about how critical it is that companies design with respect for the people they are looking to attach with. This is a critical tenet of Facebook’s design philosophies – something we work hard to live up to.

Throughout history, people have had to manage the tension between short- and long-term gains. The companies and brands who tend to thrive in a sustainable way are ones that look to offer a mutually beneficial value exchange with their customers. We are able to see that in this halibut hook. However, the best way that connections are made between businesses and people is rapidly changing.

Anyone who is working in digital advertising has heard the relentless drumbeat in regards to the shifts in the media landscape. Individuals are spending less time with traditional media, more time with digital media, and increasingly on mobile phones. No surprises there.

This major disruption in the media landscape has important implications for design, in large part because the connection we now have with our mobile devices is qualitatively different than our relationship with other media. They are not static appliances that sit on a wall or lay in stacks in your coffee table.

Mobile devices help us work and play and connect with our colleagues, friends, and families each day, and plenty of many times per day. There’s more computing power in these tiny machines than the ones that landed us on the moon. They are hyper-personalized, multi-purpose power tools and they’re being carried around by billions of people right inside our pockets. It’s an incredibly privileged place to be and something we must always never take for granted.

So how can we continue to earn the best to live inside people’s pockets? Listed below are three key lessons we’ve learned over the years designing for a world, mobile community.

Design for people where they are. Though the US is 4 percent of the world’s population, it disproportionately dominates technology and design conversation and standards (source: Along with designing for important cultural differences, the diverse contexts in which people live and work, the devices they use, even their data plans and network connections should be a part of our design considerations.

Consider that the price of knowledge plans is a barrier for many people around the world. To get around this, communities have developed ingenious hacks to reduce the impact of phone usage on their data plan. An example of that is the “missed call” phenomenon, where someone calls another phone and quickly hangs up so no charges are incurred. A single missed call could be a method to say “hi” to a friend or loved one, without cost. In Syria, five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat,” and in India, a missed call from a shop or business means “your order is ready.” Missed calls are wildly popular in South Asia, the Philippines and Africa. In Bangladesh, for example, missed calls make up about 70% of cellular network traffic at any given time (source:

As marketers, we are able to build on these hacks to better connect people to businesses. In this case, we developed an ad format incorporating a missed call so people can access information a couple of brand, product, or service that interests them without impacting their data usage.

Design with people, not only for people. Sometimes innovation is achieved through an intentional, preconceived path. Other times, the world takes us and our products in unforeseen directions. When these unexpected hacks emerge, will we see them, and then do we’ve got the humility to follow our community’s lead?

Facebook Safety check is a great example of something that the community invented for themselves. Following the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, teams at Facebook saw how people used Facebook to notify their friends and families that they were OK by posting “I’m Safe” on their Facebook profiles. So the team designed a product which allowed people to try this faster and easier.

Since then it has been deployed for a lot of major crises following typhoons, cyclones, and earthquakes. After one of the devastating recent quakes in Nepal, more than 7M people marked safe and 150M received notifications about their family and friends being safe.

The team at Facebook did not provide you with this idea. The community created this experience for itself, hacking the tools we gave them, and we streamlined it on their behalf. There are examples of this throughout our industry. In truth, many transformative technologies of the previous couple of decades didn’t initially set out to resolve some of the issues to which they were ultimately applied. The people of the world took things into their own hands, figuratively and literally. We’ve got an enormous opportunity to innovate in new ways if we open ourselves as much as the ideas and ingenuity of people all all over the world and never just those inside of our own organizations.

Design with respect for all. Fundamentally, the key to creating a mutually beneficial and sustainable value exchange between businesses and the people of the world is respect. Respect for people’s time, their attention, their values. While popular fiction often assumes that the future of advertising is inevitably invasive — think concerning the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton is inundated with marketing messages triggered through retinal scans — what if the opposite is true? Technology can and should empower people to have control over their experiences, including how they connect with other people and with businesses. People increasingly expect value, transparency, and control, and so they deserve to have it.

– Are we designing for where individuals are, or where they used to be? And are we taking fully under consideration the context where they live and work?
– Are we designing with people and never just for them? Are we tapping the genius outside our companies? Are we missing the specified paths which might be in front of us?

– Are we making respect the guiding force behind our interactions with the people of the world?

These questions can lead us all to search out our halibut hook – a way that we will fuel a sustainable and mutually beneficial value exchange with people all around the world. By respecting the people and communities for whom we are designing, we will continue to earn and grow their trust and be worthy of that privileged place inside of their pockets.

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