Opening Dialogue: ID hosts Chicago IxDA

by New Idiom

Last Wednesday, the Institute of Design hosted the monthly gathering of Chicago members of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Nearly 70 were in attendance to join in discussing the topic presented by Christopher Finlay (MDes ’08), “Keeping Experience Fresh: Using Character, Theme and Motif.”


Christopher proposed a storytelling framework to understand how great businesses create connections with people and to help designers create compelling experiences. He described three main parts of a story: the motifs (recurring decorative elements giving effect), the themes (unifying, often intangible threads), and the character (which embodies a system of traits). He suggested that while many businesses focus on specific solutions and context, both motif and theme, more emphasis should be on the relationship, or character.

A tangible comparison was given showing the difference between a Mexican-themed restaurant and Chipotle. The Mexican-themed restaurant defines its character with bright colors, serapes, and sombreros, while Chipotle is defined by its mission to make quality Mexican-style food fast. Christopher concluded, “Motif, theme, & character help us to decide what to bring forward in our stories and also provide us with meaningful resources for keeping a brand fresh.” The full presentation can be downloaded here.

The ensuing discussion immediately focused on Starbucks (talk of Apple was banned for the night) and their recent campaign My Starbucks Idea, an attempt to reconnect by directly asking customers how to improve the experience. The group tended to agree that Starbucks has been struggling with its character, but differed on what “character” really means. Some asked: Is character value or authenticity? Is it the consumer’s perception or how one feels when experiencing a service or product? Is it the reflection of a charismatic leader like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson or Oprah? Or, is it just brand? One particularly poetic response from an attendee (whose name I failed to catch) was “Brand is the promise; the character is the manifestation of that promise.”

All in all, the crowd was engaged (despite the poor suitability of the room to a large group discussion), and the topic seemed to resonate with the audience. Thanks to Christopher for providing thought-provoking material and Tal Shay (MDes ’10) for proposing to host the event. Sharing and building ideas between students and outside practitioners is definitely worthwhile, and we should continue to seek ways to open this dialogue.