Signal-&-Message-Ratio-2mb (1)

Signal to message ratio

The landscape of urban modernity, or the world that our grandparents grew up in, is defined by the volume and density of verbal and pictorial communication. Entire industries centre on it: news, marketing and advertising, and much of design.

Yet a vast amount of communications may well be entirely wasted, or at least measured with the wrong scales. We see something akin to an arms race, in which advertisers, for example, build ever better arsenals to penetrate the defences of audiences, who neutralise messages by knowing more and more and believing less and less.

The Deep Design of the phenomenon has to do with signalling, the notion that the what content of a message, conveyed in words, sounds and pictures, matters less than its context. That is, the when, where and who or the circumstances surrounding the message, leading to the why, an inescapable inference about what’s really, really going on. This meta communication trumps the actual message content.

signalling, the notion that the what content of a message, conveyed in words, sounds and pictures, matters less than its context.

Signalling is everywhere. Companies use price signalling in a number of ways, such as luxury goods companies using it to reduce availability, to connote exclusion, not superiority. We use signalling everywhere: LED lighting signals our concern for the earth, and less our pockets. Weddings are expensive, noisy and public to signal commitment. We vote in part to show we ‘care’. Software nerds take job interviews in sloppy (though uniform) clothes, not suits, to signal an obsession with code, and a sacrifice of convention.

Indeed, sacrifice has a lot to do with it. In biology and economics, signals are considered credible when resources are spent—especially inefficiently. A peacock, say biologists, grows a metabolically expensive tail despite its many disadvantages, to signal its health. Stalin’s armies, ever short of arms, shared one rifle among two recruits—”when the man in front falls, take his rifle and advance”— yet armed the guards who stood behind the ranks, to shoot deserters. Irrational, until one considers the signals.

A company that uses mass media lavishly to reach a small audience ‘wastes’ money, but it signals solidity and power. It’s rational to prefer the more heavily advertised product, quite apart from what the advertising messages. It’s one explanation of why advertising works, because its exhortations are expensively public, the more viewed the better. Every viewer knows that the commercials that aired during the cricket were watched by millions of others, tying her into a social lockstep. These are expensive signals. (In contrast, the doctor who rubs his hands with a self-drying gel from a dispenser on his table signals hygiene inexpensively, the latest stop in a 150-year campaign to get doctors to wash their hands more).

A company that uses mass media lavishly to reach a small audience ‘wastes’ money, but it signals solidity and power. It’s one explanation of why advertising works, because its exhortations are expensively public, the more viewed the better. 

The Fusion Sneakers by Maison Margiela costs $1,645
The Fusion Sneakers by Maison Margiela costs $1,645

A recent Apple commercial shows a sea of people in single coloured uniforms, running parkour-style through the streets, asking us to ‘make room for colour’. It’s beautifully, expensively, made; the track is highly listenable. Yet it is more like an ad for a tv set by an electronics giant than from a company that has defined techno-lust. Apple’s advertising has never leant on incrementally better technology but on a certain swagger. The typical Apple ad is more a statement than an appeal, an assertion of social proof of the iPhone’s desirability, not its functional superiority: if you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone. This ad is an appeal, to better implemented features, and credibly messages an excellent phone. But that appeal may send a different signal: of a lower level of confidence, from which one might infer Apple’s acknowledgement of a shrinking gap with competition. Is there a less vibrant pipeline of new ideas?

Apple’s ‘Color Flood’ Commercial
Apple’s ‘Color Flood’ Commercial

Signaling is non-verbal, and so is design. Obviously, designers can harness its power or at least be more aware of the signal value of their products and communications, not simply the rational content that is sought to be transmitted.

Signaling is non-verbal, and so is design.

Apple's "If it’s not an iPhone, it’s not an iPhone" commercial.
Apple’s “If it’s not an iPhone, it’s not an iPhone” commercial

Packaging is a good example where the wrapper sets our expectations of the product. We are seeing a slew of milk brands of the small food, or organic variety use glass bottles reminiscent of an earlier time. Plastic containers would be far more efficient, but the particular sort of glass bottle signals a score of things. The surface graphic design is secondary.

St Eriks potato chips, world's most expensive potato chips
St Eriks potato chips, world’s most expensive potato chips

Apple’s trend-setting identity in the 1980s, by its choice of name, signaled its difference from the status quo in the fledgling computer industry. This act, of not naming it to connote techy-ness was far more significant that other readings of the name (to signify temptation, as one tale goes, or freshness or simplicity).

Apple’s trend-setting identity in the 1980s, by its choice of name, signaled its difference from the status quo in the fledgling computer industry.

Less obviously, expensive, hard to fake, official signage is a signal of competent governance, as has been argued in these columns. Branding may communicates ideas and attitudes, but these are arguable and malleable. But the consistent application of the branding program across geographies, media and applications, powerfully—and inescapably—communicates the owner’s ability to orchestrate thought and action. The wasteful packaging that e-commerce sellers use, where an unbreakable can is swaddled in superfluous amounts of air-filled blistered polythene, and then placed in secure corrugated cartons both assures and signals assurance. However, as environmentally conscious consumers, we might have to perform our own virtue signalling, by opting out with explicit instructions to forego the extra safety.

consistent application of the branding program across geographies, media and applications, powerfully—and inescapably—communicates the owner’s ability to orchestrate thought and action.

Now that you can see signalling everywhere, and appreciate that it’s a human, social tendency, a skilled instinct and not a synthetic learned thing, it’s a surprise that not all communicators or designers are alert to the idea. We’ve repeated, since school, that actions speak louder than words, but we may have lost the essence somewhere.

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘Signal to message ratio’ in Business Standard, 16 March in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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