The Long Con
My freshman year of college I took a class called “Design Foundations.” For all freshman design students at the university, this class is the beginning of their formal design education. My class was Monday and Wednesday mornings at 8:00am in the basement of a building in the middle of the campus. I can still smell the Autumn leaves and feel the crisp air of walking to that class each morning. We had an adjunct professor who only taught this course, and he taught it differently than the rest of the Design Foundations that semester.
There were were no computers; our supplies for his class were simple: a few black pens of various thickness, a 24x36 white Bristol tablet, bottles of black and white paint, a ruler and an X-ACTO knife. We never used color in his class, every project was completed in black and white. Every project completed in his class that semester was to teach us the foundations (see what I did there?) to a good piece of design: contrast, motion, and noise. The professor believed that by learning how to achieve and utilize these three elements, we’d be able to skillfully guide our viewer’s eye through the page. The class was very abstract and I remember not understanding why we were drawing lines with Sharpies or painting various size cubes in 10 different shades of gray. It wouldn’t be until after the class was over that I discovered that with our simple tools, we were learning how to arrange layouts, how to control space, set up a heirarchy, and create balanced compositions.
That class changed a lot of how I perceive and approach design, but there was one thing the professor said one morning, almost off-handedly, that has stuck with me and I find myself returning to time and again: “It’s easy to grab someone’s eye,” he said, “but keeping that attention is the hard part.” He was speaking about layout then—catching someone’s attention and then guiding them to see what we want them to when we want them to—but over the years that simple sentence has come to take on new meanings for me, and even years later, I use it to guide my own work.
Sometimes it seems like the internet is powered by hype: the latest meme, the hottest startup, the newest social network, whoever can make the biggest splash is the one that gets our attention.
Maybe I’m being cynical and maybe I’m too close to this world but it’s starting to feel like many new services on the web focus on creating hype around their product. They are doing it for the press it will get. They are doing it to get as many new users as possible as fast as possible. They are doing it for the quick sale, the tweet, the like, the pin.
The problem with hype is that is temporary. Hype comes and goes. Hype gets the attention but it can’t keep us entertained forever.
I’ve been thinking about the value of design lately and the type of work I want to do. I find myself returning to an analogy I’ve been turning over in my head for a few weeks: the long con.
Traditionally, a “long con” refers to an elaborate con performed by a con man, often with a team, that requires months of planning and a longer timeframe of interaction with the target. A long con requires time to slowly draw in the victim. To accomplish this, the con man often needs to ignore a series of shorter cons to not give up his cover and miss out on the larger payout at the end.
I cringe comparing my profession with con artists but I find the process of performing a long con to be very profound. This con artist invests months of his life into a person. He forgoes all the short cons during that time because he knows he’s working for something bigger at the end. Focusing on the long con requires an ability to see and understand the big picture.
And isn’t that how we should approach our own work? I believe that by ignoring the short con—the hype—we are able to focus on the larger end goal where hype is replaced with enthusiasm. We must be careful not to confuse the two. Where hype is temporary, enthusiasm lasts. By creating for enthusiastic users, we’re creating for the users who will stick around after the hype wears off. These users are the ones who understand our products. They didn’t come because of the flashy, the gimmicky, the trickery, they came because they believed in what we are building. They find value in what we build and we find purpose in designing for them. The relationship can go both ways.
I’ve found that the times I’ve become disenchanted with design, the times I find myself thinking “what does it matter, it’s just a website” or “what’s the value in picking colors or typefaces. Does this actually help anyone live better?”, are the times I’m deep into the short cons. It’s the times I’m making the tiny decisions and lose sight of the end goal. Sometimes those decisions have to be made and the short cons have to be worked on, but they must never get in the way of the long con. They can’t ever become the end goal.
I want the work I do to be like the long con. I want to ignore the flash, the gimmick, the quick sell in an attempt to get another user, a fast sale, an extra tweet because I want to see the big picture. I want to be focusing on the end goal. I want my work to show that I’m doing this for the long haul. I want it to say to the user, to the customer, “we’re in this together.”
“It’s easy to get someone’s eye,” my freshman design professor told us, “but keeping that attention is the hard part.” At the time I thought he was talking about layouts and posters, and maybe he was. But now, I like to think he was talking about attention and hype and enthusiasm. I think he was talking about not letting the small tasks overshadow the your end goal. I think he was warning us that by investing our energies into the short cons, we’ll never see the big payout and we’ll never let design fill us up.