In the 1999 film The Matrix there's a scene you probably remember well: Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) sits opposite Neo (Keanu Reeves) and holds out his hands. In his right hand he holds a red pill and in his left, a blue one. If he chooses the blue pill, Neo will live the life he knows so far, and nothing will change. If he chooses red, he will disappear into a new world, down a rabbit hole like Alice. The choice he is essentially given is to be able to see things differently - an alternative way of thinking - and view something from the inside. Or to remain on the outside, looking in.
The red pill forms the essence of Gonzo Design: a method of creative thinking that lets you disappear down that rabbit hole and become part of the very experience you aim to design.
It all begins in Kentucky
It's Spring 1970 and journalist Hunter S Thompson finds himself staring at a looming deadline while in Louisville covering The Kentucky Derby horse race. The legend goes that he ripped pages from his notebook, numbered them and sent them to his editor. This article became 'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved' (Google it, it's brilliant). The writing style was slightly manic, off balance, unstructured and written without objectivity, focusing on the wild actions of the crowd rather than the race. In 1970 it was new and different.
What Thompson did was to jump in and place himself, the writer, into the heart of the story, and to live the life of people he came to observe. By writing from this perspective, he broke away from the detachment of observing from the sidelines. Gonzo Journalism, and Gonzo thinking, was born.
You can see this kind of thinking in other creative forms: novelists who write about events in their past, songs recounting personal lives, reportage photography and game design. The growth of social media and the rise of the bloggers, too, have roots not too far from what Hunter S Thompson started.
Back to Gonzo Design, and what it does. A form of method acting for designers, it asks you to throw yourself into the world you are designing, removing any sense of objectivity and creating around you, from the inside out. It means going beyond the brief, statistical research, competitor analysis and brand guidelines.
Like most things, it starts at the source with reading and watching everything to understand the journey behind the story. Sometimes it's a world that already exists where you need to become a fan, or expert. By talking with existing fans you can learn what motivates and inspires them. Sometimes you need to start from scratch, where Gonzo Design thinking helps shape experiences and build your audience.
This approach enables you to build the platform and sculpt digital experiences from the proposition down to the smallest detail. It means days of research, discussion and reworking the ideas and execution down to the smallest detail. After all, those tiny details are so important to a passionate audience.
When to Gonzo, when not
Of course, the truth is not all projects or challenges can, or should, be answered by an approach like that of Gonzo Design. It won't deliver the needs-focused problem solving of a user-centred design process or personas. It isn't a 10-step processor, or a sexy Venn diagram - nor is it going to help in redesigning a bank's contact us form, or retail check out.
But, if you want to create something different that taps into the emotions of a committed audience, then Gonzo Design gives you the opportunity to see through other eyes. It allows you to see which big directions are worth pursuing, and which small, possibly irrational, unexpected ideas will bring a project to life. It's about instinctively understanding the passion your audience feels - because you feel it too.
Gonzo Design is that red pill. Try one and see where it takes you.
Words: James Deeley
This article first appeared in issue 239 of net magazine.