There is a growing dialogue within the design community around how to drive sustainable behavior change in areas like health and energy. With it has come an increased awareness that often seemingly trivial elements of a design--like a smiley face on a utility bill--have a lasting impact. One of the principles that has emerged in this discussion is Priming , a psychological phenomenon in which an early stimulus influences our response to a later situation. Priming suggests that certain, seemingly random elements of an experience permeate our emotional state without us being aware and have a predictable, if unexpected, effect on our subsequent behavior.
What's particularly interesting, according to a recent study on voting behavior  by Stanford's Graduate School of Business, is that Priming works best when the subjects are unaware that it's taking place. When the initial stimulus seems to have nothing to do with the subsequent experience. Here's another study  regarding the influence of a warm vs. cold cup of coffee on our levels of empathy.
I was thinking of Priming when Microsoft unveiled their new Bing  search engine last week. It is no secret to designers that imagery can play a unique role in establishing the mood and tone of an experience. I see this every day in the propensity of most designers these days to place rich background images in all of their design mockups, particularly when they are in an early concept phase. It is a kind of shortcut. These choices can speak a lot more directly about the emotional qualities the designer is trying to achieve than the subtleties of typography. Imagery provides an important emotional cue to clients, particularly those that do not have a good facility for distinguishing between the more nuanced elements of different design directions.
But this strategy often backfires. Clients get very attached to a certain image early on--and a casual decision becomes something that you live with forever. That effect seemed to be in evidence during the recent launch of Bing, Microsoft's latest (doomed) effort to unseat Google.
So...which designer picked seahorses for the beauty shot? And why? I doubt that Steve Ballmer or anyone else has given it much thought. Probably something that appeared in an early rendering and just...well...stuck around. This is one more way in which Google and Microsoft are completely different. Google design diva Marissa Mayer has been very vocal regarding Google's scientific approach to design. "We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel," she is quoted as saying in a recent article in the New York Times . Apparently she won't let her team change a pixel without data to support it [a point confirmed by departing designer Doug Bowman ]. Google tests everything, down to the most granular elements of a design. Well, I can pretty much guarantee you that no one at Microsoft tested the seahorses.
But that doesn't mean that these choices are inconsequential. Microsoft spent hundreds of millions on Bing (and will spend many more millions promoting it) with the seahorses taking the lion's share of the spotlight. That is a lot of free PR for someone. Which brings me to oceanographer Sylvia Earle . Somehow I convinced my wife to watch her recent TED Talk ; not the best idea after feasting on seafood in the Scottish Highlands. There is great moment when Sylvia describes an exchange with the Google Earth folks where she asked them when they plan on finishing Google Earth. They have done all the land--the "dirt," as she refers to it--but what about the oceans? Apparently this exchange inspired a rich collaboration in which the Google Earth team added the oceans to the latest version. Pretty cool. And very much in line with her goals for this year's TED Prize , to "use all means at our disposal--films! expeditions! the web! more!--to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet." Clearly Microsoft is already on board.
Now these images rotate on a daily basis on Bing's live site . Thursday's theme was the Cinque Terre . [Today it's Thailand's Damnoen Sadouak floating market.] I wonder who is making the choices? Regardless, I can easily imagine a graduate student in the not so distant future doing a study of our digital wallpaper as a reflection of the social values of a given point in time. These random choices probably say a lot more than we realize about our times. At frog we also played a small role in the design of Windows XP, the last version of their operating system to be well-received.
Back then the dominant desktop meme was all earth and sky. Open spaces. Clean air. You can see the folks at the Nature Conservancy  smiling. Al Gore is on Apple's board of directors, after all. Do these images help to "prime" us in some way, since we see them everyday when we turn on our PCs? Perhaps Microsoft could turn this into a program--"Cause Computing"--in which they devote the default Windows desktop image to a different issue each year. Sort of like a PSA. frog already participated in something like this with the RED-branded computer  that Dell released a few years ago.
So why the switch from land to sea? In this case I think we have Steve Jobs to thank. He ushered in the wave of underwater imagery with the iPhone's Nemo-inspired phonetop.
I certainly wouldn't claim any special insight into his decision-making process. But I think there is something very fitting about moving from land (the PC desktop) to sea (mobile communications). The earth is 70% ocean. It is the dominant medium for sustaining life by far. It is also fluid with fewer clear landmarks, limited topography. A pretty good analogy to the new world of mobile computing which has become the dominant computing environment by far. Meaning emerges fluidly from the "sea" of communications, often staying right below the surface. So I wouldn't be surprised to see more seahorses and jellyfish for a while. Sylvia should be happy about that.
Read more of Robert Fabricant's Design4Impact blog 
Robert is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.