House

Sell It With Pictures

Think a little about your home. Walk through it in your head, and try to look at it as a visitor might see it.

But don’t clean up – leave it just as it is now. What does this guest see? As they walk through the rooms, do they see artwork? Children’s toys? Is it messy? Clean? Are there televisions, books, plates, papers? Are you proud of what you have, what you show, and how you appear?

As you walk through your home as this visitor, think of the clues you see that point to your demeanor and your character. Which things are there for you to appreciate? Which are there for others to appreciate?

When I try this on my own home, I see a beautiful kitchen that’s the centerpiece. I imagine the people that live here find comfort in domesticity, in creativity around food. It looks like something out of a magazine, and it must be a point of pride – I bet these people entertain in that room because they feel it represents them.

But when I look a little closer, I see some dishes in the sink. I see some dust under the cabinets. I look even closer and see some paint chipped on the lower cabinets, cat food dishes with some cat food crumbs scattered around. I see a stack of mail, some bills, some catalogs. There’s half a loaf of baguette presented on the counter, but it’s hard, as if it sat there a few days too long.

This is a theme in my home: a beautiful place of comfort, that my wife and I are deeply proud of, but with signs of being just slightly ignored. We clean somewhat regularly, but haphazardly. The things around, the stacks of papers or books, are things we haven’t gotten to. We have no television, and we’re proud of abstaining from popular culture, yet we have ipads and computers and devices for social media. We eat healthy food, and let everyone know it – but I drink an awful lot of beer. Probably too much.

My home represents a more complex, textured, or nuanced feel for who I am. I am not one thing. When I describe my house, or my lifestyle, or my preferences to my friends, I describe a clean, modern kitchen, a no-television, book reading source of experiential joy. But poke around my house a little, and you see the edges of that image are fraying.

Home is an interesting mix of aspiration and reality. Many of us surround ourselves with the things that we feel best represent ourselves to other people. But we’re also surrounded by things we are most comfortable with. These might be things that point to the way we like to feel – excited, melancholy, engaged, or detached.

Qualitative research is a fundamental part of defining design strategy. When we conduct research, a large part of what we’re interested in is what people do and what people say. But there is huge value not just in what our participants say, but in our understanding of the context in which they say it. A home is full of details, and clues, that are about as honest a glimpse into a person’s self and presentation of self as we can find. When we’re invited into the home of a participant, we see both aspirational reality and real reality.

Scenes from research

I want to share some scenes from research experiences we’ve had in the past, and I’ll start with Martha. We worked on a design strategy program for a company that wanted to explore new ways to help their customers keep their homes clean. We spent time with Martha in her home, learning about how she manages things like trash and recycling.

First, consider Martha, only framed by description and language. This is how I might describe her to someone in conversation.

Martha lives in North Dakota, and, as she described, “I like junk. I should have a bumper sticker, ‘I stop for garage sales.'”

Her kitchen opens up into her living room, and her house is decorated with some of her best finds. She enjoys the hunt. “Every once in a while you read things like ‘somebody found an original map of Galileo, in the Goodwill… $6.5 million.’ Just the little dreaming, kind of like ‘well, you never know.’ It’s an adventure. A treasure hunt.”

She’s proud enough of what she’s found that she’s built her entire business around it. She turns old furniture into what she described as “rustic shabby” and resells the items with a markup.

Her self-declared compulsive buying isn’t entirely artistic. She explained that her mom grew up in the Depression, and it’s been ingrained in her: don’t waste anything. “It’s like you don’t throw away a T-shirt or old socks or things like that, that’s what you dust with or that’s what you wipe with, or you make rag rugs. Every bit of material gets reused in some way… the Depression, living on a farm… That’s the way she grew up and lived, so it wasn’t anything new to her. So I grew up that way.”

Martha speaks of her work with pride, but with a touch of self-deprecation, too. “Germs can be good, you need to build up your immunity. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing because I’m a lousy housekeeper. And I think part of it too is that we have so many projects going on, and we have dogs, that I’ve just got to lower my expectations… I mean I’d love to have this stuff out of sight. It’s unsightly.”

When you hear about Martha, you can imagine what her home looks like, what her projects look like, and the type of person she is. She starts to come to life. Now, consider Martha’s same story again, but this time, reflect on her in the context of pictures from her home.


Martha lives in North Dakota, and, as she described, “I like junk. I should have a bumper sticker, ‘I stop for garage sales.'”

Home

Her kitchen opens up into her living room, and her house is decorated with some of her best finds. She enjoys the hunt. “Every once in a while you read things like ‘somebody found an original map of Galileo, in the Goodwill… $6.5 million.’ Just the little dreaming, kind of like ‘Well, you never know.’ It’s an adventure. A treasure hunt.”

She’s proud enough of what she’s found that she’s built her entire business around it. She turns old furniture into what she described as “rustic shabby” and resells the items with a markup.

Home

Her self-declared compulsive buying isn’t entirely artistic. She explained that her mom grew up in the Depression, and it’s been ingrained in her: don’t waste anything. “It’s like you don’t throw away a T-shirt or old socks or things like that, that’s what you dust with or that’s what you wipe with, or you make rag rugs. Every bit of material gets reused in some way… the Depression, living on a farm… That’s the way she grew up and lived, so it wasn’t anything new to her. So I grew up that way.”

Home

Martha speaks of her work with pride, but with a touch of self-deprecation, too. “Germs can be good, you need to build up your immunity. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing because I’m a lousy housekeeper. And I think part of it too is that we have so many projects going on, and we have dogs, that I just got to lower my expectations… I mean I’d love to have this stuff out of sight. It’s unsightly.”

The first way of presenting Martha’s story, in words, helps you build a relationship with her. Narrative is powerful, and with a good story, our imagination can run wild. But when I’m presenting a design strategy, grounded in research with people like Martha, I don’t want your imagination to run wild. I want it to follow a precise and exacting path. I’m building a persuasive argument, and Martha’s story serves a purpose. I want to bring her to life in as rich a way as possible, so you see the same things I see, and so you feel the same way I feel.

Look closely at the pictures, without judgement, but in the context of what Martha says. The pictures give her depth, and build on the contradictions in her own statements. They don’t solve anything, or clarify anything. They bring the complexity of people to life, and I am the curator of that extra depth. With photos, I can give Martha a much more complete voice.

Next, please meet Donny. We spoke with Donny while researching what it’s like to be under or unemployed. He’s a veteran from the Iraq war, and our research focused on his ability to translate his military skills into civilian-relevant skills. Here’s an excerpt from the time we spent with him:

I was like 19 I think; at that age but I didn’t have a driver’s license because my parents wouldn’t pay for it. I didn’t have the money and I got in this high-speed chase when I was speeding and then I’m like I’m not pulling over. I’m a gonna get in trouble and I shouldn’t be driving their car. Yeah crashed and that kind of started everything. So now I have no place to go.

So I’m at the legal age where they can kick you out. Parents said get out. They kicked me out and I had to find something. That was the army. That was the biggest thing that really really straightened me out.

It was a rude awakening for me. I mean, I remember going there and this recruiter says it is kind of like college life and won’t be that bad. But we get right off the plane and I’ve got guys screaming at me in the face. And we’re hearing, “Oh, we’re starting basic training, and you lose all your freedom. You can’t do whatever you want.”

After the basic training, you start job school and I thought that was a little bit a little bit easier transition as where you are a little more independent. You kind of, you still gotta show up to your class and do your job school but then you can kind of… on the weekends you can go away and do what you want, within reason, obviously.

As with Martha, Donny’s words create a picture in your mind, and the picture is yours. But I want the picture to be closer to the one I saw, heard, and felt when I spent time with Donny. Read it again, but this time, with some scenes from Donny’s house.

I was like 19 I think; at that age but I didn’t have a driver’s license because my parents wouldn’t pay for it. I didn’t have the money and I got in this high-speed chase when I was speeding and then I’m like I’m not pulling over. I’m a gonna get in trouble and I shouldn’t be driving their car. Yeah crashed and that kind of started everything. So now I have no place to go.

Home

So I’m at the legal age where they can kick you out. Parents said get out. They kicked me out and I had to find something. That was the army. That was the biggest thing that really really straightened me out.

Home

It was a rude awakening for me. I mean, I remember going there and this recruiter says it is kind of like college life and won’t be that bad. But we get right off the plane and I’ve got guys screaming at me in the face. And we’re hearing, “Oh, we’re starting basic training, and you lose all your freedom. You can’t do whatever you want.”

Home

After the basic training, you start job school and I thought that was a little bit a little bit easier transition as where you are a little more independent. You kind of, you still gotta show up to your class and do your job school but then you can kind of… on the weekends you can go away and do what you want, within reason, obviously.

Donny comes to life when you hear about him. He becomes much more animated when you see about him.

The Power of Imagery

When I was an undergraduate studying design at Carnegie Mellon, one of the many foundational exercises we were assigned was something called Image/Word. It’s an exercise with simple constraints. Select a square image. Place it next to a square that contains three or four words, where the juxtaposition of the image and the words brings to life a new meaning.

I had some of the team at Modernist do a few. This is mine:

Image/Word

And Matt’s:

Image/Word

And Chad’s:

Image/Word

And Courtney’s:

Image/Word

Visual designers have long understood the persuasive relationship of imagery and words – think of any advertisement, such as the classic United Colors of Benetton campaign from the 80s or the Absolut Vodka ads from the 90s:

Absolut

So have sequential artists, as evidenced by my favorite Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin

There’s an editorialization at play, which is a basic of visual communication. The designer is adding a voice, without disrupting the natural voice: the “higher level statement” of a situation becomes a narrative atop a narrative.

Pursuasian

This editorialization that happens in ads and comics is the same one we’re pushing when we include imagery from the field with quotes and transcriptions from our participants. We’re developing a multi-dimensionality voice. This is the second most critical reason to do contextual field research when developing a design strategy, second only to actually forming a deep and meaningful connection with the participant themselves. Their space, influenced by them and influencing them, is the backdrop for my narration. Immersion in their space (and subsequent synthesis of the immersion) helps me formulate what I want to say, and the photographs themselves then substantiate my point.


Qualitative field research is hard and time consuming. It’s much easier to do remote interviews or quant-based surveys, and these tools are effective ways to inform design strategy. But there’s material value in conducting in-home research, because it gives you increased authorship. You stop simply being a communication transferring mechanism for distributing facts from the field. Home is the reflection of realized self and aspirational self. The backdrop of home as a context creates a way for you to shape and build an argument, and the image/word relationship paints your participants and your strategic agenda in an equally rich brush.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you build your narrative.

Get In Touch

Related Posts