Sincerity, is it any fun? — a liminal design perspective. | by Johan Liedgren | Feb, 2024


There is a clear link between sincerity, liminality and the deep and meaningful experiences we seek to be fully alive. But not everyone is excited — the normalizing of insincerity is a force serving one interest: status quo. Commercial design work more than anything else is exposed to this paradox on the frontlines: we are asked to deliver something of meaning, often without really meaning it.

As writers, thinkers and designers working with corporations whose ultimate goal is likely not much more than profit, we are still asked to deliver engaging design and meaningful experiences. A meaningful experience must promise surprise, or we will not give it much attention, nor will we remember any of it. But at best, clients offer us only reliability or predictability to work with — and we are left playing lifestyle dress-up with lots of make-up to paint a picture of something with actual promise that has very little to do with the reality of the core product.

Often the institutional immune reaction to sincerity seems banal, yet it no less eroding: Don’t be too serious, lighten up. It’s just design. Sincerity, is it any fun?

Now, it goes without saying that some products are, and should be, only transactional. And they can still be well-designed transactions. The issue that arises with commercial projects is that they still anxiously feel the need to be seen and heard — even if they don’t have much to say. Arguably, many products are not even needed — and not surprisingly, these are often the ones feeling the need to be the loudest.

So, companies turn to writers, designers and creatives to make them desirable. To give them a purpose and direction that they inherently lack. Design and advertising semantics have developed to deal with this by reducing our expectations for sincerity. If we don’t expect sincerity, what we hear and see doesn’t need to make much sense. And, if we don’t really expect something to actually make sense then commercial interests can be as loud as they want about anything they want. However, this lowers expectations further. And since there is no sincerity, nor is there meaningful surprise to be had, there really is no reason to engage. All that is left is a language that only speaks with volume.

Expectations are the foundation of language, and the language needs to be liminal to allow for real relationships that leave room for the novel. Without sincerity, that liminality is gone, and with it the opportunity to build a real relationship with the audience.

This particular paradox isn’t solvable. But what we can do is to fiercely promote liminality — the portal and protector of meaningful experiences — at all costs. Aristotle suggests all stories need to be both inevitable and surprising — at the same time. Inevitable: in that they are relevant. Surprising: in that they are delivering something we did not expect. At the same time: in that it should look like a contradiction — tantalizingly so — but yet promise the possibility of an interesting but yet-to-be-determined resolution. The same is true for all good stories and experience design. And therein lies the core premise of liminality.

Liminality is born out of paradoxes. And this we can grab onto in our work with the transactional and the inevitable. Liminality is the very space between one notion and another — juxtaposing two very different ideas with a sincere suggestion that they might make sense together. But how they might be related is not obvious. If it was obvious, no imagination would be required and no deep engagement can happen. Yet if we sense enough promise, and trust the sincerity, we enter the liminal space equally sincere and curious and will imagine ways the two could belong, perhaps even be one. We look for new abstractions, for a new language to describe the experience. We create something new. The disruption of the expected normalcy stirs imagination of what might be possible. We become creators of what might be, not just cogs in a transactional machine. And this is how we know we are truly alive.

All messaging requires storytelling, the making of an abstraction that can only point roughly at what is real. And yes, all visions are presented with some intent. But all envisioning is not the same: a vision that is pure illusion is, literally, worlds apart from a vision that is visionary, which suggests a different way with new possibilities — that which we cannot know and have to imagine ourselves. Working to further the new offers both moral high-ground and equal responsibility.

There you are, perhaps already in the belly of the corporate beast. And there is nothing liminal about that. If it is hopeless, consider quitting, and find a better outlet for your efforts where you at least don’t do damage. But should there be room for good work, look with all your own sincerity for a glimmer of hope. Like an artist, and as an artist. Look for what makes you come alive. A twist to the old story that grabs the soul with a new hope interesting enough to leave the old hope behind.

These creative infusions can be small juxtapositions to the expected; any friction to the experience flow where the user is unexpectedly forced to slow down, look up from the transactional sequence, to wonder and explore what else might be possible. The transactional can be a canvas for the profound. The more the underlying product is used naturally in this disruption, the bigger the canvas you get — and the more inevitable your surprise will play.

For more examples of liminal design, pls see other articles in this series.

Good experience design is born out of wedlock by exactly this contradiction: pointing to the profound in the mundane. It is about finding Aristotle’s necessary surprising in the inevitable. To be a spark of something new. Not another loud answer to drown out other predictable answers, but a novel and great question. This is the disruption. The juxtaposition. The unexpected. The transgression. It’s the threat to status quo, the beginning of a deep and meaningful experience for the user. But again, we cannot escape the price of admission: sincerity.

The liminal space — that temporary zone, framed and strung between opposites and held gently by expectations of meaningful surprise — is there to protect your glimmer of hope through the experience to manifest, hopefully, as the user’s own creation. It’s no longer yours. That is the very point, and how it stands apart from the transactional machinery’s inability to cater to individual experiences of creating something new, experiences that remind us we are fully alive.

One should perhaps be mindful (sincere!) when using religious metaphors, but please indulge me: Your job is not to be a dutiful ground’s keeper of status quo in the garden of corporate Eden. Your job is to be the slither in the grass. And yes, in that sense, sincerity is the real fun.

Johan Liedgren
Founder of the Liminal Circle. Award-winning film-director, writer and consultant working with media and technology companies on liminal design strategy, narrative and product development. /


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