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When we create a persona or a model organization, we’re deliberately creating an archetype — a person or company that does not map to any one “real” person or company out there in the world. In creating personas, we need to be up-front with ourselves and our clients about the choices and assumptions we made along the way. We also need to be clear about what questions we asked and what we didn’t. When we don’t have the data, we need to acknowledge this and rectify it if necessary.

This point may seem like a methodological nuance, but it relates to ethical considerations that in other realms, as I recently discovered.

My design partner Chris Noessel and I just completed three weeks of research travel around the world. Neither of us had been to many of the countries, and we both photographed our adventures obsessively. One morning, he asked me to compare a photo he took to one that I took: Why did they look so different? We were using almost identical cameras and taking photos often of the same views.

Chris’s photo.

My photo.

Why does mine look different? Because I adjust the photographs post-capture, slightly adjusting the contrast, lightness, and so on. For me, the unprocessed photos rarely convey my experience of the event or location, and the post-processing is intended to re-create my memory of the experience. I take photographs to share that experience, not to share the exact pixels the camera captured.

Chris admitted that it made my photos “look better,” but that I “took liberties” to adjust, and once I started, where would I stop? How much change was too much change? How different could it be from his untouched version and still be the Great Wall of China?

Of course, this is part of a much larger conversation. Photographs appear to be very faithful representations of reality, so one may argue that viewers of photography bring a different set of expectations to them than they do to other visual art. Viewers expect photos to be more “real,” more true to life, and therefore post-facto monkeying could be seen as deceiving. On the other hand, who is to say what “real” is, really?

Essayist and photo critic Susan Sontag addresses this argument in the introduction to her book, On Photography.

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

Even before taking the shot every photographer has made choices which will affect the captured image — camera and lens, film v. digital, SLR v. point-and-point shoot — and each has an effect on the contrast, color, and depth of field, aspect ratio, and so on. We can continue to split hairs, too; for instance, we accept that the journalist which uses a telephoto lens is “telling the truth” even though it grossly manipulates scale between foreground and background. With so much noise in the system, it seems arbitrary to assign “reality” to the raw output of the camera, doesn’t it?

The National Press Photographers Association defines a couple of broad categories in the altering of photographs.

There are technical changes that deal only with the aspects of photography that make the photo more readable, such as a little dodging and burning, global color correction and contrast control. These are all part of the grammar of photography, just as there is a grammar associated with words (sentence structure, capital letters, paragraphs) that make it possible to read a story, so there is a grammar of photography that allows us to read a photograph. These changes (like their darkroom counterparts) are neither ethical nor unethical — they are merely technical … [However], once the shutter has been tripped and the moment has been captured on film, in the context of news, we no longer have the right to change the content of the photo in any way. Any change to a news photo — any violation of that moment — is a lie.” [The emphasis is mine].

The NPPA distinguishes between the technical aspects of making photos “more readable” and “changing the content,” and I think that this is an interesting analog to the world of creating design targets (i.e., personas, organizations, environments). In our process, you could look at the transition from research to personas is the process of making the research “readable.”

Of course, creating personas from research is a lot different than manipulating contrast and lightness in a photo editing app, but the principles are the same: Altering the content is a lie; each archetype that we create should faithfully reflect the gathered information, and each should bring out the priorities, needs and experience imperatives that affect the design. You can monkey with research just like you monkey with photos. When done well, slight adjustments to the color and contrast of the research more effectively reveals the truth. When done badly, they can lie and deceive.

Stefan Klocek

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