The Appearance of Influence

Do you have to look a certain way to be powerful? Our correspondent explores preconceived notions and snap judgments to find out.

Designers are painstakingly aware of how things look. The roots of our profession are generally in the fields of styling and form, and we’re drawn to beauty and elegance, whether in the shape of an Eames chair or a seamlessly intuitive digital interface. But the design profession has changed. Whereas once we were considered artists, we’re now just as likely to be called strategists — and the responsibilities of the job have developed accordingly. We might spend one day in the shop building a prototype and the next in the board room helping craft a new business model. Does this, then, mean that designers should look less like artists and more like, say, bankers? In today’s global economy, does it matter what you look like?

I began thinking about the appearance of power the other day during a break from the studio, when my friend and colleague Matt Schoenholz and I were walking to Starbucks and were approached by a marketer who introduced himself as Jim. We tried in vain to escape as Jim offered the pitch: If we participated in a video interview on banking and investments, we could earn a quick $20.

“It won’t take longer than five minutes,” he said. Matt started to edge away, but I became intrigued. “Sure, I’ll do it,” I offered.

Without making eye contact, and after an uncomfortable pause of several seconds, the marketer said, “Actually, you aren’t eligible. I was talking to him,” and he gestured to Matt.

Matt is an associate creative director at frog, and he’s a friendly-looking guy. He usually wears blue jeans, and he carries an iPhone. In short, he looks like a “creative young professional” — exactly the type of broad definition that marketing surveyors use to bucket their respondents.

I, on the other hand, have 1-inch holes in my ears and some fairly visible tattoos. (Never mind that I also wear button-down shirts and khakis to work and that I shower, shave, wear deodorant, and make eye contact when I talk to people.) The surveyor’s job was to interview “only people who looked like they had financial investments.” According to him (and his employer), anyone with earrings bigger than the standard size should not be surveyed — which, of course, is the same thing as saying, “If you have 1-inch holes in your ears, you have no investments.”

What Jim the marketer was doing is not so different from what most people do: take preconceived notions of appearance and make judgments. Cognitive and social psychologists call this framing — the additive, subjective, and highly interpretive point of view we bring to any given situation. Framing is central to the way in which we respond to experiences throughout our entire lives.

A frame is a perspective, and it’s built over time from our experiences. While there may be an objective truth and reality, scholars like Charles Sanders Peirce, the early-20th-century American philosopher, argued that we can never really find true objectivity because of the richness of our own lives. On a base level, a frame allows us to understand cultural norms and nuances. For example, at a restaurant we know we can’t jump behind the counter and cook our own food, and when confronted with a men’s room and a women’s room, we understand which is “right.” Based on the sum of our prior experiences with restaurants and bathrooms, we can envision the negative repercussions that might arise from breaking the implicit social code.

This ability to view the world through a particular frame can be extremely helpful, as it allows us to instinctually react to negative or dangerous situations. Much like Malcolm Gladwell describes in his 2005, book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, we have the opportunity to quickly decide through snap decisions if a person is going to pose a personal threat, because we’ve dealt with and integrated previous threats into our frame of society and culture.

But frames aren’t just for snap decisions, and they aren’t related only to safety. We approach every experience, from the wild to the banal, from a certain vantage point, and from that unique perspective we judge and interpret and make decisions. Our political views, our prejudices, and even our tastes in music affect the way we approach each new experience, and these new experiences in turn continue to refine our views and tastes.

So, rewind to my run-in with Jim the marketer, and consider how frames were at play during our exchange. Jim was told by his boss to approach a target audience, which — let’s face it — fits into a stereotypical representation of the way someone with money might look or choose to look. My earrings and tattoos didn’t fit into that representation. That’s one part. It may also be true that Jim has preconceived feelings about body piercings and tattoos from his life outside of work. If so, he wouldn’t be alone.

In Western culture, the physical traits of influence and power manifest themselves in Hollywood, in the news, and in history. Broad shoulders, straight white teeth, tanned skin, thinness — these are a few of the traditional characteristics of people who could be considered “successful” — not tattoos and body piercings, though both are more accepted now than they were in the 1950s. Even so, many people (including Jim on his marketing survey) could draw from their life experiences to determine that anyone with body modifications has little money and that they probably wouldn’t be interested in things like mortgages and IRAs. In other words, we’ve developed a way of thinking about the world that predictably associates style, income, and success. Unfortunately, that association is becoming less and less accurate as more global cultures begin to interact and merge.

A little research reveals a number of studies hinting at the variations of what power looks like around the world. In a conference paper from 2003 studying the aesthetic aspirations of Asian women, the authors’ research revealed that “in China and Japan, having a tan seems to indicate a lack of financial success.” They went on to cite a study from Procter & Gamble revealing that Asians in general “associate fair, smooth skin with positive descriptors like ‘stylish’ or ‘aristocratic,’ while darker skin evoked words like ‘poor,’ ‘unfeminine,’ and ‘slovenly.’”

Similarly, The Independent newspaper in England reported in 2006 on research done by the International Association for the Study of Obesity, and found that weight gain is celebrated in some poor South African countries because “thinness is viewed as an indication that a woman has HIV or AIDS.”

These studies aren’t news, and it would be easy enough for Jim the marketer and others to integrate this information into their worldview. But even if that were the case, I would argue that they still couldn’t actively reframe a situation. The fact is, these types of studies reduce the complexities of culture to sweeping generalizations — generalizations that are emphasized further in news stories, blog posts, and tweets.

Without personal experience in Asia or talking to South African women, we begin to filter the world through a parody of humanity that cannot capture the richness of individual experience or understand the nuances of culture. The responsibility to reframe remains with the individual.

An interesting twist to the framing of aesthetics is the look of creativity. A client once commented that a group of frog employees visiting his office “looked like a bunch of designers.” Apparently, the same qualities that indicate I’m not likely to buy and sell derivatives show that I’m really good at making new consumer electronics.

Unfortunate clichés from the startup culture of the dot-com boom seemed to indicate that you need to have tattoos and shoot Nerf darts to be creative, and while a number of people in our studio fulfill both criteria, there’s obviously no objective relationship between appearance and creativity. The look of creativity, just like the look of power, can be imbued with flavors of playfulness, colorful exuberance, and a healthy dose of irreverence. Both can be tied directly to sophistication, and most recently, horn-rim glasses and alligator shoes. And both can be found either in a suit and tie or in jeans and a white T-shirt.

This acceptance of a diverse appearance is encouraging, but it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the world shares a conservative frame, one that depends on bucketing and segmentation. There’s a richness to life experience that can’t be generalized, stereotyped, or commoditized into a nice, neat box; the way we look is one of the primary ways we communicate that richness to other people. In that sense, the “burden” of aesthetics lies with me. And yes, I care deeply about what I look like, because I understand the value of appearances, but I am equally as passionate about the weight of my words, actions, and intellect.

And so, the appearance of influence is most ironically a gray area. To stretch your ears or get tattoos only appears to lessen power, when in fact, those who choose to modify their physical appearance in these ways are doing just the opposite. I control the way I look more than I can control anything else about myself. I’m aware of the baggage that comes with my stretched ears — much like one becomes aware of racial prejudgment or religious intolerance after experiencing continual harassment or inequality — but this awareness allows me a heightened sense of anticipation in certain situations, in which I can choose to appear influential, creative, even powerful.

The stereotypes to which Jim the marketer subscribes makes it easier for him to check off a box on a list, but they lead to flawed results and inaccurate generalizations for his client. What’s worse, his methods reject the essence of diversity and the rugged beauty of the individual.

Along with my tattoos and piercings, I occasionally wear a power suit and cuff links. I own two houses, argue about politics, and drink PBR on the weekends. I shape the way I look, and through this I shape the interactions I have with other people. I am in control, and my aesthetic is on purpose. It negates neither my intellect nor my purchasing power.
It’s time for Jim the marketer to reframe.

Jon Kolko is an associate creative director in frog’s Austin studio.