A race for attention is raging across media, advertising and culture in our era of non-stop digital distraction.
We now live in an attention-based economy. Economic scarcity over the past 200 years has shifted from land to labour to knowledge, and now with the advent of the internet, to attention. ‘Attention is a resource – a person has only so much of it,’ writes Matthew Crawford in his book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.
Every day, the average adult in America consumed more than 10 hours’ worth of media in 2016, according to Nielsen. In such a tide of continual stimuli, the human capacity to apply concentration to a chosen subject, and our ability to understand things in detail, is being significantly challenged.
In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer scientist Cal Newport writes that doing ‘deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy. And yet most people have lost the ability to go deep, spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media’.
Media outlets, brands, charitable causes, individuals – or anything that wishes to be truly seen and heard – must endeavour to cultivate in-depth focus in order to stand out. Focus should replace attention as the goal of communications. Attention is fleeting while focus is prolonged, a distinction that brands seem to be missing.
To inspire and motivate people, communications across advertising, culture, business and the public sphere need to operate with a view to supporting focus. Kevin King, global practice chairman at Edelman Digital tells LS:N Global:
For marketers and brand managers, our remit is clear – we must master both the shiny and the substantial.
Looking ahead, businesses should apply a Focus Filter to their output and secure audience engagement using techniques such as:
1. Brands must reconsider what engagement key performance indicators should look like. Focusing on clicks and views may only represent shallow attention-grabbing rather than deeper engagement
2. Focus at work is fundamental to engendering creativity. Reconsider how minimalism in branding and interiors can offer a pro-focus solution
3. Consumers need a balance between conviviality and privacy. Build privacy options into social spaces, including offices and restaurants, to allow for optimum concentration
4. The skim-and-skip culture isn’t going anywhere. Consider Quick-glance Design when formatting content for online consumption to ensure the greatest amount of information is taken in
5. There is still a place for long-form writing. Invest in long-read material by cherry-picking engaging subjects and playing with presentation options that merge slow journalism with screenshot culture
6. The continuing consumer interest in mind-body connection means there is room for innovation in physical tools and spaces that enhance worker concentration and creative output
7. Don’t let Skip Culture win. Instead, develop audacious and expressive advertising through bold artist partnerships that dare to blur the boundaries between genres
8. Binge culture may have a limit, with consumers now excited by a return to scheduled viewing. Streaming entertainment and creative content at specific times to generate engagement and counteract ever-available online media culture
9. Automation could open up a new stream of creativity. Educate yourself and your co-workers about the upsides of at-work automation
10. Our current addictive relationship with technology is unsustainable. Encourage those around you to take a conscious attitude to technology time and support their best efforts by exploring the new crop of responsible apps
We live in a state of constant multitasking and multiscreening. Researchers from the American Psychological Association found that switching between activities makes us 40% less productive, while the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London discovered that ‘second-screening’ lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana or losing a night’s sleep.
Accusations of concentration deficiency have been levelled at younger generations as they spend more time multistreaming and living online. Some 11% of Generation Z are thought to have ADHD by medical definition. And Microsoft caused a sensation in 2015 by revealing that Millennials had an eight-second average attention span – one second shorter than that of a goldfish.
Kayee Cheung, vice-president and head of global trading agency and partnerships at Spotify, believes that the onus is on brands to render their content worthy of young people’s focus:
It is important to make sure the message is relevant as they have a high propensity to explore and flick through… if it’s not interesting, they move on.
'Addicted to an app? That’s the point. That’s what technology companies are trying to do,' writes Rowland Manthorpe, associate editor at Wired UK magazine.
The technology world’s clickbait mentality applies not only to headlines but also to the architecture and appeal of every app. Just as this fight for attention has resulted in a digital media devoid of ethical boundaries, so it has created a climate across technology that applies the science of persuasion to digital design with no concern for psychological costs.
Author of Addiction by Design and cultural anthropologist at MIT Natasha Dow Schüll explains how our digital addiction is being built into the systems of society on an inescapable scale. ‘The experience that is being designed for in banking or healthcare is the same as in Candy Crush. It’s about looping people into these flows of incentive and reward,’ she says, referring to how technology design draws on gambling design to cultivate addiction. As a result, we are driven to fill our minds with more information – imagery, content, data – that it can process.
With shrinking attention spans, artistic content and creative advertising have been forced to produce videos that are shorter and shorter.
Our attention span for applied focus has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds since 2000, according to Microsoft, while over the past 40–50 years standard television ad length has changed from 60 seconds to 15 seconds, according to Think With Google.
The result is skip culture – or clicking through ads and videos instead of really watching them. Insurance company Geico made headlines in 2015 when it created unskippable pre-roll ads that captured attention in the first five seconds. In its Crushed ads in 2017, the pre-roll adverts were ‘condensed’ as the set was crushed by a moving wall.
Open-plan offices have been the de rigueur office set-up for 50 years, since architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building based on an open-plan factory with very few walls.
But increasingly, as cubicle culture is replaced with shared desks and collaborative spaces, designers are beginning to question the productivity levels these types of spaces offer. More often than not, open-plan offices foster interruption rather than collaboration as the mind becomes overloaded.
Researchers at Auckland University of Technology found that workers become less productive and friendly when the number of people they share an office space with increases. Rachel Morrison, senior lecturer writes:
Shared work environments are associated with increases in distraction, negative relationships and distrust.
Albert Einstein once said ‘creativity is the residue of time wasted’, an opinion articulated more recently by Chris Lewis, CEO of global agency Lewis, in his new book Too Fast To Think. Lewis writes about how 21st-century life is suffocating the subconscious, where ideas come from. ‘Often [the subconscious] won’t be able to interpose with the conscious mind until it is still and uninterrupted,’ says Lewis. In other words, to be creative we need to relax.
This collateral damage of distraction culture is starting to cause concern in the boardroom. For the moonshot team at Alphabet’s research and development lab X, formerly Google X, who have worked on ideas such as Google Glass and self-driving cars, having dedicated time to focus on creativity is crucial.
‘Our Rapid Evaluation team, which generates hundreds of ideas for possible X moonshots, does mental gymnastics in the form of bad ideas brainstorms,’ explains Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at X. He explains that creating that ‘wasted space’ of pointless suggestions allows the productive ideas to come through.
Have you stopped clicking on news links since Donald Trump’s inauguration in a bid to protect your own psychological wellbeing? Neuroscientists have been doing it for years and this strategic avoidance is now going mainstream. Writing in The Guardian, Brigid Delaney links the boom of self-care and ‘treat yo’self’ culture to today’s toxic political climate:
During the Nazi and later Stasi eras, the Germans spoke of ‘internal migration’. The barbarians were at the gate, and they seemed too powerful to fight, so you went in, or away, in your head.
As a result of this coping mechanism, the mind actively welcomes its own colonisation by distractions. We would rather become ‘enfolded in the soft comforts of the wellness industry’, she says, than allowing broader societal and environmental problems to capture our focus.
As the widespread struggle to zone in gains attention, brands and institutions are using silence as a tool to help their audience focus.
More than 100m hours of video content are viewed each day on Facebook. Tellingly, Facebook found that moving images only took off during the past year, after the social network cut out surprise soundblasts and optimised video for viewing without sound. The site now reports that 85% of videos played online are now viewed without turning the sound on.
‘Silence is a beautiful constraint,’ according to Rob Newlan, Europe, Middle East and Africa regional director of Facebook’s Creative Shop, which works with brands, businesses and agencies to help drive innovative work on Facebook and Instagram. He told Advertising Age:
You need to understand silence, or people won’t engage.
David O Russell, the film-maker behind American Hustle, responded to this trend with his new six-minute silent fashion film for Prada that features action set to music, but with no dialogue. While being social media-ready, the charming Dada-esque short echoes the bygone era of silent black and white film. In a more direct example of silent advertising, Absolut Vodka used a sound-free video to promote its limited-edition Spark bottle using the high-octane visuals of the glittering bottle as the focal point.
Architects and designers are opting for simple ways to induce concentration while also supporting mental health and creative flow. Forward-thinking new co-working spaces are starting to feature this minimalist branding to match new focus-inducing interiors.
Co-working spaces Primary and Second Home both offer meditation and yoga classes to support workers’ mental wellbeing, while Today, designed by Accept & Proceed, uses block colours and simple lines so that members can focus on their work. ‘Truly creative spaces don’t need to look wacky-creative, they need to function well, with high-speed internet and big desks, to act as a blank canvas,’ says Matthew Jones, partner and creative director at Accept & Proceed.
For more, see our forthcoming Work Zones microtrend.
Despite the initial allure of clickbait, it loses its appeal after a few scrolls and a few more clicks. As web surfers experience distraction fatigue they seek out analysis that can help them make sense of the barrage of dislocated information they are receiving.
A 2016 study of online reader behaviour by Pew Research Center found that long-form journalism still has a place. Results showed that readers engaged for twice as much time with articles longer than 1,000 words as with short stories, and on average, long content attracts about the same number of visitors as short content.
Screen Shot magazine, published in print and online, ‘tries to keep the reflectivity of a more traditional publication while also employing a semi-short, digital-friendly approach’. It combines thought-provoking pieces such as Did Matriarchy Ever Exist? with fresh, dynamic graphics from the present. Founder and editor Shira Jeczmien writes that it ‘aims to screen-grab moments in the city’s progression, and with that, illustrate creative threads which appear and disappear’, serving as an editorial archive across culture that combines visual accessibility with in-depth analysis.
As long-form takes new shapes like this it may plant new seeds for cultivating focus against the odds. Phallaina is a digital French graphic novel by Marietta Ren that is designed to be read as a seemingly endless scroll on an iPad. The side-scrolling technique features long-form content that is 1,600 iPads long, but feels immediate.
Designers are tailoring their typography, layouts and content to how we now consider scanning to be reading, as a culture suffering from focus deficit sets in.
In January 2017, design agency Monotype joined MIT AgeLab’s initiative researching how to improve the design and typography of interfaces for a quick-glance audience. According to MIT, we read information on smartphones, wearable devices, car displays and adverts in short bursts hundreds of times a day. The project is the Clear Information Presentation Research Consortium (Clear-IP), and Google is also a partner. Explains Nadine Chahine, type director at Monotype:
The glance is the new currency of the age and we need to know how to design for it.
In September 2016, Refinery29 altered its visual identity for a week to reflect the average size of American women. With creative direction by Danielle Brooks, it was dubbed the 67% project to reflect the 67% of American women who are plus-sized, and featured women who wear sizes 14 to 34. The campaign was attention-grabbing thanks to its anti-normative visuals, but what drew extended focus was the repetition of that photographic identity across the site.
Wellness products are appealing to focus deficit anxiety.
Wellbeing spaces and supplement brands are putting a spin on products to allay growing fear around focus failure. Products that offer hyper-hydration, gut health and micro-nutritional awareness appeal to the urge to shape our own mental performance in every way possible and counter-balance the detrimental affects that information overload are having on concentration.
HoneyBrains was set up by a neurologist who wanted to explore the relationship between ingredients, health and flavour. In addition to food and drink menus it offers members a range of raw honey, supplements and technologies that promote brain function and counter digital detriments for a nourished mind.
New London wellness studio ChromaYoga is entering the crowded yoga space because there is a market for classes that do more to nurture an intensely focused environment. It applies the science of chromotherapy to its programme, using different coloured lights such as red and blue, which are known to soothe inflammation and boost productivity.
‘There are very few yoga classes that allow you to practise in a totally distraction-free environment,’ Nina Ryner, founder of ChromaYoga, tells LS:N Global.
With the rise of Netflix binge culture, it seemed the rigid scheduling of traditional television was due to fail. But often endless options can end in choice paralysis. New distribution models are changing how audiences engage with established media channels, mixing the need for instant gratification or digital programming with the scheduled mentality of broadcast television.
Norwegian tv show Skam is made up of a series of webisodes that are aired each week, at the time when the action on screen occurs, often in the early hours. At the end of the week, the webisodes are compiled into a traditional hour-long episode broadcast on television.
It is proving so engaging that Scandinavian teenagers are skipping school to watch it. Some viewers have become so fanatical that they are campaigning to boost its popularity, tweeting celebrities and launching petitions for the network on which it aired, NRK, to add English subtitles to boost its international ratings. It has recently been picked up by XIX Entertainment to translate the model to American television.
‘We are looking to push the boundaries of how modern content is viewed and experienced,’ says Simon Fuller, founder of XIX Entertainment.
While storytelling has become a tired buzzword in the communications industry, new ways of taking audiences through a narrative experience mean the possibilities for reviving stories are expanding.
According to your senses, when experiencing virtual reality, you are no longer being told a story, you are in the story. The combination of man and machine means media companies are now poised to win optimum focus and engagement from their viewers, leading Danielle Tiedt, CMO and vice-president of marketing at YouTube, to claim: ‘We’re at a moment of real change in how we tell stories.’
Untethered is a serial drama created for Google Daydream. It is driven by the user’s voice, and invites players to step into the shoes of Taylor, a DJ manning the evening shift at a radio station. The interface uses Google Assistant’s voice recognition and asks you to record ‘spots’, take calls from listeners and chat with them on air.
In The Sky Is A Gap, shown at Sundance Film Festival, the viewer’s physical motion moves time forwards and backwards, and other headset wearers can join in, changing each player’s perception of time and space.
Increasingly, miniature environments are being understood as spaces that can encourage time alone and support focus.
After years of designing their spaces for conviviality, restaurants are now starting to experiment with building solo spaces into their interior architecture to encourage customers to concentrate more on the eating experience.
Japanese chain Ichiran brought its Flavour Concentration booths to its Brooklyn outpost with the aim of removing peripheral information while dining. Hana Isoda, director of operations at Ichiran, says:
There are usually so many distractions. When are we ever just face to face with the food in front of us so we can understand its flavour?
Beyond what is happening in co-working spaces, individual pods are appearing in cities for workers on the go. New York-based co-working company Bar Works is launching Pod Works in the UK in London, Leeds, Edinburgh and Plymouth, converting old phone kiosks into micro-offices.
The Focus Filter isn’t only about streamlining, but also about creating captivating rich content. Despite popular belief that shorter is better, the most watched ads on YouTube in 2016 were Arnold’s Fight by 15mccann for Mobile Strike, which was one minute long, and #LoveAtFirstTaste by MullenLowe for Knorr, which was three minutes.
Companies including Nike and Sainsbury’s have bravely handed over creative control to their collaborators and released leading examples of captivating ads disguised as music videos.
FKA Twigs served as creative director for Nike Women’s latest ad, which is indistinguishable from the performance artist’s music videos, even to the eyes of committed fans. In it, Twigs performs her signature dance style accompanied by her latest single. The piece barely departs from FKA Twigs’ artistic aesthetics. On her social media accounts the star thanked Nike for giving her the opportunity to realise her creative vision.
'A great story can still grab an audience, even with the skip button ever-present,' says Ben Jones, a creative director at Google. ‘The challenge is to figure out how to blend story and brand.'
The poison will become the cure through virtual wellbeing spaces. At this point escaping from digital life is an unrealistic goal. Instead, the digital sphere will evolve to provide wellbeing environments.
Infinity House Retreat is a virtual destination – an app – that provides members with access to leading nutritionists and physical health experts. A total health hub and reference resource, it encourages its members to ‘immerse themselves in a world of educational and motivational healthy living’.
On the site, people can live-stream wellness seminars, do online-led workouts or liaise with nutrition experts, providing a focal point for mind-body self-optimisation.
The current state of monetised public space suggests that in the future the top segment of society will be able to afford to focus.
It is becoming clear how this will be articulated, as The World Beyond Your Head author Matthew Crawford describes in The New York Times the significance of walking from the main concourse of an airport into the business lounge. Only after moving from public space to exclusive space at considerable cost do you become privileged enough to experience an ambience of serenity. He uses this example to show how silence is now offered as a luxury item. He writes:
Because we have allowed our attention to be monetised, if you want yours back, you’re going to have to pay for it.
The technology world will fracture and the rise of responsible interaction design will emerge. This is beginning to happen in a new ethical emphasis across the sector. This year’s SXSW will host a panel on Ethically Aligned Design and the festival is adding Tech under Trump programming, having released a statement against the US president’s travel ban, alongside numerous technology companies including Apple, Google and Facebook.
Tristan Harris was a behavioural computer scientist at Google before quitting to become an advocate for new ethics in his field. He founded Time Well Spent, an organisation and site that helps technology tailor itself around wellbeing.
'Apple and Google can design our devices to better defend the freedom of our minds – as long as we demand it,' says Harris. His organisation encourages start-ups to address questions such as ‘What if technology was conscious of your time?’, ‘What if technology were designed for human values?’ and, crucially, ‘What if technology protected your focus?’
For all its fearsome grandiosity and job-stealing proficiency, artifical intelligence will enable us to work like humans again. If the 20th century was about getting people to work like machines (thank modernity), the 21st century looks likely to be one in which we delegate to robots. This means humans will spend less time being distracted by keeping things running, opening up space for us to apply deep focus to a finite number of tasks.
The most recent US Census in 2014 revealed that, on average, Americans spend 26 minutes commuting each way to work. That works out at 29.6bn hours or a collective 3.4m years, according to a calculation by The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham. ‘With that amount of time, we could have built nearly 300 Wikipedias, or built the Great Pyramid of Giza 26 times – all in 2014 alone,’ he says.
With the rise of food replacements such as Soylent and the arrival of self-driving cars, people will become liberated from basic day-to-day tasks and have more time for creativity and pleasure. Self-driving cars such as the NeuV by Honda will open up new streams of time, enabling people to focus on other tasks.