Decode #1 - Identity

Decode #1 - Identity

How do we identify ourselves?

In this decode we are invited to look at different ways of establishing who we are.

There are innumerable trajectories: we could investigate the big identifiers such as nationality and religious faith; or look at what motivates our choice of fashion; or plunge to the psychological depths and ask how our upbringing and traumas shape who we have become.

Identity serves us big questions: which aspects are fixed and can be categorised as binaries, and which are a process and should be understood as a spectrum?

Ultimately culture is a unique space for following the ever-changing story and negotiation of who we are.

Embrace human complexity

Start with yourself.

Think about all of your personal experiences, attitudes, opinions, desires and knowledge.

Imagine yourself as an unfathomably complex system.

Next: imagine that all 7.5 billion people in the world are just as complex as you are. We each have a unique:

  • Genetic code shaping our physical propensities
  • Psychological makeup formed by childhood experience
  • Social environment influencing us with norms and values

In other words, we all have a complex bio-psycho-social pattern of identity.

Strategy: Practice life-writing and begin telling your story. In research speak, this would be a 'subjective analysis' and would be useful for understanding your strengths/vision, and weakness/blindspots

Read the world like a story

We all exist within a weave of stories. Some of these are epic and emotional:

  • Scientific stories of the magnificent cosmos
  • Evolutionary stories of the the fight to survive or ecosystem co-dependence
  • Rousing political stories of progress, patriarchy, liberty and nation
  • Religious stories of faith, redemption and surrender
  • Psychological stories of the unconscious, cognitive biases and archetypes
  • Technological stories of human augmentation and an approaching singularity

All of these are meta-narratives.

But there are also billions of little micro-narratives:

  • Culinary stories of our favourite jam to spread on toast
  • Transport stories of our commute to work
  • Mischievous stories of our little guilty pleasures

These narratives, both big and small, shape our individual story. They run in the background of our mind. They can shape the groups we join, the art we appreciate, the opinions we share, the media we consume and the products we buy.

Strategy: Speak to people about the stories that shape their life, making connections between their macro and micro narratives

Explore alternatives to 'identity'

'Identity' is a buzzword at the moment. 'Identity politics' is an important force, and 'digital identity' is central to technology and economics.

But what if we used a different term than 'identity' to talk about who we are. How about 'individual': a word that means something that cannot be divided. Or a 'subject': implying someone who is under the control of another. Or a 'person': a word with roots in the Greek word 'persona' meaning 'mask'. Or a 'character': a theatrical term with a sense of depth. Or simply 'I': a single letter with profound weight. Or 'self': a favourite of the poets.    

Strategy: Think of all the different ways we can talk about the self. Each gives you a different starting point, and shapes the type of understanding you will develop

Read young adult literature

Everyone wants to understand the younger generation (otherwise known as the ‘millennials’,  ‘Gen Z’ or 'Gen A'). One method for doing this is to explore the popular myths and metaphors that they use to navigate the world.

Let’s take the popular Hunger Games trilogy. This is a dystopian world of poverty, forced labour and child violence. The lead character is a strong but fragile figure who embarks on a heroic journey and achieves social change. It is easy to draw parallels between her and an activist like Greta Thunberg.

Books and films like this create role models that define the adolescent mindset. And by analysing the characters, plots, settings and symbols — you generate a rich descriptive vocabulary.

Strategy: spend some time in a bookshop flicking through the Young Adult section. Alternatively, speak to English teachers or librarians about the books they recommend

Observe fashion choices

Fashion is a complex code; but one that can be translated. By analysing the clothes and grooming methods of a cultural group, you understand important aspects of their identity.

For example, spend time in the middle of a city like New York, London or Milan and you will notice busy professionals wearing ‘urban armour’. These are clothes with black and monochrome colours, perfect for helping people adapt to the variety of situations encountered in the modern city.

Fashion is also central to the culture of tech-disruption. Entrepreneurs are following the lead of Steve Jobs who, when announcing the iPhone, dressed down in Levi’s and a polo top. He was making a statement. It said: ‘Apple was a company that ditched uniformity and stood for something new’.

Strategy: Fashion is deeply subversive and changes as fast as the seasons. Spend time in stores,  following the trends to surface insight

Understand fashion motivations

Our choice of clothing can be motivated by many things:

  • Exploring a variety of possible ‘looks’
  • Using clothes to express a ‘real’ identity
  • Wanting people to notice you
  • Using style as rebellion/protest/defiance
  • Fashion as a way of being theatrical/masquerading
  • Wearing clothes to get to a different social position
  • Using fashion and style as a source of life-meaning, such as dandyism
  • Fashion that represents escapism (hippy, surfers etc)
  • Developing a style to express your freedom to choose your own style -regardless of others opinions
  • Using clothes to break down status symbols and mix high and low culture and class

(This list builds on one started by the sociologist Orrin E. Klapp in the 1960’s in ‘Collective Search for Identity’)

Strategy: As well as understanding the broader shifts in fashion, decoding individual choices will help you understand the role fashion choice plays in peoples lives

Understand the 'self-help' genre

One of the defining types of writing over the past couple of decades is 'self-help'. Accompanied by lifestyle psychotherapy, life-coaches and a new breed of business mentorship, this body of work seeks to help people discover their identity.

More recently, astrology has become popular. Platforms such as 'The Pattern' and 'Co-Star' use a persons astrological data to serve up motivational daily insights designed to develop emotional resilience.

For many, this isn't about belief in astrology, but about a spiritual story.

Strategy: exploring occult forms and new practices of spirituality can help you think in divergent ways

Map against the 12 archetypes

One of the most powerful tools in branding is the model of the 12 storytelling archetypes, based on the work of Carl Jung. Like astrology, they are organised around the number 12 and they provide a scaffolding for mapping territories of meaning:

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Strategy: By mapping existing brands against the archetype map, you will be able to spot storytelling opportunities

Decide if you are 'prickle' or 'goo'

The philosopher Alan Watts gives us a useful way to think about identity. His distinction of 'prickles' and 'goo' align nicely with the two main research methodologies: quantitative (concerned with numbers and measurement) and qualitative (concerned with words and images):

Consider the affordances of faith

In the popular novel ‘Life of Pi’, the young protagonist, Pi, had no problem being a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim. He secretly slips between the temple, church and mosque. As an embodiment of interfaith dialogue, Pi is mocked by his elders:

“if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.”

For Pi, as for many of us, different religions converge on concepts such as ‘love’, 'faith' and ‘care’. So, with a design mindset, we can ask: what are the different ways that religions have gone about loving and caring for people?

We can look at the psychological benefits of Buddhist meditation; the clean hedonism inherent in Hindu yoga; the rich definition of the term culture in Rastafarianism; and the refusal of Islam to separate money from spirituality.

Strategy: Look at the various patterns, spaces, rituals, ideas, narratives and rhythms of religious faith – i.e. their forms – and use them to inform the design process.

A new business poetics

A greater affinity between organisations and spirituality is to be desired. We might hope that states of epiphany are provoked amongst leadership and management that can lead to the transformation needed to positively change the world,

Of course, business is, for the most part, secular. And, although we can push for greater inclusiveness and acceptance of religious identity, it is important to design a system that reflects this.

Culture offers this. With roots in literature and poetry (forms that emerged from religious practice) the study of culture articulates 'care' with actionable language. And this is the subject of decode #2...

Strategy: bring the discussion of faith and spirituality into brainstorms, workshops and so on and see what happens.


Use these questions as prompts for exploring cultural identity:

  • What are some items or possessions that are important to you? What memories do they provoke?
  • How important are the customs of your religion to you?
  • How would you describe your personal style? What does it say about you?
  • Have you ever taken a personality test? What was your reaction to the outcome?
  • What hobbies do you have, and how do you go about pursuing them?
  • Do you follow any sports teams? How important are they to you?
  • How were you raised by your parents? What values did they instil into you?
  • Are you a cat or dog person? Why?
Next we explore caring for our mind, click here


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