One of the questions people ask me all the time when I explain the Aesthetics of Joy is “How do I use this?” The book covers a number of specific strategies relating to designing and marketing more joyfully, but there’s one that’s almost too obvious to write about: having a joyful attitude.
The fail whale, Twitter’s now iconic graphic that appears during unplanned, accidental downtime, is a great example of this. When most sites go down they use a stock standard “We’re having technical difficulties and are working to resolve the problem. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Nothing wrong with that, but nothing joyful about it either. Twitter’s approach, on the other hand, to use whimsical imagery to convey the idea of overloaded servers, creates a small moment of transcendence in the user. By this I mean that the ordinary pattern of behavior (anger, frustration, percussive maintenance) is suspended because the enchanting vehicle of the message takes you out of your narrow prism and makes you consider that stepping away from the computer into the sunshine for a few hours might not be such a bad idea. Fail whale is a disruption that shifts your perspective, mood, and even behavior.
Fail whale seem to fill a cultural need for joy and humanity in our dealings with the corporate world, as evidenced by the craze it inspired, including t-shirts, sculptures, tattoos, and cupcakes. It’s become an emblem of joyful failure, a true disruption of our expectations around the ways in which companies behave.
Joyful design doesn’t change the message. But it can change the way the message is received, and the way users feel about your product. And if you have to disappoint your users, a dose of joy might just be the best way to sugar-coat it.