The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do by Clotaire Rapaille

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Posted 2007-03-19

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

I believe a city is an interface for meeting human needs. Therefore, understanding user perception of urban experiences, products, and services could be a powerful way to guide design. In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille examines the perceptions people have of a variety of experiences and products and comes up with a shorthand code name or phrase that captures the essence of this user perception. The author claims that these codes powerfully tap into how people think and feel. By marketing a product or service "on code," consumers immediately recognize the value of the product in a profound (and sometimes unconscious way).

I think that Rapaille's coding method is applicable to the study of urbanism because urban areas and their promotion are increasingly relying on the understanding of demographics (Weiss 2000), creative class mobility (Florida 2002), perception (Karlgaard 2004), and the mindset of individuals (Whybrow 2005, Pink 2005). Rapaille does not apply any of his codes to urban issues, but I hope that perhaps someone would do this research.

Rapaille's methodology involves getting beyond his subjects' first responses to questions. Subjects might just repeat what others have said about a topic or say things they believe the questioner wants to hear. Rapialle goes beyond these responses, several hours into a listening session, and observes the pattern and structure of what people say. Here are some of Rapailles' codes he discusses in his book:

Rapaille's Codes
French perception of cheese ALIVE
American perception of cheese DEAD
Amercian perception of automobiles IDENTITY
German perception of automobiles ENGINEERING
American perception of love FALSE EXPECTATION
American perception of seduction MANIPULATION
American perception of sex VIOLENCE
American perception of feminine beauty MAN'S SALVATION
Amercian perception of health and wellness MOVEMENT
American perception of youth MASK
American perception of work WHO YOU ARE
American perception of money PROOF
American perception of quality IT WORKS
American perception of food FUEL
French perception of food PLEASURE
American perception of shopping RECONNECTING WITH LIFE
French perception of shopping LEARNING YOUR CULTURE
American perception of luxury "MIILTARY STRIPES" [outward marks of achievement implying a rank]
English perception of America UNASHAMEDLY ABUNDANT
German perception of America JOHN WAYNE
German perception of Germany ORDER
French perception of France IDEA
English perception of England CLASS
American perception of America DREAM

My sense is that urban experiences and items could be likewise coded.

My Hypothesis for Urban Codes
Driver's perception of streets CORRIDOR?
Walker's perception of streets THEATER?
Architect and planner perception of buildings CONTAINER?
User perception of buildings INTERFACE?
Government and planner perception of urban layout CODES?
Human yearning for urban layout CONNECTION?

I think a major hurdle for urban areas is to change the thinking of code-makers and code-enforcers (as argued for in Suburban Nation). Part of this shift is to overcome disparities in thinking between the users of cities and the makers. Perhaps Rapaille's codes could bring these disparities to light.

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