What is normal?

Back in the year 2000 I used to work in Southampton, an internet start-up that was based in a converted ship store at a place called Shamrock Quay. From the train station I’d cycle the 15 or so minutes in all weathers, passed the docks, houses, industrial units, the football stadium, and scrubland.

On this cycle I’d often pass advertising and billboards, but I was and still am very good at ignoring these – a waste for all the money organisations spend on advertising, it literally passes me by, a missed opportunity.

One day, however, I did stop and take notice. A very simple ad on a rather large billboard, I don’t remember what it was advertising, but I think it was something more like an information advert than a commercial one – maybe one for a charity? To describe the advert, it was simply a young woman’s face, looking directly out (and an attractive face too). I don’t remember the words on the ad exactly but it was a list of statistics about what ‘normal skin’ is.

The list was something like:

  • 30% of us have freckles
  • 20% of us have moles
  • 35% of us have wrinkles
  • Etc

The sum of the advert was this … that 99% of us, the world, have some blemish, freckle, scar, mole, etc on their skin. What we see as ‘normal’ skin that is clear of blemish, wrinkles, scars, moles, freckles, etc is but a minor and tiny percentage. Therefore, this is in no way ‘normal’, this is extraordinary, this is almost an unattainable look to achieve.

You’d think this was an advert for some makeup company who would help you cover up your blemish, wrinkle, etc, but it was a charity, maybe one for mental health but probably from a cancer charity. Either way, it has stuck with me ever since and I keep coming back to it. What is normal? What society considers to be the normal, whether it’s a look, a status, a holiday, a state of wellbeing, a condition of health (or wealth) … what is normal?

Jump forward nearly 23 years (!) and I still think of this. What is normal? In learning design and learning technology, in my daily readings and interactions with professionals around the world in these fields, I see write-ups and articles and blog posts of your work, where there is at least one explicit or implied statement of ‘this is normal’ – a new course is announced, and the institutional VLE or LMS used implies or dictates a ‘normal’ pedagogy or structure which continues to be followed. A submission to an event or award for a project or team glosses over information that the author considered too normal or basic to cover, but actually helps to condition and ground the work, and therefore makes it easier to understand the ‘where’ as well as the ‘why’ and ‘how’.

This implied normal, as you’ll probably agree, is not the same for everyone – what on learning designer considered a normal approach to an activity is not not going to be the same to another, possibly due to institutional parameters, but certainly due to background and experience. What is normal in one nation or culture is not normal in another. What is normal in a course for one person is not necessarily the same as another – we must consider the full range of what the audience sees as normal to them, not normal to us.

All too often I see people, colleagues, projects, and even businesses forget about the normal, the ordinary, and go in search of the extraordinary. In doing so the normal becomes something forgotten or ignored. For those who are being targeted with this new ‘thing’ (the reader, the learner, the manager, the project team, the target audience, etc) it can be confusing without any kind of grounding about what this is. You can shout about how extraordinary this new thing of yours is, but I don’t understand and you haven’t done anything to explain what the normal is, so how can I possibly understand where the ‘extra’ is?

What is normal? Don’t underestimate the power of normal.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash