THE KUNG FU
I believe there is tremendous value in having defined methods and processes for everything I do.
It is my belief that defined process is the true tell of a mature creative. It forces you to think differently than most people do. It makes you think through your own biases and habits, and deconstruct them, for the purpose of documenting and/or improving them. In terms of psychology, it forces one to transcend the bridge between inception and execution.
What do I mean by that? Well, there are two types of thinkers in the world: Divergent thinkers and Critical Thinkers.
The former are the stereotypical ‘creative’ folks that are able to possibilities. Anything and everything that could possibly be a solution to problems, and even beyond that, if necessary. They excel in finding insights and strokes of wisdom in areas where others may not. Some of the greatest artistic minds the world has seen were divergent thinkers. They had a strong sense of evaluation and what some may call instinct towards creation. This brought them to create things that others might call curious, or interesting.
The latter are critical thinkers. The stereotypical ‘left-brain thinkers’ that are highly qualified in hard skills and sciences that lead to orderly execution. People with this type of thinking often times have a strong sense of analysis and synthesis. They take the time to break down a problem into its core parts and then attempt to form patterns and relations between the objects to combine them in logical ways.
A divergent thinker acts first, thinks second. A critical thinker thinks first, acts second. The thing is, both types of thinking can be taught and learned. They are skills. Not absolutes. Everyone is born with strengths in one or the other, but that’s not to say that it’s the only way they will ever see the world.
Defining creative processes requires both.
I like to think that one of my biggest strengths is that I, through a lot of practice and patience, have mastered the use of both and, in turn combine them to think through problems. Defining my process has forced me to think critically about divergent—by nature—activities.
This has become how I approach all problems I face. First through dreaming up possibilities, then through the careful analysis of those weighed against the problem, then synthesizing the possibilities into something I can execute on. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into my approach and processes for what I do in more detail, feel free to explore them using the navigation to the left.
As a creative leader, my role is to be a mentor. A coach, of sorts.
I think every designer, or creative for that matter, has an inherent dream of becoming a Creative Director one day. The sad reality however, is that most don’t understand what the role entails. Aside from just management, the role of the Creative Director is a very varied, and often thankless, gig. I approach Creative Direction the same way I approach pretty much anything else—with an outcome based approach.
A large part of what it means to direct creative is to help other creatives create things that have the correct meaning, context and utility to be useful in the ways that our clients expect, or we have promised them it would be. Often times, if I start with where it needs to go, it becomes easier to direct the creative in their quest to get to a collaborated upon endpoint that provides the returns necessary for the work to be warranted. What does that mean? Well, our client (whether external or internal) is paying for our expertise. We need to apply it in such a way that it will yield the desired results that brought our client to the conclusion that they needed such service to begin with.
Often times, we forget we’re in a service industry.
Too often, I hear the verbose grievances of my creatives about not getting the room or flexibility to be creative. They think their role is to provide the client with free-thought and create an original expression of their brand and/or take the brand in a new direction. The Creative Director must know better. We must never forget that we work in an industry that provides professional services to our clients. Creative is most often a B2B industry. We don’t create for the sake of our clients, we create for the sake of their businesses. Or, to take things even a step further, for the sake of their customers.
Everything we do must communicate. Every design decision warranted. Every copy point leading. The true role of the Creative Director, if you ask me, is to keep the business’ interests at heart when creating. Starting with clear objectives (something most creative briefs leave out), then working backwards and analyzing the gap between where the client is now and where they want to be and helping other talented people apply their skills in order to bridge that gap.
My job is to guide.
The client. My peers. My employees. I believe this so firmly that it is the modus operandi through which I achieve anything as a Creative Director. I guide the client through understanding their business problems and their long term objectives to overcome said problems (and, eventually, through how our proposed solution will marry the two). I guide peers outside of the realm of execution (project managers, account managers, product owners, program managers) through the needs and proposed solutions, why they are the correct solutions, and the effort needed in order to achieve the solutions and their results. I guide my employees through understanding how their talents and skills can be applied to achieve the desired results and how to think about applying the aforementioned in the future in order to continue creating compelling, yet cogent work.
User-Centered Design is an attempt to balance business needs with the needs of the people using your product—the users.
And in that regard, I follow the 4D process.
The 4D’s of User-Centered Design: Discovery, Definition, Design, Development.
Each of these parts of the process has their own discrete activities, methodologies, deliverables and artifacts, but all serve as a semi-linear process (because each portion can be iterative) to get us to the right solution that will serve a Business’ Needs.
I believe in a large Discovery process. If you want, as a business, to be sure that you are creating the right thing, you first need to ensure that all avenues are thought of.
It’s not uncommon for clients to come to me thinking they need a website or app, when in reality, upon closer look at their business and their customers, that could only be a small piece of the larger puzzle, or may not even be necessary at all. That said, the only way to uncover these decisions are to digest anything and everything about my clients’ business and industry.
I like to start with their Business Model. How they keep the lights on is the most important thing to know when starting in product design. This is actually why I claim that there’s no such thing as true user-centered design—if a company isn’t making any money from users, then the whole process is moot. We must meet Business Needs first. Which is where I go next: Based on your business model, what hard and fast needs are require from an interface standpoint to enable said business model? Do we need to sell bicycles online through an commerce experience? Do we need to collect leads for your salesforce to go hunt? Do we just need to drive people to your physical location so they can buy sandwiches?
I need to know your business in order to understand your needs from an interface.
After we establish your Business Needs, we then bucket them into larger categories—we call these your Business Objectives. These will serve as our North Star during the rest of the process. Every decision made going forward will be weighed against these goals for the business. If they don’t move the needle for them—it falls to the back burner. We’re looking for large scale success.
Out of these goals, we then establish out KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators), which will serve as our criteria for success. If we don’t establish these upfront, how can we be sure we’re achieving success? The important thing during this step is that all KPI’s need to be quantitatively measurable. Every metric we set needs to be unambiguous enough to have a black and white answer for success when the product is out in the world.
Only after we have these things do we start thinking about the user.
I’ll get this out of the way too: Every business/business owner thinks they have a very concise picture of who their user is in their head. It’s often times quite misguided. But that’s okay. My job is distill that archetypal persona of who actually uses your product or service and figure out what they care about. Because when user needs = business needs, then $$$.
I like to start with a ProtoPersona—gleaned largely from what my client tells me. We make sure to cover as much ground as possible to start painting a picture of who we’re designing for. This is only a hypothesis. The rest of discovery and much of definition will serve to validate or disprove this data. I like to move into interviews with actual customers to begin that process. The only way we can know for sure if we’re hitting the mark on who we want to design for is by talking to them. In person ideally, but phone works too (hooray for flexibility).
After we get all of this upfront work out of the way, we take a look at what we have now (if anything). Are we redesigning something you already have? Is it brand new? If we are keeping anything from the prior interface, what? And why?
All of these questions are surfaced and tested right off the bat through content audits, heuristic analysis, analytics reviews and through the understanding of our users. Something that may have worked for you five years ago may not have the correct context any longer. A simple word or label may have negative connotations with the type of people you are trying to connect with. You information may not be structured in such a way that the user is being led to the correct thing. All of these things can only be surfaced through honest interrogation of what exists and the people it’s intended to communicate to.
Once we have all of this, we are finally able to get an honest idea of what it is we’re supposed to be building.
Which is when we jump into Definition: the process of defining what the interface should be, how it will function and how it will fit into the bigger picture of your business.
This often starts with revisiting our business needs and, first and foremost, ensuring that they have not changed from anything we learned in Discovery. We also add anything that may be missing.
After this, we break them down and get as granular and specific as we can in order to understand what is required, again from an interface standpoint, to fill these needs. If we need an commerce solution, does that require a sign in before purchase? Do we need a shopping cart, or is it a single point straight-to-puchase situation? Are we integrating with any third-party software that may have specific constraints on our interface? We need to boil these out so that when we jump into design, we have accounted for the tiny details that often lead to scope creep and more money spent later on.
Death by a thousand tiny cuts. We want to make sure we avoid the cuts altogether.
Once we have all of these requirements documented, we once again jump into our business and user needs and begin to understand how the two interact right now. We can do this through surveys, more interviews, experience mapping, contextual inquiry, constructing content maps—even building a diagram of our users’ POV to ensure that we understand how they make decisions. We need to ensure that our interface fits not only into the context of your users’ lives, but also the context of the immediacy of your sales cycle. Meaning that when user comes to your interface, that the correct information is presented to them at the right time and has actionable steps to bring them closer to being a happy customer and, hopefully, a brand advocate.
Now that we have all of this information, we fold it together to build our Information Architecture, Wireframes and even Low Fidelity Prototypes so that we can immediately start testing all of the work we’ve put in thus far before jumping into the time-consuming work of visual design.
This is where we iterate like crazy.
We need to be as sure as we possibly can be that what we’re going to design will work the intended way before we actually go create it (remember those tiny, pesky cuts we were talking about before?). It’s only after we feel that we’ve iterated enough (often decided upfront before we enter testing through a robust Testing Framework), we can then call the wires sound and move into everyone’s favorite…
When we are sure that we have a sound foundation for design to begin [insert metaphor about building foundations for homes here], we move into the fun part: making it all come to life.
I like to start with a couple of rounds of Art Direction and Style Tiles. What does this mean? Well, most often when people talk about design, they often talk about Look and Feel. Well, think of the Art Direction (the way in which your brand is expressed through your interface) as the feel, while the Syle Tiles (the hard and fast elements of your interface and how your brand fits into them) as the look. Two integral pieces that feed into establishing our Visual Language and, eventually, our Comps (I design Mobile-First and Atomically, if you’re interested).
Once we have our Art Direction and Style Tiles to a place where we feel comfortable, we then move into actually designing the interface itself. We start with a single screen – just Apply the concepts we established before to a screen of prominence (decided either by Complexity Level in the design or by how crucial it is towards achieving our Business Objectives). This is how we ensure that our Visual Design approach doesn’t break down when being applied to the actual interface itself.
If we feel good with that, we move into the real fun parts: Interaction Design (which actually begun during the Wireframing stage) and Visual Design (I like three break points for this). Every time we finish creating a screen, we take it through the Interaction process and illustrate how it behaves. Only once we have done this for all screens in our Sitemap (or types of screens, if we’re designing Templates), do we move into the next phase.
Before we do so however, we have the additional, optional steps of crafting a Style Guide, for the client to use internally when Managing and Governing the Content and continued expansion of their interface after the life of our partnership. We can also create a Pattern Library if the client has developers internally, or is collaborating with an outside development partner long-term. That way, there are no questions around how to create Experiences for your users going forward.
It’s all part of a larger roadmap and plan that I help you create for the life of your business, not our partnership.
Once all of these artifacts exist and we have a carefully crafted design, we take one last take at Usability Testing of our interface to ensure that our designs meet the needs we require them to.
We now have a slick lookin’ site that meets our needs and behaves the way we want! That’s cool, but building it out and making really real is where this whole process comes to fruition—the black magic, if you will.
This is typically where my partnership with clients ends and the project is passed on to a development partner of mine or my clients’—unless, that is, the client would rather stick with me and utilize my deep expertise in the WordPress platform and have me build it myself. Depending on complexity however, I usually recommend passing on to an experienced developer shop versed in Agile methodologies to start creating the interface and move on to the secret last D (that’s not an actual D…).
Design doesn’t stop when the interface is launched. In truth, design never ends.
I like to brace my clients with the following: after we have an actual working interface out in the real-world, the work isn’t done. In fact, it’s only just beginning. As part of the large scale Roadmap and Strategy that we have been working through together, it’s important to keep a pulse on Analytics to educate our Business Intelligence and to continue to test for the sake of always improving the site. Whether incrementally, or through another Big Bang approach redesign, the more data collected, the more we can begin to refine our approach at communicating with the clients’ customers and expanding the business into new frontiers.
Design, by definition must solve problems. Otherwise we are just creating pixel art.
Whether those are business problems, user problems, or both. The Marriage of Business Goals and User Goals should be the goal when designing an interface. Pretty aesthetics and cogent messaging are important, but are only a small portion of the design process. If we want our interface to deliver real, measurable results for us, then we need to first have a deep understanding of both the business and its customers and how each functions.
We call it a Strategy because we don’t have a better name for it.
I believe that there is, even now in 2017, a misconception on what UX actually is. The source of the misconception isn’t hard to pinpoint. We have the media, with only a fraction of the true breadth of what UX design attempts to be seen as—yet purports to understand it. We have UX schooling—a world of bootcamps and accelerated courses that attempt to teach complex concepts, activities and methodologies in as truncated a time span as possible (all while promising their students success and, more importantly, boatloads of money upon graduation). But we also have the misguided agency space, where traditional agencies, also with only a small modicum of understanding around User Experience as a practice, claim to be experts in it, lest they lose that next fateful pitch to the dreaded “digital agency.”
The truth is, a lot of these sources are still viewing design for what it was in the 1.0 web world—embellishment and aesthetics. “How it looks.” Or, in some cases, “how it works”. Still viewing UX designers under the same guise that “web designers” of the 20th century were viewed by: the immutable creative. Under whose guidance, anything is possible. UX is still being viewed as the execution of art upon an interface.
Let’s cut to the chase, UX has always been more about strategy than art.
And so practitioners of the field find themselves at a crossroads. Do we keep the quixotic, idealized version of what we do in people’s heads, or do we attempt to give them a better understanding? The path of least resistance often tends to win out. I choose the latter.
In practice, UX, as a field, has always had more in common with strategy work than it does with ‘creative’ work. While we—hopefully—will end up with a great looking product, UX is about everything that leads to that. More so than just ‘how it works,’ UX is about establishing a a living context around the product itself, before taking the step of actually creating something.
In truth, UX is about designing a strategy.
I think this is where the rub truly lies for most people. It’s a total paradigm shift. How can one design a strategy? Isn’t design about colors and fonts and touchy-feely stuff? Well, yes and no. We must first take a step back into what the idea of design truly is: solving problems. Once upon a time, it was nearly impossible to prove that. An ad would go out. It’s creative. It’s funny. Surely it’s doing its job. A brochure was designed. It had nice pictures. It was friendly and welcoming. Clearly, it was designed well. A logo was created. It was trendy. It had great colors. The client loved it. Of course it was well designed.
Enter the digital age. More specifically, enter big data. The truth of the matter is that, now more than ever, we can measure the direct ROI of everything we design. What does that mean for design? It means that, for the first time since the discipline began, we need to prove that the design is ‘good’. Data knows all. Data tells all. If a product isn’t performing the way that the designer intended, then it’s not good design. End. Thought.
All of a sudden, we need a ton more information to be able to get a grasp of what and how we design. UX was born out of this direct need. It’s also important to note that UX, in actuality, started as Information Architecture (IA). This was a science. Not an art. It became UX when the idea of HCI (human-computer interaction), human factors and interaction design were added to the mix. In truth, visual design is often times the least important part of the process!
UX is a multi-disciplinary approach to attempt to understand who is using your product, in what environment and how we mold our business objectives around those two.
It’s not about the aesthetics. They’re still important, but in an age of information access overload, even many colors have lost their original cultural meaning. What that means is that we, as designers, must take a step further into understanding who we are creating for and why before we even get into creation at all. That’s how UX wants to be seen.
Running a team is like being a parent. Only with less direct feedback.
It’s almost stereotypical to make the comparison between a leader and a manager these days, but it’s also something that I am quite passionate about. Simply managing people does not make one a leader. A leader, by definition, must have followers. The only way to garner followers, especially finnicky designer followers, is to lead by example. And in this regard, I often excel.
I’m a very hands-on leader.
Or at least as hands-on as I need to be. I believe that the day I stop doing is the day I stop growing as a designer and as a leader. Being out of touch with the execution puts one at risk of running a team like a dictatorship. Being too hands-on makes it hard to actually do the managing aspect. A careful balance of the two is what I strive for. How much is just enough of each? Well, unfortunately there’s no magic bullet or secret formula. It always takes an honest appraisal of the environment, the skill sets within the team and the gaps therein.
My job as a leader isn’t to fill the gaps, necessarily, more so to spot them ahead of time, account for them and orient the team in such a way that they don’t become blockers. Another stereotypical notion comes to mind about hiring those more talented than yourself, but I truly believe in the value of the SME. While I expect most people working in product design to be a T shaped individual, depth of knowledge is crucial in being able to deliver truly great work.
We all carry individual strengths and weaknesses. The only way to overcome the negative is through collaboration.
I’m a bit of an oddity as a designer in that I am a bit of a process nerd. I think collaboration is one of the most important aspects of a team, but I don’t like taking a shoot-from-the-hip/winging it approach to collaboration. This often leads to swirl, bruised egos and passive aggression within teams. It is often the death knell to small agencies that have this modus operandi as it leads to wasted time and effort on projects.
We shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. There is immense value in having robust processes and agreed upon ways of working within a team: it gives the team a clear starting point every time, adds a level of accountability when roles are tied to activities and gives people an idea of what their day-to-day should look like. Processes should not be immutable, but when a team has a predefined process, it acts as a backbone for them when/if any unforeseen challenges appear. It gives them something to fall back on. And doing it ahead of time gives them the runway to land on, rather than building it as they try to land.
I also believe in vision.
While it is impossible to predict every challenge that a team may face, I believe that there are also huge benefits from taking the time to establish what I call the M, V, V’s, and G’s of a team. In establishing the Mission, Vision, Values and Goals of the individual team, it not only makes the team feel like their input matters, it gives them something to be vested in. It stops being just a group of coworkers doing the same thing and starts being a team that is moving towards something. It gives the team a sense of purpose. People like working for ideals, not for other people. This is how I bring the best out of people—by making it something they care about intrinsically, as well as extrinsically.
Everywhere I’ve ever worked, I’ve always been the implementer of process.
As the person inflicting process upon others, a fairly deep level of expertise is necessary around all of the parts of the process you are trying to implement. Without it, one risks falling too deeply into the trap of Cognitive Bias and skewing the process too heavily to make it easier on their area of expertise, making everyone else who fits into the process hate them.
As such, I’ve had the weird fortune of learning to be an end-to-end designer out of necessity. Working at small brand shops, fledging internal product teams and even mammoth agencies with other robust and time proven processes has given me an interesting byproduct of experience. Perspective.
Agencies thrive on a model that values bloated processes and deliverables. When services are sold on a time and materials basis, it behooves one to elongate the process as much as a client my be sold on for the life of an account. And while I’ve always strived to kill bloat wherever possible, it was this factor that pushed me to understand the end to end UX process. In order to sell it, in order to execute upon it, in order to establish process around it, one must have a clear understanding of all the activities, methodologies and artifacts involved in said process.
I call it my cadillac model.
My process is robust. It’s a semi-linear iterative process designed to work best in medium-to-large agencies with a robust development backbone. Is it right for everyone, every time? No. Not at all. It was designed to kill assumptions on the part of the organization and the designer wherever possible, but part of being a seasoned and mature designer is knowing which activities apply when. Not every project is going to call for detailed Contextual Enquiry. Not every project needs fully blown out Heuristic Analysis. We don’t always have to fully illustrate our Interaction Design. Being a true end-to-end designer is being able to tell at cursory glance what activities and artifacts MUST happen and which can be done in a more quick-and-dirty approach, if at all.
The only way to truly master this is by doing. I tell every single one of my designers and/or peers outside of the field that it takes a minimum three times through the UX/UCD process in order to fully grasp how the pieces come together. It takes hundreds more to fully understand each part of the process, not only as individual activities, but as a cohesive system that feeds into one another.
Agile? LEAN? Waterfall?
The UX process should be flexible enough to adapt to these predefined process structures. I truly believe that, given a bit of analysis of the ways of working around an organization, that any company on earth can establish some form of robust UX process. At the end of the day, all UX is, is an attempt to balance the goals of an organization and the needs of their customers—and, hopefully, marry the two for mutual benefit.
Process, just like a design tool, is simply a means to that end.
Whatever introduces the least amount of friction for stakeholders, SME’s and customers will work. If there is a predefined process structure, it’ll take some deep understanding of how they operate (and what flavor of said process is being used—as sure as every company applies them differently), but once that is out of the way, all it is guiding stakeholders towards caring about the user. That’s how one applies UX to their own process.
I believe in an outcome-based process.
Starting with what we are trying to achieve gives us an actionable jumping off point for the project. Everything else is just empathy. What does that mean? When broken down into its essential core pieces, all Design Thinking truly becomes is a framework for establishing understanding the user and the problems they deal with in order to inform whether our proposed solution is the correct one. I think the part that is often left out in the way design thinking is expressed is that empathy needs to extend past just the user.
I tell every designer I meet that the most important skill they need to foster in their arsenal is communication.
I think society (and even we as designers, sometimes) have this fallacy in their mind for the way that design happens. Some call it the Steve Jobs effect. The designer, in his black turtle neck sweater, hides away in some hidden all-white room and, after being stricken with inspiration creates beautiful innovation. All in his little bubble. On his own.
I think it stems from the antiquated idea of what it means to be “creative”. And, really, what designers do. Unfortunately, it’s still largely perpetuated by the agency space by creating a clear distinction between production and creative (at large agencies anyway). This is changing. Slowly, but surely, the agency space is starting to see the value in having problem solvers that can actually execute as well.
Designers must, first and foremost, be problem solvers.
Design Thinking is really just a new label for strategic thinking that must take all parties (stakeholders, team, users) into account. While I do believe it is a simple rebranding of an already existing set of principles that consulting entities have used since the dawn of consulting, it was a very necessary rebrand. For years, the mere term ‘strategy’ was only ever tied to the business.
How do we make more money? How do we move the needle by changing things internally? What moves need to happen organizationally in order for more success to come to the company??? Design Thinking was a way for those outside consulting entities to get the organization to think externally. It’s not all about the ‘you’. It’s about the ‘we’. Design Thinking essentially turns the traditional way of thinking about business problems on its head and allows for innovation and change within an organization to drive value for their customers, rather than focus on tactics that may have worked in the days before or during the early days of the web. Drive value for the customer and success will naturally come.
I have a graph that I like to draw for my clients on Product Strategy.
It plots the emotive journey of businesses and users on a single plane and, I believe, serves as a cogent way for my clients to start thinking about their strategy in their product long term.
On one axis we Interest Level (of each in the other).
On the other axis, we have Friction. Representing elements in the UI placed for the sake of the user and the business to move closer to doing business together (think forms, CTA’s, etc.)
As a user, more often than not, one enters a company’s interface with very high interest. They believe that this interface will provide them value in a way that they deem necessary. Example: “Oh, this is a website that sells shoes. I need to buy shoes!” (task established).
Inversely, as a company that owns the digital property, one doesn’t always know whether this particular user will be beneficial for me. Could be someone that landed incorrectly at my property with an objective the business can’t solve (in which case, they usually bounce). Could be someone that can’t afford to buy the shoes they’re selling. Could be someone who’s looking for pants and not shoes! The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.
It’s not until one starts placing these points of friction or hurdles for the user to jump through (usually thought of as a lead qualification cycle), that one knows, as a business, that this particular user will be a valuable for the business to achieve their objectives (in this instance, selling shoes). And so, the interest level of the business rises exponentially in the user.
Inversely, as a user, one wants to accomplish particular tasks as quickly and daily as possible, cause time = $$ and ADD. So, unfortunately, when a business places these hurdles in the user’s way, their interest level starts to drop, exponentially. “I just want to buy shoes, why do I have to sign up for your newsletter!!?!?”
Eventually this leads to a bounce. Which is mutually disadvantageous for both parties. The user didn’t get to buy their fly shoes and the business didn’t get to sell any shoes! OH NO! Well, when we think about product strategy, we have to think about the convergence point.
That critical point in the flow of friction and interest for both parties. We need to learn as much as we possibly can about what happens at that convergence point (from an interface flow standpoint) so that we can account it in our strategy and ensure that our product stays as useful for the user as possible, for the life of the product. We walk through all of the possible Use Cases that a user might have and find that convergence point. This will act as our threshold for how we think about any changes in the interface going forward. If they push pas that conversion point, then they need to be rethought.
Ultimately, we usually net out around here. Where the business is able to keep their lights on (their objectives are met) and the user has a shiny new pair of shoes (their task was quick/easy enough for them to complete it).
At the end of the day, all UX attempts to be is the marriage between user and business goals.
This is, obviously, a very simplified model for how to think about product strategy, but when we establish our product’s strategy, the goals of the business and user must always be in constant play and be weighed upon one another. If we don’t, then the business doesn’t make money and the user is buying shoes form a competitor.
I believe in no-bullshit creative.
This is something I’m quite passionate about. In a time when it seems like most agencies’ ideas and strategies for their clients get zanier and zanier, I believe that a bit of modesty holds quite a bit of power. I’ve seen it a thousand times. A client brief comes in. ‘Creatives’ lock themselves up in a room and Ideate™ to come up with the perfect idea that will bring this client just the correct levels of disruption and innovation. To differentiate them from the crowd. Now, because the ‘creatives’ sat alone in a room, far from the reaches of their strategists and account managers and project managers, they then go unveil their wonderful ideas to the aforementioned.
What happens? The strategist is at a loss. The account person dubiously buys in and starts ideating how to sell it in. The project manager is worried about how long it took them to get to that idea. However, being the noble creature that the ‘creative’ is, they’re quite positive that their idea is the right one for the client. Therefore, the strategist must then go and look for rationale to back the idea up. And if they can’t find any, then they must just not be a good at their job. Cause that’s their job. To find rationale for ideas that the creatives have come up with so the client can sign off and the team can go make something super fun and awesome to put in their books, right?
Everyone is freaking out about the death of advertising…this is the cancer killing it.
NO. That’s not the job of a strategist. While I believe that their truly is value in divergent thinking, I feel that it is often overvalued in the agency space. And, if you ask me, this pedestal placing of the free-thinker is what’s leading to the rapid decline of ‘traditional’ agency work. Where clients come to agencies for their creative thinking in order to innovate in some way (whether it be internal for the company or in the outward expression of their brand).
The secret’s out. Everyone is creative. Good ideas can come from anywhere. If that’s the case, why would any business spend money on having others do that for them? It’s a strange argument, but I believe it’s a salient one. One that most agencies, rather than objectively trying to tackle it, just try to belie and disprove, but the truth is that, whether they like it or not, it’s the truth and the clients of yesteryear no longer exist—or at least are dying out.
So then, what is an agency to do?
Invest in thinking. Not just creative, but strategic. It’s a changing world. The idea-first mentality is no longer paying the bills. If the agency space doesn’t adapt, then they are doomed to fail. It’s happening everywhere you look. I believe that this is actually part of what’s given so much prominence on the Design Thinking practices that have erupted in business the world over. It forces one to think about the outcome and the strategy to get their before ideating. It seems almost like common sense, and yet, it seems to be such a sticking point for agencies and people alike, that it feels like some great wisdom whenever I talk about it.
Taking it a step further.
This is how I approach all creative—much to the chagrin of some of the people who have worked for me in the past. It needs strategy and purpose before it can be creative. We need to understand how it will work for our client before we can persuade the client that it’s the right idea. If we go the other direction, then not only do we not have a solid foundation from which to base our thinking, but it makes the client feel like we’re not on the same team. We shouldn’t be trying to sell our client on our ideas. We should be partnering with them to figure out the best solution for them.
If the brand is everything that is remembered about a company, then our thinking so too becomes an expression of that brand. Cohesion and consistency often times matter more than innovative thinking. It’s not sexy. And a lot of people don’t want to hear it. But it’s the truth. Most often the best creative is what’s gonna move the needle for the client’s business objectives…not something that will be fun to execute or will look great in our portfolios.
I believe in timeless design.
I hate fads. I’m not one to follow the trends for the sake of being trendy. I believe that fads, like the seasons have a temporality. Follow fads and trends too closely and you risk giving your designs and brand a shelf life.
So what is one to do? When the world is moving towards trendy and fashionable, what is the inherent risk in not following the visual trends? Well, for me, it’s not as dangerous as most would assume it is. The truth is, when distilled down to their cores, fads are merely an amalgamation of tropes. Things we’ve seen a thousand times before, arranged into, seemingly, new ways. When you take the exercise of distilling those trends into their core elements, there are always motifs that paint the broader strokes of paint upon them. If one can harness the tropes themselves rather than the most current embodiment and expression of them, then one can create something that transcends the time, unlike a fad or trend would.
That’s all pretty heady. What do I mean?
I’ll give an example. In 2006 when Microsoft released what was then called the “Metro Design System,” which essentially was a move from the overly embellished interface design that Apple had introduced in the early stages of their iOS platform to more simplified design style that puts the content ahead of the design.
To where before we had things like a calendar app that was designed to deliberately look like a real-world physical leather bound and embroidered paper calendar.
To an extreme reduction of only the core elements that make up a calendar app.
The world freaked out. There was a cacophonous roar in the design space such that has never been seen before. It made sense form an interface standpoint (and really, became a bit of a fad/trend within itself), but it took a designer to take an earnest look at the content that was trying to be presented and what the state of the [then] industry was – a world of shiny buttons and leather bound backgrounds – to break away from the trend and design something that felt new, but was really a reinterpretation of Swiss International Design style applied to an interface.
The truth is, time is a flat circle.
Trends come and go, and often come again, but good design should transcend these cycles. The example I give above is an example of form triumphing over function, but when it comes down to it, design should speak to the audience it is being presented to and not get in the way of the content and information that it is attempting to present. The problem that even flat design eventually hit was that it became a fad in of itself and designers, being designers, took to dribble to apply an aesthetic to ideas and products that weren’t always as appropriate for the style or was just aesthetic applied to poor design. Visual design should work in tandem with all other aspects of the design process to solve a problem. When taken in a silo and when blindly following fads, it loses its meaning. Which is what visual design is all about.