Chalkboards, Cupcakes, and the Soul of Design – Part II

While HOW Design Live conferences certainly inspire, they also teach. Featuring some of the best minds in the business, HOW learning sessions provide attendees with knowledge and information they can actually take home and apply – practical application stuff, which benefits attendees’ businesses and improves their individual performance. That’s certainly what I’m counting on, anyway.

What follows is a summary of the sessions I attended, the cumulative effect of which, serves as a list of the ingredients that comprise an effective design process. Specifically, things that any company having anything to do with creative design would do well to employ. Implementing, and adhering to, the principles below can mean the difference between good and great results. Not to mention, significantly reduce the screaming and hair pulling.

Hamish Campbell, Creative Director at Pearlfisher, and David Hartman, Associate Creative Director at Target, provided a glimpse into the design process of top-tier firms, starting at the very beginning of the process – long before any creating ordesigning has begun. In their opinion, an effective process begins with trust; without it, you’re in trouble. Sharing a meal together, they told the audience, is a great way to kick-off a project, as it breaks down the “professional” barriers and facilitates personal connections, thus sowing seeds of trust.

They discussed at length the collaboration between Target and Pearlfisher, and how human beings engaging one another is at the heart of effective design. Which I was delighted to hear, as their emphasis on human engagement not only validated what I’d been taught way back when, but also confirmed that it’s a belief shared by some of the best companies in America. By traveling to farmers markets together, conversing intimately, and sharing lots of meals together, Pearlfisher was able to create an engaging and relevant brand that connects with Target consumers: Simply Balanced.

Trust, however, is just the essential first ingredient of an effective design process. It’s the aggregate of ingredients that determines whether your design process is truly effective. In a session led by AtTask’s, David Lesue, I was reminded that the mere word process, seriously conflicts with most creative folks’ DNA; instinctually, we despise it.  As such, David encouraged us to think of process as our frienemy – part friend, part enemy – who helps eliminate unnecessary work, which degrades quality and elongates design cycles, as well as enables us to focus on the design work at hand.  An effective design process, as David explained it, includes the following ingredients.

1.) A formal/standardized work-request process. Require design briefs for everyproject. If there is no brief, there is no work request. This reduces whim, random one-off, and rogue project requests, as it requires requesters to think through what it is they’re requesting, and whether they really need it.

2.) A projects dashboard. Projects should be displayed publically, either electronically or physically – both is preferable. Build a backlog, slot the work on a weekly basis, and display the schedule for all to see. This creates accountability, indicates priorities, and helps keep folks on task.

3.) Central repositories. When designers have to corral all of the information required to complete a job, they lose creative time and their flow is impeded – interruptions kill flow. A good creative brief is crucial, but keeping everything together – research, notes, communications, sketches, files, etc. – is equally important, as it significantly reduces interruptions and enables designers to focus on their design work.

4.) Templates. Create templates for job types that occur on a regular basis, and update them over time. Doing this will greatly improve efficiency, and also lead to consistent, quality output. It will also enable new hires, or those who are new to the process, to get up and running faster.

5.) Collaborate in a consistent fashion. Standard creative briefs is one example, but brainstorming sessions, project kick-off meetings, delivery of assets, and the manner in which they’re conducted and communicated, should also be standardized. Operating in this manner will further reduce misunderstandings and unnecessary work, improve efficiency, and also enable newcomers to get up and running faster.

Quality creative work takes time, and lots of it – something many executives don’t want to hear. In a culture obsessed with speed and “turn-around times,” design work often suffers. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to great creative work. The best way to improve creative work is to spend more time on it, and by incorporating the ingredients listed above, your designers will be able to do just that – spend more time creating.

Chalkboards, Cupcakes, and the Soul of Design

Recently I traveled to Boston to attend HOW Design Live 2014, which in the words of its organizers is, “…the biggest annual gathering of creative professionals, anywhere.” At the conference I heard many inspirational speakers, learned about the new Adobe Creative Cloud software and design process, and grew my understanding of how to build and lead an amazing, creative team.

The conference was loaded with heavy-hitting keynote speakers, three of whom I personally connected with, and whose stories I thought I’d share. Their stories shared a common thread: follow your dream and engage with art outside of technology. I hope you find their stories as inspiring as I did.

Dana Tanamachi-Williams is a self-taught designer from Texas, best known for starting the chalkboard typography craze in America. Think Starbucks chalkboard menus. While working as a designer in New York, Dana began drawing frames and typography on her friend’s chalkboard wall in her spare time. Her creations were so unique that friends began snapping pictures of themselves in front of them, which they then posted on Facebook.

She soon had an extensive portfolio of unique artwork and typography online which, thanks to social media, landed her a job with Louise Fili Ltd., a prominent NYC graphic design firm. She continued to pursue her true passion: creating unique and engaging typography. Her day job funded the pursuit of her dream, and her anonymity allowed her to take risks and make mistakes. Eventually she was able to start her own business and devote herself full-time to her passion. Dana’s story reminded me of two very important things: stay true to your dream and continue to hone your non-computer based, “hand” skills.

Next is Bob Gill, an iconic American illustrator and graphic designer. Bob is one of the founders of Fletcher/Forbes/Gill design studio, precursor to the present-day megalith, Pentagram, one of the largest and most successful design firms in America. Inspirational and unforgettable, Bob stood on the stage and told the crowd, “You all suck. You are not designers. What is wrong with you? Sitting there behind your computers, hiding behind technology!”

Not only was he hilarious, but quite frank. I loved his perspective: in order to achieve great design, you must live in the shoes of your client. “If you need to create a logo for a dry cleaner, what do you do: sketch, wordlist, mood board? No, you go to the dry cleaner and you sit there. What do you do? I don’t know, but you sit there, you talk to people, you learn about the process, you smell the smells, you experience first person the soul of dry cleaning. You do this until you have an idea. Great design doesn’t have a timeline.”

Bob also spoke of how what you stand for attracts the clients you desire. If someone doesn’t agree with your process, or your ideas, it’s ok to let them go- that’s conviction. If they don’t like what you bring to the table, then they don’t trust your expertise, which makes them a poor fit. Bob’s keynote inspired me to get back to basics – to search for the root of the problem I’m trying to solve, not the solution to a perceived problem.

Lastly, there was Johnny Earle, a.k.a., Johnny Cupcakes. A self-made millionaire by 26, Johnny is the founder of one of the fastest growing and most iconic brands in America. After dropping out of college, Johnny began touring with his death-metal band, while peddling t-shirts from a raggedy suitcase on the side. Selling under his nickname, Johnny Cupcakes, his t-shirts featured a cupcake and crossbones logo, along with a silly expression or funny design. It wasn’t long before Spencer’s, Target, and other big-box retailers came calling.

Opting not to sell out to the “big boys,” who would likely dilute his brand, he opened his first retail store. His bakery-themed store skyrocketed his sales and brand recognition. Going to great lengths to control every aspect of his brand experience, Johnny hangs vanilla air fresheners in his stores to evoke the smell of a bakery, and packs his t-shirts in rolling pin containers. Basic packaging or cheaper display cases would have saved him money, but it was the vintage bakery displays and rolling pin packaging that fueled his success and cemented his brand.

Dana, Bob, and Johnny confirm that doing what you love and demanding the highest quality of work pays off. Love covers a multitude of sins, as does having a passion for what you do. And cutting corners only results in a weaker vision and negatively impacts your brand. The moral of these stories: follow your passion, and invest in quality design and experience…no matter the cost.

Platforms vs. point solutions in virtual banking

Lately, “gamification” has been a popular topic in software and process design. I’ve quoted it here because it is a made up word from the business community and not a real word that actual people use. Nonetheless, the idea is compelling: using the natural human desire for competition, achievement, differentiation of status, and positive feedback to craft desired results. We have a lot of discussions at Q2 about the best way to acquire development talent, and we decided in our last recruiting push that using actual games might be interesting. To do this we created a scenario for applicants to our entry level developer program to compete in teams using Lego bricks to build product concepts and prototypes. The results were informative, and the activity broke the traditional (boring and low-value) mold of predictable one-on-one interviewing. Changing the way we thought about evaluating talent made our employees much more attentive to non-verbal behavior in the interview setting as well, giving us much deeper insight into potential employee fit and comfort level with the unexpected challenges of the exercise.

For other ways Q2 uses Lego bricks in thinking about software platforms, see a recent article I contributed to in CU Insight.