Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Cooperation vs. Collaboration

close-up photo of men rowing in a boat raceEveryone has watched classic courtroom dramas unfold. The prosecution believes the defendant is guilty, but needs testimony from someone with direct knowledge of the crime. They need a witness to cooperate. They need a stool pigeon.

Questions and answers are practiced. The witness is called to testify. But maybe the witness received a better offer (or threat) from representatives of the defendant. Suddenly, to the prosecutor’s surprise, her questions are being deflected and statements contradicted. The courtroom murmurs. “Your honor, I request permission to treat the witness as hostile.” Our stooly isn’t cooperating any more.

Tentative buy-in
Most co-workers and managers are pleasant enough and could be considered cooperative. Cooperation is “nice” in the same way that a blind date might be described as nice. You may well have a pleasant evening together, but it’s not like you’re going to be sending out wedding invitations any time soon. To make rapid progress toward more substantial goals, it isn’t enough to bring a bouquet of flowers to your next meeting.

True collaboration – across functions and departments – is more difficult to achieve. It requires the ability to align goals and resources, and the flexibility to make adjustments on the fly. It involves setting priorities, deciding what to do now, and what can wait – and communicating all of that clearly. Even with the most cooperative people, this is where collaboration can break down.

Why does this matter in marketing and design?

Let’s examine definitions. Cooperation is the process of working together to the same end. Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. The difference is subtle, but meaningful.

Shared goals
Goals come and go. Some are important today, but less important a year from now. If a goal is missed – or met – a new one will be set. In a cooperative workplace, the focus easily turns to tactics over strategy. Colleagues may be friendly and willing to share information, but become misaligned depending on short-term goals. Progress slows.

In this kind of environment, design and marketing are often considered “add-ons.” Little is expected and rarely, if ever, is it considered important in the executive suite.

Shared vision
An organization’s vision doesn’t change whether business is booming or headwinds are strong. It reflects the reason for being – the core promise made to its customers. In a collaborative workplace, the focus remains on strategy even as different tactics are implemented. Colleagues use their common vision as a filter to prioritize work, knowing that long-term results require everyone pulling in the same direction. Progress accelerates.

In this type of workplace, design and marketing are more fully integrated into operations. Their expertise and insights are considered vital, even at the earliest stages of an initiative.

Everyone has a role to play
The most important thing I have to do this week is …? Chances are if you ask six people working for the same organization to fill in the blank, you will get six different answers. Naturally, you say, they all have different responsibilities.

Big picture goals are rarely as clear as leaders believe them to be. More often, for people being asked to collaborate across departments, it’s as if someone dumped a pile of jigsaw pieces on the table and asked them to solve the puzzle – without a picture … or all of the pieces.

Take the time to be clear – and a memo won’t cut it. Get everyone in a room together to hash out the sequence of activities. Honestly assess both the time and people necessary for the outcome you want. In creating a mutually agreed-upon framework, you create the clarity to move forward with confidence – a model for collaboration.

Make adjustments
Cooperation means working together independently. Collaboration, on the other hand means working together dependently.

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Any ambitious project takes time. Over time, availability, workloads, and priorities can change. Project leaders must maintain the flexibility to adjust on the fly, aligning their goals and resources with others in real time.

The world is integrated. Disciplines aren’t – but need to be.

Collaboration by design
Why do designers need to collaborate? Though they may grumble about them from time to time, designers need clients. They need problems to solve. At its core, design is most valuable when it serves a larger purpose. A designer interested only in pursuing personal interests is a fine artist.

Maybe more importantly, why do non-designers need to collaborate – not just cooperate with – designers? The more context a designer has the more likely your project will be successful. We are skilled at synthesizing a variety of inputs into a cohesive whole. We are able to consider a problem from many different points of view. And we can visualize and present options so that others are able to see the possibilities.

Cooperation is pleasant. Collaboration is more difficult, but more effective.

 

Related content:

Framing the story

Strategy falls on deaf ears

Design for action

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Powerless

Cartoon drawing shows an employer kicking an employee to the curbI have been working as a professional designer for nearly 30 years. I’ve had the good fortune to work with dozens of clients on thousands of projects. And today, for the first time ever, I was fired from a job.

Believe me, I have made a multitude of mistakes over the years. Who hasn’t? It’s just that in the end, every other time, I have been able to overcome those shortcomings to solve the problem.

Well, that is not entirely true – I didn’t solve those problems alone. Without willing and generous collaborators, a designer has little ability to make a meaningful contribution to an organization’s success.

Unique skill sets
Designers require a diverse collection of strengths. The most obvious is a talent for managing the formal elements of visual communication – color, contrast, composition, and typography, to name a few. Others include:

Empathy – A designer must understand the needs of both the audience and client they are entrusted to serve. This requires an insatiable curiosity and taking the time to ask insightful questions.

Communication – When working with others, two ears and one mouth represents an ideal ratio of listening and speaking. One’s ability to write clearly and participate in constructive dialog is key to moving from many options to the best solution.

Synthesis – The design process looks sort of like a funnel – an initial, broad immersion distilled into a few essential messages and compelling visuals presented in new and relevant ways.

Project Management – Being organized is good, but leading a project is better. A designer must identify who needs to be involved and when to seek input, while adapting to changing conditions as an assignment unfolds.

But most importantly, a designer requires a client or employer who values the utilization of these skills to solve problems creatively. It takes two – or more – to tango.

Building trust
Trust is hard won and easily lost. Some relationships blossom over time. Others are doomed from the beginning.

Some clients grudgingly engage designers, with little planning, budget or time, always at the tail end of projects, and only because they possess the ability to manipulate graphics software.

Some designers mistakenly believe they are artists, not problem solvers, and bemoan their fate while doing nothing to offset the belief that their value lies in superior visual skills.

In most every designer/client relationship, the burden is on the designer to build the trust needed to do the job effectively. Some ways to build more productive relationships include:

Learn from Experience – Good designers have the self-awareness to recognize why some projects turn out better than others. Regularly review and document your process so that future clients benefit from prior experience. It shouldn’t appear you are making this up as you go. The most valuable thing a designer provides is not a new website or logo design, it is giving clients the confidence to move forward.

Small Victories – If you can only succeed under perfect working conditions, you might want to consider a career change. Demonstrate how even a little research paid big dividends, and how your insights saved money or expanded possibilities. Referrals from satisfied customers are the best currency to buy a little credibility in a new relationship.

Diplomacy – Listen carefully and remain patient in all communications. The only way to succeed is by assuming that both the designer and client want the same thing. Mutually defining success and working towards it – together – works better than griping, blaming, or passive aggressive behavior.

Trade Money for Time (or Vice Versa) – When project parameters are stacked against you, or change midstream, be honest in assessing how they impact your chance for success. It’s better to offer reasonable alternatives than to over-promise and under-deliver.

Define Roles – It’s vital to know who will be affected by the work you are doing, who is expected to provide feedback, and when that feedback is most helpful. Many a project has been derailed by late objections from people who weren’t involved from the beginning. Set goals and roles before starting a project, then continue to monitor and confirm those decisions as you proceed.

Honesty is the best policy
Without trust, a client rarely gets a good return on the investment, and a designer is stuck making the best of a bad situation. That combination isn’t good for anyone.

Both the client and designer must be willing to maintain open communication throughout the life of a project. That includes tactfully asking questions that may be difficult, and honestly answering them in a timely manner.

As for the client who fired me? I won’t point fingers. I can only control my behavior. For my part, I could have handled communications more diplomatically in the last week. And, I didn’t press hard enough to identify and account for new players that emerged to influence the project’s direction. Ultimately, I’m not convinced anything could have been done to save the relationship.

The best organizations recognize design as a powerful process and a tool to solve challenging problems. Without developing that trust, designers remain powerless to make an impact.

Make it Clear

Opaque eyeglassesIncreasingly, with each generation, people twist words beyond recognition to avoid discomfort or inconvenient truths.

The U.S. military uses “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, not torture. Some politicians want us to believe that their wealthy benefactors are not greedy tax dodgers, but “job creators.” And if a professional athlete tells a reporter his protracted contract negotiations are “not about the money,” you can be quite certain that it’s all about the money.

Because of the constant misdirection, we bristle at bureaucracy, complain about complexity, and object to obfuscation. If we find out – or even suspect – a government official or corporate titan has been hiding something from us, we are outraged. We demand an investigation. We expect answers.

Publicly, we encourage authenticity, admire honesty, and celebrate “straight shooters” – mean what you say and say what you mean – but do we model the behavior we hold in such high esteem?

If “incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession,” as Kingman Brewster, Jr., the former president of Yale, once said, then the behavior of some of our marketing and communications colleagues might best be described as “very professional.”

Glossary of terms
Yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, I laughed out loud. Curious, my wife asked what was so funny. I shared with her a short profile in the business section in which there was an astonishing volume of jargon.

As a public service, I will attempt to provide translation for the dizzying array of terms used in the story:

Behavorial marketing agency = advertising agency
Visual design = design
Customer experience design = web design
User experience architect = web designer
Content strategy = thinking about which words and images to use on a website
Business intelligence = research
Empowered consumers = the people we are trying to sell things to
Business-to-person (B2P) = the relationship between a business and its customers
Forge connections = get people to click on things
Engage consumers = get people to click on things
Offline experiences = the real world (sans electronic gadgets)

Conjuring clarity out of chaos
While I understand that part of advertising a product or service is putting it in the most favorable light, taking such extraordinary effort to distract and dazzle seems to betray a lack of confidence that thinking, writing, and designing have value without fancier titles.

I believe effective designers and writers communicate better by focusing on clarity and simplicity – distilling things to their essence rather than constructing obstacles to decipher. In other words, we get rid of the bullshit and make your organization, products, or services easier to understand.

Transparency provides people the confidence to take action. As a profession, we should be less concerned with coining opaque jargon, and more concerned with creating effective communication.

Related content:
Euphemisms – A comedic rant by George Carlin
Truthiness – The Word by Stephen Colbert

Art or Science?

Venn Diagram showing the intersection of design, business, and technologyDesigners are forever moaning about the perceived value of what they do. When big decisions are being made, MBAs sit at the head of the table while designers are lucky to get a spot at the “kiddie table.” The problem lies with the widespread perception of design as “artsy” – a tertiary tactical skill, not a reliable method for making strategic decisions or solving challenging problems.

Scientists need empirical evidence. Business people focus on the bottom line. Lacking the data to definitively demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, designers are often miscast by the other two as providing “window dressing” – valued for creativity, but not integral to success.

Getting over that hurdle is difficult. Isolating cause/effect relationships in design can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and businesses are skeptical of fields with anecdotal, not quantitative proof. However, isolating the effects of any of the myriad decisions a business executive makes in an average year is equally troublesome. Life – like most forms of measurement – tends to be messier than we would care to admit.

Facts vs. Feelings
Despite evidence to the contrary, people trust facts. They prefer to know things. Two plus two equals four. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. How much does that cost? When will that be finished? Guessing wrong on a school exam adversely affects your grade. Guessing wrong in business can cost you your job.

However, some things stubbornly resist measurement – like the future, art, or emotions. When did my wife fall in love with me? Was it when we met walking dogs through a neighborhood park? Was it when she drove past my house with her sister and confided, “That’s the man I’m going to marry”? Was it our first kiss? Prove it.

We make decisions every day with uncertain prospects for being right, for getting a good “return on investment.” We make decisions based on history and patterns of behavior, regularly using intuition and instinct as guides. And when pressed to explain our choices, we might say it was a “gut decision” or “it just felt right.”

But trusting and acting on “feelings” is usually considered too dangerous in a business setting. Risk aversion, the fear of being wrong, sends us in search of numbers. This evidence, intended to bolster confidence in our decision making, often has the unfortunate tendency to simply confirm existing beliefs or theories.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative
Acknowledging the need for justification, the Design Management Institute commissioned a study: What is the real value of design? In the report, one chart demonstrates that a carefully chosen index of “design-centric” companies yielded returns 228% greater than the same investment in the S&P 500 over the past ten years. That seems conclusive! Except that data can be arranged to support almost any position.

Numbers can be powerful and persuasive, but they can also be used to bolster weak arguments. Both quantitative and qualitative research reveal important insights – quantitative research tells us how many; qualitative research tells us why – but they work best used together. The DMI report reveals this truth (and its bias) in the research study’s subhead: An exploration into why companies that lead with design outperform the market.

The ability to trust that our answers are correct – that they are worthy investments – depends on what questions are being asked, who is asking, who is answering, and why they are being asked in the first place.

The value of synthesis
Qualitative or quantitative, we can always collect more data – even if we don’t know what to do with it. Just because consumers liked your offerings yesterday doesn’t guarantee they will behave the same way tomorrow. All data looks in the rear-view mirror.

An influx of information won’t inevitably lead to breakthrough products or services. The ability to interpret and humanize data – to connect the dots into a meaningful narrative – is the most valuable skill a designer has to offer. Good designers have the ability to solve problems that haven’t been solved before, to see patterns where others see chaos, and to distill the essential from the extraneous.

Computer algorithms are able to predict what you will like given enough online behavior to analyze. The ability to empathize with an audience while synthesizing known information and experiences makes designers the closest thing that exists to a human algorithm.

Investing in results
Successful outcomes are nearly always a group effort. Divvying up credit for individual performance is about as easy as quantifying how much flavor the carrots, potatoes, or onions contributed to a bowl of beef stew – not that it will stop people from trying.

Executives seeking return on investment don’t trust design. Don’t feel bad, they don’t trust untested ideas or new technology either. Just as the team with the best record doesn’t always win the championship, the best design (or idea, or technology) doesn’t always win. Executives trust successful outcomes.

Design is a worthwhile investment when it is welcomed at the head table as a valuable skill. Treated as an afterthought, its dubious value is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is design an art? A science? A business? At its best, it’s a little of each.

Related content:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – The Ultimate TED Talk

Stop Planning

Photo of a businessman staring at a complex mazeA new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen

The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?

Nonlinear truths
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.

Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.

Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.

Hybrid thinking
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.

Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”

By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.

Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:

  • Empathy for the end user   Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.

After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.

  • Multiple perspectives  Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.

  •  Trial and error  We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”

Moving forward
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.

To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.

Related content:
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)     
Building Strategic Capacity by Design

Twas the Night Before Deadline

Santa sleigh over blue forest with snow falling at night

 

Twas the night before deadline, when all through the office
Everybody was stirring, so nervous and cautious.
The layouts were hung on display in the hall,
In hopes that the boss would soon make a call.

Designers were huddled around glowing Macs,
Writers were bleary buoyed by coffee and snacks.
To reach their objectives, they toiled and strained,
But uncertainty dogged them and questions remained.
When down by the front desk there arose such a clatter,
They sprang from their cubes to see what was the matter.

Arms full of trinkets brought home for his friends,
Out tumbled coffee mugs, tote bags, and pens;
The boss had returned from an industry conference.
He tossed out new jargon that seemed to be nonsense.

More rapid than FedEx his big ideas came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Curation of content, engagement will spiral,
“Go leverage our channels, make sure it goes viral!
“On Facebook! On Pinterest! On Tumblr and Twitter!
“Optimize! ROI! There’s a lot to consider.”

His minions were puzzled. Was this a direction?
Should they blindly take action or risk insurrection?
Chasing marketing trends, they’d seen this before,
Yet the lack of success was hard to ignore.

And then, in the back, sitting calmly without blinking,
The web guy asked softly what all had been thinking:
“What’s our primary objective? What are we doing?
“What do we know about the audience we’re pursuing?”
We all turned to face him, intrigued by his candor.
Would we find clarity and wisdom, or enrage our commander?

“By the skin of our teeth, by the seat of our pants,
“It’s no way to work. We leave everything to chance.
“Employing random tactics does not count as strategy.
“It’s not ‘integrated.’ It’s a marketing tragedy.”

The boss smiled wanly, his confidence waning,
He wasn’t used to his colleagues complaining.
Then he straightened his tie and tapped on his phone,
“He’s tweeting!” an intern exclaimed with a groan.
Next seen by his followers, the privileged few?
“We can’t all be leaders #sotrue”

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon filled us with that familiar dread.
The launch date was nigh; it was business as usual:
Adrift, yet hopeful, almost inexcusable.

We sprung back to work, just like Santa’s elves.
We laughed at our fate in spite of ourselves.
This lack of a plan would be quite ironic,
If industry-wide it wasn’t so chronic.

Then we heard in the distance, could it be so?
The sound of sleigh bells o’er the fresh-fallen snow.
Would our wishes be granted? We were good girls and boys.
A research-based plan would be better than toys.
Santa laughed as he rode through the cold winter night:
May your customers be merry and your strategy bright!

by Dan Woychick

Mythbusters

Close up photo of pen book on field of leaves. We All Have Stories to Tell. http://favim.com/image/263830/From the earliest days of civilization, human beings have told stories to explain the unexplainable. The desire to make complex things simpler and more understandable has produced an abundance of myths, aphorisms, and rules of thumb that remain cultural touchstones to this day. For example:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Don’t go in the pool after you eat.
  • You need a college degree to get a good job.

The enduring appeal of tales like these owes as much to the familiar comfort they bring as to any kernels of truth they may contain.

Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories explain how things work, how we make and justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we create our identities, and how we understand our place in the world. – Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Critical mass
With WiFi and mobile networks reaching ever more broadly, the ability to share knowledge and shape opinions has never been easier. With such accessible broadcast platforms, I’ve noticed a growing number of self-appointed “thought leaders” make it a habit to point out – often quite eloquently and convincingly – the many ways that prevailing wisdom is misguided.

However, unlike the curious band of misfits on the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters – an entertaining mash-up of pop culture and science experiments – many writers are long on sweeping opinions and woefully short when it comes to offering alternatives to the myths they’re busting.

It’s one thing to observe and document a problem and quite another to create a new solution. Or, as I once heard a director observe – critics are to motion pictures as ornithologists are to birds.

Learning to fly
Having the ability to discern good from bad – or true from false – is only the beginning when there is the need to replace a familiar story with something better. Moving people and organizations to action – achieving behavior change and positive outcomes – requires more than exposing dusty myths to the light of day.

Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…” – Peter Guber

People need stories. To transcend the current state of things, we need to be myth builders, not myth busters.

Spinning yarns
If we treat marketing and communications as a concerted effort to engage people around a compelling narrative – if, like TED.com, we really have “ideas worth spreading” – we may need to rethink how and with whom we work. Some key threads to consider:

  • Stay curious. The most certain path to understanding and reaching an audience is to vigilantly resist thinking you know more about them than you really do. Just remember that the child who repeatedly asks “Why?” – tiresome though it may be – is learning a lot more than you are. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.
  • Collaborate. As a way to multiply our curiosity and skills, we need to get used to the idea of expanding our personal networks. The problems that desperately need solutions require stories and audiences on a far greater scale. We must combine forces, bringing new voices and ideas to the table, to increase our effectiveness.
  • Make small bets. Start thinking of your office as a laboratory where experiments are ongoing. Reaching the big milestone is a misguided mindset. Use prototypes or pilot projects to fail early, fail fast, and learn faster.
  • Take the long view. Next year matters more than next week. This is not a recipe for procrastinating, but an acknowledgment that coordinating complex systems is an effort that bears fruit over time. The best way to rally people to your cause – to share stories on an epic scale – is to keep the big picture clearly in sight.

Creating value
Revealing the truth is undeniably a form of storytelling. We all benefit by living with our eyes wide open. But if we want people to listen to our stories, to care, and to act, we can’t simply point out that the emperor has no clothes, we must also provide a new wardrobe. Because, as Ira Glass noted, great stories happen to those who can tell them.

– Dan Woychick

Related content:
Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon
Social Proof, or Why We Pick Crowded Restaurants Over Empty Ones

Are You in the Mood?

I like watching home renovation shows – it beats doing renovation projects myself! The culminating moment of this television genre occurs when the designer reveals the makeover to the appreciative homeowners. Ta-da! Remarkably, no one ever hates it … or maybe they just edit that out in post-production.

Every designer has experienced that sound – an unmistakable, albeit brief, silence that signals a presentation is about to go horribly wrong. Weeks of work will be discarded. An entirely new direction will be requested.

From the client’s perspective, that very same moment is when a bit of trust is eroded: Wasn’t she listening when we spent all that time discussing this project? Why doesn’t he understand what I need? Did I hire the wrong designer?

A cure for the big reveal
Truthfully, many designers feed off the adrenaline rush of presenting their many awesome ideas – conjured out of thin air – to an appreciative audience. Clients are complicit in this process, often preferring to bypass information gathering and get right to the mockups with assurances that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Except when they don’t.

We’ve found one of the best ways to eliminate that awkward presentation moment – and improve designer/client collaboration – is to include a mood board in the creative process.

The mood board foreshadows our vision of the overall look and feel of a brand campaign, publication, or other large marketing communications initiative. It encourages conversation that allows us to acquire insights, uncover stylistic pet peeves, and confirm or adjust strategic points of emphasis. This intervention, early in the process, represents a small investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return. Think of it as rapid visual prototyping that makes the design of all subsequent materials more efficient and predictable.

Most importantly, a mood board bridges the gap between the thinking (strategy) and the doing (tactics).

First things first
Before we begin playing with pencils or pixels, each project must be grounded in a sound communications strategy. We begin by reviewing all existing research, marketing plans, resources, and other relevant background materials.

In a series of conversations, we aim to familiarize ourselves with the project’s stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities. Our goal is to form recommendations based on identifying the gaps between current and desired audience perceptions and behaviors.

At the completion of this phase, we summarize the project in a creative brief. This document outlines the project goals, the findings of our initial meetings and discussions, and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Making ideas visible
Initially, clients may have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of a mood board: “Exactly what are we looking at here?” The mood board isn’t intended to look like an ad or a website or a two-page magazine spread.

As we begin the conversation, first we set the context by reviewing the agreed upon communications strategy. The mood board is a visual reflection of that strategy and uses color, typography, imagery, key themes or messages, and other graphic elements to signal the tone and creative direction for the project. This allows our discussion to focus more revealingly on the big picture – does it feel right – rather than fixate on specific tactics or minor details.

The reason mood board presentations are so productive is that the designer and client are reviewing an unfinished product. There’s room for interpretation. This early peek allows time to incorporate feedback and, along with the creative brief, provides a tangible touchstone for evaluating everything that follows.

A natural progression
Life may be full of surprises, but if I’ve done my job well, a presentation of a full-blown campaign should be greeted with comments like “Of course!” or “You nailed it.” I prefer to find drama on television, not in boardrooms.

By using mood boards, you can help your clients see what you’re thinking, enable them to participate in the creative process, and produce more effective design. That should put everyone in a good mood!

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit