Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Can’t See the Forest

Close-up of pine tree branchI haven’t received a paycheck for most of my professional career. Just this morning I submitted a proposal to a prospective client for a project that would pay the bills for the next few months. Maybe they will hire me. Maybe they won’t.

If they don’t, it won’t be because I’m not a good designer. The project timeline and even the estimated budget likely won’t be the deciding factors either. Not really.

Stepping back from the mysterious and occasionally pseudo-scientific criteria for evaluating competing proposals, what are clients really buying from any consultant?

There are two things – capacity and objectivity.

Send in the cavalry
When an organization needs additional capacity, it’s for one of two reasons.

They need additional horsepower to launch an important new initiative.
With day-to-day tasks keeping internal staff busy, it’s counter-productive to add more responsibilities to an overloaded calendar. The laws of physics apply. There is only so much space and time in a given day. As a colleague at a major university noted: “Our creative director is very talented, but she’s also way over-extended. How can you think big picture when you’re under water?”

A project requires specialized skills that don’t exist in-house.
Having market researchers, designers, or copywriters on staff doesn’t make much sense if the need isn’t ongoing. But if successful outcomes are important – and why are you undertaking the project if they aren’t? – you don’t want to leave these tasks in the hands of amateurs.

Hiring to increase capacity comes with expectations for cost-effectiveness, timely communications, and flawless project management. The work needs to be of good quality, but the relationship really hinges on how well the consultant delivers on those other things.

Tell me the truth
In the early stages of a branding project, I met with the in-house marketing staff to share what our team had heard in conversations with other stakeholders. They nodded and asked: “Will you share this with the president? If we tell him, he won’t listen to us.”

Why do companies pay consultants to tell them what they already know?

Often, when people have been staring at a problem too long, they seek out a fresh pair of eyes. The concept of “beginner’s mind” refers to having an attitude of openness – a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject – even when studying at an advanced level. An unbiased third party has no vested interest in titles or “the way we’ve always done things.”

But fresh eyes alone are not enough.

If I’m planning to tackle a weekend home repair project and run into trouble, I’m going to call my older brother. I may have an idea about how to proceed, but he’s been working as a carpenter for 35 years. His level of expertise far exceeds my own because he’s encountered similar situations dozens or even hundreds of times. With experience comes an ability to recognize patterns, sidestep pitfalls, and provide much-needed perspective.

Clients hire consultants whose observations and recommendations are based on hard-earned experience they can trust. And consultants need the courage to (occasionally) tell clients things they may not want to hear.

Making a choice
There is no shortage of consultants that can help solve a temporary capacity problem. Capacity is needed when there is work to be done.

Objectivity, on the other hand, is far more difficult to find – especially as it relates to a specific assignment. A trusted advisor’s objectivity helps solve problems.

When I have lost out to another firm or individual for a consulting gig that I thought was a good fit, usually the explanation goes something like this: “Our team carefully reviewed your proposal and unfortunately your key strengths didn’t quite overlap with what we were looking for.”

You want the cold hard truth? Translation: They didn’t trust me.

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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Judging Design

Bronze statuette of justice, with focus on the blindfolded faceI recently returned from Nashville, where I was honored to serve as a judge for this year’s UCDA design show. The conversations between the judges and show facilitators prompted me to think a lot about how we evaluate – and value – design. What is design excellence?

Since 1970, the University & College Designers Association (UCDA) has served as an advocate for designers working in academia in North America and around the world by delivering relevant programming, benefits, and inspiration.

We saw a lot of good work across all categories among the nearly 1,100 entries in this year’s show. We also saw a lot of professionally-executed work that begins to blend together when it’s covering a table thirty yards long.

Making the cut
For this show, we didn’t choose the good work. We didn’t choose the professional work. There are a lot of good designers and a lot of really good work that never makes it into a design show.

The work we honored for excellence stood out from the crowd because it was conceptually strong, visually fresh, with flawless typography and evocative imagery. Additionally, the award-winning designers possessed both the vision and skill to get that work approved by whomever was signing the checks. That’s a high bar to clear. Around 170 pieces were selected for the show, roughly 16% of those submitted.

Best in show
One piece, a fundraising brochure, was awarded the “best in show” designation. When I opened this piece, my heart fluttered just a little. It’s the kind of reaction most designers have when they see something unexpected – unlike anything else, yet completely appropriate for the task at hand. The perfect fit.

The blessedly brief copy played off the vibrant photo-collaged images to create a rhythm and pace that draws the reader in and pulls them through. Instead of the usual blah, blah, blah and numbers everywhere, this piece was designed to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience of donors. It said, “You’re valued.”

Judge’s choice
Each judge was also asked to highlight an entry that was a personal favorite. Mine was a collection of work from the in-house team at a university in the Western United States.

I admired this entry for the variety of high-quality work submitted and the number of people who contributed. From a trade show booth to a strategic plan to publications and simple icons, every last pixel was treated with exquisite attention to detail.

More than the consistent use of a typeface or colors, it was this refusal to settle that made each piece stand out on its own, yet hold together as a consistent and engaging “look.” To pull that off across such an array of work is incredibly difficult, and well worth celebrating.

Aesthetics versus outcomes
For me and my fellow judges, the difficulty in reviewing so much work in a single day was one part stamina and two parts context. The UCDA design show is similar to almost all others in that there is no good way to fully understand how well a piece or campaign fulfilled its objectives. We are confined to judging the aesthetics of the design.

Design is an integrated discipline. No matter how thoughtfully a designer attends to even the smallest details, the work doesn’t live in a vacuum. Its success relies on a host of collaborators, clients, and audience response.

A successful outcome is only marginally influenced by the aesthetics. A lunar module may look wicked cool, but if it doesn’t get off the launching pad, burns up in re-entry, or the mission doesn’t deliver enough knowledge to justify the cost, the designers aren’t going to win any awards.

Move people to action
The inability to separate a designer’s contribution from the myriad other factors and people involved leaves us at a disadvantage. Instead of focusing on successful outcomes, we end up citing things like building “awareness” and increasing “engagement.”

Designers consider the value of good design to be a self-evident truth, kind of like it’s better to be rich than poor. I would certainly rather see more beauty in the world than less, and aesthetically pleasing design is worth celebrating. But the more relevant question is: What did this cause people to do?

Design is most powerful as a verb – an action word. Did the design help put butts in the seats, increase donations, or change behavior? At the end of the day, that’s the measure of design excellence.