Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Touch Me

Underwater scene, showing different tropical fish swimmingWhen you live in Minnesota, where we endured a record-breaking mid-April blizzard, social media feeds are regularly filled with friends’ vacation photos from exotic getaways. It’s not so much the severity of our winters, but the length, that inspire dreams of beaches and drinks with little umbrellas. But it’s not as good as actually being there. Not even close.

I recently returned from a spring break trip on the Mexican Riviera. We stayed in Puerto Morelos, a sleepy fishing village 25 minutes south of Cancun. While there, we spent one afternoon snorkeling along the reef about 400 meters from shore. The variety of fish and coral was spectacular – every shape, every size, every color – an extraordinary day.

You had to be there
If I owned an underwater camera, I could show you photos of our family swimming in what looked like a saltwater aquarium. But the images wouldn’t capture the sound of the waves lapping against our ears, the feel of the water being displaced by our fins, the dappled sunlight illuminating the crevices where tropical fish were hiding, or the taste of the saltwater on our lips.

Back on shore, the soft ocean breezes, the sound of Bob Marley singing, the sweet smell of sunscreen, and the taste of fish tacos washed down with ice cold cervezas only added to the multi-sensory experience.

In a world made faster, smaller, and more connected through technology, researchers assert that millennials value experiences over stuff. Traveling, attending a concert, or eating at a new restaurant with friends brings greater satisfaction than owning a fancier car or working long hours to earn a promotion.

No matter the generation, I would argue that the same holds true for a great majority of people.

The digital divide
Technology opens new avenues for communicating and doing business, enabling a previously unimaginable level of direct and personal marketing. But even when artificial intelligence and super-smart algorithms make technology more human, it is still one step away from the real thing.

Facebook is more like a pen pal than a true friendship. Playing video games across a network brings people together, but the effects of that interaction are not as deep or profound as when friends gather to play in the same room. The distance is digital.

Technology can simulate or facilitate many things, but it cannot adequately replicate real human connections.

If we accept that experiences are more memorable, and certainly more valuable, than things, how does that alter our approach to designing for mission-driven organizations? We can’t fly all of our customers to Mexico!

Here are three ways to create better experiences and connections with your audience.

Human-centered design
It’s tempting to tell potential customers all about our wonderful products and services. Enough about you, let’s talk about me! But the best way to make meaningful connections is to truly understand the behavior, motivations, and desires of the people we are trying to serve – and then communicate accordingly.

Last fall, we worked with Prepare + Prosper to understand why more people who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) don’t file for this effective anti-poverty program. The average refund is more than $2,000, yet as few as one in five eligible taxpayers claim it.

What we found through personal interviews and surveys was that leading with even basic information about the EITC left people feeling confused and skeptical. Getting one’s taxes done for free was less important than having confidence in the tax preparer’s skill and training. And a large tax refund has an emotional resonance that is every bit as important as the practical benefits.

All of this research led to defining the importance of that “money moment” for qualified taxpayers – the feeling of accomplishment upon getting your finances in order – and influenced everything from the design of the website and printed materials to how clients were greeted when they arrived at a neighborhood tax prep center.

Lights, camera, action
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video worth? Thanks to video, in the past couple weeks I have learned how to play a new song on guitar, replaced a part on our dishwasher, and binge-watched a TV show while waiting for our airplane.

Whether we’re entertaining or informing ourselves, video stimulates more senses than written communications. That’s why four times as many customers would rather watch a video about a product than read about it. Because video more closely simulates real-life experiences, it is more likely to both capture attention and be memorable.

Short, compelling videos are a good way to bridge the time and space between your organization and the people you are trying to reach.

Just my type
People are making buying decisions based on what a company stands for, now more than ever. Mission-driven organizations have always tried to connect on a values level. But now, major corporations and hybrids, such as public benefit corporations, encourage people to purchase with a purpose.

Cause marketing attaches a better story to any purchase or investment. If you can’t be there to personally clean up the river or feed the hungry, you can belong to the tribe that supports it and, by proxy, experience the feel-good benefits.

When both the organization and the consumer show that they’re here for the greater good, they form a stronger connection.

The need for touch
We are the sum total of our experiences. What we touch shapes what we feel. If money is made for memories, and not just acquiring more stuff, then we need to consider how our work on behalf of mission-driven organizations can fulfill that need.

As technology is incorporated into every facet of our lives, and all human interactions are converted into numbers, we would do well to remember that what we feel almost always outweighs what we think.

Make It Personal

The side project.

Whether it is pursued to scratch an itch, get out of a rut, or seek fame and fortune, not all work neatly fits into the parameters of a traditional job – if there is such a thing anymore.

Google famously encourages employees, in addition to regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on self-generated ideas. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin believe that “this empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”

Book cover of book about Minnesota inventions

Minnesota Invents – one of the unfunded, entrepreneurial projects by Jeff Johnson’s Replace design studio.

But as my friend, Jeff Johnson, a serial entrepreneur, prolific designer, and all-around force of nature, likes to say, “There is no such thing as a personal project. They are all just projects.” He spends about 30% of his time on speculative, unfunded, entrepreneurial projects of all kinds.

One never knows where a personal interest may lead.

Pursue obsessions
Gary Hustwit, a photographer and independent filmmaker, is best known for his documentaries: Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. Through his work, Hustwit shows that even the most esoteric interests can be fascinating.

At a conference, Hustwit’s presentation focused on how his various obsessions inspired work over the years. What usually spurs a project for him is a simple calculation: “I think ‘this should exist’ and if it doesn’t exist, I make it.”Home page of LoveMplsParks.org website

That’s sort of how I ended up creating LoveMplsParks.

Make an impact
Among other activities, I have biked, paddled, coached kids, walked dogs, attended concerts, skated, skied, and proposed marriage in our city’s parks. The parks and lakes make Minneapolis one of the greenest and most livable urban areas in the country.

But while I served on my neighborhood advisory board, I became aware of the financial plight of the Minneapolis park system. It suffers from a nearly $30 million backlog of deferred maintenance, and it relies on the whims of other governmental bodies for its funding.

I decided to create a new, dedicated revenue stream selling parks-branded merchandise printed and shipped on demand. Profits are split 50/50 between People for Parks, our non-profit partner, and the designers who created the apparel and posters. Since its launch, the venture has generated $80,000, with almost $20,000 donated to preserve Minneapolis parks.

One thing leads to another
Eric Kreidler has been in love with cinema, animation, and visual effects ever since he saw Star Wars as a child. From super-8 cameras in junior high, to experiments in stop-motion animation, and a detour to graphic design after college, Eric’s roundabout journey led him back to motion graphics in 2010.Album cover for The Bazillions Rock-N-Roll Yearbook

Prior to his focus on animation, most of his side projects were music-based. When his good friends in The Bazillions released a fantastic album of children’s music, an opportunity was staring him in the face. Seven years and 14 critically-acclaimed animated videos later, a serendipitous encounter gave Eric and his partner, Gretchen, the chance to explore new techniques and rebrand eg design as a motion graphics shop.

Two worlds collide
I always keep a sketchbook nearby both to explore illustration ideas, and because moving pixels around with a mouse is often less satisfying than getting one’s hands Fantastic Beast – a set of five postcards for LoveMplsParks.orgdirty. Last year, an owl led to an egret and then to an idea for a series of animal illustrations inspired by Charley Harper – the fantastic beasts of Minneapolis parks.

After the Posters for Parks show in the fall, Eric asked, “Would you ever be interested in doing a little collaborative animation for the parks?” Over coffee and cookies, we discussed a number of ideas, scribbled on napkins, and settled on a series of 15-20 second videos for upcoming park events.

Hockey the way nature intended
Since both of us are huge hockey fans, our first effort was for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Hundreds of teams from across the U.S. and Canada gather on a frozen lake for four days of action at the end of January.

Sketches of frames from pond hockey animation

I wanted the spot to move like a game with the focus in tight – all angles, and overlaps, and changes of direction. The distinctive look and sounds of an outdoor rink were the inspiration for the sketches that capture key frames within the sequence – illustrating how we would get from start to finish.

color illustrations of frames from pond hockey animated video

After another conversation and some refinement, I turned the black-and-white sketches into vector-based, color files. From there, Eric brought them beautifully to life with Adobe AfterEffects, and used Adobe Premiere to do the edit and sound design. Here is the finished spot:

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships from eg design on Vimeo.

Make it happen
Your mind is your most valuable asset. Jeff Johnson believes any project that engages the mind and feeds the soul expands that asset – no matter any potential commercial application. He advises to always be working on something that frightens you a little: “Make friends with that scared shitless feeling.”

Eric Kreidler knows the value of doing the kind of work you want to do – whether anyone is hiring you to do it or not – as he and Gretchen used personal projects to shift into a whole new practice they are more passionate about.

As designers, we have the extraordinary ability to conjure something out of nothing. But no matter your profession, the best, most meaningful, and magical work happens when you risk bringing yourself to the table.

Go make great ideas happen!

When is it Time for a Redesign?

Collection of luxury smart watches on a white backgroundNothing lasts forever. At least that’s the way it seems in a world where constant change is the norm, and “new” barely registers before it’s back to the drawing board.

Should I strike while the iron is hot? Or am I better safe than sorry? As with relying on aphorisms that have an equally true counter-argument, it is difficult to know when the time is right to examine the design of your organization’s logo, publications, or website.

In theory, a redesign begins with a problem.

Designers excel at guiding clients from Point A to Point B – and helping them define what Point A and Point B are. Without proper diligence, a lot of time and money can be spent addressing the wrong problem!

The better the problem is defined – the better the solution will be. As Albert Einstein liked to say, “If I only had one hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and then five minutes solving it.”

One of the first questions I ask when considering a new assignment is: “How will we know when we’ve been successful?” If there isn’t a rock solid answer, the problem has not been well-defined.

Common mistakes
The process of deciding whether the time is right for a redesign can be complicated by myriad reasons. Some of the most common ones include:

  •  Some clients have an itchy trigger finger. They want to do something – anything! – and the sooner the better. The new boss wants to make her mark, and a new design serves as more of a signal than a solution. This can create the veneer of change – which can have value – but if product, service, or operational issues are holding an organization back, better marketing will provide a temporary boost at best.
  •  Everyone else is doing it! As a teenager, this excuse didn’t sway your parents, and it isn’t a good enough reason to undertake a major redesign. Trends come and go (remember QR codes?), but makeovers should be driven by strategy, not tactics. Taking the time to understand customer needs and habits is always fashionable.
  •  Going too big – or too small. The project needs to be properly scoped to match your time and budget. You may end up with a better design if you focus on solving one high-priority problem rather than chasing multiple fixes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that other problems go unaddressed, but they may need to go on the back burner. If forced to choose, how will you prioritize?
  •  Discounting equity. We had one client that began an assignment nearly certain – based on scant anecdotal evidence – that the organization’s name was a problem. Had we listened only to them, and not also to the voices of customers and partners, their new brand would have been misguided – and required years to rebuild the name recognition and hard-earned trust that comes with it.

The time is right
Some of the best reasons for green lighting a redesign include:

  •  The story has changed. You may be serving different or new audiences than you were when the current design was adopted. Maybe the competitive landscape has changed. Maybe you’re celebrating a major milestone or anniversary. If the organization you have been is not the same as the one you will be going forward, your design – and your story – needs to reflect that.
  •  Your customers tell you. Whether anecdotally or by something that can be measured (web traffic, donations, sales), there are usually signs that your performance has slipped or your audience has changed. A redesign may be an appropriate response.
  •  Technology has changed. A logo never used to need to work as an avatar. Before responsive web technology, websites often worked better on desktop computers than on mobile devices. Technology continues to be a moving target – both for marketing professionals and for the audiences they are trying to reach. When existing formats don’t work as well as they used to, it may be time for a redesign.
  •  Does this logo make me look fat? No one wants their design to make them look bad or out of touch. While some companies have what appears to be a timeless identity that never wavers, most have undergone several subtle (and not-so-subtle) updates over the years. This sort of refresh serves as a signal for others to take another look – to hear the story again. And the refresh isn’t the story as much as how the new design will support your goals.

Know when to say when
There is no industry standard – a seven-year itch – to dictate when it’s time for a redesign. You need a compelling reason to invest the time and money (see reasons above). And while change doesn’t guarantee success, an intelligent redesign that solves the right problem can make a world of difference.

Related content:

Makeover Mania
How Lacroix Water Became a Millennial Sensation
The iPhone X is a User Experience Nightmare

Alternatives and Facts

Photo of tile floor seen from above with men's shoes and three directional arrowsDoes diet soda keep us thin or make us sick?
How can we be sure that humans are a major cause of global warming?
Will we ever know if the Russians interfered in our election?

Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives – governments, organized religion, banks, and the news media among them. As trust in institutions has dropped over the past twenty years, our access to information has exploded.

Contrary to the gospel’s assurance that “the truth will set you free,” many now seem to subscribe to the notion that the truth is unknowable. A steady stream of conflicting and/or confusing information will do that.

It causes anxiety and indecision.

Patience is a virtue – except when it’s not
Wisdom is difficult to come by, as one tried-and-true piece of advice often conflicts with another.

Look before you leap.
Strike while the iron is hot.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

Birds of a feather flock together.
Opposites attract.

The fact that both can be true only underscores the complexity of designing for human beings.

The firehose effect
We now have access to a greater volume of information, delivered instantaneously to our fingertips, than our brains have the capacity to process. It changes the way we think and the way we behave.

Moore’s Law is based on the insight that processor speeds for computers double every two years. This remarkably prescient, 50-year-old observation, might also explain how society has seemingly moved from a seven year itch to a seven second twitch.

With a multitude of choices, the fear of missing out (FOMO) fuels the pursuit of the newest shiny object – a tactics-obsessed mindset that leaves most people neither current nor effective.

Finding perspective
Like day traders following the minute-by-minute fluctuations of the latest trendy stock, when we evaluate changes in marketing through a short enough window of time they can seem wildly unpredictable and confusing. But time is a paradox. Step back far enough and changes seem much smaller and gradual by comparison – and much easier to explain.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

A good designer moves between short- and long-term perspectives to find direction and insight. Details matter, but so does the big picture. There is a method to balancing the two.

  • Start by asking questions. Listening, observing, and collecting information provides the context to understand the problem. It’s important to set aside assumptions.
  • Analyze and combine ideas and insights. Define success, propose a strategy, and align the people necessary to make it happen. Leave room for the plan to evolve.
  • Explore possibilities. Give ideas physical form to evaluate the merits of one option versus another. Refine and repeat the process.

Does it pass the eye test?
I’ve worn glasses or contact lenses since I was 25 years old. My right eye is naturally better at seeing things far away. My left eye is better for viewing things up close. It’s known as monovision, and has grown more acute as I age.

My optometrist could make both of my eyes great for reading tiny type, but everything in the distance would appear blurry. Instead, my prescription is a compromise between the two, with my brain asked to synthesize the visual stimuli and make sense of it.

I’ve spent the past two weeks working through treatment for an infection in my left eye. In addition to an increased sensitivity to light, this has messed with my depth perception and ability to focus as my brain struggles to adapt to impaired input. Regular headaches ensue.

As we choose which marketing channels, strategies, and tactics to pursue, and debate what appear to be conflicting facts, keep both eyes open. Trust that a more holistic view of what you’re seeing will lead to more effective solutions.

After the Post-It Notes Are Gone

A wall filled with yellow and pink Post-It Notes shot as a close-upLate last year, I attended a design thinking workshop. There were about 30 people in attendance, all interested in exploring ways to respond in the wake of the presidential election. As the facilitator noted, there are as many ways to get involved and take action as there are people.

It was a lively morning. Stories were told. Ideas were shared. And, of course, by the end of the workshop, the walls were covered with Post-It Notes.

As my small group was wrapping things up, one person asked: “How can we maintain this momentum? I would love to see something come of this effort.” We exchanged business cards and made vague promises to follow up. In January, I initiated a group email. One person declined, one never responded, and I had a beer a few weeks later with the fourth member of our group.

And that was that.

From idea to execution
I have participated in dozens of design thinking exercises and brainstorming sessions and, sadly, experiences like the one above are not uncommon.

Today, more than ever, when organizations face wickedly tough challenges, they may turn to a problem-solving technique known as design thinking, or human-centered design.

The process is well-defined and intended as a collaborative exercise. It begins with empathy – seeking out and understanding the needs of your intended audience. Once the challenge is defined, ideas are generated – the more the better. Prototypes are built and tested as the process moves closer and closer to the best solution.

Except when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with the design thinking process, there is often too much thinking and not enough doing. Despite the increase in recognition of design thinking from the press room to the board room, why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise?

Probably because that messy iterative part of the process – after the fast and fun idea generation session is finished – is really hard to do well.

An uphill battle
The most common mistake that leaders make is buying into the notion that a lack of good ideas is restraining an organization’s growth and innovation. Usually, it is the follow-through that is lacking.

Design thinking, like Six Sigma or other common business processes, is reassuring to executives. It offers the promise of a tested methodology – a step-by-step process that leads to a desired outcome.

When a new process is initiated, leaders often assume that the biggest hurdle has been cleared and turn their attention elsewhere. In fact, the toughest challenges remain.

It takes real commitment to fend off resistance when strategy turns to tactics, resources are redirected, and new ideas clash with the status quo. Long after the idea generation stage, it takes highly-determined individuals – with ongoing, explicit engagement at the highest levels – to overcome organizational inertia.

Design thinking is, by definition, iterative and open-ended. In an impatient, results-driven environment, people are tempted to jump at the first plausible solution – and look no further. Most people don’t have the security, authority, or attention span to embrace uncertainty.

What’s more, it’s human nature to seek out the familiar. Studies show that most people are more proficient at completing short-term, immediate tasks – doing what we are told to do – rather than thinking of new ideas and executing them.

Define and clarify the problem
Design thinking isn’t magic. It’s a method for solving problems with the user in mind. When design thinking attracts the attention of business executives, if executed poorly, it runs the risk of undermining rather than reinforcing the value of design.

It’s easy to get excited about new ideas. Two additional techniques familiar to designers might help transform those good ideas into better outcomes.

One way to refocus and test the viability of the discovery – or idea generation – stage of an assignment is to draft a one-page creative brief. This includes:

  • An executive summary that provides the context for the assignment.
  • The purpose of the project – what is the current state and how do you want to change it?
  • A defined target audience – prioritized, if more than one.
  • Specific objectives. What do you need to do to make this project successful? By what measures will this project be considered a success?
  • A timeline. Nothing happens without a deadline.

The creative brief refines and prioritizes project goals and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Think more effectively
Despite the absence of evidence that brainstorming is an effective method for generating more and better ideas, it has become a time-honored technique. Its value may be more about bringing the team together. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of the process.

Design thinking exercises provide a similar value.

Research shows that individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas. Groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Is it possible we have the creative process backward?

Instead of convening to dispatch a pile of Post-It notes at a project’s inception, maybe we would be better off gathering as a group after working independently. This sounds a lot like a critique – a staple of my days in college art and design classes.

In a critique, fellow classmates (or project team members in a business setting), offer constructive evaluation and analysis to push the best ideas forward. This provides more structure to propel an open-ended, iterative process toward a conclusion.

Think and do
Designers are uniquely suited to contribute when there are problems to be solved. They can visualize options as well as analyze and synthesize information. Designers learn how to think that way through practice.

When design thinking is trotted out as a cure-all for the world’s problems, it can undermine the value and contributions of designers. It over-promises and under-delivers.

As Helen Walters, a writer and researcher of innovation, notes: “Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.”

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.

First Contact

photo illustration of flying saucer at night with beam of light shining on single person standing below itMy oldest son is a sophomore in high school. Last fall he took the PSAT – a preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – and scored quite well. As in, 99th percentile well.

Almost instantly, hundreds of colleges are interested in him. The response time is impressive. He gets dozens of emails every day and he’s getting more printed mail than I’m getting bills, so it’s a lot to absorb.

What’s less impressive is the mind-numbing uniformity. More than half the emails he receives appear to be stamped out in a college recruitment factory.

With no photos, logos, or anything compelling or memorable to stand out from the crowd – in the way that his test score does – these colleges invariably open with a compliment on his academic abilities and move on to the offer:

You’ve been selected to receive Backpack Secrets of the Nation’s Top Scholars.

I’d like to give you access to Big Picture: How Your Favorite Movies Can Predict Your College Major.

That’s why I want to give you Best and Brightest: How America’s Top Scholars Choose Their Ideal College.

I’ve chosen you to receive an exclusive guide, Your Best School: How (and Why) to Choose a College on the Rise.

That’s why we want to send you 7 Key Questions: Finding the Right Fit in Your College Search.

Reply now!

As if.

sample of a generic college recruitment email

Sample of a generic college recruitment email

Savvy consumers
My experience is that kids are cynics. They know when they are being sold something. The attempts to “engage” fall flat. Last week, my young scholar reported with bemusement that online ads featuring Derek from [Blank] State University keep popping up in the margins of his web browsing.

It’s the place where Derek began his adventure!

Our apartment together was like a design studio!

Derek designed sneakers in Germany when he studied abroad!

My son’s takeaway: “They want me to think he’s cool, so I could be cool if I go there too.” He’s not buying it.

Be distinct
It’s a hard job marketing colleges to young students. Almost all of those emails are trashed with barely a glance. Almost all of the mail quickly ends up in our recycling bin.

For my focus group of one in this early stage of the recruitment process, what makes an impression to match the gaudy test score? Or at least makes him pause for a second or two?

Good design and good writing.

One email began:

We have learned that you recently suffered the indignity of squandering several hours answering dozens of irritating multiple-choice questions. Sorry about that.

Another had nothing but a giant photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: Peel Here. Of course, he eats about a half dozen clementines per day. Another began with a curious illustration and the opening line: Why can a fly climb on the ceiling, but a human can’t? (See below.)

What are my early impressions of college recruitment marketing? If you really want to attract the best and brightest students, you’re going to have to step up your game. Delivering a generic first impression is a great way to get your young target audience to tune you out.

Photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: "Peel here."Illustration of dark silhouettes walking upside down on the ceiling of a classroom. Today's Lesson: Lord of the Flies is written on the chalkboard

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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.

 

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Strategy falls on deaf ears

Design for action

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Resolutions

Fun Happy New Year card design party bottle making toast and colorful decoration. EPS10 vectorA couple months ago, while cleaning our basement family room, our two teenage boys found a mysterious note tucked in a crevice next to the built-in bookshelves. They excitedly reported that this long-forgotten note, written five years ago as a sort of time capsule, was to be opened in 2017.

At the end of their holiday break and the beginning of a new year, they opened the note. What was on the minds of an eight- and ten-year-old boy in 2012? Mostly gibberish. A drawing of Waldo (now you know where he’s been). Some hieroglyphs whose meaning is lost to history. And a declaration by the older brother that his handwriting was better.

New year, same story
This morning, even at 5:00 a.m., the gym where I work out was a little more crowded than it was just a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly, there are millions of people with fresh resolve to lose weight, save money, and spend more time with friends and family in the new year.

Things will probably be back to normal next month.

Resolutions often end up more like aspirations – the difference between a firm decision and a hopeful one. There’s nothing wrong with hope. In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne wrote a note for his friend to read after leaving prison, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

What improves the odds that our resolutions avoid an untimely death?

Find the time
When pressed to volunteer, add another event to our calendars, or explain away a missed deadline or goal, it’s completely acceptable to offer the well-worn excuse: “I’m sorry. I just don’t have enough time.”

What if, instead, we were compelled to state the real reason?

“Would you like to schedule a lunch meeting for next Tuesday?” “I’m sorry. That’s just not a priority for me right now.” You would be well advised to reply more diplomatically than that, but weighing options based on defined priorities is vital to achieving them.

This is assuming you have priorities. And not a dozen or more. That’s called a to-do list. I’m talking about 3-4 real priorities – the kind of things that, if accomplished, will make your year a great success.

It’s the old rule of 80/20. 80% of your success – however that’s defined – will come from 20% of your efforts. It’s up to you to choose your priorities wisely and then vigorously defend the time necessary to achieve them. Eliminate, ignore, or delegate everything else.

Write it down
Most people grow reflective as the year nears its end. Look back. Look forward. What was successful? What could be improved?

Most people have an annual performance review at work. Sit down with the boss. Look forward. Look back. What was successful? What could be improved? Do I get a pay raise?

Rather than waiting until the end, consider writing next year’s performance review today. It’s like a pre-mortem – or a promise – and similar to the note my children wrote in 2012 (minus the gibberish). Tuck it away for future reference.

The same thing could be done at the beginning of a large project. In fact, one of the standard questions I ask of clients when we begin is: By what measure(s) will this project be considered successful?

What are you prepared to do? The key is to be specific. Writing down “lose weight” is not nearly as effective as “stop drinking soda” or “remove all candy from the house.” Break larger goals into smaller ones to eliminate the pressure of an all-or-nothing mindset, all the while getting more specific and closer to success.

Written resolutions act as your shield against distractions, temptations, and the low-priority (or even counter-productive) things that will inevitably pop up. Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Tell everyone
Life is short. In 2010-11, we decided to home school our kids for a year and travel. The world would be our classroom. It helps that my wife is an elementary school teacher – and we’re both planners. But with big plans, big dreams, it’s really easy to give in to doubts and uncertainty.

As we started planning our adventure, we began telling people about it – not to brag, but to hold ourselves accountable. Most everyone was excited by the idea: “I wish we could do that.” And many people offered helpful suggestions and asked questions we hadn’t considered. It was like having a support team and troubleshooting squad rolled into one.

The point is that once we publicized our intentions, forces came to our aid that would not have had we kept our plans guarded. Deep down, there was another little motivational benefit – avoiding embarrassment: “We told everyone we are going to do this. Now, we really have to figure out how we’re going to do it!”

My priorities
When it comes to my business and professional development, there are a lot of things I want to accomplish in 2017. But everything that would make this a successful year can be boiled down into two priorities.

Be more disciplined with my time.
Say ‘no’ to distractions. Add more structure to the work week (e.g., schedule regular blocks of time without interruptions, build a more robust editorial calendar and new business development plan). Spend more time creating content online than consuming it.

Connect with like-minded people involved in the business of good.
Since 1989, Woychick Design has focused on helping tell stories that move people to action. I have worked with non-profits, educational institutions, and organizations trying to make the world a better place. But complex challenges require more people working together toward a shared outcome, which is why I am reaching out to and collaborating with more people than ever before.

Specifics? Reconnect with my LinkedIn network to activate dormant relationships. Schedule two lunch meetings per month. Attend two professional development events per month. Seek referrals and introductions from existing colleagues. Offer assistance to those seeking my opinion and expertise. Schedule regular weekly hours devoted to this priority.

These priorities will provide the most benefit to my clients and my business. When I look at these resolutions twelve months from now, I expect to see a successful year in my rear-view mirror. I hope you do, too.

Related content:
Resolution Evolution

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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.