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

Save

Save

Save

Save

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

Save

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.

Improvisation by Design

Carefree children having fun on a playground.Recently, I attended a workshop called “Improv for Creatives.” The event was billed as a way to learn and use the techniques of improvisational comedy in professional settings. The ability to negotiate, persuade, and network effectively all benefit from an agile mind and active listening.

To begin, the workshop leader asked, “How many of you have ever done any kind of improv?” Only a few raised hands. He continued, “How many of you ever went to a playground as a kid?” Everyone raised a hand. Anyone who has ever walked up to another kid on a playground and asked “Wanna play?” has participated in a form of improvisation. What follows is not scripted, and requires two (or more) people to collaborate on the spot for a mutual goal.

Truthfully, we are improvising all the time – in conversation, at play, and at work. When was the last time everything went according to plan?

Adjust your heading
A friend of mine was telling me about a weekend trip to a resort on Lake Superior. He spent one morning in a kayak. The tour guide led the group along the shoreline and then out into the lake until the shore was barely visible. He couldn’t see cabins or lighthouses, just distant hills, trees and water.

As they returned to shore, the tour guide couldn’t point them in the direction of the resort. It wasn’t visible. So, he aimed the group between two hills in the general direction of their destination. Every ten minutes or so, the guide would point out a newly visible landmark and the kayakers would adjust their heading until they landed safely back at the resort.

Working on any large project is a similar exercise. In order to move forward, we must improvise by finding intermediate targets when we can’t see the finish line.

Halfway home
In most organizations, there are only a few large-scale, difference-making initiatives undertaken each year. Maybe less. These are the kinds of efforts that have a chance to move the needle, expand impact, and serve as a beacon of success.

A plan is hatched, resources aligned, and steps are taken. After months have passed, progress may stall or assumptions lead you astray. You’ve gone too far to abandon the effort, but it’s not evident what to do next.

Long journeys require resiliency – an ability to take stock and redirect, to focus on the little picture without losing sight of the big picture. Like the kayakers – or an improv comedian – it’s important to pay attention to one’s surroundings, seek guidance to move forward, and adjust as needed to get home.

The destination
When facing uncertainty, what do you aim at? The reason so many good ideas fail to scale is not because the end goal is too ambitious. It’s because the tricky part is often identifying the next step to take, not the final one.

Designers are well-suited to contribute to teams that are tackling tough problems. The design process is inherently iterative, giving designers an advantage in keeping a team on course or pointing them in a fruitful direction. Designers are accustomed to scanning the horizon, evaluating options, developing prototypes, and learning along the way. Successful designers are always improvising.

If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify an intermediate point that represents forward progress. Adjust and repeat. Or, if you need a guide, call a designer.

Save

Panning for Gold

photo of a creek with a gold panners pan in the foreground with dirt and flecks of gold in itIn 1848, James Marshall discovered gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley. As news of the discovery quickly spread, the influx of prospectors and dreamers reshaped the American West, By the end of 1849, the non-native population of California grew from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000.

More than $2 billion worth of precious metals were extracted from the region during the California Gold Rush, yet very few people made any money off the gold itself. Clever entrepreneurs made fortunes selling pick axes, pans, and shovels, as well as blue jeans, secure banks, transportation, and mail delivery.

Get-rich-quick schemes didn’t die on the American frontier, they have only grown more pervasive across the country in the decades that followed.

All that glitters
Marketing folks seem especially prone to chasing the latest trend – most of them driven by the promise that “there’s gold in them thar hills!”

25 years ago there was a rush to build websites for every type of company and organization. Designers asked clients, “What do you want your website to do?”

“I don’t know, but everyone else is building one,” they answered.

While the internet is not a passing fad, untold resources were spent as much to keep up with the Joneses as to meet any business objectives. Was that money well spent?

Same old song, different tune
Remember when digital advertising was going to rule the world? Ultra-targeted audiences. The ability to track results. But as online advertising continues to grow, so do questions. The biggest question involves click fraud. How effective can a campaign be if a client is paying for ads that are never seen?

The next big thing was going to be content marketing. More content exists than ever before, which makes it ever less likely that someone will find your needle in their haystack. “What I really want right now is another piece of content from my favorite brand,” said no consumer ever.

No one cares about your hashtag. People are far more likely to be interested in following the exploits of their favorite celebrities. What do consumers value? It sure as hell isn’t a contrived marketing slogan trying to pass itself off as a “conversation.”

Question everything
We all have biases and make assumptions. As Richard Stacy, a social media consultant wrote:

If you are facing a new problem and you don’t know what to do about it, you will do one of three things: you will either do what everyone else is doing, what some expert tells you to do, or whatever looks like the easiest and cheapest thing to do. Usually these all work out to be the same thing.

The antidote to both the path of expediency and the gold rush mentality is to pause and reflect. Asking the right questions is the best way to expose bad ideas. Questioning a good idea strengthens it.

Necessary assumptions
Scientists use a technique called Occam’s Razor as they develop new theories. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

A necessary assumption is something that is required for an argument to be true. If the assumption is false, then the argument cannot be valid. It stands to reason that the more assumptions one must make, the less likely a theory will survive increased scrutiny.

In the book, How to Kill a Unicorn, author Mark Payne suggests a powerful question to ask when evaluating which ideas have potential and which are simply distractions.

What must be true for that to work?

Reverse brainstorming
After numerous new ideas or solutions are suggested, the best way to focus efforts on the best ones is to conduct a sort of “premortem” by imagining all the ways that your decision could end up in disaster. Looking at it another way:

What must be true for that to work?

Let’s take a real-world example – QR codes. Those little black-and-white boxes were ubiquitous for a while, and then, almost as quickly, seemed to disappear. Were they an idea worth pursuing?

The theory goes something like this: There are hundreds of millions of people with smartphones. Marketing people want to reach them. A QR code provides a quick way for your audience to access information about a product or service. Let’s use QR codes!

What must be true for that to work?

  • Your audience must know what a QR code is.
  • It must be simple and convenient to use.
  • Using it must provide something of value that isn’t easily attainable by other methods.
  • Your audience must want to receive your message.
  • Your audience must know others who have happily and successfully used QR codes.
  • It must work flawlessly, every time.

Did you notice a few unlikely assumptions there?

Gaining foresight
There is often wisdom in being late to the party – or even declining the invitation. Sure, some decisions end up being bad ones in retrospect. But many more can be avoided by being just a little more rigorous in questioning what everyone else is doing. Just ask your mom.

By considering diverse perspectives and summoning a little more empathy for your audience in the decision-making process, you can get a clearer peak into the future.

Just as importantly, this newfound vision will free up time that was spent panning for gold to use on more productive endeavors.

Save

Temptation Nation

The cookie monster looks into the oven while he waits for the cookies to finish bakingIn a windowless room, a child sits at a table staring down a lone marshmallow, his face a mask of concentration. Will he eat it right away? Or be rewarded with two marshmallows for waiting? Studies have shown that those who are able to delay eating the treat generally fared better in life.

Poor Cookie Monster. In a clever new ad for the iPhone 6, the beloved muppet demonstrates the phone’s hands-free, voice command feature while mixing up a batch of cookies. As you can imagine, he’s not very good at waiting.

This intersection between the iconic marshmallow experiment and the smartphone highlights one of the biggest obstacles to success in nonprofit marketing – a lack of self-discipline.

Get your fix
Have you got a lot on your plate today? Who doesn’t?

Check your email. Prioritize your tasks. Make a list. Answer a phone call. Impromptu status update with an office colleague. See what’s happening on Facebook. Get a cup of coffee. Review your to-do list. Text your spouse about picking up the kids after school. Follow a link to a BuzzFeed quiz: Am I more like Hermione or Yoda? Respond to voicemail. Prep for project team meeting. Refresh coffee. Check email again. Break for lunch.

Feeling productive?

It’s not difficult to understand the temptation. Easy and pleasurable distractions provide little doses of dopamine throughout the work day. It makes your brain feel good. Tackling tougher problems requires a different mindset.

Learn willpower
Self-discipline and willpower are often equated with deprivation. In fact, studies have shown a positive correlation between self-discipline and more happiness, more financial security, and better academic performance.

If you would rather go to happy hour than the gym, you’re not doomed. You can learn from the habits of self-disciplined people:

  • Avoid temptation. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, avoid the candy store. It’s better to limit how often you need to use self-control.
  • Get enough sleep. Healthy habits reduce stress and increase resistance to less healthy choices.
  • Break it down. Big goals can be discouraging when progress seems slow. Self-disciplined people understand the importance of setting mini milestones. Jim Hjort, founder of the Right Life Project, says the “perception of velocity toward goals is more important than the distance from those goals.”
  • Follow through. Do what you say you’re going to do – on time. This helps build trust, and colleagues are more likely to come to your aid on the rare occasions when you need it.

What versus why
Full disclosure: I started this blog post about two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’m immune to the daily challenges of getting things done. Procrastination? At times, yes. Distractions? Ever present. Do I have higher priorities? Without a doubt.

When good intentions go astray, it’s often due to a lack of direction. What are the highest priorities? And how does my work fit within that framework?

A mere 7% of employees today fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals.”
– Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Strategy-Focused Organization”

It is easier to concentrate on the most important task if you’re certain what it is. Very few people, on their own, can figure out how their job supports an organization’s strategy.

As the message trickles down from the top of the org chart, people may know what to do, but not understand why they are doing it.

It starts at the top
Leadership is about setting a course – and setting an example. After the strategic plan is released, too often the execution falls flat.

Organizational discipline requires leaders who consistently apply time and resources to top priorities. It also requires an ongoing commitment to provide context for internal audiences:

  • How are we making a difference?
  • How will we expand our impact?
  • What levers are we pulling to increase our effectiveness?

This should be a two-way dialog, not a top-down mandate.

It also helps if leaders are skilled at identifying, hiring, and promoting self-disciplined people. Time spent managing and improving processes is more productive than wrangling those who have difficulty staying on task.

Focused passion
The nonprofit world needs more people who have boundless enthusiasm for solving complex problems. The more disciplined the pursuit of solutions, the bigger the impact will be.

Anyone want a cookie?

Leap of Faith

Photo of a cliff diver doing a backflip into the ocean at sunsetA friend of mine graduated from high school when she was four years old. She wasn’t particularly precocious. In fact, she had lived a similar number of days as our classmates. It’s just that she happened to be born on February 29 – Leap Day – and her birthdays don’t happen as frequently as most. Oh, to be an anomaly!

What can we learn from a Leap Year that applies to design any time of year?

Solving a problem
In Ancient Rome, there wasn’t enough information to make calendars very accurate. Early astronomers began to suspect that the Earth does not orbit the sun in precisely 365 days. Adding one day every four years was a corrective measure that kept the calendar in balance over time.

Many design problems mirror the evolution of our modern-day calendar. At the beginning of a project, a designer may not know enough to offer a better solution. First, we must establish a set of goals and determine what we don’t know. Through acquiring insights and exploring options, we design a way to meet or exceed those goals.

Design is most valuable when it is functional. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Always improving
There are few things more bland than the company newsletter. At one time, there was a reason for it to exist. But in most cases, people have long since stopped asking why it is needed or what might be a more effective way to share bad snapshots from company picnics.

Designers never stop asking questions. Is this necessary? Is it effective? What if we try …? Why do they …? To avoid just going through the motions, it’s critical to build in time to refine and improve designs.

The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose that the earth orbits the sun. Julius Caesar popularized a calendar with 365 days and 12 months, with a leap day added every four years. 15 centuries later, Copernicus produced a mathematical model of our solar system. By 1582, Pope Gregory’s revision of the Julian calendar began to be recognized as even more accurate.

These days, deadlines are measured in days, not decades, but a successful design process is an iterative one.

Getting noticed
The most powerful use of design occurs when a company uses it to separate itself, its products, and its services from the competition. This is only possible because there is so little good design out there or conversely, so much that is bad or mediocre. Isn’t it ironic that if the general level of design were better, this powerful strategy wouldn’t work?

The previous paragraph was written almost 30 years ago by the legendary designer, Saul Bass. It remains true today.

The Leap Year is a curiosity, an outlier. It wasn’t created for strategic advantage, but it does get noticed. In addition to serving a functional purpose, good design stands out. In an undifferentiated market, that’s incredibly valuable.

Making the case
Ask a designer, and there is no doubt about the value of good design. It’s a self-evident truth. Others are less willing to take that leap of faith.

Galileo was branded a heretic by the church. For centuries, his scientific discoveries were rejected. Likewise, designers must justify their costs and efficacy to leaders who seem to take their cue from H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies that champion the power of design. And more consumers are interested in choosing products and services that solve problems, make life easier, continue to innovate, and stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design.

Related content:
Why is the extra day added in February?

Designing Experiences

Blurred people walking in front of SALE window displayTwo weeks before Thanksgiving we confirmed the guest list. We would be providing a feast for 14 people. Suddenly, the dining room chairs looked a little shabby.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we drove to the fabric store to purchase materials for reupholstering our chairs. The aisles were cramped with bolts of fabric stuffed in bins and spilling off shelves. There was little rhyme or reason to the store displays. An impatient crowd gathered around the cutting table, trying to win the attention of a harried store clerk.

Despite this, we pressed on, crisscrossing the store until most of our supplies were found. We made our way to the front of the checkout line though a gauntlet of candy, toys, and other irrelevant merchandise.

“How much is this batting?” asked the woman behind the counter. “I was hoping you could tell us. It was in the scraps bin, but it wasn’t marked.” She replied, “You will have to take it to the cutting table to be measured.” Helpfully, I offered, “I’ve got a tape measure. I can measure it for you.” “No. They have to do it.” We left the cart at the cash register.

What is design?
Opportunities for design are all around us. In the preceding anecdote, there are easily a half dozen instances in which better design would improve the customer’s experience at relatively minimal cost. By design, am I referring to logistics? Store environment? Customer service? Yes, all of the above.

At its core, I believe design is about making things better. This can happen in a variety of ways, most of which have nothing to do with a company’s logo or tagline. The guiding principals of good design include empathy, curiosity, and intelligence.

Empathy is vital to developing a keen understanding of the audience, recognizing opportunities for improvement, and adapting to unpredictable environments. Curiosity includes a tendency to challenge accepted wisdom, take risks, and explore new uses for materials and technology. Intelligence helps us navigate complexity, consider multiple options faster, and turn creative ideas into concrete solutions.

Design is a two-sided coin. The best ideas must meet customers’ needs while also serving an organization’s interests. The two don’t exist in isolation. To design better, we need to clarify problems, dig deeper, and collaborate with a broader cross section of people on both sides of that coin.

Design is a process, not a product
People familiar with the term “user experience” – or UX – design commonly associate it with website or app development. It really could apply to any product or service.

The design process is a virtuous circle of observation, creation, and adaptation. Observation involves identifying users and understanding their goals and motivations. We translate our research into themes and opportunities and create prototypes for testing. Finally, we collect feedback and measure results to make improvements.

UX – or human-centered – design considers everything that affects a user’s interaction with a product or service. It is as concerned with how things work as with how they look. It is about making what you do more useful, usable and desirable for your users, and more efficient, effective, and valuable for you. A host of organizational problems would benefit from this approach.

Design is marginalized when it is seen as a series of isolated projects – an invitation to an event, a logo, a website. By the time a designer is usually consulted on projects like these, the opportunity to make a significant impact is minimal. Designers make their most valuable contributions when thinking and working systemically.

Multidisciplinary teams
The most urgent problems tend to be large and intractable. To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that created these problems is unlikely to solve them.

Divergent thinking is a method used to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Designers happen to be very good at this. The method is enhanced by bringing different disciplines together – people with different perspectives. Together, they are able to gain insights and recognize patterns of behavior that would be difficult to obtain working independently.

This synthesis – an ability to see things not readily apparent to others – enables multidisciplinary teams to design better experiences, products, and services.

Investing in design
Design is an integrative discipline. The fastest growing companies align their business and design strategies. It is powerful when employed to solve complex problems in collaboration with leaders throughout an organization. Absent a deep belief in its value, however, design becomes a relatively inconsequential tactic.

So, rather than chasing the next viral hashtag, or obsessing over the headline kerning on a sales flyer, smart companies take the advice of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian:

Give your customers excellent products, excellent service, and excellent value. Then let them do your social media work for you. They’re a lot less expensive than social media experts and a lot more reliable.

Investing in your customers’ experience means taking advantage of a designer’s most valuable skills. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need better advertising, they need to be designed better.”

Related content:

Designing Services that Deliver
Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence

Data Visualization

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to the outer regions and the words "You Are Here"Big Data has a tendency to make us feel very small. The digital universe is large and getting larger, doubling in size every two years. All those numbers taken from everyday life have changed the way we live, as companies use algorithms to offer customized services and experiences that were once unimaginable.

This newfound power to recognize and predict patterns in human behavior presents opportunities and challenges. We have access to more information than ever before, but can we make sense of it?

Math for dummies
Mathematics plays a vital role in our quest to understand the world we live in.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo

Unfortunately, most of us only read words and pictures. We like stories.

The rapid growth of available data has been matched by a similar growth in attempts to translate math into a language we understand. Complex subjects are summarized by making the math visual. Behold, the rise of the infographic!

Problems without solutions
The popularity of infographics as a way to quickly educate an audience hides one very inconvenient truth – they are incredibly difficult to do well. Unlike a mathematical formula, you can’t just plug in some numbers and produce an answer.

Charts, diagrams, and illustrations all have the power to convey vast amounts of information. If a graphic doesn’t bring clarity to the chaos, your reader must decide whether or not to spend time digesting it. (Hint: They won’t.) If it’s as easy to digest as a Twinkie – and just as nutritious – you’ve missed the opportunity to enlighten.

Short stories
The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention. Designers are up against it when attempting to quickly display loads of dense information in a single, compelling graphic. One must understand both the audience and the story you want to tell them. Do they have two hours, two minutes, or two seconds to get your point?

Under the direction of the most skilled practitioners, a great data visualization has a clear narrative. It provides context in both logical and unexpected ways and leaves the audience richer for the experience. Such a deft touch is uncommon.

Far more common is the jumbled collection of anecdotes, arrows, and armies of gender-neutral figures against a backdrop of colorful, oversized numbers. The infographic is supposed to say something, but seems designed to distract.

It’s as if someone took random pages from a handful of sources, stapled them together, and called it a story.

Distilled insight
A primary goal of data visualization is to make information more accessible, understandable, and usable. Though the amount of information is increasing by the day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise.

No matter how much data exists, correlations and insights do not magically appear by themselves. Data is only as useful as the people interpreting it.

An abundance of information requires inquiry and analysis to extract meaning. An ability to edit is more important than the choice of bar graphs or pie charts. Designers have the skills to help determine what is necessary and what is not. The trick is in bravely drawing and defending that line.

Big outcomes
Modern life is enriched by data in countless ways. However, there is a shortage of people who can both tame the data and tell you what to do with it. Data visualization is one way to bring focus to what’s important and prompt behavior change.

Before you jump on the infographic bandwagon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my information suited to an infographic?
    Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Choose the best method to clearly communicate your message, not the trendiest.
  • Am I trying to do too much?
    It’s your job to deliver the needle in the haystack, not just scatter the hay. The most common pitfall of the infographic is including everything. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • What is the story?
    Focus on the idea, not the numbers, and your design choices should become much clearer.
  • What is the desired response?
    Life is not theoretical. Any data visualization is only as valuable as its ability to prompt thought and action.

To paraphrase the ancient mariner, there is data, data everywhere, yet scarcely a drop to drink. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Related content:

How a Civil War Vet Invented the American Infographic

Spurious Correlations

Clarity vs Memorability: Which is More Important to Data Visualization?