Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Meet the Team: Julie Monson

Colorful overlapping speech bubbles

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the third in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

Julie Monson is a market researcher and strategic planner with more than 25 years of experience guiding the development of communication strategies, brand positioning, and message development for agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. From candid qualitative chats to rigorous quantitative inquiries, she tackle assignments that help teams understand what makes their users tick. Inevitably, these insights inspire intelligent strategies, grow businesses, and solve thorny problems.

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Photo of Julie MonsonI think most careers don’t neatly fit into the imaginations of young minds. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I can still picture my 7th grade paper on this subject – decorated to the hilt with colorful fabric swatches given my aspiration was Interior Design. There was something about playing with art and color that fascinated me. I think my teen-aged self figured I could dabble in the creative even though I couldn’t actually draw or paint well at all.

What did you study in college?

I attended a liberal arts college the first two years, and loved my psych, sociology, philosophy, and religion classes the most. But I was pretty sure I wanted a well-rounded business degree rather than the heavy-handed economics program being served up – so I made a move to the Carlson School to wrap up the final two years of undergrad. It wasn’t until the final quarter of my senior year that I took a class in marketing research – and finally had a glimpse of the work I wanted to pursue.

And what was your first job after graduation?

My first job after graduation was really a cobbled-together series of internships on the research vendor side. Ultimately, those experiences set me up well for the entry-level consumer insights role I landed, and loved, at Land O’Lakes.

How did those experiences point you toward what you’re doing now?

Midstream, I didn’t realize I was heading toward a freelance consulting role. I went from vendor to corporate to ad agency, which isn’t a typical path. But regardless of the framework, I was always responsible for bringing target audience insights to bear on business decision-making. Experiencing the role from each of those unique vantage points, in turn, made it easier than I ever imagined to relate to the various clients I would serve as a consultant – because I had walked in many of their shoes.

Was there an “aha” moment when you thought “This is what I want to do!”

When I was an agency account planner, I had toddlers and a spouse who traveled as extensively as I did, and I figured there had to be a better way to do meaningful work and still keep all the balls in the air. The ‘aha’ was realizing it was actually possible. It made me feel like somehow I’d beat the system.

On top of that, consumer insights is a blast. I’m forever having interesting conversations with ordinary and extraordinary humans, about ordinary and extraordinary stuff. Honestly, it’s the stuff that life is made of.

What do like best about working independently?

It’s not just how and when I work, though admittedly that’s a pretty nice perk. Working independently gives me the freedom to dig deep for answers, take tangents where it makes sense, examine what I really believe and come to my own conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong – collaborating always brings energy and perspective to the work I do, and I relish the opportunity to learn from smart people whenever I can. But the thing I most value about working independently is taking a deep breath and rising to the challenge when there’s no one else to turn to. It’s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s affirming, all at once.

From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?

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My goal is to coax out simple human truths as naturally as I can – so job one is to gain participants’ trust. Some of that comes through experience and skill, but being empathetic, curious, and genuinely interested in what participants offer leads to meaningful insights for clients.

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How about from the perspective of a research participant?

Participants tell me all the time that they’re surprised how much fun they’ve had. At the heart of it, people want to matter, and it starts with being heard and understood. They spark to someone who really listens, and cares enough to find out what’s in their heads and hearts – and why.

What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?

It might be that if you’re doing it well, it looks like a walk in the park. It’s just conversation, right? Below the surface, a great facilitator is marching double-time to make discovery feel so natural for participants that they’re not aware there’s a jam-packed agenda, and a prescribed time in which to address the client’s needs.

How has the pandemic changed how you do your job?

The most obvious change is the way the pandemic accelerated research technologies that were already in place. Online interviews and focus groups have been around for years – but many facilitators, myself included, believe there’s no replacement for the in-person dynamic to really build rapport.

We all did enough Zoom happy hours in 2020 to know that socially, online is just not the same. But consumers are used to it now, and obviously it’s pretty convenient to conduct sessions across time zones and geographies.

Do you think those changes will remain when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror?

No question, remote research methodologies are here to stay, for cost and efficiency reasons – which matters a lot. But many clients say that what’s missing is the level of team collaboration and focus they felt when on-site or in context with participants. Some clients say that things feel less personal and less real from a distance.

The pendulum will swing back some, and we’ll surely be doing more in-person work in the future. The good news is that for organizations who never considered it previously, online research was effectively legitimized through the pandemic, and technologies were improved to meet demand. Online will remain a fantastic option, even as ethnographic, in-context, and facility-based work are buoyed by the recovery.

How May people contact you?

[email protected]  |  651-247-6888  |  LinkedIn

Answering Big Questions

Red and white nametag – Hello my success is …

My son recently celebrated his 18th birthday. With his high school graduation coming up just around the corner, he is now considered a legal adult.

When you turn 18, everyone wants to know what’s next, as if this milestone birthday imparts wisdom previously beyond your grasp. For someone who has already lived a lifetime or two, the possibilities for a newly-minted adult can seem limitless compared to their own.

But how do you answer that question: What’s next?

Surely, they don’t want to know your plans for the next few days or even weeks. We’re talking big picture. Where will you be in the fall? Will you be taking the on-ramp to the traditional, societally-approved conveyor belt to success?

Seek a better definition

About ten years ago, we worked with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) on a branding and student recruitment campaign.

Located in the fastest growing region of the state and bordering a major metropolitan area, UWRF was little known outside of its tightly-knit campus community. Our charge was to develop a research-based integrated marketing campaign that gave students clear reasons to choose the school.

We live in a society where kids (and parents) are obsessed with the status of early achievement, getting into the “best” colleges, and landing an amazing job at a well-known company.

What we discovered at UWRF was a university that produced great teachers, scientists, business owners, police officers, and nurses – the salt-of-the-earth neighbors and community leaders that make a region flourish. While the academic profile of its students was every bit the equal of more highly-touted schools in the Twin Cities, River Falls was a great fit for those content to define success on their own terms.

Be willing to dream

One of the first questions I ask a client as we embark on a new project is: “What does success look like? How will we know when we have been successful?” Until one has the audacity to describe a desired future state, there is no way to aim yourself in that direction.

Surprisingly, people often have a hard time answering the question. We usually have to circle the prey from different angles, sometimes over the course of a few meetings to get to a useful description.

Why is it so hard to imagine a successful outcome? If everything was going great, there’s no reason for us to be meeting. I think it’s because the idea of “success” seems so big that it’s hard to wrap one’s arms around. And the safest answer is to describe something completely uninspiring – do what everyone else is doing.

Also, in my experience, when people are asked to define success, they are more likely to think of tactics than strategy. Make a prescription before the diagnosis. First, we need to understand the gap between the way things are and the way you would like them to be.

One of my favorite conversation starters: Let’s say we’re having a beer three years from now and you’re really happy with the way things are going at your business. What has happened in the last three years to make you so happy?

Make your own measure

A common mistake is trying to measure up to someone else’s expectations. The things that make us different – those are our superpowers. Your path and timeline to success should not – and likely will not – look the same as anyone else. And it won’t be a straight line.

Most of what I know, I’ve learned by falling and getting back up. The ground has taught me more about flight than clouds ever could. – Rudy Francisco

I told my 18-year-old that being a parent is an ongoing lesson in falling and getting back up. You do the best you can, get over yourself, and try again.

Whether you’re choosing a college, seeking your fame and fortune, or redesigning a website, it’s best to approach conventional wisdom with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t ever blindly accept what the world is telling or selling you.

And when you’re asked to describe what success looks like, give yourself the time and space for that answer to evolve. Then get back up and try again.

Meet the Team: Scott Streble

Photographer Scott Streble showing an elderly couple their portrait on a digital camera

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the second in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

Scott Streble is a Minneapolis-based location photographer who is best known for his documentary photographs of people. He portrays his subjects with beautiful realism, honesty, and utmost dignity. Regardless of budget, Scott believes that all nonprofit groups deserve good photography that accurately portrays their mission

Scott travels light, adapts to any location, and quickly gets his subjects to feel at ease. Those are among the reasons why he always delivers more great photos than I can ever use.

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What are your earliest memories of being interested in photography?

In sixth grade, the librarian of my middle school had an extra-curricular class in photography. Seeing the print “appear” in the developer in the darkroom was magical. I learned the darkroom side before the photography.

In high school, I became the yearbook photographer and took the school’s camera everywhere. I shot at least one roll of film per day, which I am sure far exceeded the yearbook’s budget, but the advisor saw my enthusiasm and let me go. I think he may even have paid for some of the film himself.

While in high school, I worked at a portrait studio in their darkroom making black-and-white prints. I also worked in the public library in the department that housed all the photo books, a constant source of inspiration. My co-workers at both jobs were very encouraging and supportive.

Do you remember your first camera? What was it that interested you about shooting photos?

It was a Canon TX, an all manual base-level camera. I carried it everywhere. I bought it used, and added a telephoto lens about a year later. Being a photographer put you in the front row of life, which was exciting.

Was the idea of being a photographer (as a career) something you imagined early on? Or did you consider it more of a hobby or a pipe dream?

I knew in high school I wanted to be a photographer, although I was concerned about the viability of it as a career choice. My parents encouraged me to do what I wanted, which was a big help. I kept at it and didn’t waiver.

How did you get started? What was your first paid photo shoot?

I studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I was there two years, got an associate’s degree, ran out of money, and wanted to work.

I got a job as an assistant at a large commercial photography studio in Appleton, Wisconsin. It was a great first job as I was exposed to all sorts of photography (fashion, still life, corporate, food, architecture) as well as many different photographers and their individual styles.

My first paid photo shoot was for a local tattoo salon. It was a shot of a girl, covered in tattoos, of course. They put the image on their business card.

When did you begin working independently?

About two years later, I moved to Los Angeles as I wanted to live in a large city in a warm climate. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer (haha) and began assisting fashion shooters. I quickly learned that I didn’t want to do that. Being in LA, I also did a lot of work with photographers who were shooting album covers and movie posters. I learned a lot and it was really fun.

At the same time, I was shooting weddings, which I really loved. I shot them in a documentary style, using mostly black and white, which was a new thing back then. I got very busy, shooting about 60 weddings/year. Shooting weddings required a sense of calm and the ability to work quickly within a wide range of lighting situations. You also had to work with a wide range of personalities and family dynamics, which can be extreme on a wedding day. I use all of these skills with my current work.

The focus of your work today is shooting for nonprofits and good causes. Why is that important to you?

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When I realized that photography could be used to help people, I felt like I found my purpose. By showing both the need for help, and the benefit of the services that my clients provide, I can shine a light on the situation. People need to see. I feel fortunate to have a career and a skill set where I can do this work. It’s an honor to have clients who trust me to show the good work that they are doing.

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You are always working on one or more personal projects. How does that work shape what you do professionally? What are you working on now?

The personal projects are a nice departure from my assignment work. I still meet interesting people doing interesting things. I can stretch out my technique and try new stuff, then use these things with my assignment work.

I am working with family farms and taking portraits of drag queens. I’ve also covered the civil unrest and protests after George Floyd and Daunte Wright were killed by police.

During the earlier stages of the pandemic, I embarked on a series of portraits of families and individuals on their front porches, which culminated in a self-published book – Front Porch Portraits.

How may people contact you?

612-333-1400 | [email protected] | Instagram | Facebook

Meet the Team: John Visser

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the first in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

John Visser is an experienced web developer known for being a reliable, approachable professional, and a tenacious problem solver. He has a keen interest in how people use web technologies, and has created digital solutions for small and mid-sized businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

John bridges the gap between thinking like a designer, a developer, and a client, which makes him a pleasure to work with. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

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Photo of John Visser, web developer at John Visser Website SolutionsYou graduated college with a degree in Developmental Psychology. How did you end up building websites?

I’ve had a life-long interest in computers, starting back to when I was 10 and attended programming classes at the local Radio Shack in Seattle. I took a break as a teenager when I discovered music and girls, but then while at college I started hearing about this “World Wide Web” and something stirred inside me. This was 1994, so it was very much in its infancy, but I saw the potential. While finishing college I taught myself HTML, Perl, Photoshop, and other tools of the trade, making several websites just as a hobby.

Do you remember any of your earliest websites?

My “15 minutes of fame” came when I created the very first website about British author C. S. Lewis, which gained quite a following, won several of those early web awards, and drew the attention of HarperCollins Publishers— who gave me my very first paid project as a web developer in 1995.

Does any of your psychology education apply to the work you’re doing today?

Any time you work with people, you’re dealing with human behavior. Whether you’re building trust with a new client, discussing the details of a project, or resolving client concerns, the ability to recognize a personality type is helpful when preparing an approach.

How long have you been working independently?

I’ve been self-employed since 2000. My employer wanted me to move to Utah, which simply wasn’t an option, so they let me go. After discussing it with my family, it was decided that we’d take our child out of daycare and I’d be a stay-at-home dad. I took on projects to work on at night, slowly learning the ropes of being a business owner and building a reputation.

Side note: the 4 years I spent as a stay-at-home dad were some of the best years of my life.

As you know, working “independently” means working collaboratively. What makes for a good website-building team?

Communication. I’ve worked with all sorts of folks of varying skill levels and personalities, and without clear communication of objectives, scope, and timeline, a project can go pear-shaped very quickly. A sense of humor helps quite a bit as well.

From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?

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I guess you can say that I have a knack for breaking down concepts into digestible pieces, and am able to explain technical things in a way that others can understand. I don’t like leaving clients in the dark — I’m all about educating them and presenting solutions in a way that empowers them so they’re feeling confident during the decision-making process.

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What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?

It’s sometimes difficult for folks to understand exactly what I do, since so much of the work is quietly hiding behind a website’s design. And honestly, that’s okay. The design presents the message, and people aren’t really supposed to consider the rest of it — a website should just work. The pages should load quickly, the links should all go where intended, it should look good on all devices, and you shouldn’t get an error when filling out the contact form or making a purchase. It’s only when that isn’t the case that you’re left contemplating whose fault it is.

Do you only work in WordPress? What is it you like about that platform?

WordPress is the only content management system I work with, but I also can build websites without a CMS. I like WordPress because it’s search-engine friendly, adaptable, customizable, and takes a sizable bite out of the nitty gritty when needing robust features like e-commerce. It also makes it really easy for a client to update the content on their website without needing to know any code.

How has the pandemic changed you – or what you do for a living?

As work slowed down a bit for me, it provided an opportunity for me to focus a little more on putting together a WordPress maintenance package for my clients. It’s been well-received, too, since it takes a lot of the daily/weekly/monthly headaches away from them as I take care of all the routine backups, software updates, and optimizations.

What is something you miss that surprises you?

I miss the in-person interactions with clients and collaborators. I used to do a lot of one-on-one networking at local coffee shops. The first year I moved to Minnesota I met with over 120 people in order to get my name out. Not too shabby for an introvert.

I know you love music, play the ukulele, and sing. Do you find any similarities between what you enjoy about music and developing websites?

No, I find them almost polar opposites. Web development doesn’t really allow for a creative outlet, and music is all about expression. Music is free-flowing, which I find relaxing, as opposed to having to mind the strict syntax of code, which can really wind you up tight sometimes if you don’t have some kind of “yin to the yang,” so to speak.

How may people contact you?

Website   |   Twitter   |   [email protected]   |   612 . 787 . 2065

Lessons in Brand Improvisation

Roy Hargrove at Aalener, Germany Jazz Fest. Wikimedia Commons.

At the conclusion of an assignment to revitalize a client’s brand, I will often deliver a set of guidelines. Brand guides serve as a reference – a map – to help internal staff maintain the consistency and integrity of all marketing and communications.

In addition to documenting the various logo configurations, colors, and typography, there is usually a section that highlights what not to do. It simultaneously illustrates and warns against the most common pitfalls of the do-it-yourselfer, while also serving as a plea from the designer: “Please don’t f*** up all our hard work!”

Setting and maintaining standards is a good idea. They serve as a valuable foundation and establish a level of expectation: “Our marketing should always be this good.”

But, as my mom used to say: “Always is a long time.”

Setting the floor

If brand implementation receives ongoing support and attention – with an organization’s leaders making it a clear priority – then brand guidelines can help extend and elevate this work. The quality and consistency should improve immediately, and remain a cut above with careful cultivation.

Similarly, the growth and popularity of easy-to-use website templates points to the desire to make a good impression online. Why reinvent the wheel when I can just choose from a limited menu of options and build something that works?

In essence, both brand guidelines and off-the-shelf websites ensure a level of professional competence. They set the floor.

The best-laid plans

Be prepared, the Cub Scout motto implores. There is wisdom in planning for success.

I was thinking about the value of planning last week as I listened to Cautionary Tales, a podcast that tells true stories about mistakes and what we should learn from them. One episode focuses on the art of public speaking, contrasting the preparation and performance of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gerald Ratner, a successful British businessman.

King was known for his meticulous preparation and practice, refining his sermons for hours before preaching from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. And yet, at the March on Washington, Dr. King abandoned his prepared remarks and improvised the words that became famous – his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Ratner, who turned a small retailer into a multimillion-dollar business, sunk his entire empire with his off-the-cuff remarks as a guest speaker in front of an audience of colleagues and journalists.

So the fateful question is: When should you stick to the script, and when should you improvise?

Reading the room

Martin Luther King was well-prepared on that day in 1963, but as he began to speak he could feel that the words were not meeting the moment. He felt his audience needed something more, and he deviated from his script.

Gerald Ratner, who came from a working class background, was considered something of an outsider by those in his audience. He was well-prepared as well, but tried to ingratiate himself to his high-powered audience by making jokes at his low-brow customers’ expense.

The first lesson of improvising is understanding the audience – from its engagement, response, and other contextual clues. Can you read the room, the thinking, and the mood of those for whom – and with whom – you are playing?

Miles Davis once explained his approach to jazz improv as creating the “freedom and space to hear things.” That phrase is instructive. It’s about listening to what the other instruments are doing, and how the audience is responding in the moment – as in a conversation.

Raising the ceiling

Maybe a high-floor, low-ceiling brand execution is the best you can hope to sustain. You could do much worse (and many do). Guidelines provide the solid foundation for a brand, and you really need to understand the rules before you can break them.

In order to soar beyond the ordinary, take some advice from Miles Davis:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

Sheet music is like the guidelines for a song. It allows others to understand what notes are used in what order and at what tempo. But it’s a starting point.

The best brands allow for interpretation – variations on a theme. No one wants to hear a one-note song. Guidelines establish parameters, but also provide brand managers the tools and room to play, which extends the life and success of the brand.

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

Like getting a new haircut or rearranging the furniture in your home, a brand launch provides a jolt of energy. Even if you love it immediately, it will become more refined and more comfortable as you live with it. Building brand equity – and the skills to manage a brand – takes time. Consider both a work in progress.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Nobody is perfect and, thankfully, few mistakes are fatal. If you give yourself permission to make lots of small bets, to try new things, you and your brand will continue to grow.

Experience and practice helps create the space to hear and see opportunities – to engage your audience, to pivot as needed, to evolve and try new things. If you want a brand that really swings, keep improvising.

Time is On Your Side

Collection of vintage rusty watches and parts on a brown old rusted background

In the 1950s, Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, first urged advertisers and designers to embrace the idea of planned obsolescence by “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

And while critics may complain about product quality, the perpetually discontented consumer has enthusiastically supported the practice, racking up debt and producing waste at an alarming rate. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is alive and well.

Fast forward 60+ years, and it should come as no surprise that the desire for newer, faster, and better extends beyond the products we buy to our every waking moment.

One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. Time is always slipping away – you will never get back the 40 seconds it took to read this far – and the competition for our attention has never been more fierce.

Built to last?

Gerry McGovern, an advocate for designing simpler digital experiences, started a discussion on Twitter by observing:

In all the web design meetings I’ve been in over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say: “How do we design this to last.” It’s just assumed there will be a redesign every 2-3 years. Why? Why is that assumed?

I can confirm that there is very little I have been asked to design that doesn’t have a relatively short expected lifespan, whether it be in print or online.

But the need to constantly feed social media channels has created a relatively new commodity – digital content – that frantically attempts to captivate short attention spans. McGovern again:

If there’s one thing digital has done, it is to explode the creation and production of digital stuff. It requires herculean efforts to focus on quality in a digital environment because digital tools are so relentlessly focused on quantity. Digital feeds and accelerates a culture of waste.

Rewiring – or overwhelming – our brains

Most people would acknowledge that the constant barrage of messages and stimulation has shortened attention spans, decreased patience, and undermined our ability to focus.

Some scientists believe human brains will adapt. But true multitasking – at least with the brains we’ve got – is a myth. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else. If you think you are multitasking, you are actually just switching rapidly between tasks. The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at the same time.

OK – so marketing may not require high-level brain function – but the point is that there are those who see consumers’ very limited attention as something both valuable and disposable. You didn’t respond to this image? How about this one? Or this one?

Keep it coming until something sticks.

Quantity over quality

In a digital environment that is almost entirely focused on quantity, many experts will insist that “if you want to do it right” you must join the arms race to capture your audience’s attention. More! More! More!

If you have the staff resources to play that game, by all means, be my guest. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. For most mission-driven organizations, with staff stretched thin, this game is going to feel more like a hamster running on a wheel – a lot of exercise without getting anywhere.

Howard Rheingold, an influential writer and thinker on social media, points out that more mindful use of digital media means thinking about what we are doing, “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

And that applies both to consumption – and creation – of digital design.

The long game

Taking a more mindful, zen-like approach to your marketing and design is not a call to surrender, but to re-evaluate the day-to-day tactics you are engaged in now. Is that itch to “do something” a response to your audience and what they need or want from you? Or is that your own short attention span calling?

There is no quick fix. Setting aside the flashy launch, branding is all about building equity over time. It requires the discipline to exceed expectations – again and again. That’s how you shape perceptions, build trust, and increase engagement.

Let the calm confidence of doing less, but more meaningful, work wash over you, grasshopper. You will capture more attention, and create more value, by altering your time frame – and produce less disposable design in the process.

Demolition Day

Photo of a wrecking ball crashing through a brick wall

About ten years ago, we remodeled the kitchen in our home. The upgrade created a better floor plan, more storage, more natural light, and another space to eat or do homework. In order to keep costs under control, we agreed to take on some of the work ourselves.

The first order of business was to demolish the old kitchen. Cue the sledgehammers! It was kind of fun for a day or two, but I wouldn’t want to do demo work all the time. We were most definitely the “unskilled labor” in that equation.

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

Sometimes we need to let go of the past to move forward. Sometimes maintaining the status quo is an untenable position. And sometimes we are dragged kicking and screaming against our will to a new reality.

Because demolition is a necessary but blunt instrument, transitions can be painful as they push us beyond our comfort zones. Uncertainty replaces the familiar. One thing I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years is that we are always in a state of transition. It’s just that sometimes we are more acutely aware of the sands shifting around us.

Ready. Fire. Aim.

There is a certain swashbuckling ethos that defines the titans of Silicon Valley, neatly summarized in Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to his Facebook developers: “Move fast and break things.”

This guiding principle – the need to experiment and make mistakes as the fastest way to learn and move forward – is widely accepted as a creative necessity.

But it can also blind companies (and individuals) to the unintended consequences of their destruction if no one is asking: “Is what we are creating good for customers? Is it good for society? Or is it only good for us?”

Who owns your personal data?

Over the past few weeks, Facebook has been very publicly at odds with Apple over its new privacy tool, which lets you choose which apps can see and share your data.

Facebook contends that Apple’s new policy will change the internet for the worse, reducing the availability of “high-quality free content.” If adopted widely, it also dramatically alters Facebook’s ability to make money off its users’ data.

As most savvy consumers should know by now – if the product is free, then you are the product. And most people seem to be fine with that … most of the time.

In a recent speech marking International Data Privacy Day, Apple CEO Tim Cook said:

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it, and we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”

“If a business is built on misleading users on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

While large companies debate business models, the rest of us are left with a broken system.

An opportunity to fix things

As the global pandemic unfolds in America, it has revealed a number of dysfunctional systems in stark relief. From emergency preparedness, to health care access, fragmented and biased media, to racial inequality – we are a long way from a more equitable and perfect union.

We can no longer pretend that the “move fast and break things” model comes without a cost.

While it’s easier to tear things down than to build them up, this moment represents an opportunity to regroup and start building a better future.

Imagining a post-pandemic world

So what does all this have to do with design and marketing for mission-driven organizations? I can see at least three potential ways that this could (or should) affect your point of view and plans going forward:

  • What will digital marketing look like in a few years? If a majority of people choose to control their personal data, then the ability to target and reach customers online becomes much more difficult – and more expensive. How might you earn your customers’ trust – and permission to engage them – in a way that’s mutually beneficial?
  • The practice of human-centered design should continue to grow. Human-centered design is a creative approach to solving complex problems. It involves investigation, conversations, prototypes, and an iterative process to develop empathy with the people you are designing for – to create better long-term solutions.
  • Related to the previous point, but deserving its own focus, we need to include and work with more people who don’t look like us, people who come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Whether it’s been intentional or not, subtle or overt, too many people have been excluded from creating a more just and equitable world.

It’s unlikely that the pace of change will slow. Things are going to get broken. You can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs, as they say. But what can change is our willingness and diligence to consider the consequences – to acknowledge and mitigate the destruction as we create new systems that serve all of us.

Misplaced Certainty

Illustration of a school of fish – all swimming in one direction except for one of themAs a designer, in proposals or in conversation, I have often told potential clients that the most valuable thing I provide is not the logo, or the website, or any other designed artifact or experience. The most valuable thing I provide is the confidence to move forward.

Not knowing which option of many is the one to pursue, the one that will produce the desired goals, can be debilitating. It leads to uncertainty, if not inertia.

Meet David Starr Jordan.

Jordan, a taxonomist who catalogued thousands of fish species in the late 1800s, is the central figure in Lulu Miller’s book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.

The book’s central theme is humanity’s often heartbreaking effort to keep chaos at bay. Miller’s fascination with Jordan’s story is in no small part due to his ability to repeatedly bounce back from devastating personal setbacks – the death of his wife, his brother, and a child, as well as the destruction of his collection of specimens (twice).

The scholar seemed to possess a “shield of optimism” that protected him from the doubts that crippled lesser men. This confidence – his middle name was self-anointed – told him that the only way out is through, as they say.

Jordan came of age in a scientific world reshaped by the work of Charles Darwin. The natural world was no longer considered fixed and unchanging. But while the taxonomist embraced the idea of evolving species, he remained quite certain that the world was still governed by hierarchy. Some creatures were better than others.

I encourage you to read the book to discover where that story leads.

Embracing curiosity over certainty

For me, one of the key takeaways of the book was this: Don’t be so certain of what you think you know.

The world is changing rapidly around us. Experiencing cognitive dissonance – the mental discomfort that results from holding conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes – has become more frequent and jarring. When that happens, we are forced to weigh the social costs of changing our minds, or our interpretation of events, against the comfort of shaping narratives to fit long-held perceptions.

I would argue there’s never been a better time to put aside what you think you know, and ask better questions as a means of solving problems. It’s an invitation to find beauty in uncertainty – and curiosity – if not chaos.

Start at the beginning

Zen Buddhists find joy through the practice of seeing life with a beginner’s mind. They strive to drop expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and see things with fresh eyes, just like a beginner. Some might call this intellectual humility.

All too often we think more like an expert. I know the answer! Or, at least I know where to look it up. This has all been figured out already. Nothing to see here.

The problem with this kind of certainty – with assuming we know more than we do – is that it prevents us from asking better questions to get better answers. The same old thinking leads to the same old results.

Assumption audit

When an organization isn’t performing to expectations, it might undergo a brand audit – an analysis of customer awareness and perceptions, messaging, and competitors. If the website is underperforming, it might be time for a content audit. Take an inventory of everything on the site and assess whether it is relevant, current, or useful.

Like other audits, an assumption audit relies on research to uncover problems, but its focus is internal – on fundamental beliefs, values, and processes. Also, like other audits, organizations usually benefit from the fresh perspective of an outside consultant. It’s difficult to honestly examine the way you think.

The utility of assumption audits is supported by the fact that it is entirely possible to successfully address external factors like customer perceptions, and still be undermined by underlying internal assumptions and blind spots.

Assumption audits recognize that many symptoms of dysfunction are psychological in nature. The good thing about an internal cause – an organizational mental block – is that it can be faster, cheaper, and more effective to address than external causes. The result of an audit is a prescription for better long-term health and success.

By valuing curiosity over certainty, assumption audits can help organizations unlock new and better ways of doing things, providing the justifiable confidence to move forward.

Conversations with Quarantined Creatives

Conversations with Creatives blog banner - CQC and speech bubbles on a bright green backgroundLike the rest of the world, people in creative professions are experiencing stress right now. We are needing to figure out new ways of doing many things, but it can often feel like we have to do this all alone. While we cannot control the world around us, we can control how we respond.

This was the impetus for Conversations with Quarantined Creatives – a series of eight interviews with creative leaders around the country completed over the span of four weeks, from mid-April through early May. I wanted to learn how designers, photographers, and writers were adapting creatively to an entirely new set of constraints.

Then, as states slowly started loosening stay-at-home orders, the country experienced additional trauma with widespread protests, rioting, and anguished cries for systemic change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis police officers.

Looking back on these conversations, it almost seems like they happened a lifetime ago. Such has been the incredible pace of change and disruption this year. But there were several recurring themes throughout the series that I think resonate in good times or bad.

Launch the product

I awoke at 2:30 a.m. one morning in early April, a good three hours before my alarm, with the nearly fully formed concept for the series playing in my head. The fact that I had never recorded a conversation over Zoom mattered little. One week later I conducted my first interview. Given the fluid nature of life in quarantine, I felt an urgency to do this immediately. Other takeaways:

  • As Seth Johnson said in the very first episode: “If you want to learn something, you’ve got to make something.” If you think of your work as an endless series of prototypes, not a polished or finished product, your knowledge will continue to grow.
  • Constraints encourage creativity. Whether it was bouncing the light of a desk lamp off the wall for better video quality, rigging up a “green screen” with poster board and duct tape, or editing raw video for a tighter conversation, figuring out how best to play the cards you’re dealt is a valuable skill.
  • Don’t wait. Or as the author C.S. Lewis put it, “The only people who achieve much are those who want something so badly that they seek it while conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions may never come.”

The need for community

There are very few meaningful ventures that can be considered solo expeditions. The interdisciplinary nature of design, and the way it is being integrated into companies of all sizes, highlights the fact that creative work doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

  • We can’t do this on our own. Community support flattens the learning curve, whether that’s building a personal network or playing well with others on a multi-faceted team. Humility, curiosity, and the willingness to ask questions are key skills.
  • There is one collective story. The resilience of marginalized communities, while admirable, shouldn’t be the goal. For a community to work well, and truly be equitable, we need to hear from and include everyone.
  • Increased connection. Counter-intuitively, for some people, stay-at-home orders actually eliminated or reduced barriers to participation and collaboration – whether for virtual events, group discussions, or video podcasts.

Doing less

Being forced – or choosing – to slow down provides opportunity to reflect, recharge, and examine whether the way we spend our time honors what we value most.

  • Everything takes longer. Whether going to the grocery store, writing a paragraph, or planning a photo shoot, distractions and workarounds turn mastered tasks into adventures.
  • The need for self care. The pandemic has strained our physical and mental health with an onslaught of information, uncertainty, and precautions. It’s exhausting! Be kind to yourself and others.
  • Stress can illuminate your purpose. As Terry Marks noted, hard times tend to help prioritize the things, people, and work that matter most to you.

The value of creative adaptation

Creative professionals – by the nature of the work we do – are more accustomed than many to defining and adapting to problems while generating new solutions. Fortunately, most creative people have been able to continue working safely from home – at least in some capacity.

But the pandemic has exposed how many systems in this country are broken, or at least not working as well as they could or should – systems that should be redesigned. As life becomes more unpredictable, those who adopt a culture of learning will fare better than those who rely on existing knowledge to survive.

Creativity – and conversations – are needed now more than ever.

The series

Seth Johnson – We Can’t Do It on Our Own

Ashleigh Axios – Don’t Be Afraid to be Different

Terry Marks – All Will be Well

Marq Mervin – Advocacy for Everybody

Nora McInerny – Still Kickin

Melanie G. S. Walby – Be Open to Change

Sergey & Sandi Grigoryan – Death to Ordinary

Julia Parris – Give Yourself Space to Evolve

Overcoming Fear

vintage commic book illustration, woman dramatically screaming "AAAA!"Terrorists. Security breaches. A global pandemic. Our media, entertainment, and political figures fixate on imminent perils to captivate audiences. Fear may be a great motivator, but unfortunately it tends to make us feel powerless rather than proficient.

Despite a focus on our (or their) shortcomings, we live in a time of unmatched abundance and technological wizardry that dwarfs the wildest imagination. We have decoded the human genome, developed developed new sources of clean energy, and made advances in human rights. We carry hand-held computers that can map every location we visit, play every song we’ve ever heard, and show cat videos on an endless loop. We land a spacecraft on Mars and people yawn.

We should feel empowered by our triumphs against long odds and all manner of dangerous obstacles. One would think we’d be more optimistic about outcomes based on our successful track record. Why aren’t we brimming with confidence?

The missing ingredient
Some people just have that “it” factor. In the boardroom, on the big screen, or on our bookshelves, we gravitate to confidence. It may show itself in different ways. Confident people can be funny, smart, or kind, but they are all driven by a passionate belief in what they are doing. They seem fearless – willing to go, say, and do what others are too timid to try.

When developing an organization’s brand, we often talk in terms of brand personality. I guarantee that not one successful brand is aiming for mousy, ambivalent, or feeble.

A lack of confidence is one of the biggest shortcomings in marketing and communications for mission-driven organizations. Most work is cautious – competent not compelling – because few are willing to passionately say or demonstrate how amazing their organization really is.

The fear of making a mistake – the fear of standing out – is a real problem in an undifferentiated marketplace. Throw in myriad personal quirks and office politics and it’s evident there are obstacles to confidently crafting stories that connect with the hearts and minds of your audience.

Leading the engagement
Confidence can’t be faked. False bravado or arrogance make timidity look like a desirable character trait in comparison. But it can be earned through practice that reveals your passions and expertise.

Here are a few of the ingredients necessary to taking charge of an assignment, or better yet, being asked to lead the way.

Know your shit.
Confidence comes from experience – a depth of knowledge gained through studying and applying what you believe to be important and true. This choice is better than that one. It comes from taking calculated risks and recognizing that the world didn’t come to an end.

Be a generous guide.
When you seek services – a restaurant, a hotel, an auto mechanic, an accountant – you want to feel like you’re in good hands. Understanding the context of an assignment – using situational and emotional intelligence – enables leaders to develop empathy for others. This, in turn, builds trust.

Survey your options.
What is the worst-case scenario? The most confident people are able to reduce the risks of the unknown by believing – even if it’s not readily apparent – that they will find an acceptable fallback position if the first plan fails.

Narrow your target.
Confident leaders excel at sifting through ten pages of information and distilling it into one, taking five bullet points and cutting it to three. That ability to focus applies to your target audience as well. Defining and prioritizing your audiences and project goals is key to making better and more decisive choices.

Ask for what you want!
Whether you’re communicating with colleagues or your target audience, it’s surprising how often the “call to action” is overlooked or buried under the weight of competing priorities (see above). Nobody succeeds alone. If you believe in the value of the offer, you’re doing the audience a favor by clearly letting them know what to do next.

Attitude adjustment
Confidence is essential for changing the conversations around what we see, hear, feel and know to be true. Good designers and writers see a project’s potential, and tell powerful stories that inspire action. Mediocre marketing and design has none of that.

The most valuable thing a designer provides is not the creative product – a website, a logo, a publication. The most valuable thing a designer provides clients and colleagues is the confidence to move forward.

Related content:
Confidence Makes Great Marketing
Do It Anyway