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

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.

Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.