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Five Alternatives to the Creative Brief

Let me tell you a story about the very first creative brief in history. Legend has it, that after it was written and handed to the person it was intended for, it was immediately crumpled up and thrown away. The person who wrote it was similarly discarded, being fired on the spot. Wow! Problem solved, right? The creative brief in this story was for the Gettysburg Address, and the person who did the firing, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, lucky bastard. It supposedly went like this:

The Creative Brief For The Gettysburg Address

What is the problem this speech must solve?
Galvanize support for the war.

Target audience:
Fifteen to 20,000 northerners gathered at the dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and the nation at large who have become war weary and are starting to doubt the cause of this war.

What do we want them to think?
These soldiers did not die in vain.

Support:
(See Declaration of Independence for reasons why).

How do we want them to feel?
Motivated to keep up the fight for the North’s noble cause.

What do we want them to do?
Continue supporting the war and the principles on which this country was founded.

Feeling inspired? So then, why are creative briefs still so popular? Many of us work at companies where creative briefs are required as the starting point of every project. Stuffed with offensively dull marketing terms, bland, soulless documents like these, (but which are rarely so brief), are actually a hindrance to creativity. Reading them might be the least-favorite part of any creative’s job, and big, fat, slow-moving corporations HEART them. But come on, people! As they probably say at Ikea, we can do better, ja?

Ok, so what’s the alternative? Let’s start by considering the purpose of the creative brief. At its most basic level, a creative brief is a means of communicating the strategy of a piece of marketing or advertising to the creative team so that they may then come up with ways to execute this strategy. By this definition, the above example is a perfect creative brief, no? But it does nothing to further the creative team’s understanding of the situation. If Lincoln had not been so intimately involved in the war, if this creative brief had been handed to a speech writer away from the action, our children would not be learning about the Gettysburg Address in schools today. For our creative department to be successful, they need to understand the situation as well as Lincoln did. If our creative team is to evoke emotion with their designs, they need to understand what those emotions might be connected to. They need more to go on than 9 pages of marketing jargon.

So we need to be able to do a better job of communicating the situation facing the audience. We need to understand what they are feeling, what they care about, and what problem they need solved before we can craft brilliant designs that make them stop and say Yes! We need to get into their skins. Here are five exercises you can use to help you with that. We still view the creative brief as necessary, but as supporting documentation containing the more technical details – a reference document – rather than the only information being passed on to the creative team.

“I Am” Statements

“I am” statements are first-person statements written from the perspective of one of your audience members. They are a useful way of thinking in terms of individual people instead of on the demographic scale. You could think of these as customer personas taken to the next level – instead of merely describing the person, you are expressing the problem in their own worlds. This is a very powerful tool which can be applied to anything you design, from websites (“I’m just trying to get an idea of how much this will cost. Is there a page on your website that will give me a rough ballpark figure without me needing to fill out your stupid form and wait three days for you to get back to me?”) to entire advertising campaigns. Compare the ad campaigns for Geiko Insurance with Progressive Insurance – as much as I love talking lizards and goofy guitar strumming folk duos randomly appearing in shopping malls, they do nothing for me in terms of reducing the pain of comparing and buying insurance. Progressive Insurance uses the idea of picking up a box of insurance right off the shelf and you’re all set.

The key to “I am” statements is that they help you feel your audience members’ pain. Lincoln didn’t need this because he had seen the look on young men’s faces as they died in the battlefield – he knew that his speech was not about dedicating a piece of ground, but to carry on the work of those who had given up their lives.

“In a perfect world” Scenarios

Describing how things would be in a perfect world allows you to write your own rules. It is as if you are designing your own universe and you get to decide how everything will be – you are designing a world where your product is the center of existence, perfectly solving the problems of your audience. This approach is useful for adding hyperbole to the campaign of a commoditized product such as a Coke, or a Whopper or a Coors Light. Notice they’re not telling you how many bubbles are in a can or how many pieces of lettuce you can expect to get – they are showing coolers of Coors Light being lowered from helicopters amidst snowy mountains and amply-bosomed females (and apparently this is the answer to their target audience’s problems).

“The Slippery Slope” Problem

By exploring the opposite of the benefits you’re promising, you put yourself in a good position to understand the problems you’re alleviating. This is a big departure from the wording and the focus of most creative briefs, which are typically about increasing revenue, target response rates, and other metrics that are not generally linked to customer happiness. In the classic slippery slope argument, one thing leads to another, initiating an irreversible cascade of increasingly dire outcomes, culminating in catastrophe. Focusing the creative team’s focus in this direction can help to highlight the very reasons behind a product or service’s conception, especially regarding products that may be difficult to understand.

The “Rise Up” Presentation

If you have a mission-critical campaign ahead of you, then emailing a document to your creative team, no matter how snappy it is, might just be doomed to miss the mark. In times like this, I find it necessary to give the “Rise Up” speech, gathering the creative team together, and inciting them to be dissatisfied with hum-drum, to dig deep and reach far beyond their perceived limitations. This is the moment that will define their trajectory further on in life. This is the time to shine! Use a presentation filled with stunning and evocative imagery. Don’t use bullets. Don’t use pie charts. Don’t be lame. Think Steve Jobs. Think TED Talk. If you’re expecting your design team’s best work, them show them you mean business by digging deep yourself and delivering a powerful, masterful presentation describing a grand vision and getting your team excited. Oh, and don’t forget to hand them a copy of your creative brief as they leave.

Interpretive Dance

How many times have we all turned to interpretive dance to communicate our ideas, right? Well, not really, but the point of this one is this: if you’re in an organization and there is a disappointing gap between what goes into the creative brief and what comes out the other end (so to speak), then something needs to be fixed. You know your team, you know the nature of the design challenges being presented, you’re a problem-solver, so do something! Change the format of your creative brief. Change the way you present it. Maybe try having the person who normally writes the creative brief simply present the information in a discussion and have the design team interpret it into a brief for themselves. Who knows, but you?

I welcome your comments and any questions that come to mind. As a Creative Director, I’m collaborative in nature. I love freely sharing ideas and I thrive on connections with creative individuals of all types and backgrounds.

Now get out there and change the world!

P.S. I’ve included the official text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address below – it’s worth the read!
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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Design, Clairvoyance, and IKIWISI

Design, Clairvoyance, and IKIWISI

Photograph by Thomas Hawk. Some modifications to original were made.

If you’re a designer, you’ve heard the phrase, “I’ll know it when I see it,” a phrase sometimes used by a client or stakeholder to suggest that the designer is failing to meet the mark with their designs, without describing what that mark actually is. Such boundless project parameters can add unnecessary cost to a project, as repeated requests for design revisions are made without bringing the project closer to a desired outcome.

Here’s how I’ll Know It When I See It (or, what I’ll call IKIWISI for short) can impact both designers and their clients, and what you can do to stay free of IKIWISI’s clutches.

The phrase I’ll know it when I see it  can be fun to use, as it makes the user feel powerful and in control, almost god-like as the ultimate judge of everything laid before him (her). It is sometimes used as a mask to cover an unfamiliarity with the language of design, other times used when a designer is commissioned to freely use their talent and run with it. In either case, the process is more expensive than one that has clearly-defined goals and parameters and which uses an iterative design process to narrow in on a solution.

The phrase was made famous when it was used by a supreme court judge determining if a particular movie should be deemed pornographic. In essence, when Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court said “I’ll know it when I see it” he prefaced it with “I shall not proceed to list everything that pornography is, but this is not it.” And the remark was hailed as gallant and clear.

The important difference between this usage and how the phrase is used by design clients is that Justice Stewart was starting with a vaguely-defined category and stating that his sample was not similar to the many things that were possible subsets of it, whereas design clients are actually looking to reach a particular result and asking designers to find it without first having it defined.

Similar to the situation of a lost dog, your chances of having someone find it for you would depend on your ability to describe it as fully as possible.

Advice for the Design Client

Peter Connolly, Technical Director of KP Direction in Roy, Utah, warns clients that the IKIWISI approach is the most expensive way to run a project, and steers his clients back to an examination of the underlying strategy of the project to avoid getting mired in the subjective. From here, it can be determined who the audience is, and how best to speak to them. Connolly puts it succinctly by asking “Will your customer know it when they see it?”

“Feedback is crucial”, insists Kevin Bradford, owner of Aspen Digital in Boise, Idaho, “And so is client involvement.” Many clients struggling with the language of design, find it difficult to give useful feedback, but requiring clairvoyance from the design team does little to help them create their best work.

Bradford goes on to say that “while not giving feedback is a definite red flag, it doesn’t always necessarily signal a doomed relationship.” Clients who are able to at least point out that a particular element in a design doesn’t feel right, are participating in the process. The more information that is provided, the more useful the feedback becomes, and if you’re able to work through these moments of discomfort with your designer, you’ll likely emerge from it with a designer who really understands your needs.

One last piece of advice for the design client. If you’re struggling with something that just doesn’t feel right, try to avoid the temptation of directing the design yourself. Instead of saying “I don’t like all this empty space – can you make the logo bigger to fill it?” ask your designer what they intended with all that empty space. Perhaps they were trying to draw the user’s attention to a particular point on the page. Tell your designer how something makes you feel, then ask for recommendations.

Advice for the Designer

Try to keep in mind that your client is most likely not trying to be difficult, suggests Joshua Woodroffe, of PixelMIGHT in Philadelphia, who uses this position to help him look for how the design might be improved. Simply because a client lacks fluency in design speak, doesn’t mean their uneasiness with a project’s direction is to be dismissed. If upon further reflection, Woodroffe determines that the design is indeed meeting the objectives of the project, he’ll communicate this to the client and continue the conversation from this new reference point.

Be Proactive

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say, and this is true in working with clients also. Educating your client about the design process at the beginning of a project, explaining in the proposal how many concepts you’ll show, how refinements are made, and what the client’s role and responsibilities are throughout the process, can help prevent IKIWISI even arising.

Fresh, new, groundbreaking design is not always what is being asked for. Often, what is desired has already been created. Clients have their marketing budget and they can’t afford to take any risks with it. They see something that another company did, that everyone loves, and they want one just like it. In these cases, you could ask your client to show you examples of styles they like, or colors, or functionality. Then you, as the designer, can translate what you see into something that fits your client’s messaging, their brand, and their audience.

Be Patient

Remember that clients such as these do not necessarily lack sophistication, taste, or even moral fiber. They know their business, and they are relying on you to know yours.

As a designer, it is part of our job to figure out what a client is looking for, says Katelyn O’Brien, a Marketing Communications Specialist at Naviant in Verona, Wisconsin, who uses incremental questions to help stakeholders get their ideas across: “I find it effective to break it down into smaller questions that they can answer, and slowly you will start to get a better idea of what they are looking for without them realizing it.” O’Brien reminds designers that it all comes down to good communication and patience with understanding the client’s needs. “The worst thing you can do is get frustrated and irritated with a client”.

Peter Barker, Proprietor of Peter Barker Multimedia in Sydney, Australia puts it this way: “At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding to be told ‘You’ve visualised exactly what I had in my mind.’”

I have to agree.

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Increasing Your Influence as an In-House Designer

 

“Say, you’re [ ... ], right? What is it that you do again?”
“I’m a designer. I just developed an entire campaign for your team last week, remember?”
“Oh! Right! You make things look pretty!”

Encounters like this, which indicate that your internal clients don’t fully understand what goes into the process of design, are a signal that you’re not effectively communicating your worth to your stakeholders. This unfamiliarity with your process as a professional, can cause your stakeholders to disregard your expertise and impose their subjective opinions on your strategically constructed designs, requiring additional rounds of design revisions, possibly weakening the final designs, and creating unnecessary delays to other projects in your pipeline. This only further undermines your efforts as you frequently appear to be in reactive mode, falling behind schedule, struggling to get your ideas accepted, and inevitably not producing your best work.

In-house designers frequently find themselves trapped in this cycle and, sadly, become accustomed to getting trounced upon. I see it with my clients every week. And when someone is brought in from the outside, that person or firm is treated like they suddenly have all the answers. What gives, yo?

The difference is not in the talent, or the knowledge, or the position of those on the outside versus those from within; the difference is in the cultures of the two situations. Although the tide has been turning over the past decade with companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, to name but a few, recognizing the value of in-house teams and giving them a seat at the table, it generally still exists that in-house designers are given very little voice within their organizations. This goes hand-in-hand with unique ‘benefits’ shared by in-house designers, compared to the experience of agency designers or solo practitioners, such as lack of competition, guaranteed clients, an almost complete absence of the pitching process, insulation from stakeholders, and easier hours (usually). But, with the exception of the last one, it is these ‘benefits’ that weaken the influence of in-house designers.

We’re always hearing about “adding value” but if you’re an in-house designer who is constantly being dumped upon with we-need-it-now requests, adding value might not be at the top of your agenda. The irony is, that by changing your focus, you can actually shift the balance of influence to your favor.

Increasing your influence means your ideas are valued more, your input is questioned less, and you have an easier time getting your job done. Increasing your influence means you can finally move out of reactive mode and start focusing more on strategy. Increasing your influence means you actually become more valuable, making a more significant contribution to the company’s bottom line.

To do this, you need to think in terms of 1.) Creating Value, which involves all the activities related to the process of getting your (internal) clients what they need, and 2.) Capturing Value, which involves how you incorporate feedback from your clients and the marketplace after the job is done to confirm that you’re providing something that positively impacts the business.

Creating Value

If you are hoping to be offered a seat at the table, you need to take a good hard look at your process. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is not the path to creating change. As an outside consultant, I am always on the lookout for things I can change to make it easier for my clients to work with me. An early example is how I write proposals. I figured that my clients would want to know exactly what was going to be happening with their projects, and when. Also, they would want to know what each piece would cost, and if there might be other options they could explore that might save them money, or could expand the project for greater results. Since then, I’ve examined every step of the process, from how people find us online, to letting clients know that we’ve received their payment (we developed a set of HTML stationery pages which I installed into my mail app – if you want to see a sample, send me an email). You can (and must!) do the same if you want to change how you are perceived within your organization. List out every step in the process of a piece getting designed and distributed, including (but not limiting yourself to) how you perform the following:

  • Accept new requests for projects
  • Provide estimates for how many hours something will require
  • Conduct research, interview stakeholders and compile information
  • Communicate progress towards milestones
  • Arrange meetings with stakeholders
  • Allocate resources to each project
  • Present concepts and explain how they answer the design challenge
  • Communicate your process
  • Thank stakeholders for their attention and input
  • Follow up with stakeholders who are slow to respond
  • Accept criticism of your work or reject input from stakeholders
  • Proof-read your work
  • … and so on.

With your process laid out, it’s time to go through each item and look for ways to improve it to make yourself more efficient, make it easier for your internal clients to work with you, and demonstrate that you are a vital contributor to the business. This will, of course, vary with the nature of your organization; if all your requests are coming from just one person, then deploying an online traffic system that displays the status of every project for every requester may be overkill. If you already have a process for communicating project timelines, then this may not be where you focus your attention. But if projects routinely get plopped onto your desk with a sticky note that says “I need this by tomorrow” then you probably know where to start improving your process. (Remember: when you communicate how long a project will take by explaining how you intend to apply a strategic approach to meeting the objectives of the project, you are educating your internal clients of the value you provide to the organization, but you are also providing more value.)

As you make improvements to how you serve your internal clients, people will start listening to you, and you will find that you are given more respect. Instead of hearing ‘we need this tomorrow” you’ll start hearing “can you get back to me with your time estimate?”

Capturing Value

Not everyone will remember all the great work you’ve done. Some people will need to have it pointed out to them before they start to recognize how valuable you are. Circling back with your stakeholders after a project has delivered can tell you if your project hit the mark with its audience, but it can also shine a light on the fact that that your work has positively impacted your internal client’s business results.

When following up with your stakeholders, remember that the quality of the information you receive will be related to the quality of your questions and the attention given them. This means avoiding ambushing your stakeholders on their way to the bathroom with a “Say! How’d you like that design I did?” Instead, schedule a brief meeting with stakeholders to look over the results and to make necessary modifications optimizing these results, and then gather feedback from your stakeholders regarding what they enjoyed about working with you and what you could change to make their job easier next time. Doing so, can create very positive feelings with your stakeholders by 1.) Reviewing the success that your work brought them, 2.) Showing them that you’re interested in improving their results, and 3.) Re-iterating the thoughtful process that goes into developing successful design. Also, this will make you a better designer.

Do you have personal experience with this? Have you run into difficulty gaining respect from your stakeholders, colleagues, or upper management? Share your experiences, and if we can offer any helpful advice, we will.

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Getting Your Stakeholders to LOVE Your Next Project

Has this ever happened to you? You (or your team) have been working on a design project, you’ve shown concepts and have gone through a few rounds of revisions on design and content – only to be sent back to the drawing board by one of your stakeholders. What the heck just happened?

Requests for major redrafts such as this, which seem to come out of the blue, can be costly in terms of time and expense, but they can also inflict serious long-term damage to your team’s enthusiasm, energy, and creativity. This scenario is not uncommon, nor is it confined only to the very largest (or smallest) marketing teams. If repeated often enough, it can be demoralizing, leading to a breakdown in that highly desirable creative process that differentiates your brand, your product, or your organization — and which brings in revenue.

Despite how you might feel when this happens, your stakeholders are probably not being irrational or acting at random, and therefore there are actions we can take to avoid this happening in the future.

The key is to first begin by understanding this situation from the perspective of your stakeholders. What is making them request these seemingly arbitrary, or at least ill-advised changes? Why do they not share your enthusiasm for your design work? What is their freakin’ problem?!?

Five Common Reasons Your Stakeholders Are Not Buying Your Design

  1. Being Kept Out of the Loop

    This one’s easy. Your constituents are less likely to support an idea if they have not been brought on board. Stakeholders who are included in the discussions from the very beginning feel they have some skin in the game and will often go to bat as advocates for your ideas. Failing to include stakeholders in the discussions can also set them up for a late surprise, almost inviting them to fight you as a means of staging a protest. The most successful creative directors are able to encourage stakeholders to contribute their own ideas to the creative discussion, or make them believe that ideas that were pre-ordained were actually their creation.

  2. Confusing Subjective with Objective

    When a stakeholder reacts harshly to a design you’re presenting, it’s usually an indication that they are reacting to the aesthetic or emotional quality of the piece – not the underlying strategy. Coaxing this information out of your stakeholders can help you get a design back on the table, with some minor visual changes, instead of abandoning the work altogether.

  3. Not Understanding the Design Challenge

    Stakeholders may feel “underwhelmed” by your designs if they are not fully grasping the design challenge, that is, the problem which must be overcome by the design. Often, simply by clearly articulating the design challenge to your stakeholders, skillful designers can help their stakeholders understand the value in their proposed design.

  4. Not Understanding the Proposed Design Solution

    If stakeholders are just not getting it when they see your designs, it’s possible that they are not understanding how your design is solving the problem. Although you might feel that the stakeholder is just being difficult, this is a tremendous opportunity! It’s an opportunity to hear feedback from a different vantage point than your own, potentially helping you to improve your design and make it more successful, and it’s an opportunity to further galvanize your relationship with your stakeholder, securing their support. Don’t waste this opportunity by trying to persuade your stakeholder that they’re wrong!

  5. Raising a Legitimate Argument or Concern

    Likewise, if your stakeholders are making suggestions, requesting changes, or arguing somehow with what you’re proposing, it’s entirely possible that they’re raising a good point. It’s your job as the creative lead to assess their feedback, weigh it with the other information you’ve received, and devise a course of action in light of the merits or flaws of these suggestions – not simply to fight it, neither to bow down to it, but rather to benefit from it however possible.

Approach your next project with these 5 suggestions in mind. Building good alliances with your stakeholders is an effort that can pay enormous dividends over time. Good luck, dear penguin!

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Why Your Creative Briefs (ahem) Are Garbage

Sucky Creative Briefs can suck the life right out of you!Everyone talks about Creative Briefs. Ok, so that’s not true. But design teams sometimes mention them – like ”I can quite literally feel the life force being sucked out of me by this creative brief that the marketing team wrote” or perhaps “We should totally start using creative briefs” or even “Life’s too short to spend my time reading this steaming pile of $#!t you call a creative brief!”  But hey! Good news, people – there’s a better way!

If you’re a designer, creative briefs should save you time by helping you nail the best concept sooner. And if you’re an in-house designer especially, whose internal clients have no qualms about wasting your time with incessant design edits, a good creative brief will keep you from losing your mind, as you can use it to keep people on track. That’s exciting, right? I mean, if there were some tool that you could use that would wipe away 50% of all the pain-in-the-assery of your job, wouldn’t you pick up the phone and “buy now”?

But wait – most creative briefs that I’ve encountered, are completely ignored after just the quickest glance, wiping away nothing! What’s up with that?

What’s the Problem With Creative Briefs? I’ll tell you what the problem is …

When creative briefs fail to stir people to bust out singing “What a Wonderful World,” it’s generally for these two reasons:

  1. They are too long.

    Listen, marketing people: we love you – without you, we’d all be designing flyers for our nephew’s punk band, but can you please get to the point a little sooner than page 12? If you’ve only got half a page of text, we can probably work with that. And designers, if the marketing folks have left out some important detail, walk over to their cubicles and ask them about it! This way, designers and marketers together learn what information the other team needs to do their job well.

  2. They runneth over with BS.

    I’m not kidding, just use regular old words, not the crappy new ones they made up in your MBA program so that you would feel like you were getting value for your $100k in tuition. As the great David Ogilvy said, “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.” I’m sure he wasn’t calling YOU an idiot (he was probably looking at me), but I do think we could start a new trend of writing creative briefs as if our lives depended on them being read.

 

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3 Cool Things You Can Do With PowerPoint

Put some POW into your PowerPoints

Whether you’re one of those people who thinks PowerPoint is evil, or you can’t live without it for crafting those persuasive business presentations of yours, you probably agree that this ubiquitous presentation tool isn’t going away anytime soon. And you’ve probably seen all the animations PowerPoint is capable of, in fact, you’ve probably seen them all used in one presentation – so this article is not about those. This article is about three feature’s in particular that are quite unexpected in this clumsy “design tool” that we’ve all come to love and/or hate.

1. PPTX = ZIP

Ok, to get us started, this one is an absolute gem of a trick. In just the few occasions that I’ve used it, it has saved me hours of time. A .pptx file is actually very similar to a .zip file. To try it out, take any PowerPoint that is saved in the .pptx format and change the extension to .zip, unzip it, and take a look at the contents. You’ll find several folders, and contained in those folders, you’ll find every image used in the document at full resolution. If they were cropped in PowerPoint, you’ll now have access to the full image uncropped, and if they were vectors … guess what? You’ve got vectors!

2. Remove Image Backgrounds

This feature has been around since PowerPoint 2007, but judging by how many presentations still display images with a tell-tale white bounding box overlayed onto a colored background, I’d say that few people actually know how to use it. Admittedly, this feature works best with images that have a clearly defined subject over a simple, flat background, but those are often the best images for presentations anyway.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. With your image already on a PowerPoint slide, select the image and click on the Format tab
  2. Select ‘Remove Background’
  3. Now you’ll see a  transparent magenta rectangle covering your image, with handles on the bonding box. Use the handles to crop in as tightly as possible on the wanted area, and then simply drag lines across the remaining unwanted parts of the image within the cropped area. It’s super easy, quick, and surprisingly effective.

By the way, you can also add some interesting Photoshop-like effects using this tool, as Ric Bretschneider, former PowerPoint Senior Program Manager, discusses on the PowerPoint blog. For example, if you place an image with its background removed over the original, intact image, and then apply a blur to the original, you can get a nice effect that mimics a photo with a very short depth of field. This has been called the PowerPoint Blur Effect.

3. Change the Default Color Palette

Not ground-breaking, by any means, but there does seem to be a lot of presentations that are given where the colors seem to vary from slide to slide or from presentation to presentation within an organization. To change the default color palette of a PowerPoint, you need to work with PowerPoint’s Themes.

  1. On the Themes tab, under Theme Options, click Colors, and then click Create Theme Colors.
  2. At the bottom of the list of theme colors, click on Create New Theme Colors. By selecting different colors and then clicking Apply to All, you’ll see your changes take effect.
  3. In the Name box, type a name for your custom theme color, and then click Apply to All.
  4. The theme color is applied to the current presentation.

You can easily apply this color palette as the default to any future presentations by selecting it in the Custom set of colors in the Theme Options tab.

Ok then. While we wish there were many other features that PowerPoint had  – paragraph style sheets, for instance … oh, and more built-in keyboard shortcuts, we’ll take these for now. Got any others? Tell us about them in the comments.

 

 

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Design’s Seven Suckiest Time Sucks of All Time

Do your design projects take waaaay too long to complete? No matter what you do, or how you approach the process, is there always some hold-up preventing you from meeting your projects’ deadlines? Design strategist Brad Squires, who has spent some years in the corporate trenches, describes Design’s seven most suckiest time-sucks of all time.

1. The Wayward Objectives
Projects lacking a clearly defined (and articulated) goal are at risk of being judged according to stakeholder opinions. Only when judged against its objectives can a project move forward toward a successful outcome. Hey, laugh all you want, but you’d be amazed at how many projects I’ve seen get kicked off without the stakeholders first agreeing about the actual goal of the project.

2. The Snubbed Decision-Makers
Decision-makers who are not brought on board at the very outset of the project are quite often the culprits holding things up later in the process. If you want to give your project its best shot at meeting its deadlines, spend a little extra time before you begin designing making sure you’ve included ALL decision-makers. I kid you not: a decision-maker who feels left out of the process will put your design drafts in the “I’ll-get-to-it-when-I-get-to-it” pile, while a decision-maker who feels that their input is valued will promptly  provide their input or sign-off.

3. The Grocery Outlet of Exploration
A crucial component in any design process is exploration. Skimping on this step to try and save a few days can get you into trouble by leading you too far in one direction just to learn that it’s not working. Don’t be a cheapo when it comes to exploration. All that “blue-sky thinking” BS that designers go on about really is legit. It is far better to explore many different options while you’re still in the rough stage before deciding on a direction to fully develop.

4. The Prohibitive Review Process
If the success of your project hinges on you getting 14 different middle-managers to all agree on a design by Monday, you may be in trouble. The more moving parts you have, the more time you’ll need to build into the process. Communicate to your stakeholders that they have a finite window for giving feedback, and if they insist upon making edits after that window has closed, they risk jeopardizing the project’s deadline.

5. The Design Spiral
Feedback from stakeholders such as “I don’t like it” does not advance a project toward completion. Similarly, scrapping designs in favor of starting from the beginning can trigger the design spiral. Ensure feedback is given in light of the objectives and results in actionable, agreed-upon ideas before proceeding further.

6. The Lackluster Team
The leader’s role is to create an environment which allows each team member to do his or her best work. Without encouragement, clear communications, trust, and ensuring that each person not only understands their role, but has a clear picture of success, projects will move sluggishly toward an uninspired conclusion. Create a milieu where criticism is recognized as valuable for improvement, taking inspired risks is rewarded and mistakes are not punished and you’ll have a fertile climate for innovation.

7. The Mad Hatter
Remember Lewis Carroll’s character, the Mad Hatter? (“I’m late! … I’m late!…”) Habitually underestimating the time required to carry out certain tasks within a project can have a snow-ball effect within an organization. Time estimates drive the setting of deadlines for delivery of projects. If a time requirement is grossly underestimated, the deadline gets missed. If this becomes a pattern, deadlines begin to lose meaning and peoples’ assessments of your reliability will also be affected.

The ability to make accurate estimations of the time required to implement a project comes with experience and training. The first step towards making good time estimates is to fully understand the problem to be solved. Pay attention to the complexity of each project and allow time for internal meetings, other high priority tasks, holidays, sickness, and so on. By improving your skills and providing accurate time estimations, the deadlines you set will command greater respect. When this happens, your team will be prepared to respond when it really is crunch time.

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What is a Landing Page?

By Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joe Laws, taken from en:wp, uploaded by Dorbie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We spend a lot of time, here at Bold Type Design, talking about landing pages with our clients, and explaining how they are really the key to segmenting their web traffic and turning that traffic into customers. But the mention of landing pages can send people off into such different directions of thinking, that we also spend a lot of time clearing up misconceptions. For example, when we mentioned to one client, a marketing company, that a part of our process in working with them would be to define the initial set of landing pages for their site, they immediately thought of a Buy Now button and a shopping cart, and that this was definitely not what they were looking for. So this post is intended to explain what a landing page is, and why you need to be using them on your site.

First, here’s a simple definition of a landing page which anyone would find with a quick search query:

Not bad. But not very helpful either. This definition still leaves a lot of explaining for us to do. The term “landing page” is actually used quite differently by different people, all who are in the business of defining and designing landing pages, depending on their industry and on the nature of their website. This is fine, really, as the language needs to suit the use. For example, an ecommerce site that makes the bulk of their sales through promotional emails might consider a landing page to be a page containing an offer that is linked to from an email. An inbound marketing company might consider a landing page to be any page with a form on it and which has the sole purpose of collecting user information; while a company that does a lot of AdWords advertising might build specific pages to collect traffic from those ads.

For us, most of our clients are concerned with increasing the traffic to their site and converting that traffic into customers or leads, so we focus on using landing pages to collect traffic from very specific sets of search criteria. The page might have a form on it, depending on the buying cycle of the specific audience we are targeting, but the primary focus is to use the landing page like the opening of a funnel which brings visitors into a pathway through the site, leading them closer to a conversion.

How, then, is a landing page, by this definition, different to a homepage? It all comes down to how specific the content is. We consider a homepage as a place where visitors land, about whom you know absolutely nothing. They may have found your site by searching for your company name, so they may be looking for any one of your products or services, or none of them at all – they may not even know yet, that they have a need for what you offer. Your job on the homepage then, is to give your elevator pitch. Quickly tell your homepage visitors what your company is about, and provide a few options to dig deeper and learn more about your specific offerings. A landing page, on the other hand, caters to visitors with very narrowly-defined needs. Let’s think of a general sporting goods company as an example. The homepage will display a wide range of sports images – skiing, football, basketball, skateboarding, fishing, cycling, hunting, camping, and so on. But if someone conducts a Google search for girls’ softball bats, you don’t want them to have to look for a link from your homepage – you want the Google search result to bring them directly to a page on your site which shows them girls’ softball bats. No form required. No need to collect user information. We’re just helping people find exactly what they’re looking for. From here, we’ll direct them towards becoming a customer.

To give you an idea of how this might work for a service oriented company, let’s use a law firm website as an example. As you may be aware, there are many areas of practice within law, such as intellectual property, litigation, family law, and dozens of others. If a law firm attempted to optimize their homepage to capture search engine traffic for all of the practice areas they were engaged in, their homepage would most likely rank very poorly in search engine results pages. Furthermore, visitors would need to poke around on the homepage until they found what they were looking for – essentially, wasting their time. A better strategy would be to create specific landing pages for each practice area, and an even more effective approach would be to break that down into even smaller segments. For example, Intellectual Property could be divided into Copyright, Trademarks, Patents, Industrial Design Rights, Trade Dress and perhaps even Trade Secrets, with a dedicated landing page for each. While this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, the benefits certainly pay for themselves. Firstly, by following this practice, our law firm website now has pages which rank very high for each of these very specific search terms, collecting traffic from many times more search queries. Instead of appearing on page 40 for “law firms” our law firm website has pages appearing on page 1 in the search results. Additionally, when a user arrives at our site from one of these searches, they find exactly what they were looking for, so they are less likely to hit the back button. This lowers our bounce rate and improves how Google sees our site in terms of relevance for each specific query. Lastly, since we know that visitors to our page about Industrial Design Rights are there because they searched for it, we know what some of their questions and concerns might be, and we can tailor our content so that it addresses those concerns, further improving our chances that our site visitors will choose to work with us (since all other law firm’s websites are crap and are not helpful in any way unless you’re interested in seeing what their office decor looks like).

So, that’s how landing pages work to collect more qualified traffic, and more of it. The next step is to continue the conversation. In our law firm website example, we would want to provide some case studies. Of course, we could have a link in our navigation that takes people to a generic case study page – or we could be super clever: from our Industrial Design Rights page, the Case Studies link in the navigation could take people to a page which only displays case studies in the area of Industrial Design Rights, with related testimonials. In this way, visitors are funneled along a pathway towards becoming a client, which has been designed according to what we know about each segment of our audience, the type of information they require, and how they make their purchasing decisions. To learn more about the process of converting your website’s visitors into leads, sign up for the free e-series, 12 Weeks of Leads. You’ll take your website from 0 to 100 in just a few weeks and start attracting a steady flow of leads from web traffic.

Do you have a question relating to your specific company that is not covered here? Drop us a line! We’d love to hear of a new, unique situation and will be happy to provide you with whatever information we can to help you out.

 

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10 Things a Marketing Company Should Never Do

Caïn by Henri Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris, 1896. Wikimedia Commons

According to Ad Age (from a study conducted back in oh, 2007), there are over 20,000 marketing agencies in the U.S. alone. And every one of them is looking for a competitive edge these days. Perhaps your firm is lucky enough to have a captive audience, and you are in the unlikely position of  being immune to replacement -  but if you’re one of the firms who rely on hard work and engaging those little gray cells to get by, here are ten things you absolutely cannot afford to do.

1. Confuse Planning with Strategy

Many firms believe that they are engaged in crafting strategy, when they are merely planning. Planning aims at getting things done, while  Strategy aims to advance our big ideas. Business academics Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad created the term Strategic Intent to refer to this notion, and it is essential to any powerful and effective strategy. Remember also, that a strategic plan is a way of dealing with a constantly changing environment, responding to that environment to achieve our goals, and attempting to change that environment to our benefit This is what distinguishes strategy from simply planning which, while necessary for any business, may be little more than checking items off a to-do list as we complete them.

2. Take Your Eye Off the Competition

As mentioned above, strategy is a means of responding to a constantly changing environment, and here I remind you that your environment includes your competitors. Devising strategy that will serve you well in a constantly changing environment requires a good understanding of that environment. Firms that craft a winning strategy and then shut out the outside world while they work to execute the tactics associated with that strategy have just moved back into the realm of to-do lists. Organizations that successfully execute winning strategies are constantly keeping their eye on the ball, responding with agility, taking advantage of sudden opportunities, and out-thinking the competition.

3. Summarily Dismiss Fads as Mere Fads

If you ask me, the rare talent to be the first to spot a fad as an emerging trend is worth a whole pack of MBA graduates (to paraphrase one of  Mel Gibson’s more colorful and extremely bigoted quotes). Part of your job of keeping your eyes on your constantly changing environment, is watching out for trends. But don’t be too quick to dismiss them as fads. Marketing professionals who lead their industries are sought out for their ability to apply judgement and analytical thinking to examine and evaluate new developments and determine if they are likely to bear fruit.

But how can you tell a trend from a fad? Great question – glad you’re still paying attention! While a fad is fashionable for only a brief time, trends look more like a movement, rising slowly, gaining momentum, and finally being adopted by the majority of a market segment. Judging whether an innovation is likely to become a trend requires analyzing how that particular innovation may alter how people live their lives, or how processes may be improved.

4. Override the Input of Experts

Phil Libin, co-founder and CEO of Evernote, Inc. Magazine‘s Company of the Year in 2011, recently wrote a story for Inc. titled Why It’s Wise to Hire People Smarter Than You, where he talks about the time it takes to micromanage those whose jobs you could do better. Further, he discusses how problems get fixed so much more effectively when you have people smarter than you working on those problems. I, for one, am inclined to listen to this wisdom and, as an example, my programmer can write brilliant code in one tenth the time it would take me to even write out the steps.

While it takes a secure manager to hire people that are smarter than they are, it takes a complete moron to ignore the advice of said smarter people. If an organization has brain power as one of its resources, overriding or ignoring that brain power doesn’t merely handicap your chances of success, it can demoralize your team. If members of your team see that their best and brightest are having their expert input dismissed, it does little to encourage others to rise up and shine in their area of specialization.

5. Punish Risk-Taking

A culture of yes-men is the exact opposite of a culture that recognizes the value in divergent thinking. Divergent thinking, the very cornerstone of creative problem solving, is currency to marketing companies, so when an organization rewards the sycophants amongst their ranks, they are steering themselves towards certain destruction. How does an organization become populated with sycophants? Frequently, it occurs under an abusive or hostile manager who publicly (or privately) berates underlings voicing dissenting views.

6. Create an Environment for “Group-Think”

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, is faulty decision-making by groups, which can be brought about by a variety of factors such as desire for conformity within a group, or direct pressure on dissenters. The resulting decisions are likely to be less than optimal due to the fact that alternative options go unvoiced or unexplored. Skillful managers know their teams well enough to spot when group members are seemingly nodding their heads in agreement, while silently disagreeing with the consensus, and can draw these individuals out, effectively encouraging their participation. If the group mentality is too strong, dissenting views may need to be discussed in private, where the team member feels a greater sense of safety.

7.  Have a Cliche Tag Line

As a marketing company, you’re a representation of what is possible for your clients, and your tag line is possibly the first experience your prospective clients have of your firm. It should therefore be pushing the upper limit of cleverness – not desperately scraping the bottom for ideas. A cliche tag line for a marketing firm is the equivalent of a limp, clammy handshake. So, Behold the Power of Cheese (as the American Dairy Association has urged us) and Do More (American Express), Think Different (Apple), and Reach Out and Touch Someone (AT&T). If your tag line doesn’t quickly create in the minds of your audience a positive association, that is memorable, and which inspires action, take heart – there’s still time to fix it. Just do it.

8. Use B-Grade Design

According to Fast Company Magazine, design is a “sustainable competitive advantage.” Forbes Magazine wrote “All businesses, no matter what they make or sell, should recognize the power and financial value of good design.” Our world is becoming increasingly design-aware as other competitive differentiators dwindle into being barely perceptible. Marketing firms at the top of the food chain recognize that paying handsomely for professional design is an investment that pays off, and cutting corners in this area of their operations carries a cost that far outweighs potential savings.

9. Definitely, Definitely, Definitely Stick to the Norm

Nothing transforms an up-and-coming company into yesterday’s news quicker than the leaders at that company becoming comfortable with the status quo. We get tired of the stale old sayings such as “the only constant is change” yet we easily stick to doing things “because that’s how we’ve always done them.” We know we would never hear something so robotic as that spoken in a meeting at Google, or under Steve Jobs’ command, so surely we recognize that agility and daring are simply requirements for survival, no?

10. Screw-over your Designer

Hooo, I love this one! Designers these days don’t just make thing look pretty. In case you haven’t noticed, you’ve been asking for years for your designers to also be experts in SEO, social media, and strategy – not to mention content-writing, coding web-apps, and digital publishing – and of course, there’s motion graphics, animation and video editing – and let’s not leave out typography, illustration and photo-editing. Yet, at the same time, designers have been expected to submit their work for free, make multiple design revisions that are not paid for, or even to go unpaid for their time if they fail to meet the unarticulated expectations of a difficult client. But the design community is a strong, thriving, and tight-knit community of collaborators, creative thinkers and professional problem solvers. Screwing over your designer may get you sued for breach of contract, and using designs that you haven’t paid for may make you liable for damages in copyright court. But the real damage may occur if your designer decides simply to stick with what they know and write some content with some good SEO, back it up with some strategy, and harness the social strength of their community, resulting in your online reputation suffering damage that could quite literally take years to repair, make your organization’s website compete in Google’s search results with bad press, make it difficult for you to attract good candidates willing to work with a company with a bad reputation, and make it difficult to retain current employees who don’t want your company name making a smudge on their resumes.

A recent story emerged in the design community which has sparked somewhat of a renewed movement. When a marketing company in Danville, California decided not to pay their designer for content writing, the designer published a story about it, optimizing the page for the company name, Paradigm Real Estate Solutions. The story received over a thousand views on its first day, and was shared by hundreds of designers on Facebook, Reddit, and personal blogs. The page now out-competes the company’s website in search results for that company’s own name.

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The Boundless Joys of Limitations

For those of you who are feeling hemmed in by constraints, this one’s for you. This one’s about why you should remember to love those brand guidelines, those corporate standards, and even those persnickety stakeholders of yours — because in the end, it is the limitations that lead us to do our best work. Indeed, (and I do love starting a sentence with “Indeed”) limitations have led to some of the greatest design innovations in history.

It is natural for designers to feel hindered by their company’s brand guidelines, which limit their choice of typefaces, their choice of colors, their choice of imagery and, heck! — even their choice of page layouts. After all, could we not be doing much better work — and having much more fun — if only we had a blank canvas to work with?

Of course, this kind of thinking is pure crap (hey, this is my email newsletter and I can say “crap” if I want to). And it is frequently a sign of burn-out or a lack of imagination. Can you imagine Apple without a set of brand guidelines? (That was a trick question; if you can imagine Apple without a set of brand guidelines, then you obviously have a perfectly healthy imagination!)

But Seriously. Rules Make the Fun.

I like to think of brand guidelines as a set of rules, and we all know that rules are what makes the game fun, right? Don’t believe me? Think of the game Musical Chairs without rules. It would just be a bunch of toddlers punching each other in the face over the last chair. Ok, that was an over-simplistic example, but what about soccer? Without rules, players could simply carry the ball to the goal! The game would require no skill at all and would be reduced to complete chaos. No! It’d be far worse! It would be rugby!

What About Stakeholders? They Don’t Make Anything Fun.

True. But if we were to imagine the most demanding stakeholders of all time, certainly the European Renaissance, a time of unequaled creativity, would come to mind, and also the Pharaoh Khufu, whose pyramid at Giza, still standing after 4,500 years, remains the most massive building on earth. Sure, sure, Khufu was undoubtedly an HR Director’s nightmare, and the well-monied Florentine families of the Renaissance probably couldn’t return an email if their lives depended on it, but talk about award-winning designs!

The point is that it’s not the limitations that are getting in the way of you being brilliant. It all comes down to mindset. The most successful designers are those who are constantly framing their role as one of problem-solving; of tackling a design challenge and using sideways thinking to develop a novel approach to finding a solution.

So, when you’re feeling stuck for inspiration, or burnt out at your job, just remember that limitations have led to some of the greatest design innovations in history. Now go make some history!