All of the incredibly good illustrations in this post are © Lunchbreath
SO MANY TITLES
Chances are that if you’re reading this post then your title in work is one of the following: Executive Creative Director, Creative Director, Associate Creative Director, Design Director, Creative Group Head, Creative Lead, Art Director, Senior Designer, Middleweight Designer, Graphic Designer, Flash Designer, UI Designer, UX Designer, UI/UX Designer, Communication Designer, Visual Designer, Art Production Manager, Brand Identity Developer, Broadcast Designer, Logo Designer, Illustrator, Visual Image Developer, Production Designer, Production Artist, Artworker, Motion Designer, Motion Graphics Designer, Multimedia Developer, Layout Artist, Interface Designer, Web Designer, Packaging Designer, Junior Designer, Associate Designer.
It’s a bewildering array of titles isn’t it?
When I moved from London to San Francisco I discovered that in the US titles were much more important in a designer’s career. Previously the work in my portfolio and level I operated at was the key to my career. What my employers called me was far less important. Amazed by the cultural difference in the same industry I decided to write a ‘how to’ article on the jumps between key stages of a designer’s career.
It can be hard to work out how to market yourself when starting out
So who am I to talk? Well, I’ve been working for 20 years as a designer, art director, ACD and lately as an independent ACD. But lets go back to those early days when I was a designer starting out. With titles like Junior Designer, Associate Designer or Production Artist that first job often involves putting together the finished deliverables such as Flash banner ads, coding a web page or preparing InDesign files for printers. At this level it’s all about learning the nuts and bolts of how the process all fits together. The role involves a lot of being told what to do and rising to the occasion.
Like a fledgling star you want your moment to shine and move up the food chain, so to speak. If something creative or challenging comes along in work then take a leap and volunteer to take it on. If it doesn’t come along in your job try something else – I know one designer who got a full time job based a series of nightclub flyers he did in his spare time.
Failing that, have a look at responding to some design crowdsourcing sites: not for money but to get some work in your portfolio. Pick something that captures your imagination. These are the design areas that you can show some flare in. You can even pick from a great many projects to find something that reflects your current skills or stretches them further. You can also pick projects from industries which reflect a specific job you are going for.
To the outside world this is what our average day looks like - if only…
MOVING FROM PRODUCTION TO DESIGNER
There seems to be two paths for most people after being Production Designers. Some choose to be career production people while others strive for something much more creative. This post is aimed at the latter group. They are the ones who are shocked at the lack of creativity that their first job entailed since it probably involved filling in missing bits from an art director’s sketch (or lack of). Photos of designers reflect this and tend to involve them looking at designs or their computer screens. It’s as if they and the work are one.
To progress onto being a Designer (Visual Designer, Interactive Designer, Production Artist, Web Designer etc.) you will have to show mastery of the design software of your chosen field (banner ads, motion graphics, UI, print etc.) before moving away from them being the core of your job. While these skills defined your previous role the one you are aiming for (designer) will involve projects now starting with a blank page a with well-articulated problem in front of you. Most agencies have a non-profit client so volunteer for that work or find your own non profit clients – there must be one that matches your interests.
Similarly, I was at a talk once where a presenter said designers have to develop their own ‘Hot Rod’ project. What’s that? Well, if you needed your car fixed and you knew of two equally skilled mechanics located beside each other and charged the same amount which one would you pick? What if you found out that one of them built hot rods in his spare time? Now it’s obvious which one you would choose. Likewise in the design market there are so many designers with similar portfolios it becomes hard to choose who to hire.
Every art director’s dream
MOVING FROM DESIGNER TO ART DIRECTOR
When I taught Art Direction in San Francisco’s Academy of Art I told my students that they would be devising concepts and then becoming the champion of those concepts. In order to generate successful concepts an art director has to see the bigger picture, think things through in order to see the problem clearly and then devise a suitable solution. Have a look at the site Hovering Art Directors – there are lots of hands on chins and either expressive or folded arms.
In doing all of the above you end up managing projects from start to finish. Everyone else has a part to play but you are the director – hence the title. With that comes the shift to taking responsibility for deadlines, resources, a client (or a group of clients) and implementing high standards, all while co-ordinating with designers, production, photographers, developers, illustrators, printers etc.
In order to make the transition to art director a designer needs to stop not waiting to be told what to do and start thinking about the problems the ACD/CD is facing and how can you start helping. Think things through like they have to do and offer solutions. Design with more creative uniqueness in mind.* Start thinking on your feet more, volunteer to take on more problems, aim to present to your concepts to clients.
* My own view is that the more the unique the problem then the more unique the solution.
Sadly this is the stereotype of CDs – I always give credit for other people’s work
MOVING FROM ART DIRECTOR TO ACD/CD
A huge amount of an ACDs/CDs day involves constantly providing answers, being in meetings, approving work, motivating team members and one-on-ones. You have to champion creative ideas, support the creative team yet tow the company line and advocate the clients needs in order for the business to grow. As a result it can be lonely at the top.
I didn’t mention “do really creative design work” as most ACDs/CDs are not actually designing anything any more. They often steer other’s design work, suggest solutions or clearly define a problem. Their personality is driving the team towards increased creativity. As a result photos of ACDs/CDs tend to have them looking straight at the camera. This partial involvement often causes them to take much of the glory should the project go well (see Lunchbreath’s cartoon above). The opposite is true if the project goes badly.
An ACD/CD also has to stand back and look at the biggest possible picture – where the business is going, improving the relationship with the client, building a creative team. Out of all the positions mentioned in this post this one has the highest stakes. You are responsible for the entire creative output of a firm/agency without any buffer zone. This really puts your head on the block. Perhaps it is finally having the greatest say (or greatest ego) but I have never worked for a CD who has not been laid off or fired at some point unless they were one of the company’s owners.
Guttenberg was not the inventor of moveable type – he just made it more accessible
MOVING FROM ONE LEVEL TO THE NEXT
When I was in the military we were always taught to think two levels up in case that person was killed or wounded in action. This may seem like an overly dramatic example compared to the world of design but a similar process will help get you to the position you want since we all have those emergencies where suddenly we are pulled off one project and shoved onto another. Basically if you are a designer you should be thinking what is the Creative Director/Associate Creative Director really looking for or hoping to achieve. If it’s “they want to look good when they are presenting your ideas to the client tomorrow” then you should be working backwards from there i.e. what will impress this client in particular, what rationale will be easier to present to them and what is the key takeaway to make it a memorable presentation.
It’s not just beginning to understand what the person two levels above really wants but thinking at that level on a daily basis. Soon it will effect everything you do. It’s not about needing the permission of a title to start thinking at the level but ‘being’ at that level. In some situations you will grow and thrive. In others you will create waves and may lose your job. Either way you will be true to your aspirations and not waiting for the day when someone grants you permission to think at a higher level.
Whether you get a chance to display this higher thinking in your job or not, start a blog or website on the area of design that is most of interest to you (especially if you are in a more stifling environment). Use it to demonstrate your ability to think like a leader, which will put you in the drivers seat and get you where you want to go. It also shows everyone else what you are capable of – a key step in getting the job you want.
Recruiters have seen so many portfolios that few things are new to them.
TITLES, SALARIES AND JOB HUNTING
When it comes to titles it’s recruiters who have the clearest idea of what each title means and what a designer should be capable of. It’s their bread-and-butter so they don’t want to get it wrong with their clients. However, different companies have their own idea of what each title actually means and they don’t want to take a chance at stretching someone to a level above their current one. You may feel you are quite capable of the job in question but the design industry places such a heavy emphasis on titles and it may become a barrier to your career progression.
An anecdote from my own career really illustrates this view in the design industry’s job market: in a previous job most of the creative staff had a range of titles (Art Director, Senior Art Director and Associate Creative Director) but all did roughly the same work. The title translated to the equivalent of a position one step lower in other companies or agencies. In a bizarre twist of fate years later a recruiter mistakenly sent my details back to the same firm again for another ACD position (I had left as an ACD). The firm asked “why had I taken a step down in my career by becoming a Senior Art Director after leaving?” I had to explain that despite the title, the next position was actually a huge step up in responsibility. This point became a big stumbling block for the ACD position in question as contrary to reality, in their eyes my career had gone downhill after leaving them, not uphill.
Since most design salaries are tied to a particular title the latter becomes the gateway to the former. As a result hiring managers and recruiters are very title centric when looking at your résumé. In the agency world everyone moves around so much that the market reaches its own equilibrium and balances out. Companies who don’t have creativity as their core business tend to pay lower. Jumping from one to the other can cause a shift in title and/or salary. In this case look closely at the creativity of the work and the level of responsibility to gauge what the job really entails.
Volunteer for creative side projects but beware of these common pitfalls that come with them
AFTER ALL IT’S JUST A TITLE
While I have detailed some of the main aspects of the various stages in a designer’s career there are key things to do at every level that will help you ultimately get your ideal job:
- Ask yourself what your boss or their boss is thinking about and act accordingly
- Start your hotrod project (this blog is mine)
- Rise to the occasion when a challenge comes along
- Always try to meet other creatives (they may recommend you for a job)
- Go to design events to see what is going on in the industry*
Think of yourself as not just being the title you currently have but instead acting the part of the position you want to be. Others will start to see you that way too. Only you can decide to be the person that you want to be whereas anyone can just make a title up. Mine previously was ‘Grand Poo-Bah of Art Direction’. At that time the designer beside me held the title ‘Zombie Killer’. Another’s was ‘Superhero’. After all, they’re just titles.
* Meet-Ups or AIGA events (panel discussions on design, studio tours, design competitions)
This article was originally printed in the July issue of InPrint magazine
The political poster has played a significant role in political gatherings for the last two hundred years. They could be produced cheaply and plastered up quickly. Epic clashes of ideology fought it out in visually compelling posters that are easy to show in design and history books. To see some great example click here.
Political posters are conceptually easy to design. They just need a great image, a gripping headline and maybe a logo. There are no clicks or metrics or market share attached to them. However the very idea of a poster is under attack due to the dominance of TV/web as the main mediums for political messaging along with green issues of paper wastage. Is there still the kind of great clash of opposing ideologies that historically gave rise to all those great posters of previous eras? In this article I ask if the political poster is it now an out-of-date medium?
IS THE MEDIUM THE MESSAGE?
Plastic yard signs with prongs for insertion into the ground have sprouted up all over suburbia. These have largely replaced paper posters in the US as the main conveyor of political messages at the street level. This is where we passively form our opinion of a candidate as we go about our day-to-day life.
Other processes for mustering up the vote occur in the privacy of the home such as email, telemarketing, direct mail and websites/online banner ads. All of these can bring a more detailed message to specific households. However these messages are more likely to be lost in the daily mass of unsolicited spam, junk mail and the ever annoying telemarketing phone call.
TV remains the dominant medium for presidential or congressional election campaigns as it is the main chance for individuals to see the candidate in person (so to speak). Just like a brand the footage gives a general impression of how the candidate conducts themselves–more so than in other media.
However despite all this individuals still wave posters at the party conventions and carry them in parades. There is something about their size and manageability that keeps them in the human scale. The fact that anyone can now design them and get them printed adds to their universal allure. Click here to see CafePresse.com’s Obama and Romney pages and just as before they still remain the main artifact for a political campaign.
DESIGN OF POLITICAL POSTERS IN THE US
Large last names, stars and red/white/blue: the main ingredients of US political posters
So what goes onto these printed posters? There is definitely a very unique view of designing political campaigns in the US. There is a certain psychology at play and design for political posters process reflects this.
Firstly the biggest unique aspect of designing election posters in the US is the use of a candidate’s last name as the largest element. Sure the name appears on the ballot and it’s important to recognize it. However in Ireland and the UK political posters have pictures of the specific individuals on them as the largest element. The name appears big as well but it is a secondary element.
Next comes the use of variations on stars and stripes to convey how ‘all American’ the candidate and their values are. Smaller parties like the Greens or Libertarians don’t use the generic American look to present a non standard view of their policies. The concept of ‘Blue’ states (Democratic) and ‘Red’ states (Republican) emerged through TV’s portrayal of the vote counting. However red is not seen as a particularly American color on it’s own in politics. This is probably due to red’s association with communism and a general negative ‘stop’ or ‘danger’ connotation.
Thirdly I find the absence of party branding on these posters is very odd. Almost all candidates in presidential and congressional elections are members one of the two main parties yet they don’t use their logos. Obama made up his own logo and uses that. By contrast European political parties each have their own distinct color branding and party logo on everything. I think only the green party in the US has a distinctive brand color but with a name like that it would have to.
A VISION OF IT’S TIME
A selection of compellingly designed political posters
Not only does every good political poster have it’s own message but to be a great political poster there usually has to be a strong opposing viewpoint. Consider the iconic ‘I Want You’ Uncle Sam poster from world war one or the equally iconic British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster originally to be pasted up if the Germans invaded during world war two. Both so captured a feeling of their era that has lived on beyond their origin. Check the links as the end of this article to see American, Communist and Nazi posters from world war 2.
While the clash of ideals provides a political viewpoint it also creates an impassioned group trying to use it to electrify or shock the public. If the group also comes from the fringes they may have less to lose. A great example of this is the Silence = Death poster created in reaction to President Reagan declaring AIDS “public health enemy number one” in 1987.
Now in this election year what is our vision of the future? Is there an epic clash of ideologies? During US elections the two main parties seem to mostly target the voters in the mid ground. These are the people who will sway an election rather than the dedicated party followers. As a result in deciding their messaging politicians in the US tend to play it safe. Currently Obama and Romney’s political platforms cover job creation, economic stimulus, the deficit, auto industry recovery, healthcare etc. The detail varies but in the run up to the election these differences will be expanded to appear like the epic ideological clashes of the mid 20th century.
CASE STUDY: OBAMA HOPE POSTER
Shepard Fairey with his famous Obama image in the National Portrait Gallery and some of it’s parodies
Against the backdrop of stars and stripes dominating political posters the Obama/Hope poster emerged to capture the imagination of the public in 2008. It seemed to capture Obama’s vision, whether real or imagined. It also encapsulated the public’s desire for change, something John Kerry was unable to do in 2004.
The artist Shepard Fairey designed the stencil style poster in a single day and then printed off 700 to sell on the streets of San Francisco. The original poster merely had the word ‘progress’ but Obama’s campaign people later asked if Fairly could do a version with ‘hope’ and even later on a version with ‘change’. The non specific message captured a feeling rather than a specific policy allowing anything to be read into it. It no doubt helped sway many of the undecided voters who needed a clear brand-like sense of what Obama stood for.
By October 2008, Fairey and Yosi Sergant, his publicist, claimed to have printed 300,000 posters (most given away) and 1,000,000 stickers. For a year after it’s creation the image and parodies of it appeared everywhere. In fact to make your own click here.
Despite a legal wrangle over the use of the an Associated Press photo the original hand finished collage now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. Unlike most of his predecessors, Fairey has shown the dramatic impact a single political poster can achieve.
GET OUT THE VOTE
The urban myth that more people voted for American Idol than in a presidential election of 2008 is widely believed (although not true). As the amount of people casting their votes declines, the mobilization of the non-voters has become the key focus of the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. Rock concerts, college campus gatherings and posters target the 18-25 age group–the very people who most want to change the world yet often feel that they can’t change anything.
The narrowness of the margin in votes between the two presidential candidates in Florida 2000 caused an even larger GOTV drive in 2004 and 2008. As a result various GOTV campaigns in the US are populated with people with left wing/Democratic political views. My gut feeling is that groups with right wing/Republican views mobilize better as a voting block. It is ironic that while previously great political posters used to say who to vote for while now they are just asking people to vote.
The AIGA (the professional association for design) has organized a selection of print ready posters open to anyone use. To see the full range of magnificent posters click here. The project is a return to the vision that graphic posters can sway people to vote for something. In the last election approximately 100,000 of AIGA/GOTV posters were printed. There is still an epic clash of great ideals, but now the ideological clash is between democracy and apathy.
WILL WEBSITES REPLACE POSTERS?
Websites are increasingly used as the main contact point for political campaigns. Unlike other media, online campaigns are a two way process, can be tracked for usage/clicks and are easily updated as policy changes–everything a poster is not. So with websites being a more effective tool for reaching the electorate than a poster should they still play it safe?
A disastrous political website appeared earlier this year in the form of the highly racist Bettie-spend-it-now campaign for Senator Pete Hoekstra. Aimed at his opponent Debbie Stabenow’s spending policy it has an Asian girl saying in pidgin English “Thank you Debbie SpendItNow. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get weak. Ours get very good. We get jobs. Thank you Debbie SpendItNow.” The website had Chinese fans, dragons and the red communist flag all around the video. Click here to see the video (which also played as a tv ad during the Superbowl).
It definitely cut through the masses of safe political messaging by having a more unique take on the issue and created a big media buzz. Pete Hoekstra discovered the fallacy of the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity and had a drop of 5% in support (comparing a poll in November 2011 to one in February 2012). It is surprising that the drop was only 5% and not more. The site was taken down due to so many complaints and original URL (debbiespenditnow.com) now directs to PeteSpendItNot.com. Hoekstra’s willingness to not play it safe could have created something great. After all it clearly changed many of the electorate’s minds–just not in the way Hoekstra had in mind.
The future equivalent of the poster may lie online
No longer the outsider, Obama cannot reuse the emotive ‘change’ theme of his first presidential campaign. Instead he has now gone for the safer middle ground. Web ads now present him more like an everyman figure with his wife and children being co-opted into them. There is even a reality TV-like online ad campaign where donators to the campaign can win a dinner with Obama himself. By contrast Romney’s message so far is mostly about jobs and economic growth. Gone is the iconic poster from the fringe declaring Hope, Change or Progress.
So how do you end up with a great political poster? Put simply it’s the combination of being at the right time and place to capture a zeitgeist of an epic clash of ideals, preferably in a new artistic style. It seems that without this epic clash there won’t be an epic poster. Maybe as the messaging changes from either side in the run-up to November 1st’s voting, a more diverse clash of ideals will emerge. Someone just as lucky as Fairey may yet capture the spirit of the time.
Some fantastic posters:
World war 2 American posters:
WHAT ARE SKINS?
Called many other things such as wallpapers, wrappers, homepage takeover skins, gutter ads or left & right rails a ‘skin’ is a static background image that serves as a branded frame for a web page. By wrapping the page’s banner ad experience a “perfect” skin focuses the user’s attention towards the page’s clickable ad units similar to a painting’s frame–focusing the viewer’s attention onto the picture but not competing with it.
CNET Networks (now CBS interactive) was one of the early adopters of skins on it’s Gamespot site and now hosts approximately 900 skins a year across it’s network of sites. Skins are now beginning to appear everywhere on the web from corporate websites to IMDB. If you want to have a go at making your own skin go to Twitter’s page here
Despite this if you Google ‘designing homepage takeover skins’ (their most common name) or any of the other names above you come up with nothing. I’ve been working on skins daily now for 5 years and devised the CBS Interactive’s standards for them so I thought it was time to examine them in detail.
One of the most elegant skins I have ever seen
THE USER’S EXPERIENCE
Many advertisers think of a skin as even more space in which to put their advertising messages (logos, products, ‘buy now’ etc). However a website’s user is often overlooked in the attempt to bombard them with the same repeated messaging. Less premium sites tend to facilitate the latter approach. More premium sites tend to expend extra energy juggling the user’s, advertiser’s and site’s needs to create a more balanced skin experience. It takes more effort but it is definitely worth it to keep a site’s audience happy.
Skins should be thought of as part UX design and part advertising. Ideally advertisers want the site’s user to be entertained by an immersive experience rather than wince at an eyesore. As a result creating one expansive brand experience is the key to a good homepage takeover rather than a series of smaller distracting experiences (see the two Walking Dead takeovers below).
Another consideration is the type of audience. Skins on gaming sites are part educational as it’s users want to be visually entertained and yet be informed of new games. A skin on a business site may be more toned down for a more conservative audience who may see a skin as distracting. Entertainment sites usually feature a film, tv or music star in their skins.
Compare the single high impact of the top takeover to the smaller multiple impacts of the bottom takeover
WHY SHOULD SKINS AVOID REPETITION
I used to see a lot of clients asking for an exact repetition of the page’s banner ads in the skins as though they were two skyscrapers on either side. This approach is similar to thinking “maybe the user will look over here, or up here or down here” and that everywhere they look the message must be the same. In reality the user reacts badly to these types of skins for three major reasons:
1. It creates a negative user experience by being visually unattractive. After all, the user is on that particular webpage for a specific reason. They may already mentally wince at a takeover. Why blow the chance to make a good impression because of the visuals when the offer/price/product is already good.
2. By exactly repeating a banner ad’s imagery and messaging in the skin it makes the latter look clickable. Since the mouse tends to follow where the eye is on a page a distracting skin steers the user’s attention away from the banner ads which actually are clickable. As a result the click through rate (CTR) is driven down.
3. The average user already sees so many brands creating great web experiences through skinned homepage takeovers all across the internet. As a result a brand that creates a sub premium experience is seen by a user as a sub premium brand.
Top: the IMDB client approved the elegant skin Middle: with safety area Bottom: what most users saw
A skin is ‘ad served’ to slot under all the page’s content. While a skin’s specs could state that there are maximum dimensions of 1600 x 1000 px of this slot in reality the site’s ad server can usually take a file of any dimensions. Consequently skins are often designed to be huge because of the maximum dimensions available (see the IMDB example above). Physically, the only real limitation is the file’s k size cap (e.g. CBS Interactive’s is 150k, IMDB’s is 120k, YouTube is 256k).
However what the end user is likely to see varies greatly depending on their individual monitor size or settings. At CBS Interactive we recommend keeping the key imagery within a designated “Safe Area” approximately 1200 px wide and 600 px deep. We can assume most (but not all) of our sites’ users will see everything in that area. We recommend putting all logos, product shots and key messaging within that area in order to create a user experience that will work across multiple browsers and screen resolutions. Anything beyond that should be seen as a ‘bonus’ and would ideally just feature supporting imagery rather than the fine detail of banner ads.
To get a feel for what this display screen issue is like Google set up an interactive page here. Simply type in a particular site’s URL to see their matrix overlaid on top of it. The matrix is a little too small by current standards and is left aligned instead of center aligned (like most current sites) but you get the general idea.
Added to this are other variables, none of which can be controlled by the host site:
- individual users can have their browsers set to zoom in or out
- gamers are likely to have wider than average monitors
- manufacturers are increasing the physical size of their monitors size over time
- Apple is now supporting 1680 x 1050 px display size
Shadows highlight the clickable areas in a takeover
SKIN DESIGN TIPS
Since I’ve done thousands of skins over the years here are some tips that I’ve picked up. Apologies if they seem obvious. I’m stating them here because I see these points constantly not applied:
Logos in the skin
• I frequently advise that logos be left off skins
• large logos get cut-off if they are partially outside the safety area
• logos within the safety end up being too small for a dominant brand presence
• clients frequently agree when shown the a jpeg of the safety area in place
• logos should be on the right side of the skin to avoid clashing with the site’s logo in the masthead
Scrolling or Static skins
• sites have either ‘scrolling’ skins or ‘fixed’ skins
• fixed skins stay in place and remain constantly visible as the user scrolls down the page
• scrolling skins move and disappear as the user scrolls down the page
• most skins on the web are now scrolling
• page shadows direct the user’s attention to the clickable area/ads
• however skins without a shadow around the clickable areas look more elegant
• skins without shadows are like banner ads without buttons i.e. they get less clicks
• increasingly skins are appearing on the web without shadows
• the shadow layer can also have a black panel (covered by the content) to keep the final file size down
• add a gradient at the bottom of a skin in order to fade to a solid background color
• this background color (hex code) continues the expansive feel of the skin
• a product image can be large in the skin as a texture instead of being small inside the safe area
• background imagery in the form of clouds, forests, cityscapes etc. make excellent supporting skins
A good example of a toggle skin for the movie Sucker Punch (designed by Justin Herman)
OTHER TYPES OF SKINS
Not all skins have to be static although they are by far the easiest to create. There are a range of options that we’ll see more of on the web as skins become more commonplace. As with regular skins the key is to enrich the immersive branding experience for the user not to drive them away by bombarding them with messaging.
Toggle skins allow the user to change the page’s skin from a set of options such as the Sucker Punch example above where the user could pick a character to skin the page. Other fun things can be done in a skin such as the mouse giving off bubbles in this ABC example (seen by clicking here). It doesn’t take attention away from the existing takeover but enrichs it.
CBS Interactive now supports animated skins such as the Skyline one found here (also designed by Justin Herman). The key is to make sure the animation isn’t overdone by treating it as another space for an animated Flash ad e.g. think of beer pouring into the skin filling from the bottom up for a Budweiser skin. Combined with the Toggle skin the takeover could also do something interesting that changes as the day progresses e.g. the skin could switch out to gradually darker scenes from a cityscape with undead creatures emerging from the shadows.
Some skins are also clickable. These initially have a higher CTR but this is generally caused by a lot of false clicks as users don’t realize that the sides of the page will direct them elsewhere on the web. The whole process creates a bad user experience and as a result non-clickable skins are generally seen as a more premium offering.
This skin cleverly supports its ads: balls get flicked across the top ad and drop down to the bottom hand
Skins will become increasingly relevant as display sizes and monitor widths increase. More of the non-content area will be visible over time and rather than leaving a vacuum I can see skins being increasingly omnipresent across the web. They could be intrusive or they could be cleverly entertaining like the Lumension example above. In developing these best practices for skins I chose the latter approach by putting the user’s experience as the cornerstone of the process.
By taking the user’s perspective the craft of designing effective skins is easier since their role becomes that of supporting the page’s banner ads. Bad skins, like a bad painting, have a kaleidoscope of competing distractions that all sap the eye’s focus. Just like good paintings, good takeovers have a focus (banner ads) and a background that gives the eye a break (the toned down skin). Paintings may move you emotionally but good takeovers move you to click.
And maybe they’ll move you emotionally too…
Team X(pedite): every team needs to have fun
The unconventional mind of a designer makes them so capable of solving problems. They have highly individual opinions and their thought process can go in many different directions. In this highly subjective post I look at my very own thoughts on how to manage a creative team made up of these unique individuals and how to channel all that mental energy into creative projects.
BUILDING THE RIGHT MENTAL LANDSCAPE
In common with many jobs these days creatives need an environment conducive to lateral thinking and problem solving. A lot of this boils down to the mental headspace that a creative has to work within. Here are some of the things I think are key for a manager to create that headspace:
- get other problems out of their way so they can focus
- offer support as creatives face criticism of their concepts all the time
- keep an agile mind to jump around from different problems and people
- be approachable so time isn’t wasted on the wrong idea
- treat everyone as an individual
- use humor to get through
It goes without saying that creative leads are good at the design/concepting/writing parts of their job. I also feel that creative leads, like all managers, need to be impressive, not just with their work but as a person. After all you are asking people to be happy following your directions for months or years. A happy team also has a low turnover of designers and retains all the experience that forms its greatest asset – intellectual capital.
By contrast, a few years ago a friend worked in a well known boutique design agency. The management rigorously enforced a policy where no spare time was allowed to be wasted on anything but work and then went beyond the norm: 9am-6pm was for billable jobs, 6-9pm was for pitches and the time after 9pm was for working on a printed design book (there was always one in the works). My friend did a doodle while sketching which he was later given out to as this was considered to be wasting time. Most designers sucked it up long enough to produce a few portfolio pieces and left. My friend lasted 6 months before leaving.
The Client Whisperer: Divining the client’s intentions
DIRECTING: DRIVING CREATIVE IDEAS
Whether you are an Art Director, Associate Creative Director or Creative Director you have ‘director’ somewhere in your title. This means having to grasp of whatever the current problem is and steering others towards a resolution you are happy with as you are the gatekeeper of creative standards. Thus the creative lead needs the quasi supernatural powers of divining what the client wants.
During kick-off meetings I help define the problem and give key creative suggestions on how to approach the problem. Some creatives need the barest of pushes while others need more clear cut suggestions. Frequently I advise that if the designer can think of a better idea than mine to feel free to work it up too. If I only weighed in with clear direction close to the deadline it would waste a lot of the team’s time and effort.
In an average day I expect a lot of interruptions and to jump back-and-forth on projects to keep the creatives happily creating and projects happily flowing. Frequent check-ins use up my time in the short run but save a lot more time in the long run. Projects move to completion quickly without stress and with few sudden shifts in direction.
In a previous position as the Associate Creative Director for Dell’s monthly consumer catalogs I directed the creative efforts of 4-8 people. Turnaround times were tight as multiple printing presses spat out 30-40 million copies of the catalog every month. A team briefing and brainstorming session kicked off each catalog followed by a divvying up of individual projects. From there I would ‘desk hop’ across the team on a daily basis providing feedback. Team check-ins every two days made sure everyone stayed on the same page. By the time we received one catalog’s feedback the next catalog would have already started so we were under pressure to get it right the first time.
The Round Killer: getting it right the first time
PROCESS: GETTING CREATIVE PROJECTS DONE
At CBS Interactive our creative services are not charged by billable hours so having endless rounds of changes is very inefficient for us. As a result I spend more time getting it right (or as close to right as possible) in the first round which keeps clients happy and avoids last minute crises.
In order to get it right while making so many decisions on the fly I have to trust my gut instincts. Luckily these have been developed over the years from designing thousands of online units and art directing thousands more. Without even sketching anything I often visualize the final layout and animation a bit like mental Tetras.
This is fine for client driven campaigns with existing assets but how do I come up with concepts for the more creative projects like RFPs? Luckily ideas usually pop into my head once I’ve read the brief and talked to the account people. I love solving problems so my mental hard wiring helps me. If I get stuck there is usually another problem that comes along. By the time I get back to the first project the block is usually cleared.
Once we have a concept or layout we need to get it to the account/client approvers. This is where the sanctity of the deadline is crucial. A team’s attitude towards hitting deadlines is not just key to making sure individual deliverables get done on time but also to make sure the whole process doesn’t fall apart.
In a previous position as the Senior Art Director for Coca-Cola’s in-store material I inherited a team which often had to cram three days worth of design/production into a single day with unpredictable late nights. This was followed by one or two days of doing very little while awaiting for client feedback. One designer developed eczema from the stress. To address all this I started proactively checking in with the various account pods at 9am to see if they had anything due that day or the next day rather than waiting for them to come to me. Quick sketches got the team started on projects by about 10 or 10.30am. I aimed to get deliverables back to the account pods by 4pm for feedback by 4.30 or 5. The days of doing nothing disappeared as did the late nights, the stress and the eczema.
Keep Calm (hangs at my desk)
MANAGING: DOING IT AGAIN AND AGAIN
I regard the managing process as being able to repeatedly get the projects finished by the deadline while retaining the team members who have built up these core competencies. So just how do I do that?
Firstly hiring good people and mentoring them establishes good habits and allows them to grow to a point where they no longer need me to manage them. Luckily I’ve only ever managed one difficult person and they moved on before things came to a head.
I listen to each individual’s pain points as these often are the cause of a team member to leaving. To understand their individual issues that aren’t deadline driven I make sure I have an ongoing relationship through a biweekly one-on-one. The dialogue is kept going on a daily basis with 5-10 minutes chats, whether about the work or not.
This process helps convey my thinking on creative issues in particular but also fosters independent thought by the individual designer. Where possible I also try to get creatives assigned the kind of work they like in particular e.g. I once got a creative to use his prior theatrical training in a presentation. I always remember birthdays. It means a lot.
Fast Track: The Few
CASE STUDY: A FAST TRACK TEAM
In mid 2010 I identified certain types of projects that kept recurring with very short lifespans such as RFPs and emergency ad placements. I floated the idea that these projects needed a separate team to deal with them as they derailed the regular projects.
In setting up the team I was looking for people who had a mindset capable of coping with these types of projects as specialists (in the same way that the military gives different roles to troops with similar training – a mental not physical distinction). Over time I could always train and mentor people to be better, faster or calmer etc.
Structure gets added by Project Managers who form the mental bridge between the lateral minds of creative teams and the linear minds of account teams. With four permanent staff and usually more freelance staff the volume produced by the team in any given week is huge.
In order to keep the projects moving along I have to provide feedback promptly and as mentioned before I have to anticipate being interrupted throughout my day. It’s part of the job. The consequences are happy clients, no missed deadlines, and few late nights – something unique in our industry.
Thanks Michelle, Rich, Tasha, Darius and the many freelancers who have been on the team.
Gary Klein’s two books on intuitive decision making
CASE STUDY: INSIDE A MANAGER’S MIND
Where did I learn how to manage? Unlike most designers I spent time in the military. In fact for the last 18 months of my time in the military I trained recruits from being straight-off-the-street civilians to full soldiers so I like the whole training and mentoring process. Not surprisingly I also applied some principles from the military to my design career. However the principles expounded in this post are all just common sense applied well.
One of the key aspects of leading a team is taking the managing aspect of my job seriously and holding myself to high standards. After all I was trained to lead others and take command of ambiguous situations. So with that in mind let’s look at what goes on in my head while I manage the 80-90 projects I am usually creative lead on.
Firstly I can’t look into all of those projects in depth and this is where hiring and training good people really pays off as I can trust them to do the well without my help. I can then have quick check-ins throughout the day to keep everything moving forward. I get more involved with the trickier projects sitting in on kick-off meetings and having more frequent check-ins. I have to keep focusing on new problems quickly in order to make so many judgement calls throughout the day.
A similar process is covered in Gary Klein’s ominously titled book ‘Sources of Power’ – a psychological study of the decision making process in the minds of emergency room doctors, fire chiefs and other high pressure jobs. The author explains that traditional decision making models involve gathering all available information, comparing options and usually having input from other people. ER doctors and fire chiefs are more likely to come up with one course of action and then run through it mentally looking for flaws. If they don’t find any flaws in their model, they act on it. If they do find flaws, they come up with another possible course of action. What they don’t have is time to compare multiple options, weighing the pros and cons of each.
The process means my average working day is very busy and our efforts are focused in a highly efficient way. We get through a lot of work without sacrificing quality and deadlines are never missed.
My former life
If I had to distill my creative management philosophy down to one main principle that I picked up from the military it would be putting the team’s needs first. If you look after the designers and they will look after you. In the creative world that means providing feedback promptly and taking the time to listen to any concerns even if it means you have less time to do your own workload. Time saved early on makes a huge difference to stress levels.
Applying these ideals effectively across many different individuals and teams is the true test of any creative lead’s abilities. With this kind of mental effort on a leader’s part any team can become a well oiled machine where people know what is expected of them, can have fun and stay on the team long enough to grow.
Marvel vs Capcom 3; Page Disintegration Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Promote the game’s release in an interesting way
INTRODUCTION: WHAT ARE RFPs?
Requests for proposals (RFPs) are just like crowdsourcing projects but with bigger budgets. RFPs are sent out by clients, agencies or media buyers inviting multiple firms to respond to a specific brief. Just like crowdsourcing, the work submitted for the proposal is not paid for and compensation is only given to the winning submitter(s).
In the design community RFPs are not regarded as ‘real’ projects and thus are looked down on. The fact that the design work usually goes into a PowerPoint document further diminishes this view. Several recruiters even told me that they almost never see designs for RFPs in portfolios.
I regard RFPs as quite ‘real’ since they win most new business in both the online and print world. One account manager suggested to me that 80% of new business comes in from RFPs. In this post I’ll use my experience of working on RFPs and pitches in many positions since 1993 to illuminate how RFPs and pitches have a the hidden world of creativity, an issue that effects the whole online community. I’ll also examine how RFPs normally gets overlooked by the design community and while I work at CBS Interactive I will detail what I personally feel are best practices for responding to them.
Jambox; Jam Anywhere Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Show the Jambox is wireless
WHY ARE RFPs OVERLOOKED AS CREATIVE PROJECTS?
I see less and less RFPs merely showing banner ad placement and increasingly see RFPs asking for a ‘big idea’ and custom creative (rather than an off-the-shelf solution). These big ideas should be fun to do, create portfolio pieces and a great ad for the company submitting them.
There’s only one snag. There’s usually only somewhere between 2 and 5 days to give a full response, sometimes only 24 hours by the time it hits the studio. As a result the focus often becomes getting some kind of response back to the client on time, a bit like a Top Chef Challenge. Often junior designers are used ‘to knock something out’ so that seniors are not taken off ‘real’ bill paying projects. Less time + less experience = lesser results.
I believe that RFPs should have senior people assigned to them. It helps that I manage a team of people who can handle projects that need a quick turnaround. Who better to come up big ideas under pressure, the RFPs themselves acting as as a pitch for the team’s abilities.
DEVELOPING A GUT FEELING FROM THE BRIEF
For an average ad campaign or pitch there would be time to think through many strategies and options, all honed down in rounds of revisions. Since RFPs are not scrutinized through this process a lot of independent thought is needed. Whatever you go through in the time frame available so do the other 10-20 responders (sometimes even as much as 50 according to Jason Haddad Group Strategy Director at OMD – responsible for commissioning many RFPs for Intel).
Jason says, “…time isn’t always what creates a good Proposal though … Agencies that are more transparent with the information they share tend to get better Proposals than vague RFPs that ask for things like “unique, never been done before ideas” with no definition or indication of what success looks like.”
The RFP document acts as the brief, outlining the client’s audience and strategy to reach them. They are worth reading fully as a few key clues are usually buried in the document, as are the mandatories, desired results and metrics for measuring them. Conversations with the account/sales teams usually put some much needed flesh on the bares bones provided. As a result a good kick-off meeting is necessary to narrow down confusion and clarify what needs to be done. From there look at the website for more clues. Googling the subject and checking a few blogs will turn up nuggets of information or images.
All this is to build a picture quickly in your head of what is being asked for and how the client thinks. This will help form a gut feeling from which you will think of a big idea or two before launching into a whirlwind of activity in the countdown to the deadline. Just remember everyone else receiving the RFP is in the same boat as you.
Logitech Harmony: Revealing The Inner Harmony Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Emphasize the harmony a universal remote brings.
COMING UP WITH A BIG IDEA: BE THE SWORD JUGGLER
The client (usually an agency) wants to have something new and exciting to show both their boss or client. To do that they need something that stands out. As a Media Director for a Fortune 500 Tech company who declined to be named says: “We also think ‘how can we pitch this to our client.’ Just like a vendor, our job is to sell the program through to a client, so we’ve got to be able to sell the idea as good if not better than the vendor that responds to the RFP.”
Think of the interview process. If everyone is the same, a person who juggles swords in their free time is the one you’d most want to interview. Likewise RFPs need a really big idea to stand out. RFPs can be whatever you want them to be (as long as they are relevant to the brief) and exist in a magical land of creativity. If the response wins the business the client may change it later on anyway.
So just how do you come up with a big idea in such a short timeframe? Luckily there isn’t a pre-set right answer for RFPs. If there was the client wouldn’t be sending out requests for ideas to so many people. Usually there are some key words buried in the text of the RFP document to use as inspiration. After that the sky is the limit.
Like all advertising the key to RFPs is to create a small narrative. Just like short stories the key is to make a big impact in a short amount to time. You’re not writing a novel. In the Logitech Harmony example above we didn’t have much to go on. Parts of the page are switched off by the universal (harmonious) remote to reveal the calming waterfall scene (creating inner harmony).
Once you have your big idea give it a name that sums it up and a 10 second elevator pitch. If you can’t do that the idea might be too complicated for an RFP as these rarely get presented in person. The two designers of the agency Number 17 mentioned this process when they said they won a huge piece of MTV business with their ‘Uranus’ (your anus) concept. The people at MTV laughed about it for weeks.
Webroot: Parting The Clouds On Security Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Promote Webroot’s cloud security software.
ONLINE FORMATS: WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE PAGE
People love the sites they use daily to read news, gossip, entertainment or gather information. They tolerate the ads that appear next to the content. They don’t like intrusive takeover ads that prevent them from using the site unless it’s for something really interesting (to them).
Although online concepts can have strange things happen to the page it should be used only if it is a natural fit for the client or product. The strange format alone is not enough to keep the readership interested. It should give the concept a chance to make a big splash in the few seconds you have to tell the story. I have an idea using an unusual format I check with Rich Media, Ad Ops or our developers to see if something is possible. I’ll worry about the logistics of making it happen if we win the business.
New formats or disruptive behaviors are something that Jason Hadad, feels is important: “Almost every RFP I’ve sent out in the last 2 years have required at least some level of custom creative. In all honesty most of the time publishers have unique capabilities that we want to try and take advantage of in order to have some level of breakthrough with their audience. Creative agencies don’t have the bandwidth to develop custom units for every campaign.”
In the Webroot example above there was very little detail about the product as it hadn’t been released yet. All we had to go on is the fact that it was cloud based security so I thought about the homepage falling apart as though it was attacked by a virus. A cloud then spreads to restore order. It’s a simple idea brought to life with good design and a unique page format.
Dolby: Dance Trance Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Potential online component of the existing ‘Insist on Dolby’ campaign.
DESIGN FOR RFPs: SELLING THE SIZZLE
So you have a big idea and only a few hours left to design it. Now what?
Since the finished creative pieces for an RFP will most likely be shrunk down into a PowerPoint document the key is to be big and bold in order to sell the sizzle not the steak (to paraphrase David Ogilvy the advertising guru). It’s a bit like stage make-up, it may look overdone up close but on stage it makes a big impact.
Design: The creative should be a little larger than usual as they won’t be seen at their true size. Imagery and colors should be bright too. Headlines should be big and bold. They should capture the imagination and sum up the concept as any substantiating body copy may not get read.
Assets: Since RFPs are usually speculative the best way to get logos and other imagery is by scouring the web or checking out moat.com (an aggregate site that hosts ads that appear on Google). The client’s website will often have more copy or images. Desktop wallpapers are remarkably handy as are images leaked by blogs.
Format: Mostly the finished creative will be Jpegs but for animations/storyboarding I use PDFs or animated gifs (see the example throughout this post). I frequently recommend the whole look and feel of the PowerPoint document reflects the client’s branding rather than the company the response is coming from. This approach is a little counter intuitive since most companies want to push their own branding. Using the client’s look and feel wraps your response to the RFP in a more palatable form for the client and shows you understand the brand.
All this needs to be done at speed as there usually isn’t time to change anything later on. Since RFPs are not scrutinized through the usual rounds the first few can be hard because designers are so used to having a specific task with approved assets and clear client direction. That doesn’t mean that you produce of sub par pieces. In fact RFPs are a true test of just how creative you can be under pressure.
HP: Cut the Complexity Cord Art Director/Designer: Vica Filatova
Capabilities pitch: idea to promote the simplicity of integrated server solutions.
WHAT DOES THE CLIENT DO WITH YOUR RESPONSE
After covering how best to respond to RFPs I thought it would be good to look at they are received. To this end I talked to Krista Akeson, previously of OMD where she was responsible for reviewing RFPs for in the following process:
“After all the RFPs are submitted, the Assistant Strategist prints hard copies for everyone on the team. We then have what we called a Planning Party part 1 and part 2. Prior to these parties, every team member is required to read all the proposals, write down any questions they have, and give a tentative grade. It usually takes about 6-9 hours to review and discuss the proposals as a team. During these parties, each submission gets a grade based on a list of criteria and ability to meet the campaign’s objectives. Then, as the number of vendors who make the cut decreases, emails (to clarify details) will likely be sent. As the agency puts together their recommendation to the client, they will need to work out tentative budgets.”
When asked about best practices for responding to RFPs Krista summarized them as this:
“I have reviewed hundreds and hundreds of proposals, and have seen many fantastic units that were never included in recommendations because of budget and timing. With that said, I will say there are several best practices for submitting an RFP:
RFP BEST PRACTICES
1) be clear and concise
2) submit at the requested budget level
3) submit in a timely manner
4) be creative
5) tailor ideas to the brand
6) provide case studies
7) use specific language from the RFP
8) be different.”
With regard to the creative part of an RFP response Krista had this to say: “Every single RFP I ever worked on required custom creative…agencies are always asking for big ideas and if this creative idea hits it out of the park and has a reasonable budget, the agency would include it in their presentation (to the end client).” Essentially everyone in the RFP chain is trying to impress the next person in the chain be it their client or boss. Big creative ideas help them do this.
The question has been raised about ideas being used despite not winning the business. When asked what would happen if one submission had a great creative concept and another had good strategy or metrics Krista had this to say:
“Honestly, that scenario happened 90% of the time. If a vendor included a well-thought out, strategic plan in their proposal, but could not execute the idea and/or the creative component, then the proposal was a waste. On the other hand, if a vendor could produce a creative execution that no other vendor’s recommendation could compare, then they definitely would have made the plan and probably would have received the largest budget.”
Now it’s time to look at a specific example that won business (although technically not a regular RFP). Livescribe approached the online versions of NY Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as us for interesting ideas to promote their smartpens. The latter allow a user to write notes and go back to that point on a recorded audio track stored in the pen (see video here). So how do you show that in an ad?
Since it’s very difficult to actually show how the Livescribe pen works in a simple banner ad I knew we needed to show it in action since we couldn’t play sound unless it was user initiated. I came up with the idea of the pen emerging out of regular ads to form a visual narrative as it writes notes on the homepage. Chris Cast, Livescribe’s creative director described this approach as “an excellent way to make our product relevant to the page takeover in a short period of time. Having the smartpen mark up important information on the website is exactly what it’s used for: helping customers find and relive what’s important in their notes…we were highly pleased with the results.”
Livescribe were so impressed they re-worked their campaign budget around making sure they could do the custom creative. It ran over two days and Elizabeth Heinrich, account executive on the project said: “Compared to a standard homepage takeover, the Livescribe takeover outperformed in terms of engagement rate by 3x the normal numbers. With having something more custom, the users really responded and were interested in the product.”
Because the online world loves looking at quantifiable results lets look at the performance numbers:
- 1,209,022 impressions
- 17,295 engagments
- the first day it ran had a 2.4% click through rate (CTR) and the second day had a 1.74% CTR
- 595 total requests to replay the ad for both dates
- 3% average close rate for both dates – meaning most users watched the overlay
As mentioned before I feel putting more experienced creatives on RFPs gives it a better chance of winning the business. If I had to put a ball park figure for our success rate I would say it is about 25%. They don’t always have to win new business. Sometimes they are door openers and sometimes they keep the conversation going. They can even broaden the client’s idea of how creative they can be for the next time.
There may not be awards for winning RFPs yet they are so prevalent in the industry. In fact they are so omnipresent that there could be scope for freelancers or agencies to develop a niche for responding to RFPs. Despite all this the bottom line when it comes to RFPs is that they are fun, win business and create interesting ‘real’ portfolio pieces.
WHAT IS CROWDSOURCING?
First named in a 2006 Wired article simply put crowdsourcing is the sourcing of a task usually done by an individual to a community of people through an open competition. Usually only one person gets paid for their chosen design submission and the rest essentially have done the work for free. Due to the speculative (‘spec’) nature of the work the design profession is having a highly visceral reaction to crowdsourcing. As an experiment I decided to look at it in depth by both setting my own brief and responding to someone else’s brief.
HOW CROWDSOURCING WORKS
You post a brief for a design project with a fee on one of the crowdsourcing sites listed in the appendix. Types of projects include the design of logos, websites, brochures, posters, T-shirts etc. Various designers around the world see the brief, evaluate the effort it would take to respond versus the fee offered (frequently a few hundred dollars) and decide to either decline or start working. By way of an example one logo project for $650 on designcrowd.com received 256 submissions.
Crowdsourcing is a two way street. A small business owner or small charity could probably never afford a design house or ad agency. Designers responding to the brief could be design students, unemployed or live in a part of the world where a few hundred dollars could be a week or a month’s salary. The internet being the great leveler, people from the first group (those posting design briefs) have their needs met by people from the second group (those submitting designs).
WHY SUCH A VISCERAL REACTION TO CROWDSOURCING?
If you Google “Crowdsourcing design” or click this link (http://www.no-spec.com/articles/) you will turn up many entries from the design profession that have a negative view of the process. The emphasis in these discussions is the devaluing of design by spec work/working for free. Various analogies are used along the lines of eating in 5 restaurants but only paying for the meal you like the most.
By contrast in the current marketplace publishers and agencies are constantly asked to submit RFPs (Request For Proposals) for large corporate clients. On average 14 companies will put their responses in for every RFP. Only one or two will get the business. The money involved can be anywhere from $100k to a few million dollars so everyone focuses on winning and not on the loss of time it takes to answer every RFP.
Yet when the same concept is applied to the lower end of the market the design community is up in arms with a very visceral reaction which seems to be rooted in the undermining of the value of one’s own career, education and/or self worth. It’s understandable and it must be how doctors feel when patients say “it must be X, I know this because I read about it online”. Yet at the same time we as designers are happy to use work from other creatives for free such as iStockphoto.com or dafont.com.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
Often these emotional reactions to crowdsourcing obscure three factors that form the real substance of the process. Firstly small business owners like the guys above (from a diner near where I live) need logos, a micro site and other promotional material. What they can actually afford is far smaller than what a design agency would charge. As it is agencies work on long term relationships and would never touch these kinds of micro-projects. Thanks to crowdsourcing the small business owners will get something better than a logo created by themselves in Word.
Secondly the designers responding to crowdsourced briefs need the money otherwise they wouldn’t bother: the higher the fee the better the responses as more people take the time-vs-payoff gamble. While crowdsourcing is unlikely to pay the bills if a designer is out of work it is also a great way to keep designing.
Thirdly these competitions best suit logos or similar small design projects as they are more finite. Long term projects that make up the bulk of agency work and may not work out so well for crowdsourcing e.g. maintaining a website can be more difficult than building one in the first place. In fact Emily Howman from DesignCrowd had this to say about longer term projects: “The percentage has dropped dramatically since we started only running contests for web design and not web coding. Web design/development projects tend to be the longest running and the most involved. The building of a website can take many months.”
MY RESPONSE TO A BRIEF
I thought that the best way to objectively look at crowdsourcing was to reply to somebody else’s brief. The project I chose was to create a logo for Peer Analytics, a company that sifts through cell phone data to find the right time to upgrade or send offers to cell phone users rather than have them go to another network provider. The full brief can be found by clicking here. I chose this project as it intellectually challenged me more than many of the other briefs available at the time which were mostly for hotels, cafés or pubs. Their brief also asked for something modern and up market.
I noticed the last line of the brief asked for “Nice to Have: – Clever user of Negative Space. But not critical.” so I figured they know a bit about design and I had a chance to do something different. Since the bounty on this project was $900 I thought that there would be a lot of submissions, many portraying cell phones, people talking on phones and key pads. If I was going to spend the time I wanted to submit something different and clever to even have a chance of being picked.
I spent 45 minutes with pen in hand toying with the idea of hidden meanings in the data and without realizing it was influenced by the TV show Fringe (which I was watching at the time). I hit upon the idea of using numbers to make up the letters in the logo. Tossing it around for another 45 minutes I hit upon using ’7999′ reflected to make the name ‘Peer’. A further hour in illustrator produced the final polished logo below. I did two more logos, neither of which were chosen, bringing the total time spent on this project to about 5 hours.
The first design was eliminated soon after with the following feedback:
“Thanks for your submission but this is not what I’m after. Please try again. Clever use of 733t speak! But our audience has too much to think about in a glance and most won’t understand.” I had to look up ’733t’ and found this on Urban dictionary: “Common form of writing used by online gamers in which letters are replaced with numbers – such as ’3′ for ‘e’, and ’4′ for ‘a’. Pronounced ‘leet’, the name is short for ‘elite’ – a highly sought-after status in the gaming world.” I had no idea.
The second logo (P33R) wasn’t eliminated for a week so must have been closer to what they were looking for. In theory I got nothing for my efforts but I liked what I did so I might just put it in my portfolio. Peers Analytics must have a hard time deciding from the submissions as the deadline was extended. When the competition was closed there were 307 submissions. I didn’t get to see the logo that was finally chosen but here is their website, which might up on their site soon: www.peeranalytics.com.au
POSTING MY OWN BRIEF
I chose the Australia based site DesignCrowd.com as I found their site was well laid out and nicely designed so as a designer my hopes were high. As a private individual I only had a budget of $350 ($300 prize, $50 to Design Crowd) and somewhere in the world there were people who would be willing to gamble the time needed to respond to a brief for that amount. I just needed to find them. I thought I would really put things to the test and have the competition’s focus on my own logo. What if the crowdsourced designers could do a much better job than I did? Here’s how DesignCrowd break down their packages and below that I’ve added my logo as it currently is:
And here’s my brief to redesign the logo with the Look and Feel slider below (full details can be found by clicking here):
I am a designer writing about crowdsourcing for my blog (http://designcareer.wordpress.com/) and I’m putting my money where my mouth is in order to write about the whole process.
I’m looking for a logo that best sums up me as an art director. For me the most unique aspect of art direction is the ability to problem solve. I do so either through coming up with clever ideas and/or unique styles that match the solution. My portfolio can be found here: http://byrnecommunications.com/
Here’s a SWF I did a few year’s ago which shows the thinking behind the current logo: http://cbsiideagroup.com/blog_header/1321910668.html
You don’t have to use anything at all from this SWF but it may provide insight into how I think.
I like blue in various shades but I think this is preventing me seeing other better color palettes and so I am open to suggestions.
RESPONSES TO THE BRIEF
I guaranteed that there would be a payment on the project even if I was unhappy with the responses which meant waiving the right to a refund. I felt it was the ethical thing to do when someone is responding to my brief for free. Next I clicked the button that would send a link for this project to the top 20 recommended designers who frequently respond to DesignCrowd. I saw that they were located in the UK, Philippines, Australia, France, Brazil, Romania, Bulgaria, India, UAE, Venezuela, Peru and one in the USA. Mentioning that I was going to write about the whole process on my blog may have helped getting some of these designers to respond. A higher fee would have probably helped get them all to respond.
2 hours and 15 minutes later the first response came in. Another response followed 30 minutes later. In 72 hours I had 21 logos from 8 designers, however I felt the majority of submissions were repurposed from previous logo competitions and had little to do with me. In the end there were 35 logo submissions from 13 designers. Here’s a selection:
AND THE WINNER IS…
Henno is an art director living in South Africa who was new to DesignCrowd. His design resonated with me straight away. It was clear he had read the brief and understood what I was looking for. Here’s his creative rationale: “The logo I designed for you gives you a sense of order in chaos but comes together at the end, Much like art direction with 2 sides and you having to accommodate both and come to a mutual agreement, I used 2 strong colors not one more intimidating than the other to balance the message behind the logo.”
I would never have chosen black and red as colors for me but it looks sexy. I asked him to do a version in blue for better continuity with my existing logo. Henno gave me four color options and two entirely new designs. Here are some of his options:
This was the logo I chose as the new ByrneCommunication.com logo (watch out for a future rebranding of my website, blog, résumé, business cards etc.):
And for his $300 here’s what it is worth in South Africa where he lives: “Well lets see for $300/R2500 you could go to dinner with your girlfriend, nothing expensive that would be R1000 and petrol would be R500. To go to a fun park with rides, roller coasters and that would be another R1000 but no food 2 drinks and parking that is it,”
The internet is already crowdsourcing on a vast scale: somebody with a need can find someone able to fulfill that need no matter where they are in the world. The only difference is doing free/spec work. As for design projects, the whole process works best if the person posting the brief lives in a first world economy and the designer is in a country where the competitions prize is comparatively a lot of money. It’s simple economics.
Looking at the types of people/organizations posting these briefs I can say the design industry is not under threat from crowdsourcing. Most briefers included hotels, cafés, construction contractors, a sorority, a mom, a cabinetmaker, a beauty salon, a watch shop, a summer school etc. These are not the types of organizations that would be taking work away from the average agency or design firm. These are the types of small jobs that designers usually get asked to do for friends or friends-of-friends. The project usually ends badly and either they don’t pay anything or pay very little but the expectations are are extremely high. Now I can send these friends or friends-of-friends to crowdsourcing sites and point out that they will get many more designs than I could ever provide.
The crowdsourcing process works best for projects with limited needs like logos. DesignCrowd clearly recognized this and since I first published this post they launched their own logo only site: BrandCrowd. However I wouldn’t want to respond to a crowdsourced brief to create a brochure or website which can be a long and drawn out process even in a agency. As for the future I can foresee clients thinking crowdsourcing is a great idea. The proof will be getting a large, ongoing and continually changing project from start to finish through crowdsourcing. This is the area where having a dynamic and ongoing relationship with a designer or agency is critical to the whole process, something that crowdsourcing cannot provide.
Ethically against Crowdsourcing:
With Flash, Dreamweaver and HTML’s capabilities always improving you would think that there was no need for off-the-shelf portfolio sites anymore. However the prospect of changing a portfolio has become an increasingly daunting task that gets put off repeatedly. Using an off-the-shelf portfolio (henceforth known as OSPs) gets something up fast that can be easily and constantly updated/amended. For most of the OSPs once you pay a monthly fee they’re all on a par with each other. As a result I tried to get right into the nitty gritty in comparing the top 5 off-the-shelf portfolios.
When it came to deciding which of the various OSPs I should use I first had to decide what was important to me. I then used these criteria for judging all the OSP the same way. So here are my mandatory criteria:
1. Completely custom URL
2. Custom look – so it didn’t look too ‘off-the-shelf
3. Capacity to look good
4. Custom masthead
5. Display work well
6. Able to handle Flash SWFs
7. Universally accessible
8. Simple to use and easily editable
9. Size of pieces had to be big enough.
10. Low number of clicks for the end user.
11. Individual URL for specific projects/pieces.
12. Looks good on Mobile devices.
Overall: Behance presents work well and provides the opportunity to add a great deal of information per project (however there are lots of steps to get pieces up). Disappointingly Behance has ads on the site but these can be removed if you pay the monthly ‘ProSite’ subscription of $11. The upgrade gets you:
Behance is orientated towards building a community and is vocal about crowdsourcing. The Behance approach uses crowdsourcing to help the best content and the best designs rise to the top in a design competition, but without any entries or work being submitted on a speculative basis. The idea isn’t to create work specifically for the competition, but to showcase your existing work. Here’s an example: http://www.behance.net/Competitions/Identity-Design-Showdown/1383698
Continuing the theme of community Behance allows users to share your portfolio directly through Facebook, LinkedIn, and StumbleUpon. If you find another designer/photographer/artist you like you can ‘follow’ them to be notified if when the add new work to their portfolio.
• all images will be resized to 600 px wide
• $11 a month
• custom formats (with no coding needed)
• custom URL
• Behance branding removed,
• no ads
1. Custom URL: available with paid subscription
2. Custom look: available if you can play with simple CSS/HTML
3. Looking good: many examples provided on site
4. Custom masthead:
5. Display: a variety of formats are available
6. Flash SWFs: need to be hosted on the another site
7. Accessible: yes
8. Ease of use: lots of steps
9. Size of pieces: all images max 600 px wide, 3MB (audio 20MB, video 50MB)
10. Few steps: quite a few steps to upload projects
11. Individual URL: no
12. Mobile: good size for mobile
Behance’s WYSIWYG format makes it very easy to build a custom website quickly however Flash units have to hosted elsewhere though.
Overall: Since Cargo Collective was recommended to me by several people I started with this one. Like most of OSPs you need to pay a monthly fee to use the best features. I built mine in a week of doing about 4 hours a day – that included getting all the images together and sizing them.
Since there are numerous questions already asked on the Cargo Collective forums it was easy to navigate any problems including trying to find how to become a member (through ‘contact’). It has a nice use of thumbnails to navigate the work and was the easiest to use. Finally a word on branding: a small mention of Cargo Collective appears on the page, even on the paid version. While I couldn’t get rid of it in HTML I was able to move to a point outside the browser window.
• 3 project pages with max 12 pieces per page.
• $66 a year or $9 a month
• custom URL
• custom look through CSS/HTML
1. Custom URL: available with paid subscription
2. Custom look: available with paid subscription/with simple CSS/HTML
3. Looking good: many examples provided on site
4. Custom masthead: available with some tinkering
5. Display: a variety of formats are available
6. Flash SWFs: very complicated process to add them
7. Accessible: yes
8. Ease of use: very, WYSIWYG to change order of pieces.
9. Size of pieces: customizable to any size you want
10. Few steps: yes
11. Individual URL: each project automatically has one
12. Mobile: good size for mobile
Cargo is very good for static images but not so good for Flash which has to be hosted elsewhere. The ability to customize your portfolio through CSS/HTML is fantastic. The questions forum answers a lot of questions.
Overall: Coroflot was one of the earliest OPS out there which may explain why it is the least customizable. Interestingly several recruiters have contacted me through Coroflot, possibly because it is easier to search through the various Tags, SEO and custom search images. Coroflot has it’s own branded header on every page and there’s no getting around that – something that I feel makes it look less professional. After that there are a few other small things like not having custom thumbnails or a separate bio page but these are only minor points.
What Coroflot has that the other OSPs doesn’t is stats of image views, profile views and even how often you appear in other people’s searches, a great way to get an objective view of what’s good (or not) in your portfolio. Seven weeks after updated my portfolio in late May (see above) I could see that there was a huge leap in it’s viewers (1014 views in the first 7 weeks).
Surprisingly my Coroflot profile from 2004 seemed to generate phone calls from recruiters so it must be searched more regularly than I imagined, possibly because an interested party can email you directly. Add to this the employer directory and daily/weekly job postings round-up email and you have a portfolio site that is linked directly to the process of finding a job too.
Free – no paid version
Max file size: 700x1000px
1. Custom URL: no, only a Coroflot based URL
2. Custom look: no
3. Looking good: very set format
4. Custom masthead: no
5. Display: no variation in layout allowed
6. Flash SWFs: just set the size and go (much easier than other OSPs)
7. Accessible: yes, search images and tags help search optimization
8. Ease of use: yes but you load up into ‘portfolios’ but cannot move pieces around from there
9. Size of pieces: pieces can be large in size and vast in quantity
10. Few steps: yes
11. Individual URL: specific URLs per individual images and set of images
12. Mobile: good size for Mobile
While Coroflot has no ability to edit its format it handles Flash very well. Also seeing the stats of pageviews/clicks gives you very good feedback for your individual pieces.
Overall: With substantial job postings and your résumé being formatted alongside your portfolio Krop is primarily intended to help you get a job. However with the free version limiting you to 10 images and Krop’s inability to host Flash units (use Photobucket or similar site) it is harder to get your best work up. Differing styles/formats are only available with the paid version which severely limits what you can do. Luckily the basic layout is clean, minimal and has a light feel to it.
The format you choose in the paid version can’t be converted to a custom layout and there isn’t even a way to search the existing portfolios, the assumption being that you would search for someone via their résumé. One of the unique aspects of Krop is the ability to download your résumé as a pdf, however it ends up being 5 pages of very large type. You can also add your own RSS feed and clickable links in your header for the paid version but does not allow unique mastheads.
• 10 image limit
• $9.99 a month
• unlimited images
• style gallery access
• custom URL
• video embedding through Vimeo
How it meets the criteria:
1. Custom URL: available with paid subscription
2. Custom look: available with paid subscription
3. Looking good: generally yes
4. Custom masthead: no
5. Display: clean and minimal
6. Flash SWFs: no
7. Accessible: yes
8. Ease of use: yes
9. Size of pieces:
10. Few steps: yes
11. Individual URL: available with paid subscription
12. Mobile: good size for Mobile
Quick to fill out for the free version as your options are quite limited. The paid version offers few unique features which cannot compete with the other subscription based Off-The-Shelf portfolios.
While the language and imagery on the CarbonMade site is playful throughout, the free version of CarbonMade has limited choices such as the background being only black or white, serif or sans serif fonts; and the chance to have larger images or a personal logo are only available on the paid version. The CarbonMade website even refers to the free version as “Meh” and the paid version as “Whoo!”
On the positive side the thumbnails have 3 formats, even long horizontal strips. These allow the user to scan through the work brusquely so a potential hirer doesn’t have to do a lot of work. You have to go into each project individually rather than being able to see everything at once.
• 35 images
• Flash units hosted
• $12 mo/$120 yr
• 50 projects
• 500 images
• 10 videos
• custom formats
• custom URL
• high quality video
• priority tech support
How it meets the criteria:
1. Custom URL: available with paid subscription
2. Custom look: available with paid subscription
3. Looking good: many examples provided on site
4. Custom masthead: available with paid subscription
5. Display: custom layout and thumbnails available
6. Flash SWFs: upload directly into CarbonMade
7. Accessible: yes
8. Ease of use: yes
9. Size of pieces: limited/larger if using paid version
10. Few steps: yes
11. Individual URL: yes
12. Mobile: good size for Mobile
I did feel that the paid version of CarbonMade was ‘Whoo’ and the free version actually was ‘Meh’ except for the fact that unlike most other OSPs it loads Flash files directly.
One of the oldest OSP sites and it looks it. A key place where design job are posted. Linked to Communication Arts.
Mainly for artists, the work here is very inspiring but not really the place for graphic designers looking for a job.
With three paid for bands of pricing ($144, $240 and $432 per year) the key differentiator for this site is having unlimited pages, bandwidth, storage and more editing features. There is no free version of this site but you can try it for free for 14 days.
From their hmepage:”Who uses FoilioHD? Photographers, Make-up artists, stage designers, illustrators, journalists, costume designers, 3D modelers, product designers, architects, interior designers…”
If I had to choose one site that was the best I would say Behance is just a little bit better than CargoCollective. The former is easily designed through their WYSIWYG layout tool but cannot host Flash units directly like Coroflot. While Cargo needs a knowledge of CSS/HTML to customize it is extremely easy to update once designed and can host Flash units directly. I also recommend setting up a Coroflot version of your portfolio just to see which pieces create the most interest (through the stats) and modify your portfolio accordingly.
Sites about portfolio sites:
At some point in your career you’ve been laid off or wanted to change jobs. At that point your résumé was dusted off, tidied up a little and the most recent position was added. And that’s it until the next time you needed it.
When it comes to redoing résumés it’s very easy to ask yourself “What have I done with my career so far?” and “How do I use that to get a new job?” Hence people often go down the route of listing jobs, responsibilities and skills. After all it’s what you know you’ve already done. Add a sense of panic to the process too in the rush to find a new job if you’ve been laid off or quit.
But the real questions you should be asking are more forward looking: “Who am I?”, “Who do I want to be?” and “Is it so obvious that I and the résumé are inseparable?”
The résumé provides the linear part of explaining what you’ve done previously and demonstrates a pattern of behavior. It’s this pattern of behavior that potential hirers are looking at primarily to see if you’re worth taking an hour out of their busy day to interview you. If you’re a designer reading this you probably have a portfolio which should be considered your primary document as this will either grab a hirer’s attention or not. This is the lateral part of explaining what you can do.
Designers tend to spend lot of time developing a look and feel of your portfolio and then adding on a résumé afterwards. Non-designers are much better at seeing the résumé as a primary document. However it may be easier to consider the résumé as a brief for the portfolio i.e. define what you want to achieve and hone down the message – all done by expending far less energy. And of course this approach should be undertaken when you’re already working – the best time to overhaul any résumé.
A résumé’s purpose is to give the potential hirer an idea of who you are and what you can do. As such they have to play amateur psychologist or detective to work out who you are from all he details. After all they may have to work with you for a few years. Sooner than that they may have to decide if you are worth taking an hour out of their busy day to meet with you. Although some kind of director will choose to hire you or not, it will be a recruiter, someone in HR or one of the director’s direct reports will hone down the choices. With this screening process in mind you don’t need to give the various people involved an excuse to treat your résumé like spam.
Most articles about résumés say to craft the document to the individual position being applied for. I actually disagree. I believe that if there are too many versions of events depicted in the various résumés tailored to specific positions you end up with a cloud of uncertainty over your head. Instead of thinking “Is this person right for the job” the hirer will think “Which parts of the résumé are lies/exaggerations and which are true?” If you really have to adjust your résumé to target specific jobs remember to keep track of which one is which by changing the file name.
However taking a different (and funnier) tack this can be used to your advantage: I once was at a talk by Caucasian actor Jerry Doyle who said he put the Harlem Gospel Choir, an all black choir, on his résumé. He figured if an interviewer didn’t spot that outright lie they wouldn’t spot the other lies on the résumé.
When it comes to laying out the information in a résumé the format is usually either Chronological or Functional. Choose a chronological format if you wish to be defined by your previous jobs or to continue doing what you are doing now. Choose a Functional résumé if you want to be defined by your skills/personality or change industries.
Chronological résumés show a list of jobs through bullets points in reverse chronological order. It tends to account for time spent in jobs and responsibilities. LinkedIn uses this structure because it is by far the most popular way to write a résumé and because we are connected to other people through specific jobs. While all the key details are written down in a linear order the reader is left to work out for themselves if you are suitable for the position.
Functional résumés show achievements grouped around key experiences/skills. This is my preferred format since it helps the reader grasp what skills you have, what you’ve achieved and whether you are suitable for the position. All your accomplishments are listed under 3-5 headings, usually skill sets. The positions held can be listed in one line each at the bottom. Click here to see my functional résumé.
Once you’ve written your résumé send it to friends, previous co-workers or previous managers to get a gut check on whether it reflects all your skills. Your accomplishments may seem unimportant to you but might be huge in the workplace. Or vice versa. Ask yourself if you are casting the net too wide and sounding generic as a result? Be specific. It might make you less suitable for a lot of jobs but it will make you perfect for some and that’s the sweet spot you want to be at.
The aim of the résumé is to build up a picture in the hirer’s mind but hitting home specific examples so lead with your strengths in key points:
• Focus on the unique parts of your work as career unfolds.
• Give specific examples.
• List accomplishments.
• Add any quantifiable results of your efforts e.g. increase in click-thrus, pitches won etc.
Hopefully titles will be in ascending order to show clear growth and responsibility. Titles can be verified so it is not a good idea to lie/exaggerate these.
When it comes to reading résumés who wants to read a list responsibilities – these were in the job spec of each position that you held but says little about you. In order to communicate who you are, list your own personal accomplishments. Avoid phrases like “Responsible for”, “Experienced in”, “Excellent written skills”, “Team player”, “Detail orientated” and “Successful” e.g. instead of saying you ‘successfully pitched to new clients” you should say that you “won three out of four pitches at X company”. It’s a long painful process, writing and rewriting your résumé is par for the course.
Since you’ve done a lot of the same work across your career you may fall into the trap of using the same words or phrases to describe what you did. Check how many times the same words appear in your résumé. In one draft of my résumé I had the word “emergencies” 7 times – the reader is going to get bored after 2-3 times. Also, enunciate the finer details of your accomplishments to create more unique language in your résumé. This also helps further flesh out just who you are.
Knowing the right amount of personality to add/keep out requires a fine balancing act. On the one hand you don’t want to appear to be vanilla and on the other hand you don’t want to seem like a weirdo by sharing too much. Pepper your résumé with a few hints at your personality but keep it toned down. People are very judgmental when looking at résumés and there are a lot of people who will look at your one before you get to an interview.
You’ve seen your résumé so many times it’s probably really easy to miss typos and repetitions. While typos may be overlooked in day-to-day communications they won’t be on a résumé. A lack of typos says a lot about you – effective, detailed and goal oriented. Having typos says you are lazy, have low standards, miss details and can’t see an end goal. The final word on the language of résumés, in fact the golden rule of résumés, is spell check, spell check and spell check again. If you know a proofreader get them to look it over too.
As you’ve gathered by now I believe résumés are more than something you have to do to get a job. I see them as a honest manifesto for your future. Working out “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” will help guide you through the maze of uncertainties about what to write in a résumé. You may get just as many hits and misses as before but at least you’ll feel a lot more certain about yourself and what you are doing.
Recently I did the Facebook Quiz ‘How well do you know me?’ for Ryan, who sits opposite me in work. Although I had only known him for three months when I did the quiz I scored better than his own sister – highlighting the fact that we spend far more of our waking hours living in our cubicles with our co-workers than with our significant others, friends or family.
Like some kind of miniature office a cubicle defines an individual’s a physical space in the corporate world that it’s occupant can call their own – a bit like your childhood bedroom. The fact that we spend so much time in these small, often uninspiring spaces yet we are still highly creative is a testament to the human ability to adapt to any environment. However cubicles may actually help their occupying cubistas be more creative.
Intrigued? Read on…
WHERE DID CUBICLES COME FROM?
Prior to the omnipresence of the personal computer companies had banks of clerical workers in typing pools servicing the corporate elite in their offices. Originally intended as high-end ergonomic furniture to allow office workers to see all their paperwork spread out the ‘Action Office’ was introduced in 1968 by Herman Miller Inc. That same year US tax law changed allowing companies to depreciate furniture much faster than fixed assets like buildings and suddenly the new ‘cubicle’ exploded across the office landscape.
The Action Office’s creator Robert Propst, designed it with increased productivity, privacy, and health (greater blood flow) at the expense of some inefficient use of space. He never intended the cubicle to be used to maximize space and increase employee density at the expense of everything else but that’s exactly what happened as Action Offices shrank into “spaces” that shrank further into the squarish cubicle we all know so well. By the 1990s many employees of similar skill levels could be packed into huge open spaces with increasing density like a Dilbert cartoon.
Years later the anxiety that cubicles cause is summed up by a lawyer friend (who did not want to be named like the Deep Throat of the Cubicle world) who had this to say about them: “the thing I hate about cubicles is the design. The fluffy carpety walls, damn it. The squareness. The lack of quaint Victorian features. The echoes of a prison cell”. Deep Cube went on to say “Another issue I have with cubicles is status. Cubicles have a low-status reputation. They say “knowledge industry cannon fodder”. They reek of temporariness and instability. You could punch a hole through a cubicle wall in a strop, and topple the whole lot of them in a real warp-spasm.”
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CUBICLE
JUST WHAT IS CREATIVITY?
While creativity can take many forms I’ll just look at advertising/design since that’s what I do. If you’re reading this you have a career in media too and proficient at screening out the 247 to 3000 ads we see in an average day (depends on who you ask – click here here to find out more). Just like we get jaded with linguistic clichés through over usage (think of words like ‘honkey’ or ‘wicked’). The same thing happens with the visual language of advertising and design. Hence creative agencies continually get asked to produce ads/designs that are “outside the box” in order to “break though the clutter” (referencing the corporate landscape).
Cracking problems is the key to most white collar jobs. Stereotypically professions such as medicine, engineering, law, science have a more linear approach but they too have a creative element in problem solving. For graphic design there are less linear constraints than the professions above and therefore the parameters of the design brief are the essential. The key reason I was drawn to Graphic Design is the constant problem solving and there are no absolutely right answers – much like life itself.
Deep Cube, had this to say: “I could not work in a cubicle or open-plan office. Almost all my work is “creative” in the sense that my brain needs to be fully switched-on, analytical, thinking, comparing, coming up with ideas. There is very little of what I do which is mere “process” – coloring in, churning through lists, data entry, etc. That needs a LOT of mental energy. So I need to faff, in order to do bursts of work. If I felt that there was someone looking over my shoulder then I would not be productive: I would leave a spreadsheet up and let my mind wander.”
THE SEARCH FOR BELONGING
We yearn to think of escaping beyond our daily grind of phone calls, emails and padded cubicle walls (or frosted glass if you have an office). The many empty cubicles in most companies after the financial crisis are evidence that many people did indeed escape the confining walls of their cubicle whether by their choice or not. Yet despite this we miss having that workspace to call our own.
One previous creative director gave me the task of re-arranging all the desks of the creatives to fit the large space we were in. Each of the 14 designers approached me privately saying they didn’t want to move – it would have to be someone else. It turned out that no matter what layout I came up with no one wanted to leave their designated (non-cubicle) space. The eventual solution was a figure of 8 that didn’t move anyone very far from their current position and met with no resistance when introduced.
In 1993 ad agency Chiat/Day, declared a revolution in spatial possession when it moved it’s employees into newly renovated loungelike space in Venice, Calif. Employees were expected to park their belongings in lockers and check out laptops every morning as if renting a movie at Blockbuster. However the new concept had a fatal flaw: No one had a fixed place to work. Many employees simply stopped coming to the office, preferring to work at home. Eventually everyone got cubicles again when the agency was bought by a conglomerate.
With the omnipresence of increasingly powerful laptop computers the desktop (both the type of computer and the physical desk) is becoming more redundant opening up the potential of other spaces in which to work. When I freelanced at Intuit on their Quickbooks pre-launch campaign a ‘war room’ was set up – really a long meeting room with several tables all pushed together. 20-30 people with laptops escaped their cubicle for two months by sitting around several tables all pushed together in one long meeting room. It is even more cramped than you might think but at the same time it had a party atmosphere as it was such a change from the cubicles they occupied for the other 10 months of the year.
By just using a laptop and cell phone many individuals can work out of Starbucks. LinkedIn’s sales team had to work out of Starbucks as so much of their clients’ agencies were in downtown San Francisco – a 90 minute drive from their main offices in Mountain View (Silicon Valley). With two or three meetings a day there was no point in going to the office at all so they eventually set up a separate office just for the sales team.
Michael Modes, a freelance copywriter has this to say about getting out of the cubicle: “The cube is a three-sided version of the dreaded blank page. So escape it. Go for walks, particularly outdoors. It’s where you go to solve problems in your own life. A breath of fresh is not called a breath of fresh air for nothing. If you need to get a grip on a creative problem, the biggest obstacle is gripping. A change of venue can relax your mind.”
Increasingly the biggest competitor to the cubicle for the “knowledge industry cannon fodder” cubistas that Deep Cube mentioned earlier is the option of working from home. You’ve probably done this already – typing from the couch in your pyjamas with the TV all day long can be rather appealing. While you’ll always be working near a window and you’ll never have any difficult face-to-face confrontations the biggest attraction for working from home is the fact that it is YOUR space. Escaping the cubicle for a day is a little like leaving home except you get to do it again and again.
So you’re sitting in your cubicle working away/being creativity – what’s going through your mind? Whether or not they are a designer most people I know listen to music through iTunes as their moment of zen while working – again eeking out some sort of self identity in the process. As for me I watch movies from Netflix while I work. It takes me away from the stress of constantly meeting deadlines. It occupies the intellectual part of my mind while I craft the design at hand. The constantly changing plotlines/drama throws together different combinations of thoughts. For the linear part of my work I pause the movies. While it doesn’t work for most people it works for me.
Kathleen Turaski, principal at Resonance says this of cubicles: “I can work within cube land, as long as the culture allows for freedom to explore creativity and my cube is big enough for me to spread out all my stuff. What I mean is that the setting isn’t nearly as important as the mentality. Especially when working in the creative phase, I want freedom to leave my desk and get outside, sometimes several times a day. This could look like I’m ‘wasting time,’ but in reality getting out of the office helps me clear my head and solidify ideas quickly. I also want enough physical room – and freedom to be messy – so I can spread all my ideas out and have space to shuffle, sketch, rearrange.”
On the other hand producing ‘breakthrough’ creative all the time sounds like the most ideal job a designer could have. I once met an Art Director at Goodby Silverstein who had won a nationwide Art Director of the Year award yet within a year he had completely burnt out and left the profession for good. Just like the blank page at the start of any project is a daunting prospect, the Chiat Day’s experiment is having no permanent personal space is equally daunting.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WORK
I went to a design talk recently where one of the speakers mentioned that the most appealing thing in anyone’s portfolio’s is the ‘Hot Rod’ projects. He went on to explain what that was: Imagine you had to choose between two mechanics to fix your car. Both charge the same price and estimate the same amount of time to finish. However if one of them builds Hot Rods in his spare time which one would you pick to fix your car?
The 1991 book Generation X talks about cubicle occupants pinning up pictures of the palmy beaches to dream of in order to get through the daily grind. Instead of a physical place it seems that these days people dream of their ‘Hot Rod’ projects as their escape. Constant advances in web technology are increasingly making those dreams more tangible – after all Facebook was created in a dorm room.
If we were all in separate offices we would have less the cubicle effect i.e. the extremely fast exchange of ideas or as designers we can assess the quality of design in a few seconds. Or simply put if we see more good work on someone’s screens we get inspired or motivated to match that higher standard of work.
On the other hand while being super creative all the time sounds amazing it has it’s soul destroying quality. A friend worked briefly at London’s Attik design studio. Internationally renowned for their high levels of creativity their open plan studio with MTV playing on TVs all day long. And the days were very long. 9am to 6pm was for all the client work that gets charged by the hour. 6pm-9pm was for pitch work. 9pm to midnight was for working on whichever of their book design books was coming out next (and over the years there have been many books). Jaded and exhausted my friend left after 6 months. Most new designers hung on for 12 months and left. There were no cubicles, lots of highly creative work yet there was little happiness.
As a quasi-private space the cubicle defines the dimensions that is all ours in the working world. We yearn to break free, to escape to a sunny beach or a corner office (really a fully enclosed cubicle). Creativity needs some restrictions in order to cause that ‘ah-ha’ breakthrough moment in creative thinking. Likewise a designer will eek out any leeway in a tight brief in order to find some means of getting that creative high out of solving a problem.
Overly repressive environments or briefs will drive down the creative standards but a little but of restriction, whether in a project brief’s parameters or the corporate landscape, easily provide something to escape from and may actually help the creative process. Like the underground art and writing from the former Eastern Block, restriction inspired great ideas as creatives yearned to express themselves and were mentally stimulated from breaking free. (See Rafal Olbinski’s work click here). Similarly Oscar Wilde’s great writings have many hidden messages about his homosexuality disguised as being different from what society expects.
It would seem that there is a delicate balance with being overly restricted (producing uncreative work) and overly free (nothing to escape from) with the ideal being in the middle. Somewhere along the way the cubicle with it’s low level restriction as contributed to the creative process in a way we never realize.