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The Selfie Project: Gentlemen Adventurers

I already had a series of business cards which used the ‘Aviator’ image plus details on one side and 10 different movie quotes on the reverse thanks to It was always fun handing them out as the recipients guessed the movies that the quotes were from. After a while I wanted to take the project further.


One day, while in the local library in San Rafael, I looked across the street at The Belrose Performing Arts Center. While looking at the converted church I had a eureka moment: I could use multiple outfits from the costume shop underneath the theater to create 10 different personas. Seizing the moment I went across and explained my idea to Tori Arnold behind the counter. She was very helpful and I started quickly thinking through 4 different personas and poses on the fly.


Surrounded by over 3,000 costumes and a multitude of props I dived into the project by taking selfies. Having art directed photo shoots many times before I got all 10 personas done in two 3 hour sessions.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_selfie_process_2 copy

Each character took about 100 shots to get right with constant checking for light and angle as well as finding the right pose for each persona. Once back on the laptop I culled them down to two or three.


Next I would take my final selection into Photoshop to convert to black/white and alter the brightness/contrast. For the priest I added some shade to the background in order to bring out the bible (actually a diary).

Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_2

I was much more prepared for the second session and finished the Gentlemen Adventurers with 10 characters: the Explorer, the Pirate, the Soviet, the Mummy, the Knight, the Viking, the Priest, the Bandit, the Sailor and the Aviator.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_2 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_3

For two weeks I uploaded a new persona onto Facebook with a suitable cover photo.


Next I designed the cards and sent off the 10 different characters to be printed at (100 cards, with 10 different designs for a total of $54 plus shipping). This was the only cost for the entire project!

Capturing images: 6 hours
Photoshopping images: 5 hours
Design layout for cards: 7 hours

The Belrose Costume Shop:

Pacific Sun article on Margie Belrose:

Moo printing (up to 50 different backs per print run):



Branding 101

Branding_header_Wayne_arrowWhy is branding so important?

Tomorrow morning when you wake up, try to count all branded items you see from the moment you wake up until you reach 100. What time do you think it would take until?  When I taught art direction at San Francisco’s Academy of Art I asked my students the same question. Most thought it would be midday. They were shocked when I told them that assuming they woke at 7am it would probably be somewhere between 8 and 9 am.

Why? Almost every item we touch or see has a logo on it. In fact, there are so many we blank them out.

Despite this ‘blanking out’ process, brands still represent a certain intangible something in our minds. We often think of brands as being a physical product but they could just as easily be a religion, a service, an app, an ideology or a blog like this one. All these things represent a world view condensed down into its simplest, most easily understood form, each trying to be distinct from other competing world views. In fact, the more competition there is for the same world view then the more energy is spent differentiating these brands. After all, Coca-Cola developed a more distinct brand when Pepsi started competing with it (see below).

Branding_Lookalikes_1 Branding_Lookalikes_2 Branding_Lookalikes_3 Branding_Lookalikes_4

Just what is branding? (in less than 250 words)

If I ask you to think of something you really like what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s probably not the logo but a warm fuzzy feeling. Great brands elicit this response in us without any of us realizing. Think of Charmin toilet paper vs. Facebook. Both are useful. One fulfills a need physically while the other’s ‘need’ is emotional. Yet why do they make you feel the way they do?

You know the brands so well in the above lookalike logos that you immediately get the joke. This is because part of the branding process is to create an expectation in our mind of what’s coming – whether it’s a drink, a movie, a piece of technology etc., and the product then has to match that expectation. These two steps are combined to form the ‘brand’ in our mind as all those emotional feelings about a product gets distilled down into a logo. The logo itself is not the brand but is often confused for it as it’s an easy way to be recognized in a crowded marketplace like a store shelf.

However, good brands aren’t just recognizable but also create an internal resonance within us. They make us feel good to use, to wear or to be identified with ‘our’ brands. This can be from simple things like whether you are a PC or a Mac person, or it could be whether you wear Manolo Blahnik or Tory Burch shoes. As a result, the accumulation of feeling from all these different brands can form a huge part of how we self-identify in our modern, highly consumerist society.


Start with a story…

For thousands of years human beings have relished listening to stories. From tales of how the gods made the world to watching the bickering of real housewives on Bravo. We are all preprogrammed to like a narrative story with highs and lows, lots of drama and a climax. Similarly in a marketplace filled with brands telling well-honed stories anything short of that merely seems like a gag or a pun.

No one likes to be ‘sold’ to but people do like buying into a good, authentic story around a product or service. Part of that story can be the creation myth of how the company came into being. It could also be the founder’s metaphorical journey in the wilderness with only their vision of how things should be to sustain them, such as Steve Jobs. It could equally be as simple as how a company saw a real need that nobody else addressed. Whatever the story, there should be depth and authenticity to it.

Another aspect of good stories is the actual storytelling process. Here’s where designers, marketers and advertisers come into the equation, as they distill all those complex and subtle ideas into something tangible that can be communicated to large groups of people.


 …then think of a name.

Why did Uber catch on more than Lyft? Or Zipcar over City Car Share? Why did cell phone manufacturer High Tech Company change their name to just HTC? They all give a more distinct name to a brand. Similarly when we meet people for the first time, we learn their names and get a general impression of them quickly. Likewise in a market where there are entirely new concepts or products, it is easy to start imbuing a new meaning into a brand’s name. It may seem like just a word made of a few letters, but it helps create the overall impression as it carves out space in our minds.

This is where brands with names that only mysteriously allude to what they do create an undefined but strong feeling in our mind such as Googol, a number represented by “1” followed by 100 zeros. It’s a great way to summarize the enormous possibilities of the search tool without spelling it out. Likewise a combination name like Wikipedia (Wikea + encyclopedia) gets the point across.

While in the past there has been a profusion of descriptive names for brands or companies, the current trend is for something shorter and non-descriptive. Then throw in X’s, Y’s and Z’s to make a version of the name with a URL still available. Hence Xfinity, Lyft and Zynga (the latter is actually the name of the founder’s dog’s name but hey, it works). Also, with a more unique name it is easier to turn it into a legally ownable corporate asset.


Remember the logo is just a symbol for the brand

How a brand’s name comes to life in its most succinct form is often the logo. The two are inseparable. The style of the logo is also used to create an emotional tone of the name: calm or hurried, conservative or risqué, stylized or minimal. Whoever we are there are brands that resonate with us. In fact, Logo Lounge produces a trend report every year showing the changing styles in logos:

For example, the choice of a late nineteenth century script in the Coca-Cola logo effuses a sense of classic Americana. Meanwhile, Apple uses the sans serif font ‘Myriad’ in a stylishly minimal way because it says modern and utilitarian. Pepsi changes their logo’s look with the times while keeping the same name. In fact, in a recent campaign Pepsi has gone back to a nostalgic look like their arch rival Coke.

Once developed, the logo often gets applied to everything that makes up part of the brand such as websites, t-shirts, packaging etc. But good branding is more than just trying to brand a herd of cattle with the same mark (see appendix). As the next section will show, we’re not simple animals and need much more mental stimulation than that…


“Don’t show me logos, show me a system!

We all like to believe there is one overall vision guiding a brand and hence the part of us that has an emotional connection with it. After all, we are all individuals. It all boils down to the fact that everyone that interacts with the brand in any of its forms has an expectation of what it should be. The more complete the brand the more trust we have in it and branding is all about reputation.

As mentioned earlier, any given brand represents a view into the world as defined by that company or product. Branded materials should look like they all fit together as a cohesive whole. This creates a more compelling and complete world view with more emotional appeal. Once you know some of the brand then you begin to have expectations for other parts of the brand. These expectations create desire for more.

Apple is great at creating this desire. They don’t sell cardboard boxes but when you see their packaging you want what’s inside. Even if you only have the box from the time you buy it to the time it takes you to open it, say, maybe 5 minutes. Those moments form part of the expectation for the actual physical piece of technology inside.

Even as we blank out brands that don’t seem relevant to us we have an undefined emotional association with them. It is the total experience of the brand from price to how it meets our needs to how it  matches our expectations.

Branding_JAQK_images_2 Branding_JAQK_images_3 Branding_JAQK_images_5Branding_JAQK_images_7 Branding_JAQK_images_8 Branding_JAQK_images_9

Branding_JAQK_images_6Branding_JAQK_images_4Here’s how: JAQK Cellars case study

Here’s an example of a brand that has followed all of the points above where every point of contact sets a tone before you come into contact with the core product, i.e. the wine from JAQK Cellars.

San Francisco agency Hatch had the idea of creating or ‘hatching’ new brands of their own each year. Their first was a gaming themed winery. Why gaming? In the words of Joel Templin, one of the founders of JAQK “everyone plays games.”

First the name: by taking the letters from the Jack, Ace, Queen and King cards the unique name ‘JAQK’ is formed  – very intrinsic to the brand.

Next is the marketing and the bottles’ labels: the latter are all of high quality with captivating designs often spanning not just the labels, with each bottle telling its own story within overall gaming framework. These labels/bottles are important as they are a key point of differentiation in the wine industry.

Then there is the experience of the product itself: does the wine‘s taste actually match the high expectations set by the brand promise of its promotion and the packaging? I can truly say it does and encourage you to try them here:




It all seems so easy. Right? In a comical way the show Silicon Valley conveys just how difficult it is to work out what a brand (Pied Piper) is and to get it out there in the marketplace. If big companies are spending millions of dollars on all their logos/brands why do we as consumers have such a sophisticated ability to tune out most of them?

Well, maybe it’s because there are now so many brands in our daily lives. They ALL vie for our attention like a crowd of people constantly pestering us to do something. In your head you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this”.

Marketing people want brands that stand out when really they should want their brand to be desired, as this is what good brands do. Hopefully by following these simple steps your brand will have the depth needed to be desired:

  • Define your audience tightly as you are probably not talking to everyone in the world
  • Tell a story of the product or service that is relevant to your audience
  • Set expectations of what the product will do
  • Make the product, story and logo intrinsic to each other
  • Find out if the story is unique or if somebody else is already doing it
  • Always remember, the logo is only a symbol or summation of the brand story
  • Think about how the brand’s story could be told in different contexts
  • Finally, and most importantly, the product must deliver on the expectations of the brand – without this vital step your brand will fail.

Get all these right and your brand will begin to design itself.


Appendix: A short history of ‘branding’

The idea of marking herds of animals had been around for some time before the nineteenth century. However, while huge herds of livestock roamed across the American West and Midwest, the danger of cattle rustling was very real, usually coming with a death sentence for those caught. As a result, ranchers had to put a permanent unique mark on the hide of every animal so they could be distinguished from one another if the herds were intermixed or if the cattle were stolen.

These squiggly or unique marks were what we would now call brand marks but back then they were called cattle brands (actually a ‘brand’ is the name of the metal implement used to apply the mark to the animal’s hide – see picture above). At the same time, in the crowded cities of the post-industrial revolution, what we now call ‘consumer products’ began to appear. Some were beginning to stand out by emphasizing a distinctness more than just the product itself. Somewhere along the way the cattle brand metaphor was used in context to trademarks and products in the cities, and the branding industry was born.




Designing for B2B 101



The process of one business selling to another business (B2B) is enormous and involves billions of dollars in the US economy ($559 billion according to this study). Yet if you Google ‘designing for B2B’ why is there hardly anything on the internet?

So who are the companies that spend these billions on B2B? It could be anyone from coffin makers selling to undertakers, or, on a grander scale, the likes of Cisco, IBM, Intel or HP selling cloud storage to equally large companies like Apple or Microsoft. It’s a very different type of sell since no one is going to buy a server farm from a banner ad.

And just who am I to talk about designing for B2B? Well, currently I head up the creative for CBS Interactive’s B2B division, dealing mostly with big tech clients so in this post I’ll mostly be looking at designing for these types of clients.





CBS Interactive’s Visualizer 360 brings together all of Brocade’s social media – click images to see original live version (Vica Filatova, Jeff Hill and Rick Byrne)


As consumers, we experience ads or sites that ask us to do something straight away, such as buy now, watch a video or learn more. However, the cost of buying something large like a company’s data storage is too huge to pull off in an online experience and a business still needs to get the message out to its audience somehow. These ads/projects are part of a brand awareness campaign and are intended to get customers on the first rung of the purchase funnel. They are usually hosted around relevant content (articles, videos, white papers etc.) found on publishers’ sites.

For a big splash such as a product launch there are immersive fullpage takeovers (covered in this post more extensively). These certainly generate higher engagement rates, often with many replays of the ad. In catching people’s attention they have both higher close rates and higher brand recall rates when compared to regular banner ads‏ – the two go hand-in-hand.

For a more semi-permanent branding experience CBS Interactive offers its ‘Visualizer 360’ as a sort of one-stop-shop for all a client’s social media, videos and white papers, etc. It can be built once in Flite’s console with multiple units such as a pushdown or lightbox acting as a window to that file. Our major user of the Visualizer is Brocade, who loves how it allows them to consolidate all their social media feeds which are scattered across different sites. The Visualizer can also be hosted on different sites and networks, rather than on a single page that would need ads to drive traffic to it – see for yourself by clicking here.


The Lead Gen process: click the banner, fill in the data entry form and download the white paper (courtesy of LinkedIn)


Building awareness of a new product/service/app is one thing but no one is going to buy 100 laptops from a banner ad. To get around this, B2B advertisers can offer users a chance to download a white paper or similar giveaway in order to get their contact details for a follow-up sales call. This process is called lead generation (Lead Gen).

Simplified, here’s the process:
1. Click
2. Data capture
3. Download
4. Follow up call.

For Lead Gen ads there are a huge amount of clicks on the initial banner ad offering a download a white paper or similar asset. However when faced with the data entry page that follows, users can abandon the process (called The Abandon Rate). To avoid this some kind of warning of the process ahead should be in the text or button/call to action such as ‘Find out how to download’.  This may create a lower CTR (Click through rate – see Measuring Success below) on the initial ad but creates a much better brand experience for the user.

Another drawback of the process is that the user filling in the data can provide false information; except for their email address (usually how the download  link is delivered) everything else can be incorrect. According to Stephen Corby, CEO of Specless, a mobile ad  agency, another drawback is that the process doesn’t work for mobile and tablet users as the mindset for both of these environments doesn’t lend itself to lots of clicks or reading documents. Pinable ads may change this in the future like this.


Fullpage takeover for an editorial feature with IBM sponsorship (Rick Byrne)


The main aim of any of these campaigns is to sell more of a client’s product or service. In order to do this a campaign is broken down into smaller phases (CBS Interactive B2B defines these in 5 steps: Discover, Investigate, Compare, Justify, Optimize) each with its own target impressions, clicks or leads. Since this is a post on the business of business let’s look at the metrics of how online campaigns are judged:

Impressions are a measure of the number of times an ad is displayed, whether it is clicked on or not.

Cost per mille (CPM) (Latin: mille = thousand) is a commonly used measurement in advertising indicating the cost per thousand people who see an ad (impressions). To see just how it’s calculated click here.

Click-through rate (CTR) is a way of measuring the success of an online advertising campaign for a particular ad by the number of users who clicked on a specific link or button.

Cost Per Lead or CPL is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser pays if  an  individual signs up for an advertiser’s offer. This is the primary metric used for Lead Gen campaigns.

Cost Per Action or CPA (also known as Pay Per Action, Cost Per Conversion or Cost Per Acquisition) is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser only pays for each specified action such as a purchase, a form submission, watching a video etc. To see just how it’s calculated click here.


If you were in the B2B industry which one would you like to be seen as?


Selling cool stuff to the average consumer can be a lot of fun. However for a multi billion dollar industry B2B is often not seen as cool nor targeted to cool people. B2B is commonly seen as boring and bland, like the businessman on the left above when really the industry should see itself as more like the guy on the right: cool, playful, modern.

This is the B2B conundrum – everyone in agencies regards it as something that has to be done as opposed to something they want to do. I have found that consumer clients work faster and are more on top of the details than Enterprise (B2B) clients.

This may be because of the longer buying cycle and the fact that agencies are populated with people who would rather be working on something else more hip. Creative teams dedicated to B2B can get bored and lose their edge – they’ll need to find other ways to be to creatively challenged or they’ll leave. Rotate them out with consumer clients over time or give them more creative freedom on RFP mocks.



Office’s elegant and creative Smarter Planet campaign for IBM (courtesy of Lisa Friedman at Office)


Just because the B2B Conundrum exists doesn’t mean that it is all bad. In fact IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign is a major B2B project done right.

Ogilvy & Mather New York asked the San Francisco based agency ‘Office’ to develop a visual vocabulary for the launch of the Smarter Planet campaign–an entire visual language system that would illustrate how IBM was transforming the world’s most important systems such as food, energy, transportation, healthcare, education, and banking. Here is a description from Office’s website:

The design challenge was to create a visually arresting language that was as bold as the ideas they represented. How do we create something that will grab people’s attention and engage them so they want to learn more? How do we distill complex essays into one clear visual concept? And how do we represent these big, complicated problems in a way that’s approachable?

The Office team was inspired by the creative vision that designer Paul Rand developed for IBM in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Rand’s work was about boldness and clarity, and had a “wink” that created an emotional connection with people. These became the team’s driving principles.

The resulting pieces give a playful feel to all the parts of the campaign from essays to giant posters to banner ads. A lot of thought has gone into each of the icons as manifestations of different aspects of IBM. Visual cliches were avoided with the assumption that their audience is made up of smart and creative thinkers. Even if their audience doesn’t look too deeply into what the image represents it is still very appealing to the eye and in the online world where the eye roams the finger/mouse follows.


Animated banner ad for aimed at CIOs and IT professionals (by Rick Byrne)


– B2B tends to have a more male bias especially in tech
– This is not an excuse to be one dimensional
– Enliven ads with better design and copy
– Where possible, use endorsement of specific industry leaders for more clicks

– The B2B process is long so break down CTAs into smaller actionable parts
– CTA for awareness ads should be succinct such as ‘Learn More’ or ‘ Watch Video’
– For lead gen the CTA wording should warn the user about the data entry process

– Avoid obvious stock photos – they look very inauthentic
– ‘Native’ ads use the site’s own look and feel to deliver authentic sponsored content
– Images/videos/names of endorsing experts in the industry drive more interest

– Avoid product imagery in ads unless done in a very eye-catching way
– Most servers look very similar and aren’t likely to sell based on looks
– Ads should be led by a product feature (either copy or images) for memorability
– For tech clients add a techy feeling and/or abstract imagery – let the copy do the hard sell
– Avoid visual clichés for tech such as circuit boards, cursors, streams of ones and zeros etc
– A great many B2B clients use blue/gray palette as it’s ‘safe’–perhaps too safe


What makes designing for B2B so different? Well, nothing really, except for the mindset of those involved. To paraphrase JFK, “The only thing we have to fear is fear (of boredom) itself”. This often arises when everyone involved in the B2B industry plays it safe because they are appealing to a committee of business decision makers. Yet this committee is made up of individual human beings, each with their own aspirations and limited time. Lose sight of that and you will be permanently dealing with the B2B Conundrum.



Design careers 101: Get the job you want


All of the incredibly good illustrations in this post are © Lunchbreath


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…


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


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


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


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.


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 


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)



The Creative Process: The Shower Effect


30 Rock: Jack Donaghy appears to Liz Lemon in her dreams as her Shower Effect

There are plenty of banal ads out there selling all sorts of things. They pander to the average person. But then most people aren’t average and they certainly don’t think of themselves that way. To get through to them creatives hear a litany of creative briefs asking for ‘outside the box thinking’ or for something ‘impactful’ that ‘cuts through the clutter’. Designers and copywriters are then wheeled in to come up with more creative concepts. The bigger the problem the more creatives are added as though it’s a battle of attrition–metaphorically like the troops trying to fight their way off the beaches on D-Day.

Usually the actual process involves doing research on a project, followed by a brainstorming session which produces a certain amount of results. Yet despite all that someone has a sudden vision of the solution in it’s totality the next morning while in the shower (or other non work place). This has become so well known that there was an episode of 30 Rock devoted to this process (The Shower Principle above). In this post I attempt to answer the two big questions around the Shower Effect: why can’t you plan for this moment and how can it become part of the creative process?


Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

To give the Shower Effect’s it’s full context I’ve added it into the 5 common stages of the concepting process as defined by David Perkins in his book The Eureka Effect:

1. The Long Search: The deep thinking, experiments and gathering of information conducted when launching into the project. This is best illustrated by Edison’s methodical search for the right material for a light bulb filament which took years. Inspiration came when he thought of using the carbonized bamboo of fishing rods to create the filament (hence the visual cliché of a light bulb turning on to represent a flash of insight).

2. Period of Little Progress: Since, for most concepts, the low hanging fruit are already taken there is a period of stressing about getting beyond what is already out there e.g. the Wright brothers struggled for years with no success.

3. Precipitating Event: Something happens to bring about the moment of insight. For most people this is being in the shower. Similarly Archimedes saw water overflowing from his bath tub that gave him the vision of how to measure the volume of an object.

4. Cognitive Snap: The falling into place of solution: this is the crux of the Shower Effect.

5. Transformation: New means of seeing problem from that point on.


The dream of brainstorming: this only exists in the world of stock photos

The reality of brainstorming: note the reserved body language

If you’re reading this you’ve probably been in a brainstorming session at some point. You’ve seen how a group is gathered in a meeting room for one or two hours with the hope that with so many people battering away at the problem a definitive solution will be reached at the end of that time period. A profusion of ideas are generated to be honed down afterwards. However there are two big problems with this approach…

The first is that brainstorming produces consensus not uniqueness. Individuals feel that they personally are being evaluated as if in a test and tend to clam up (Evaluation apprehension). Individuals also tend to match the productivity of others in the group tending towards under contribution rather than over contribution (Social matching effect). In brainstorming sessions anyone can easily coast along during the session with minimal input to the group (Free riding) while all the time thinking they are making more of a contribution (Illusion of group productivity). Brainstormers also tend to listen more closely to the louder or more senior people over those who have neither of these qualities (Blocking).*

The second big problem with brainstorming is that while there may be many ideas at the end of session they mostly lack any depth. There is no one person sweating it out during a deep dive into the subject. Research indicates that the act of listening to others actually stifles creativity. The best concepts have something of their originator in them. That’s the part that resonates with us. After all ads/branding/designs have to connect with individuals in a deep way, something that committees can rarely achieve.

*All phrases in brackets are the psychological terms for these effects as defined by  Stroebe, Diehl & Abakoumkin in “The illusion of group effectivity”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18 (5): 643–650.


Simple ideas with a lot of impact usually come in a flash and need little explanation.

The average day exposes us to an enormous amount of ads/messages which we mostly screen out. This means that it is harder to come up with something that connects with another human being in a meaningful way. Part of fertilizing the brain in order to reach these connecting creative breakthroughs involves a deep dive into the subject matter.

The inward soul searching is necessary to rethink a product/service: how it’s used, how it makes something more convenient, how it’s held, it’s intrinsic appeal etc. Applied to that is the pressure on the individual to come up with results for whatever reason: a job, peer jealousy, profits, a patent, ownership etc. Somehow in all this someone has to pour their soul into the project in order reach another person’s soul. Think of Van Gogh who told his brother that no painting ever sold for as much as it cost the artist to make it.

This doesn’t mean that the solution will automatically come after all that work. It’s more like your brain is facing the problem across a no man’s land of the mind. You keep probing, looking for a weak point in the line for a breakthrough. However, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind so without this preparation the sudden moment of realization that is the shower effect would never happen.


I often have A-ha moments during meetings on other projects: this post-it note sketch is for HP Airprint

The period of frustration in the digging deep phase primes the subconscious perfectly for the A-ha moment. This hardship fertilizes the incubation period of the idea just before the transformative insight. Like a giant connecting of the dots the solution just seems to fall into place, just not when or where you want it to.

But why showers? Well it doesn’t have to be a shower but could be any activity not connected directly to the problem at hand. A night’s worth of the subconscious mulling over the problem also helps connect the dots since we have hundreds of dreams a night are bound to throw up more strange scenarios. One of them is bound to be right. But then it’s often lost again. By the time we are getting our head around the day you are probably in the shower already. The lack of concentration needed to perform this physical act means and the lack of outside stimuli leaves the mind is completely free to wander. Suddenly the solution emerges from the subconscious to the conscious: A-ha!

But how is the vision so complete and not partial? A study by Dr Mark Beeman of fMRI brain scans during these A-ha moments reveals a huge explosion of activity in the right hemisphere. It’s as if the seeds of scattered thoughts are sown across the brain during the deep dive phase, to be incubated by sleep followed by a sudden blossoming all at once in a single solution.


It’s not just taking a lot of showers

Routine is the Enemy
– Take a break and talk to someone you don’t normally talk to.
– Other people may provide unexpected insight into the problem.
– Switch off fully to the problem when not working on it.
– Mix up the usual routines you do as you’re working.
– Time pressure may help to edit out the bad ideas.

Intuition needs to flow
– Do not over think things as you will end up second guessing everything.
– I used to listen to audiobooks to occupy the second guessing part of brain when painting.
– Now I watch murder mysteries to keep my mind in puzzle solving mode.
– Outside projects help to get your mind out of its usual pattern of thinking.
– Ji Lee, CD of Facebook and Google Labs, got these two jobs due to projects outside of work.

Finishing up
– Work backwards from the final vision to fill in the main steps.
– Think about the approvers and how they’re likely to react too to the idea.
– If you can’t explain the idea in 30 seconds then it may be too complicated.
– Creativity appears in clusters so dive into the next project quickly.
– Don’t get caught in the rut of thinking the same lateral solution will work for everything


Jack Donaghy’s nightmare: listening to multiple Liz Lemons’ problems. It turns out to be his shower effect

No matter where the creative process takes you there’s still the need to dig deep in order to prime your subconscious. Although the Shower Effect is unpredictable, following this simple formula will help:

Deep dive + frustration x primed subconscious during sleep = A-ha solution

The main thing is being open to letting it happen. It doesn’t have to be a shower. Erich, a designer I used to work with, came up with all his breakthroughs while going to the bathroom. It happened with surprising certainty. In the episode of 30 Rock ‘the Shower Principle’, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) works out that listening to all of Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) problems gives him enough of a break from his own to allow flashes of insight to happen. Have fun and take a shower.


Where are the great political posters?

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?


Posters can be stuck on anything such as this dune buggy in a local parade: Huffman won the seat

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’s Obama and Romney pages and just as before they still remain the main artifact for a political campaign.


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 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.


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.


Some AIGA entries for this year’s Get Out The Vote campaign (‘Every vote counts’ by Rick Byrne)

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.


A less safe message that goes beyond the usual stars and stripes yet did not capture the zeitgeist

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 ( now directs to 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:

Soviet era posters:

Nazi posters:


Designing Full Page Takeovers 101



Imagine going to your favorite website for news on your particular interest in life (sports, tech, games etc.). You’re used to mentally screening out the banner ads on the page–they’re always in the same place and seem the same. You’re about to check out the latest news when suddenly the web page opens up to reveal some strange new ad you’ve never seen before.

These are full page takeovers–an immersive ad experience that hijacks the page for a few seconds. They emerged due to increasing pressure on advertisers to be entertaining enough to cut through the daily clutter of the online world. They make a much bigger impact, are more easily remembered and get more interaction than banner ads.

Also given other names such as website takeovers, rich media takeovers, page morphs or overlays, full page takeovers are appearing more frequently all over the web. They run the fine line between having web users who think they are annoyingly intrusive and those who think they are really cool. In this post I will be looking at the best practices for designing the latter.

In this Mediamind takeover the ship draws the user into the trailer below–click above to see original


As with all new art forms they tend to replicate a previous art form e.g. early silent films mimicked theater productions and early TV replicated radio. So too with the web as most publishing sites mimic newspapers and magazines. Most web terminology even comes from its print predecessors. Animated ads may be more eye-catching but their placement is still treated like press ads.

The notion of webpages being finite like paper is a misnomer. Really the web experience is more like a window onto a layered digital world made of pixels. Emphasizing what is unique to the web as an art form, it can appear to change format, often tricking the eye into reacting as though it was a real world object in the process. The size of the canvas available to play with is big, both physically and metaphorically.

Thus the web context is key for full page takeovers to be successful. For example in the Tron example above, the ship draws you into the lower ad where the trailer plays while the top ad allows you to buy tickets to see the movie. By contrast, this Playstation Vita example from Ireland is so involved that it may as well be its own site rather than a full page takeover.

This Luftansa takeover from Flashtalking interacts with it’s host page nicely–click above to see original


A good full page takeover tells a story in about 8 seconds (the usual length before the ad experience automatically closes). Some kind of meta story needs to remain in the mind once the ad ends. The user may remember the experience but not necessarily the details. This kind of subconscious impact is more appealing to an individual and drives them to want to do something such as clicking to learn more, watch a videos, etc.

Because they are so intrusive a good full page takeover needs to create a sense of awe so the user thinks ‘how did they do that?’. In order to elevate the brand in a user’s mind, a takeover should not be gimmicky but rather it should use an effect that is intrinsic to the brand. For example in this Insidious pushdown when you click ‘watch the trailer’ the eyes follow the cursor as it moves around, adding to the innate creepiness of the experience (designed by Justin Herman).

I often like to keep some part of the original page visible, even if it is just the masthead. This keeps the eye engaged and avoids the user feeling like they have been sent off to a new site unexpectedly. Clients may feel they have a larger canvas in which to put their brand but in reality the average user finds it annoying since they would rather be enticed to the experience and not driven unwillingly to it. In the Luftansa example above the takeover was placed over the page regardless of content–as a result it was also able to be served across many sites in one day (a Flashtalking specialty–third party hosters of full page takeovers).

RFP illustrating the HP OfficeJet’s ability to print to a printer anywhere in the world (design Rick Byrne)


In order to look at how a full page takeover can organically grow out of a brand and still be entertaining I thought I would detail one project’s conception process.

The original brief for HP Officejet printers was generic with none of the usual clues/restrictions of an RFP except for the request for custom creative. CBS Interactive had already done this 300×600 Filmstrip for HP so I thought it didn’t need to be a nuts and bolts ad unit but something more splashy.

For inspiration I asked myself what is so unique about these printers? Researching further I discovered that HP Officejet printers all have the AirPrint feature which means they can print from the web to a printer located anywhere in the world.

Looking at HP’s official page for AirPrint I saw they used a paper plane as part of the feature’s imagery. I then asked myself what would be interesting to the astute, tech focused audience of CNET. I soon hit upon the idea that the CNET page could fold up into a paper plane that sends itself from the web to the printer. A simple story that is hard to forget even if the advertising copy isn’t read.


RFP for Lenscrafters: the user can move the in focus area around via the cursor (design Rick Byrne)


For most of these full page takeovers a Flash file is placed over the page’s content. Some full page takeovers can demo a more involved process/activity before collapsing. If the demo strikes a chord with the user they could click to relaunch the takeover but this time with a deeper and more involved experience such as sound or longer videos.

For some takeovers a snapshot of the site’s page is taken via an automated screenshot tool every 15-30 minutes (news changes throughout the day). The jpeg is then fed into the code and distorted from there. Frequently a standard banner ad on the page draws the takeover files from the publisher’s server. Frequently it will come from the third party hosting the ad (e.g. MediaMind, FlashTalking, Pointroll etc.)

In the example above for Lenscrafters, two screenshots of the page would be fed into the Flash file simultaneously (one blurred on top and one sharp below). The upper blurred jpeg would have a circular mask with a blurred edge that can be moved with the cursor. The usual arrow image of the cursor is substituted for a pair of glasses. The automated version of the takeover demos the cursor moving around before collapsing back into the banner ads. If clicked, a second, user initiated version would launch where the cursor/crisp area could be moved around the page.

The file size limit caused the animation‘s bitmapping-compare it to the sharpness of background image


Since I’ve done several full page takeovers and pitched many more 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:

– have a clear call-to-action in the takeover for users that are interested
– add a replay button: if it’s that good users will want to see it again
– add a ‘click to hear sound’ button if sound is present
– add a close button as some people will not like the intrusion of a full page takeover

– Pay attention to a takeover’s CPU usage–some sites will have caps
– file size limitations may be low–bitmapped imagery destroys an ad’s believability (see above)
– many sites have frequency caps i.e. the takeover will only auto initiate once a day
– some sites have cut-off on the duration of a full page takeover–CBS Interactive’s is 8 seconds
– avoid auto-initiated sound as it is considered one of the most annoying experiences online
(if you don’t believe me click here to see what it’s like-make sure your audio is switched on)

Banner ads
– the takeover and its leave-behind banner ads should be designed together
– the page’s banner ads will need to summarize the experience and house a replay button
– some pop-up blockers may prevent the full page takeover from launching from the banner ad

inception_takeover_620 Discovering hidden layers beneath reality–click above to see original (design: Keith Echeverria)


This post provides a good understanding of full page takeovers that if done well, really get through to the user. Don’t just take my word for it. The numbers back me up as takeovers have a much higher click through rate (2-3%) compared to the average for banner ads (0.01%). However, eventually we, the users of the internet, will get jaded of full page takeovers as they become commonplace.

So what will happen then? As in all art forms something else will replace them either technologically (such as HTML 5) or new thinking on how they should be handled will emerge (or more likely both). With geotargetting, cookies and word search cues, ads may become much more specific to the individual’s headspace at that time. Users may expect less intrusive generic takeovers and more engagingly customized ones for a better web experience.

However, no matter what comes along to replace full page takeovers it will still need to tell a story intrinsic to the brand that uses the medium uniquely and still retains that sense of wonder in the user to be effective.


Companies that specialize in creating full page takeovers:
and showcase
MediaMind showcase
Pointroll showcase

Some live links to takeovers:
FedEx on The Economist
Ford page chainsaw
In Bed photo tagger iPhone App
Luftansa passenger iPad
Norwegian Cruises wave turn
MSN DK Gaming Mod Nation

MSN UK Green Lantern movie
MSN Mazda
MSN Fr MacDonald’s
Unstoppable movie on
Volvo on (Click the buttons to the side)
Windows on CBSSports


Designing Homepage Takeover Skins 101


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


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


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


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
• 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)


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…



More details


Designing Banner Ads 101


At some point in their career almost every designer will have to design a set of banner ads. Inspired by someone who told me that they had done their first ever banner ad I thought it would be good to examine this design sub-genre since I have designed thousands of banner ads and art directed thousands more over the years.

In this post I won’t be going into the issues such as what types of pages the ads appear on or click-thru rates as designers can’t change these. I will be exclusively looking at the craft of designing banners to make them look more appealing (and hopefully more clickable).

Banner ads should signpost the page they are connecting to


The three most common online banner ads are the MPU (Messaging Plus Units), the leaderboard and the skyscraper, what I refer to as the holy trinity of banner ads. They appear all over the web as the shapes fit across the width of webpage (leaderboards) or within an individual column (MPUs and skyscrapers). Leaderboards are placed with either an MPU or a skyscraper but all three never appear together.

Banner ads will usually be part of an existing campaign so their ingredients may be provided by the client i.e. logo(s), images, copy direction. The key is combining those ingredients in a way that is interesting to the website’s user in the 2 seconds or so that they spend scanning the ad (even less if they are scanning the ad peripherally). It’s crucial to grab their attention with a compelling image/message and make it obvious what you would like them to do next. If you squint your eyes and there’s no obvious focal point in the ad then it’s unlikely to work.

I feel strongly that banners should clearly signpost what the web user is clicking to. This way the user arrives at a page that looks like the ad that sent them there. If it didn’t they would naturally be disappointed or put off if it looked nothing like what they were expecting.

As a result I usually look at the destination page first when designing banner ads and work backwards from there. Next it’s a case of working out the right hierarchy of the ad’s various ingredients (e.g. logo first but small, headline next but dominant etc.). After that add a suitable call-to-action (CTA) that ties into the copy and spells out the desired action/response. Once the hierarchies of the messaging are sorted they can be applied to the three banner ads sizes individually.

Elements compete with each other in most MPUs due to the square shape

MPUs (300×250)

The MPU (Messaging Plus Unit) is usually placed in the narrower right hand column of the page and as a result it is roughly square in format and smaller in size so as to appear above the fold. The squarish format presents a compositional problem as the human eye likes images that are slightly more horizontal (landscape format) or deeper (portrait format).

I feel the mix of logo, image, headline and CTA in MPUs often doesn’t leave much room for one of the four to form a focus of the ad. This is easily seen in the HP and X-Factor MPUs above where all the elements are fighting each other for the web user’s attention. In both cases the background is merely used as a tablet on which to place elements.

By contrast the CSI MPU above has used the background image to bring the elements together by having them emerge from the shadows. The circled gun, the yellow evidence card and the hands on the feet also emerge from the shadows to set a tone and provide other visual information for the eye if the copy isn’t read.

Headlines are the key focal element in leaderboards


The long horizontal shape of the leaderboard can lead to designs that use it’s elements as a series of equal chunks as in the HP example above. However I have found that leaderboards have more impact if the headline is much larger than in the other two banner ad units. This is clearly demonstrated in the X-Factor ad above where even if you scan the ad quickly the key takeaway is “Have you got it?”

Since leaderboards are usually placed at the very top of the page a focus on headlines lends itself to the pre-existing psychology of how we process webpages–a residual memory from reading newspapers and magazines.

As display resolutions increase in size so too are webpage widths making the previous 728x90s increasingly redundant (originally designed for a 1024 × 768 resolution). As a result of this CBS Interactive is moving to replace all 728x90s on it’s network of sites with 970x66s (called a super leader). These new ads are less intrusive for a site’s user and fits more snuggly with the various pages which are all now 970px wide. The added length and shallower depth of a superleader lends itself even more to a headline driven iteration of a campaign.

The fold cuts skyscrapers in half until the user scrolls down

The long and slender skyscraper has small headlines and big images


While MPUs and leaderboards are usually placed on a page above the fold, the skyscraper is cut in half by the page’s fold (usually about 600 px down – see diagram above). As a result key information such as the logo, headline and CTA should be in the top half. The narrowness of the skyscraper also means their headlines tend to be small.

In my experience I have found that skyscrapers tend to be placed on pages which are heavy on information and light on images. This is ideal for skyscrapers since they have a lot more room for imagary than MPUs and leaderboards.

In the three 160×600 examples above the skyscrapers has been designed with increasing consideration for the fold from left to right. In the HP skyscraper all the elements above have been given equal prominence and as a result there is no focus for the eye. The X-Factor ad has the presenters bigger than in other iterations of the campaign but the small headline has become overwhelmed by all the other elements–the key information is all below the fold and makes the ad bottom heavy. In the CSI skyscraper the larger image brings the elements together while the second logo has caused a little overcrowding at the top.

Compare this 728×90 version of the ad with the 300×250 below (see the animated ad here)

Animation helps divide up the elements over time


It goes without saying that adding animation to a banner ad will draw the eye to it. A Flash version of a banner also helps break up these elements over time. In the Ally 728×90 above showing the full pencil is less compelling than the 300×250 version where the eye is waiting to see what happens next.

Lately I’m seeing a lot more replay buttons on animated ads–no doubt because the ad is already started playing as the page starts loading. Static versions of ads have become more relevant again as they get loaded as a default Jpeg in environments where Flash doesn’t play such as tablets and smartphones.

Animation alone is not enough to make an ad good. There still has to be something compelling in the ad otherwise it veers towards being like all those cheap attention grabbing credit score, diet and remortgage ads. I had originally turned the two Ally ads above into animated GIFs for this post but my eye automatically screened them out as I (and probably most people on the web) am so used to ignoring animated ads stacked on top of each other.


Since I’ve done so many banner ads here are some tips that I’ve picked up over the years. Apologies if they seem obvious, I’m stating them because I see them constantly not applied:

• Avoid all upper case copy as this makes it hard for the user to read
• Headlines and body copy should have different sizes to make it easier for the reader to scan
• Headlines and/or body copy should be on no more than three lines
• preserve hierarchies of messaging and all text should be consistently aligned (left, right, center)
• Consider using interesting typography as imagery in order to save space by having one less element

Call-to-Action (CTA)
• Should be short and to the point like “Go Now” or “Check It Out”
• Should be above the fold for 160×600 and 300×600 units (roughly the middle of the unit)
• Should be upper case letters at the start of each word to make it easier to scan

• Should be in contrasting colors without looking gaudy
• Should be positioned towards the end of the copy and/or lower right hand side
• Should be consistent in size throughout a set of banner ads
• Apparently get more clicks than text only links in banner ads (even though the latter look more elegant)

• Add a 1px gray border on ads with a white background – it may be placed on a white page
• For first round approval I sometimes turn the individual Photoshop frames into an animated GIF
• Before final submission I stand back and squint at the ad to check if it can be easily scanned
• As with all design, save time by sketching out the ad’s frames always

A page skin brings the banner ads together by wrapping or framing the page


Since web users are so used to seeing banner ads (and ads in general) there are a lot of changes ahead. Although the holy trinity of MPU, leaderboard and skyscraper dominate the banner ad landscape I have seen other sizes are becoming more common such as 640×480 Interstitials (as video becomes more predominant) and the 300×600 ‘Half Page’ ads which have a deeper MPU to dominate the right hand column. For a full list of newer units likely to populate the internet in the future check out IAB’s page on the subject by clicking here.

For a more comprehensive and harmonious branding experience page skins (or ‘wallpapers’) are being used a lot more across the internet (especially on IMDB) as they wrap the banner ads together. We do about 900 skins a year at CBS Interactive (download this pdf to read more). As skins too become more numerous there is also a rise in custom made rich media takeovers which are being especially asked for in RFPs (to read more about this see my post here). However for both skins and rich media takeovers there is still the ever present need for the ad experience to work in conjunction with the standard banner ads on the page and the user’s experience of them.


The history of Banner ads:
Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) standards:
The Fold:
Look up banners ads for specific brands:
Screen display resolution:
DIY ad creation:
Banner ads from Adobe:

Some crowdsourced banner ad pages:

Some cheap (and overcrowded) web banner design sites:


Managing Creative People and Projects 101

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.


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


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


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)


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


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


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.


Designing RFPs 101

mvc3_disintegration_6202Marvel vs Capcom 3; Page Disintegration    Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Promote the game’s release in an interesting way


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


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.

Corning Glass: CNET Made In Glass   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Turn this interesting movie into an ad


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.


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.


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.


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 (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_servers HP: Cut the Complexity Cord   Art Director/Designer: Vica Filatova
Capabilities pitch: idea to promote the simplicity of integrated server solutions.


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:

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.



Design Competitions Made Easy


These days there seems to be competitions and awards for just about everything: CBS Interactive, where I work, even won an Emmy in 2009 for ‘Outstanding new approaches – CBS Mobile NCAA March Madness’ – not something that gets televised on the Emmy awards show. Originally I thought there would be only a few design competitions to write about for this post but once I did the research I realized there was an enormous amount of them which I listed below with links and deadlines. Further below that is an interview with Matt Cooke, Creative Director at Iron Creative, about starting AIGA’s Cause/Affect competition for design projects aimed at social good.


About half of the competitions below are organized and promoted by design magazines such as Print, GD, How, Communication Arts, CMYK and Graphis. It connects them with their readers, keeps them on the pulse of the industry and provides content all at the same time. Most of the other half are organized by an industry e.g. the advertising industry for the Clios, the interactive industry for the Webbys or the various AIGA competitions for the design industry.


For agencies, winning awards helps establish credibility with clients or potential clients. Most agencies don’t pursue awards but others have a policy of rigorously pursuing them. I remember being in the lobby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners years ago and stopped counting the awards at around the 250 point. Winning awards definitely sets the standard for a company to work to and shapes the group dynamic of the winning agency. And of course winning them will certainly boost anyone’s confidence.


What the judges are looking for will vary from by category and from competition to competition so it’s worth reading the small print just in case you need further material e.g. Direct Mail or Interactive often also require the submission of qualifiable metrics which are provided by the submitting agency. In general great ideas and design are always the key, whether for a competition or not. As an example the American Design Awards gives differing weights as follows:
Creativity 40%
Effectiveness 40%
Practical 30%
Ethics Pass/Fail


Looking at the criteria, Gary Finn, Creative Director at Expert Communications Inc had this to say about judging his first competition: “I was a bit demoralized at first, when it became clear that the judges were not making decisions based on the show’s stated criteria, but rather on their own ‘favorites.’ Art Director types preferred visually interesting pieces. Account types gravitated toward big brands or elaborate strategies. I found myself drawn to ‘clever.'”

Another Creative Director, Kathleen Turaski of Resonance Marketing, judge of the Appleton’s U360 competition, had this to say about the process “All competitions are looking to elevate the best, the most innovative design. It can be challenging to match what competitions are looking for with many projects. Budget and the realities of what a client will approve or what aligns with an organization’s brand can affect the final design outcome.”


The really big competitions such as the Webbys ($295) or Clios ($400-$1,000) are expensive to submit work for. However the vast majority of the competitions listed below have fees under $100 keeping them in the realm of the individual designer. If you want to go to the award ceremony itself that can set you back more e.g. tickets to the Clios are $125 plus travel and board.


The busiest season for these competitions is the start of the year with many of the deadlines in January. The rest are scattered throughout the year. Where known I’ve listed the deadlines for 2012 below. Keep checking the links for updates. Also some competitions have last year’s page up so you may have to substitute ‘2012’ where ‘2011’ currently appears in the URL.


Core77 Design Awards
submissions from Jan 17th, 2012

AIGA: local design competitions
various local competitions with different deadlines

AIGA: 365 | Design Effectiveness
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

AIGA: 50 Books/50 Covers
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

AIGA: Making the Case
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

AIGA: Justified
deadline Mar 31st 2012

Art Directors Club Awards
deadline Jan 27th, Feb 3rd & 10th 2012

CMYK: Top 100 New Creatives
deadline Jan 9th 2012

COMMUNICATION ARTS: Design Competition
deadline May 25th 2012

PRINT: 2012 Regional Design Annual
deadline Feb 1st 2012

PRINT: Color in Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

HOW: Promotion Design Awards
deadline Mar 1st 2012

HOW’s Your Best Work Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

PRINT: Creativity + Commerce Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

PRINT: New Visual Artists
deadline late August 2012 – must be under the age of 30

PRINT: in Motion
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Quayside Publishing Competition
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GRAPHIS: Design Annual

GRAPHIS: New Talent Annual

Visual Media Alliance Print Design Excellence Showcase
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GD: American Graphic Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GD: Cover Design
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

D&AD: Professional Awards
deadline Feb 1st 2012

European Design Awards
deadline Feb 29th 2012



The Webby Awards
deadline Jan 27th 2012

HOW’s: Annual Interactive Design Awards
deadline July 2nd 2012

COMMUNICATION ARTS: Interactive Competition
submission dates in 2012 not released yet

American Design Awards
monthly competitions:

semi annual competition:
deadline Feb 15th and Aug 15th

CLIO’s: Interactive Awards
deadline Jan 20th 2012

HOW: Creativity International Awards: Media & Interactive
submissions start Jan 2012

MEDIA MAGAZINE: Creative Media Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

SXSW Interactive Awards
Entry for 2012 awards is closed
submission dates in 2013 not yet released

Interaction Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

W3 Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Horizon Interactive Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GD: American Web Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released



HOW: Dieline Package Design Awards
deadline Apr 2nd 2012

HOW: Creativity International Awards: Print & Packaging
submissions start Jan 2012

CLIO’s: Print
deadline Jan 20th 2012

GD: American Package Design Awards
deadline Jan 10th 2012

GD: American Printing Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Appleton paper: U360
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Mowhawk paper: Mowhawk Show 12
deadline May 31st 2012

Neenah paper:
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

HOW: Neenah Un Show Competition
deadline Mar 12th 2012



GRAPHIS: Poster Annual
deadline March 31st 2012

GRAPHIS: Social & Political Posters
deadline Jan 31st 2012

Poster Heroes
deadline Feb 15th 2012

Reggae Poster Contest 2012
deadline March 30th 2012

Poster For Tomorrow
submission dates in 2012 not yet released



The Conqueror Typographic Games
deadline Apr 30th 2012

COMMUNICATION ARTS: Typography Competition
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

All About Type Call For Entries
submission dates in 2012 not yet released



COMMUNICATION ARTS: Illustration Competition
deadline Jan 6th 2012

PRINT: Hand Drawn
submission dates in 2012 not released yet



COMMUNICATION ARTS: Photography Competition
deadline Mar 16th 2012

GRAPHIS: Photography Annual

Pano Awards
deadline Apr 20th 2012



deadline Jan 20th 2012

Cannes Lions
submissions open Jan 26th 2012

The One Show
deadline Jan 31st 2012

COMMUNICATION ARTS: Advertising Competition
deadline May 11th 2012

The Addy Awards
deadline varies per region



HOW: Logo Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GRAPHIS: Logo Design



Graniph Design Award
submission dates Feb 1st-Mar 31st 2012


GRAPHIS: Branding 6 Call for Entries
deadline Jan 16th 2012



Sappi: Ideas that Matter
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

AIGA: Cause Effect
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Poster Heroes
deadline Feb15th 2012

Society for Environmental Graphic Design Awards
deadline Feb 14th 2012

Posters For Tomorrow
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

Graphis Call For Entries
deadline Jan 31st 2012

D&AD White Pencil Award
deadline October 24th 2012



HOW: In-House Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

GD: American Inhouse Design Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released



US Post Office’s M.A.I.L. Awards
deadline Jan 27th 2012

CLIO’s: Direct Mail
deadline Jan 20th 2012

DMA Echo Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

John Caples International Awards
submission dates in 2012 not yet released



ARCHIVE: Student Contest
submission dates in 2012 not yet released

CLIO’s: Student Awards
deadline Jan 20th 2012

D&AD: Student Awards
deadline Mar 9th 2012

Adobe Design Achievement Awards
deadline June 22nd 2012



CLIO’s: Facebook Integration
deadline Jan 20th 2012

CLIO’s: Innovative Media
deadline Jan 20th 2012



Matt Cooke, co-owner of Iron Creative helped devise AIGA’s Cause/Affect competition focusing on design for social good. First launched in 2007 it has run successfully every 2 years since then. The Call For Entries poster itself (pictured above) won design awards so who better to talk to about the process:

Why did you devise Cause/Affect?
Alice Bybee and I met at an open board meeting for the San Francisco Chapter of the AIGA. We asked a simple question: what was the organization doing in the field of social good? The board members looked around the table and in unison said “Nothing. Why don’t you do something?”. So we established the social impact committee and launched the Cause/Affect competition. We wanted to the competition to act as a barometer and a catalyst. We wanted to know if the design community was committed to design for social good. And if it was, we wanted to get as many talented do-gooders together as we could. And so the competition was born, with a scheduled awards ceremony, that would act as much as a venue for recognition as for networking and collaboration.

How many submissions did that first year get?
Over 300 entries from all around the world.

How many submissions did last year’s competition get?
Roughly the same, but there was a surprising increase in the quality of the work.

What are the criteria for judging the submissions to Cause/Affect?
This is a question that vexes judges. They are tasked with assessing the work both from a traditional graphic design perspective, as well as from the more subjective standpoint of efficacy. What good is a beautifully designed piece of work if it fails to convey the message of the organization it represents, and fails to move the recipients of the communication to action?

Who put up the prize money for Cause/Affect?
For the first two iterations of the competition, the prize money was generated from the entrance fees to the competition itself – which was entirely financially self-sufficient. Last year Sappi donated $5,000 in prize money. It should be noted that the prize money goes to a non-profit organization of the winners choosing, not to the designers themselves.

Had there been anything like it before and has it’s success been repeated in other chapters?
I don’t think there had ever been a dedicated design competition for social good in general. And yes, the competition has been replicated, to varying degrees, by some other chapters.

Did winning awards for the Cause/Affect promotional material lead to more projects?
Not directly. But none of the competitions we have won has to my knowledge ever led directly to a new client. We typically enter competitions to boost the morale of the team, and to establish the company in the eyes of our peers.

Had you entered a design competition before becoming a judge yourself?
I actually didn’t judge the competition. We felt that might be a  conflict of interest. But yes, I had entered competitions before co-founding the competition.

Did being a judge in a design competition provide any insights into your own work?
Being associated with the competition, and being present for the judging process, was certainly illuminating. More than anything, it drove home the notion Alice and I had formed prior to establishing the competition: and that is that there are a great many talented, hard working designers committing a colossal number of hours to projects that have limited budgets but that provide valuable, intangible rewards of their own.

How did you find the experience overall and would you do it again?
The experience was incredibly valuable and is something that I remain very proud of. But I have put on the competition twice, and felt it was time to hand over the reigns.


Is crowdsourcing the future of design?


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.


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 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).


If you Google “Crowdsourcing design” or click this link ( 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 or


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.”


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:


I chose the Australia based site 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 ( 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:

Here’s a SWF I did a few year’s ago which shows the thinking behind the current logo:
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.


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:


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 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.


Crowdsourcing sites:

Ethically against Crowdsourcing:




Off The Shelf Portfolios

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:

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
Unlimited uploads.
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.

Overall: Elegant.

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…”
Combines résumé production and portfolio into one integrated site, something most designers could do anyway…


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:


Rethinking résumés – Who am I?


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.


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