Stock Photography: a very brief history

Since most designers spend a great deal of time looking at and choosing stock photos for various projects I thought I’d create a post covering a (very) brief history of stock photos.

London Illustrated News uses etchings to portray events in the far flung places across the globe. Etchings were used since there was more creative license and photos could not be printed.
Halftone printing allowed for photos to be used in mass print production for the first time e.g. this promotional photo of the Chicago White Stockings, 1888
30+ years later planned news photos were being taken for wide distribution in the news media. This example is from the Solvay Conference in 1910 (Albert Einstein is second from the right).
The first stock photo in 1920 was titled “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane”.  The model releases meant that photographer H. Armstrong Roberts could distribute the images from this shoot as saw fit. The streamlined silver plane was the height of technology at the time and much in demand so Roberts could call on ad agencies and publishers to sell the rights/negs.
Otto Bettman escaped from Nazi Germany in 1936 with15,000 photo negatives in several suitcases which he used to set up the Bettman Archive. It was a physical place that you went to in order to search through drawers of photos. The archive was later bought by Corbis.
Sir Edward Hulton 1945 commissioned Charles Gibbs-Smith of the Victoria and Albert Museum to catalog the entire Hulton archive (mostly news photos from Picture Post newspaper) using a system of keywords and classifications. The Gibbs-Smith system claims to be the world’s first indexing system for pictures, and it was eventually adopted by the British Museum collections.
The Tony Stone 1995 Big book-like catalogs were distributed to design studio, ad agencies and news outlets. Searching was by hand, often with the use of post-it notes to return to later. Images were photocopied and later scanned to put into mock-ups for clients.
As desktop publishing exploded in popularity CDs filled of low budget royalty free photography started appearing around 1995. These allowed images to be on individual designers’ computers in advance of usage and no longer required a lengthy process of approval and payment.
iStockphoto launched in 2000 allowing masses of low cost images to be accessible online. Other microstock websites started appearing shortly afterwards and mass acceptance within a few years made online instant selection and purchase of the images as the only way to do stock photography.
Photographers now had more outlets to sell various outtakes from photo shoots so an overly ‘stocky’ look started appearing at the lower end of the market.  An easy online process for payment and uploading images allowed the servicing of a world market in stock photography.
Throughout all this the stock photo libraries continued to make a huge amount of income from the news and editorial use of real world images images.
Smartphones meant that everyone has a camera in their pockets with which to record  newsworthy moments. In 2017 United Airlines learned that anyone can upload footage not just to individual social media profiles but also to news network sites.
Aiming for safe bankable options the stock photo market became flooded with images like these above that have formed most people’s concept of what stock photos are: inauthentic business settings (and a lot of teeth).
Playing on the common perception of stock imagery iStock teamed up with the marketing of the movie Unfinished Business to allow consumers to use these altered photos free of charge for 3 months around the time of the movie’s release.
Larger and more sophisticated companies now have their own photo libraries, in this case Oracle’s, which emphasizes authentic moments in real settings.

Getting into product design



Our lives are increasingly seen through the window of a small glass screen. Not surprisingly the people who shape our intention as we look through that window, product designers, are in great demand. As more apps and sites appear daily there is a huge gap in the need for experienced product designers than what the design industry can organically produce.

With this ‘product designer gap’ in mind I set up a panel discussion on September 20th 2017 to explore the topic as part of the AIGA’s Design//Work panel discussion series titled Getting Into Product Design. The panelists were Hillary Lindeman (Product Designer/Google), Deny Khoung (Founder/Whitespace), Faith Bolliger (Sr. Director of Product Design/SoFi), Loredana Crisan (Product Design Manager/Facebook Messenger), all moderated by the wonderful Amy Stellhorn (Founder/Big Monocle).


“I’m quite bullish when it comes to the longevity of product design” Deny Khoung (Founder of Whitespace)

What is product design?

Previously product design referred to physical objects being created in a factory somewhere for mass sale in a brick and mortar store. It came with a great deal of legacy knowledge about the materials used (steel, plastic etc) and/or anthropometric aspects of how the object fits the human shape and lifestyle.

However when it comes to the digital experience that weaves it’s way through our average day product design is used to shape our access to services such as finding out what the weather will be like tomorrow to finding a parking space in a built up city. Neither app creates the real world ‘product’ but merely offers the ability to know or book said analog experience.

With shorter attention spans than ever and tens of thousands of apps available there becomes a kind of app war for each category as they disrupt the previous, more analog version of a similar service or create an entirely new service that never existed before. With this highly competitive explosion of apps, product designers are being used to deliver a service to a user with the least amount of visual and mental friction in order for the business to survive and be profitable. Fingers mean funds.

As Deny put  it “It’s a great time to be product designer, especially in San Francisco ((where the talk was held)). For example you could work on Facebook Messenger like Loredana and touch 1.3 billion people’s lives. You have a chance to work on something that big or a rocket ship that may become that big one day.”

““I spend as much time white boarding as I do on the computer.” Faith Bolliger (Sr. Director of Product Design at SoFi)

What’s so different about product design?

With product design you’re not creating something finite like you are in other forms of design but rather it is something that needs interaction on the user’s part. Gone are the days when you could expect a reader of something analog to work their way through long instructions. The information was presented from front to back, top to bottom, left to right.

Now users pull information from multiple data sources onto a page that exists purely in that moment. That information needs a framework imposed over it as users want to asses the data quickly and choose a course of action with just a click. As a result buttons on every page should be similar so that the user isn’t frustrated by spending extra brainpower working out which is the right button. Rather, they should be spending the time working out which is the right content or course of action they want to take.

This means the overall structure a product is presented in is almost as important as the product itself. This can create a great many pages/screens and options. In the process this obviously creates a whole different set of axioms in which to operate: “Design thinking for product design is about designing a system that is the foundation you are building on” says Faith “for example the component library must be consistent. As a result there ends up being lots of arguments about whether something is MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or not”.

The other key aspect of product design is fact that it is never finished. Like a living organism a product and how it’s users’ interact with it changes over time. Faith went on to say “I heard designers shouldn’t be attached to their work. I disagree. The better and harder skill is to know when to walk away from your work with grace. You have to pivot with feedback or if you learn something new in a usability study. Essentially you have to fail gracefully.”


“The key is to articulate the problem and it’s context in order to to sell your idea” Hillary Lindeman (Product Designer/Google Assistant)

What hard and soft skills do product designers need?

As with most jobs there are hard and soft skills needed to thrive in a product design job. For the software part of the hard skills needed Hillary had this to say “At Google every designer uses Sketch for wireframes and user journey flows to have that high fidelity. We also use Principle to prototype and an internal prototype tool similar to Origami.”

Meanwhile Loredana mentioned the need for these software skills on her team “Facebook uses Sketch for just drawing the pixels. We also use Framer and Origami.”

When looking at potential candidates to join their existing product design teams Hillary had this to say about the soft skills needed: “Storytelling i.e. how you communicate beyond the screens. How do you put it in a larger perspective. The key is to articulate the problem and it’s context in order to to sell your idea.”

Hillary also added: “You need to be able to collaborate and communicate well with cross functional teams as you will work with product managers, developers and research teams. You need to develop good and strong relationships. People who are good at those skills create good workflow.”

Meanwhile Loredana added this about prospective candidates: “We need to see intentionality – that each choice is intentionally made. That they ((the candidates)) understand all the possibilities and the intent of projects. We also need to see self awareness of where they are in their career, can they move beyond this point and have the drive to get there.”

“You have to be attached to outcomes, not designs, because that’s what you create” Loredana Crisan (Product Design Manager/Facebook Messenger)


What is product design workflow like?

Since the scope of a product design project is so large and involves many other teams such as Engineering, User Research, Marketing/Sales etc the average week of a product designer involves a lot of meetings. These could be stand-ups or follow the Agile method so that ideas can be whiteboarded or designs presented in a quick and efficient manner. In between those meetings a product designer may only get sporadic slots of 30-60 minutes to read emails or do actual design work. As a result it’s hard to carve out enough time to do a deep dive into a problem. As a result product design teams like structure.

To expand on this point Loredana described the average week of the team she manages at Facebook Messenger:

Monday: we come together as a design team.
Tuesday: we have 4 hours of crits, one hour per team. We look for things like patterns, interface guidelines and general design.
Wednesday: we all work from home so we work on the feedback.
Thursday: we get feedback from our internal partners.
Friday: we have our team meeting and all come together.

With this structure the deep dive may come after hours as different options need to be explored based on the different sets of feedback. Ideas and designs change often along the way. And of course since these products are never “finished” like in other fields of design. “You get a lot more attached to your work when you try a lot of different things but there’s very little legacy that a product designer leaves behind” Loredana continued. “You have to get attached to outcomes because that’s what you create.”

Left to right: Hillary, Deny, Loredana and Faith


Titles, salaries and hours

About titles, Loredana had this to say “At a start-up you can make up any title you want but in a bigger company ‘product designer’ could include someone who prototypes, someone who does visual design etc. You could be very senior but still have the title ‘product designer’.”

Deny said that the salary for a product designer could be anywhere from $85,000 to $140,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area which includes Silicon Valley. Deny felt that further down the Peninsula (towards Silicon Valley) the salaries were lower – probably because of the high cost of living in San Francisco. He feels that communication/visual designers would probably get 20% less than product designers.

Deny also says that, in a trend that is counter to the way things were 10 years ago, in-house teams now get paid more than agency teams. It used to be that designers in agencies worked long hours, often due to disorganization and often on pitches the night before (due to the disorganization). These agency designers were paid more in an effort to keep them happy. Now in an in-house design job you are often expected to still be available when not in the office. The scale of operations, not a client, is the main drive for these internal deadlines. Just remember, if you change a button here or there on Facebook Messenger and 1.3 billion people may click it tomorrow.

“Go to the watering holes i.e. where people are already going” Amy Stellhorn (Founder of Big Monocle)


How to get noticed as a product designer?

And what if you are a fledgling product designer? How do you get a fully fledged product design job? What should go in your portfolio? Where should you be showing it?

About the work itself, Deny had this very poignant piece of advice: “It’s a continuum getting the right kind of work in your portfolio. Firstly, nothing beats a real job. Then comes a non profit work. Then there’s something like a Hackathon and finally a passion project.” On the same point, Faith added “You can also deconstruct stuff in your own time. I interview a lot of designers who have passion projects in their portfolio.”

Then, with regards getting your work seen by the right people, Amy Stellhorn, the evening’s moderator, had this to say: “Go to the watering holes i.e. where people are already going.” ((I have noticed that when I put anything on Dribbble many people see it within an hour or two)). Hillary pointed out that she got found by Google because of all the work she posted on her Dribbble page. Hillary also added: “You can find someone that you respect and just email them. I did that and was amazed at the people who responded with help.”

Loredana summed up much of the panel’s feelings with on this topic with “Put yourself in a situation that creates work for you as that shows what you can do. To do this you could be at a start-up as they need generalists”

Faith Bolliger engages with the audience – many of whom are taking notes during the talk.


This major field of design is only going to expand further or mutate into something even more advanced and engaging in the future. Condensing what the panelists said, the way to thrive in product design involves striving for greatness while working with non designers as you all work towards a common outcome (not goal). Wow, that’s a mouthful. Sounds easy, right?

But what of the future of product design?

About this Deny is quite bullish: “As older companies remodel themselves as tech companies they want to be more relevant through how their product is designed and there are still many problems to solve out there through product design.” It’s not just here to stay but product design will probably be the bridge to lead us into the future by delivering newer ways to do things we can’t even predict now.

Appendix: webpage for the event:

Managing designers 101


In their career, most designers will eventually be asked to manage other designers. The assumption is that if you’re good at designing and a bit charismatic you’ll be a good manager. However managing is not something designers are taught in college or even on the job. Designers are just expected to work it out.

With this ‘management gap’ in mind I set up a panel discussion to explore the topic as part of the AIGA’s Design//Work panel discussion series titled Managing Designers 101. The panelists were: Amy Stellhorn (moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Creative Lead, Unity). The following article is based on the discussion held that night…

“Your job is not to be a manager. It is to direct” Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque, Apple

What does it mean to manage?

Firstly let’s look at just what managing is.

Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque started with an interesting point “In Spanish you don’t have the word ‘manage’. We say ‘dirigir’ which means to direct… it’s a much more inspiring word.” She described the process of directing as not solving day-to-day problems or managing people but is in fact looking after projects. Having responsibility as a leader in the creative realm means you are driven by a high level vision of the end solution. It doesn’t mean it’s about you or any control issues you might have. This can be hard because as designers we all want to be artists of some kind. We love creating great pieces for our portfolios that the industry will applaud. But as designers we put form to other peoples’ ideas not our own. As a result understanding both the problem outlined in the brief and the mind of the person whom it’s for are the key parts of leading creative projects.

To illustrate this point Susana described a time when she was an individual contributor working on a commemorative book for someone senior at Coca-Cola who had passed away. She spent a few weeks working on it, all the while thinking she would have a great portfolio piece. When it came to the review with the Creative Director he pointed out that the book was not supposed to be her book but was in fact for the people who knew him well, especially his family. After slowly taking down each printout one-by-one he replaced them with blank pieces of paper, on which he wrote a single word written on them. Those words were ‘Whisper’, ‘Celebrate’, and ‘Thank’ saying “This is what you have to communicate”.

“The most awful bosses are the ones you learn the most from” Jennifer Sonderby, SFMOMA

So, what does a good boss look like?

Everyone wants to have a good boss but just what makes a boss ‘good’. When the audience was asked what phrases came to mind when thinking about good bosses they called out phrases like ’empowering’, ‘listens’, ‘trusts’, ‘gives good feedback’, ‘encourages’, ‘backs up direct reports’, ‘appreciates your genius’ and ‘acknowledges good work and it’s creator’.

A key theme that emerged was that good bosses try to find the right role and work for people to self actualize. This sounds ideal and there was a consensus among the panelists about this. At this point I mentioned that when training new team members I make it very clear that I’ve done a good job only when the designer can think for themselves and do the job without needing my input.

And how do you treat direct reports? Jennifer Sonderby pointed out that it is key to “model the behavior you would like to see”. This is the acme of managing other people akin to following The Golden Rule but with more depth: “I’ve had some amazing bosses. The one I currently have is the Chief Content Officer. Essentially he functions as my support mechanism allowing me to take risks, allowing me to fail when I need to fail, take risks when I need to take risks and excel when I need to excel on my own growth trajectory.”

Good bosses also delegate. A lot. It’s hard to be any kind of individual contributor with even a few direct reports so the key is to teach them to mange more direct reports too. More delegation means you are less stuck for time and therefore able to take the decisions and meetings that come your way more seriously. At the same time you are further empowering your direct reports to make their own decisions too. Don’t be afraid to let go either. It’s fairly universal rule of thumb that it’s extremely hard to manage more than about a dozen or so direct reports. Just look at look at corporate org charts or the size of company boards or even the number of members in the President’s Cabinet.

“People don’t quit jobs. They quit managers” Amy Stellhorn, Big Monocle

What does a bad boss look like?

Your commute to work might be long and the work might be bad but having a terrible boss makes your life a living hell. This is something that most people overlook – the fact that your boss is likely to be the gateway to your happiness. Just as people end relationships that aren’t working for them they tend to quit their relationship with their boss not the job itself.

Why is that?

Well, when asked what they thought, the audience said that bad bosses are: ‘unavailable’, ‘micromanagers’, ‘managing up not down’, ‘contradict themselves’, ‘have no follow through’, ‘bipolar’, ‘made me anxious’, ‘mentally exhausting’, ‘didn’t respect what I do’, ‘most of my goes potential goes unused’ and ‘doesn’t even know what I do’.

Most bad bosses tend to be very focused on the task or goal to be achieved. Often they’ve squeezed out the human part of their relationship with direct reports. Or worse, they know only too well the impact they have on their direct reports and love the power trip of being in control. Having said that a fairly reliable indicator that a team is managed by a horrible boss is the fact that it has a high turnover of staff.


What is it like to manage for the first time?

As mentioned before, designers often get promoted because they are good at a core skill such as designing. Becoming a manager for the first time often means you are still an individual contributor but now have to think about other people, their tasks and their problems. You may be good at managing your own time but now you are responsible for others people managing their time too.

So far I’ve talked about the mental leap of understanding things from your direct reports’ point of view but there’s also a a leap in how they see you. After all you may have been ‘just one of the team’ up until recently. They will already have a good sense of what you are like dealing with time pressures, working with others or getting things done under pressure. However once you get promoted above your peers it can create a huge amount of hubris.

Amy illustrated this point with an anecdote. She had to promote one of two creatives over the other. It seemed to go ok until she asked the one that wasn’t promoted “How do you feel about X now being your boss?” To which she got the reply “Oh I don’t see X as my boss” Amy had to explain why this person was promoted and how the two roles suit each of the two designers’ personalities and abilities. Amy realized she had to make it clearer that both designers had a defined career path with growth built into it.

“As a manager problems come to you all day, every day so stay calm” Rick Byrne, Unity

What’s the difference between leading and managing?

As designers we are often expected to both lead and manage so I thought I’d explain difference.

The short answer to ‘what is leading?’ is that it’s driving the creative direction and the steering the whole team month-to-month or year-to-year. A key point to remember is that you don’t need to have ’director’ in your title to think like a leader. Meanwhile managing is more about taking care of the day-to-day problems that arise or how a finite project gets finished. As before, you don’t need the word ‘manager’ in your title to do this. In fact you’re probably doing this already by thinking about what your boss would like you to do.

In further describing the difference between the managing and leading I used a fictitious example from my military past. Leading is about providing overall direction as officers do e.g. “We need to take this hill because the enemy are using it to ambush aid convoys”. Managing is more about how we achieve the main goal like NCOs (non commissioned officers) do e.g. “First section will provide a diversion at the base of the hill while the second section will sneak up the side in order to launch a surprise attack from the flank”.

Crystal clear? If not here’s an anecdote from the design world to make it more concrete:

There was a time when I had to provide creative direction on a project for a stakeholder who could be quite difficult. I prepped the designer by explaining that in order to get something approved sooner rather than later we should do three concepts.  The first concept needed to be too plain yet ticks all the boxes in the brief. The second concept needed to be really out there – “let your flights of fancy take you wherever you want and it can go in your portfolio” I told the designer. “Next, create a third version that is just right (and somewhere in the middle of the other two)”. I went on to explain that the stakeholder will kill off both the plain and fanciful concepts. “Once they feel empowered by killing off the first two concepts they will naturally pick the one that we think is just right” I explained. In the actual meeting the designer struggled not to fight for our two sacrificial goat concepts. Yet by doing so the meeting went exactly the way I had stage managed it in advance.

“It’s surprising how often you can buy your team more team” Brynn Evans, Google

What do you do when you are stuck?

Sooner or later you’ll get stuck with a problem. It’ll either be not enough time, the brief isn’t clear, your resources are shrinking or there are technical problems. All of these lead to panicking or frustrated direct reports which means they aren’t doing their best work. No matter what the problem is you will be the one expected to come up with a solution.

Bryan Evans talked about how someone told her “Your role now is to be the shit shield. You’re going to hear a whole bunch of shit and you’re never going to want to pass that on to your team” when she first became a design manager. She strongly disagreed with that concept saying “I don’t believe that because I always found that if I know a little bit about what is happening beyond me I could do my job better. I try to relay the stuff that I think is important to people so there are no surprises forced on them. If something big is happening next week they can think about it now.”

Evan had some of these gems of wisdom to ask when there’s a problem:
– stay calm
– find out if it’s a tech problem.
– draw the solution out of those telling you the problem causing the hold-up.
– buy more time for the team if you can
– talk to people outside the team as to how they impact your team
– be transparent: put work up on a wall for reviews so everyone can see
– if you don’t have a specific solution say “I’m not sure but I trust your judgement on this”


Tips on managing

– Always remember birthdays
– Model the behavior you want to see in your direct reports
– Give credit where it’s due and don’t steal it for yourself
– Don’t panic – pause to take deep breaths
– Stay fresh by being hands-on on a few projects
– Manage up and down not just up
– Connect with direct reports once a day, even if over something small
– Be authentic: don’t change your feedback in front of non team members
– Don’t leave it to last minute to review work – no one likes late nights
– Reward time spent on drudge work with a more creative project

The panelists summing up to the audience


Hopefully if you’ve read this far you are ready for the mental leap that managing/leading creative teams and projects takes. Maybe you’ve made the leap already. Personally I see managing as more of an extension of design. You can do so much more if you magnify the positive energy and creative ideas that leading a team brings. In many ways it’s like being a parent. It’s very hard at first, taking up so much of your time and energy. But once you hit your stride it is very rewarding being there for their failures as well as cherishing all their great achievements.

*Panelists: Amy Stellhorn (panel moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Rick Byrne, Creative Lead, Unity).


Working at a Startup 101



Every day more and more start-ups emerge to fulfill unforeseen needs and there aren’t enough designers to meet the demand. Whether they are the size of Google or just 4 people in a loft, chances are you’ll work in one at some point in your design career. With that in mind I’ve written this post on what it’s like to be a designer at a start-up with a leaning towards San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

So what is a start-up?

Usually a start-up is a young company that is creating an app, product or service that is using technology in a new way to solve a previously existing problem. Start-ups begin small and major growth spurts often come through rounds of funding from Venture Capital firms. These VCs hope the start-up will become the next big thing. However for every Airbnb, Facebook or Google there are thousands of small companies just a thumb swipe away, each one trying to ‘make it big’ too.

The architecture of a start-up: Unity staff work n’ watch in comfort

Working at a start-up vs traditional companies

When compared with older, more established companies, start-ups definitely have a different feel to them. Filled with hope for the future everyone at a start-up is feverishly working away on a product that may be huge one day. However there are 4 major influences on any start-up that create it’s corporate culture:

Firstly, start-ups are living on borrowed time as the money to pay for everything usually comes from Venture Capital investment rather than sales. With their board appointees in the company the VCs demand growth in order to get a return on their investment. Results are key on a quarterly basis and not a lot of time can be wasted on getting things wrong. 

Secondly, start-ups attract a lot of Millennials as employees. Young, idealistic and probably lacking a mortgage, spouse or children they can risk having the uncertain future and lack of stability that comes with working at a start-up. This is just as well since Millennials may not thrive well in traditional companies where it could take years to get a senior role there.

More unique to each start-up is the founder’s personality who bring their own unique flavor to the company’s dynamic. They may be super focused and quirky but their vision saw a big enough gap in the market to create a company around. The Founder(s) will have a lot of control over company and product direction and will expect things to happen fast. They are godlike in their domains…

Lastly, each start-up’s industry will heavily define the corporate culture. For example, if you work in a gaming start-up the vibe will be very different from an enterprise data solution start-up. You can guess why and you can also guess which one would be a lot more fun (speaking from experience).

Expect to play with a lot of new technology at a start-up

How do you thrive at a startup?

’Start-up environment’ in a job spec used to be a warning that you’ll work very long hours but now it means more than that. Get used to these aspects of a start-up if you want to thrive in one:

Firstly, expect there to be few boundaries and scant or no job descriptions. However the increased expectations of delivering projects often causes equally increased autonomy which in turn inspires individuals to work harder and for longer hours. It’s a trade off: experience and responsibility for effort.

Secondly, get used to change. As the company expands it may physically move office several times. Likewise the whole direction of the company’s product(s) may change as customers use it in unexpected ways. The two factors combined may create a very disorganized start-up. It all comes with the territory: forewarned is forearmed.

Thirdly, accept failure or cancellation of your projects. Start-ups are trying to do something entirely new and no one knows if the market is ready for it. And since time is money (either could run out any time) projects can get cancelled to save both. Don’t worry – you can still put the project in your portfolio in order to get your next job.

Gilfoyle whiteboards the formula for Mean Jerk Time in Silicon Valley

What’s the day-to-day work like for a designer?

So how are things different for designers at a start-up compared to traditional companies?

Firstly, you’ll need core design skills such as UX, visual or product design. Ideally all three in the fluid environment of a start-up. This is a good thing for designers since you get to design a wider variety of projects with more responsibility than you would in other roles.

Next is scale. You’ll be working on huge projects that you can’t do on your own such as an app, website or game. As a result you’ll be collaborating with a lot of people who have very different skills to yours such as developers, data analysts, business development etc. Expect to do a lot of group white-boarding sessions with a huge amount of smart thinking. so you’ll be kept on your toes intellectually. 

Thirdly expect to do lots of iterations in bursts of activity called ‘agile sprints’ which are pretty much applied to everything in start-ups. This process was originally devised for developers to work in parallel on large projects. As a designers you’ll need to do a lot of prototyping or proof of concept mocks to communicate ideas or pinpoint errors. The ‘fail fast and fail often’ mantra  is used at this point to avoid wasting more effort later on. However in reality people don’t want you to fail at all and would rather you are ‘outcome creating’. Be warned.



Design work: from simple interactive prototypes for user research to a full UI audit

What will I actually be doing as a designer?

You’ll be working on an entirely new ideas (hopefully) as your start-up tries to create a better, faster or simpler method of doing something. Hopefully the team will be putting the user first with everything you work on. This isn’t rocket science. Users vote with their thumbs in a fraction of a second. Whether you’ve solved the problem well or not will be apparent very fast. With that as your compass here’s what you’ll be doing on a daily basis

With that in mind here are the activities that will fill your days:

– Talking. A LOT of talking. New ideas are what make start-ups thrive
– Meetings with product, marketing, sales and engineering etc.
– Drawing, mostly boxes, on whiteboards
– User research: asking people a lot of questions
Creating personas of the end user
– Wireframes in Balsamic, Zeplin or similar programs
– Interactive prototypes in Principle, Invision or similar programs
– Detailed files in Sketch, Photoshop or Illustrator

Always use the product before an interview: Fitbit on my son to pitch ‘Fitkids’

Getting a job at a start-up

The same thinking applies to getting a job at a start-up as it does for any other job. Ideally you’ll demonstrate an interest in the company’s mission e.g. an interest in fitness if you want a job at Fitbit. Look at it from the company’s perspective – they want their start-up populated by enthusiastic people who are living the dream.

You’ll definitely need to have used the product/service before an interview if you can. Even better if you make a case study out of solving an existing problem with the product. Think like the user and think like a business to show you have a ’T’ shaped skill set: flexible enough to be broad but also show you can go deep in one or two core areas. Demonstrate your process with good thinking visualized well and keep any text in a case study to a minimum.

Also try to find someone at the company and get them to add you to the internal system. Most start-ups offer good incentives for employees to find good hires. While you’re at it do your financial research – especially if you would be leaving a full time role to take a job at a start-up. Be aware that you may get offered shares or stock options as part of any financial package. Speaking of which…

Options: not just for your relationships

What are stock options?

During your job application at a start-up you may get asked if you’ll take stock options as part of your compensation package. So what are they?

Well, they aren’t cash or shares.

Primarily it is the option to buy stock (shares) in the company at a later date. That’s right – they are an option to buy shares: not real money. In order to ‘execute’ your option you will have to pay money to buy the shares from the start-up itself. The hope is that the shares will rise in value when the company goes public.

So why would a company offer stock options? Primarily options allow companies to give some kind of (hopefully) financial benefit without any cost in the short term. However these stock options have to ‘vest’ over time i.e. usually you gain an additional 20% ownership of the stock options for each year you work at the start-up. This  is after an initial 1 year ‘cliff’ during which they don’t vest. Eventually you end up with 100% ownership of the options after 5 years.

Before accepting a job offer look at the start-up’s stage of funding i.e. whether it is at series A, B or C of funding. This is key as each round of funding dilutes the value of stock options. In contrast to stock options you may also be awarded RSUs (Restricted Stock Units) which are already paid for stock (shares) in the company.

Click here if you want to know more about the ins and outs of stock options.

Commute in style to Facebook with the ferry from Marin

Long hours and the commute to work

Once you get offered the job at a start-up then comes the commute. Previously a start-up job might have needed long hours in the office on top of sitting in traffic for a few more hours every day. However with advances in technology it doesn’t have to be that way… 

At the moment I work on a team which has people in Montreal, Shanghai, Copenhagen and San Francisco. This process creates non traditional hours as a result. You can leave work at 5pm to go to a networking happy hour or home for dinner with your family. Later on you can do more work from the comfort of your couch.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the larger companies have wifi enabled coaches that take their employees from SF to Silicon Valley. Facebook even has a boat to get employees from the city or Marin to their HQ by the water in Menlo Park. Click here to read more about it.

Initially it might seem like you are doing more hours in this kind of ‘always on’ environment. However you have the flexibility of setting your own hours or being able to do something during the day such a child’s school event.

Tech companies in the 1950s and now


If you’ve seen the show Silicon Valley you’ll have seen how it parodies the incredible roller coaster ride of success and failure that comes with trying to start a company and launch an entirely new product. Art definitely imitates life in this incredibly well written show.

Your own job at a start-up could be similar: you could be working on the next big thing or it could just as easily crash and burn. It could be both over time as risk is inherent to start-ups.

Either way it’s usually a good experience to have under your belt. After all you’ll probably have fun and do interesting work. For example, one start-up I worked at had huge growth quarter after quarter. I had more responsibility than any previous job and I created a large body of work for my portfolio. I left for another job and by coincidence the company then had two bad quarters in a row. Almost everyone I had worked with was laid off in one day. Such can be the way of start-ups…

Designing logos 101

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Coming up with ideas: my favorite part of the process

Who needs logos?

Whether it’s a religion, political party or product/service a logo is the most compact representation of a concept. Just think of how much impact on your subconsciousness seeing a cross, a swastika and or a coke logo has. The logo is the mental gateway to everything it represents compacted into a brand that gets buried in the back of your mind.
I personally love creating identities as everything designed after the logo must tie into it. It is the Genesis of a brand. Since I’ve created so many logos lately I decided to write this post outlining the process I go through when sitting down to design one.
Jake Bloom MD: a client and his business
Kicking off the project
A key part of the kick off meeting is to listen closely to what the client has to say about the business/organization/service as they will have to live with it long after you have gone on to other projects. This is their baby and you aren’t a co-parent no matter how early you are in the process. Remember you might want to produce something amazing that appears in the Logo Lounge annual book but they will have to a very different view of success which will probably start with not wanting to alienate anyone.
To help flesh out where the logo should go I suggest something I did in a recent kick-off meeting. I asked the client to create 3 Pinterest boards for their logo project: one with general logos they like, one with general logos they don’t like and one which is their competition’s logos. This helps reduce the amount of guesswork you as the designer will have to do and also makes the client feel involved. If they baulk at the thought of the extra effort on their part tell them it will save them lots of billable hours.
Pinterest board of logos the client likes – created for the logo below
How much do I charge for a logo?

There is no hard and fast rule about how much a logo costs despite a client asking for a fixed price. If you are an individual creating a logo for a small business a fixed fee may be best for them as it is just something on their to-do list. Logo creation may not be in their realm of experience and you’ll have to do a lot of coaching

In general I prefer hourly rates so that the client pays for indecision on their part rather than having you pay for it in hours that can’t be billed for (taking you away from other paying work). Remember they may not be as familiar with the process or how logos and brands work in subconscious ways. They may just regard it as a simple mark that you apply like a rubber stamp to everything.
If you are reading this post you are probably not able to charge the kinds of fees large companies are willing to pay (to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars) to branding agencies for a whole identity system. By contrast to all that I often create logos, not for money but for creative kicks e.g Kickstarteresque small businesses. This way I am in the driving seat as I am doing them a favor. 
My competitive study of plastic surgeons for the logo below.
Assessing your logo’s competition
Unless the logo is for an entirely new concept it is likely to have some pre-existing context and competition. Take the time to Google the competition’s logos looking for any common imagery in that industry/area of expertise. There will probably be some recurring cliches and stereotypes as other designers have gone for the milieu’s low hanging fruit. You’ll have to ask yourself are they valid symbols or just the easy way out?
You can also Google blog posts or design portfolios in the same industry to see what is out there. Hopefully you can use this process to elevate your concepts either to be on par with or above the industry standard before moving onto the next phase in the process…
Inspiration: pushing your logo further

Now you’ve got the brief and assessed it’s context you need to prime yourself for the most creative part of the process by establishing up design standards to hit in your mind. You may already go to many AIGA events, design meet-ups or other design events to get a feel for what other designers think about and are doing. If you don’t I highly recommend that you do

In order to get inspired alone and in front of a screen I suggest looking at this year’s Logo Lounge Trend Report in order to see what trends are in vogue and get a contemporaneous feel for the project. Next look up the industry or logos in general on Pinterest. The beauty of this is that you can ‘pin’ anything you find to your own boards to keep, assess later, send to the client or get other designers’ for feedback on. Here’s one of mine:
All this is fun and yet adds to the mental stew of bits and pieces being created in your mind.
I could probably fit 6 on my microsketches on a single stamp
My submission for the Love by Design fund raiser
Time to sketch the logo
I carry a small 4” x 6” page-a-day diary around with me all the time as a kind of notebook. I use it to draw loads of micro sketches in a short amount of time. Few of the sketches are ever larger than the smallest postage stamp as I work my way through the various possibilities fast. In this phase I just need to get to the concept quickly not the detail. It’s like brainstorming on my own – a very necessary step to avoid a lot of wasted time later on.
While the notebook is the physical surface that I draw the sketches on, the actual physical space is usually while I am on the bus either going to or from work. I find this transitionary state keeps me focused and helps me be more open to new ideas. I’m actually on the bus crossing the Golden Gate Bridge as I write this post.
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Mac development for an NGO’s logo: Wildlife Rescue
Taking the logo to the computer

All the previous steps help build a mental picture of the logo in my mind and higher standards to aim for. However when I take the concepts to my Mac they finally have to become real. This phase is definitely the longest since the devil is most definitely in the details. Some ideas that seemed great as a sketch can look terrible once you see them on screen.

Another key part of this stage is the fact that sometimes creative leaps occur by duplicating or distorting the artwork or even just plain accident. Another thing to think about is the fact that while busy working away on the logo for hours you need to pause in order to make sure you are still working on a viable concept and not just polishing up a bad idea. You can easily create bad ideas and the client may even approve them (or be the source of them) but its good to aim high if you want to get better logo commissions in the future.
Subtle finesse is necessary once you go to the Mac
What have I done?

Once you get going on the artwork on screen you can very easily get very blinkered on the creative route(s) you are taking. At this point it’s good to take a break for a day and work on something else. At this point you can send what you have to a select group of designer friends for feedback. Whether you listen to them or not you’ll see your logo in a different light.

If you now feel uncomfortable or unsettled about the design listen to the small voice at the back of your mind. It’s your subconscious trying to tell you something about the design. Maybe your subconscious can see a better solution that your conscious mind hasn’t worked out yet. it’s your gut check moment. If you do make changes or additional versions at this point the client will still be happy with more options to choose from rather than less options. Don’t show them any you hate just in case they pick it. Remember you only need one concept approved.

Show the logo in situ where possible for the client (ClusterTruck game)
Presenting your logo to the client

When you show the client your final designs you’ll have to make them look nice, ideally in a presentation, in order to create a good first impression. This is, after all, their dream made real. If you can’t be there in person then sending an explanation too is essential. Combined together this will give them something for the client to forward to others as frequently they will want to get another opinion too.

You might think you did a great job on your ‘final’ designs but as sure as bears shit in the woods once you write the word final in your file name you will get changes from the client.  The best thing to do is anticipate these changes in advance so that you don’t get frustrated by the feedback. If this feedback annoys you pause before replying and follow up later in a professional manner when you’ve calmed down. Remember for the client who is a non creative this process of back-and-forth is often as important as the final design.
Where possible show that the project was real.
Putting the logo in your portfolio

Always ensure you can put work in your portfolio for the world to see and you are not subject to an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). Once the logo is out their in the world it is legally considered to be in the public domain and open for you to use as long as:

“You may display your work in your portfolio-including a portfolio Web-site under the doctrine of “fair use,” as long as:
– you are not selling reproductions of the work;
– you have credited the rights holder; and

– you are not violating any non-disclosure agreement with the rights holder.”

For more details click here:

In my portfolio I always show the whole process from my initial sketches to the final design. I’ve found that most people seem more interested in the whole story of how the logo was created than the final deliverable. I use as many pictures as possible to explain each step. This is because most people will just scroll down each page in a few seconds skipping over the text

To finish off the narrative I always follow up with the client to get any photos or examples of the logo in some sort of real world application. I feel this ‘validation’ step is key as I see so many portfolios show logos/designs straight out of Illustrator/Photoshop. The viewer is left guessing if it was a proposed mock-up logo or wishful thinking on the designer’s part. Check out some of these amazingly polished logo mood boards on Pinterest:

The inner journey of a logo designer

Fun vs Stress
There’s an emotional ebb and flow to the logo design process which I’ve turned into a graph above. Really, it could be any design process but the simplicity of the logo creation process makes it a lot easier to chart. The process is its most fun when there is the least amount of stress like in the early research and inspiration phase. This is mostly because you’re in the lateral thinking phase and haven’t had to come up with any ideas yet. Everything is up in the air and full of hope for the future of the logo.

Directly inverse to the fun curve is the stress curve which gets more intense as you have to bring the vagueness of the concept into the real world. This is the linear part of the process: “I need 3 concepts by the end of Thursday.” Usually the stress curve reaches it’s peak at or just before the client presentation.

Where the two curves intersect is what I call the Creative Nexus. This is where you come up with the best ideas: stressed enough to think hard while coming off the intellectual high of having thought deeply about the topic. After this it’s a bit like a race to the finish – the stress of which can create more ideas if you’ve done the intellectual priming of the early phases.
Concepting on the bus

The beauty of logos is that they are simple, small and finite compared to designing something like a website or book. As you can see my whole process is loosely structured yet is also fluid enough to be open to changes in direction. It works for me as an individual and can easily be adapted to company or agency needs

The only difficult part of the whole logo design process for a designer is that it is a two way street: the client may not aesthetically see what you see. Never forget that they’re coming from a place where they own the business, concept, product etc. And while the logo may seem like your baby it’s really just the summary on their baby. If the client kills off the logo idea that you absolutely love then you can always put in your portfolio along with the rest of its story for all the world to see. Somebody else will definitely like it…

Freelance Designer 101



Are you thinking of taking the plunge and leaving that stable full time job to go freelance? Suddenly laid off in a ‘restructuring’ and looking to freelance as a bridge to the next job? Wondering about the major changes you’ll undergo? 

Read on as I recount some of the learnings from my own career (where I’ve had periods of freelance several times) and an AIGA panel discussion as part of the Design//Work series ( organized by myself on going freelance. On the panel were 3 freelancers, Arianna Orland, Peter Nowell, Tina Hardison and Lisa Gibello of The Creative Group (a staffing/recruiting agency). 

In the movies heroes never look before they leap

Making the leap from salaried employment

You may be escaping a bad boss, bad work, a bad commute or were laid off. You may just want to switch industry or specialization. Either way making the switch from the security of a steady job to freelancing is like heroes in movies jumping though windows – you hope you’ll land on something soft…

Suddenly you will find that you have the freedom of not being watched 9-5 at a desk, in an office. You may end up with a much bigger variety of work too. However you will also feel trapped as doing spec work and account management could have you working 6-7 days a week. It becomes hard to enjoy time off and the year may have stressful fallow periods of no work followed by overlapping deadlines where you have to turn down work.

During this transition you will become acutely aware of the cost of everything and the need to save for the quiet periods. If you are the primary breadwinner, with a mortgage and dependents to support be prepared for some sleepless nights.

Peter Nowell from his promotional video for Sprightly Books

How to market yourself

So you quit your job or got laid off – now what? Well, it’s not all doom and gloom. Going freelance is also a genuinely exciting phase of your career. If it wasn’t nobody would do it.

So what do you do now? 

Devise a branding system for yourself and your portfolio. This can be both a stressful and fun undertaking. Ideally you had this prepared in advance. Always make sure your portfolio is ready to be viewed with only the kind of work in it that you want to get as a freelancer. One of the best portfolios I’ve seen is Peter Nowell’s videos explaining his key projects which took 4 months to create:

Tell your friends, especially any small (or large) business owners, about your big leap as you need to get the word out. Come to design events such as Meet-ups and AIGA events to avoid the loneliness of being at home or doing a lot of short stints in different offices. Remember people and their names as networking is not just accumulating contact details, it’s about making sincere connections. Write articles/blog posts like this one or teach classes to get the word out about your abilities.

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Tina Hardison at her desk

Independent or staffing agency?

A big question that lies ahead of you is whether you want to go fully independent and deal with everything yourself or rely on work from staffing/recruiting agencies. Most freelancers prefer the higher hourly rate of going fully independent but also rely on staffing/recruiting agencies when they don’t have work. Neither route can be relied on for steady work but if you already have contacts with a lot of companies/agencies then going fully independent may be your best bet.

One thing you probably didn’t have to do when you were salaried is constantly look for work. Sign up with several staffing/recruiting agencies as they are constantly being asked to provide designers at short notice. As a result they have to constantly keep a stable of good and equally important, available, designers.

As well as looking for work for you these recruiting agencies will take care of ensuring you get paid (whether they get paid or not) and any taxes you have through the work they send your way (see Billing and taxes below). Understandably, for doing this admin the staffing/recruiting agency takes a cut of what the client company has allocated for the job. 

Arianna Orland and one of her pieces from Paper Jam Press

Finding and keeping your own clients

Part of finding and keeping your freelance clients is that you have to work at it every day and at every industry event. You have to be interested in everyone and everything as you don’t know who may become a client or is friends of a potential client. I got one freelance gig (which turned into a full time job) from coaching soccer to the son of the COO of a major gaming company. 

Since most freelance work comes from word of mouth the key is to do good work and be a great person to work with from the start. In all your rounds of back-and-forth you will be representing and defending your own work so keep it professional. How you are during this constant back-and-forth is key as the relationship may be more important to the client than the actual design work itself.

Set boundaries and a value on your work (probably hourly) and bear in mind that client management is a huge part of job. However if the client becomes too difficult then you can be the one who ends the relationship. For advice on this read Peter Nowell’s article on breaking up with clients (

Mike Montiero’s books at A Book Apart

What do I charge clients?

This is the 64 million dollar question. 

Try to find out what others charge but since designers don’t tend to talk about money they may not reveal their hourly rate. So what should you do?

Generally the industry charges by the hour so start working out how many chargeable hours* you are prepared to do in a year. Next, decide the total amount you need to make in a year after tax. Then give yourself a profit of 10%, 15% or 20%.

E.g 40 hrs a weeks by 50 weeks = 2,000 hours.*
Target income = $100,000
$100,000 ÷ 2000 hrs = $50 per hour
Profit of 20% = $10
Rate per hour = $60

*remember this is billable hours and you’ll need to use the down hours for your marketing and billing.

However the panel recommended that you actually double the overall figure you think you need then minus 30-40% for tax you need to set aside (see next section). PLUS overheads

When having ‘the talk’ with the client about your rate explain your process as they will have to explain it to their boss too in order to get the budget approved. Show workings/process from previous projects to the client in order to add value to what you do. You may have an awkward moment asking yourself “Did I ask for too much or too little?” Don’t worry – because everything is a unique case there is no magic number. Sometimes you’ll blow it and sometimes you’ll luck out. It’s all comes with the territory.

For more on this process read Mike Montieri‘s books ‘Design is a Job’ and ‘You’re my Favorite Client’ and his talk ‘Fuck You, Pay Me‘ 

Lisa Gibello talking about the benefits of The Creative Group

Billing and taxes

During the Design//Work panel discussion Lisa Gibello had a good pitch for The Creative Group. She pointed out that TCG will provide you with one W2 tax form ( for all the work you did in that year and direct deposit the money to you whether they get paid or not. This avoids you having to continually chase down payment from clients and having many tax forms to deal with.

There’s also the tax benefits for write offs such as the percentage of office space used in your home, any phone and internet expenses as well as the depreciation on computers. You’ve got to keep receipts for everything but it all adds up to lower tax bills. Speaking of which…

How much should you put aside for tax? 30-40% of your earnings plus the fee for not paying quarterly taxes just in case you can’t paid on time. That might sound like a lot but in the US you are liable to pay estimated taxes when you work for self: these are 3 payments made to the IRS against your projected earnings not money you have already earned.

For those working in the US try to get everything on a 1099 ( if you can. This gives you a nice check from the client for you to then manage the ebb and flow of your finances throughout the year. For contracts be careful when you ask for payments terms. ‘Net 15’ means your client is liable to pay you 15 days after the invoice is received. However, Net 30 and Net 60 are more common in the industry.


Managing your healthcare

Coming from working in Europe the issue of healthcare never crossed my mind when I moved jobs. However being cut from an employer provided healthcare in the US can be a very terrifying prospect especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition. 

I remember in 2007 I left a job in the San Francisco Bay Area and the cost of COBRA insurance would have been just over $600 a month for myself that would not have included my wife and 2 my children. Luckily with the advent of Obamacare/Affordable Healthcare there is a safety net in place that is financially feasible for a freelancer. In the Design//Work talk Arianna Orland mentioned that Affordable Healthcare cost her $119 per month. She mentioned that the Freelancer’s Union also provides very good healthcare.

Most staffing agencies also provide some healthcare if you work with them on a continuous or semi continuous basis. Check which policy they follow but since there’s no guarantee of future work it makes it hard if you have any kind of ongoing medical problem.

A fun identity from my last period of freelance. Read more about it here


Going freelance is a huge leap of faith – a faith that you place in yourself and your abilities. If you don’t have that you will find the whole process very difficult. This faith will get you through the freelance world where you are only as good as your last project whether you take the independent or staffing/recruiting agency route.

As for me personally I prefer a full time job for the stability and because you have greater ability to influence things. Ironically most of my full time jobs evolved out of a freelancing stint with the same company. In one role I came to freelance for 3 weeks, stayed on after that as a freelancer and 18 months later went full time. I then stayed full time for another 5 years. So you just never know…


Best SF recruiting agencies:

24 Seven
Kate Gilman:

Jessica Cizek:

Katty Douraghy:

Creative Circle
Amanda Marshall:

The Creative Group
Lisa Gibello:

Hilary Bullock:

Mickey Pucko:

JBC Direct
Christina Welcome-Lopez:

Lab Creatix
Pei Evans:

Onward Search
Shannon McGrath:

Von Church

Cassie Walker:

Working as an in-house designer


Working as an in-house designer
There was a time when being an in-house designer was seen as a less aspirational role than being an agency designer. However the rise of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter here in San Francisco the pendulum has definitely swung the other way. 

Having worked as both an agency and in-house creative I thought I would write about the pros and cons of the latter – everything mentioned below is something I have done at some point…


Hipsters now have more time to be hip
The Pros and Cons of in-house design teams
First let’s take a look at the to different worlds to see how they are both different:
Much closer to the decision making process and being relevant
Much better work/life balance (hence the rise of Hipster hobbies) 
– No need to work late nights and weekends on pitches 
– Closer to the brand with a more in-depth understanding of it
Often no need to track time/billable hours
Internal teams often ignore proper creative briefs and process 
Lack of variety in creative work
Google’s rebranding stayed in house and was driven by technology as much as design
Staying creative within established brand guidelines
When you line up the Pros like that it can be easy to see why in-house design teams are becoming increasingly popular as a career choice for designers. However with just one brand to work on your creative horizons can narrow very fast. So what should you do to keep the creative juices going?
Hire people with skills that complement your team’s skills
– Keep trying to push the brand in new ways yet stay true to its core principles
– Study other brands that have adapted in creative ways
Attend AIGA events, Meet-Ups and Creative Mornings
– Expose yourself to other designers and ideas
Enter your work into design competitions
Do volunteer design work for a non profit like as 826 Valencia

– Read design blogs (hey, what a great idea)


three hipsters
“We’re from the agency”
How to prevent creative work going outside the company
Unfortunately most in-house creative teams have experienced the anguish of design work, especially a brand redesign, going outside the company. This usually occurs because the internal team is repeatedly told to stay within the brand guidelines until everyone thinks that’s all they can do. 
To avoid this happening an in-house team needs to:
– Create great work from the start
Be prepared to go the extra mile as agencies work late nights and weekends
Know how your work will be measured as successful e.g. money, clicks, etc
– Wine and dine the various VPs who approve creative work or else agencies will
– Understand the various approvers’ needs first before yours
– Itemize the cost of sending work out to an agency as this may shock VPs
– Always make the CMO look good


Talk internally about your team’s design work as often as possible
How to make your in-house design team thrive 
The success or failure of any in-house design team may often rest on how good it’s members are at articulating how much business value it can bring to the rest of the company. It’s not just dollars saved but more intangible things like making the brand look good compared to competitors or delivering a beautiful keynote for the CEO to present. 
Making it work:
Find channels to advocate for your in-house team
– Do VPs/approvers design favors e.g. something for their non profit 
– Ask if other teams need design work done
– Get your work/team mentioned in the company all hands 
Ask to pitch against the agency if work is being sent outside the company

– Bottom line: do good work


Concept boards from Clorox Digital Labs
In-house agencies
Increasingly something halfway between being an in-house design team and an agency design team has been emerging: the in-house agency. A great example of which is the Clorox Digital Labs but there are many more in the appearing in larger companies.
How do you build your in-house agency:
Hire people who have worked in agencies
Make everyone follow a creative process with briefs (which meet resistance at first).
Provide good customer service: more important than the designs for approvers
Don’t get complacent about working on just one brand
– Bottom line: doing good work is still the most important part





With this new paradigm of in-house agencies being much more creative and cost effective it’s the best of both worlds for everyone involved. Even Apple has recently moved it’s ad campaigns internally – a big step for them after the groundbreaking Think Different and iPod campaigns. In fact the best example I experienced of an in-house agency in my career was when I worked at an online publisher which also had external clients. It was wonderfully ever changing.


Designing a logo in 6 hours

A friend asked me to design a logo for a nonprofit focusing on raising funds in the US for various South Africa organizations who work to preserve endangered species, especially Rhinos (the original name has been altered below until it has been trademarked).

I was very busy at the time so only had an hour here and there to devote to the project. All together it was 6 hours and here’s how I broke it down into small sprints.

But first, here’s the final logo:


I looked at other non profit bodies doing similar work (1 hour).


While sketching I narrowed down a concept fast (30 minutes).


I changed a stock icon bit-by-bit for uniqueness (90 minutes).

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I looked at primitive and yet contemporary styles of logos (1 hour).




Next I started looking at color families (30 minutes):


Next came a font study to create a more primitive feel (1 hour):



Voila! The final logo in horizontal and vertical formats (30 minutes).



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