Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Don’t Do Another Three-Way

Don’t Do Another Three-Way
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I admit I’ve been a bad blogger over the past while. Until a week or two ago, I had hardly written a thing. Sorry about that. It’s been a great year for new work, which makes me happier than a preteen girl at a screening of Twilight. Unfortunately, it has resulted in rather limit time to write.

Then of course, it’s not like I haven’t made a provision for this. I did, after all, take most of 2009 to write a book for you… and as a self-respecting communicator, you’ve likely already purchased it in triplicate. If you’re just too cheap to drop the twenty bucks, I’ll remind you that you can read it online for free. I’m releasing a new chapter released every two weeks.

My point here—aside from the shameless promotion of my own stuff—is that I haven’t abandoned you. In spite of the seemingly endless stream of (generally useful) strategy meetings, (mostly invigorating) concept sessions, and (“I want to stab myself in the eye” painful, because even your pets have been invited to participate) conference calls, you’re still taken care of. Because really… I like you. That other guy, not so much, but you… you’re OK.

Ask Eric

There are a number of common questions I get from folks who read this blog. These tend to come from people who are either starting out in the industry, or have read a couple of posts and are left with the feeling we share some common experiences. I’m always flattered when readers feel this way, and I’m happy to lend a hand where I can.

The funny part is that most of these questions are pretty similar, like: How do you get new work? Are there clients you refuse to work with on moral grounds? What software do you use to track your hours? How do you find new designers? You know; that sort of thing.

These are all valid questions. In fact, they’re ones that I too have asked, and in some cases continue to. The design industry is comprised of a great many “small islands” (by which I mean independent studios and practitioners) and, as such, we often lack direct access to those who can share their knowledge on such issues. This necessitates us reaching out to ask our—sometimes remote—peers questions, in order to gain insight.

The question I receive, as much as any of the above (and often by much more experienced designers than I’d expect) is: “How many concepts do you provide?” My response is always the same: “one.” This often results in a whole raft of other questions.

The great fallacy of three-ways

As a young teenager, I used to fantasize about three-ways… I blame this on a torrent of testosterone seeping out of each and every one of my pores, coupled with an overly active imagination. Truth is, my ideas around such interactions were colorful and perhaps overly detailed. In retrospect, I also realize that they were largely the result of hubris and ignorance.

First of all, the reality of the matter was that outside of my fantasies. I wasn’t “wired” for such activities. My neuroses would have immediately left me obsessed over the risk of contracting some kind of a rash or uncomfortable inflammation; and my instinctual (and likely outdated) belief in committing to just one partner would have set me off on some kind of soul-searching emotional roller-coaster. (Ain’t it a drag when one’s appetites and values collide?)

Bigger than this, was the fact that of all the design flaws in the known universe, the greatest oversight was in the function of the average human male. For all of the wildly exciting ideas and aspirations of most men, the vast majority of us are simply incapable of the awareness, dexterity, and endurance necessary to please a single woman. Therefore, it hardly needs to be said that the possibility of effectively pleasing two only really exists in the realm of deluded high-school boys’ fantasies.

Genius moves

Forgive me for this tangent, but I believe it is in ways analogous to the fantasy that many of us hold when it comes to the creative process. Allow me to explain:

Creativity is commonly misunderstood—as much by those who do creative things, as those who commission or admire them. As a culture, we’ve imbued so called “creative” pursuits with a mythology that clearly helps generate excitement. Meanwhile, such notions have certainly helped shrewd people sell things at a greater profit (i.e. art promoters adept at spinning stories surrounding undiscovered “genius”).

Although such sensationalism is perhaps admirable for how it can build enthusiasm and encourage some kind of action, they’ve skewed our ideas around what it means to be “creative.” The plain (and perhaps even deflating) truth of the matter is that most all of us do creative things at one time or another, and that these are generally the result of less than magical methods and means.

Commonly, the innovations and ideas that seem like “genius” are simply a byproduct of a situation, or the most logical response to some kind of problem. One of the more well-known examples of this is found in the story of George de Mestral, who created Velcro after a hunting trip in the Alps. Upon his return, he found a number of burrs stuck to his clothing, and this led him to explore the practical application of working with these “hooks and loops” that he had found in nature. (By the way, design that is informed by nature in this way is commonly referred to as biomimicry.)

In spite of the practical problem solving found behind so many of these wonderful ideas, we generally treat the notion of creativity with more reverence than we should. Part of this relates to the showmanship we find courtesy of the marketers who need to package things compellingly. The other part likely relates to our desire for something inspired, divine, or magical to be a part of our lives.

Before I go any further

A few folks have noted that in previous posts I’ve “whined” a little too much about client/designer relationships. I take these comments seriously, and feel the need to both defend the nature of these posts and step back from them a little. My reason for writing on this topic isn’t in any way to belittle those who rely on our expertise; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. My belief is that the prevalence of these challenges in our industry necessitates greater dialogue on behalf of designers. We simply must examine how we go about interfacing with our customers, in a way that is more mutually beneficial: pleasing the client, while allowing us to provide our very best to those who entrust us.

I also recognize that I’ve heard this criticism of my posts a few too many times to not acknowledge that I’ve likely fallen into a pattern that needs to be broken. As a result, after this post I’m going to leave this topic alone for the next long while. Before I do, though, I want to take this opportunity to present a few thoughts on how it could all be quite different. This is informed by a number of informal experiments we’ve conducted over the years. My hope is that they’ll help you better interact with those who enlist your expertise.

No, I won’t give you three options

For some reason, the number 3 has special significance in the creative world. Although I’m unable to find any rationale for its prevalence, or point of origin for it, designers and their customers alike, treat it as somehow key to good design. Specifications for projects often call for three variations on a theme, and practitioners often (by simple route) provide three options when supplying creative.

I want to state this emphatically, right now: I do believe in numerous variations and exhaustive exploration of a concept.

In fact, I believe in it so much that I feel the notion of “three options” to be in direct conflict with the design process. Why? Well first of all, it’s bad use of a client’s budget. Most design solutions are hard to come by. This is rarely visible to those outside of the process, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. While working to deliver a suitable design solution, countless ideas are explored, examined, and discarded for any number of reasons.

By the time that a good design solution is achieved, many resources have likely been expended. Doing the same two more times, would require at least the same amount of time expended twice over—this would require a substantial increase in the working budget. The challenge, here, is that few want to see costs creep like this, so both parties start to act foolishly in order to perpetuate this pointless convention. Clients ask for the designer to just, “quickly toss in some random backgrounds” for the variations; meanwhile, designers generally just create the option they believe in and then pump out some filler for the other two.

The big problem in all of this is that it takes an already challenging process and adds noise. Now, instead of looking at one potential solution and examining what works and what doesn’t, the client and designer are forced to do this and also examine the group of proposals as a whole. This tends to result in “Frankensteining,” in which all are merged together into one big design soup. This isn’t altogether different from taking chili, ice-cream, and pickled herring, and mixing them together as a single dish. Yummy!

Another way

If you believe I’m just being crabby about recent client experiences, you’re wrong. Actually, the method we’ve been developing and refining over the past several years has largely eliminated the “three concept” scenario, and I think that most of our clients would agree that this has overwhelmingly been for the better.

Before we accept a new project, we ask prospective clients to look carefully at the problems we’ve solved in the past, and get comfortable with the role we take in such projects. Similarly, we take a great deal of time to explain the way in which we work, and show them the steps involved in crafting a design solution.

The process that we’ve established is a long one, but I believe it’s one of the best things we’ve ever created at smashLAB. It’s a set of granular steps, delineated by a few key stages. These are all backed up by a series of exhaustive and illuminating documents that serve as mileposts through this process. I won’t share these with you today. This process is too exhaustive to document in a blog article, and meanwhile, I believe it’s kind of like our own “special sauce.” Forgive my protectiveness here, but I am not altogether that interested in giving away quite that much at this very moment.

What I will tell you is that we concentrate heavily on our clients’ big picture challenges, and on developing cohesive strategies for addressing these issues. Typically we spend several weeks creating these documents, and they tend to be pivotal for our clients. The solutions we provide are always concentrated on developing a single direction, which we continue to refine throughout the engagement.

Once again: a single direction.

The visuals

As you may know, the bulk of our agency’s work is in the digital space. Given that websites are a layered experience, we really don’t touch any visual treatments until we’ve worked through a number of other points (for example: discovery, information architecture, content analysis, wireframes, and so on and so forth.) Throughout this process, we’ve found that a highly refined conceptual approach and design direction is incredibly helpful.

All of the thinking surrounding this results in a document that verbally outlines the approach we have in mind, as well as a series of visual examples to help align all of our language. I believe this to be very important. Language is subjective, and what we say can easily be misconstrued. As such, we’ve designed our approach to identify all of the elements of a website, be they written language, tone, photographic sensibility, UI conventions, or one of a myriad of other key points. We identify and create a plan for acting upon each of these points, and provide visual examples of similar approaches, in order to help our clients both hear and see what we mean.

With this in place, and agreed upon, we start to work on a set of visual treatments for the project in question. The nice part of working in this way is that it puts all of us on a single path, with (mostly) unwavering markers for what we wish to achieve. Instead of trying to be randomly creative and hit some undefined mark, we’re able to really clarify what we need to do, and subsequently move in a single direction.

This isn’t a cop-out

In case it isn’t already evident, the approach we take is not easy; it is, however, a rational one. It is defined by the agreed upon strategy and continually measured against the business objectives and creative brief. This is a rather big deal, as it gives us defined measures to bounce our suggestions off of. If we’ve all agreed that an organization needs to seem more, “serious, refined, and mature” than they currently are perceived to be (just for the sake of argument), we then need to ensure that we’re hitting these marks. Both parties are responsible for this direction: the client must ensure that these attributes are in fact what they hope to convey. Meanwhile, the design agency must ensure that these sensibilities are evident in the proposed solution.

Now, stop for a moment, and ask yourself which situation you’d prefer to find yourself in as a client. Would you like to have the designer create three hurried variations in order to hit an arbitrary requirement, or would you perhaps benefit more from a single rigorous, clear, and carefully thought out direction and proposed solution? (I thought so.)

I won’t lie to you; this approach does take a lot of time. Although we don’t provide three visual directions, we generally run a much greater number of variations behind the scenes, in order to determine the most suitable direction for our client. We just do our clients the respect of not asking them to choose between options we’ve already deemed to be somehow flawed. We also leave ample room for iteration, knowing that meeting our clients’ needs almost always requires substantial back and forth.

On this note, I should mention how much more input our clients get than those who are working with studios who do three-ways. While the latter tends to walk in with a few sets of mock-ups and then asks the client to do all the work in determining which “Choose Your Own Adventure” path they want to select, we simply give our clients more.

We work closely with them to determine a strategy at the outset, which can be revised as required until we’ve got it right. Similarly, they can challenge the Concept and Design Direction documentation we supply, and we’ll tune this until it hits the mark. This process continues through the IA, wireframes, comps, content, and so on. Sure, they don’t get the big “unveil” and the thrills associated with that magical moment. That said, the number of input points we provide are much greater in number; besides, we’re not in the “magic” business anyway.

Design the process

The term “problem solver” is quickly becoming the mating cry of designers around the world. Convinced they no longer wish to be seen as simple beautifiers of the world around them, they’ve chosen en masse to utilize this term as both a sales tool and method of differentiating what they do from their homespun “desktop publishing” brethren.

While I’m, at times, hardly any different, I hate to be hypocritical in my actions. As such, I say that if we’re to actually be seen as problem solvers, we have to take this challenge seriously. In no place is this more telling than in the way we interact with those who we serve. Yes, as with all of the interactions in our lives, some relations will simply be more trouble than others, with a few being patently unsalvageable. For the most part, though, we have to get an awful lot more savvy about the way we engage with our many good clients.

If they ask for “three concepts,” and this seems unsuitable to the way in which your organization best performs, you need to design mechanisms for redefining these interactions. Perhaps this will be in the form of more refined processes, or literature intended to explain this methodology. Maybe it will be something else entirely. I can only share what works for us. You’ll have to determine what does the same for you.

I want to stress, though, that until we can solve the problem of how we engage with our clients (and provide them with the most appropriate design solutions), we had probably best avoid gloating about how smart we are with all of this “problem solving” jazz.

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