Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter
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Introducing a new party to an existing design process can present serious challenges. A case in point: Two years ago, I was caught off guard. Our firm had been working with a start-up company whose owner was referred to us by a past client. Having completed our research and assessment, we had developed a name for the company and were nearing the completion of their identity design. All seemed to be proceeding well.

Houston, We Have a Problem

But then our client arrived at a meeting with a new partner who would be responsible for the operation’s overall marketing. Right after the introduction, I felt that something was amiss, but proceeded with the presentation.

We spoke to our clients about our progress since our last meeting. But our guests seemed restless. Suddenly, the new partner asked, “Why are we paying so much for this?”

While prepared for such a question at the beginning of a project, I was taken aback by the skepticism so deep into the process. He reasoned that online firms like Logoworks perform similar services at a fraction of our cost. So we must be overcharging.

Had this been a new project, I would have handed back their deposit and wished them the best. But this was near the end, so walking away wasn’t viable. I spent the next hour reviewing our process, discussing the associated time requirements and explaining how our efforts would help position their company. It made no difference. They wanted a logo for $299, and the longer I prattled on, the less impact my words seemed to have.

We completed the project but the relationship was damaged and the owner of the firm felt duped. With the trust lost, it became difficult to focus on the intended result. We did find some comfort when the logo was praised on a number of design portals, but it’s unlikely that this meant much to our client.

Does Anyone Really Care About Process?

I had forgotten about this experience until last week, when it finally hit me that I had tried to convey the wrong point to our client. The enjoyment I get from a glass of scotch at the end of the day does not come from the process by which it’s distilled; rather, I just want to indulge for a moment before heading to bed. Similarly, we were giving our client process, strategy and careful attention to detail, but none of that mattered to them. In trying to validate our service I missed out the main point.

I should have talked about how this identity would build confidence among investors and retailers. I should have stressed how it would entice shoppers to pick up their product’s package and look closer. I should have talked about how it would make people feel.

We are creatures ruled by emotion. I was surprised to read that some Mercedes-Benz models were ranked only 27th in dependability; nevertheless, when I look at their cars, advertising and marketing materials, I feel as though they are the epitome of quality. I have to wonder what this feeling is worth to the executives at DaimlerChrysler.

Although I know the power of design to affect an audience, I’m often reluctant to point this out when selling our services. Perhaps this is simply habit, but it’s a bad one that must be broken. I wonder if we need to temporarily put aside our talk of brand, strategy and execution, and consider our power to influence emotion. This is what we’re doing when we get people to stop and admire a wine label, laugh at a magazine ad, slow down to observe a billboard or put a promotional poster up on the office wall. So, why don’t we put more effort into selling these reactions, instead of the objects themselves?

Is it Time to Up Our Game?

Meanwhile, if we are to adapt to a practice that is transitioning from deliverables to strategic thinking, we have to challenge ourselves and our conventions. This could mean adjusting our language to revolve around emotions and reactions, instead of a laundry list of design items. What if we listed “making your audience love you” as a deliverable? It could be difficult to generate pricing for, but it might get us closer to the true value of what we’re selling.

Should our creative briefs be drafted solely around the desired end reaction? We could delete the delivery device and focus solely on creating meaningful interaction with the audience. This might make the notion of hourly billings anachronistic. Our clients demand results, not labour. Why aren’t we pricing our value as such?

While the world around us continues to change, the one thing that remains constant is that people act as a result of their emotions. As visual communicators, we’re in the business of crafting reactions. If we can embrace this truth, we’ll do our clients and ourselves a great service.

This article originally appeared in Applied Arts Magazine.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. I agree with your comment that we are ruled by emotion, or I would say at least guided. However, sometimes when I ask a client what kind of emotional response they'd like to elicit from an illustration or design, I think that they equate emotion to being emotional or irrational. (and my question goes unanswered--or I spend more time figuring out they're expectations.)

    After one such interchange this morning, your column was a welcome read. Thanks.

  2. These are always tricky things to explain and work within—given how subjective they are. I've come to believe that being successful as a designer has as much to do with persuasion and negotiation as it does with good ideas and execution.

  3. Good points, Eric.

    This may be a stupid point of mine, but do you think that it may be a weakness of design specifically, as an industry, to focus so much on the intangibles that *we* put into but not that *they* get out of it?

    In contrast, I think of something like how advertising works (granted, I'm biased. I work on it), where the process/details/intangibles are part of the presentation...but not the lead. The lead is the emotional and objective-based rationale for the idea which drives the work.

    This is a bit rough, but having something framed up as insight -> solution -> process sandwiches the emotional response for the client between two logic-based rationale parts, ideally leaving them comforted in logic while swept up by emotion.

    I dunno, this may be exactly how you did it, or close enough, and I don't think there's a single "right" solution as a site build would come with different demands than a 360º campaign.

    Just thinking aloud!

  4. We work in advertising as well and—although it is challenging on many levels—the metrics are often clearer and can be assessed more immediately. For example, we can start a campaign today, and within hours start assessing data, examining patterns, and augmenting our course as necessary.

    Certain kinds of design involve a much longer time before they can accurately be assessed, though. For example, it takes a long time for an organization to properly assimilate a new brand strategy, or corporate identity, and then integrate with it. There are growing pains, alignment issues, and sometimes the need for recalibration. This sort of thing just doesn't happen overnight.

    So, it's less about the industry or how we package it. I'd argue that it all comes down to how long it takes for us to have meaningful data to work from. This means that with a new product or brand we need to play some hunches and sometimes even act on faith.

  5. This is a subset of a larger problem that all consultants and service providers face - when we focus on our costs, our time etc we open ourselves up for our clients to emphasize price & focus on competitors only along a cost basis (i.e. we start competing with the $299 web sites)

    But instead we should strive to focus both with our clients (and internally) on the value we are creating - on the impact what we do for and with our clients will have on their business. Whatever our specific consulting field (I work in business strategy/the design of businesses) we should always be creating vastly more value than we charge.

    This value can be in easier sales, large sales, differentiation in the market, going after the right/better customers etc - this will vary from client to client and vary based on what you do. But if we (and our clients) don't know what the value is we are creating then we may have a bigger shared problem to address. (i.e. understanding enough about their business to know where investment will provide returns - or at least how to test for those returns quickly and efficiently)

  6. Detrus says:

    It's interesting how A/B testing and similar data approaches to design haven't been embraced by the design world. These techniques are about 5 years old now.

    It's difficult to guarantee results without testing designs on the real audience which should generate charts about how you will make clients more profit than the $299 logo.

    On some projects you may find that the $299 logo performs better and that is not what a traditional design firm wants to hear. Well, traditional design firms don't want to hear about anything that would show their processes are fundamentally flawed. Who would?

    These processes exist mainly because of aging technology that doesn't allow you to collect reliable data about your design's effectiveness. On the web you can use a modern process that is much easier for clients to understand. As an added benefit arguments about making logos bigger should be minimal.

    But if you charge for results and not labor in mediums where results can be reliably measured, you may find $299 logos that look it work surprisingly well for a large range of products and services. But what design firm would put charts about ugly logos in their portfolio?

  7. A/B testing is great when a simpler directive is in question (i.e. Which landing page results in the highest conversion?). It's less helpful when the end result is more ambiguous. Emotions are more difficult to measure/quantify than actions. I think this is why we don't A/B test novels, films, or songs. In addition to the relative complexity involved in building multiple variations of such things, they're just more complex and fragile than interactions.

  8. Navin Harish says:

    Dejavu - Have you written about this earlier as well? I remember reading these exact words some months ago (the client discussion part).
    You are saying
    "I should have talked about how this identity would build confidence among investors and retailers. I should have stressed how it would entice shoppers to pick up their product’s package and look closer. I should have talked about how it would make people feel."
    But to a client like this, it would again be difficult to convince that a $299 logo will not achieve the same results.
    We are afraid of talking about "making your audience love you" because it is subjective.

  9. You may have read it in Applied Arts. That's where the article first ran.

  10. arayans says:

    what you say.. is all very practical and fantastic to speak of. but you see, you charge higher fees from your client for the exact reason why you don't charge $299 — because you spend time talking to the client. and explaining things to him.
    (ps. 'him', here, is used gender-agnostically).

    the client doesn't know better, and if he tries to obtain designs from several sources, he'd fall in love with 100's of designs and have no way of objectively distinguishing between either of them, and why they're priced differently. he pays you not only because you give him a solution, but also because you talk to him, help make him believe, hold his hands and comfort him. anything could work for him, but what he's paying you for is your ability to convince make something that works better, but also because you help him believe in one particular design. to fall in love with a particular concept (from among thousands), and to have near-blind faith in it.

    when you try to put your process behind a black box, you become an efficient professional, exactly like all the other professionals out there — but you began to design for the love of the process, and it must be a shame to have to hide that very thing, no? wouldn't that degrade the entire field into some sort of a lottery-game?—a client comes, find something that excites him, no one seems to know why, and pays trite for it, and leaves. how terrible.

    instead of building a black box around your process, maybe you can try the following? —
    too many choices frighten people, somewhat. how about letting clients know that they'd always have a doubt about the $299 designs, because they could always have had another one, or another, or maybe even that green swooshy one which they felt looked awkward at first. picking one and living with it would be like entering a roomfull of people, pick any, get married, and pray that you fall in love with him/her. ..instead, they pay you because of two things: (1) you technical skill, obviously; and also (2) the ability to eliminate doubt from the client's mind, so that he never thinks twice about the design he finally uses, and can have blind faith and put all his effort into doing the other things that he ought to be doing in his company.

    ..tbh, i've never worked much in my life, so i couldn't really know for sure. but this is what i like to do when i work. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but i'd never just put a final solution out there and try and play on the excitement of the client getting the better of him at that sudden moment. that's just shallow and it stinks. because it lets the client decide things that s/he isn't really capable of taking a decision about in the first place. it robs me of my chance to make someone fall in love with something that they'd live with for some (hopefully: long) time to come.

  11. Leanne J says:

    A recent client of ours briefed a fairly small site in, and when told what the cost would be (shown with a full breakdown of what the time equated to) which was at the low end of our usual job costs in fact, and said that was too expensive. They then asked a few days later if full 360 degree video and photography of products was 'in with the cost'. Let me think about that - of course not! (Why would people ask for such things without even a vague bit of research into what they are or what they cost - like if I assumed I'd get an automated garage thrown onto my house build!)

    The fact is some people inexplicably put in charge of web projects (or branding, advertising etc) have NO idea of how long the process takes and thus how much work is required. They assume something that takes a week could be done in an hour and then look aggrieved if you say you could turn it around in 4 days. Sometimes this lack of skill from someone in that position can be made up for by a willingness to a) do some research b) speak to the experts you've gone to for the work, and listen to them.

    Thankfully we mostly work with people who are either willing to listen to the people they've appointed, or know a bit themselves and don't assume. People invested in their own businesses or who care for the companies they're employed in know that a $299 logo just doesn't cut it, and won't argue why quality costs more. One of our account managers has the analogy that you can't walk into a Bentley showroom and demand to have their car for the £8,000 Toyota charge for their little entry level one. No matter how much you say 'well I can get one online for X amount' they won't meet it for many good reasons! Asking your builder for a custom-designed executive level home with a hardwood floor that takes a week to lay won't be done for the same price as a kit house with cheap tiles. Quality, time, expertise - all cost, but all worth it when done properly. Bitching about the price won't get the builder to cave in to me, nor make him feel guilty that he charges for his time and experience. I learned a few years ago to value just how many years and how much sweat has gone into my skills and career, and if someone wants to try and pit me against a $50 logo online - go right ahead. I'll be here to fix it for you afterwards ;)

  12. Bryan says:

    Great article

  13. Denise Spiessens says:

    How do you convince a client that there isn't value in the $299 logo? Or that people wouldn't love it? Doesn't it always come down to substantiating value with a detailed process?

  14. I don't think it's really about the logo. In fact, if you're having that conversation, you're already in trouble. (For the record, we almost never sell single logos.)

    A big part of this comes down to taking the focus off the physical deliverables, and the proces involved, and instead concentrating on the problems that could be solved. That's where the real value is to the client.

  15. Detrus says:

    "A/B testing is great when a simpler directive is in question (i.e. Which landing page results in the highest conversion?). It's less helpful when the end result is more ambiguous."

    A/B testing and more serious data approaches can be made to work for all kinds of complex interactions, even novels, movies and songs. It is common to try different edits for a movie, swapping scenes, endings and seeing what works better on a test audience. And it's measurable by the sound of applause, reviews and ratings. It's even done with novels now but it gets controversial there. What is the purpose of art then?

    But data driven design is much more appropriate for the type of work commonly done in the design industry, like branding, UX, product shots, and banners. It's not art. What does it mean if the industry didn't embrace A/B testing even where it's not a stretch?

    I think the industry is not fundamentally results driven. It's driven by process which is occasionally correlated with results by dumb luck. For production shops the process is to produce ever more extravagant displays because that's what they like doing. Same idea for other types of shops.

    If the design industry was really results driven they would ditch most their arts and crafts processes and make only what can be tested. If it's difficult to A/B test a massive microsite production, don't make it. If you can't collect data on TV/poster campaign do it where you can collect data first. But it's not what arts and crafts minded designers singed up for.

  16. We're quite heavily results driven at smashLAB—particularly on campaigns, where data and measurement can be quite clear.

    I think you're oversimplifying how certain things are created, and processed by users, though. (Your "arts and crafts" reference in particular makes me wonder if you don't fully understand what it is that designers do.)

    The problem with making things is that it's so hard to know how to measure, what to measure, or how to interpret that data. I'd argue that such thinking is in fact hubristic: that math and analysis can always identify what will work.

    Xerox didn't see any value in the mouse.
    Ballmer laughed off the iPhone.
    New Coke, on the other hand, tested brilliantly.

    If A/B testing worked in every instance, there would never be a Hollywood flop. This, however, is clearly not the case.

    What I think we need to remember is that as much as we want to have all the answers—or a means of going about finding them—playing hunches is sometimes the best we can do.

  17. It is a growing problem that clients and companies want the $299 logo design. I would like to say: We have to pay for: electric, internet, new computers, software, healthcare, our 50k student loans, retirement, etc etc.

    Usually these clients that want graphic design for that cheap aren't worth the time. Which you stated above. Sorry you had to deal with this so late in the project.

    Well written article.