A New Class

After the first blog post “A Word of Advice” and watching twitter for all of the responses for One Day for Design I have been thinking quite a lot about what can be done to better equip recent or soon-to-be design grads. During OD4D @kimberlyreed posed a really great question: “What are design students lacking when they join the design community? Can we talk education?”

I, as well as several other people within the twittersphere responded with ideas of something equivalent to real-world experience that would result in a better placed sense of self-confidence and therefore make them more valuable to any potential design firm.

In college, towards the end of our experience we had a class on the business of art. It was a low attended class but provided some valuable insight for people who wanted to make a living selling making and selling their art. Where was the business class for designers? Where are they now? Surely some curriculums must have grown a bit in order to incorporate a class that offers real-world experience in dealing with clients, potential employers, setting boundaries, issues such as spec work, estimating a project, contracts, proposals, etc. From what I can tell, no. There are none.

As a side note, I did, however, have a class in college where we all had specific on-campus clients who needed real work. However, all deals were negotiated prior, which left the student with a first meeting and then the work. It was a good basis for what comes next. I’ve been thinking of constructing a workshop set up in a similar way, only with a more in-depth self-sufficient construct.

The workshop would have to be small. Perhaps 10 people or less. The itinerary would look like this:

Item 1: Review with class an ideal way to start a project with a hypothetical case. Consider the following scenario. A client contacts you via your website asking how much a logo would cost. It is imperative to not give any rates out until you have further details about a project. A good way to respond could be an email response in which the student inquires about further details such as the type of industry the potential client is in, some of the ways in which the logo might be used, what the business is all about (mission statement), where they are located, what type of logo they had in mind, what any important dates/deadlines the client might have etc. Getting some of this information up front will do one of two things: 1. separate real inquiries vs. wastes of time; and 2. get vital information that will help you craft a more valuable and better logo. The potential client follows up  with answers to all of the questions. The next step would be to meet or talk over the phone, discussing the project a bit more so you can hear it directly from them and ask questions.

With all of the newfound knowledge, the student can go home and craft an estimate and contract. (items which will be gone over in a future item/class). They would then submit this for client approval. There could potentially be some back and forth to resolve issues for both parties.

The estimate and contract are approved. Student begins work on project. Student follows up with design options. The client chooses an option but asks for some revisions. The student makes the revisions. The final is submitted to the client and wins approval. Upon that approval, the student is to send an invoice prior to turning over logo files to client.

Item 2: Go over what a contract is, and necessary items to have in it to protect both you and your client. “Fuck You. Pay Me” should be mandatory watching. Go over how to craft an estimate and a basic billing rate that takes into account basic design time, revision time, client communication (email, phone calls, meetings) and final production as well as many other possibilities such as utilities, equipment, insurance, etc. Review what the current going-rates are within the industry and where to find them.

Item 3: Each student gets a different case/client, which will be the teacher acting out different types of clients. Each student would get one printed email from an “interested client.” Depending upon how the subsequent string of interactions proceed, there could be issues with communication, deadline shifts, poor work that needs to be redone, etc.  I thought about the possibility of the teacher calling the students on off hours to even more closely align this with real life. But more likely than not, it would be emails. Work would be done outside class. Class time would be to ask questions on how to deal with their specific brand of client.
It should be encouraged that they meet on their own for critiques as in the real world (and in many professional jobs) critiques are not performed. Additionally, this sets up the stage for creating a community of like-minded people who create things and feed off of each others energy to succeed.

This idea, is fairly general at this stage and even as I type this, I continue to imagine additional elements that would be covered and discussed as well as practical outcomes for such a class.

It seems like this class should not only be taught, it should be mandatory. Are there any classes out there that do something like this?

My Worst Job

I’ve had a lot of bad jobs. A few have been down-right soul crushing.

Now, I’m not talking about a crappy summer job or the retail job I had shortly after graduating college. I’m talking about my professional career history. The jobs where I’ve engaged what I had learned in college in an attempt to make a living.

When I was younger, I felt like I had to do the grunt work in order to move up the corporate ladder. While there is truth to that, a young person should be learning through the grunt work not just doing grunt work for the sake of it.

Now, I bet you thought I was going to tell some horror stories of a past job. But, you would be wrong. Instead, what I offer to you dear reader is what I’ve learned, and maybe a silver lining for you, from some of these “worst” jobs.

  1. Many Different Hats
    Very often people that are unhappy in their job are asked to constantly do more (with less compensation). And while we bitch and moan about it, we often do it. Perhaps we’re asked to deal directly with vendors and get estimates (over and over again), create an itemized list for project completion (isn’t that an AE’s job?), or start creating content for a project (I’m just a designer, not a copywriter!). You may feel that these tasks are outside of your job description, and you may be correct. However, when you do these, you will often be learning something new. Taking a first stab at copywriting will often open your eyes to how you should design a website or brochure. Talking with vendors may be time consuming, but you will have a more direct connection with your project from beginning to end and be more concerned with some of what may have been considered “trivial” pieces to the puzzle. Creating an itemized list of tasks for a project will help give you a broader view of all the different steps needed to complete a project on time. Basically, once you start seeing and involving yourself in the larger picture, you will remove yourself as “just the designer” and be on your way to becoming a great designer.
  2. People are Strange
    Let’s face it, there are a lot of crappy bosses and even crappier coworkers. If it is as simple as a coworker that really likes two and a half men, or more complex where your boss will literally contradict him/herself from one moment to the next, we work with some very difficult people.In order to work with and coexist with these difficult people, we develop coping mechanisms. Sometimes they can be destructive. Other times they can be effective means for handling various symptoms of egomania. We also need to learn how to work alongside with these difficult people in order to complete projects, ship, or create widgets. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue. Sometimes you need to speak your mind. Sometimes you need to rationalize your argument. Sometimes you may realize that you are a weird and difficult person to them.I’m sorry to burst your bubble Virginia, but there is no perfect job. Every job will have difficult people. If it is a coworker, boss or even a client. Learning effective coping mechanisms is imperative to being a professional. After dealing with your boss Jerky Jerkson for one year at Widget Zone Inc., your new boss may have some similar tendencies, but is a walk in the park in comparison. Basically, you learn how to read people, how to deal with the ones you like and don’t like, and be a little humble by removing yourself or your ego from situations.
  3. The Golden Rule
    Learning what not to do is still learning If your boss treated you like a doormat, you will hopefully be less likely to treat others that way. You may have witness your production person belittle and trash printers and other vendors to their faces. Should it ever be your turn to contact and maintain vendor relationships, keep these experiences in mind and treat your vendors the way you want to be treated from your clients.You wouldn’t be rude to your waiter or waitress, would you? We’ve all seen Waiting and we know what can happen when we’re rude to people to have a direct link to a final product that we are very involved with.In short, treat people the way you’d want to be treated.
  4. The R-word
    Responsibility. A five year old may think it’s a dirty word that belongs only to grown-ups, but that is, alas, what we are…grown-up. Along with all our hats, we learn to complete our projects despite all other distractions. Despite of looming egomaniacs, deadlines and project task lists, we learn to finish our work. Not only do we learn to finish our work, but we learn to finish it along with all of our other tasks. What we should learn from this is that due to these various tangential tasks, we become responsible for areas outside of our pre-defined narrow scope. Welcome to the world of Creative Direction! It is very rare that we get to just design. It is more often the case that design is one part of a whole. And having the responsibility to see, work on, and account for those other pieces makes you a bigger asset for your next company.
  5. Back that Thang Up
    Picture yourself in a situation where your boss wants the color of the sign-up button to be red and you think it should be green. Perhaps your boss argues with you on a lot of points. In fact, your boss second-guesses almost everything you do.Back to the red v green scenario, maybe you’ve read an article or two on why green would be a better choice. Hopefully, you would not just give in, but eventually learn to counter his subjective “want” with a more rational argument like “well, I’ve read a few articles on Online Marketing Today and The Online Businessman and their research shows that red implies danger and causes hesitation from a user. Green, on the other hand, elicits a friendlier response and symbolizes “Go” to the viewer. We want the viewer to to feel confident, with little hesitation, in clicking on the sign-up button, don’t we?”
    You’ve just positioned yourself with a valid argument that solidifies your color decision. We must presuppose that you already read or have read Online Marketing Today or The Online Businessman. Being a part of the industry is not just doing the work, but following analytics, trends, thought-analysis etc.
    Giving a client, boss or coworker valid and real reasons for the choices you make will often make  a huge impact on what you do and how you present your ideas. If you can’t present your ideas clearly and back up your choices, then you are not a designer.
  6. CYA
    Cover Your Ass. How often does a coworker, boss or client change throw undeserved blame on to you? How often does the blame game occur in your office? Does a client go through the process and by the 95% completion point change their mind and decide that it is all your fault?Well, my friends, we quickly learn to cover our asses. Save emails, send follow-up mails and memo’s after meetings summarizing the content and various tasks and those responsible for it. Do not hesitate to bring these back up at a point where there is disagreement. You follow procedure, keep a record of it and be ready to go back and reference it at any point. It will make you more organized, more aware and more on-track for the duration of the project.It seems simple and it actually is. It can be as simple as organizing your inbox. Many people have inboxes that are just out of hand and never utilize folders or smart folders or even know how to search properly. Additionally, always remember to follow up. Take the responsibility to make sure everyone knows their part in the project and make sure you CC your boss. Bring a print-out of that email to your next meeting and follow up with everyone on that list.Don’t forget to respond to voicemails as well. It can be tough to record a phone call or remember a voicemail, but if you respond with a follow up phone call, followed by an email summarizing the phone call, you will be on record.

    It is an unfortunate fact of life that trust is a thing to be earned and that people are underhanded and will sell you out to save their own asses. If you want to insure yourself against such scoundrels, you must take precautions and cover your ass. If you don’t want to be accountable, or don’t feel like organizing, go to kinkos and be a designer-monkey there and call yourself a desktop publisher.

  7. Get Up, Stand Up
    This is sort of a culmination of some of the points above. Learning to be responsible, learning to back up your choices with real reasons and covering your ass will result in you being able to not back down. We’re not talking about pushing your elitist agenda, but rather, we are talking about standing up for your work and for yourself and your choices. You may be ruled against in the court of design, but it is better to stand up for yourself than than to slink back into your office chair and grumble to yourself and hate what you do.Being vocal and standing up for yourself will establish pride in yourself and your work. Being more vocal will let others see you in that way as well, and may start treating you accordingly. You must act like the person you want to be until you are the person you want to be. As they say, fake it ’til you make it. No one wants to be Milton from Office Space.
  8. Foresight
    A wonderful result of working at a really crappy job is that you will most likely not work for the same type of crappy job once you leave. After gaining some further insight into what makes your job so crappy, you will see the headlights further away at your next interview. Remember all the lies they told you during your interview, well, how will you make sure the next company you work for keeps to your job description and the issues you were hired for?
    Remember the way your current boss sounded when you had the interview and the types of thing he or she said? You will recognize those things immediately next time.Remember, everyone has crappy jobs. It is part of being an adult and working. What we must all keep in mind that we learn from experiences good and bad. If you have a bad job, or had a bad one, talk about what you learned rather than what what was terrible about it. You will come across as a professional, a better designer and one that others would want to work with.

Good luck with your crappy job!

We Need Great Design

Preface:
I’d like to add my extreme thanks to Brian Zeiders (on twitter at @brianspiders) for co-writing this response. He took my messy and poorly written gibberish and turned it into a cohesive response. He’s a damn good writer and an even better designer.

“You don’t need great design to have a successful design”
So says Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, the web company that runs user-generated content sites I Can Has Cheezburger, FAIL Blog, The Daily What, Know Your Meme, and Memebase. During a talk at the GROW 2012 conference (which can be viewed here), Huh said that when Cheezburger considers design changes to web sites, he looks at four things: desired business outcome, intended user, data on the existing condition, and data on the new condition when the company retests for validity.

“What we’ve built at Cheezburger is to create a team of people whose sole focus is to get data,” says Huh. “We’ve built a company that is driven by data.”
Admitting, “We have one of the worst-looking sites on the planet,” Huh argues that the best-selling cars are not Ferraris or Bugattis. but Ford Focuses and Honda Civics. Therefore, a bad looking Cheezburger site can still be adored by the masses.

That’s why, he says, you don’t need great design to have a successful design.

Never mind that, removing cost barriers, anyone would likely prefer a Ferrari to a Civic. Let’s skip past the dubious metaphor and examine the underlying argument for “Un-design” Huh presents.

I think that when people like Huh promote non-design or bad design, they are essentially doing two things either purposely or inadvertently. One: they undervalue and denigrate design. They view it as a singular entity that has little worth in business.

Two: (and this is what I think their main argument is), is that content is king. Huh talks about putting product before design. I think by product he means content. Content is what the users are after. We are all users. Some are more skilled than others and may have the ability to navigate slightly more complex situations. Our goal is the same for all users though:
•    simplify complicated scenarios to enable access to content
•    help users make better choices
•    allow them to feel happier with their experience

All of the above encourages brand loyalty.

As you can surmise, this is where the argument for disposing of design falls apart. Promoting un-design in favor of content merely undermines the content and data you’ve worked so hard to assemble. Huh seems to be subscribing to the ethos that design is a random, frivolous collection of colors, patterns and fonts that make a site pretty or not. Something like dipping your content in a bucket of gold paint; design as that radio button you click before final purchase as optional insurance on your trip. A more apt metaphor might be this: design is a lot like the structure of the plane’s wings that enable lift to occur and, subsequently, fly and reach the desired destination. Without design, you have an assembled group of passengers (data) milling about angrily because they lack unity, structure and a flight plan.

Designers, or should I say good designers, do much more than just pick colors, fonts and slap a logo on a site. Design is a vehicle for creating, shaping, and guiding a product or entity through visual and social constructs to deliver content and communication to a targeted audience. And, if that’s not enough, we have to do it in a way that is creative, distinct and engaging while still being practical. This is not an art project. There are guiding principles, targeted results and actionable triggers

We aim to create things that are easy for people to use; that are innovative without being complicated; that inspire and touch other people; that make sense of—or give order to the little corners of the world within our project scope.

“Who cares about good design or bad design” Huh continues. The answer should be, you. You should care about good design and bad design whether you are a designer, an entrepreneur or some random dude who can’t get the plastic casing open on the pair of scissors he just bought. Design infiltrates every corner of our lives. When it’s good, it disappears. You don’t notice the design; you’re too busy being happy completing whatever task you set forth to do.

Adam Nash, of Greylock Partners tells us that the bar has risen and that users expect great design. His business partner, Matthew Hawn, adds “delighting people with design can be crucial to a product’s success.”

Delight equals making it easy for people to access the content/data/product they are searching for. Eliminating barriers and distractions that cause the user to second-guess or even forget why they are there. In an age of data bombardment, the delight comes from simplicity and ease. We want to say goodbye to convoluted sign up processes and endless form fields. Goodbye to confusing site structure and guessing where to click next. In 2012, guessing equals sayonara audience. We want things now and we want them to be intuitive. Undesign goes against our nature, our desire for order and our perpetual human impatience.

Good design is based in research, testing, and iteration. Bad design is what is eschewed in “The Lean Startup”: just throw things out there to see what sticks. Good design isn’t guaranteed success but its roots in research give it the edge to succeed. The “seeing what sticks” idea belies a lack of knowledge in your users and in your product. Your audience’s first impression isn’t that you’re lean and agile; it’s that you lack a coherent vision. Who wants to buy into a product like that?

Book Review: Design Is A Job

I recently finished the latest title in great series of books from A Book Apart — Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro of Mule Design out in CA.

I had been looking forward to this for quite sometime as I am a huge fan of the series of books (for Web Designers), Mike’s twitter persona (@Mike_FTW), the work put out by Mule, and all of the other pieces that have led to Mike writing this book such as his speech titled “Fuck You. Pay Me.” from a Creative Mornings event in San Francisco. You can watch it here.

**Please note that there may be some NSFW material—depending upon your place of work—on his twitter profile.**

Needless to say, it was great. In fact, great may be an understatement. I think this deserves a place in the classroom. Or, more specifically, for college students prior to graduation. This contains the information that you could previously only learn by doing. And in that doing is all of the failures (and successes) that lead to learning these things. But with this book, it may save some people from making some bigger mistakes and and help them get sharper, faster. I think it is imperative that courses utilize this book in some fashion to help students start out on an even stronger footing.

*I even wrote a bit about a possible workshop/class that I’ve been interested in doing for some time, and this book would be an amazing place to start!  You can read the post here.

For me, with more than ten years in this profession, this book has at the very least validated much of the thoughts and feelings I’ve formed over that time, and at the most has also taught me quite a few things.

I was expecting more specifics, as I tend to do. Data that I could take…copy, and place in my own branded stationery. You know, something easy that wouldn’t take me away from what I do…designing things. I did not get that. But, what I did get was much much more. I got schooled in the business of graphic design in 140 pages. I learned what I don’t know, what I should know, and how to go about doing things better. I learned that it will be hard work. But doing things wrong and making the same mistakes over and over again would be even harder.

In my opinion, some of the best educators don’t just give the answers. They help you start your journey to finding the right answers making you aware of their existence. Mike has done just that. He informs the reader rather than panders to them. His mistakes will be your mistakes. They aren’t made up in some hypothetical universe that doesn’t apply to real life. There are many ways to finding the right solution and he has just given us a road map that shows many of the different routes to go and the ones that are blocked off or worse!

Additionally, his style of writing comes across as genuine. He isn’t some uppity design professor or snobby art director that is telling you what they want you to do. He has left (his) ego out of the game and that is extremely refreshing. Additionally, his writing style seems effortless and combines enough humor and casual prose that it doesn’t feel over anyone’s head. And, his “tell it like it is” attitude is just the shot in the arm many of us need to get up off our asses and do better.

I’ve already implemented many things that he has written about in the book including elements within client contracts, SOWs, and estimates that I had never thought to do. You’ve helped me get better and hopefully be a better designer. Mike, thank you for writing this.

Windows 8 Thoughts and Tools

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to work with American Airlines to create a native app for the new, yet-to-be-released, Windows 8 OS–specifically for the new Samsung tablet. We (Blockdot) were successful in creating an application that met all of the required standards from Microsoft and was the featured travel app on the opening day for their app site/store.

If you haven’t seen it, it is called “The Tower.” The premise of the app, which was scaled back due to timeframe constraints, was giving the user–aka you–an inside look at flight tracking from AA’s main hubs as if you were in the flight tower… hence the name.

You can view it in the MS store here.

All that being said, the process of creating an app that not only utilizes, but highlights OS UI that is still in development was a challenge, to say the least. We had weekly phone calls with Reps and UI Guru’s from Microsoft who all seemed to have varying opinions on what was ok and what wasn’t. They had very little actual documentation for correct UI practices and patterns. Since utilizing their UI was paramount to the app being featured in the app store, it was a bit of a shock to have to really dig and scrounge for any sort of concrete information and answers.

We had to do a redesign at a very late point, nearly from the ground-up. However, that was due to gaining access to one of the UI specialists at Microsoft that had those yes or no answers we were all craving. He set us on the right path and we made a mad dash for the finish line. The final app was not and is not what I had intended and quite a bit of functionality was cut in the name of deadlines and timeframes. However, the overall look, feel, and animation remains intact to the original vision.

I think that there are some very smart folks at Microsoft and just like a lot of other large organizations, communication is a problem. I think that there are a lot of really great ideas and philosophy behind Windows 8, but I think it is such a dramatic shift in user experience in what PC-users expect, that it will have a very steep uphill climb. Some of the best UI features of Windows 8 can be seen (and done better) in the new iOS that will be released later this summer (iOS6).

Windows 8  UI Highlights

Windows 8 will feature a predominantly mobile-style OS that is carried across all platforms (desktop, tablet, and phone). All actions that can be performed with a gesture will be replicated with mouse gestures. The desktop will be a series of live and static tiles, very similar to app icons in iOS desktops. With the live icons, information and content will bubble up into these to display the content without having to open the app. They have an app view called “snapped view” which will allow the user to view and use two apps at one time. With one app taking up 2/3 of the screen and the other taking up 1/3. Each would retain full functionality with slightly limited visual space. This UI highlights content over chrome and strong typography (even if we’re limited to segoe ui).

Windows 8 UI Pitfalls

A few months have passed since this app was released, so I cannot confirm if this first part is still true, but there was no documentation similar to—or anywhere close to-Apple’s HIG. This made for an extremely challenging project. The difference between content curation, games, and utilities was vague at best. With each of those qualifications came a set of rules (or rules that could be broken), but those were only general UI philosophy. There was nothing concrete. Utilizing their “contracts” which are OS-wide functionality such as search, social sharing, and a select few others, was ideal, but there was no shared documentation on how they worked or if and when you did not have to use them. We wanted to utilize search in a specific way and weren’t sure if their system-wide search would perform properly. Finally, the visual component of this update is so drastic, that a large group of PC-users will be completely alienated, IMHO.

Additionally, they encourage people to move into development at a very fast speed. I had strong concerns about that and felt focusing on the person/user first, making sure we have enough mapped out, and having a concrete picture of where we were all going would be sacrificed by moving into development too fast.
Windows 8 at its best is in its philosophy of content over chrome and top-notch type. At its worst, it is a OS derived from Flipbook with all of the branding stripped and replaced with Microsoft-ridden look and feel, and with content pushed forward.

All that being said, I would still like to create apps for a variety of systems and hardware including Windows 8 apps. I have gained a wealth of knowledge about their product UI and would hate for it be wasted. So, for any of you out there who are undertaking a Windows 8 app, I’ve created a set of wireframe templates that can be used for sketching. Don’t jump into development or design too fast or early. Be loose and focus on basic layout, a hub and spoke model UI and architecture.

I’d love to hear any new opinions or experiences regarding app creation and development for Windows 8.

Too Many Minds

Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble, Blogs and so on…

Call them what you will; distractions, wastes of time, etc. Sure, they have some promotional and marketing benefits but they are hardly what we—creative professionals—should be spending our time on.

I keep twitter on (tweetdeck or tweetie) throughout the day. Utilizing spaces, I put it on a space that is not my main one. I have to actively take time away from paying work to go see it. Making a more physical decision to change spaces triggers the greed sensors in my brain. It alerts me that if I take time away from paying work and paying clients to do something that is not making money, then not only am I doing myself, my clients and my business a disservice, but also my family. My fiancé works very hard and has a regular salary. Every moment I spend not actively earning money is taking advantage and exploiting her support for me taking on the self-employment challenge.

Additionally, I find that my need for distraction has significantly decreased since striking out on my own. I utilize twitter to find new ideas, design inspiration to help overcome a tough spot, and to further my knowledge. I don’t, however, spend time reading the articles or spend time (other than design inspiration) trying these out. I bookmark them using Evernote and go back to them later, after working hours.

In zen as well as the practice of martial arts, there is the idea of mushin. Mushin means without mind or no-mind. It is similar to what artists experience when they are in the “zone.” A state of mind where one is working steadily without emotional distractions and so intently focused on the task at hand that they no long have to “think” about it, but rather just do it.

When it comes down to the actual process of design (or most creative endeavors) there is no cure for a block other than work. Facebook will not help you find the right typeface for the logo. Twitter will not make you any money. The only way to do something is to do it. The only way to design a logo is to actually put the work in to create something. The only way to write a novel is to sit down and write it. And this is why not everyone can create. Not everyone can have the discipline required to work on something.

So, why then do we distract ourselves and essentially procrastinate? We procrastinate out of fear. Or in some cases paralysis that is a result of fear. Fear of not doing something right, fear of asking a question, fear of something. There could be a known or unknown factor that is causing a delay. The only solution to this fear is honesty. And not the type of honesty we teach children about. Being honest and truthful with oneself. It may hurt and may be tough. It may make you feel stupid. Figuring out what it is that you are really afraid of with this project. Once you can identify it, and put a name to it, you can solve it. Solving it will help you move forward.

Too many minds refers to all of our distractions that we utilize day-to-day to placate our fears and aid our procrastination. Eliminate these fears through truthfulness. Get back to work.