Category: design

My favorite child

During your 6th semester of the design program I went theory at Texas Tech, you had your first significant critique with all the professors of the department. This is the big one — do you continue in the program or go choose another major.

All my work from the past four semesters is laid out on tables in one of the studios. The five professors walk around the tables, look at the work and grill you about each piece.

Back then I wasn’t quite the confident creative giant I am today. I was rather timid, shy and nervous. I was having a bad time of it.

The illustration professor, Jane Cheatham, was both kind and generous. She knew I was uncomfortable and talked me through the session.

One word of advice she gave has always stuck with me: Talk about your work as if they were your children. You’ve given birth to these ideas, raised them from infancy and now you are sharing them with the world. Be a proud parent.

This idea is permanently etched on my brain.

As a parent with three children of my own, the one thing I have never done with them is play favorites. The same cannot be said of portfolio pieces.

Back in 1995 I designed a logo for a local non-profit that converted run down, vacant lots into community gardens. The group is called Urban Harvest. I struggled for months with the logo. Hundreds of sketches and nothing seemed to be quite right. Not having a real deadline was part of the problem.

But as soon as a real deadline materialized, ideas poured out of me. The final solution to the problem was this:




More than 20 years later, I still could not be more proud of this logo. The tall skyscraper surrounded by curvilinear, organic shapes. A perfect visual representation of the organization: creating natural beauty in the city.

A few years ago, I was walking through downtown Houston and saw a small garden in these huge planters out in front of Shell Plaza. In the planters was also a small sign about the garden and who planted it – Urban Harvest. I beamed with delight, until I saw the logo.

They had altered it.

The gray color that is representative of the building had turned to a golden yellow. Someone turned the skyscraper into an ear of corn. Everything that made the logo great was gone. It broke my heart.

Brands are like children.

You raise your kids and they eventually leave home. As the grow, they change and mature into people way beyond our control. You’ve done the best you can to get them started in life and now you hope you raised them properly. But once they are out on their own, they are gone. Even though they are gone, and probably different, you still love them.

You have to be willing to let them go.

Now, I’m hoping my oldest doesn’t come home from college this weekend with purple hair.



NPR’s TED Radio Hour is like Reader’s Digest for brainiacs. In one commute, you can wrap your head around a whole plethora of ideas about a variety of subjects. Endless fun.

The show on Maslow’s Human Needs, originally broadcast in April 2015 but re-aired recently, was the riffing-off point for this post.

As a reminder, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is (from bottom to top):

  • Physiological – Are basic needs of survival being met? Food, water, breathing, etc.
  • Safety – Health, resources, a good job, personal matters fulfilled
  • Love & Belonging – Friendship, family, intimacy
  • Esteem – Confidence, achievement, respect
  • Self-Actualization – Morality, creativity, fulfillment

This past year, I have been involved with re-thinking and implementing a new “playbook” for how my company go to market with new products. The previous version was found to be mostly useless because it required a fairly extensive knowledge of marketing in order to fill it out properly, and most of the managers who were tasked with this were woefully unqualified to do so.

So the Brand Manager took it upon herself to re-imagine this document and brought in a consultant to help out. There is some good thinking and fresh ideas in this new document & process they are rolling out, but after listening to this TED program, it got me to thinking.

Creative briefing documents, playbooks & marketing plans are all meant to help guide the strategy to most effectively reach new and existing customers. But with all this analysis, data, features & benefits, etc., how many of these briefs actually address basic human needs?

Worse yet, these documents are often filled with assumptions and the information we want you to know.

Shouldn’t one of the key ingredients be “How does ‘X’ solve my need? A lot of times, that information is there in the document/process, but rarely is it articulated into something very basic, touching a core value to the individual.

This is danged hard to do in a B2B environment, but not impossible.

I think Nike does this inherently as part of their branding and this is a key ingredient as to what they are so wildly successful. From the products all the way to the branding, Nike touches each of Maslow’s needs:

  • Physiological – I need shoes to protect my feet.
  • Safety – Because I have the shoes, my health will improve.
  • Love & Belonging – Because I run, I become part of a community of like-minded people.
  • Esteem – As I get healthier, I become a stronger, better person.
  • Self-Actualization – Just do it.

In contrast, I think Apple often times does a poor job of it. They are particularly good at telling you what you need. What they have been particularly adept at is guiding people down a path that eventually becomes a need. I never truly needed an iPhone, but now that I have one I find that I cannot live without it? Does that make Apple evil?

In a world that is becoming increasingly more digital,automated and with less of a human touch, addressing basic human needs should be at the very core of how we approach every piece of communication.

As Charles Eames said:

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.


Lately I’ve been digging into gobs of design thinking and UX theory. It’s not just about improving myself and getting skilled-up, rather I’ve been told on no uncertain terms that my college diploma is no longer worth the paper it’s printed on and I’d better get with the times.

So here are a few conclusions (Note: The opinions below are expressly those of the author. Any resemblance to rational thought is purely accidental) on what I have learned:

UX is a bunch of bunk. If you have a thorough design education, UX is already baked into your education. My advice is to quit doing tutorials and get to work.

UX is about making unimaginative, introverted ne’er do wells feel important and part of the process. Frankly, if you aren’t contributing you’re just in the way. Move along, please.

Most UX designers cannot even define UX. “Yeah, I do UX. I work in Sketch.” Phooey.

Design Thinking is bunk, too! “The world needs more people with Liberal Arts Degrees.” Those sissy voices might be right, but a bunch of Gen Y-Z’s standing around cogitating doesn’t help anyone or anything.

You know who invented these two abominations? 3M – the people who make Post-It Notes. You know who else? Sharpie! Google Design Thinking or UX and look at all the pictures that come up. Post-It Notes marked up by a bunch of hipsters with Sharpie’s.

NO! You know who really invented Design Thinking? The guys who make black foam boards, that’s who! Every office in the world uses Post-It’s. Every elementary school art class uses bazillions of Sharpie’s. It’s gotta be the foam board guys. There aren’t enough science fairs out there to turn a profit on foam boards, so they had to invent some other whack way of selling more boards. I’ll bet if you dig even deeper, the foam board guys went to the Kelley brothers at IDEO and got them to come up with the whole Design Thinking thing and told them thy could have it during the fee negotiations.

Regarding all of the statements above, know that I practice Design Thinking and UX dang near every day. Perhaps I’ve had too much coffee today.

The details

I think a lot about creating things. I also happen to create a lot of things I think about.

I’ve always been “big picture” kind of designer. Years ago I learned that by focusing on coming up with good ideas and high concepts, the design will tell you what it wants to be. This process has worked pretty well for the past quarter of a century.

To keep grounded in order to get the design knocked out, you have to pay attention to the details. Make sure all the pieces fit together properly. This is a tall task for Mr Big Picture.

Years ago I stumbled across a quote that has helped me keep my focus: “God is in the details.” I don’t remember where I first heard it. Paul Rand? I’ve seen it attributed to Mies van der Rohe, but I am pretty certain he ripped it off from someone else.

I’m not 100% sure how it has helped me. By focusing on the details, do I hope to get closer to God or to catch a glimpse of Him? As a Catholic, do I guilt myself into working the details?

Either way I do believe in the details. The slant at the end of the bowl of a lowercase Arial “e” drives me berserk. Someone had the audacity to defile the beautiful, geometrical elegance of Helvetica in such a barbaric manner.

But I digress…

It might not seem important or barely worth the bother, but these sorts of details are what separate you from the rest of the pack.

It can be frustrating because 99% of the population out there will not see those details, even when you point them out. Bu they’re not invisible, they’re just hidden in plain sight.

But those details are what makes you a Designer. Makes your work special.