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You Know You’re a Designer When…

In March, I went for an eye exam and after confirming that my vision was in fact getting worse, and went to select a frame to hold the new prescription. I’d been wearing these modern Oakley frames and wanted to go for a different look. Something more bookish is what I had in mind.

As I went with the optometrist’s assistant to choose some frames, I was instantly drawn to a pair (blindly of course because I did not have my glasses on), put them on and loved them.

Easy, but one problem.

Out of the hundreds of frames to choose from, I had selected what had to be the most expensive frames in the store – a frame by Prada that cost well over $700, and that is before I put prescription lenses in them. I put the Prada frames back and selected another pair that I could afford.

This ability to pick out the very best of the very best is something I am quite good at, only I wish I had the finances to support these choices. I have been known to walk into a store, find a sport coat I love, look at the price tag and see that it is a couple thousand dollars.  “Champagne tastes on a beer budget”, unfortunately for me.

So what does any of this have to do with knowing when you’re a designer? Everything.

It’s more than simply having good taste. You will know you’re a Designer when you can innately spot the best of the best, whether it is design excellence, spotting inherent talent in someone or seeing a problem along with the solution to solve it. You’re a Designer when you don’t have to even think about these things because you are in tune with the world enough that you can make sound choices. Often times these choices will lead to creating a positive impact on the world.

Some people can do this quickly, like while they are still in school or shortly thereafter, while others have to grow into it. Neither is right nor wrong, or better or worse, it is just the way people are. The key is this: That you develop the ability. Being able to discern the truly excellent from the good is a key element to helping give you a unique voice as a Designer.

In the end, I ditched the frames I bought in March for a pair of Ray Ban’s (pictured above) in early December. Very simple, lightweight and comfortable – all excellent qualities. Just wish I hadn’t been blinded by the Prada’s in the first place.

Writing is design.

The quote above is from Ms Chappell Ellison on her recent interview with Jarrett Fuller on the podcast Scratching the Surface. A fair amount of navel gazing in this episode, but there are some good nuggets of wisdom worth uncovering and definitely worth a listen.

Strangely enough, I’ve grown to think of writing as a design problem, only the difference being  that rather than using visuals, the carefully crafted words are used to create images in the readers’ minds. Isn’t that what all writers do? As noted before, I used a similar line of thinking to get me through college algebra.

The parallels are interesting. Drafts are like sketches. Rewrites become the design process. Both design and writing are all about conveying ideas, only attacking the problem with words alone is often the best choice to communicate abstract ideas not easily represented by images. Whatever works best.

To me, at least, this is design thinking.

Systems vs. Narratives

Another terrific podcast to listen to is Talking to Ourselves. I only recently stumbled onto it (thanks Twitter) and have been catching up on this year’s episodes. Alex Bogusky and David Droga were both great, but the first interview in the series with Nick Law was covered in pure gold.

In the discussion, Law’s ideas about Systems versus Narratives came up. I’ve been intrigued by Law’s Law since I first heard it earlier this year on Design Matters. I’ll paraphrase the idea: Designers fall into one of two camps. Systems designers are the creative types who obey the rules of good design and focus on the craft. They adhere to grids and fuss over all the delicate nuances of fine typography.

Then there are the Narratives. They see the stories in the work. They focus their energy not so much on making the “thing”, but instead focus on the audience and their  the experience. How they’ll relate to the design. They are focused on the journey, not the destination.

Systems Narratives
Digital UI UX
Print Graphic Designer

Art Director

There is one thing that Law left out in both the Talking to Ourselves and Design Matters interviews, though.

A really great designer is a combination of the two, carefully blending the craft with the customer always in mind. Systems can be boring and sterile. Modernist design and corporate identity can fall into this camp because the uniformity they design can often become predictable. I do not believe anyone ever was moved to action because the logo ALWAYS fell in the lower right hand corner of the page.

Narratives are more challenging but can become confusing, or the audience can get lost in the design if the story is too inwardly focused. Too much narrative, not enough craft. Sloppy, unimaginative stories are not worth their weight in salt if they are either difficult to experience or no one is intrigued enough to want to experience them.

I see both kinds of designers in people I have worked with over the years. Although both kinds of designers are necessary, not everyone can be both sides of the coin. Paul Rand was the obvious master who straddled the fence – a Modernist philosophy whose work conveyed a sense of playfulness and wonder.

That is Good Design.

Pablo Ferro

It has been a rough couple of weeks. Over the weekend, news came out that Pablo Ferro passed away.

He spoke at the MFA Houston a few years ago and I had the good fortune to meet him. Kind, humble, generous and still passionate about his work after all these years.

I swear an ad he did for Burlington Mills back in the mid 60s, that was still airing a decade later, had a huge impact on me. It was so striking, so different from everything else on TV at the time – the actual programming or the adverts – that 40 years later it still resonates with me.

I was able to speak with Mr Ferro for a few minutes after his presentation and told him how his work had had such an lasting effect on me. Made him smile.

God rest your beautiful soul, Mr Ferro.

A Grumpy Salesperson

I do not make it a habit of speaking ill of former co-workers, bosses or employers. Whenever I have gone on the attack, I’ve only gone after the idea, never the person. With this in mind …

The other day I stumbled on to this quote from Jakob Neilsen:

A bad website is like a grumpy salesperson.

At first, it made me laugh. Then  pause. For more than two years of my life at Schlumberger I worked tirelessly to align the work my MarCom group was doing with the needs of the sales team. Since the downturn, the oil and gas space has been terrible spot to be in, so beyond being altruistic and merely wanting to help the company succeed, there was also a fair amount of self-preservation in the rationale, too.

Schlumberger unfortunately has one of the worst websites on the planet. At one time, it was a treasure trove of information that I routinely consulted in order to learn  more about technologies and techniques for producing hydrocarbons.

The vision was that it would be a sales tool. But in reality, it is a bloated, antiquated, dusty library.

Or as Mr Neilsen puts it, a grumpy salesperson. Someone who knows an awful lot but isn’t particularly good about sharing that knowledge.

I met with one of the lead sales trainers back in 2016 and he told me something that scarred the wee wee out of me. He stated that more than 85% of buying decisions in the B2B space are made prior to contacting a salesperson. Contact being a phone call or a simple click of a button requesting more info. Therefore, the site has to actually work harder to facilitate the buyer’s journey down the sales funnel. (Boy, I love all this jargon.)

To further these thoughts, when your site is a library, it bets the question: When was the last time you bought a book from a library?

Look at a randomly sampled page. The kitchen sink is there, I promise, if you can find it. What on God’s Green Internet would make you want to actually click on any of this noise? Even with years of experience with this site, I still get lost and confused.

That sales funnel is all filled with sticky, goopy stuff. The site actually hinders the buyer’s journey rather than enhancing it.

No longer being in the organization, I am not privy to any plans for the site. My understanding is they are going to relaunch it in January and I wish them well.