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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.

Post It Note Design

It is unofficially “Tool Week” at rat etc. First, a walk down amnesia lane blowing the dust off the lowly pica pole. And now, another useful tool …

The Post It Note.

As you are no doubt well aware, a large part of my disdain for “Design Thinking” is that when you Google the term and look at images representing the concept, most are of the shots of hipsters with stacks of Post-It notes (some stuck on glass walls) and with Sharpies in hand working their magic. I’ve participated in design thinking workshops and have not been impressed, largely because I’ve used many of these methods for years as part of my own way for working. I’ve never once found a Post-It useful for anything other than for its intended purpose — to remind me of something I knew I would forget if it was not written down.

Note the line quality — no Sharpie here.

Let’s travel back in time to 20 October. It is a day that will live in the annals of Design History as “The Day Mr Ratcliff Designed with Post-It Notes And Did Not Complain About It”.

I was on a crash assignment at Sysco and needed to come up with a story quickly. The project was to walk our friends in the Corporate office through the new process of engaging with my team. The challenge was to do it in a fun and memorable way rather than relying on a plain ol’ PowerPoint diagram.

As usual, I started in my notebook (Moleskine #64) but found that drawing and redrawing the action was taking way too much time. On my desk I spied an innocent stack of bright yellow Post-It’s. I quickly scratched out the story, made adjustments, jump from frame to frame then went back to fill in the gaps. It was glorious. And fast. I quickly cobbled together the story and started working on the visuals.

And I have Post-It Notes to thank for the help.

Every tool is useful. There is a time and a place for everything. Be resourceful and open to new approaches and tactics. Maybe even Design Thinking, of course.

Exit Pole

There was a time when every working designer had at least one pica pole sitting on their drawing board. It was an indispensable tool of the trade that was as needed as drafting tape, Rapidographs, X-actos, french curves and breathing.

Being that I was still working in picas in the late 90s and getting fussed at by my CD for it, I’m willing to bet few practicing designers today know what a pica is.

It’s pretty easy: A pica is a unit of measure equaling 1/6 of an inch. 12 points make up one pica, so 72 points equal one inch. End of the math lesson.

If you want to get serious about printed typography, you will want to work in picas. I found working in picas gives designers more precise control over layouts than inches ever can. Inches are clumsy — of course, everyone knows I’m one of the few Americans who would rather go metric, but that’s another story.

I found this pica pole while going through stuff on my wife’s drawing board. She uses it just to draw straight lines and doesn’t give a second thought to the markings on it. I used to walk around with a pica pole all the time. It was also handy to smack someone if they got too randy.

Designers today who mostly work digitally would do themselves a favor learning and working in points and picas. Believe it or not, points translate exceedingly well to pixels, the new standard for measuring just about everything. Being pixel-perfect is a sign of quality to an old dog like me.