Peter Mendelsund is the Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, Art Director of Pantheon Books, and the designer of some of the my favorite book covers of the last few years like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire.
Anyone who puts out that variety of excellent, thoughtful work likely has an excellent, thoughtful process and approach to that work. To wit:
My job as book designer and art director is predicated on the idea that I will help sell a book, and to the extent that I do that, successfully position a book in the marketplace by making the appropriate jacket for it, I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the publisher.
—Excerpted from this excellent interview
But he goes further than the business goals of the project:
In terms of my responsibility to the author and the book…representing the text is not (at least not patently) something I’m paid to do, but I see this act as a moral imperative. Characterizing, explicating, interpreting a text visually is the most interesting and gratifying aspect of what I do. When I fail at this task of signifying what a book is (or I am urged or directed in some way to betray what I see as a book’s essential nature) there’s a palpable sense of loss and guilt.
It feels important to me that a book’s cover should not be dissonant with, or oblivious to, the text within. A book cover should be a book’s true face; which is to say, optimally, a jacket or cover will be a kind of visual translation of the book in question. So—to the extent that I successfully describe or epitomize a book—its plot, its themes, its affect…I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the book and to its author.
—Ibid., emphasis mine
A moral imperative. Palpable loss. Guilt. Questions of dissonance and appropriateness.
This is an articulation of something I’ve felt for as long as I’ve been a professional designer (going on 11 years now). I have a responsibility to represent—graphically, textually, gesturally, experientially—the core concepts and message of the content, the product or service. Without that sense of responsibility, I don’t know how to best serve the content or the client because I simply don’t care enough to take some measure of ownership or stewardship. A lack of care of my part ensures I’m not delivering the best results and solutions to my clients.
Naturally, this means I’ll fight (metaphorically, occasionally literally) for what I see as best, given the constraints and culture I’m operating in. Why? Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s a “Mission from God” as Elwood Blues would say. Because good content deserves good packaging and appropriate, honoring, harmonious design. Because if I don’t, we all lose something, something great or useful that might have been if we had only cared more, fought harder, or simply kept our eyes on [the thing].
It’s all about [the thing], whatever the thing is in your context. The typical U.S. oath of office comes to mind…
[I do solemnly swear/affirm] that I will support and defend [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…So help me God.
Supporting and defending [the thing]. Bearing true faith and allegiance to [the thing]. That’s what I do. That’s what all designers should do. No matter what. Cut through the cruft and personal preferences and the possibilities and the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to defend the core of [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic*. If we’re not doing that, we’re admitting a kind of defeat. We’re valuing something else with our actions, at the expense of what we say we care about.
Image credit: Bill Watterson
The strangest part of the design process is how little your enemies look like enemies. Most of the time our nemesis is apathy. Indifference. Laziness. The easy mantra of “So What?!”
“Should this widget do this action?” “It doesn’t matter.” “What kind of language should we use here?” “Just comp something in.” “It seems weird to use this font here…” “It’ll be easier if we do. Go with it.” Every one of those exchanges, killing [the thing] bit by bit. Who need competitors when we do such an amazing job of sniping ourselves?
“But this isn’t us!” “So What?!”
When the core of [the thing] is sacrificed, even in small ways, I feel a loss—a grieving over what could and should be, a fully perceived sense that we are wandering away from what we should hold holy and sacrosanct.
As Saul Williams says of modern Hip Hop in Telegraph:
Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones
For they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency
When we lose our way, wandering too far from the source, what we make becomes less potent, less important, and less likely to stand out in an increasingly noisy world. In short, our work is less likely to work.
If design isn’t a moral imperative, we sacrifice [the thing] for convenience, fashion, trends, opportunities, or just something shiny and new. We abandon the truth of it. It becomes something else, losing its soul in the process.
Design is the forever fight against entropy, apathy, and confusion. These are the enemies that cumulatively make it difficult for our work to communicate, or to accomplish goals. But when I care, when I craft, and when I fight, I can go to war against dissonance and, hopefully at least, design things good and true.
And at least if I fail doing that, I can sleep guilt-free at night.
*I assure you, domestic enemies will kill [the thing] long before foreign ones will. Most branding campaigns, product designs, experiences, etc. are destroyed from within, one off-mission decision at a time, through laziness, apathy, or indifference.
“Nature abhors a paradox,” they say.
I abhor a bad system. Or worse, a lack of system. But as a designer who frequently (or at least hopefully) veers into the artful, I’m working in the midst of a paradox. My desires and my roles produce—and sustain—inconsistencies. Artists and systems go to war with one another. I’m my own worst enemy, unable to escape self-inflicted tension.
I don’t like to design things in a vacuum; I believe everything affects everything. So I’m not designing one sign, I’m designing all of the signs, or it’s not a brand package. I’m not fixing the space between that 1 and 3, I’m fixing all the kerning pairs, or it’s not a usable typeface. Nothing stands on its own. No task is an island. There is always groundwork to lay before the journey can begin, because without a system, chaos and dissonance will form and inform the culture. Maybe you can relate. Or maybe you know a guy…
Processes are important, but processes without spirit are fundamentally useless.
There is a way in which we systems-minded folk systematically become no fun to work with. We’re so rigid, so dedicated, so passionate to erase outliers and metaphorical (or literal) squiggly lines, we let the system itself become our purpose, not the purpose we began building the system for.
In ancient Rome, the civic magistrate’s authority was visually represented by the Fasces1, a bundle of wooden rods tied around an axe, symbolizing “strength through unity.” A single rod is easily broken, but the bundle is difficult to overcome. The Fasces were carried by the magistrate’s bodyguards, and often used for dealing out punishment on command.
The Fasces are where we get the word “Fascism.” Fascism is tricky to pin down and define, but it is foremost an authoritarian form of government. An indoctrination. An unforgiving discipline. And systems-minded people tend toward fascism in their respective mediums whenever we make the system more important than the mission.
I’m a systems fascist, and that’s not always a good thing.
I sometimes choose process over people. But normal people don’t notice design-centric subtleties like bad kerning or mismatched corner radiuses or off-brand fonts. They just live and move and have their interactions with what we help make. They want things that work. That make life more enjoyable. Or easier.
And they’re waiting on us, the makers of things, to make things. Not to talk about making things. Not to plan about making things. Not to create the perfect little world where our creations can exist, untarnished and under control. But to release them into a messy, complicated, rule-breaking world for people to use, and abuse. Henry Ford said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” So it is with us.
The world is waiting. We are planning. And planning isn’t bad, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of actually doing…
Image credit: xkcd
Perfect systems are pretty graveyards if we let our perfectionist tendencies rule with an authoritarian fist. Goethe rightly believed “[The] things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” So if the system doesn’t serve the project, why bother? If it causes more work now than it will ever save you then, it’s a waste of time.
Your system, however perfect, isn’t precious—your time is. Your system is just a tool. But the tool isn’t the thing you’re building. The map is not the territory. If it doesn’t accomplish the mission, it’s a distraction from the mission. And all your work to bring efficiency to a process is spent on the wrong stuff, at the expense of the right stuff.
Perfection ruins things. Perfection will stop you from starting projects. Perfection will stop you from finishing projects. Perfection is not interesting.
Be a human. Risk. Make some art. Open yourself up to the possibility of being surprised and delighted. Because you know what’s worse than a lack of good systems? A lack of finished projects. Or finished projects that no one cares about.
Soulless systems will strangle you, the people around you, and the people you want to reach. So have some spirit. Or don’t bother building a system at all.
1. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Fasces have come to symbolize power and authority in a more general cultural sense. Mussolini, Napoleon, the Nazis, Harvard, countries, currencies, fraternities—they’ve all co-opted the symbol on uniforms, hiding them in insignia, and decorating architecture. In fact, the next time you’re in Washington D.C., be sure to note the arms of the chair where Lincoln makes his home. ↩
I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).
These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.
But Plans Change…
Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.
I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.
Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome
Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.
This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.
[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…
Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.
There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.
If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.
But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.
And, it turns out, much victory.
In the words of Gandalf The Grey, “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.”
Don’t show them. Don’t ship them.
Any other strategy will fail.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from the NewSpring leadership during my tenure it’s this: People Respond to Vision, Not Need.
Dispensing information is a tactic that can help you build a strategy to accomplish a goal. But simply dispensing information will not lead to accomplished goals.
The world clamors for our attention. Your audience already hears too much information everyday. And they don’t have enough time or inclination to act on it. But vision, great big vision, vision that shakes us out of our collective fog and inspires us to move, change, act, go—that’s rare. It’s special. And so it’s worth listening to.
Great visions cut through the clutter. They demand to be considered.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Teach people to long, and they’ll make it their mission to fulfill that longing. The tasks simply become the logical next steps toward fulfillment.
Tasks are finished and forgotten. Longings define lifetimes.
Oliver Jeffers is one of my storytelling heroes…
A vision quest* is a Native American rite of passage, an ancient means to find spiritual guidance and purpose in the seclusion of the wilderness. The Lakota Sioux called it “Crying for a Dream,” which, while maybe a tad melodramatic, gets straight to the point. They climbed up the mountain, hunting for revelation, and didn’t come down until they found it.
Photo credit: Mount Triglav in Slovenia by ivanmarn
Vision Quest is also what I’m doing right now. Mandy and I are staying in a quaint little $75/night Airbnb back house in the misty mountains of Western North Carolina, hammering away at spreadsheets, calendars, dreams, and practicalities, setting a course for 2013.
While I’m sure it’s entirely possible, I’ve never stumbled on a deep desire by accident.
Direction, not intention, determines destination.
And so we meet, we talk, we pray, we plan, we imagine, because we want our life to be intentional, not accidental. We want to steward well the limited time we have.
One of my Christmas presents for Mandy was a 100+ page book of Instagram photos, in chronological order, as a year-in-review of 2012. It’s sad, but ultimately understandable, how many things we almost forgot happened to us and around us in the last year. Those photos, collected, curated, bound, and gifted, help us remember milestones and markers of a difficult, wonderful, adventurous, tumultuous year. Without those touchpoints, I fear much of our experience would simply cease to be, and thus cease to inform our future. Without remembering, we naturally forget, and eventually entire seasons fade from memory.
January 2012 was the first time we drove up the mountain to quest for vision in an official capacity, and so it was a fascinating exercise to begin this year’s quest with a review of last year’s notes. All of the questions. All of the conclusions. Decisions made, desires voiced.
If you don’t measure something, you can’t truly make informed decisions about the thing. Having a list of the decisions we made at the beginning of last year, seeing what we actually followed through on and accomplished, what we were naive/uninformed about, what were just plain dumb things to even think about, it’s truly an amazing gift of retrospection. It’s just like the photo book, really. A different medium, maybe, but a similar message. Milestones and markers. Proof of forward momentum. Aspirations. Fulfillment. Longing. Growth.
You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?
—Bobby Scott, Spartan
This weekend we’ll cover hundreds of decisions under larger categories like rest, finances, our business, my business, our side projects, our fitness, gardening, community, home, health, etc. And we’ll make a roadmap. Budgets, constraints, goals, to-do lists, stuff to craft, stuff to code, bureaucracies to war with, partners to build with, new skills to acquire, dreams to pray into existence—these are the visions we go up the mountain in search of.
And we won’t come down until we have revelation.
*Vision Quest was also an 1985 coming of age Matthew Modine movie about wrestling, a worn VHS copy of which was passed from team captain to team captain on my high school wrestling team since, I presume, the 80s. But that is a story for another time…
I tweeted this today:
We have creative freedom to build web products with no revenue model, a worldclass design/dev team and three open jobs: newspring.cc/devjobs
In the last five-ish years I’ve been privileged to help recruit talented, exceptional people to the NewSpring Church staff and watch our team grow from a ragtag little crew into a not-small (but admittedly still a little ragtag) in-house group handling 500+ monthly projects, building frameworks for a few million pageviews and unique visitors to our sites and app.
The rate we’re growing externally necessitates a crazy rate of change internally. Lately I find a lot in common methodologically and culturally with web startups. That’s where the “build web products with no revenue model” part comes in—every other place I’ve worked at or contracted with has to deal with revenue at some point. The things built must be built in the service of a financial bottom line. Big things are rarely built and sustained without someone paying for in a way that eventually shapes what is built and how it’s carried out.
We don’t deal with that. As a church on a mission to reach as many people as possible, if what we build helps get us there, and is wise stewardship of the resources entrusted to us, we want to build it. We’re going to build it. Currently we’re planning the next steps of mobile, apps, and church management systems. Do you want to help build it with us?
Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.
When I came back on staff at the beginning of 2008 everyone told me it was a risk—“career suicide” as my agency friends put it—but I was excited. This January will be five years back for me, more than eight years total at NewSpring, and I can say unequivocally that this is the best, most unique, most stretching place I’ve ever worked. The leadership, the opportunity for change, the volume of work that grows skills and capacity, the room for individual/team contribution and the trust that each employee has access to are all unparalleled.
If you get the best people, you win. If you don’t, it becomes significantly more difficult.
—Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the United States
If you’re a Front-end Developer (HTML, CSS, JS), Mobile Developer (Objective-C, Cocoa, iOS and Android) or a .NET Developer (C#, ASP, MVC, .NET 4+) looking to use your skills to reach and serve people, we’d love to talk. Take a look around our site or app, watch some videos, and if this sounds interesting, we’d love to talk with you.
As nearly as I can tell, the only things I can control are:
’Tis the season to shut up and ship.
Last week Mandy and I got the keys to 1243 Pendleton Street, a ~1600sqft commercial building in the Greenville Arts District where we’ll be partnering with our friend Bill to make, manufacture, craft, and collect Bill’s jeans and our homegoods in a sort of hybrid retail shop/studio/sweatshop thing.
This is Mandy and Bill’s full-time gig. This is a startup side-business for me (I’m a big fan of not quitting your day job, as I’m a big fan of my day job). This is exciting and scary and awesome and full of ermahgerd. We’re crazy people.
I have no idea if we can run a retail/studio space. I definitely have no idea if we can run a successful retail/studio space. I think we can. I hope. And I know we’d regret it if we didn’t try it—something about nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And so we venture. And we hope we gain.
There are many things that three individuals with limited income and lots of ideas can’t do—we can’t go out and buy a bunch of inventory, we can’t hire a team of people, and we can’t buy* commercial property outright (yet). But we can control our hard work, effort, and willingness to risk. Risk is the key here. Big things are naturally risk averse because there’s more at stake (and typically more stakeholders); small things inherently must risk in order to begin. No risk, no growth. No growth, no business.
And so we risk. And we hope to grow.
It’s about ‘How much can we get away with?’
Our flavor of risk is different than, say, an investment banker’s risk. Their risk is more akin to a financial calculation, balanced against potential return. ROI ’til the day they die. Our entrepreneurial risk certainly has a financial component to it, but it’s more about ideas and execution. Will this thing succeed? Is there room in the local marketplace for us? Will we be willing to recognize opportunities, follow that momentum and build our respective businesses to take advantage of them? What can we get away with and still pay the rent? Still grow the business? Because if we can’t get away with things, if we can’t shape these businesses into what we envision, why bother?
If you’re willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to being an artist.
And so we try something that might not work, and we hope to get away with it. Onward and upward.
*On the topic of buying commercial space, it is a sad state of affairs that the people with the property tend to lack vision for it, and the people with the vision tend to lack the funds to buy it. I look forward to flipping that scenario on its head in the next few years.
I am seeking a sort of relentless commitment to the task at hand.
I’m aiming for discipline.
Discipline is remembering what you want.
In the past few months I’ve intentionally scuttled many of my own side projects and shunned outside opportunities in an effort to—quite simply—do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, and, as my dear friend Lee so eloquently put it, to do the same thing every day even when I don’t feel like it.
Many of this generation cling at all costs to the belief that there is another way, one which satisfies their love of a quick fix. There is not.
—John Kellogg, How I Became A Guide
Disciplining my body not to get Coca-Cola Classic at every meal is not all that different than discipling my mind not to visit Twitter at every mental break. And the outcome of not denying those desires is not all that different either—giving in makes me gain weight. After all, calories are just a measure of energy. How much energy can I obtain from the things that I’m taking in? Do I have enough fuel for the task(s) at hand?
The toll of empty calories, be they physical or pixel, limits what I can do, and for how long I can do it. Everything consumed is burned up or added on. There is no third option.
[People] at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Gladwell was talking about musicians. The idea travels freely between areas of expertise…
Photo credit: Pumping Iron, by Charles Gaines and George Butler, 1974
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron
I’ve been in a season at work for the past few months where—because of my failures in discipline and leading myself—I’ve had less responsibility. More time to think. More time to do the kind of design task(s) that come relatively easily to me after ten years of designing. Maybe you’re in a season where less responsibility sounds pleasant. If so, we are in different seasons, and we are likely very different people.
I don’t like less. It hurts. It is painful not to be able to make certain calls. Painful not to be trusted with leadership. But even more painful to be bent in such an analytical way that I know precisely why things are as they are, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a good and right and wise decision for me to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I am (and am not) doing.
I like pain for a particular reason… [I like] the pain that is necessary to be a champion.
And so, it is here, in the “area of pain” as Arnold called it—that seemingly endless, unnavigable chasm between the bad fruit of your past actions and the future things you want with such vehement immediacy—where decisions are to be made, the only decisions I can actually control. The decisions of the daily. The decisions of discipline.
Plato said, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self.” Will I press through the pain? Do I want the thing bad enough to walk/climb/crawl the entirety of the chasm, with no guarantee I can make it, or that what I want is waiting on the other side? Can I escape the gravitational pull of entitlement and instant gratification that’s so engrained in my bones it often feels inescapable?
Because that’s the rub of discipline—there are no shortcuts. I can’t bend the calendar to skip the next however many weeks, months, years any more than I can wake up 30lbs lighter tomorrow. I can’t make anything happen, except to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, every time something hits my desk. I’ll do that tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until my actions produce different fruit than they have in the past.
One painful duty fulfilled makes the next plainer and easier.
—Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
I am tired of words. And I say that with the knowledge that they are integral to my daily life, not just for communicating but quite literally forming the foundation of my livelihood. But words are easy, and they come easy. And while sometimes they are true, words are just tools, means to ends. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they cower in the gray in-between. And sometimes they die, full of intention and promise.
What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m aiming for discipline. And aim is at least both word and action.
At its most simple, a wayfinding system helps guests find their way in your environment and makes the information they need accessible. That system might include signage, icons, text, environmental art, and architectural cues (like the dominance of entrances or a clear deliniation of public and private spaces). The system helps direct, identify, inform, and restrict/permit guests.
Why Should You Care?
We all need to get places, to do things, and we need help navigating the world. Most of us interact with wayfinding systems in large scale ways, like the US highway system or an international airport, and in smaller ways, like the handful of signs that direct you through the drive-thru of your local In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A. Wayfinding is such a normal part of our daily visual landscape that it typically fades into the background and, like so many design decisions that are made, we don’t even notice it. At least until it fails us.
I’m currently up to my eyeballs in wayfinding system planning and implementation for two campuses we’re building, and these are the main things I try to keep in mind:
1. Good wayfinding loves people
Love might seem like an odd attribute for a system, but good wayfinding proves you love people and want them to enjoy your environment.
One of the most basic human needs is a good place to pee. If you don’t tell a guest where they can do that in your environment, you’re not serving them in their time of need. (And yes, confused peepee dancing definitely counts as a time of need.)
If you show a guest the way to their destination with minimal effort on their part, they’re much more inclined to enjoy your environment and stick around, and maybe, just maybe, listen to what you have to say. Wayfinding is just like any other relational exchange—if you help me, I like you.
2. Good wayfinding is intuitive and self-navigable
A clever font or stylized icons may look interesting in the vacuum of your computer screen, but when a guest is making their way through your environment, do your indicators make sense? Is the text readable? Is it readable from a distance? Does a guest have to repeatedly ask your staff where to find certain things? Are there clear, logical hierarchies to rooms, naming schemes, etc.?
Give your guests a clear path to follow, and don’t force them to be dependent on informational/cultural gatekeepers or too-clever visual metaphors to find their way.
3. Good wayfinding is consistent, always
If you implement a wayfinding signage system that begins in a parking lot, carry it through every nook and cranny of your environment. Don’t leave a guest marooned somewhere in the depths of a building. If you’re not willing to be consistent, everywhere—with all the effort, maintenance, and budget it will take—don’t start. An inconsistent environment is not a loving or intuitive environment.
4. Good wayfinding enables a decision everywhere a decision can be made
People have to make too many decisions everyday. The universe fights against them. Entropy. Thorns and thistles. Difficult to navigate environments. Peepee dances. When a guest has more than one directional option in front of them, enable them to make that decision through a familiar signage system or a clear visual sightline. Repeat anywhere there’s more than one directional option.
5. Good wayfinding is designed with the first time in mind
It might feel like overkill to implement a wayfinding system, but never forget you’re not the guest—you know your own environment. You’ve spent time there. You know all the intricacies, oddities and inconsistencies. And once a guest has visited your environment a few times, they’ll likely get comfortable, too. But during their first visit, in their first impression, never assume they know where anything is. Design and plan for fresh eyes.
Bonus: Arrows should never point to text
This is less a core value and more a personal preference, and you can fight me on it, but I think you’re 100% wrong. Yes, in the aforementioned vacuum of your computer screen, putting all your arrows/icons down the left (or right) side of your signs might seem preferable. It’s certainly easier to implement. But it just makes your job easier, not the guest’s.
If an arrow sits on the left side of text and points to the text, you’re forcing the guest to read the text left to right, then scan back to the left to know which way to go. If you have multiple destinations on one sign, you’re forcing them to do it repeatedly. Stop it. It’s poor hierarchy and usability. Physical things have UI/UX, too.
I’ve had to learn this stuff through years of repetitive trial and failure, so I hope this helps you save some time, should you ever need to help people find their way, at whatever scale you find yourself designing for.
I got the pleasure of flying to Dallas this past week to speak alongside friends and peers at the first Circles Conference (more on that later, but it was exceptional).
I lived in Dallas in 2006/07, and it’s amazing to visit and watch the city continue to transform its downtown Arts District into an architectural and cultural center. Here are a few of my favorite shots from a Saturday spent exploring:
Clockwise from top: The Dallas Opera House, Lights in the Dallas Theater Center, A Lion in the Nasher Sculpture Center gift shop, One Arts Plaza and the Pegasus statue at Booker T. Washington High School,
This was originally part of an internal email string between teams at work, but I thought it would be relevant for others here.
Content doesn’t just get created in a vacuum. For it to be useful and a helper/catalyst for change, it needs underlying vision, structure and strategy. In other words, we need to be careful about throwing dozens of different, disparate ideas at the web (no matter how interesting they are by themselves), expecting them to be successful.
Everything we do on the web is a part of a whole, and if the whole doesn’t sing in harmony, that dissonance will confuse and turn off people.
If we were only presenting a small amount of content/information, we could just put it out there and let people make sense of it. But we’re not doing that anymore. We’re pushing an increasingly large amount of content out into the world for consumption/use, built on a growing existing pile of discoverable content.
We have to have some guardrails for it so it doesn’t get out of hand. We don’t want diminishing returns on new content because it’s too difficult to find or understand or sort through, or because there are literally too many choices being presented to people. Decision fatigue is real talk when it comes to the web.
We can be complex (we are) but we want to be clear in that complexity, and that will require design decisions that naturally push certain content types/sections off center stage for specific, strategic reasons.
I’m easily frustrated by apps, sites, and services that have thousands of hours of my behavior history, but don’t serve me well with it.
Why Won’t You TripThis?
I’ve recently started using TripIt to help manage my travel. Last night I booked flights to New York for October’s Brooklyn Beta conference, and so TripIt gets my itinerary and makes everything all tidy in one place. Then I got a follow-up email from TripIt touting that they’ve found “a great hotel for [my] trip”. Great! This is the perfect opportunity to serve up contextual suggestions based on any number of factors they have at their disposal from my (admittedly short, but still detailed) purchase and travel history.
So how does TripIt capitalize on this opportunity to go above and beyond? They suggest a hotel that costs more per night than the two roundtrip flights to NYC I just booked. Is that pricey hotel a possible sales conversion? Sure, anything’s possible. But I know enough about myself and my baseline behavior to know I’m not booking a hotel for a week at that rate. Why doesn’t TripIt?
Maybe they just need more time to learn my behavior. I like their service, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they know me better.
Words With Well You’re No Fun
The ugliest app I use on a regular basis is Words With Friends. But sometimes my friends have real lives and I play a game of Words With Strangers. That experience should be just as enjoyable as a game with a friend, if not potentially more enjoyable because of the element of surprise and mystery.
If time is the determining factor, Words With Friends has the keys to my metaphorical kingdom. They have (or at least have had the ability to have) a detailed record of every opponent, word, game, and score for almost four years of my gameplay. Hundreds of games. Thousands of words. Millions of points (ok, maybe not the last one…). So why does the game consistently match me up with randoms who I outpace three moves in? It isn’t about high scores or my abilities; it’s about finding good competition. It’s about having fun playing a game. And it’s actually not fun to beat someone I don’t know by 200 points.
How difficult is it to query a hypothetical database and match my request for a new game with a stranger who, at minimum, has an average score somewhere in the same neighborhood of my average score? I don’t know the technical answer to that question, but I do know that act would endear me to the app in a major way because it would create a more valuable experience for me.
So Why Does This Matter?
User Experience isn’t just about flows and human/computer interactions; it’s about feel and connections. The “how” of that database query is beyond my knowledge and skill, but the “why” seems like a natural extension of the app because it drastically improves my experience as a user and keeps me coming back for more games.
Nobody gets this perfect, because humans don’t make sense. Our tastes are not neatly defined. I legitimately enjoy listening to D’Angelo, Nickelback and Huey Lewis so… good luck with music suggestions for me, Rdio. Lo, I Am Become Enigma, Destroyer of Algorithms. Netflix or Amazon regularly suggest the most ridiculous things to me. But they’re trying. Tweaking. Spending millions of man hours and dollars to improve those algorithms by 1%, because 1% more relevant is a massive improvement.
But when I get a $500 hotel email or start a game with someone who STOP GIVING ME ALL THE TRIPLE LETTERS AND HAVE SOME SELF RESPECT, I just think these services aren’t trying. They’re abdicating the user experience to automated processes that don’t care (or at least weren’t built with care). Yes, serving up contextual, relevant content based on user behavior obviously isn’t an easy job, but if you try, it can help win hearts and minds in a way your competitors can’t or won’t.
More work, more reward, happier users. Why wouldn’t you build that?
On Friday, February 10 I got into an unexpected conversation with a friend while making our “goodbye” rounds at a going away party for another friend (the best things in life typically come from community, but that’s a blog post for another day). The conversation began with some simple, “Hey, how are you—what are you up to these days?” and ended with me [Friday Night Lights spoiler alert] pulling a Coach Taylor and verbally processing that maybe it was my turn to start sacrificing some for the work pursuits of my wife because maybe it was her turn. So on Friday, April 20, ten weeks later, we moved to Greenville, SC.
Let me back up a few steps…
When we relocated to South Carolina from Boston at the end of 2007, Mandy was openly a bit terrified of moving to a small town (the NewSpring offices where I’d be working are in Anderson—population 35,000). She had only lived in Not Small Towns (Dallas, Seattle, Madrid and Boston), so we moved to downtown Greenville, an up and coming city with a metro population of 600,000+ and a thriving downtown.
Unfortunately, I was a personal finances idiot then, and while we were technically living within our means, we were doing so barely, with no margin for saving or really seriously tackling our student loan debt. “You can keep doing what you’re doing, but it will take you at least eight years to get out of debt,” said a financial counselor friend. So we made the difficult decision to break our lease on our brand new downtown apartment in Greenville and we moved into a tiny 50′s duplex in Anderson. It was a hard move, emotionally, not even a year into a marriage that had already included two cross country relocations, a found and lost job, chronic sickness and the implosion of some close relationships around us. It probably took a solid two years to even begin to feel “at home”.
I grew up in an even smaller town near here—population 3000—and I have a sort of locals only love/hate relationship with small, Southern towns, but four years after leaving Boston for South Carolina, we loved Anderson. Mandy learned the wise ways of shopping online, we tried to travel a good bit (mainly back and forth to Texas to visit family), found lots of local places, restaurants and rituals, discovered the best thrift shopping loop in existence, I started to get my act together with our personal finances and we managed to pay off somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 of debt. And we still drove to Greenville frequently to eat with friends, see shows, walk downtown and lounge in the park.
What we didn’t have, despite our efforts, was a vibrant artistic community for Mandy.
I work with an amazing team everyday—the immediate staff I serve with at NewSpring, as well as the interns, volunteers and other 200+ staff spread across eight campuses (and growing) in South Carolina. The work we do matters, the vision and mission are clear, the leadership is world class. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked. I don’t want to be anywhere else (nor will I be for the foreseeable future). But to be perfectly honest, while I am immensely thankful for it and never want to take any of this for granted, my personality is driven enough to not “need” a team to get things done and be encouraged I’m on the right path. But Mandy isn’t designed the same way; she thrives in community, she loves collaboration and essentially misses the community-based environment of higher education. She loved school. She longs for constraints.
So we moved. To Greenville (again). But this time to West Greenville instead of downtown.
I can’t think of a worse environment for creating and new ideas than one where you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, all on your terms (then again, I always label myself a designer, not an artist, so there’s that). Sparks come from many sources; it stands to reason that the more you expose yourself to, the greater chance for creating something new and good. Fortune favors the people metaphorically (and physically) rubbing up against other people. Cities are great for this. The suburbs, for all their comfort, are simply not.
West Greenville has a storied history, and quite a reputation. It, like many neighborhoods in South Carolina, trudges along quietly in the shadow of a long since abandoned textile mill, its remaining residents stuck in a perpetual reliving of previous era, sitting on porches, walking for transportation, living in houses they grew up in. People are cash poor—the median household income here is something like $28,000—we’re in the bottom 10% nationally for professionals and college degrees (FYI, I’m not helping that degree stat), and in the top 10% of Black residents, so you can likely extrapolate what a wealthier, bustling, young downtown Greenville perceives this neighborhood as.
But it’s also been identified as the Greenville Arts District. In and around a block of storefronts on Pendleton Street, the previous heart of the old Mill village, a loose collection of painters, sculptors, and other artists creating unique jewelry and furniture have been forging a new community of art studios. And a trio of young photographer friends opened up a shared shop last month. And so will we.
We rented the biggest house we’ve ever lived in for less cash than I’ve paid since I lived in a 200 sq ft studio in Dallas. It’s a block from the Arts District. It’s temporary, a way to get used to the neighborhood, to be here, to be in the midst of it all. And it is not without its share of quirks. One bathroom. Weird driveway. Miniblinds. Beige walls. No central air. (I grew up with window units and attic fans, but the South Carolina Summer can be brutal. Today’s high is 102° with 66% humidity. And mostly window units are just annoying—loud, spotty coverage, insufficient, ugly.) But again, this isn’t about me, this is about my wife. This is about community. This is about what do we want our life to look like?
We want it to be about community, about creating things, about risking. We’ll be splitting storefront space, the former Amazin’ Kreations Salon (you can’t make this stuff up) with our good friends at Billiam Jeans, and we’ll hopefully be open for business at the end of the summer, taking Shop-Keep from an occasional Etsy hobby to a brick and mortar collection of homegoods, furniture, vintage finds, unique items and clothing. You can follow along on Instagram with the shop progress, just search for #shopdashkeep or #billiamjeans (floors were being sanded today).
We don’t know what we’re doing, apart from risking alongside people we like and trust. But will I regret living in a house with window units on the shady side of town more than I’ll regret not trying to launch a business with my wife?
I think no. And thus we go, onward and upward, into the unknown.
For the next ten days Mrs. Blankenship and I will be meandering up the East Coast, celebrating five years of marriage and a shared love of all things beachy. Feel free to follow along on Instagram, as I tend to take a lot of photos on vacation.
Earlier this week I wrote this on Twitter:
Random late night thought: a huge part of stewarding a brand well is defending consistency against the boredom of insiders.
It hit enough of a nerve to warrant a few favorites/retweets, so I thought I’d expound a bit. It wasn’t brought about by any one interaction or client or even brand, really, but having done this design thing for a few years now, you begin to see trends.
The nature of working closely with a brand logically means your interaction with that brand increases exponentially, typically far past the threshold of even the most ardent fans/users. I like and use Twitter on a near-daily basis, but if I worked at Twitter I’d constantly be interacting with it—like a foreign language student studying abroad, learning through immersion. The closer to the source, the more I know, see and experience.
But that presents a few problems, the most perceptible of which is that you’ve ceased to be your audience. If you’re not careful, you cease to build things for your audience and start to build things for yourself. You stop serving them and you start serving self. There’s a tricky line there—some of the best products, services and experiences are born from people building things for themselves—but rarely does anything large exist long term solely to scratch the proverbial itch of its creator(s).
Practical example: I work at a church with multiple campuses, each with multiple services (experiences, gatherings, what have you). On any given Sunday I interact with our brand, our services and our content for hours. I helped create our brand and have worked within those constraints for close to four years. So that video that runs mid-service? I’ve seen it 10 times before that Sunday. I maybe helped plan it, or write it, or set type for it, or review it. I see it run multiple times, on multiple days, maybe spanning multiple weeks. Dozens and dozens of interactions and touch points with the same content. Immersion.
So when I’m tempted to think “I don’t like it, we should try something else” or “this feels stale, let’s change up this sign or that template or that ritual” I have to remember that the average attender—the person we do all this stuff to communicate to and serve—might come to church once every four weeks. Or a handful of times a year. For the dozens of interactions I have with a solution or aspect of our brand, our primary audience probably has one or two, at best.
“I’m bored” is a horrible design strategy for implementing change. It proves you’ve lost focus on who you’re building a brand for in the first place. When you start catering to the bored whims of insiders you start confusing outsiders who are less familiar with your brand.
And when you start confusing outsiders, you stop reaching them.
At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.
A few months ago I wrote about how doing less work for more money saved client work for me. One of the points I discussed was the 15 hours each week I allotted for clients in 2011. It’s amazing how having a wife, a fulltime job (with
five six direct reports) and getting a business going will eat up your day, and make 15 hours of anything seem untenable.
In 2012 I’ve dropped that 15-hour allotment to 10.
At last year’s Brooklyn Beta I had a fascinating lunch conversation with everyone’s favorite polymath Dan Rubin about the potential (and inevitability) that more of us would be engaged in longer term contracts with clients. Dan was getting ready to begin a multi-month on-site contract with a client as their creative director. I was just coming off a string of good, short term client projects (between two and four weeks) and wondering what it would look like to dedicate my client work hours to one client for a longer span.
No one can hire me away from NewSpring right now—there’s too much foundational work to be done as we grow and I love it too much. But I also enjoy working with other clients, helping them solve their unique problems and see measurable success come from appropriate design solutions. And doing what I do—translating business needs into beautiful, functional user interfaces and experiences built around stellar brands—is difficult to do in sprints. This is marathon work. And I want to run with someone for longer than a few days.
My good friend Cameron wrote an excellent article about the state of design (and particularly design on the web) and said, “Nearly every CEO and VC I’ve met in the last six months is on a wild hunt for designers.” With that in mind…
Are you a startup or small business that can’t afford a full-time hire, or needs a high level of experience for specific projects? Are you an entrepenuer in need of consistent, considered visual help to bring your ideas to life? Do you need a Designer-On-Retainer or Designer-In-Remote-Residence? If so, I’d love to talk. I love design, I love my clients and I want to serve them better, for longer, in ways that can exponentially affect their mission.
I love my design team. I’m super proud of the work they do at NewSpring, but I also love that they make things in their spare* time as well. Here’s a few of my favorites of late:
Lindsey Hudlow made some gorgeous hand-lettered Valentine’s Day cards she screenprinted and passed out to the staff. She’s also been tracking the wardrobe habits of our whole team in a Google Doc which she then uses to impersonate one of us on the first Monday of every month. The anticipation is amazing.
*Spare time is a myth—you choose what to do with every hour of the day, and talented, curious people take that time to create awesome things. If that kind of environment sounds inspiring to you, we’re looking for another Designer and Project Manager right now.