Designing FEED 2009

FEED 2009 has now been released and I feel privileged to have been a part of this one. If you haven't already checked it out, please do so. The report and findings are very compelling and eye-opening. [Download PDF]

I wanted to share a little bit about the process we went through in designing the new report.

When my friend and colleague Garrick Schmitt first approached me, he already had an editorial direction in mind. He realized the data was so profound that the usual packaging of articles around the report would actually take away from it. So he wanted a smaller format with less content. He referenced books by Marty Neumeier: simple layout, large type, lots of infographics. The theme for the book came down to "customer engagement." The data shows that when brands engage with customers in an experience of some kind (like an event, contest, etc.), ninety-six percent (96%) of their customers are more likely to consider, buy from or recommend that brand. Ninety-six percent. You never see a number like that in a survey. (To get that number, add up the sometimes/usually/always percentages for the consider, purchase and recommend results.)

So the answer was obvious in my mind. The design had to be simple (and elegant) but it really had to have an organic touch; it's about the customer after all. I started thinking about Darwin's journal and his observations and drawings of animals. I toyed with having the whole book typeset in a font I could make from Garrick's handwriting, accompanied by scientific drawings of consumers. As soon as I thought about looking at illustrators who had a realistic style, someone immediately came to mind. Earlier in the summer I worked with a freelance copywriter named David Fullarton who was also a talented illustrator/artist. His work combines collage with portraiture and witty copy. His style would be the foil to the business-speak and myriad bar graphs and pie charts. He was perfect.

When I briefed David, I gave him a draft of the report and some loose direction. What he came back with was sheer genius. Because of his copy in conjunction with his art, the illustrations became another layer of commentary about the state of our industry and even our hyperconnected society. Yelpers are not only reviewing restaurants, but also doctors and schools. It doesn't seem far off that they might be reviewing police officers in the future.

Meanwhile, I took another look at the nameplate for FEED. Last year's design element of the small rectangular bars was inspired by the holes in computer punchcards. This year, I took the idea a little further by incorporating the actual shape of the punchcard and making the name a part of that.

Garrick and I also talked a lot about the format of the physical book. He liked the idea of putting it up on Blurb for anyone to order their own copy. The small 7x7 size felt right for the amount of content we had. In addition to Blurb, we have also offset-printed 2,000 copies of the book. For this I chose a natural white cover stock for the interior pages which alludes to Moleskine sketchbooks and fits well with David's illustration style. And we even made temporary tattoos of the back cover illustration.

At Razorfish most of my days are filled with high-level, large-scale strategizing or pushing tiny colored squares around on a screen. It's always nice to work on a small project and make something that can be felt, picked up and even smelled. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I have enjoyed making it.

Do Big Ideas Still Matter? Yes.

In the age of digital and social media, and in the age of realtime marketing, what matters more? The big idea or the smaller idea and execution?

Many digital agencies have been experimenting with new ways of working to try to get at those ideas and executions that a traditional agency couldn't dream of. I was working at Organic when we rolled out the "Three Minds" initiative, meaning that for every brainstorm, we needed to have at least three people from three disciplines in the room. This is similar to what Big Spaceship has been trying to do by throwing together teams of creatives, strategists, technologists and production.

Digital agencies think that this is a point of differentiation. They think that online, social and viral are so complex that they need all this brainpower to figure it out. What ends up happening when you put a technologist and/or producer into a room with creatives? Executions. It's a natural and inevitable thing. And I believe it's a distraction from getting to a better and bigger idea.

I believe that when you add in people whose jobs are to make things (technologists build, producers produce, etc.) too early in the creative process, before the idea is baked, you shortchange the idea. The idea becomes smaller and less compelling.

Creative teams go there all the time too. Too often do I hear an art director or copywriter say "OK, so the idea is a game within a banner." No. That's not the idea. That's an execution. What's the idea?

People may argue that the mass audience doesn't care about the idea; all people will remember is the commercial, billboard or Facebook app (no one remembers banners). I disagree. People remember the campaign which was essentially that story dreamt up one late night in a conference room by a creative partnership.

In the traditional advertising agency model, the two-person copywriter and art director partnership is designed to tell stories. The idea isn't a TV spot, a print ad or a billboard. The idea isn't a banner, a microsite or a Facebook app. The idea is a story. It's a story with a hook, that draws people in, makes them feel something and act on that. And as humans, we love stories.

I believe that for digital agencies to compete with the traditional ones, they need to be better at developing compelling ideas. A big traditional shop can always farm out a digital execution, but digital agencies can't farm out the idea generation.

Concept != Layout

Fellow Razorfisher and social media guru Shiv Singh asks, in the age of social media, do big ideas matter less? Truth be told, I've been thinking about how to craft my reaction to this since I first read a similar tweet from Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship about how the old ad agency creative partnerships are being replaced with other roles.

@bigspaceship: where(sic) putting the art director & copywriter together was the structure of the tv age, we put strategy, tech, design and production together

The quick gist is that there's a shift towards execution versus concept. The art school I went to had a very strong and simple philosophy that it taught its students: concept is king. In crits we were always asked, "Why did you pick that typeface?" or "What is that color supposed to signify?" or "Why did you choose that style of photography?" etc. There had to be a reason for all the elements in our designs and that reason had to be rooted in the concept.

Concept was not about layout. A concept (or idea) was your point of view on the message you're trying to convey. And the acid test for whether the concept was a true concept was whether or not you could verbally sum it up in just a couple of sentences and have a completely different design to support that concept.

Oftentimes the word "concept" gets thrown around in our industry. It has become a stand-in for almost any creative deliverable. Three designs are not three concepts. A concept, however, can be executed in three different ways.

Next time, a more direct reaction to if big ideas still matter. Hint: They do.

Creation with a Crowd


A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a site called crowdSPRING. I forget exactly how I got to the site, but what I found there made me feel a little icky and left a bad taste in my mouth. I wrote a tweet about it (which in turn updated my Facebook status) and many of my designer friends had strong negative reactions too.

Stepping back a bit, what is crowdSPRING? It's a website that allows companies to post briefs for design projects (mostly logos and websites), with the expectation that dozens if not hundreds of designers from around the world will post their solutions to those projects. Finished solutions. Not portfolios, resumes or even sketches. But the finished logo, website comps, CD packaging design, etc.

Why the ick factor? It took me a few days to process it internally, but I eventually came to this conclusion: the site sucks time away from thousands of budding designers. They are all working for free. Only the lucky ones whose solutions get chosen are paid. Imagine if you ate dinner at five different restaurants and only paid for the one dinner you liked? That is what's happening on crowdSPRING: free work.

This Forbes article talks about pushback from the design community. I've long been against spec work. It's just plain wrong from the free work angle as I've already illustrated. The AIGA has also had a long-standing policy against spec work because in their mind it compromises the quality of the work. How? Company asks for free submissions; young, inexperienced and unqualified designers submit solutions; established professionals stay away. That is a recipe for sub-standard creative work. Or how about designer Mark Boulton's argument that spec work is bad for business? "Architects are invited to submit bids, proposals and designs for prestigious competitions. The winner gets the contract and the glory. The losers get nothing; the work is conducted speculatively."

My friend and colleague at Razorfish, Garrick Schmitt wrote an article at titled "Can Creativity Be Crowdsourced?" He posits that crowdsourcing creativity is here to stay. Whether it's finished product ala crowdSPRING or inspiration ala FFFFOUND!, there is a place for it. I honestly don't know if crowdsourcing creative output in an ethical way is possible. Maybe. But crowdsourcing creativity is entirely possible.

Rivers Cuomo from the band Weezer did a collaborative songwriting project called "Let's Write a Sawng" on YouTube last year. He started with a single video, saying that he needed help writing a song. He led his large base of fans through the process, breaking it down step-by-step, starting with suggestions for a title, through lyrics and melodies. What worked was that he crowdsourced for ideas, picked the best ones and came up with a compelling pop record. On NPR's Fresh Air he mentioned that if the song were ever officially released, it would probably break a record for songwriting credits.


Intel also experimented with crowdsourcing via an advertising program call Mass Animation last year. Via Facebook they invited animators to animate shots that would be part of a larger animated short film. I think it works here too because an animated film is very much like an open source dev project: the work can be divvied up into small discreet parts and worked on by volunteers. Intel goes one step further and has promised to credit and compensate contributors whose work appears in the final film.

I think the aforementioned two examples ultimately work as crowdsourced creative because they were volunteer collaborative efforts. Rivers Cuomo's fans or Intel's animators really wanted to be part of a project larger than themselves. Whereas design contests or sites like crowdSPRING feel unethical are because they're requesting intellectual capital without investing a dime.

Where Is the Craftsmanship?


Whenever I look at anything with words on it, I look at the typography. Bring me to a local corner lunch cafe with a menu typed out and printed from Microsoft Word and I will have a field day. I would judge even more harshly at a more expensive restaurant. I can’t help it as I—like most designers, I’m sure—just look at everything with a critical eye.

My biggest typographical pet peeve is the rendering of apostrophes, single and double quotes.

It astounds me when I notice this on any piece, and all I can mutter to myself is “Where is the craftsmanship?!” This was not the case decades ago when copy was sent out to professional typesetters. The very thing that democratized graphic design was the the same thing that lowered the bar on what passes for “professional” graphic design. I’m talking about how the computer and software allowed more people access to the tools necessary to create great looking stuff. No longer did designers need to send out manuscripts to a typesetter who would in turn set the type into galleys for the designer to paste up in the mechanical. This spawned a whole new industry called desktop publishing, but killed the entire profession of typesetter, and along with it some higher standards.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no luddite. I put myself through college by working at a desktop publishing service bureau. But because I had some great teachers, and because of my sometimes unhealthy attention to detail, I had a lot of respect for typography, thus taking the time to learn all the rules and standards. But I digress.

Primes and Quoation Marks

What passes sometimes today for single and double quotation marks are actually foot and inch marks (or hour and minute marks). Why is that? My theory is that to be efficient in the manufacturing of some of the first practical typewriters, they straightened out the quotation marks so they could be dual purpose—open and close. In fact in Christopher Sholes’ patent for the QWERTY keyboard, only a single straight apostrophe key is shown, presumably the user would strike the key twice for a double quotation mark. And of course, most of this layout made its way into our modern computer keyboards and software.

QWERTY Patent Drawing

Software companies like Microsoft and Adobe have been trying to mitigate this error by employing “smart quotes” technology. The software will analyze whether the quotation mark is at the beginning of the word (and then use the open state) or the end of the word (and use the close state). Most the time this actually works well. But what happens when you need to use an apostrophe in its close state as a contraction replacement in words like ’Til, Rock ’n’ Roll, and mac ’n’ cheese? The software isn’t smart enough to replace it with the proper close state and the designer or brand ends up looking amateurish.

Joe’s Mac ’n Cheese

How to not look like an amateur designer? (OK, maybe amateur could be considered a harsh term to you pros. Maybe bad craft is what I’m really talking about.) Go ahead and turn on the smart quotes feature of your favorite design app, but pay attention and override when necessary.

Open single quoteOPTION-]ALT-0-1-4-5
Close single quote (apostrophe)SHIFT-OPTION-]ALT-0-1-4-6
Open double quoteOPTION-[ALT-0-1-4-7
Close double quoteSHIFT-OPTION-[ALT-0-1-4-8

Sell the Horseshit

Yesterday the design and advertising community was abuzz over the leaked presentation deck for the new Pepsi logo by the Arnell Group. Yes it is absolutely a work of pure horseshit. But, I was reminded of the decks that my colleagues and I create every day and how somebody's horseshit may be someone else's chocolate cake.

We all have to sell our work. Ideally the concepts and ideas come from a well-formed strategy, but that doesn't always happen. Many times the strategy must back into the creative. In other words sometimes you might have a great idea that you'll need to justify after the fact.

This is even more true if you're dealing with a purely formal exercise such as redesigning an iconic logo like Pepsi's. A good design strategy would be to do the due diligence and look at the different historical variations of the logo and then just have at it, coming up with dozens if not hundreds of iterations. But afterwards when you find the new design you subjectively like, you're going to need to explain in an intelligent, tangible, evidence-based manner detailing how you arrived at that solution—especially if you're getting paid $1 million for the effort. So that's when you break out the horses and shovels.

(via Brand New)

Update: Validation that the Arnell strategy deck is all BS from a freelancer:

"(the logo design) nothing to do with any of that bullshit on the PDF, that was (I believe) just a way to keep the client entertained (like we, viewers of this PDF were) and make them feel like their money (1.2B) was worth something."