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10 posts from July 2008

A Case Study in Social Offsetting: CITGO

Social Offsetting

Sell now, reap the reward now, ignore the consequences later. This strategy is social offsetting. This strategy is an all too common parlance in today's advertising world.

The work can be socially responsible, but not sustainable. It can be meticulously researched, but not insightful. It can be extraordinarily gorgeous in its production values, but vapid. It can illuminate deep investment in local communities, only matched by the vast sums lavished on advertising said investments for brand lift.

A recent example is a brand advertising campaign currently running for CITGO. It's a perfect example of social offsetting -- focusing on the positive impact on local community, making an investment in social responsibility on a day-to-day basis, all the while ignoring the long-term expense owed to the world at large regarding the product that they sell.

CITGO Local Jobs Ad


Social Offsetting is a Risky Maneuver

Why is it that our oil industry, which is one of the most profitable corporate ventures in today's economy, is wasting gallons of money on incredibly dumb advertising instead of investing in our increased independence from petroleum products? This is a rhetorical question. We know the answer: employees, shareholders, political stakeholders, and franchises. Incremental profits and dividends. Short-term and long-term gains.

The greenwashing race has been on since the heady days of the BP rebrand, and long enough for the inevitable backlash to crash down on unsuspecting corporations, drag them through the muck, and gracefully recede to leave their gasping corpses on the beach for all to see. Gracefully rich corpses, mind you.

What concerns me now, however, is that oil companies with little or no "green story" are pouring money and thought into tastefully executed ad campaigns that attempt to either immunize customers from the increased hypocrisy regarding oil use in America, or shift our focus onto immediate human needs and turn a somewhat blind eye towards the future impact of the use of their products.

Looking at these dumb ads can be like reading a terrible creative brief. Take the ad which I've included here from CITGO.

Imagined creative brief: Companies such as Chevron are touting figures that point to their investment in alternative energy. Customers are angrier than ever about rising gas costs. How can we increase brand lift for Citgo and potentially increase consumption of our gasoline without a strong social responsibility/alternative fuels message?

Solution: Let's focus on the human condition. Let's make it personal. It's more important than ever to foster brand loyalty towards a specific brand of gas, since it's pumped by a local gas station near your home. It's not about the price of the gas. It's about supporting local business and communities and the jobs in this unstable economy that are preserved. It's about the people who man the pumps.

This position would be fabulous... if it really meant anything. By reading the copy in this ad, I learned a number of things, but none of them created a real point of differentiation against other gas stations, or other local franchises, for that matter.

This well-designed, well-executed ad has only served the purpose of making CITGO look like a company that doesn't give a damn about the long-term effects of their products on society. The sale of their products benefits the owners of their franchises and their shareholders. Bully to them. But it isn't sustainable. It doesn't hold up against their competition, who are hammering on sustainability hard. CITGO just looks like they're being facile. And it never helps when the guy who owns your business also happens to be a head of state that loves to hammer on George W. Bush (which we Democrats do anyways, but we usually aren't hanging out with Fidel Castro).

As we follow this logic:

CITGO thinks we all believe oil companies (may) own our corner gas stations, and the employees that work there are shills for the man. Just like at 7-11. And McDonalds. In fact, they assume we don't know that many major corporations that sell products sourced globally are franchises or licensees. Which would make CITGO just like pretty much any other corporation that sells a parity product. They have to franchise them. They don't want to dirty their hands with the actual effort managing thousands of local retail locations would require, including becoming good local citizens on the ground level.

Since the oil industry is doing so well, it's helping to keep people employed and prosperous in a down economy. This is the same case for any scarce resource, and while we haven't reached peak oil yet, they're in the business of putting us all out of business. Again, the short-term view rears its head.

These employees have money to support local communities, since they're doing so well. Ah... just cause they're doing well doesn't mean they're supporting local communities. Don't assume that everyone that owns a CITGO station is a good samaritan, unless it's required as part of their corporate charter (which I wouldn't be surprised if it was.) But this is a small point. You're still selling gas. Are you really being telling me something in this ad I didn't know already?

What really gets my goat, however, is that I spotted the CITGO ad in Harper's, where you practically need a Master's Degree to read some of the book reviews. These well-educated readers are going to see this ad, think about it for two minutes, and shred it with their intellect like a hot knife through Earth Balance buttery spread. Especially since the editors at Harper's have focused on peak oil issues and energy independence as a major topic of interest for some time now. Did your media planner read the magazine before making the buy? Did your media planner think that 97% of Harper's readers would know that CITGO is effectively owned by Hugo Chavez? (Actually, they might score some points there with those wacky Marxist college professors.)

Yes, it helps when you place your dumb ads in magazines where people will recognize just how dumb they are. Now come up with something better that doesn't belittle the real situation we're in.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the ad campaign from McDonald's about how they're supporting local businesses, as well as farms and slaughterhouses, and by extension making the world a better place.


The Right Kind of Transparency

Clearly, if we have cars, we need some kind of fuel. I totally understand that. I have an old Corolla that I drive to client meetings and band practice. I can't be so much of a hypocrite that I can't understand that I'm contributing to the problem. In fact, I'm educated enough to know that if I could reduce this argument to a simple answer, we wouldn't be having it. It's a wicked problem that will take hundreds of years to unravel.

However, I am mindful enough to think of the impact of my driving four miles to work, and try to minimize it by bussing or biking. I am investing time, energy, and attention into ventures that are looking to get us out of the petroleum game, both in making lifestyle choices (such as buying very local foods), in choosing socially responsible investment vehicles, and in having been a vegetarian for 13 years.

And because of this, and because the biodiesel movement is fraught with all sorts of risks and perils, I actually appreciate it when companies such as Chevron point out that they've invested $1B in alternative energy and are attempting to migrate their business into that as a long term venture. $1B is a drop in the bucket compared to their profit margin last year, and their marketing has its own hypocrisies that piss me off and will be mentioned in a later post. But I appreciate it when they don't skirt around the fact that we need oil now, but are trying to sell me a future with reduced independence. This "putting ourselves out of business" argument holds a lot more weight for people who are mindful about their footprint.

Now, if you've made it this far through this unintentional screed, you're going to be very interested in what follows. (And I should disclose that I wrote all of the above before I went to the CITGO Web site.)

For some reason, CITGO actually pushed to the public not only all of the TV and print ads, but also the media schedules for their ongoing campaign, their top-level market research, their audience segmentation and personas. I think it's pretty rare when a corporation puts live to the viewing public the thinking that supports their advertising at a strategic level. And there's a good reason why we don't expose this thinking to our audience. It makes corporations look ruthless, manipulative, and reductive. In many ways, that summarizes intelligently executed marketing strategy. However, seeing the wizard behind the curtain has a way of making the puppet show look mighty flimsy.

Thanks to CITGO, I know that I fall into the Progressive Activist category when it comes to their marketing. They've created a lovely logo to personify my recycling-junkie ways. They've told me when they'll be reaching me with these ads. They have big plans to educate the masses about their efforts. They've identified the issues of greatest importance to me and my corporate fellows, such as Environmental Stewardship, Local Ownership, and Social Development. Yes, Environmental Stewardship is one of eight pillars of their positioning, but they aren't talking about reducing dependence on oil. After all, it says on their Web site that "gasoline is still cheaper than bottled water" with regard to how much value they can squeeze out of every ounce of crude.

Yes, I'm quoting somewhat verbatim from copy on their Web site.

Yes, it is quite embarrassing to tell your customers on a page advertised on their corporate site exactly how you're going to convince them that you're not all that bad. Then again, look at poor Barkley out of Kansas City. They couldn't stem the PR nightmare and the flood of money that gushed out when 7-Eleven pulled out of working with CITGO in 2,100 stations due to its ties to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Even local gas stations are doing the same today. CITGO is clearly looking for a way to purchase themselves out of a rock-bottom brand position with the American public.

And they've continued that downward trend beautifully by showing me just how much they consider me part of their future. CITGO's exposure to the public of their market research and segmentation plans, how they are working to shape my opinions to like them more, and the lengths they want to go to do so in public, bald language, is both arrogant and galling.

Don't tell me how you're going to change my mind to like you more -- especially when you didn't include a Web site URL or other call to action in your ad to find out more information. Clearly, you didn't want me to look. I did. And look what I found: Beautifully designed, tastefully photographed, well-written ads calculated in a gambit to "change perceptions about CITGO among opinion leaders across the country," targeted at influentials like myself.

Guess what. You succeeded. I now have an even lower opinion of CITGO.

And I also have a parting request: Invest your advertising money in something more worthwhile, like these local communities that you love to tell me that you support.


"Design Product" Syndrome

Now Serving

When a new client calls you, and you ask how they'd like engage their services, the first thing out of their mouth isn't likely to be, "I want you to make my customers happier." It's going to be selling more products, burnishing their corporate image, making gains on the competition. They're want to buy a __________ from you to accomplish those goals.

This is where you need to determine if they're calling under the thrall of "Design Product" Syndrome, or D.P.S. for short. This is when a client believes they need a new Web site, or a new logo, or a new anything, really, that will magically transform their business. It will wash over their internal politics, their customer complaints, and the rumblings of the press and their investors with a bright, shiny, brand-new thingy that will put things in a further upward trend.

They don't need design services. They need design product. And really killer design work that fosters real change isn't product. It's understanding what kind of experience you're trying to wrap around your customers.

Large-scale engagements require heavy strategic input. If you're designing a large-scale Web site, creating a brand positioning framework, or embarking on a huge advertising campaign, you need to make sure that every step you take through the project leads to that pinnacle of all pinnacles, the actual design execution. But when that design execution is unveiled with much fanfare to your clients, if they are suffering from D.P.S., all of that groundwork flies out the window.

Classic D.P.S. symptomology usually carries a number of these behaviors:

At a fundamental level, they don't understand what they're asking for. My competition is doing it, so let's do it. Let's do some really hot Flash banner advertisements... even though just sending out a few postcards would get the same response numbers and brand lift.

They really couldn't tell you until they saw it. The red flag goes up here. They wanted a different direction for their ___________, but now that they've seen where you ended up, they're bursting with ideas as to how you can start from a different place. Meaning that you didn't have a crucial piece of strategic information before the creative presentation, either by poor research or by shifting client expectations that weren't shared. And they'll let you know it after they've seen the work. Then again...

They think they know how you make what they need, down to the nuts and bolts. They queried you on the nth detail of what specifically you'd provide, quantifying the deliverables or feature sets of your final build well before you've actually pinned the strategy down. You can't scope to this degree until you've completely nailed down your strategy. Cart before horse = unhappy horse, broken cart.

How do you cure D.P.S.? Sadly, it can take an extensive amount of effort to curb its effects, but the good news is that by taking part in a re-education program, you'll be doing the design profession a great service. I'll write about that in a separate post, because it'll take more than a few words.

But in the interim, here's what you do to protect yourself from D.P.S. in your projects.

Don't give away the really big ideas without understanding and stating their value. Unless your client is savvy in the ways of unfolding your business insights and channeling them into alternative projects, your deeper thinking about their needs will likely come to rest solely in the __________.

You need to provide sparkling clarity around every major point that you agree to.

You have to provide a range of costs instead of a single, hard number. Smart clients know that they have a business need and that you need some flexibility to craft the best solution. A range also makes it harder for a client to choose a designer on just the price tag. Value provided is more important than cost saved.

Assuming they have some measure of understanding of how designers work their black arts and creative mojo, most clients will need to respect your process, listen to your thinking and occasionally nod their heads in agreement, and wait with bated breath for the moment when you reveal the __________ they've contracted you to create. If they try to negotiate your process, it's a sure sign that they want to be in control, and the designer/client partnership needs to be more like a balanced scale.


In the end, all they paid you for was the __________. But what can't be filled in the blank is the magic that makes a design business thrive.


The 97% Rule

97 Percent Rule

When I was a designer, as opposed to a design manager that also happens to design things, I would always chuckle inwardly -- in a kindhearted manner -- when my creative director, art director, account manager, copywriter, or CEO would tell me to give 110% on every project.

You'll never hear those words out of my mouth. The concept of giving 110% is misguided, and not just for the illogic of exactly where that extra 10% comes from. (Your sanity?)

It's hard to do your work profitably unless you plan for giving 100%. So I say, limit yourself to 97%. The last 3% isn't the meat and potatoes of the work. It's polish. And it's usually where the profit gets burned up on your job.

Giving of your personal time in a self-sacrificial desire to meet a corporate goal is 110%. But in those circumstances, time is the only thing you have to sacrifice. Time is the easiest commodity to give away, but many agency professionals forget it's also the most valuable. It's much harder to keep things at 97%.

One agency that I worked at would dole out an 110% Award for those who had put the most effort into their job in that month, or demonstrated something that showed they went "above and beyond" the level of service anyone would care to expect. I recall being nominated for said award once because I put together a new business PowerPoint with voiceover over a very long weekend, capped by an overnight and an 8 AM team presentation. Bleary eyed, tired out, they patted me on the back and let me leave a little early so I could sleep it off, then be in bright and early the next morning for the pitch, Round 2. (Ding.)

The same agency noted above would assign us very short timeframes for projects in an attempt to keep the projects profitable. "Go ahead, take as long as you want! But the comps are due in three days." Really, if I gave 110% on this project, I'd need a cot in the corner, a personal chef and masseuse available at all hours, and a Schnapps IV drip. Neither of the three were ever forthcoming.

In those situations, we designers on the creative team banded together and hatched what I can call here, posthumously, the 97% Rule. The rule, put quite simply, was save the polish for the very last moment in the project and only allow yourself a narrow window in which to futz around/clarify any small layout problems. Otherwise you'd be there until 11 PM, kerning merrily away, every single night. That's not sustainable.

You'd think the work would suffer. But it didn't. What suffered was your pride, turning work in for multiple rounds of review without perfecting every last detail of every page. There's nothing that drives us designers more insane than turning something into our client's hands knowing that a few details still aren't right. And knowing that our clients won't know it. Sacrilege.

But when you think about it, giving up control of the microdetails until that last round frees your mind and elevates you to make sure the concept and layout are sound. The designers got strategic very quickly, and knew how to battle for the idea first, the layout second, and the micro-details last.

Thankfully, I've been able to shake this 97% habit at subsequent agencies, where the Ford Factory assembly-line model does not predominate. However, in estimating projects, I had to re-account for those extra hours past concept where we would get out the towels and start polishing the silver to a bright glowing sheen. But certain bread and butter projects just don't require 100%. There's no way anyone will ever know you gave 97%. (Except another designer. So don't put it in your book, okay?)

And the 97% rule doesn't hold up well when you're talking about truly artistic projects. A great idea executed well (at 97% percent) can be trumped by a great idea executed fantastically well, with care and attention to every aspect of its being, right down to how the jute strings are tied on the Japanese binding of the annual report that you had to letterpress-print using only wind power and ink derived from crushed Goji berries...


80 Works for Designers in Seven Weeks?

80 Works for Designers in 7 Weeks

If you were to take a class called 80 Works for Designers in Seven Weeks, what kinds of projects would you expect to tackle in that intentionally ludicrous timeframe?

One of my first roommates post-college was a graduate student in poetry. In the summer of 1999, I recall him being excited that he had signed up for the class "Instant Thesis, or 80 Works in 7 Weeks," which was being taught by the eminent poet Peter Klappert.

Dozens of late nights and weekends later, neck sore from hunching over his computer and notepad, nerves shot by a bold overdose on black coffee, he was a complete wreck... but a more powerful writer as a result, by an order of magnitude.

Many students found it to be one of the most revelatory creative experiences of their lives, expanding their writing ability in ways they hadn't imagined possible through traditional workshop methods. After working through several stages of nervousness, failure, physical and emotional stress, intellectual stretch, loss of self, and high anxiety -- often in rapid succession -- they broke through many artistic barriers into something profound. The entire class explored collage methods, blot-outs, concrete poetry, metric/fixed forms, linked verse, anaphora, dialogue, satire, visual shape, collaborative writing, fixed and loose rhyme schemes, musicality, tone, and dozens of other approaches in the pressure cooker. They had also accumulated hundreds of exercises, generated by the class, that could feed future work.

After spending a number of years being in the fast-paced environments of both small design firms and imposingly large agencies after a somewhat middling design education, I began to think back to my roommate's experience and wonder:

Would it possible to cram 80 wildly divergent design exercises into the course of seven weeks, forcing a student to expand the full breadth of their abilities in a finite period of time? Would design students in such an environment become better designers at an exponentially faster rate, with substantially better portfolios?

What I hope that design students would get out of (barely) surviving this designer-focused course would be twofold: 1) an idea of how to reach a breadth of innovative design solutions, in various media, within any set time period; and 2) a fuller understanding of the complementary skill of learning how to properly frame a design problem before it can be solved.

I'm not sure if Peter Klappert has repeated his course since, but a record of his working process still exists, which was adapted from a Corcoran School of Art class. From his methods, I've been attempting to extrapolate a similar bare-bones approach that could be attempted by design teachers and students.

I'd like your help in determining what those 80 Works for Designers could be for an initial seminar. Everyone whose exercise gets used will be credited, and I will put together a Web site that disseminates the class methods and lesson plan for anyone who wants to inflict this idea upon an unsuspecting design institution.

Since the 80 Works class will generate hundreds of exercises, this initial seeding of starter exercises will grow into a very large body of work very swiftly that many people can use for their own creative growth (I hope).

Feel free to post your ideas here as comments or email them to me at david at davidsherwin.com. And thank you, in advance, for the help.


The Boundaries of Natural User Interfaces

A few weeks ago, I went to a talk hosted by the IxDA Seattle chapter called "Brave NUI World," hosted by the Artefact Group. At the event, some of the Microsoft Surface team showed off their technology in action and had a panel discussion about how their product's Natural User Interface (NUI) was developed within Microsoft, as well as the user experience and usability learnings they'd gleaned from the 5-year development process.

One of the things that really struck me from this entire panel was how much energy they'd invested into paring away anything that did not look and behave like a real physical object, as opposed to trying to integrate interface elements such as a scroll bar or a text input screen into the device. Everything in their NUI required physics or real-world behavior, which creates some interesting opportunities for interaction, but is also a major limiting factor for accessing any large quantity of information.

Want to see what considerations go into designing a NUI? Artefact has done a good job of videotaping the panel, which you can watch at your leisure here or view them at the original post at 720 px wide:

Another company I saw a presentation from almost two years ago was the Netherlands-based design firm Lust. They crafted a NUI for their design firm retrospective "Generation Random", which is also quite instructive to watch in action. Click in the (not very usable) nav on their site the first text link, to see a video of their first exhibit in action.


Sustainability is Experience Diversity

Sustaintability Collapse

We may like to gloat about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the long vacations to exotic locales and unrepeatable dinners at the restaurant that closed long ago, but more often than not, we discuss the things that we share in common.

Television shows. Products that can obtained anywhere, always taste the same, and are sold for the same price (or less, if it's on sale) no matter where you find them. Starbucks, Target, and Jamba Juice, repeated endlessly on an ever-repeating suburban filmstrip.

At least we have something in common, right? Something to chat about on the long ride home, on Twitter, at the cocktail party where you don't know anyone around you and don't know where to begin.

Well, let's begin at the beginning: People share relatable experiences. That's been going on since we invented language. Then advertising came along, and talked about all these products and services that sewed us even closer together in a cultural microcosm, shaped by shared products that reflected our lifestyles. At least, that was the intent.

Advertising is most effectively applied in differentiating parity products, and the very idea of nurturing a parity product runs completely counter to sustainable business practices.

The idea that a mass produced product, which supports a shared experience, ties us together as brethren in an otherwise undifferentiated American horde. It's pointing to a fundamental hypocrisy about mass-produced products and the efficiencies that corporations engineer to keep their prices low.


If you're running a sustainable business, your only competition should be yourself. The energy and ethos behind your products or services should be as crystal clear as a plate glass window.

This is why corporations are scared witless about the complete reinvention that's necessary to be a responsible corporate citizen. It's infinitely easier for a corporation to react to its corporate peers. It's nigh difficult to turn yourself inside out, change everything from how you product your products to whether you should even be selling those products anymore. Organic Rice Krispies, anyone?

No wonder so many companies are pouring salt on the wound: marketing cars like the Chevy Volt in the hopes that some green will rub off on their other products; starting up crafty arguments about why we can't give up on oil just yet; calling foods natural in the grocery store when they aren't organic, sustainably grown, or local. Let's focus on the battle and lose the long-term war, one hypocrisy at a time. You're still selling me cars, gasoline, and produce shipped overnight from Chile. (More on the latter later.)

Change doesn't happen overnight, but without real incentive to change, then nothing will happen. Fast. Watch the land rush towards and away from biodiesel. Sustainability is the antithesis of the next big thing. It's a bunch of small, unique things that come from around the corner.

We need to encourage people to make choices that use fewer resources, more equitably and intelligently, and in the process, provide a more unique result.

As designers, we need to shy away from the mass experience and think about how we foster small, local, exclusive experiences. Desirable experiences made from things that will peacefully fade away with little to no impact on the world.

Here's some ways we can help usher in this new kind of thinking about business.


Focus marketing on fostering unique individual experiences -- micro-products that extend off brands for a limited time. Encourage clients to build businesses out of them, clustering them together meaningfully.

Stop thinking about consistency. Focus on the evanescence of your product in the face of time, its exclusivity, and how that can be a powerful motivator if you have something truly unique.

This business model is familiar to vinters, brewers, and other fermented products, but has yet to heavily impact mass-produced goods at supermarkets, which are controlled by multinational corporations.

When touring the Scharffen-Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, California, the guide told us about how they would purchase and blend cacao from multiple sources every few months to try and keep the flavor profile across the product consistent. This required great care and attention from their cacao buyers to get the highest-quality beans that had overlapping taste characteristics, often paying up to five times the market rate and often ensuring that their beans were organic in nature from cacao farms that were vetted for fair labor practices.

At the same time, their cacao buyer would ensure that if a great batch came through with a very strident and unique flavor, they would buy up all of those beans and make a unique line of single-origin chocolate bars that would vary season to season. These single-origin bars, to my palate, completely trump their main products in terms of quality and taste. And when those bars are sold out, they're gone for good. Can you imagine a straight-up single varietal Hershey's bar? That's not American. (Don't get me started about chocolate. I'm as passionate about chocolate as I am about design, and that's scary.)


Practically any mass-market product can be produced on a small scale, in a clustering model, in a truly sustainable way. It just requires playing by your own rules, going against the grain of large-scale business ventures.

One of my friends, Melissa, is the first florist in Seattle to exclusively offer local, organic, and sustainably grown flowers. She's creating this kind of dream, customer by customer, and even planning a co-op to wholesale those flowers to other florists, breaking a chain built up by the big dogs like Teleflora and 1-800-FLOWERS. She's one of my inspirations and role models for how it's possible to take a given about an industry controlled by corporate giants, completely reinvent the rules, and offer an experience supported by exclusively local, handmade, and mostly organic merchandise in her store as well. Her store sticks out because there are so few people in a socially conscious city that are actually walking the walk.

Every time I think a thought such as, "Hmm... I bet that plastic factory can't find a replacement for those plastic spoons," I see something like Taterware and am continually reminded that corporations rarely are motivated to change their behavior. Individuals are making the difference in the sustainability game.


Be aware of the nuance of your decisions. It's not always easy to know you're doing the right thing, and you'll need due diligence at every turn.

The Eat Local movement, among other current trends in sustainable agriculture, is promoting that we eat what's in season and available in our local region, ideally within 100 miles. The logic dictates that you'll reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting, say, grapes from Chile to your supermarket.

There's been some recent, very fascinating talk in the New York Times Magazine that has dug into this premise very deeply, what I find most important from this dialogue is that whenever a critical mass of people gloms onto a purchasing trend, what usually happens is that people make the easiest choice to fulfill that new desire. In the example from the above article, the Catch-22 is buying locally-grown produce spawned in a greenhouse during the winter. It's local: check. Compare this to buying tomatoes grown in a warm climate by the sun (free energy), and then shipped to you. Less energy use... but in both cases, not sustainable.

Often, when making a case for sustainability, it's the lesser of two evils, unless you can control every single decision through the food chain, like my friend Melissa above. In the winter, she needs to ship in organic flowers, while in the summer, she can get them grown locally. It has to balance out in the end.


If you're passionate about being a thought partner with your client, you should engage them regarding sustainability in not only their marketing, but in anything that you consider an environmental factor.

I don't think it's unfair to bring up to a client that you see opportunities for them to improve their business practices, brush up their PR, and less their impact on the environment. And if you're being hired to obscure or gloss over the facts at hand, you should be prepared to mosey along.

The measure of success for a marketer is their ability to understand the essential truth about what their audience needs from them, not imposing what they believe the client wants at a merely abstract level. Bringing sustainability into play as a fundamental attribute of your business forces you to come to terms with not only what your audience desires from you, but also what the audience desires for the future of our society. This kind of scrutiny is massive for any slow-moving corporate beast, but I do hope that the wheel will continue to turn, ever slowly, to get this cruise ship into dock, where it can be recycled for scrap.


Meets or Exceeds Expectations

Quality of Service

Hello. I'm calling on behalf of your local bank. Would you like to take part in a short survey that will give us insight into your level of satisfaction with your banking experience?

First, we'd like you to identify which banking location you visit most often. Second, we'd like to ask you to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, the quality of service you received from your last bank teller. If you'd like, you can also share his or her name with us.

Sir, while our survey participants can specifically describe their experience in the banking location, what we're really looking for is the number that correctly correlates with their experience in the bank. That number will aid us in improving our customer service and also give us insight into how we can improve for the future.

How will the survey information be used? These numbers will be averaged and analyzed by our corporate office to make crucial decisions about how to improve our customer experience.

No, you can't give us two numbers that identify the range of experiences you've had. We would like the average of those numbers. For example, if you've received exemplary service from one teller, but below average service from another teller, than you may have simply received average service from us in your banking experience.

Yes, you are welcome to describe in detail the overall feeling you'd received from the design of the bank interior, the quality of the furniture you sit on, the leaflets and posters that are scattered through the store, the demeanor of your teller, the speed with which they fulfilled your banking requests, and the wait time while in line to receive help, whether you can talk to a real person while using online banking, the responsiveness of our telephone banking service, the real impression you get about us from our recent television and radio advertisements, and how you feel regarding the demands of our shareholders, but most of what you've described is outside the scope of this survey.

Now, if you could just answer the first question, sir, we can begin...


Eco Luxury: Not to Scale, Yet

Eco and Indie Luxury

My big advice to Nau 2.0: Charge more for your clothes. And start as small as you can.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the rise of Indie and Eco Luxury, and one of the hero companies of Eco Luxury that I mentioned was Nau. They were one of the first attempts at creating a luxury brand that forcefully marketed ecological, sustainable, and stylish clothing through online and direct retail stores.

Sadly, due to a lack of venture capital funding Nau was forced to shut their retail stores and sell off all of their stock at a discount. There's been much talk in the blogosphere about what killed Nau v1.0:


Their unusual, I mean novel, retail model. Nau stores generally carried one size of each style and encouraged store visitors to have their purchases shipped to their home instead of buying them in the store. Critics have noted that many luxury fashion purchases are often made on whim, and the inability to easily carry a purchase out could have been a negative for the buying experience. (I personally didn't care when I had made an purchase there, but then again, I'm not really a luxury shopper.)

Their all-Flash Web site. Nau.com, as much as I love it from a branding perspective, was not created in a manner that made it easy to shop and had weak user experience. When the brand launched, some of my designer friends had hammered on the site design as an example of design trumping usability, which is definitely a bad place to be for a design-oriented brand that focuses on function and form.

Their oversized ambition regarding audience demand. Nau's business plan hinged on continued rounds of investor financing to ensure their continued growth into more retail locations. This is what really spiked Nau's ambition, when you boil all of this down. Instead of fostering an audience through their Web site and then growing that online audience into local retail, where demand had been generated, Nau was looking to expand into new locations even as they were discussing shutting their doors. My neighborhood of Fremont in Seattle was the destination for one of those new locations.


I find it fascinating that a company that wanted to live, eat, sleep, and breathe sustainability in clothing production, distribution, and sales practices didn't launch their business by only selling through the Internet, or intentionally limit their market by starting very exclusive before mass-producing their line and attempting to go big retail. Millions of dollars were wasted in proving that without a strong online customer base, a compelling retail experience in a few upscale markets isn't quite enough to keep the doors open.

Had Nau offered a smaller product line that was made to order and was perhaps more exclusive in both price point and retail placement, my gut tells me that they would have organically created a group of loyalists that would have evangelized the brand when they dove into the mainstream retail market as their own storefront.

Small pioneering eco-luxury brands such as Mink Shoes took about as long as Nau's lifespan to get off the ground, and still haven't achieved any major economies of scale. But they're profitable, and resell through many top retailers. A recent article in Fast Company echoes similar sentiment regarding the need to find sustainability through selling small quantities of green products in the luxury market. You won't see Barney's selling 2,000 of the same pair of eco-friendly shoes. Eco Luxury has a long, long way to go if it's going to scale to the mainstream in any meaningful way.

Hindsight is 20/20 here. And luckily, Horny Toad has swooped in and purchased the Nau brand and legacy, along with much of the original staff, to give it another go. Here's hoping that with this new financial backer, Nau 2.0 will be able to create a sustainable business practice through actual clothing sales that matches the deep philosophical roots that underpin their products.

So, back to what I said at the start of all this...

Okay, Nau 2.0: Now that thousands of your loyal customers have jumped up and down and told you how much we want you to stick around, I don't think we'll mind paying a little more for your clothes -- especially if that will allow you to continue donating 5% of each purchase to charity.

If you're going to try and keep the luxury mantle on your products and your philosophy untouched, that's one of the few ways to keep an edge on the dozens of other fashion brands that are now rolling out eco-friendly lines alongside their usual unsustainable practices.

And we'll forgive you for the missteps along the way... just be sure to be a little smarter about what you're doing this time.


What My Yoga Teacher Taught Me About the Design Business

Adobe Bridge Pose

A few months ago, my yoga teacher Jennifer made some bold statements that I couldn't help but write down and think about in the context of design business...


1. Gain is an illusion.

We need to get paid for what we do (unless you've got one of those trust funds that we're all clamoring for). However, we can't get too caught up in the illusion that doing good work for a fair price earns you some thing in return. Design is one of the most selfless professions, in the sense that what we reap from our actions are artifacts that usually create value for other people (read: clients).

Gain is an illusion in this profession, as shown in our portfolios, which are a record of our activity. Our portfolios are not us. The humanity of our design activity is evident in the work. I find that mature designers learn this, just as professional writers, painters, and musicians achieve a level of success when they are able to see their work with a clear eye, divorced from any personal context.

Gain can be reflected in what we are paid, both in personal satisfaction, in the realization of our talent as artists, and in compensation, but money alone is an indicator of value more than a token of actual progress and change. At least, to clients and tax advisors.

It's my belief that true gain -- personal gain -- happens out of the corner of our eyes, when we're not focused on the work at hand, when we aren't aware of any sort of boundary around our talent and experience. It sneaks up on you and pounces when you least expect it, which is when it's most welcome and appreciated.

The word gain isn't even the right word to describe it. Maybe we should just call it fulfillment of potential.


2. Don't lean too far into the future... or the past.

Designers are extraordinarily intelligent, soulful, yet pragmatic individuals, often possessing whole brains that can cartwheel between fanciful dreamscape and logical Web site user flow.

It's fairly easy to short-circuit a designer: make them focus on their past work, where they begin to drill into the compromises that they made on each client project, or try to plot out the future, with its bevy of unknowns and fear of unfulfilled ambition. (I know I've been wanting to design book covers since I got out of college, due to my deep love of books as designed artifacts and my voracious reading habit. Definitely hasn't happened yet.)

I started doing yoga about a year ago, and realized how many mental cycles I was spinning in worrying about the progress of my work and my life. Progress and change are constant as a designer, even as we strive to create a design that's finished. (Have you figured out what a finished design is yet?) If you're spending a good deal of your time in the moment, communing with your design work, you may discover that you're going to be a lot more happy in the creative process, and surprise yourself with the results.


3. If you're feeling pain, you should back out of it.

If you try too hard to reach for a goal, you pay for it with a measure of your humanity. This is the kind of lesson that's always learned through pain.

Until the age of 31, I was a design masochist. I would always complete any job or task, at agency large or small, no matter what the personal cost. Isn't that what's supposed to be expected from a top-of-their-game creative workhorse? Uh, wrong.

If you don't have boundaries and protect your humanity, you don't have room to grow. Think of it like this: you decide that you're going to run a marathon, then only train by doing 800-meter sprints. There's no way you'll survive a career as a creative if you don't pace yourself and respect your limits. This is especially bad in the big creative agencies, where your tolerance for pain is often subverted due to undue expectations.

I've watched designers burn up in a ball of flame because they put every bit of themselves into their work, to the detriment of themselves, their work, and their employers. Personal investment is important, but you need the space to keep your creative self whole. Avoid that by training like a good athlete: build yourself up for the big races through cross-training and fostering a support network, get the right amount of rest, eat right, and make sure to keep a copy of The Elements of Typographic Style by your bedside if you want to keep your A-game going.

If your work is always too painful to accomplish, rethink what you're doing. Question everything: your clients, your talents, your process, your fees. Chances are, there's an imbalance in one of those four areas that needs to be rectified.


4. It's a lifelong practice, even if you don't do it every day.

You don't stop being a designer if you aren't designing 8 hours a day, or even 2 hours. Be secure in your talent. When you aren't thinking about a design problem, talent continues to exist in full measure.


5. Be sure to use both your mind and your body.

Something that surprised me about beginning yoga practice is that focusing on the body and forming discrete poses creates space in the mind for the self to well up. The same approach applies to great design work, which requires space for emotion to emerge in the design itself.

Often, we need to feel our way through the design, capture what emotion arises there in the material, and craft that raw artwork into what the job at hand requires. If you analyze things too deeply, they often fall apart or fail to contain that essential human element that resonates with people beyond ink on a page or pixels on a monitor.

Any other thoughts?