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11 posts from April 2009

Hacking Your Design Habits

Double Dutch

These past few weeks, I've been trying to watch how my interaction with my laptop and desktop computer changes the quality of what I design.

As an example: When I'm writing copy for a web page, I often key it directly into the Photoshop comp and try to design the layout around it. However, if I'm writing copy divorced from layout, it invariably ends up being too long, and I end up struggling with paring it down to half of its length.

At this point, I usually go for a walk or take on another task until I've achieved enough detachment to find new angles for editing the content. But recently I thought of a new tack: reading copy off the screen and transcribing it onto a sticky note. In the process of writing the copy longhand into a tiny square, I don't even have to think about what I need to edit. New words suggest themselves just because I'm writing at the speed of my body, not the speed of my mind.

That was just one example of design hacking. Another design hack I've been experimenting with is practicing Surrealist automatism in meetings, then bringing ideas from the automatic drawing into my work. Automatism is a practice derived from Surrealist poets such as André Breton, which swiftly leapt into the drawing and painting work of André Masson, Miró, Dalî, and many others.

How do you do it? The next time you're in a meeting -- the more procedural, the better -- allow your pencil in your notebook to move freely. Keep your rational mind occupied: focus on what's being said with your rational mind, and participate in the conversation. And be sure to avoid trying to craft or shape what emerges consciously. You aren't trying to draw. You're just drawing.

After the meeting is over and when you're back at your desk, look down at what you've written. What accidents and chance marks on the page are suggestive to you? How could they evolve into ideas that, when the opportunity arises, infiltrate one of your designs?

Always Try to Diversify


A long time ago, I worked at a firm that had a major telecommunications client. Over 50% of our monthly billings were derived from creating logos and names for new product launches, helping to brainstorm print ads and direct mailers, and otherwise serving as a creative sounding board. There was no retainer agreement, only projects that were opened with a rough time estimate and hourly rate.

It was creative nirvana. You could spend as little or as much time as you wanted on a project, as long as you had a range of thinking in your comps. Our clients trusted us, and we trusted them.

My wife and I had been discussing moving to Seattle for some time, and the final decision to make the move was very difficult -- mainly because this firm was such a great place to work. I gave my notice, my wife and I packed up our place and hopped in our car for a month-long cross-country jaunt. One morning in Chicago, while staying at a family member's place, I saw in the paper that my client's company had misstated earnings across all of their financial statements and was going to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Client goes poof, at least in the short- to mid-term. My former job vanished as well; they never rehired for the position. There's no way our clients in marketing or my boss could have ever known that would happen... and the client never recovered.

It's easy to be optimistic about what you can control in your designer/client relationship. You can make your clients happy and keep the bucks rolling in. But you can't control their business decisions beyond what you design and the observed impact of your designs in the world.

You can inform them and provide insight. You can educate them regarding what their options are strategically and tactically. You can even be Chief Design Officer and sit at the big polished mahogany table powering up your big presentation on how you'll optimize their customer experience and rethink their brand and make amazing new products that will bring in billions.

But you aren't the CEO. You aren't the Chairman of the Board. You control your domain, and unless you're the honcho who's dealing with the shareholders and making the tough decisions on critical business issues, you're SOL.

This is why you need to diversify.

And it isn't just about money. There are many sound reasons to pursue a more diverse client base, starting now...

Continue reading "Always Try to Diversify" »

Four Common-Sense Clauses for Design Contracts

Greek Bill Rates

It's incredible how a single sentence in your contract can throw a total wrench into an otherwise simple mid-project negotiation.

I'm no contracts lawyer, but after living through a good number of stumbles, I've started to mandate a few critical contract terms in my client agreements. If you're looking to be professional and be clear about IP ownership in the midst of a mid- to long-term design engagement, you should see if you include these kinds of terms in your standard design contract.*

Continue reading "Four Common-Sense Clauses for Design Contracts" »

Stop Trying Ritual


  1. Notice you're being too critical of your design on the screen
  2. Move away from your computer and find a nice quiet space
  3. Take out your notebook and draw the first thing you remember this morning after the alarm went off
  4. Write five words that your drawing reminds you about
  5. Draw a fancy chart highlighting the relationships between those five words
  6. Pour yourself the last dregs of coffee and take a slow sip
  7. Focus on your breath
  8. Take the book nearest to you, go to page 34, and copy down the 3rd sentence in the second paragraph next to (or within) the chart
  9. Go back to the computer, print the most recent version of your design, and place your sketchbook next to it
  10. Take at least one element from your notebook and place it into your design

"80 Works for Designers": Call for Design Submissions

80 Works Creative Challenge

Have you wanted to design a book cover, or the interior of a store? Wondered how hard it would be to create a user interface for a desktop gadget? Pondered if you have what it takes to embark into a new discipline of design?

I'm currently compiling a book for HOW Design Press. The book consists of 80 creative challenges that are designed to stretch your talent into disciplines that you are interested in exploring, but have never had the opportunity to try. Until now.

Would you or a designer that you know be interested in giving one of these exercises a spin? If you are, email me at dksherwin at with areas of interest from the list below. I'll send you a few challenges, and when you're done, send me back your designs to be considered for inclusion in the book. Designers whose work is selected will have their name and contact information listed in the book, and if space allows, a caption for the work that describes your intent for the design.

Please feel free to forward this post along to any designers that you know who might want to take part.

[Update 04/26/09: I neglected to mention that if you're a design student, teacher, or represent a design firm, you're welcome to participate. The challenges range from simple to outrageously complex, so if you want something that'll really push a larger team, contact me.]


David Sherwin
dksherwin at


Areas of design to explore:

Foundation exercises: typography, concepting, illustration, paper engineering, research, writing, design history

Branding: identity development, collateral, packaging, annual reports

Interactive media: information architecture, user interface design, interaction storyboarding, interactive experiences

Editorial: book + magazine covers, page layout

Advertising + marketing: print ads, online ads, posters, out of home, tv commercials, guerilla tactics

Store design + wayfinding: retail store experiences, trade show booths, environmental graphics, wayfinding

Product design

Video + motion graphics: storyboards, hand animation

How to Conduct Post-Future Project Evaluations


The website finally went live last week, and the entire staff is throwing a party to celebrate! The developers are huddled in the corner with some microbrews, plotting how they'll splice into the agency intranet to add in a virtual dartboard. Designers are mingling with the copywriters and account people, clinking wineglasses and bonding over the ads they saw during The Office--did you see that amazing CG work, where the car dissolved into a field of flowers?

Not the best time to mention that tomorrow, you're scheduling a post-future meeting (nee post-mortem) to talk about how the project really went.

Yes, the job went way over budget — and the last thing they want to think about is who needs to take responsibility for it. Was the estimate wrong to begin with? Did the designer spend too long tweaking those page comps? How come the developer pulled so many late nights, when he said he knew .NET? Besides, they'll still be nursing their hangovers. If you're the one in charge, you get to take responsibility for the result.

Or do you?

Discovering how a creative agency fails to make profit on a project usually boils down to a series of in-process decisions that, while intended to be good, lead to cost overruns and errors. Isolating and clarifying those agency decisions role by role can be painful and time-consuming if done incorrectly -- but if carried out in the right manner and in a group setting, a post-future meeting can galvanize a team and bring them closer together. By being aware of how they've behaved in the past, they'll be able to see repeated patterns and anticipate ways to stop them from happening again.

A post-future meeting affords more than just saying, "Well, next time we'll do it better." It can give your staff real visibility into how everyone's jobs are interrelated. Those dependencies are what cause true profit on a creative task. Agency professionals get budgets and hourly estimates of what it'll take to do a creative task, but those estimates can be severely influenced by staff interaction. Day-to-day miscommunications may seem like they're out of managerial control, but they aren't. Fostering dialogue and collaboration is what truly makes profit possible, especially on large, multi-phase projects that continue over a series of months.

Even if you're a solo-flight designer, answering the following questions after completing a big project will help you take a dispassionate look at how you're doing business.

Continue reading "How to Conduct Post-Future Project Evaluations" »

That Was Perfect. Can You Do It Again?


Web sites don't behave like nature on the back end, but the experiences we find most pleasing on the Web conform to a natural order: in the grids we use to constrain information; in the "weather" of how content flows into and out of a visual presentation; through each tiny interaction we initiate with the system and the expected reaction. As designers, we attempt to control as many of these variables as possible in order to ensure a consistent, desired effect on the user.

But sometimes it's just as valuable to let users follow a more chaotic, yet finite path. Elegant Web experiences walk a fine line separating simplicity (yawn) from chaos (huh?). And the rules that govern the quality of the attempt are derived from considerations of natural organization. This can still be elegant -- as long as the chaos is modulated within a stable container, constrained by a well-designed illusion of natural order.

Great Web sites have feel -- what Leonard Koren had called "heartfelt intelligence." And there’s a certain logic to how they manifest. When I was in high school, one of my fellow students devised a computer program that could write symphonies. The program followed "the rules" of how a symphony should be composed, and it turned out somewhat turgid music. That is, until the student devised a scheme in which the program randomly broke those rules. It turned out that there was a point of natural order between too few rules broken (rigidity) and too many rules broken (cacophony). When his program was dialed in, it composed an infinite number of superlative symphonies.

I have fond memories of playing drums for the first time with a top-flight band and record producer. The engineer would cue up the metronome and the entire band would play through the song again and again, attempting to finish a clean take. When we'd thought we perfected every single note on the Nth run-through, a curious thing happened. The producer said into the talk-back mic: "That was perfect. Now, could you do it again?"

Several more attempts at the material followed. Soon, we began to relax into the song again. Musical flubs and jokes passed between the performers. The song began to gain new life. After the session, I went into the control booth and asked the producer what he was aiming for -- and his answer was bold. While we'd performed the song exactly how we'd envisioned it, the arrangement had suffered because it was lacking feel. Feel only comes about when you tear away the illusion of perfection.

Continue reading "That Was Perfect. Can You Do It Again?" »

The Eight Archetypes of Account Managers

Calling Card

Hello, fine friend. I adore you.

While I am in the midst of brainstorming the campaign, you are having Conversation #34 with the client about how they need to pony up the big bucks for the media buy. Or when I'm having a stakeholder interview with the ornery CEO, you are dutifully distilling our conversation into intelligent soundbites that easily weave into the user experience brief.

Can I imagine life without my trusty partner in (non)crime, the account manager?

Well, yeah. It would suck a whole lot more.

After working with a range of account managers across all sorts of industries, I've started to discern the roles that undergird the business side of our beloved design industry. And much like the various archetypes of art directors you may have met during your own journey through the designopolis, you may have enjoyed the company of these fine account management types that make our work more liveable:

Continue reading "The Eight Archetypes of Account Managers" »

Design and Self-Sacrifice

Designer Status Chart

You're staring at your previously sharp pencil, now worn to a nub.

It's 2 AM, and after 34 hours of non-stop work, the comps are finally coming together... just as you're starting to fall to pieces. Just another few hours and you'll be able to send off the PDF. If only I could put down my head and just rest my eyes -- no! The home page interface design needs just a little more refinement...

How did you get in this mess? You were only given two days to complete a week of work. The demands seemed unreasonable from the start, but you know your boundaries.

Plus, no one knows this client better than you -- it makes perfect sense that you'd be the one to lead the charge. After all, no one else could pull off this kind of design work in the same time frame. The other designers at work wouldn't be willing to make this kind of sacrifice, and they're damn busy anyways. My boss will thank me for the effort, the client will be thrilled, and after pulling an all-nighter and a half I'll just spend the next few days in a daze, catching up on my sleep...

In your mind, it seems like you've overcome great adversity to deliver some compelling design work.

But on the outside, this is what your significant others and colleagues see: You're sluggish. Plugging away at a plodding pace. Undernourished. Burnt out. Half-dead.

Yes, you look like shit. The client's going to be happy, but you're the one that's going to pay for it in the end.

Continue reading "Design and Self-Sacrifice" »

Intentionally Incomplete IA

Content Map

This morning, I was re-reading the following paragraph in Clay Shirky's fantastic Here Comes Everybody while preparing for a user experience presentation:

In 1991 Richard Gabriel, a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, wrote an essay that included a section called "Worse is Better"... He contrasted two programming languages, one elegant but complex versus another that was awkward but simple. The belief at the time was that the elegant solution would eventually triumph; Gabriel instead predicted, correctly, that the language that was simpler would spread faster, and as a result, more people would come to care about improving the simple language than improving the complex one. The early success of a simple model created exactly the incentives (attention, the desire to see your work spread) needed to create serious improvements.

While Richard Gabriel’s argument is focused firmly on how users behave in developing programming languages, I think there are some great reasons to take a similar tack with our clients when we’re documenting and presenting information architecture for a large-scale website. By starting more simply at a high level, you’re assuring the right foundation is laid and creating opportunities to peel the excess away as you add complexity.

Withholding detail is a strategy. For consensus-building. For understanding how things hold together at a 100,000-foot view. For really sussing out what’s critical past stakeholder interviews in a real-time conversation with your key clients. As a way of gauging the temperature, there is sometimes value in iterating your information architecture in tandem with client input and data you’ve collected from your user studies. This way, after you’ve built high-level consensus around the core website structure -- when the client is nodding in agreement that you’ve got the big picture mapped out and that it reflects the needs of your users -- you can start to layer in the details, page by page, until everything finds its rightful place.

I used to be a total complete freak when it came to documenting information architecture, but over time, I’ve seen how this presentation strategy is one of the few ways to intelligently pare back the mega-long “features lists” that clients invariably bring into large-scale website projects. If you’ve got the time in your project schedule and can be agile about evolving your user experience recommendation, this can be a great way to collaborate through the front end of your information architecture. My preference is to start with a content map instead of a hierarchical site map, which helps things feel looser and more malleable on the page.

Otherwise, you may be choosing what flowers are going in the vase on the coffee table while you haven’t even figured out where to put the living room.