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5 posts from June 2010

Bingo for Social Innovation

Bingo for Social Innovation

I am trying to use fewer adverbs in my everyday speech, but it's proving truly difficult.

I have a tendency to use many variants of these vacuous filler words. They billow in the midst of my conversational flow like empty barges floating in the ever-active sea of otherwise coherent thoughts—painfully flavoring what I say without really saying much at all.

Perhaps if I had to deposit a dollar in an "adverb jar" for every time an adverb slipped into an email, text message, or blog post, I would dissuade my language center from allowing the disgraceful -ly to attach itself to adjectives struggling to break free of my Visual Thesaurus-like thoughtstream.

(An aside: I fear by the time I'm done writing this post, I will be penniless, wallowing in an alley, having been bludgeoned to death by an angry soul wielding an unabridged Webster's dictionary. Thankfully, the red cover of the book will hide the blood spatter.)

This anti-adverbial tirade was brought to you by a recent IDSA event in Seattle entitled, "2010 Design Debate: Can Design Save the World?" There weren't a ton of adverbs that evening, but the entire talk had me ruminating on the language that we use to define and solve problems in the world of social innovation.

Continue reading "Bingo for Social Innovation" »

Becoming a Design Leader

The following are the notes I'd written for my presentation with Justin Maguire, "Work in Progress: Some Thoughts on Design Leadership" that we'd delivered on April 14 for AIGA Seattle's "Design Business for Breakfast" Series.

I'd like to pose a question to you: What does it mean to be a design leader?

My provisional definition is: Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and growing their designers in the process. We could pile a lot of other things onto this definition, such as organizational development, contributing to the profession through sharing expertise publicly, and so forth. But that wouldn't be very effective, would it?

The real definition of design leadership, however, is a bit more blunt:

Design leaders make awesome shit happen.

You can see the work of a great design leader in the work, first and foremost. On a gut level. Hartmut Esslinger of frog put it, "When we have a 'concept' and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder." A leader knows how to push, coax, cajole, and otherwise conjure that level of work out of themselves and their team.

Note I'm not using the term "design management" here, and I want to be sure not to confuse that specifically as "design leadership." I see the two primary attributes of a design leader as being a combination of strategic planning (left brain) and creative vision (right brain). The left side of the continuum is often where design managers play.

If you're not familiar with what design management is, here's a definition off Wikipedia:

"Design management is the effective deployment by line managers of the design resources available to an organization in the pursuance of its corporate objectives." —Peter Gorb

That's MBA-speak for squeezing the most out of designers, like they're some sort of oranges to be squeezed into a delicious smoothie. While managing people is the most important thing that any design leader does—after all, a leader can't be on the ground, executing work through every single day—it isn't the only thing that a leader needs to worry about.

When I first started working as a graphic designer, I thought that I wanted to be a design manager. And I worked at a number of design firms where that's whom I worked for—design managers. It wasn't until I'd been exposed to working with a really broad range of creative talents before I realized that there was a difference between being a design manager and providing vision. That is, until I had contact with a few with real creative vision.

There's always a tension between focusing on the creative work and focusing on people that are creating the work. And depending on the kind of company that you work for (or run yourself), there's a fine line between being a creative leader (focusing on the work) versus a managerial leader (focusing on the people creating the work). Both of these types of leadership, however, require our talents as designers.

What further complicates this is that we're tasked as part of our daily work, in the words of designer Brian Collins, to "make hope visible." We're futurists. As Brigitte Borja de Mozota says, "Designers have a prescriptive job. They suggest how the world might be; they are all futurists to some extent."

Design leaders are charged with understanding what desired outcomes should be independent of the artifacts that the designer will create—and then driving towards making that possible future real. Planning is often considered a management activity, while fulfillment for a designer is often thought to be when you're "creative." But both planning and fulfillment are the sandbox that a design leader must play in, while both flexing their creative and their managerial chops.

When talking about desired outcomes—these vary, from discipline to discipline. You may be planning and fulfilling the creation of beautiful logos for your clients, or multi-national ad campaigns, or web applications, or a more flexible straw made of corn plastic. And of course, they've got to be awesome. That's the desired end goal for your organization as a whole, embodied in some kind of tangible things. It's almost like drawing a forest, and suddenly real butterflies start flying out of the drawing.

Now, beyond the work, it's not just about creating desired outcomes for clients. You've got to help fulfill desired outcomes for your designers too, as part of how you organize your team. If the people creating the work don't get something out of it in the process, then it isn't likely they'll stick around.

This is the big mistake that most design firms make. They make awesome work, at the expense of sustaining the people making it. This rarely happens the other way around, because if you don't do great work for your clients, you won't have employees. You could argue that great creative direction can happen without consideration to other people's emotions... but this is usually why design firms churn and burn. And as you hire and grow an organization, you need the full range of people, from planner to visionary, to force the necessary friction that leads to great work without rampant overtime.

Continue reading "Becoming a Design Leader" »

Using an Aging Summary

Aging Summary

When considering the most critical functions of a creative business, cashflow often falls to the bottom of the ever-present punchlist. As deadlines loom on the near horizon like Godzilla-like monsters out of J.J. Abrams films, our minds often focus most forcefully on what's right in front of us: the design work that needs to be completed. Pronto!

This isn't a strategy for sustaining your business in the long term, and can wreak havoc with your monthly finances. I've worked with both freelance designers and design firms that, at the expense of the actual day-to-day operations of the business, get the work out on time and on target, but end up causing massive havoc in the actual collection work necessary—from a bookkeeping perspective—to ensure that there's an actual flow of money allowing everyone to receive a paycheck, take care of the utilities, and maybe even cover those expenses you might have taken upon yourself (out of pocket) to take your client out to lunch. I have definitely been foolish in this department when I was doing freelance work, and I paid for it in an empty bank account. (More money in the bank = more interest = more liquidity = more safety.)

A critical tool you should make sure is part of your bookkeeping arsenal is an aging summary. This is a simple tool where you list what clients have outstanding sums of money due to you, in monthly increments. If a client hasn't paid you an invoice due after 30 days, you send them a client letter that notes what is due to you and how far it is past due. (Hopefully, you'll never get past 60 days.)

Continue reading "Using an Aging Summary" »

Slides from "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively" at HOW 2010

Here's the slides from my presentation today at HOW 2010, "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively."

Download the presentation from You can also download the handouts that went along with the talk at this link.

It was an honor to present today to a great crowd of over 750 people, and I was especially thrilled to highlight the fantastic design work from the following designers in my upcoming book from HOW Design Press, Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills...

Sean Baker
Donnie Dinch
Meg Doyle
Jarred Elrod
Claire Kohler
Matt McElvogue
Meta Newhouse
Mark Notermann
Jessica Thrasher
Lenny Vella

Hope to see you on Wednesday morning, 9 AM for my panel discussion on creativity!

Making Time to Design


When talking with designers about what they enjoy most about their job, the actual task of designing the work is usually what they focus on as the highlight of each and every day—as long as they like the problem they've been tasked with solving. But most big projects today are complex enough that the percent of time spent actually designing them can be less than 30%. The rest can fall under the domain of project management: talking with clients, scheduling and planning, resource management, accounting, and if you're lucky, a little foosball.

"Oh, if only I could spend more time designing and less time doing [insert name of mundane task that doesn't seem to be design related at all]," is a constant refrain. But I'd like to ask that you refrain from saying it—at least out loud—because it's those mundane tasks that make the design work possible.

Project management is what keeps projects successful and profitable. For the sanity of both your co-workers and your clients, it can never be sacrificed. Once you do sacrifice it, you'll find that you're working two jobs—that of a designer, and that of a project manager. (And resenting the perceived overtime.) Your clients will expect this service from you. Your business will demand it.

The trick is to structure your time so that you're a designer less of the time—meaning fewer than 8 hours a day—and earmarking protected chunks of your workday that are dedicated to design, while others are for everything but design. This means check your email in the morning, respond to it, then shut it off for a set period of time. (At least two hours.) I like to get lost in the flow of doing the work, so I actually have to set myself a timer, whether in Outlook or on my phone, to force me out of delighting in the creative process and taking care of more mundane (but equally important) tasks. When those tasks are accommodated, I can then get back to work. I recently heard Scott Belsky echo this sentiment in a talk about making ideas happen, and it's an important habit to cultivate.

To protect this new behavior, be clear in your rules of engagement with clients that your response times will be 4 hours or less, so you can balance design with work time. Also, adjust your utilization so that it's clear that you don't need to be billing 85% to 90% of your time solely to design services. If you split the appropriate percentages of your time and effort between design and managing a project, you'll be able to bill all of your project time, even while taking care of what may seem like mere clerical tasks.

I'm just describing an ideal process here, however—to invest that extra little bit of quality to the design work, I do find myself verging out of the 8-hour workday. This is partly why I've been blogging a bit less. But when doing so, I'm aware of what's design and what's making the design possible.