25 posts categorized "Concepting"

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

Plotting the Impact of Creative Ideas

The wall has twenty or thirty sketches pinned to it, and you're in a big group of designers, account managers, project managers, and other creative types trying to determine which ideas make the cut and get executed for the big client meeting. The creative director turns to the group and says, "So, which of these ideas do you like the best?"

Always a loaded question.

Does it boil down to how I feel about it -- the gut level reaction?

To me, a great concept will always inspire some sort of emotion, twanging the heartstrings, so to speak. It also has some kind of poetry or sizzle that takes it to a place that demands some form of attention.

But is that what the client wants? Is that what the creative brief demands? And is that what the audience needs to hear?

All valid questions, which lead to great concepts being spiked before they reach the light of a Web site or a billboard -- and if unasked, allow the wrong kinds of concepts to slip through to the client.

After going through a few hundred of these concept evaluation meetings, I decided to get smart about forging a process to focus my concepts before they're evaluated.

Before I concept, I look at the chart above and determine in my head where my design work should land based on the business case. Different marketing needs call for different kinds of ideas. Before I go off into dreamland, I have an idea of where I need to steer to fulfill the client's objective.

Then, after I've got a few awful sketches and well-refined umbrella concept rationales and headlines, I'll pin them up on the wall and I'll ask myself the following three questions, keeping in mind the baseline strategy I've staked for the project:

1) What kind of emotion is evoked through the communication?

If I'm creating a product brochure with dry descriptions of enterprise-level accounting software, the kinds of emotion I'm seeking to express may be quite different from a global campaign selling soap. Understand where you need to land on the scale between logic and emotion ensures that the audience receives the right effect from the communication. Ideally, you're using the right blend of the two to address an audience's need or "pain point."

We always groan when we see the mother making the Prego spaghetti sauce, but it does evoke the right emotion and I remember the ad enough to write about it here. Plus, it addresses a real pain point: do I really have the time to go spend two hours in the kitchen making slow-cooked tomato sauce?

2) How tangible are the benefits in the messaging?

How many commercials have you seen where you remember the gimmick, but not the product? Usually the gimmick is only tangentially related to the tangible product.

At some agencies I've worked at, the art directors have said, "Be sure to make the product as small as possible in the corner." That umbrella solution sure doesn't work in the long run if you need to show tangibility, which in the long run points to sales, not awareness.

Remember that Infiniti car commercial campaign where they never showed the cars, just natural forms like leaves floating on the wind? The press positively glowed about it. Quite a good idea, but the lack of tangibility proved to be the ads' Achilles heel. The ads were found to be ineffective when it came to selling cars.

3) Is it evocative or just an echo of the mundane?

If you don't create something expressive to market your product or service, you aren't going to keep audience interest -- your work will veer from the poetic to the mundane. It's hard to create poetry with a tangible expression of a product like, say, toilet-bowl cleaners.

This is where real understanding how your audience approaches your product makes such a big impact on the quality of a creative idea. If it's evocative, you've reflected the audience's mindset and tapped into their impressions and emotions. And by evocative, I mean that it ceases to function in the realm of the literal and becomes figurative, metaphorical, or expressive in a way that transcends our notions of our day-to-day lives.


I think it's easy to play on the axes between logic/emotion and tangibility/intangibility. Where we really show our stripes as creative thinkers is where our ideas land on the axis between the mundane and the poetic. This is why many designers struggle when they can't create a communication that has a measure of poetry in it.

In my estimation, if you've come up with a really poetic idea and it creates the right emotional reaction in your target audience, and the tangibility of your product's benefits are visible in some way, you've found the "sweet spot" for your concept. From our recent bevy of Super Bowl spots, ones that caught my interest were the Monster ad with the two guys on bikes at the center of the Earth and the Tide commercial with the talking stain. Both of them expressed these three criteria in a measure that worked.

If the client just wants a rational comparison between three types of software, then you know your concepts need to speak to rational decision-makers. It's not going to veer into the poetic.

If you're selling a politician, you may veer into pure emotion and poetry and for a time, forgo all those things like, say, facts.

If your client sells security systems, you'll likely have an ad that implies that someone tried to break into your house, inspiring fear and playing on the literal risk of being hurt by a burglar, then it isn't likely you're going to shoehorn some kind of poetry into it. I can imagine it now... Security Alarms: The Musical.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether this model holds up beyond advertising and also can help designers determine their best work in areas like branding, identity development, and designing compelling environmental graphics. Thanks!

The Benefits of Design Thievery

Award Winning

In my very first days as a fledgling graphic designer, in love with the potent combination of Emigre and Ray Gun that my high school literary magazine editor had foisted upon me, I combed through the local bookstore for anything that could explain to me, in a nutshell, all of the skills I'd need to learn to become a graphic designer.

I found plenty of Graphis Annuals, back issues of Communications Arts, and a number of books that recounted the history of graphic design. What I really dreamt of, in those days, was a book that could teach me everything that I'd need to know to design a logo, create a typeface from scratch, put together an annual report, art direct a photo shoot. You name it, I wanted to know how to do it well.

Much to my surprise, such a book did not exist. Twenty years later, such a book still does not exist. And that book never will.

It took me long into my career to learn the following: The only way to learn your best process for doing graphic design work is to do graphic design work.

Or, more specifically, you need to learn the accumulation of individual skills and talents that make up your favored design discipline, and then hone them until they're almost unconscious in their presence, and then practice them at your peak.

Bookstores nowadays are cluttered with monographs and catalogs of all types of design work. Such books are treasure troves of inspiration for designers, illuminating other designer's processes and their special ways of polishing their ideas into killer executions. They're going to give you new ways of thinking about the work and the raw fuel to push you in new directions to come up with better solutions in the future.

But they aren't really going to teach you how to be a better designer.

Wait -- doesn't reading design books make you a better designer? Doesn't it help you come up with better solutions? All these people that I read about are success stories. I can climb on their shoulders, glean their brilliance, and design the sleekest mousetrap around.

Well, the short answer is: Reading design books can help you succeed. But they sure aren't a substitute for doing the work. You only become a better designer through designing, or having a creative director that art directs the hell out of you until you learn the discipline.

Books, magazines, websites, music, other artistic mediums, etc. are aids in the process of gaining ideas. To borrow poet T.S. Eliot's critical note on the creative process -- shown here not misquoted, as it usually is collapsed into the old adage "Good poets borrow, great poets steal":

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

You could insert any artistic medium in for "poetry" in the above quote and it would hold true. Other designer's work is a launch pad, not a chance for you to rip them off wholesale. You don't copy other people's executions to make your work better. That would be unprofessional. Instead, you weld your theft into a whole of feeling which is unique and your own.

After you've been in the game for a decade or so, it can seem like the same ideas keep marching through. You keep your work unique by putting the right spin on the idea, clothing it something fresh. How many Western-themed invitations do you think have been made in your lifetime? What about a 1950s kitsch theme? These design motifs get recycled over and over again. The ideas behind them are what matter. When I left college, everything in the design world was new to me. Every idea seemed to spring unbidden in its novelty from brainstorming sessions with my creative teams. But after what seems a short 12 years, it became apparent that there are no new ideas under the sun. When embarking on a new project, if you stumble upon something fresh, it's 99.99% likely that someone else has already thought of it and maybe even won an award for it in a design magazine. But it's also likely that it hasn't been done in your market category, which is a certain kind of novelty that the market will easily bear.

For that 0.01% with the fresh, new idea -- we envy you. It's the graphic design equivalent of visiting Antarctica, quiet and mysterious, always cold and yet full of exotic wildlife you can't find anywhere else. And you can't step foot there. Not easily, at least. You need all sorts of permits and special dispensations. So put that aside for the moment. The day you can visit will come.

I've seen that the most potent, original ideas spring out of imagination and empathy and experience much quicker than leafing through a stack of magazines. It always feels like the magazines come out halfway through a project, when we've concepted work to the point that we feel like we're exhausted, and then we whip out books to see if there were any approaches we missed. Those approaches rarely make the cut, as they're usually derivations on a theme. This is the same reason why I discourage young designers from using stock photography websites to look for ideas. Then you're just fitting your ideas to their imagery. Ideas create imagery, not vice versa.

Want to have fresh ideas? The trick here is so simple, it's almost counter-intuitive. Instead of looking outward for inspiration, look inward. You need to see into your own emotional experience to find the right solution. That experience can include what you've seen before in life, encompassing everything from design books to personal experience, forged in radical combination and recombination with other ideas bouncing around in your mind and with your team. Ideas come from emotions and visualizing yourself in the place of your audience. The execution comes out of your own hands and your own unique artistic vision.

So remember... the seed of that great concept may have been inspired by something you've seen in a magazine. Just make sure, in the end, it's yours.

Mastering the Art of Self-Critique

Self Critique Checklist

I've hit the wall. Again. Time for a walk around the block... or maybe a brief chat with my co-workers about the new Radiohead album. Or maybe working on another client project would clear my brain enough give me at least a little perspective...

When I first started out as a designer, the most vexing part of the creative process was knowing when a design was finished. Since I'd migrated to graphic design from many years of working at a magazine, I thought that tight time constraints usually dictated what made a design complete. Since I was always doing page layout to a fast deadline, I would come up with the best cover and spread ideas that I could muster in the time allowed, bounce it off the other editors, make some tweaks, and fire it off to the printer. Every issue had a few strong layouts, some weaker ones, and one or two dogs that I'd try to excise from my mental archive forever.

Fast-forward to working as a designer in a boutique design firm. Now the tables had turned. While creating variations on logo designs, days would pass. We'd spend hours concepting on projects without creative briefs, tasked by clients to brainstorm freely without any real boundaries or methodology.

I began to lose sight of my magazine training and meander through thorny ad problems without a clear path or process to point at a brochure cover and say, "This is done. It's right." It was incredibly liberating, frightening, and beautiful. It also didn't last very long, as I moved across the country and could never find an agency like it again.

After that delicious design experience, it all becomes a blur. At larger agencies, I would enter into a room filled with account people, project managers, creative directors, art directors, copywriters, the agency CEO even. Standing at the front of the room with my lowly design work, I would present the strategy and visual look and feel as best as I was able -- hopefully before they were able to finish sharpening their knives and dig in for the meal.

The joke among my fellow designers was that you were lucky if you heard, upon one of the staff members leaving the creative review/buffet, a belated "Nice work." There you were, nursing your work in shame -- printouts covered in red Sharpie that pooled around the page margins like blood.

"Anything to avoid that!" was my rallying cry for some time. If only the work could be bulletproof, then I could walk a little taller out of the torture chamber, with a mere shred of dignity.

Hence followed a dark period in my career, full of obsessing over the kerning of asterisks on disclaimers, re-re-retouching of Photoshop comps to bring them to a meticulous level of detail, and brainstorming enough ideas to fill a waste bin before I'd even dive into the computer to start the laborious process of executing yet another idea that was on the verge of being killed (in my mind, at gunpoint) before it had a chance to blossom and evolve into something beyond what I'd imagined.

It was that last thought that cracked me upside the head three years ago and yanked me straight out of what I like to refer to as my "I am the work" phase. (That and a generous coworker who pulled me aside and told me to chill out and stop arguing with the account manager about whether the leading needed to be adjusted on the second paragraph of the VW ad.)

Great designers aren't joking when they say "It's about the work." Get yourself out of your work, stop identifying with it, and you suddenly discover that the work is trying to have a conversation with you. It's trying to tell you what it wants to be. Since that day three years ago when I had my touchy-feely design awakening, I've kept in the back of my mind a mental checklist that I tick through before I offer my print layout work for studio critique. The rest I leave up to art and its cagey way of seeping into a designer's rational thinking and skewing it in unexpected directions.

Depending on your process, you may not do sketches. But you'll be ill-served if you don't consider these questions before you dive into your design program du jour.

1) Is the idea and concept sound? Check the brief. Think about your audience. Did you communicate the single most important thing that the brief hit upon? If it isn't clear, then you may need to refine or revise the concept. I try to make sure this one is always covered before even getting into the computer. A rough sketch approved by your team is always good insurance and keeps you from rework. If you can't summarize your concept in a single sentence, then you may need to refine even more.

2) After the concept was nailed, did I really understand the copy direction before I started designing? Did I just go through layout on this project and miss an opportunity to bring the copy and the design into delightful harmony? Get this over with before you get into the computer. Talk with your copywriter (if you have one) or your client if you feel like you grok their thinking and can take the copy to a new place they haven't considered. Most designers have to get started or run in parallel to copywriters, so you should always stay joined at the hip and keep each other abreast of those "Aha!" moments that throw the work into new territory and require revision.

When you get into the computer and start mashing stuff around, these questions always bubble up:

3) Are the layout proportions correct? Is there a proper use of the rule of thirds (or artful deviation from it)? Is there a point of focus and flow, so your gaze moves from the most important content into your supporting copy and call to action? Did you build a grid? Did you ignore the grid and go crazy to artistic effect? Have good reasons for your decisions.

4) Is there something typographically interesting on every page? This one can often be hard to answer when you're working within a tight design system for a major brand. The trick is that "interesting" can simply be an elegant use of balance between larger headlines, subheads, and well-leaded body copy. On more creative executions, you may need to manipulate the type in Illustrator/by hand to get it to look unique, making sure the type that you do use isn't overplayed. (Does your client really want a poster with Helvetica or Times? Enter new territory.)

5) Is the photography or illustration of the best quality? As I've heard repeated again and again, a bad photograph can be massaged into an good design, but a great photograph can propel a design into the stratosphere. There is no longer an excuse to say "There is no budget for photography" when microstock and the prevalence of digital cameras have made it infinitely easier to generate photography for a project. Just be sure that you cover your ass in your contract and license what you create appropriately so the client doesn't own your personal custom photography outright. Then, on the next project, include money for photography no matter what. If the client tries to cut the line item, fold it into something else (like proofs).

6) Are there multiple levels of visual interest? Print designs need texture and variety, as well as an illusion of depth. If a layout has some photos, some solid color blocks, and some type, that can often be enough to get the layout to sizzle. But you may need to work into the layout another level of texture or detail below that to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on the page or on screen. Does the background need a wood texture instead of a brown-colored box? Can you make the illustration interact with the photography that shakes up the grid? Play around with it...

7) Is there a story that sews the piece together? If I can't see and explain the narrative of what I'm working on, I have to coax out the right elements to tell that story. Select a different pull quote or caption. Swap the photos or flop them. Bring in a different texture or pattern that conveys the right emotion.

8) If you say less, will the work function better? You can't cram it all in, so cull out what's unnecessary. Be ruthless about it -- less copy, less photos, less distraction. (Unless your concept is all photos and big headlines and no white space.)

9) Is it produceable and within the realm of reason, costwise, to produce? You can't sell it to the client if it has 14 PMS colors. Get at least a blurry idea of how the work will be produced and develop rough specs. Make sure your design won't fall apart if you remove that embossed logo, foil stamped flower pattern, and the laser-cut fleur-de-lys.

This last question is new to many designers, but thankfully it gets asked all the time now, in tandem with the previous question:

10) What kind of impact will this design have on the environment and how can I minimize it? Can we reduce quantity? Only print using soy-based inks by a printer that uses wind-power and FSC-certified, recycled stock? Can we use an aqueous coating that's water-soluble and avoid the whole varnish taboo? There are a number of important questions to consider here. Don't let your client choose what to do. Give them options that are always socially responsible and sustainable.

If I know I haven't ticked off all these boxes, then I note it in the critique as a point of discussion. I let go of the work at that point and let the team own it and help me evolve it so the design moves forward.

This last point on my checklist is something that can't be quantified.

11) Did I let my design mistakes inform the work in an artful way? Sometimes, it's possible to hold the work too tightly in your hands and craft the life right out of the idea. I liken this to when a studio musician is playing a guitar solo on the new hit single and he accidentally misses a note. "Let me go back and fix that," he says to the producer behind the glass. "No way!" the producer buzzes over on the studio intercom. "That note made the song!" Designers need to be prepared to fail on a layout direction or hit a wrong key and be open to the discovery that comes with the unanticipated gift of a fresh idea.

If I don't take those moments to step back and reconsider where I'm going, then I know I need to actually step away from my desk, throw on my coat, and step out into the winter cold. Maybe I meander down to the Olympic Sculpture Park and watch the crows land on the tree made of polished steel. Or I walk up Queen Anne Hill and leaf through some CDs at Easy Street. Either way, I'm getting far enough from what I'm doing to make sure that I can let it start being.

Ideas Transcend Napkins

You know you've got a decent idea if it can survive a bad sketch.

Awful sketches aren't for your clients. They're for you to prove that your idea can be transmitted without a design execution. Good advertising ideas should transcend media.

I think the worst thing we can do as designers is mystify the design process for our clients. Sure, intuition and creativity are crucial parts of the concepting process -- but if you get seduced by a nice sketch, there may not be a strong idea underneath all that chiaroscuro shading.

Awful concept sketches help bring you down to earth and provide the added benefit of removing the shiny gloss a computer provides. It's a document that you can share with everyone in your place of work to get buy-in. Plus, when the project is over, those sketches makes great kindling for your wood-burning stove.

I gave a lecture at Seattle Central Community College today on the life of a creative campaign for their New Media class. (Thanks Jill!) The room was full of 2nd-quarter design and photography students, and they really seemed to latch onto the above statement, which I followed with a showcase of some of my really bad sketches. I talked through the concept behind each sketch, then showed them concept illustrations, layout, the bad (and good) photos from photo shoots, and the final printed elements as well as any web or video elements that were part of the project.

One student asked what I looked for when interviewing a designer, and I said something like this:

The designer comes in, opens up their book, and starts showing me their work. I listen to what they're saying, and if they communicate their ideas to me in a compelling manner, I look at their designs. If the designs aren't completely tight, I'll still consider hiring them, because they know how to communicate good ideas, and that's what we do in advertising.

But what I should have added was this as well:

If they show me really bad sketches, rough layouts, and decent final designs... then really I know they're business.