28 June 2006

In the long run, stay in the moment

The fellows on the Red Green Show are fond of saying, “if you can’t be handsome, be handy.” I like endurance sports and have adopted a parallel slogan, “if you can’t go fast, go long.” And so, not being a gifted or svelte athlete I have chosen half and full ironman distance events. If you are not into sports… don’t abandon yet… read on.

I have been inconsistent and sidetracked in my training over the last few years, while doing some graduate work. I am trying, in the heat of the Midwest summer, to get back into shape. And I have developed a technique that helps me a lot. So I thought I might share it.

It borrows from Dave Scott’s “live in the moment” philosophy, but with a slight difference. For those of us that are not racing to win, we hit a point when it is about finishing. The key to finishing is to keep moving forward. Momentum is your friend. So as I run, I set visual goals a quarter, half or even a mile out. I also think about each and every step I take. I hold back just a bit, so that when I feel that step coming that makes me want to stop and walk, I have a reserve to draw from. This accomplishes tow things. First, that step that makes me want to walk just does not come as quickly, second… when it does, I have a plan. I put some extra energy into that single step and it gets me through to the next, which is always easier. Even better, I find that I reach mile middle milestones easier, feel great about it, and often don’t even walk at that point. The gratification of momentum and reaching my small little goal keeps me moving forward.

This wonderful thing about this mental game is that it has applications outside of sports. When you are attacking a wicked problem from within the cubicle, try applying this principle. If you’re a salesperson making call after call, days full of “no” or “I’ll think about it” break it down. Break it down to small steps. Work in the moment for small victories with an eye on middle milestones and the long-term finish. I swear it works.

27 June 2006

What kinds of compensation are acceptable!

A recent debate between Bruce Nussbaum and Michael Bierut regarding the approach and compensation for the design of IN, the new publication from Businessweek was an interesting exchange between old school ‘graphic arts’ thinking and a more aggressive business and marketing approach.

There are many types of compensation that we as designers, marketers, researchers, etc., can take from a project. Money - the check we cash is just one. Most all of us have produced pro bono work for a good cause. In that case the return was in our hearts. For other projects we may just want our name and reputation attached to it. I have taken on projects that in early development looked like they had much more potential than the client envisioned. In those cases we would often invest extra resources so that we might achieve some sort of break through. In this sort of case we shared the extra dividends with the client (whether they were aware of it or not.) The compensation can be a great case study, return business, a portfolio piece, or in rare cases pushing the envelope of our discipline.

What the AIGA needs (in my humble opinion) is a lesson in value. When designers work on a project and compete on price regularly, they certainly devalue the perceived worth of there offering. That, in fact, positions them in the market place. Truth be told, most customers assess the quality of your work based upon price. They often do not have the insight (how could they) to know what really went into the creation of a gem in your portfolio. Discounting a project to get a foot in the door is sometimes a prudent move that allows you to show what you can do, establish a relationship, and show the client what it is like to work with you (the good and the bad.) It also sets a dangerous precedent. But why should the designer not have the prerogative to take that chance?

Price is measured by calculating the difference in our cost and the optimal charge we might demand. When we discount our rate, we share some of the price of a project with the client. The resulting number is the value of the project – both to the designer and the client. This is, by the way, a standard lesson n any business school – often called the CVP triangle.

So my suggestion is that we as business people (yes designers, that is what we are) open up our minds and think in terms of value, both as we purchase services and as we perform them. Our take away from a project is much more complex, and much more rewarding than the money. In the case of the IN magazine… a publication that promises to promote the worth of design and innovation, you would have to be crazy not to jump at that opportunity. Whether for free, or with the additional investment of time… the PR value alone is worth more than the likely price of such a project.

23 June 2006

More evidence that advertising agencies don’t get it

This morning’s Wall Street Journal includes an article by David Kesmodel. It is yet another display that agencies do not have a clue what to do with the web. The great revelation here is that the scheduled time of a banner ad has significant impact on it influence. Wow… not exactly a revelation.

Advertising, and for that matter marketing is about context and permission. In the only Seth Godin book I recommend, “Permission Marketing”, he elaborates on this point quite well. [As with most of Seth’s writing, 90% of the message is covered in the first chapter or two.] Sending your marketing message when it is requested or desired will dramatically increase its effectiveness.

The advertising industry is hopelessly lost when it comes to the web. A few agencies (Crispin Porter, et al.) get it, but for the most part the industry is in a five-year spiral of panic that began with declining media revenues and culminates with a complete inability to integrate the new tools of the net into a holistic program that serves the clients best interest. Add to that what I see as an ethical issue – are you selling or advising? Doing both is problematic and short sited.

14 June 2006

Fuel, cars and where is my money sitting?

In my garage sits a very comfortable eight-year old German Sedan. The other vehicle, an American made SUV also spends less time on the road. As gas prices continue to rise, and I spend more of my working time in my home office I am guessing this trend will continue. My car is worth about 10% of the replacement purchase price. That amounts to several thousand dollars just sitting there and arguably not increasing my net worth. But if it were a newer car, I would have even more concern owning such an expensive dwindling asset given its limited use. It occurs to me that the rising gas prices will not only impact the type of car we buy, but how much we are willing to spend. Additionally, maybe I should think of it more in terms of an expense... and seek to have $0 in equity. Will I ever again want to fully payoff a car loan?

13 June 2006

MBA+Design - Brilliant, simply brilliant!

An MBA, along with an advanced design degree, it’s brilliant.

Those of you who know me will get that I am being a bit tongue in cheek here, having just spent three years obtaining an MBA and an MA in interaction design and design research. I am not brilliant, and did not have a grand vision of the next hot profession. I simply followed the path that made sense for me… I followed my personal vision. It happens that it coincides nicely with an emerging trend.

Talk at the IIT/ID strategy06 conference, the new publication by Business Week – IN, and the recent Email from IIT, all announcing the new combination MBA + Design degree is the topic of the day.

The vision and establishment of this program by Patrick Whitney may well be the legacy that punctuates the distinguished career of a design visionary. It is not that it is a revolutionary idea, but more that the timing is right and that IIT, and specifically Patrick, are capable of pulling it off. Patrick has long published counsel to designers regarding how to build skill sets that increase their value to business.

MIT and several other major universities have established relationships between the business and design school before. Even the University of Kansas is deep into the process of building a combination degree. But IIT has a unique reputation at the graduate level. For the motivated and insightful designer… this degree will easily pay for itself.

I am biased here. But, design thinking has much to offer the business world. And business acumen can lend tremendous clout to the designer. The toolbox of the educated design thinker is different from the typical MBA (who are graduating at an alarming rate, but not in the ridiculous numbers of design undergraduates.) As design thinkers we need to speak the language, learn the perspective, and work shoulder to shoulder at the executive level in order to chart our own path.

Side note: I have to commend Stanford for their recent announcement regarding their MBA program. Most programs are generalist degrees with a fairly rote schedule of core and elective courses. Stanford has opened their curriculum in order to create custom programs that take into account a student’s prior experience and future goals. This will not only be a differentiator for Stanford, but a real advantage for their students.

11 June 2006

A time of voice

I have never been a Bob Dylan fan. I have had very smart friends with great taste that revered the man, but for some reason I never really took the time to listen. This evening for completely random reasons I watched a two disc video chronicle of Dylan entitled “No Direction Home.” I am fascinated. The man at 20 years of age wrote such revealing and compelling words. Dylan’s true years of genius were relatively short lived. By his own admission, he has a much harder time writing material, much less material of social relevance.

I was raised deep in the art world, well, at least as close as you can come in the Midwest. I spent childhood afternoons in the basement of the Neslon Atkins Museum of Art. My grandmother worked there. Several of my aunts and uncles were schooled at the Kansas City Art Institute right across the street. Yet I never really understood art. I had nothing that I thought was relevant to say. Or maybe I was lacking confidence in my voice. That is primarily why I became a designer, because I had visual talent, but no real voice.

Some people are lucky enough (or some would say cursed) with a lifetime of voice. They live to reflect, project, comment and interpret. For me, it was in my thirties before I really felt like I either had something to say, or deserved to be heard. I am not sure if these are mutually exclusive. I now get it. I can contribute. I have the tools, the experience and the insight to be worthy of my voice. And, I am grateful that my voice was not in my twenties. I am grateful that I have a voice a bit later in life.

Many of my high school pals have peaked. They have had their day, made their money and are coasting. In a strange way I feel fortunate that I have my most productive years to look forward to.

05 June 2006

Way finding: “get (in and) out of Denver baby go, go”

For the last couple of weeks I have been taking a much-needed break in the front range mountains of Colorado. I love it here, hope to make this my home soon and have combined recreation with some prospecting and networking. Along the way I had the opportunity to be a frustrated “new user”, so I though it worth writing as that perspective is always relevant.

On a couple of occasions I drove to Denver International Airport to either pick up or drop someone off. In airport terminology these are referred to quite logically as “arrivals” and “departures”. Though I had been through this airport on a dozen or more connecting flights I had ever seen it from the outside.

Driving from west Denver it is simply a matter of following I-70 until you see the exit signs for the airport. And, as an added bonus, you can see the airport’s tent configuration from miles away. So what is the problem you might ask? Well, having never been to the airport before, I was prompted with some 7 potential exits miles before reaching the airport. At each one I wondered if I was passing “my” exit. At no time was short term or terminal parking even mention as an option. Not until I was 100 meters or so from the terminal itself did the first and only sign mention short-term parking. The signage never directed me the wrong way… nor did it ever confuse me… it just never gave me any reassurance that I was headed the right way. For at least 5 miles I found myself wondering if I should have already exited to reach the terminal.

Additionally, the signage on several occasions refers to the east and west terminals. In reality, they are two sides of one large terminal. Arriving on the wrong one seams of little consequence to some but not all travelers.

As I track back and think about the users that might have been identified by the airport signage authority (I am supposing there is one), there were likely four main groups of visitors aside from people that work there. 1) The layover passenger with no need for the directional signage. 2) The veteran user, who after a trip or two sharing my experience, or having taken direction from someone with more experience, has no problem navigating to the correct curb (more on this later). 3) The arrival passenger that is getting into his car (rented or otherwise). 4) The local departure passenger that will park in one of several long-term parking lost. And lastly there is me, the novice, dropping off or picking up a passenger for the first time. Granted, mine is likely the smaller of these groups, but new users are fundamental to any system. Getting me through my first experience with confidence and reassurance ought to be a priority - coming second only to satisfying existing customers.

As an aside, the trend appears to be that curb drop off and pick up is routine. I am accustomed to parking (short term) and accompanying my passenger into the airport. Even more traditional, is for me to great my guest at the gate when they arrive and come off the plane. In Denver, there is no short-term parking for arrivals. They are expected to find their bags and their way to the curb to be picked up. To me this seems a lot like pulling into the driveway and honking to pick up a date.

Directional signage is one of the best disciplines that graphic designers have available to them as a reference in architecting navigable web sites. The parallel of course is that while we don’t want to inundate the seasoned user with redundant or elementary instructions, there is a middle ground where both the new user and the experienced user can be addressed simultaneously. Maybe it was just a small thing, maybe it was just me, but I was certainly without reassurance until the last possible moment in my Denver Airport orientation.

03 June 2006

The CEO needs to do what?

Having spent the last three years thinking a lot about the roll of the designer in the tech business hierarchy, it was with great interest that I read Bruce Nussbaum’s recent article in Business Week. His primary point is that CEO’s need to not only embrace technology, but needs to use it. I could not agree more. But I think it is just a small portion of what a CEO needs in order to be effective.

There is a triangulation necessary to bring vision to a company (and that is the primary role of the CEO – for the moment, we’ll leave the day to day running of the company to the president). First, he CEO must be cognizant of the customer’s needs, second, gauge the temperate of the industry and third, monitor the effects of macroeconomics on the company’s future. These are massively complex insights, none of which can be effectively condensed to an executive brief. These understandings must be comprehensive.

Knowledge tends to lead to either one of two outcomes for an individual. Either it provides vision, or it provides capabilities. At the upper end of the corporate hierarchy, if all you gain is capabilities (tactical skills), you have likely reached your potential.

Nussbaum’s point is absolutely correct if either the industry demand is tech oriented, or if the audience for its offerings is technically savvy. Otherwise it is a secondary consideration at best. There are plenty of CEO roles that are well executed by dispatchers of email and search tasks.

A troubling side note to all of this is the notion that companies should be run by (fill in your profession here). In a dated post by Diego Rodriguez’ metacool, Diego states, “I’m an engineer by training, so I’m biased, but I’ve long believed that product companies are best run by engineers/people who grok stuff at a deep level.” I think we all have a bit of that bias whether we come from engineering, accounting, operations or design. Our skill set, our perspectives, our insights are the most important. We tend to passionately believe that what we do plays a critical role in the company. [By the way, I have somewhat recently been convinced that designers and engineers deal with fundamentally the same issues.]

As I progressed deeper and deeper into school, finally immerging with both my share of knowledge and baggage (or as Diego puts it “bias”) I realized that the outcomes of this knowledge, vision or capabilities, would only take me so far. By far the most important skill I could have in a corporation is the ability to work along side, manage and communicate with the other humans in the organization. Very little is accomplished in the modern world as a solo effort.

So what does this mean to the CEO? If you are in the tech industry, by all means be technically adept. If your customer’s technical demands or your industry is being driven by new technology, brush up – immerse yourself and know that technology. Otherwise, keep to the triangulation above and focus on your ability to manage and work with humans. The higher up in the organization you go, the more important those human interdependencies become. Knowing by doing is great, knowing by seeing down the road is even better.