3 posts categorized "design"

10/03/2011 Cusp Conference 2011 – Part 1

Last week I attended the Cusp Conference in Chicago. The title of the event was “The Design of Everything.” For two days I watched, listened and met some of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve met in years. For a few days, all of us attendees felt our energy and engagement go through the roof.

Now it’s Monday of the following week. I feel like Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” where he learns how to put Spock’s brain back into Spock’s body, but as time goes by, McCoy feels the knowledge and remembrance slipping away. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure that the energy from Cusp doesn’t slip away amidst my “normal” work. Because, after Cusp, normal can take a hike.

Day One started off with the blindfolded former priest Mike Ivers talking about “Fear.” If there’s one thing we all know all too well, it’s fear. As Mike stumbled around the stage, he made an amazing point: That almost all of us are afraid of stepping into our own power.

The Fear of Stepping Into Your Own Power. You could almost hear the audience gasp. All of the reasons and excuses we have for not doing things start here. It’s the difference between people with potential and the people who make a difference. If there was a sub-theme to this conference, this was it.

And then things went from the sublime to the surreal. Dr. Richard Satava, U.S. Army senior science advisor, stepped up to talk about technological advances in medicine and robotics. He talked about operating rooms with no people and how we’re moving from instruments to energy. With micro-robots to operate, we’re creating miniaturized surgical cockpits that go far beyond human capacity. Although, Hollywood got there first on this one, back in the 60s with “Fantastic Voyage.” 

Ultimately he posited that medicine was going to move from “fixing” to “replacing.”  Here’s his money quote: “We’ve replaced every part of the body except the brain.” Guess what’s next? The implications for us are profound.

For the first time in history, we’ll have the ability to choose the species that follows Homo sapiens. We will enter the era of Chimeras and Cybrids.

Guess how we’re going to figure some of this out? Gaming. Jerome Waldispuhl of McGill University works in the field of comparative genomics. He’s comparing animal DNA to understand where key differences show up. It turns out that computers are not very good at doing this. People are. His solution? He’s crowdsourcing this by turning it into a puzzle to solve the problems. The game Phylo is available online or through mobile apps. We’ve heard a lot about gamification this year, but Waldispuhl is gamifying science to do something that matters (in a way that Scvngr can’t). Get ready for the age of citizen scientists.

Okay, I’ve got to admit, my head was spinning after just three speakers. It’s not like I’ve lived in and intellectual desert for the last few months. But this was the first non-digital marketing or social media conference I’ve been to in years. More on that later.

The first session ended with some students from Design for America. This college program [started by Burlington native Liz Gerber (Go Vermont!)] at Northwestern University, enables design and engineering students to do something simple: Use design to change the world. 

Mert Iseri and his colleagues solve problems, trying to have social impact through local projects. He told us how they spent time with homeless people and learned that the homeless walk, on average, 36 miles per day! Their feet are their weak link and they suffer from a variety of pedal infirmities that makes their lives more hellish than they already are. So Design for America developed a sustainable shower mat for homeless shelters that reduced foot problems by 50%.

They spent time with a local hospital with the goal of reducing hospital sickness that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. They developed a tool called Swipe Sense that fit right on doctors’ and nurses’ pants and that allowed people to disinfect their hands with a motion they were already doing. Smart, smart, smart.

Boy, those kids were not only incredibly smart, they were some of the most passionate and self-confident speakers I’ve ever seen! I left that first talk with imperatives:

  1. I HAVE to get my kids involved in something like this. I can’t imagine a more exciting, stimulating and worthwhile education.
  2. I have to get this to Vermont. Some of these students had already received seed money for their ideas. This whole educational program struck me as one of the best incubators and business development tools around. We need it here.

You know, I could have left after that first session and the conference would have been worth it. But there was oh so much more left.

To be continued…

03/17/2009 Copy or Design?

Companies will spend a lot of time and effort on new designs for its marketing materials. The same companies seem to spend a lot less effort on copy or content. I see this constantly when projects include solid budgets for design and programming but almost no budget for writing or content creation.

So my question to you is: If you were building a new Web presence and could only pick one, would you pick copy or design?

Whoa, slow down. Before you answer that quickly take a look here:

  • One of my all-time favorite digital shops, The Barbarian Group, creators of Web legends such as Subservient Chicken and Cleanse This has a site that is almost entirely (gasp!) copy. Yes it has some design, but it’s minimal. No, it’s very minimal. The Barbarians chose copy.
  • The old Zeus Jones site and the new Modernista site chose no design for their sites and relied on textual based social media sites to showcase themselves. And then Skittles copied them.
  • Cool Swedish creative shop Farfar has one of the simplest designs, but good pictures and copy. There are a number of Swedish shops doing amazing work, yet their own sites have minimal design.

When some of the top thinkers and doers in our industry focus on their own copy and content instead of heavy design, it’s worth noticing.

Maybe the bigger problem is that most shops have greater design resources than copy or content resources. At a lot of digital shops I know of they use outside resources for copywriting. If that’s true, and the clients come asking for design, changing the conversation to copy and content will be a challenge.

With the rise of social media, though, it’s a necessary conversation. I think it’s time we started reexamining our priorities.

03/15/2009 Spec Work. For designers or all service providers?

Jeremiah Owyang led a panel at SXSW and now has a well-commented blog post about spec work for design. One of the big issues seems to be that with  people more desperate for work, and less money for companies to spend, we’ll see more of spec work for design.

On the plus side for workers, you could make a case for people doing spec work for design when they get work through the Web, competing with other designers in the same situation. In this case, spec work is simply a new business cost. In the scheme of things, this might be one of the more efficient new business spends, as long as you win some business through it.

On the plus side for businesses, you reduce costs but get lots of choice. Of course, as a business, you’d be hard pressed to complain when the same thing hits you: cheaper priced imports, Walmart moving into your area, etc. If you’re not into paying for and building up value, please don’t complain when your business suffers from the same ailment.

I see a lot of issues with this one. As Jeremiah points out, spec work leaves out strategic development. The biggest question I have with spec work is how it’s possible to create something authentic and unique for a business if you know little to nothing about it or its clients. Sure, you can make something look good, but that’s just one part of the equation. With such intense economic pressures and competition these days, you’d think businesses would want to develop marketing builds something lasting. A logo or brochure doesn’t go as far as it used to.


Another issue I have with spec work is that for the designer, or any of us, we want to develop business relationships with our clients beyond one-night stands. Does spec work lead to other work? Maybe as part of a longer RFP process, but you have to ask yourself two questions with that:

  1. Is it worth it? I know an agency that supposedly spent $100,000 of its internal time doing spec work on an RFP. They won, so they'll get a $250,000 contract for $350,000 worth of work.  Is that an acceptable ROI?
  2. If the client treats you this way at the beginning of an engagement, do you seriously expect them to treat you differently later on? I wouldn’t. Please don’t tell me clients change over time. Some do but most, just like people, establish patterns early on. If they’re looking for something without paying a lot (or not paying some people at all) that’s what they’re going to be like for the most of your relationship.

It’s funny that we have spec work in design but not in other service areas. I think if we’re going to accept spec work, why not apply it to other service areas.

  • Accountants – Send your tax work to three accountants. Only pay the one who gets you the biggest tax return (But you may be in trouble later).
  • House Painters – Hire four firms to each paint one side of your house. Only pay the one who does the best job.
  • Lawyers – Hire three firms to deal with a legal issue. Only pay the one who gets the issue resolved most favorably (e.g. this does not apply to litigation where they take a cut!).

I was trying to figure out a way to do this with car repairmen but couldn’t figure it out. Any other suggestions of professions we can use spec work for?

The best antidote for spec work? Talk to other people and agencies in your industry. There will always be those who do this but we would be remiss if we train clients to think this is a good way to do business. Honest and open talk between competitors is sometimes uncomfortable but incredibly valuable.

My Web Sites