design centric world

Last week we pitched two new clients with a fresh sales presentation titled: “We Live in a Design-centric World”. The premise of the presentation is that the world has changed in many ways. We are more visually oriented now than ever before. We now upload and share a staggering 1.8 billon photos each day. We are creating a world dominated by visual culture—and this impacts business.

There was a time when you simply came up with a product or service the world needed and offered it for sale. But no longer. For a business to be successful in a design-centric world, needs must be contextualized for the visual environment. When we respond to almost anything, the initial point of entry is visual.

Apple, the most valuable company in the world, changed the business world when Steve Jobs came back in 1997. His intense focus on design—of products, of user interface, of even the components sealed inside the computer—marked the beginning of a corporate recognition of design as a value proposition. Clients come into our office all the time and say they want clean, simple design, like Apple.

Successful companies recognize that offering a product or service that the world needs is not enough. Why? Because our perception of a company is largely formed by design. That perception can change people’s behavior. And changed behavior drives the performance of your business. This phenomenon is what compels us to pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, spend hundreds more for an Apple versus Dell laptop, or travel 20 miles further to stay at a W Hotel.

The value of design is recognized in the business world, as is evidenced constantly in business publications. But it isn’t just about aesthetics. It is, rather, a far more serious matter of problem-solving and experience-shaping. The principles of design can be used to change how people work, to better understand customer needs and to reframe complex problems. These efforts lead to insights that constitute strategic competitive advantages.

Those advantages show up as real numbers. Over the last 10 years, design-led companies (such as Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Nike, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target and Walt Disney) have maintained a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 211%.

Design is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where we make the emotional connection and generate an “I gotta have it” (at any cost) mentality on the part of customers. Bringing design in-house though, doesn’t typically lead to great solutions. In my 25 years of experience teaching design at the University of Utah, I know the best designers never seek employment as in-house corporate designers. They invariably choose to work for service providers. Designers need to be managed effectively, but the analytical types that dominate management make it difficult for the right-brained creative voices to be heard and respected.

To be successful in a design-centric world, companies need to embrace a design culture and allow the values and philosophies of design guide the way people work, and interact, and the way they present themselves to world.

increase price= increase demand?

For years, one of our biggest clients was Young Electric Sign Company, or YESCO. The biggest share of their business is custom one-off signs, including the spectaculars on the Las Vegas Strip that make midnight look like midday. Those signs are not cheap! In fact, YESCO was often more expensive than its competitors. Of course, in every industry, there are companies whose value proposition is low price, while others compete on more intangible qualities.

The interesting thing is that the relationship between price, perceived value, and desirability is not particularly clear. Generally, we assume a lower price increases demand and a higher price decreases demand. The Veblen effect says not always. The economist Thorstein Veblen discovered that in some cases, increasing price can, by itself, increase demand (and vice versa). We see this most frequently in consumer goods and services that are often considered luxury purchases, like fashion clothing, watches and fine wines, but also cars, hotels and cruises. The effect is strongest when the good or service is plainly visible to others, associated with status or affluence, and clearly differentiated from competitors. According to Veblen, it works because of our own human desire for status and to be perceived by others as being amongst upper classes.

Electric cars have been around since the 1830s. By 1900, more cars were powered by electricity than by gasoline. But electric cars, slow and with limited range, were largely replaced by the gas-powered internal combustion engine. So how did electric cars become cool again? Harnessing the power of the Veblen effect, Tesla transformed the perception of electric vehicles, making them fast, sexy and exotic. The original Tesla Roadster was available only in limited numbers, was purchased by many celebrities, executives and politicians—and they paid a premium for it. When the perception of electric vehicles had changed, Tesla extended the brand to include the affordable $35,000 Model 3, due out next year, with 400,000 pre-order deposits.

Universities provide a service—not a product—and yet, many have learned the hard way that parents and students equate the quality of their education with the price of tuition. Some schools have decreased the price of tuition in order to increase enrollment, only to find it resulted in the opposite effect. Reducing the price of tuition, decreases both the perceived quality of education offered by the school, and the prestige of the school itself—which correspondingly decreases demand. Conversely, when universities increase the price of tuition, student enrollment increases. To blunt the perception of price gouging, universities have increased the availability of financial aid.

The Veblen effect can also work in B2B marketing. Perhaps not to the same degree that it does with consumer marketing, but if the basic conditions exist, you can leverage the effect in both B2B and B2C, by branding and positioning your company as being clearly different from competitors, and by promoting associations with high status clients, or people. Invest in quality marketing materials that avoid the appearance of commoditizing products or services. And finally, set pricing high—based on the intangible aspects of the offering instead of its marginal cost.

how design selected potus

Designing forms is not the most glorious kind of design. And yet, I’ve always had a kind-of perverse interest in it. My first job after college was for a large, multi-national corporation. In connection with the design of a new identity program, I was given the rather mundane task of designing how the new logo would work on the multitude of forms the organization used.

With my recent Swiss school of design education still ringing in my ears, I proceeded to come up with a system that needed to accommodate an extraordinarily wide range of forms—different sizes, purposes and complexity. With Helvetica (not surprisingly) as the prime, I limited typographic sizes and weights, and instituted a system of rules and bars to organize and divide the information. It seemed to work. In fact, after a year or two, there appeared an entirely new department that did nothing but create new forms, following my established guidelines.

Designers have always sought to bring order and clarity to information as well as create visual form. My design education promoted the Bauhaus ideals of “form follows function” and “less is more”. There might be nowhere more appropriate for that than in information design. The forms I created were simple, with no unnecessary or decorative elements. In design-speak, the signal-to-noise ratio was high. The signal—meaning the information or message—is not diluted by unnecessary noise. The goal of good information design is to maximize signal and minimize noise, thereby creating a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Just this week, we started on a design project for a transportation company that publishes a rate card full of rows and columns, each filled with pricing information. The card must be functional, while at the same time, must also promote their services. In the initial meeting, one of our designers suggested the elimination of redundant data. Unnecessary elements should be avoided. Even necessary elements should be minimized to the extent possible without compromising function. I’m sure we will design grids and tables with thin or light lines, and open ends. Unfortunately, the default design of grids and tables in word processing and spreadsheet programs don’t automatically promote that. Every element in a design should be expressed to the extent necessary, but not beyond. Excess is noise.

The value of good information design cannot be overstated. Think about highway signage, income tax forms—and even presidential elections. Some have suggested that a few years ago, the most powerful man on earth came to his position due to bad information graphic design. In the presidential elections of 2000, the outcome came down to the swing state of Florida. In Palm Beach County, poor ballot design caused a misalignment of rows and punch-hole lines. Voters wanting to cast a ballot for Al Gore, second position in the left column, inadvertently punched the second position hole for third party candidate Pat Buchanan. The issue tied up election results for weeks and was only solved by the Supreme Court, who awarded Florida’s votes to George W. Bush.

The corporate forms I designed over 30 years ago certainly had no political consequence, but I was surprised recently when I saw that even though the logo had changed, the design format of the forms had remained consistent.


become a search engineer

We practice what we preach. Today I googled “branding Salt Lake City” and “branding Utah” and modern8 comes up #2 or #3. Same thing if searching for “graphic design.” If you google “branding for architects” nationally (one of our target markets) we land on the first page. Same with engineers or construction companies. How do we do that? Keep reading.

When was the last time you googled your company? Of course it comes up if you google your company name (if you fail that, you have real problems). Today, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine query. What are the search terms your potential customers are typing into Google? Those are the things you should be known for—the points that distinguish you.

We achieve our rank through content marketing. That’s industry jargon for giving your customers what they want. They’re searching for answers to their needs, problems they have to solve. All you need to do is give them what they’re looking for using searchable content.

Content is just part of an overall digital marketing ecosystem, but it is the central part. Social media, display advertising and paid search advertising (PPC/pay-per-click) are all strongly dependent on having something of value to link to.

Content marketing works equally well for B2B companies who sell professional services. Like our clients in the AEC industry (architects, engineering firms and construction companies) we don’t sell products, we sell our expertise. And yet most of those companies provide no educational content outside of their project descriptions. Photographs are nice, but they provide little to no searchable content.

You don’t need the world to love your company. You just need to attract the audience that is interested in your value proposition. What can you provide for them? Define that. Who is the target user? Define that as well. We typically define three primary motivations for users of websites we design. We even assign them personas, with demographics and user descriptions that identify the way they search. Classify people based on their needs.

Content is great for both referral marketing and search marketing. “But it is important that you clearly define your end goal and come to terms with the fact that your blog might not be your best venue”, says Tony Passey, CEO of Firetoss. “Content you write may serve a better purpose on LinkedIn, an industry forum, or as a guest writer somewhere.”

Content can be developed in multiple formats and can be consumed according to the preferences of your customer: blog posts, white papers, video, motion graphics, webinars and slide presentations. It’s not necessary to invent the wheel every time. Take one big idea and make many smaller content executions from it. You can also repurpose content and gain more impact. Use modified excerpts from white papers as blog posts or embed a slide show from your speaking engagement. Content written to intercept informational queries should be easy to consume, with imagery, headlines, sub-heads and excerpts to engage the short attention span of typical users.

You can’t expect people to magically find your content. As a matter of housekeeping, your content must be technically optimized, so it can be filed in the search engine index as a relevant and authoritative answer to the query. Further, you must market it.

Think of the last step as the Content Marketing Conversion Process. The goal, of course, is to increase revenue, not rankings. Pull people to your content with TwitterFacebookLinkedInInstagram and pay-per-click links. Push out to your target audience with email newsletters, digital display ads, retargeting ads and print ads. Consider specific landing pages that directly answer their search inquiry.

Lastly, convert them to a lead by offering something in return for their contact information. On our website, we want them to subscribe to our newsletter, which offers us an opportunity for interaction in a non-threatening engagement. Alternately you can offer white papers, free consultations, or demonstrations in exchange for their contact data. Analysis shows that the average user requires multiple interactions before they are motivated to call, email or contact.

a brand named trump

I wouldn’t vote for him if he was the last person on earth, but Donald Trump makes an interesting case study in digital dominance and brand building.

Trump has lasted far, far longer than anyone expected. His eminent collapse has been predicted by almost every established media outlet, over and over again, but here we are—just days before the New Hampshire primary, and he’s still in front. Outrageous comments and policies that would sink any other candidate only seem to embolden Trump’s followers.

I distinctly remember buying the book The Selling of the Presidentwhen I was in college, fascinated with the book cover depiction of then-candidate Richard Nixon on a package of cigarettes. At the time, it was shockingly revealing to suggest that Nixon was being sold (gasp) like a product. We’ve come a long way. Political candidates are now openly accepted as brands.

The January 18 issue of Time magazine postulates that Trump has used the same digital forces to upend civil life that Netflix did with Blockbuster, or that Craigslist did with newspaper  classifieds. There’s even a name for it: disintermediation. Simply put, it means taking out the middleman. In every instance, Trump “has sidestepped the middleman—party, press, pollsters and pooh-bahs—to sell his candidacy directly to voters,” says Time.

Technology has given the power of direct relationships to everyone and “The Donald” has nurtured more of those relationships than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Trump has three times as many Facebook likes than Cruz and 17 times as many as Bush. And he’s ahead of Clinton in Twitter, Instagram and Facebook popularity as well.

These social media relationships feel more intimate, more genuine than the relationships we get through intermediated channels like television, magazines and newspapers. Which might explain how Trump can get away with his often-outrageous comments. His followers already know him and therefore excuse him like an eccentric uncle.  Trump’s social media followers revel in the disruption of what they call “the lamestream media” and he plays into their attitude by frequently abusing his own traveling press corps.

It’s not likely that Trump’s lead in the polls is due to his platform. In fact, his platform is purposefully vague. His stump speeches rarely elaborate on how he’ll fix the problems besetting America. He talks more about his business successes than his specific plans as potential president. Which is exactly what you should do if you’re more about building your brand. Emphasize the emotional appeal. Skip the specifics.

While many voters don’t like Trump, his supporters’ still find him to be “straightforward,” “smart,” “strong” and “bold,” according to a study of perceptions conducted by the Kellogg School and Brand Imperatives. He is effectively leveraging the brand he built before the presidential race, during his days on “The Apprentice.”

Trump is an “outlaw” and a “creator”. When we are engaged for brand strategy, we use the well-accepted brand archetype methodology based on the psychology of Carl Jung. Most politicians fall into the all-knowing “rulers” or spread-the-wealth “caregivers” — but not Trump. He is better classified as an outlaw. He doesn’t follow the traditional rules of political engagement. As I write this today, Trump asserted that Ted Cruz “stole” Iowa. “A lot of people wish they could be that egotistical and get away with it,” says Edward Boches, professor of advertising at Boston University. “We’re not necessarily envious but enamored by that—the fact that someone can pull that off.”

Trump uses his business success as proof of his political credentials. Whether that’s an appropriate gauge is debatable, but he is a successful creator in the business world and many voters feel that there’s nothing he can’t conquer. “As a brand, the fact that he has success at such a high level, people probably think that that can translate into any endeavor that he takes on,” says Tor Myhren, worldwide chief creative officer of the ad agency Grey. “That’s very attractive to people.”

On the other hand, the original Trump brand—the name that adorns hotels, luxurious condos, books, cologne—has taken a major hit in the wake of his presidential campaign. For consumers who make six figures or more, the very people Trump’s businesses depend on, the value of the Trump brand is dropping precipitously. It’s a private company, so the the long-term effects will be difficult to know, but it’s likely to have a significant financial impact, affecting sales, borrowing, and recruiting.

Whether Trump has a job in the White House or keeps his regular, but now diminished gig, the take away for political candidates (and most other brands) is clear: Dominate social media. “Understand and engage your voter target, (even if it means you don’t appeal to everyone). Define a motivating benefit that solves a problem. Focus on just a few simple, concrete reasons to believe. Act in a distinctive and consistent way. Embrace unique policies other candidates won’t.” (Fortune, January 6, 2016)


the science of taglines

At the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year, Coca-Cola, the world’s 3rd largest brand in 2015 according to Interbrand, rolled out a brand new slogan to take over for the 7-year-old “Open Happiness” line. The sentence to grace their ads and packaging for the foreseeable future has been changed to “Taste the Feeling.”

To the untrained eye, this is just a line—barely even a sentence. Why is it such “big” news?

For clarification, a tagline is not a slogan. Julie Quick, head of insights and strategy at Shoptology in Texas said in an interview with, “Taglines tend to be about the company, whereas slogans tend to be more about the products, the marketplace, the consumer and a need met.” For example, Apple’s tagline is “Think Different” and their latest slogan for the iPhone 6S is “The only thing that’s changed is everything.”

Unfortunately, little research has been made public about how often companies in different industries change slogans and taglines, and whether or not the changes are effective.

The intent behind Coca-Cola’s new branding language is because of a change of strategy—to be centered more around the products as a whole rather than several campaigns for each Coke product. Now each product will use the same slogan, creating worldwide unity within the company unlike the famously clever Coke Zero ads, a story where Coke Zero executives wanted to take legal action against Coca-Cola for “stealing” their taste.

Why is all of this important? For the everyday person walking the street, it means very little besides the personal interpretation of what the “feeling” Coke is trying to invoke.

For businesses, it demonstrates a new bar of branding. Coke’s new slogan is airtight, especially for being only three words. It leaves a majority of interpretation in the hands of customers. It also guarantees a brand experience every time the bottle is brought to their lips. By allowing the new slogan to be directed by the strategy of unifying the products on the brand level, it brings down cost of marketing significantly—instead of paying for several different campaigns for several different products, they only have to pay for one.

Their ads are (in my obviously solicited opinion) better, too. “Under Pressure,” featured in AdWeeks’s article about the change, helps position Coke as a central force in the everyday lives of their audience, showing that the taste rewards them with the same feeling of successfully completing a long-sought-after task.

Not to say Coke is the only company to follow this strategy—a lot of lifestyle companies do, too. In the future, however, other companies will follow suit by pulling ideas inward to the overall brand level, focusing less on the products as individual entities.

Every brand has the opportunity to stand out on their own, learning from brands like Coke-Cola and the other leaders in brand and advertising innovation. Modern8 is Salt Lake City’s own brand architects, and can help you make changes to your brand, small and large, so you can compete with the brand-verse around you. We invite you to check out our work to see how we can help you.

people buy why

In a recent engagement for brand strategy, I was interviewing a client and asked the question, “Other than making money, why was this business created?” What followed was a lot of stammering and stuttering, and finally the frank admission—there was no other reason—the pursuit of the almighty dollar was simply it.

That was quite a contrast with the conversation I had a few weeks ago with Cody Derrick, founder of cityhomeCOLLECTIVE. Over lunch, Cody told me the story of why he founded his company. Not “how” he founded his company—but “why”.

Cody was considering starting his company in another city, somewhere with more cachet than Salt Lake City. Interestingly the decision came about in conversation with an exasperated therapist who asked, “Cody, what do you want?”

“My most honest reaction was that I wanted to build cityhomeCOLLECTIVE in Salt Lake City”, Cody related. “I wanted to be inspired by those other cities, but I wanted to create it here. I grew up in Salt Lake City, surrounded by the mountains, where I have my friends, my family. The people in this city are so special. All I have to do is re-create the city to become something new. It’s way easier than getting 40 friends and family to move somewhere else”.

If you’re a member of the AIGA in Salt Lake, you’re familiar with cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, because they are a major sponsor. But if you’re like me, I didn’t know what they did—at least not at first. The AIGA is the professional association for design, so typical sponsors are printers, stock photos and paper distributors. But cityhomeCOLLECTIVE is a primarily a real estate broker. As it says in funky neon on their prestigious South Temple address, “We sell houses.”

“I feel very strongly about how much the space around us affects us”, said Cody. “Our interior space, our neighborhood, the city, the state—how can we make this a more beautiful place to live? Whether it’s the city itself or our interior home, it’s all space. How can we attract others with a common goal? How can we get Salt Lake to become more open-minded, more accepting, and not have to leave the city because it’s too conservative. We crave this city and we’re willing to work for it.”

All of this contributes to a much bigger mission than a typical real estate broker, admits Cody. The COLLECTIVE’s manifesto is posted on their website, and it’s powerful. “For all its idiosyncrasies and backward notions, Salt Lake City has nabbed our hearts. Our collective commitment to its betterment and growth is as good as temple-sealed. We’re not critics, we’re advocates,” it begins.

Cody’s story of why he founded cityhomeCOLLECTIVE matches the strategy of the now famous TED talk of Simon Sinek, who said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

“Why do you support the AIGA?” I asked, “We’re just a bunch of poor designers. There doesn’t seem to be any direct correlation.” Cody responded, “When the manifesto is strong enough, you’ll make decisions on what to support, by what the manifesto says. We want to support the arts, graphic design, interior design, artists, makers, creators. If we see an organization that supports that, so do we. It doesn’t matter what their income is. Whether they can they afford to buy a house never crosses our minds. So many people think I’m nuts. I don’t focus on my ROI, I don’t care. It’s supporting the mission, contributing to the city.”

“The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have”, says Sinek in his TED talk, “the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” Clearly, people believe in cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, who regularly sells homes in the seven-digit range, who has 15,000 Facebook followers, and 60,000 unique visitors to their website a month, from 200 countries, with an average bounce rate of 3.5 minutes.

The COLLECTIVE is a prodigious disseminator of outbound marketing. Unfailingly, every Friday morning, they send an email with a lead article, and four supporting stories. Each story is accompanied by gorgeous photography and witty copy. “There has to be a commitment to the cost of doing it right, or you probably shouldn’t do it.” I nearly always open their email and I’m not even looking for a new home. A recent property description read, “If houses were Saved By The Bell characters, this one’s Zack Morris. If casas were aged rock gods, we’ve got your Mick Jagger.”

Together with a continuous stream on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, I asked who puts all this stuff together. “We do. It’s crazy to have a real estate agency staffing an entire in-house advertising agency, but it works and we all contribute.” The company has about 30 on staff (“a motley crew and family of misfits”) half are agents, but also included are writers, a photographer, and an editor who fashions the voice and personality that is so evident.

Not withstanding an emphasis on modern communication techniques, cityhome has spent a significant amount on traditional print media, local newspapers, the New York Times regional edition, and local magazines. The approach is the same. “You pay so much to create good content; you have to be able to provide something that’s valuable.”

One of the value adds for cityhome is interior design. Originally provided as a pre-sales service, to stage the home before a photo shoot, it soon went beyond that. “What if we could tear this wall down, paint it this color… I was talking through it, suggesting we need to get more light, etc. There never has been a time when interior design and staging weren’t also associated with cityhomeCOLLECTIVE. Adding design as a fee for service was natural because of who we are. We’re passionate about advertising, marketing—the creative brain. For me, there was no way that I would feel satisfied just selling houses. It had to include marketing, advertising and design. From the outside, it might seem crazy that I have designers and photographers. To me, it makes perfect sense. I’m just following my passion.”

For cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, why they’re in business is pretty clear, it’s their four-word tagline: “Love where you live.”

why perception branding?

Your brand is not who you say it is, it’s what they say it is. We preach these words of Marty Neumeier’s, author of The Brand Gap to almost every one of our clients. Have you stopped to think about what your consumers say your brand is? We believe that consumer perception is everything. And perception is within your control.

We know that when companies are successful in developing a brand that focuses on what consumers want in a product, or service, success follows. Consumers will fall in love with your brand, trust your brand, buy your brand, and become ambassadors of your brand.

Consumer perceptions influence behavior, and behavior influences final sales.

When a high level of perceived quality has been (or can be) created, raising the price of your product or service not only provides margin dollars but also aids perceptions. Strong brands command a price premium. A cup of Starbucks coffee is a case in point.

The first step in creating an effective brand is to develop a brand strategy. This is the first goal in our 5d Perception Branding Process. Effective brand strategy provides a central ideal around which all behavior, actions, and communications are connected. We believe that if an effective brand strategy is developed and communicated, it will deflect the competition and differentiate you from all others.

Our goal of the 5d Perception Branding Process is to do just that. Differentiate you from your competition. We like to find what we call, the “Only Only”. The only thing you can claim that your competitors can’t. The competitive advantage and unique value proposition that is yours. And yours alone.

We are designers here at modern8 by background and training, and have a beautiful portfolio just like our competitors. But we recognized is that our clients were asking for something more than just design. They wanted to stand out, to lead the competition, to win. They wanted a brand. So in 2002, we created the 5d Perception Branding Process. We use this to help our clients define their brand position, brand promise, brand personality, and brand identity.

There are 5 steps in this process as the name suggests: Discover, Distill, Depict, Design, and Deploy. The first three steps are the strategic steps. The steps we take to really understand your brand and your objectives. These become your brand strategy. Or brand story. After we have completed these first three steps, we really feel like we understand who you are and who you are trying to reach, and now feel ready to carry those through to d4: design. We feel that to achieve the best design, we need to marry it with the brand strategy. We use the brand strategy as a litmus test against all of the touchpoints we create in d4. From logos, to trade shows, to websites, we use this process to send the right messages to the right audience.

The last stage, d5: deploy, is when the hard work really begins. We guide you through the launch of your brand identity and management of your assets. It is essential that your brand identity has enough resources and support to achieve it’s potential. We provide those for you.

Look for our upcoming series of blog posts where we take an in-depth look at the steps and outcomes of each “d” of our Perception Branding Process. First up, d1:Discover.

teaching design

I’m going to teach class today at the modern8 office. This semester it’s the seniors and the class is Identity Systems and Branding. Normally of course, I’m on campus at the University of Utah where I’ve taught as an adjunct professor in Graphic Design for over 25 years. I’ve got a great classroom on campus with the latest technological tools. It’s not going to be nearly as nice in our small office.

But I think it’s important to bring the students here. I come to academics as a practitioner, that is—I don’t teach for a living—I run a design firm. The difference is likely apparent in the way I teach. In class, I’m constantly showing off a project we did at the office, talking about a client we had, or a problem we faced. They are real world experiences and that’s probably good. At the same time, I have the same self-doubts that anybody does. I frequently worry about the first few years I taught, particularly in my History of Graphic Design class, where I was reading just one chapter ahead of my students. I also keep thinking that I should be doing research, putting on exhibitions, applying for grants or writing academic papers. I don’t do that, I’m too busy at the office.

And yet I like teaching. It keeps you young and exposes you to cultural references you wouldn’t otherwise encounter—an important attribute for graphic designers (particularly when most of the students are younger than my own children). Teaching design influences my own design. I see new ideas. I am forced to articulate my own ideas. I align with a statement by Phillip Meggs, an author of one of my textbooks, who said regarding teaching, “I found it to be a magical yet challenging experience. Teaching a creative endeavor is a difficult balancing act—imparting information, coaching and critiquing without destroying the student’s confidence, and trying not to impose your vision onto the student’s work.”

I believe there are some students who learn more from classmates than from teachers. I’ve arranged for the students of this class on branding to be very interactive with their peers. The class often acts as the “client”—making selections, indicating preferences. I also require the students to present and speak in front of the “client”, forcing them to become familiar with the vocabulary of marketing.

I have been guilty in the past of giving out one-shot design problems—a series of unconnected assignments based on applications, like a poster, a logo, packaging, advertisements, etc. I structured this class to be just the opposite. It is, in essence, a single semester-long project. The students select a Utah public corporation, research the company, its history, marketing materials and competition. They determine a positioning strategy, propose a new name and three conceptual directions based on the strategy. With input from the “client” the students create a new identity, apply it to different applications from a business card to a website and then design a brand standards manual.

In this class, the students have to write—an exercise that doesn’t always come easily to those who are primarily used to visually-based thinking. They must write the results of research and strategic recommendations and compose brand guidance. As seniors, the students have reached the professional stage. That is, the abstract, principle-based exercises that are the main component of the sophomore level classes have been replaced by an emphasis on concept and problem-solving; an assignment that is much like what one would encounter in a professional situation. As seniors that’s appropriate. To often, early design students are too eager to move beyond the very important abstract, theoretical stage.

While it may be helpful, I’m certain that it’s not necessary for every graphic design teacher to be a good designer, let alone a practicing professional—only that they be a good teacher. I’m not sure where I stand on those counts, but I’m certain that I’ve grown in the process and I hope that some of my students have as well.

design by committee

Just last week, a client told us, “I know the danger of design by committee, we’ll avoid that.” Everyone believes that design by committee is bad. Even Wikipedia unequivocally says “design by committee is a disparaging term used to describe a project that has many designers involved but no unifying plan.” If you have a group tasked with a design project, everyone seems to feel that an opinion not expressed is a tragedy avoided. The epitome of the problem is expressed in the oft-quoted saying, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.”

Conversely, it’s generally believed that good design occurs most frequently when you have an autocratic, Steve Jobs-like leader, who authoritatively demands that all bend to his tastes. The notion of an alpha leader is romantically appealing, but the belief that great design is only possible with a dictator is more myth than reality.

Truth is, nearly all modern design—at some level—is design by committee. In our work, not only do we have the client, which includes at least the marketing team (not to mention the CEO), but even at our office, designers consult with each other. And the actual job title of the creative director implies “committee design”.

There are exceptions to the common concept of design by committee. Starchitects, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter, are often designers whose celebrity circumvents committee design. Such was the case for the original design of the building to take the place of the World Trade Center towers. It was a strikingly original concept by Daniel Libeskind. But given the need for stakeholder buy-in and the consequences of anything less than perfect being simply unacceptable, the project was destined to be designed by committee. Political activists, commercial, security, and engineering concerns all affected the original design. Libeskind’s idiosyncrasies were averaged out in the end—a standard by-product of design by committee. It may be argued that the final design of the building is visually less interesting, but it can also be argued that the final design is a superior solution, because it meets the needs of everyone.

On the other hand, design committees can be taken to an extreme. Apple is known for avoiding focus groups and marketing research. When creating the iPad, Steve Jobs was asked about the market research that went into creating it. Jobs responded, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” It’s like the quote by Henry Ford on the inside cover of our bound brand books: “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Design by dictator works well under some circumstances. If the design project is straightforward, time is tight and stakeholder buy-in inconsequential, then dictators can get things done. But recognize that it’s risky and prone to errors. The customary safety nets and error correction of committee design is absent. Know also that bad dictators are probably as common as good dictators.

Academic treatises and popular literature support the power of group and committee-based decision making (see The Wisdom of Crowds). If the design project is quality-driven and it’s important to have stakeholder acceptance, then go with some form of design by committee. It’s best if the working committee is only 3–4 members and the approval committee no more than 12 members. The result may be slow and iterative, but by most critical measures, it will be more successful with less overall risk of failure.