10 Things I Learnt From 10 Things They Learnt. 

ny-heart

Loving my Bristol home right now! There are so many great people around and about in our design community here, and getting out amongst them is throwing up such brilliant encouragement at the moment.

Last night in an upstairs bar somewhere in Bristol, a bunch of designer-types old and new got together and under twinkly, dimmed lights with drinks in hand, we heard from 10 local design heroes, 10 things they’d each learnt along the way that had seen them through thick and thin. We were there to celebrate West of England Design Forum’s 10th Birthday – WEDF pours such a lot of good stuff out into our creative midst, so I headed out to join the party and listen to some thoughtful gems. It was just lovely.

Each person who stood up spoke wisdom, confessed to messing up quite a lot, they made us laugh, they rapped, and showed us scans of their unborn children, and amidst all this vulnerability they did what really good designers do and gave us some proper gorgeous things to focus on. Many of these ideas resonated, so in the clear air this morning I sifted out my favourites, that I can say are also true for me too. (Please forgive my lack of credits, hopefully I can add these in due course. See note at the end.)

Here goes – my top ten of the ten top tens:

  1. Keep perspective.
    ‘No one died because of bad kerning/weird typeface’ etc.

    It’s true. In my BBC years, I once had a Natural History director storm out of an edit suite because he didn’t like the shade of blue I’d chosen for arrows on a map of ocean currents, and having nearly missed my granny’s funeral to get it done in time for transmission, there wasn’t time to remake it. As he flounced out and slammed the door, I was left standing in front of the Series Producer, biting my lip very hard trying to not cry. Oh dear! Probably one of my earliest lessons in how and why not to be a massive control freak.

  2. Humility can be helpful.
    See point 1, and remember that while it’s hugely important to fight for your ideas, being able to listen and learn is just as important. I’m not sure a need to be right opens up anything new.

    Curiosity, centre stage please!

  3. Speculate; have fun making personal work.
    Just go ahead and make that piece of work, just because you love the story and believe in the cause. You’ll learn something about yourself, and you may also just make that new connection you’ve dreamed about. My film ‘Tree Wisdom’ was a (sort of) case in point. It was a commission, but a totally open brief, and it’s proved so helpful in starting up new conversations.

    Chase an idea – you never know what adventure it’ll take you on.

  4. Be devoted.
    Get really good at your thing by doing it with such love, and give all the great ideas in you their best chance of life. I love looking at, or holding in my hands, the work of brilliant craftspeople, who spend years refining their skills.

    One from the aesthetic brigade – I really do believe that if you want us to think carefully about something, then make us want to look at it. Make it exquisite.

  5. Don’t forget the importance of your back yard.
    I really liked this way of describing the thing we all know but struggle to manage. Your ‘front yard’ is the polished, online space where your best work is featured – the well-presented 10% that gives everyone a passing impression. But it’s the much bigger back yard where the real stuff happens, the many more hours of play and discovery that really shape you. Don’t underestimate this space. Enjoy it, and celebrate that too!

    I went to a talk by Lisa Congdon a while ago, and asked her about sharing work online and vulnerability – she’s so prolific, and puts so much out there direct from a sketchbook, hard to believe she leaves anything out and imagine how much courage that takes. She doesn’t put everything out there, but the point is that this particular ‘back yard’ sees so much devoted action, what comes out of it is all the more beautifully, attractively real for it.

  6. Keep skills fresh by learning on every job. 
    Challenge yourself to acquire new technical skills with each project you do. It’s to budget and deadline, so you have the (helpful) pressure of it needing to be just right! I do this on all my animation projects, and I’ll never keep up with the best of After Effects nerds, but I remember point no.4 and try my best, and feel excited by new things.

    But…

  7. Don’t worry about being crap at technical skills. 
    Even if you were ‘around at the birth of Illustrator’ (or even—ahem—Pagemaker, on one of these anyone? Please say yes…) technical skills aren’t the be-all and end-all. You can learn these in time, but ideas are your true gold, and must come first.

    Good drawing skill with a pencil is the best companion you can give to your ideas, at least to begin with.

  8. Follow your gut instinct.
    It’s your business, and whatever advice you receive, you do know, deep down, what you want. Resigning from that previously-mentioned BBC job was a huge leap of instinctive faith, and few people really understood why I did it. Made no sense to anyone. But I’m still here, my smile is much bigger these days, and the quality of my work is so much better too.

    And yet…

  9. Seek counsel and advice from the older, wiser design owls.
    Those who have been there and done it have a lot of gold to share.

    Finally:

  10. If it gives you wings, even if you’re ‘an 11 year old white kid from Leicester’, it’s okay to rap like a lovely, obsessed geek. Honestly, this guy sums just about everything on this list list right up. Such a sweetie.

 

Not complicated, but real, and honest, and I’m very grateful to be amongst these lovely people trying to figure out how to keep things moving with bucketloads of style.

Big thanks to all you wonderful speakers, and hopefully WEDF will share a list of who you are again because, I’ll be honest, I’d had some wine and my brain wasn’t taking detailed notes. Here’s to the next 10 years!

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: SBTRKT – Pharaohs}

Making Your Film

Having the inspiration to make a film or animation for your business is exciting. A gorgeous, emotive film with a strong message can be an absolutely fabulous, sharable piece of content that causes a real stir and helps you connect with people in just the way you want.

More than that.

If it comes from a truly heartfelt place then it gives us a piece of you and what you feel and believe about the world, and that is gold when you’re trying to communicate your ideas to us all.

When not to make that film

People often come to me asking about making a film, and I always see how it would work, with bells on.

More than words. It’s visceral.

But often I’ve been with people on the journey as the commitment of making a film causes quite a rethink. It brings up some really good questions, worth asking before any big commitment of your time and money that will go into making a film or animation:

What do I actually believe? 

Will I still believe that in a couple of years? 

Will people sit through 2 or 3 minutes of my film, or am I better in direct conversation with a postcard version of my manifesto to give them? 

I know the first part of my story, but I’m just not sure where this ends. Am I better off working on a short eBook?

How about a blog series over a few months with some illustrations, while I knuckle out my plans?

Facing these questions may feel like a massive roadblock, but fear not. It’s totally normal, and to be expected if you’re thinking properly about your visual communication. It’s something I’ve chatted through loads while partnering with people on the design adventure. It’s wise to ask questions and the thinking you do now will set you up even better for your future marketing and revolutionising!

Yes, a film is a totally fabulous thing to make – when you’re ready for it. Before you go racing ahead on that, think about—and enjoy—all the other rich forms of visual content at your fingertips that are less of a commitment while you figure out your sound thinking.

There are all sorts of alternatives to making a film in the early stages of getting your message out, which over time will prove invaluable.

Never make a film just for the sake of it, because everyone else is doing one.

Above all, here’s the most important thing to hang on to:

If you are creating pieces that help you connect with people in a real way, and which truly help proper, meaningful conversation to happen, then it’s always going to be worth your investment.

how to engage with a designer : pt1



Sometimes the thought of talking to a designer or agency about your visual stuff just feels tricky. It shouldn’t. 

Whether you’ve had experience working with designers before, or are new to the game, what’s best to focus on when weighing up design services on offer? I reckon connecting person to person has a massive amount to do with helping your communication mission taking off smoothly right from the start.

I outlined some key things to think about in a previous post. Here, I’ll concentrate on the emotional aspects of these initial chats, that can so often get forgotten about but which I think drive our projects. 

Today’s focus is on the heartfelt considerations in choosing the right person to work with.

First of all, are they proven? 
Simple (perhaps obvious) one to start off – do you like their online portfolio and does it show their relevant skill? If it gets your heart going that’s a really good thing! 
 
You may get excited by examples of their work and see something you feel really speaks your language. That’s obviously a good sign. An emotional response means that their way of saying things is visually resonating somewhere deep down, and is a potentially powerful tool for getting your message across too.
Visual language can connect in a heartbeat. Listen to that.
 
Some designers have a distinct style, and it may or may not hit the right notes for you. That’s okay – not everyone goes for the same things, the way not everyone likes the same music. 
 
Perhaps you found them through referral, so what do others say? 
 
 
Second, what does their biography say? 
Check out their track record on a biography page. Is it rounded, relevant and interesting? 
Someone with a bit of life experience will not be phased by twists and turns that inevitably go with building a business, and the changing demand on your brand design or visual content as a result. 
Awards? Well, yes of course they are nice, but they aren’t everything. I say this having won a few awards, and also spent years being out and about making adventurous projects happen too, so can definitely see both sides here.
 
Sometimes people with the most interesting life stories will bring just the perspective you need to make good decisions about your communication. 

Remember, this is about character. Do they have it, and do you like it?
Next is empathy.
Do not underestimate the value of empathy.
 

Do they get you? Do you get them? Do you like them? 

Once you have met up, have they listened to you, and asked relevant questions that help get to the heart of the matter? 

On the unusual and non-linear orbit of design and visual communication, having personal empathy for one another will really help in negotiating the right course.
And do you respect each other?
 

Choose to believe that that great biography counts for a lot, that they really know their stuff about how humans communicate, and are also willing to talk to you about that in plain english! 

However, in the middle of this, are you reassured that they understand and respect your expertise, challenges, market, audience, budget? This is so important.

Mutual respect for the expertise you both bring will carry you an awful long way. Be prepared to ask vulnerable questions and listen out for wise insights they offer in response. 

 
To jointly realise those dreams for your business, showing trust and being able to let go a little will be important, but it goes both ways. Do aim to meet face to face, at least with a video call if not in person. We all pick up more than we imagine this way. And finally…
Don’t be bowled over by swagger and bullshit. Please. The world will be a much better place without that.
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So to sum up:

Does their work make your heart beat faster?
Do you like their character?
Do you empathise with each other?
Do you respect each other?

And DON’T be bowled over by arrogance.

When I think of my favourite projects of all time, respect and empathy have been mutually present all the way through, and have been crucial to overcoming hurdles along the way. 

I’ll pick up in my next post to talk about some of more practical considerations, such as budget and project management. In the meantime, enjoy the soundtrack and do get in touch with thoughts, questions or useful experiences – it’s always good to swap notes then we design people can learn how to do it better.

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“Sometimes you feel so deserted,
but hold on ’cause help’s on the way”

{Today’s Soundtrack: The Chemical Brothers – Sometimes I Feel So Deserted}

_how to commission a designer


Wouldn’t it be nice if we all talked the same language. 

When asking the advice of an expert, ever get that feeling we’re on different planets? 

I think about this a lot, aware of the uncomfortable times people have come to me and apologised up front for not having ‘the design jargon’. (That’s not necessary, by the way.) 

“Am I asking all the right questions? Can I trust this advice? How much??’
Design-land, and talking to designers, feels like alien territory to lots of smart people who need their help. Why is that? 
Maybe because we design folk don’t think in straight lines, solutions come from all angles, and the process seems unpredictable to many. It can look from the outside as if we’re just making things up. Well, there’s the weird thing – we are making things up, but I hope in an informed and insightful way. 

Good visual communication is about lateral ideas, making something out of nothing, creating useful focal points in an empty space. It’s all about making things up, in a good way, and it’s a wonderful, problem-solving thing to be able to do.

How, then, do you engage with this person and come to trust in a strange process? How do you gain confidence in a designer you don’t know?
Simply, at least in an enquiry and the early conversations when you’re thinking about commissioning someone, I believe it boils down to the following checklist: 

  • Are they proven – what is their online portfolio like, and do you like it? 
  • Is their biography interesting and relevant? Do they come with some life experience?
  • Do you share an empathy for one another’s mission?
  • Is there mutual respect between you as you find out about one another’s expertise?
And then practical things like: 
  • Budget – what can you expect for your cash?
  • Project management – are processes fair and efficient both ways? 
  • Deadlines – setting and keeping them.
  • And finally, do you actually like them?!
In the interests of interplanetary relations, I’ll go into each of these things in more detail through a couple of linked posts to follow, but it may be handy to keep these questions close to hand next time you want to talk to a design person about your design needs
Do keep in touch and let us know if you have experiences that would be useful to share with others about all this. I’ll leave you for now with a topical soundtrack, and wish you every success as you chart your design journeys!
{Today’s Soundtrack: David Bowie – Life on Mars}


_benefits of good design

The time has come. After working long and hard to start your business, after taking a brave leap to realise this new dream, devoting months, possibly years, to polish raw thought into clear shape, you know your new business venture really deserves to look its best when you launch into a world that badly needs it. 
You know good design and a strong brand is important for getting your message across, but can you put your finger on why? 
To give you something to hang on to, here are my five top reasons good design will set you apart.
1. Good Style
It is so important to present your business in a way you know is true to you and your mission. Your good visual style begins here, to match your good thinking, smart thinking, with appealing character – all characterised in your visual communication. 
Style is about character and personality. Fashion is about fad and trend. They are not the same. 
Done well, good design style always transfers beautifully across all materials you use in the day to day of your business. Business cards and web banners are just the tip of the iceberg, but good style can come through on anything you use to communicate with your audience because it’s based on something true that comes from the heart. And it also has flexibility to adapt – so basically, your perfect capsule wardrobe that goes to work in all sorts of scenarios. 


Paying attention to good design means you always show up in really good—and appropriate—style, because you know yourself, and you know your audience. 

2. It’s about Personality
A well-thought-through approach to your design and visual communication gives you plenty of scope for getting your personality across. Good design should give the world a sense of you and what you stand for, so whether someone has a quick glance at your business card or a longer read through an eBook or slideshare, they get a feel for the type of character and attitude inherent in your business. 
3. Coherent Communications

I’ll say it again. Good brand design should be transferrable across many platforms and materials. I’ve mentioned web and business cards, and consider too – proposals, blog illustrations, training material, the book you’re writing. These can all work really well for you with a strategic approach to the design. What about the signage at that annual ideas camp you’re dreaming about hosting, or the campervan-freindly stickers you want to give out

Think about the stretch – how far will your company reach?

The folk at DO have a very simple approach, but they do it so well. And I like Pie Minister too (obviously). You can always spot both of these a mile off, whether a bookshelf at ten paces, or food-stall banner at a busy festival. 

Coherent design plans mean all elements clearly live in the same visual family. Not to say they all look identical – different formats are used for different reasons, but it’s important they all work together. 
Your audience should always know they are looking at your stuff. 
4. It Helps People Believe You

Done well, consistently, and over time, good design helps people to believe you – your message, your passion, your integrity and conviction, and commitment to making the world a better place. It’s consistent with the key principles of good content marketing, which says wherever you speak, whenever you speak, do so in a consistent voice.

Of course, there are many more things that go into the mix, but without good design woven all the way through, well, it’s like buying a campervan and only using it for the school run.

Benefiting you and your message, and helping your audience know what to expect from you, good design really does set you apart and give you distinction by communicating in the voice only you have. 

Good design can be a mark of integrity.


And finally,


5. More than words

Sometimes an idea is so much more powerful seen visually, with a great image or some cracking typography.

Think of a painting or image you’ve seen that made an instant impression, held you glued, gazing, with no verbal explanation necessary.
I have a little fridge magnet on the radiator next to my desk, bought at the National Portrait Gallery during their Lucian Freud exhibition a few years ago. What he’d make of a fridge magnet I don’t know, but I love the quote:

“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.”

Visual communication can do these things for us too, if done well. 


So that’s it. Hold on to these five gems, they’ll help you make good decisions as you grow your company’s design.



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If you’ve found this post helpful, you may also be interested in these articles: 
• My friends over at Valuable Content flesh out some of my suggestions with super-practical advice
• And in more detail, here is Newflangled with some Content styling tips