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Year in Review: What Got Shipped

It’s easy for some of us to pass by each minor, or even major, accomplishment and, instead, revisit the list of what still hasn’t been done. Or started. Worse is doing what’s not on the list. That is, if you want to be able to check something off.

The year 2010 was one of self-generated projects. It was a year of deliberately stepping back a bit from work, for better or worse, to reassess who I was doing business with, what kind of work I was doing, and where I wanted to go. It seemed natural, if not exactly planned, to follow where my desire led. Which meant allowing ideas to flourish just a little before tromping all over them. We creatives are masters at self mutilation.

At Seth Godin’s urging, I put together a partial list of what I accomplished this year. According to Godin:

Doesn’t matter whether it was a hit or not, it just matters that you shipped it. Shipping something that scares you (and a lot of what follows did) is the entire point.

In no particular order, a baker’s dozen:

1. Worked with 3 new clients.

2. Became a partner in a new business venture, responsible for branding and marketing strategy.

3. Took the World Changing Writing Workshop and got exposed to some daring, authentic, interesting writers. It left me inspired and supported, if virtually.

4. Had a story published in Smithsonian magazine’s Food & Think blog.

5. Developed communications and helped plan events for AIGA Portland’s Sustainable Design Initiative.

6. Contributed to the collaborative book “The Portland Bottom Line“—sustainability stories from small businesses. Profits support MercyCorps NW.

7. Started a yearlong personal project of illustrated logs of my fresh produce purchases, comparing how I spend my money on local versus non-local produce.

8. Wrote 8 blog posts for the Portland Farmers Market.

Hearty Greens 8 Ways to Sunday
Hazelnuts: A Complete Nut
Solace of Soup
Sponsor Profile: Food Front Cooperative Grocery
The Frenzy of Late Summer Eats
Love Ripens at the Market
Getting Raabed
Kids Cook…If You Let Them

9. Wrote 31 blog posts on design, food and the meaning of life.

10. Finally retired my old G5 Mac that has served me well, and committed to a laptop so I can work everywhere, all the time!

11. Created 15 paintings, mostly abstracted nature, something I haven’t done in years.

12. Gave myself an end-of-year gift to attend Compostmodern conference in San Francisco in January 2011, covering sustainable design practices.

13. Attended WordCamp Portland, which got me excited about redesigning Allegro Design using WordPress. I only got as far as a face lift that puts News and Featured Projects on the home page—a major accomplishment for the self-employed!


What did you accomplish? Give it a shot, publicly or privately. Make a list of 13 things you shipped in 2010. If you don’t know what they are, ask a good friend or colleague to point them out.

May 2011 bring even more. Cheers!

The best laid plans…

…of mice and men go oft awry (English translation) from a poem by Robert Burns called “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” It was the inspiration for the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. 

This is just another way of suggesting we live in the present, a practice that is worthy if only because, as implied above, we have little control over outside circumstances that can conspire to cheat us of our desired results.

That’s not always a bad thing, and it may even better than achieving our primary goal. But most of us are so focused on the hoped-for prize that we don’t notice we might have gotten something even better by not getting the prize. This is true whether it’s taking a trip, planting a garden or drawing a picture.

Often we are so sure what our primary goal is, and for good reason. Some situations depend on good planning and intended result. Without them, we  might be acting carelessly. But assuming there is nothing huge at stake, how often do you find yourself focusing on what went wrong when you don’t get what you intended?

After a grueling breakup, for example, when you’ve picked up the pieces of your life, you might realize you are much better off. In fact, maybe the ending of that relationship caused you to try something you’d always wanted to do. We all know that what seems bad at first, naturally diminishes with time. And that any situation has its costs as well as its rewards. This is not to suggest that living on the street, for example, is preferable to living in a house. But living in a house does come with responsibilities like fixing leaky roofs and paying utility bills.

All things are not equal. But not all things are as unequal as we think.

Appropriate mourning and adjustment periods aside, what if we recognized not six months or a year later that we aren’t so bad off, but in the moment? What if we remembered that there is always a positive outcome, even if we don’t quite know what it is going to be at that moment?

If you’ve ever been a slump after losing a major project or been annoyed that your trip to Venice was derailed because of train strike, you probably know the amount of negative mental energy you expended. Perhaps this lasted only a few minutes. Other times our obsessive thoughts last hours or even days. But losing that major project might have meant a summer free from working nights and weekends to meet a crazy deadline. Not making it to Venice might have meant discovering an untrammeled little town with phenomenal food.

To some, brushing off unintended results might be second nature. But to others, the primary aim might often seem like a non-negotiable. This idea hit home to me when I first started becoming aware that all undesirable situations have some positive outcome. Once I realized that the secondary results were as good or perhaps better than the primary goal (which are almost always different from one another and, therefore, easy to miss), I started paying more attention.

Then I began putting the idea into action before the primary goal (say, winning a major project) was in sight. I found that simply because of that mental shift—that reminder that if I didn’t get A, then (unknown) B will happen—the amount of obsessing over the loss was greatly diminished. Don’t get me wrong, I still get very disappointed. Often it’s at those small irritations in life, like a store being closed when you most need something. 

But since life almost seems to guarantee that our best laid plans will go awry, a little practice in non-attachment can go a long way. You never know which unintended goodie you’re missing while you’re spending your time kicking yourself.

Design Briefs: Don’t Get Caught Without Them

Starting a project without a design brief is like setting out on a backpacking trip with no map or compass…only worse. There’s really no harm in wandering aimlessly in the wilderness if you have no destination and there’s no fear of getting lost. (This might be called fine art though.)

But while no parameters might sound like every designer’s dream, this approach is a recipe for failure for both sides but in different ways. The designer shoulders too much responsibility for designing in a vacuum and the client risks getting watered-down ideas and faces avoidable costs down the road.

What is a design brief exactly and who creates it?

• A brief can come from the client but a designer usually has their own and will initiate a discovery process.

• It can consist of 3 questions or 10, depending on the project and the person.

• It’s best to be done in person, via Skype or over the phone so that you can be challenged to provide bold, unambiguous answers.

• The brief will define the why, who, how, what and when of the project.

• It addresses the specific results you want to achieve.

Why people avoid it and why you should embrace it.

Shaping what doesn’t exist is harder than reacting to what you see. But your business is unique. You want to start going in the direction that leads to you and not start at a point that leads to every business like yours. A designer who guesses who you are without your valuable input is, well, guessing.

Underestimating the value of your values. And for that matter, why you exist, who you most want to serve and why you’re different from the competition. Design can be a murky, mysterious process that leads you to think your input doesn’t shape the design. Not whether you like red or want a key in your logo, but how your values, mission or aspirations lead the designer to ideas that define you—the most important signposts along the designer’s path. Your task as a client is to get as comfortable with murky as you can.

When you’re eager to see ideas it’s tempting to skip the planning. Your excitement is understandable. Your project might also be long overdue or the key decision makers are too busy to give input. When a brief is finally approved, the designer passes “go.” That’s when the creative juices start flowing and the most important work is done. You don’t want to go backtrack later because you took steps in the wrong direction at the beginning.

Self examination is hard but leads to a stronger brand. It’s this discovery phase where you say who you are, but also also who you are not. If that seems like shutting doors, keeping too many open can lead to a confusing and bland identity.

A reluctance to believe that good design is good business. We all have a different view of what makes good design. Start with someone in your camp who truly wants to see you succeed. That way, you can trust them to take leaps you might otherwise not feel comfortable with. Good design doesn’t just look good, it’s also about the right tools and how they function.

Here’s another post about working with a design brief, and another.


(Image credit: Flickr creative commons / John ‘K’)

The Gift of Saying No

Sometimes saying no is a benefit to both parties.

A LinkedIn post lamenting requests for cheap work called to mind what many of us forget, especially in a bad economy, or else during a long dry spell of romance. We forget what we value, we forget our standards, we forget what we’re worth. Or maybe we forgot to consider those things in the first place.

A tight economy or even naysayers can conspire to make us operate on a scarcity model, one that dictates that we take what comes our way—in case nothing else does. We feel we have to say yes to work that we can’t afford to say yes to but believe we can’t afford not to. We have to put food on the table, but many of us panic or at least become cynical long before we really face starvation.

You have time to breathe and ask yourself some questions.

What are my strengths?

What do I offer that has real value?

What is that worth?

Is this client or project in line with my values and goals?

Will this challenge me in good ways?

A good exercise is to recall the bumpy roads you’ve been down that you swore you wouldn’t revisit. Perhaps it was the low-budget project you allowed yourself to get talked into, with the promise of exposure and more work. Recall how you felt after that, and what it confirmed about the type of work and client relationships you wanted.

If you find yourself being resentful at the assumptions people make, like a website should cost $500, then you’ve positioned yourself to be a contender for that work. If you didn’t see yourself as a contender, there would be no reason to even flinch as such a request. By giving ourselves time to evaluate before reacting (even if our reaction is only internal), we deepen our commitment to what we value.

Having then shifted that focus, we may even arrive at a solution that we hadn’t been able to consider at the beginning. Maybe that solution is passing on a name of a junior designer, offering up a simple service they can afford, or helping the client understand the work involved…all from an objective distance.

In this Zen Habits post, the author gives some tips for saying yes more slowly, for those who can’t stomach saying no. The person who posted the question on LinkedIn, as a result of repeated requests for low-cost work, lowered her rates. Prevailing logic says now is the best time to raise them. David C. Baker’s website Recourses has great position papers related to this, like Avoiding Marketing, Saying “No,” and Rethinking Rates.

We get locked into ways of thinking—that clients want cheap websites, for example. When instead, the real answer lies in what we draw to us. And why. This requires puzzling through issues we want to avoid—Why am I afraid to say no? If I find better projects, what if I fail? What do I owe to myself and my business, and what do I owe to others? And how can I make it work so both of us benefit?

This is why saying no sometimes works better for both parties. Saying yes for the wrong reasons can lead to working with a disengaged spirit, which serves neither party well. And more importantly, each time it happens, it’s a missed opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

Oh, the Inhumanity…of Bad Design

The day after a late night of salsa dancing I put the finishing touches on a website’s documentation. I confess my late night because, as I edited some notes about usability, I couldn’t help but think about the bar I had been in the night before.

Like drinking and driving, drinking and dancing do not mix, at least where I am concerned. One’s balance is already compromised; I don’t need a vodka tonic’s help. Even if I were able to combine a drink with turns on the dance floor, ordering a drink here is fraught with obstacles. The bar itself—not the establishment—is not sized for the normal human being. I dread the occasions that I have to belly up—chest up in my case—to the bar for water. The height of the bar is just below my clavicle, then add a depth of about four feet, stir in some loud music loud music and one must scream to place an order.

Incidentally, the average female in the U.S. is about 5′ 4″, my height; the average male about 5′ 9″, according to Wikipedia, a bit of data easily had by the designer of the space.

It is almost as if the bar were designed expressly to discourage drink ordering. This can’t have been a business goal. Approaching the bar is like approaching a person wearing a scowl and whose arms are folded across their chest. The hurdle is too great and not worth the effort. The bathroom has equally odd proportions, which is irresponsible given the “need” function.

Sharp-cornered, coffee table structures edge the dance floor, making for an unwelcome collision if a dancing couple should misstep. Sadly, design decisions like this are made daily without any thought to the user. The establishment is lucky that a dance instructor/DJ duo asked to use the space. It might be the only reason for the bar’s survival.

There’s something more important. Had the designers considered something as simple as the average human height and the use of the establishment (drinking and dancing), there would have been no added cost! In fact, fewer materials might have been used.

In most cases we don’t notice when something is well designed. A good design experience should elicit a certain comfort. Some design is meant to inspire or humor, but a design should function well. And if it functions well, no one should notice. This is one reason why selling good design can be difficult. If it works, it’s easy to think that it didn’t involve much effort.

The book The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman of the Nielsen/Norman Group—gurus of human-centered design—is a wonderful treatise on the psychology of use of every objects and how they are designed, or should be.

In print design, the results of good or bad design seem less tangible than interacting with a physical object that has an obvious intended function.

What if your project isn’t a banner ad or a direct mail returned postcard, where you can count the number of clicks or responses? How do you know your piece is successful? This is why it’s imperative to have specific goals and work with a designer who can produce solutions that speak to those goals. Even if you exceed the number of people you hoped would sign up for your conference, you don’t know if the design was responsible. But without clear goals and an understanding of your audience, a good result is a shot in the dark.

Despite my best efforts, I have been resisted many times attempting to make a piece useful. There might be grumblings about cost but little effort to define who the target audiences are, for example. There are too many reasons why this is the case (fodder for another post)—the client contact lacks empowerment in their position, planning was poor, no one really knows what constituents want, to name a few. A boss says “do a brochure” but no one knows why, or if a brochure is what is needed, or what the budget is.

In this economy, it’s more important than ever to make what you produce useful. Big companies that value design already get it. They know that design isn’t about surface. All the Italian marble and reclaimed wood in the world wouldn’t make for a successful design if that bar had the same proportions it does now.

Not only is it irresponsible to print more brochures than are needed (clean up your mailing lists) but readers are bombarded with too much information as it is. If you’re going to produce something, be willing to do it well, have respect the reader and say only what needs to be said. These are not new ideas but they may be for some organizations who continue to do business as usual.

Most designers want to produce smart solutions. They also like a challenge. Clients should expect, not resist, good design and its value. It may turn out to save them money in the long run if they aim for value in the first place.