Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Designing the News

This post was co-written with my partner-in-crime on the very gnarly and  momentas USA Today relaunch – Lisa Smith.

The Future of News panel at NYC Advertising Week in September 2011 was polarized by blind optimism and Grinch-like misery and gloom. Spokespersons from CNN and Flipboard were ebullient – There has never been a better time to be in this business! Look at all the new and exciting things we are doing! Those from USA Today and AdWeek pointed out that until those new and exciting new things generate ad revenue, there is nothing to shout about. Of course they are both right. And much discussion was dedicated to something they all agreed on: design will be increasingly important in adding value the to highly commoditized business of news delivery.

With major players and large investments at stake, designers have an opportunity to win big by developing new ideas for news presentation and delivery.  Interaction design, visual storytelling and good-old fashion graphic design are all needed to add value and rebuild the dying business models of this centuries-old industry.

People are spending more time consuming news than ever before - 70 mins per day, up 10 minutes per day on the past decade. Teenagers are becoming interested in news younger and – presumably because of its accessibility online – spending more time with it than their counterparts of the past decades.

As the world becomes increasingly connected we both want and need to know more about what is happening in other places and a lot of the events issues that effect our everyday lives are increasingly complex. It’s no longer enough to write a thousand-word feature to explain most current affairs topics. Storytelling needs to be multi-media and multi-layered, peppered with jump-off and drill-down points, while still maintaining a discernible and satisfying narrative.

Info-graphics and data visualization have shifted from the status of visual interest to necessary components for getting the story across. Many news organizations are building specialist departments and making extensive use of freelancers to improve their chops in this kind of visual storytelling. As an indication of the growing importance of this design discipline, in Fast Company’s recent list of the 50 most influential designers in America, five of them were experts in the once niche (and slightly nerdy) field of information graphics.

The further shift of much news consumption from the web to app-based tablets and smartphones changes the opportunity again. Here we have a ‘lean back’ medium that is both mobile and highly interactive. The ubiquity of smartphones makes it likely that in the near future they will be the number one way in which news is consumed in many countries. At the moment, what makes the smartphone a preferred platform for news delivery is the fact that it is in your pocket rather than anything particularly great about the way the presentation is designed. As Martin Belham says in his excellent blog currybetdotnet ‘We are at the animated gif stage of design for the tablet and smart phone.”

While many are resigned to the fact that all print media is dying and that printed news is dying fastest, there are examples of design cleverness and innovation helping some papers put up a good fight. It requires more innovative thinking than just format size and price. Designers need to be looking at how printed news fits into a whole user-journey of news consumption throughout the day and across multiple platforms. 

i the national newspaper in Portugal was born in May 2009, at the nadir of journal closures and debate around the death of printed news. Not structured like a normal newspaper it starts with the assumption that most readers will already know a lot from other news sources and doesn’t try to cover all aspects of all stories. It’s front section is dedicated to overviews of the past 24 hours, followed by some opinion and a dozen or so in-depth articles. It’s design is bold and brash but draws heavily on the sort graphic design sophistication more often seen in book or high-end magazine design. The circulation numbers were promising from the beginning. And they are now building an impressive following online and looking to expand their readership beyond internationally.

The mistake for newspapers is to think that a redesign means a new masthead and grid, missing the opportunity to reinvent the whole product. The Independent in the UK has undertaken three redesigns in three years, with no effect on their circulation. In what only could be seen as a last ditch attempt to find a voice on it’s 25th Birthday, under their new editor, Chris Blackhurst, they set about creating a “faster, more accessible and urgent paper”. This October they have reveled a fourth redesign by Errea Communications, the agency behind i. Errea were briefed to turn the paper upside down, with no limits, looking at content structure and graphic design. At time of writing it’s too early to comment on the results but the bravery and intent are to be applauded.

When approaching design for news in any media designers need to focus on adding value and reinventing business models. Nuances of typefaces and grids may be important but not unless they are executing on the answers to big questions around what, when and how people want news. And what add value will incite them to pay, either with their money or their attention? 

Jacek Utko, design director for Bonnier Business Press International and several-time winner of ‘World’s Best Designed Newspaper’, sums it up well in his 2009 TED talk. He describes a new role for designers in news media that takes responsibility for reinvention from beginning to end, "Design can change not just your product, it can change your workflow, actually it can change everything in your company, it can even change you. Give power to designers." 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ikea. Imagine the business plan.

Reading Duncan J Watt’s book ‘Everything is Obvious. Once you know they answer” has got me thinking again about my occasional game of ‘Imagine the business plan'.

It involves looking at a business who success is so great as to seem inevitable and imagining how bizarre the business plan might have sounded when pitched before its inception.

I’ve written about this before using my favourite London restaurant, St John as an example but now I am thinking about a much larger and far-reaching brand.

The global ubiquity of IKEA is so great that it is hard to imagine life without it. Rarely do we go into a home that doesn’t contain items bought there and I, for one, have been a customer at an IKEA store on at least three continents.

But imagine how it would have sounded: “So, let me get this straight, you want to open a store selling furniture that people have to make themselves? How is that even furniture? It’s like hardware with promise.”

But of course this was not Ingvar Kamprad’s strategy. His early vision for IKEA was about affordability. He was locked in a price war with a local competitor and needed to see how cheap he could get things without compromising quality. He just took out all the extraneous things he could in order to reach the best design for the cheapest price possible. His killer innovation was to take out something that no one else would have thought feasible.

The fact that customers were willing to take the stuff home in a box and assemble it themselves with nothing but an allen key and much swearing was (and still is) a testament to just how good and how cheap the stuff was. Fifty years later no one has really bettered the formula.

I’ve had IKEA furniture since I was a child in the 70’s and whole process of buying it, getting it home and putting it together has never gotten any easier or more pleasant. It doesn’t need to. It seems we understand the exact nature of the compromise we are agreeing to and as long as they keep improving the quality/price ratio, we will put up with everything else.

In post rationalisation it may seem obvious but no one could have predicted that removing the ‘making’ from furniture-making would have been so successful.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reality in Advertising (it's not an oxymoron)

My father gave me a first edition (1961) copy of Rosser Reeves ‘Reality in Advertising’ for Christmas. Reeves was the president of Ted Bates from 1940 to 1965 and is best known as – if not the inventor, then certainly the definer – of the USP (Unique Selling Proposition). He was a copywriter who became a colossus of advertising throughout the 50s when TV ads were at the peek of their power. Apparently some aspects of Mad Men’s Donald Draper where based on Reeves’ career.

I like reading these old books about the industry (I’ve unearthed a few more gems from my father’s bookshelves in the last few days) because it’s fun to compare how much has changed with how much hasn’t. And often the latter outweighs the former.

Legend has it that Reeves’ career began to tank in the 60s when his particular style of no-nonsense, ‘ram it home’ sloganizing lost favour to the new Bill Bernbach style of more clever and subtle ‘art’ ads which appealed to a younger and more jaded audience.

But there is some interesting back-to-basics value in Reeves’ ideas when you read them today. If Reeves was concerned about the ‘artyness’, self indulgence and abstraction of advertising in 1960, imagine what he would think now.

By his definition, the USP meant that all ads should include a proposition (if you buy this you will get this); that this proposition has to be unique (if yours isn’t the only product that can make this claim, then it has to be the first that does) and that proposition has to be something that people care about enough to go out and buy, i.e. it has to sell. (Reeves was a firm believer that advertising doesn’t create desires it has to tap into pre-existing human needs.)

Now, I, like any of us, have been aware of the idea of the USP ever since drafting my first business plan, but after reading Reeves’ definition I’ve been curious about trying to apply it as a filter to today’s advertised products and see if we can’t use it to weed out some of the crap.

Perhaps more powerful and interesting as a secondary effect of Reeves’ faith in the USP was his belief that if a product did not have one then it probably shouldn’t be on the market. He was famous for sending clients away saying don’t waste your money with us, until you have a better product, and often working with them to improve said product until a viable USP emerged. Perhaps more advertising people today should shed their cynicism and be so honest instead of cashing the cheque and flogging dead horses onto our supermarket shelves.

Reeves believed that products should live and die on their quality and that advertising was simply there to communicate that quality efficiently and effectively. He was also known for saying that nothing will kill a bad product faster than a good advertising campaign, because people will more quickly learn that the promise in the ad does not hold up.

For Reeves, and Ted Bates at the time, there was only one measure for the success of an ad campaign and this was what they called ‘usage pull’. ‘Usage pull’ was quite precisely calculated as the percentage difference between customers who had seen the ad and customers who hadn’t. This percentage being a measure of how many people were ‘pulled-across’ by the advertising as opposed to those who found the product themselves through word-of-mouth or other means and therefore would be customers whether the ads ran or not.

I love the purity and simplicity of this. It appeals to me to forget the vast quantity of qualitative research that is done in favour of a large-scale quantitative study which asks only two questions: have you seen the ad and have you bought the product? 

Ted Bates made a fortune for themselves and their clients for several decades based on this kind of research. Granted it was a different era but I would like to think that there is still clarity and merit in this simplicity: the ad is there to clearly and persuasively communicate the inherent benefits of the product. If the product is selling the same amount (or less) to people who have never seen the ad, then the ad is either not good enough or not needed.

We lead ourselves to believe that marketing and branding are so much more complicated these days. But really great products are undeniably easier to advertise than mediocre ones (think Apple vs pretty much any other consumer electronics ad).

A lot of the over complication in marketing consumer goods these days (which would not have existed so much in Reeves’ time) comes from what Rob Walker describes as the ‘pretty good problem’ in his wonderful book ‘Buying In – Who we are and what we buy’. The pretty good problem means that most products for sale today do their job pretty well. Variations of price, quality and value are fairly easily deciphered while browsing the supermarket shelves and it is rare for a new product to enter the market head-and-shoulders above the rest. In the developed world, pretty much everyone can have access to a pretty good range of pretty good products, pretty much all the time.

As I’ve written before, I like to ponder the idea that as it gets harder to capture audiences’ attention with advertising, it will get harder to sell products unless they really do have a captivating and relevant differentiating feature. No more bad ads. No more unnecessary products. (Does anyone really want or need another shampoo with real fruit extracts and ‘strengthening proteins’?)

Reeves was adamant that advertising could only sell products with genuine merit (“A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen!”). But he also believed that advertising was important in a quite broad and noble sense. He saw a great ad campaign as being a way to give strength to the underdog by creating a situation where:

 “The entrenched companies are forced to defend their own brands...this cannot be done with words. They must improve their products. This they do, and counter merchandising begins. Still better products emerge.”

To him, advertising was essential to the cycle of product evolution bringing advantage to the consumer and dynamics to the whole economy. 

We don’t tend to view the profession with anything like this sort of importance or respectability today. Most of the general public think advertising people are a little bit evil and that ads in general are something to be avoided lest they corrupt the mind.

Most of us in the industry could go home a lot earlier at night if our work had anything like the power that it is credited with.

So in my imagined future world — where ads are easy to avoid and therefore ineffective unless they are really of interest to the consumers — products are only launched if they are significantly better that what already exists and Reeves’ version of ads that are just about delivering information that sells, seems to look more relevant.

Sure, there are a lot of other activities and opportunities at our disposal today to build brand recognition, enhance reputation and plant ideas about our products into the psychs of our audience (and we should continue to use and perfect these opportunities). But wouldn’t it be nice if ads, in the traditional sense — be they on TV, the internet, print, posters or iphone apps — just told us good, clear information about why we should buy the product? Perhaps it’s just me but I would find this much less annoying than the plethora of strategy-flaunting, concept ads that dominate our media today. 

This doesn’t mean that ads can’t or shouldn’t be clever, fascinating, beautiful. More than ever they need to be all three. But I would like them to actually tell me something useful about the product rather than just expecting me to respond, monkey-see-monkey-do, to images of some sort of life-style ideal. (This underwear will help me ‘feel more like me’. Really?)

‘Reality in Advertising’ is worth a read if you can get hold of a copy (it is out of print). You won’t agree with everything Reeves says but he doesn’t mince words when it comes to his opinion of most advertising that was contemporary to him so it’s sobering to turn his thoughts on to today’s industry and see how much worse it has gotten in many ways.

Here are a few of my favourite extracts:

“There is a finite limit to what a consumer can remember about 30,000 advertised brands…It is as though he carries a small box in his head for a given product category. This box is limited either by his inability to remember or his lack of interest...When one campaign goes in, it must displace one that is already in there.”

“The better product, advertised equally, will win in the long run.”

“The USP is not a tight, closed structure. A USP is an end result. It is a totality projected by and advertisement. It is a fluid procedure rather than an arrangement of static elements. It is what comes through. It is what is played back. The creative man can let his imagination run riot, for a USP may be realized through a complex of visual and verbal elements.”

“...there is an incredibly long list of proved desires out of which we can evolve a diversity of creative, and imaginative campaigns. We know, for example, that we do not want to be fat. We do not want to smell bad. We want healthy children, and we want to be healthy ourselves. We want beautiful teeth. We want good clothes. We want people to like us. We do not want to be ugly. We seek love and affection. We want money. We like comfort. We yearn for more beautiful homes. We want honesty, self-respect, a place in the community. We want to own things in which we can take pride. We want to succeed in our jobs. We want to be secure in our old age.”

“We cannot do without words, which are the content, and we would be foolish to not to try for the image, which is the form. It is admittedly difficult in advertising to achieve both...But the best theoretical objective is the surround the claim with the feeling.”

“Of course copywriters like the swing ‘way out’. It’s lots more fun out there...The writer, being human, would naturally like to define creativity in his own terms. He is likely to regard his client’s budget as a canvas on which he can paint according to his own whim. He would be wiser to approach advertising more as a designer, say, of jet planes, who knows that the end result may still be beautiful, but that the plane must fly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Don’t fight it. Feel it.

When Don Draper places the full page ad in the New York Times at the end of Mad Men Season 4, he refuses to explain himself, saying only “If you don’t understand why, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Don didn’t really know what he was doing. He just knew that, as he says himself, “Someone had to do something.”

So much is written on the secrets of 'design thinking' and whether or not it can be taught in business schools, but one of the important distinctions of someone with a creative bent is the ability to comfortably be led by their gut. This requires bravery and a sensibility that not everyone is capable of. But it’s so vital to innovation that those who are, have a duty to use it responsibly.

Silicon Valley, the presumed spiritual home of innovation, is currently obsessed with what it calls 'The Lean Startup’. This concept is born out of the web’s suitability to ‘rapid deployment.’ Ideas can be continually tested and improved incrementally, therefore reducing the cost of mistakes and misjudgments. The Lean Startup could be seen as a great use of ‘ready, fire, aim’ decision-making but it also commits heavily to the idea that everything is testable therefore everything is provable.

This is dangerous territory for creative thinkers because most of what we do is not testable and is often greatly damaged in the attempt to do so. I can see why The Lean Startup is such an appealing model for investors but I wonder how many truly important innovations arise out of businesses that believe all change should come in the form of provable increments.

While we should keep fighting for design and creative thinking to be taken more seriously in business, it shouldn’t mean having to forsake our non-rational side or jeopardizing our freedom to operate by ‘feel’.

This doesn’t get us off the hook, however, for having to understand analytic rigor and knowing when it is useful to us.

Kevin McCullagh in his excellent article on design thinking ‘Stepping Up’, says that ‘Designers have traditionally excused their lack of analytical rigor by nonchalantly counterpoising it to their intuition, but this is a false and lazy dichotomy. Just as there are many creative mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, why can’t there be analytically cogent designers?’

Well there should be and there are.

Where we get into a muddle is if we try to decipher which decisions should be analytically defensible (or provable) and which are made by some combination from the myriad of factors that can influence a designer’s gut feeling for rightness. I’ve seen some horrible stuff come out of designers falling over themselves with on-the-spot post-rationalization in order to try and stop clients from picking good work apart.

We know clients can be infuriating with their habit of questioning seemingly random details. But this often stems from an insecurity about the idea as a whole that perhaps they don’t have the vocabulary to describe any more than we do. If they are emotionally committed to the core idea, they are often less likely to sweat the details.

A wonderful business man I once knew used to talk of ‘The Arc of Rightness’, meaning that  the results of any decision taken by a reasonably smart and qualified person will land, not on an absolute target but somewhere within an area of helpful possibility from which adjustments can be easily made to achieve a good outcome. I found this idea liberating when I first heard it and I rely on it in pretty much all situations. It’s so much more positive than talking about ‘margins of error’.

The Arc of Rightness is born of both analytical and intuitive thinking. Sometimes it is a rational concept that decides the direction of the arrow but intuition that defines the span of the arc, other times it’s the other way around.

So it’s wrong to assume that qualitative and intuitive thinking are the preserve of creative practitioners alone.

Most great business people, particularly at the higher levels of an organization, have to make so many decisions in the course of their work that they can’t possibly rationalize all of them. To have the confidence to keep moving ahead and trust that you will land somewhere within The Arc of Rightness is one of the most important qualities an intelligent business leader can have.

Design decision-making differs mostly by the The Arc being quite a bit wider. So many decisions are made on the way to a good creative solution that we’re usually not even aware of where the all pivots were. This is why it is so difficult for designers to defend their work when they are asked to break it down into explainable elements.

I’ve read so many ‘About Us’ blurbs on agency websites which claim that every creative decision is underpinned with solid ‘rationale’, their pure talent counterbalanced with strategic rigor. While this is no doubt important and often true, it reads a bit like: ‘We’ve made the effort to understand your rational business world because we know it’s too much to expect you to understand our fuzzy creative one.’ And I just don’t think things are that black and white.

My father worked for many years for a large, international corporation who’s owner once said after several days of strategy talks, ‘Well you can tie yourselves down with a strategy if you like but are you telling me that you will never have a good idea again?” It was one thing to drive the company in a quantitative direction but he knew that surprising sparks of inspiration were just as vital to the future of the business.

As practitioners of creativity and innovation we have to remind ourselves that other people (the smart ones) do get this stuff. And most often we are better off selling our wares by tapping into our clients right-brain tendencies than by trying to manufacture left-brain defenses of our ideas.

After all they’re employing us for our qualitative judgement. They just may need to be reminded of that every now and then.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kill your darlings.

William Faulker, one of the greatest writers in the English language, when talking about writing once said, ‘You must kill all your darlings.’ 

I’ve often heard this quote misunderstood as meaning that we should learn to let things go. But Faulkner meant something far more imperative.

I had a tutor in art school who, if we were struggling with a particular part of a painting, would give us a pot of white paint and a wide brush and make us paint out all the parts we thought were working until only the problem area remained. ‘Now start again from here.’ he would say.

This is closer to what Faulkner was talking about. It’s not just that you must be able to kill your darlings but that you should kill them. Being too in love with an idea will bias all your decisions about it and hinder serious consideration of alternatives. Just because it’s your favorite, doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Translated for the world of client/agency relationships: when preparing work to present to clients, beware of falling in love with one of your own ideas so much that you will be upset when it gets thrown off the table.

Granted, we all have to feel passionate about what we do, but go for a Friday afternoon drink with a bunch of creatives, anywhere in the world, listen in to their tales of work-woe and sooner or later someone will always say ‘clients never pick the best ideas.’ Everyone’s bottom draw is full of ‘wonderful’ work that never saw the light of day in the real world.

Good ideas should never be wasted because ‘good’ should be the stuff that works. All the rest is collateral.

If you are going into a presentation with one idea that you love above all others, consider these two possibilities:
  1. The other ideas are not good enough.
  2. You love that idea for the wrong reasons.
For an idea to really work it may be required to stand up against a whole range of criteria beyond the cute, clever and aesthetically satisfying, in which we tend to find instant gratification. That’s why you should always be suspicious of your first, best idea. Your star option may be blinding you with it’s perfect loveliness and not allowing you to hold it up to all the complex and often highly nuanced factors that will require it to actually do it’s job and solve a problem.

Client-siders are not immune to this problem. They need to practice regular bouts of darling-killing like the rest of us. I have often seen clients fall in love with ideas early on then pressure the agency to shoe-horn practicalities into something that is clearly not going to work. In the music industry we used to call it 'demo love'.

Your best protection against ‘darling-love’ is to regard all early ideas as potential cannon-fodder. Don’t develop any one idea until you have considered many others. Preferably develop several ideas at once and all to the same level. If you come across an idea that straight away you just can’t wait to start working on, put it to the bottom of the pile or better still, tear it up and bin it.

If the best ideas are the ones that work, there is little value in stuff that looks good in your portfolio but never sees the light of day in the real world. The only people who care about this work — and your  sob story to go with it — are other creatives. And they don’t pay your wages.

This is why we need to be consistently vigilant and suspicious of our darlings. They distract us from the real cause.

We are all susceptible and the occasional illicit love affair will always happen. You may on occasion find yourself perversely denying your warm feelings for a particular idea just to try, with Brer Rabbit logic, to spare it from the slaughter.

In this situation, remember something else the great man Faulkner also said – ‘Unless you're ashamed of yourself now and then, you're not honest.’