When I graduated from art school my first goal was to get a computer. Up to that point all my training had been in the manual disciplines of drawing, illustration, painting, and sculpture. But it wasn’t long after completing my first projects using the school’s computers that I knew this would be the way I’d do business. I spent the next few years (and all my savings) working to acquire my own PC, and equally important, accumulating the technical knowhow needed to transfer my “old world” art skills to the rapidly evolving world of computer technology. I learned things that by today’s standards seem medieval, like how many colours are in 24 bits and what a spectrophotometer is.
During these many transitions my design skills, those hard-earned art school fundamentals, were my touchstone. My ability to separate good design from junk or choose the effective elements while eliminating kitsch was a talent cultivated from hard work and a keen eye. My designer’s toolbox is stuffed with valuable lessons that have largely remained my - and my clients’ - secret. This “secret ingredient”, up to now jealously guarded from interlopers and copycats, is the key to my recipe for dynamic, effective design. It took time to sink in, but I’ve finally realized that hiding things only succeeded in making me anonymous.
Working with computer technology has taught me about open source software, the creative commons, and how copyright laws more often stifle innovation than promote it. It’s in this spirit of sharing for the common good that my plan now is to give it all away, “it” being my good stuff. If others copy my techniques then my influence will grow, kind of like Penn and Teller, who by showing how the trick is done don’t make it any less amazing . . . or give you the ability to do it.
If you saw my website a few years ago it had videos telling stories about interesting design concepts like this:
I stopped making these because they were time consuming, but people liked them and they generated business. So I’m continuing these stories, but in written form, with a creative commons licence so they can be shared easily.
I often tell clients their message needs to be wrapped in a story to make it easily assimilated by our conscious and subconscious. This is because the idea of story is critical to the way people gather and remember information, it’s an evolutionary trait humans developed well before written language. Give someone a list of actions and it’s easy to forget, but create a story using the list and they’re much more likely to remember the critical elements of that story. When someone says “give me an example” they’re simply looking for a context, and a story is simply real or made-up information put into a narrative to help people understand and remember.
Here’s what I’m talking about . . .
Years ago a client who was developing software tools for open source technologies asked me to rebrand his company.
If you’re not familiar, open source software has a licence that makes its free to use and distribute, you can even include it in products that you sell, but you have to release any modification you make under the same open source licence. It’s a way that groups can develop software they need that isn’t core to their business, but they can share their limited developer resources instead of duplicating their effort. Google’s chrome web browser is built on WebKit, an open source project; and many parts of the Macintosh operating system OSX are open source.
Companies that work with open source software often use the metaphor of bottled water to describe their service: although the product (water) is free, the packaging (the bottle) and the guarantee that it’s safe is the value they add through customization and support.
My client did this for a particular open source scripting language called Perl, which was often referred to as “the gaffers tape of the internet”. Perl was used mostly to tie together different bits of code that didn’t speak the same language.
My recommendation was to name the company eGlue, as in “electronic glue”, but also like the Eskimo ice house. It would tie into the water metaphor, but also evoke an image of a protective shelter made out of frozen water: safety and strength made from free material. The image of an igloo is widely recognized as a symbol of Canada’s Inuit peoples, and I believed it was the perfect package to hold these concepts. Just as the symbol for Linux (one of the most popular open source projects) is a penguin, the igloo as the symbol for eGlue would make for a “cool” logo. ;-)
Alas, they didn’t take my advice. The main reason given was that they wanted a name that would put them first on directories and “e” was too far down the list. They ended up naming it ActiveState. Unfortunately there was another company in the building called Aardvark, so they didn’t even get the top spot in their own building.
I learned dealing with a group of engineers was challenging, but the real takeaway was that it’s the client who defined the needs. Just as important, I learned it’s usually a mistake to blame a client for an unsuccessful campaign. Looking back I can see clearly how I failed to wrap their product in an intriguing narrative they could be happy with. If the designer is looking merely for compliance, they’re sure to get resistance, and eventually the ideas get undermined. The client/designer relationship is sometimes described as a partnership. I disagree. Clients are looking for leadership, and good leadership always gets a buy-in from stakeholders.
When the American space agency NASA was planning the unmanned Voyager mission in the early 1970’s, funding for the mission was less than needed. So they recruited an engineer working on the project with a knack for storytelling. His idea was to place a disk on the exterior of the spacecraft that would tell the story of earth and its people to any extraterrestrials that might come across it. The prospect of this happening was astronomically small, but that was irrelevant, because the real audience for this message was the people of earth. This gold disk was like a time capsule, and it became the most compelling human interest story of the entire project and was successfully used for fundraising both to the U.S. Congress and the general public.
Without this story the mission was cold and lacked humanity, but the prospect of communication with extraterrestrials ignited the imaginations of the public and has to this day been the most memorable aspect of the Voyager missions. The engineer who came up with this idea and who became the public voice of the missions was Carl Sagan. You can see a clip of him discussing voyager and its disk here.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to be your Carl Sagan, and invite you on a journey with me through the universe of ideas as I share the stories, experiences and lessons of design thinking. So stay tuned to this blog for monthly installments, you won’t be disappointed.