#63 Controversy as a strategy

Positioning and differentiation are tried-and-true CREATIVE advertising strategies. I can tell you how changing positioning strategies meant making millions for many clients I’ve served. It changed them from confusing to understandable. Positioning is an idea that’s been in existence since 1980 and now taught in every business course in the world.

That doesn’t mean getting noticed and being remarkable isn’t important. Some authors attempt controversy and argument about semantics for the sake of it.

There is an observation about “controversy” as a strategy. It’s endorsed by many professional copywriters. The idea is if you choose to do safe, no-risk advertising you will never upset anyone and you might get the attention of a small fraction of the market.

But if you choose to cause a ruckus and be controversial, you’ll probably alienate 50% of the audience. The other 50% will likely become avid fans. Instead of a mere 5% noticing you, you get 50% followers and 50% haters. That is a risk, of course, since you could alienate 100% of your audience.

Authors try to get us riled up by discrediting “the old way” of thinking. Really it’s the same old stuff. But 50% will be hard-core fans. Positioning is in the “mind” of the buyer. Remarkable is the “eye” of the buyer. Aren’t these both intangible or abstractions?

The real proof is how people vote with their dollars.

#62 Handling client delays

The way I’ve handled this “delay problem” – in my fixed-bid agreement – is instead of a “penalty,” I say the agreement is valid for 90-days. If the project isn’t completed by then, the terms are renegotiated. While this isn’t actually used as a “threat”, it’s a nice incentive or motivator for them to keep the energy on high.

Typically, I’ve found unmonitored client delays increase the project time-to-completion by double or worse. If clients had the foresight of compiling and proofing the photos and copy before beginning the project, it’d be completed in short order. This is pretty common so I frequently have to use good old “patience” to finish and get paid. Since I’ve accepted that tolerating and quelling client panic and crisis are part of my job description –and what I get paid for handling, it helps reduce the ulcer. The unpredictable is pretty predictable.

So there are internal and external things we can do to maintain our sanity.

#61 Design Therapy

The upfront expenditure to wheedle out of a client what they really need I call “Design Therapy.”

More than normal questionnaires, it takes  unconventional “tricks” to get this information out of them. You have to analyze them and also the motivation of their audience – quickly. It’s a journey into psychology. They frequently suffer from Cognitive Dissonance.

It’s the distressing mental state that people feel when they “find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.” … This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior.

Cognitive Dissonance wiki ref >

It’s so common to be approached by a potential client and have them say, “Can you build us a web site or brochure by next Wednesday?” I answer, “Sure. Do you have images and ad copy ready?” “Uh. No. We don’t know what content to put in yet.” “Sorry. Then I can’t deliver by next Wednesday.” -End of Story- Common sense did not prevail.

A creative brief needs to be written. In most cases, this is the first time the client has sat down to write a plan of any sort. They want some “thing” but they don’t know what they need. Suddenly, you’re not just a designer but a business consultant, shrink, cop, and cheerleader.

As mentioned, asking “why?” is a big part of mucking through clients imaginations and dreams to achieve what’s REALLY important. This sometimes involves teaching them the difference between good design and bad. And why it makes a difference and matters. Establishing boundaries or limits of budget, delivery, and measure of “how good is good enough” should be set right away. That let’s us know what we’re up against and how to use creativity to make it happen.

There also are times when you should NOT work with someone. Design Therapy helps you screen out the losers. Only 50% of the people who approach me become real clients. You have to know how to qualify your leads.

One of my favorite but frustrating questions that a business partner asks me regularly, after I explain what I think is a wonderful idea, is: “Why should I care?” That’s when I consider strangling him. But actually, he has my best interest at heart and knows if I can’t explain my business idea so he “gets it”, it needs further thought for reduction and clarity. So asking clients, “Why should I care?” takes several attempts before you’ll get to the meat of what problem they really solve for people.

#60 Building separate websites for different services

Here’s something I’ve advocated for a long time and that’s building separate websites for different services.

Every good product or service deserves it’s own website. The “business herd” tends to think a “big authority website” is best. They are not. They are bloated and easy to get lost in. Telling people you can do everything is the same as telling them you do nothing. It all becomes noise.

By “specializing” and not selling “generic”, you increase the perception of your expertise. Expertise is a component in
credibility. It has value.

Building two sites is good creative positioning strategy. If I want to buy a logo, I’m going to feel better buying from someone who is “fascinated” with logos.

PS: Logos are not an isolated deliverable.

#59 Advertising weasel words

Buzzwords, marketing tripe, and meaningless hype.

These most notoriously appear in the ABOUT US section of websites. I’ve collected them from many sources.  While appending my latest additions, I realized I’ve been violating a bunch. So it’s a good review. For a long time I’ve called myself a “creative strategist,” according to my list that means I’m “nobody.” Too funny. So I’ve changed my title to “Supreme Commander.” That’s much more meaningful and less pretentious.

Link to Weasel Words >

The list is mostly for my entertainment as you said. But it can serve as a reality check, too. I’ve heard them so much in the business world I’ve grown weary.

I didn’t share the list to evaluate your own design claims – but rather the claims of clients. In the course of getting this list modified and ready, I realized I’ve many offenses to correct in my own stuff. I’m willing to admit that and fix it. That means thinking instead of regurgitating.

Here’s a client example: A client kept repeatedly insisting the main benefit of their product was “it’s state-of-the-art.” My question that disturbed her was, “What does that mean in plain English?” In fact, she couldn’t tell me. It wasn’t real. Just smoke. The product technical specifications or measurements had no edge over other similar techniques. She just wanted to say it did. In other words, lie or deceive. The products real benefits were it’s lower price tag and ruggedness. But that didn’t sound as sexy.

As a designer, I try not to publish client created lies or exaggerations about their products or services. This has not made me popular with product managers (pretend copywriters) – but popular with business owners (at-risk.) Lying or boasting can get a company into trouble. It sets up possible customer disappointment (buyer’s remorse) and is potentially false advertising.

This list is mainly to keep clients from overselling, exaggerating, or flat out lying about their products and services. A client saying something is state-of-the-art doesn’t make it so. In 15 minutes, I may no longer possess the highest level of development. Things change fast. It’s a presumptuous term overused by marketing people (tech people and politicians alike.)

My father was a PhD. I observed it didn’t endow him with common-sense. So I’m generally unimpressed with titles, diplomas, awards, and acronyms.

Now to your question, ABOUT pages:

Your About page.
Who are you? What qualifications and experience do you have? Why should viewers care about your work?Are you trustworthy and reliable?
You can answer the trustworthy and reliable question in two ways. You can include testimonials from previous clients, or you can emphasize the ways in which you’re a decent, normal person: you have a family, hobbies and so on. Client testimonials are effective for persuading those that visit your site that you will deliver on your promises. It increases the level of professionalism when tastefully incorporating testimonial into your portfolio. David Airey has an article titled “The Importance of Client Testimonials” that has useful information on this subject.

Resumé alternatives.
We can include a downloadable PDF resume.

But I don’t recommend it. A resume is an excuse to reject you. Once you send your resume, a client can say, “Oh, they’re missing this or they’re missing that,” and boom, you’re out. How about instead—three letters of recommendation? Or a  sophisticated project they can see or touch?

Hire Me page.
If your portfolio is a traditional showcase of your work, your ‘About’ page will suffice. Stick a ‘Hire Me’ button, link or section on your site.

That’s when a ‘Hire Me’ page becomes important (though you’d probably call it ‘Hire Jonathan’, but using your name.) It should include all the information listed in the ‘About’ page section above.

Link to your hire page in a prominent way from your site’s front page. If you want to get hired, be bold about it. Put a sign with the text: “For Hire” and a link to how to actually hire you. Describe yourself and your work in just a few words.

A designer says as an opening line on his website:
I create targeted, effective solutions to your problems.

I call this a “refrigerator statement.” It could apply to many home appliances. I’m just as guilty and need to revisit and clean up several of my websites. But the opening line is too generic. There’s no hook and this is the most important sentence on your website. It doesn’t reflect why I should care about your work. Everyone is special in some way. Especially, you. Tell your story.

There is no such thing as a business being exactly the same as its competitor – you are one-of-a-kind. I can see your products and services in ways you cannot. Intuition and imagination are benefits you can’t afford to ignore.

It takes a lot of thought to tell people who you are, what you do, and why they should care.

Exploring who we are as “artists and designers” can be and usually is an agonizing process. One reason is we change or our environment changes. Then we have to adapt with a new definition of ourselves. I learned from a friend, “an organism cannot evaluate itself.” In other words, there are strengths and weaknesses others see that I don’t.

So where am I going with this?

Having friends to talk to can help you find the definition of who you are, what you do, and why others care about it. So pick someone to help you as a sounding board. Someone empathetic to your cause who isn’t related to you. :) It can actually be an empowering experience to get a clear direction.

#58 Never speculate on a portfolio

An adage I like when it comes to hiring a designer is: “Never speculate on a portfolio.”

What that means is, if you don’t see something in the designer’s portfolio that looks close or similar to what you want, you’d best not hire them. That advise will seem harsh counsel for the design community. Designer’s frequently like to “earn while they learn.” As a business person, I’ve found out the hard way it’s good advice to avoid speculating even at a great price.

#57 Caption writing guide for your images

Why are captions important in advertising?
A caption writing style guide.

The graphic metaphor’s advantage is carried in the captions. Here is where words carry more meaning than pictures as the viewer relies on the caption for proper interpretation of the image’s meaning. Without this caption, you might not interpret a photo properly.

Note: National Geographic has an entire department dedicated to “captions” because those are the only words in their magazine some people read. It important to them.
You can alter the meaning of an image with it’s caption.
Why are captions important in advertising?

A caption writing style guide.

NO CREDIT – Put a keyline on your photo, position the caption, and select the components. Then group it and do a text wrap on the grouping. This way your caption won’t squirt off the page every time you move something. Did you read this first?

More people read captions under images than read the body. copy. Using an image without a caption is wasting an important opportunity to sell. People remember image caption material better than a headline or an illustration alone. Caption readers have not read the story yet. Many read nothing but the caption and the headline. The caption should include a reference to the product or service and a benefit. The best captions are self-contained advertisements in themselves.

Identify people and objects.

Identify everyone shown in a photo. If you can’t find a name, acknowledge the unknown person. State how the people’s names run. Usually in parentheses, e.g: (from left), (counterclockwise from top), etc.
The person dressed “in black,” or “standing to the left of the sofa” help identify factors. Explain unusual or conspicuous objects. If something looks “unreal,” tell how the picture was made. Such as fish-eye lens, wide-angle lens, telephoto lens, Photoshop. For historic or archival photos, including the image date: Mayor David Dinkins, 2006. Inform the reader when and where the picture took place.

Write the first sentence in the present tense and for later sentences, it is in the past tense. The first sentence tells the reader what is happening in the photo. Later sentences tell the context and background for what happened. Avoid injecting any opinions.

Captions are crisp, not curt.

Conversational language works best. Write the caption as if you’re telling a family member a story. They should contain all articles and conjunctions. Always check the spelling.

Do not point out the obvious with phrases as “looks on,” “is shown,” and “pictured above.” Don’t be humorous when the picture is not. Don’t create caption information that isn’t explained in the story. The caption should not repeat the information used in other display types.

House with picket fence – Put a keyline on your photo, position the caption, and select the components. Then group it and do a text wrap on the grouping. This way your caption won’t squirt off the page every time you move something. Did you read this first?


#55 Why themes are important

It’s important to understand what a theme is and why it is critical in design. 

I present a quote by Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967)and then a quote by Hillman Curtis (1961 – 2012):

ITTEN Wrote:

Decorators and designers sometimes tend to be guided by their own subjective color propensities. This may lead to misunderstandings and disputes, where
one subjective judgment collides with another. For the solution of many problems, however, there are objective considerations that outweigh subjective preferences. Thus a meat market may be decorated in light green and blue-green tones, so the various meats will appear fresher and redder. Confectionery shows to advantage in light orange, pink, white, and accents of black, stimulating an appetite for sweets. If a commercial artist were to design a package of coffee bearing yellow and white stripes, or one with blue polka-dots for spaghetti, he would be wrong because these forms and color features are in conflict with the theme.” (The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten. c1961)

According to Hillman Curtis, theme is central. Hillman draws three concentric circles on a piece of paper in the very first client meeting. As he jots down keywords during the meeting, he figures out how close to the center of the “target” each one fits. The words in the center become the theme. Theme can be the most difficult part of the creative process. An idea generated in collaboration with the client is more likely to express their story than one generated in isolation.

Hillman Curtis says: “It’s all about communicating the theme. You do it by combining color, type, layout, and motion in a way that supports an identified theme. You might not see the way these elements work to communicate theme, but you “feel” it. As a designer, I try to justify every element and to [consistently and clearly] support the theme.”

“Every product or brand has a theme and these products and brands exist because of their ability to tap into recognizable themes … and make people feel something. So I focus on the theme … on telling a story. If you look at that title “Commercial Artist” and deconstruct it, you can
look at it this way; you have a responsibility to your client and their brand … which is the “commercial” part of the title…but you also have a responsibility as an artist … and artists have always responded, reflected upon, and hopefully influenced the world.”

“Our challenge as designers is to target a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make, from the initial concept to the final composition.”

Here’s are my observations about web theming. A project outline or text leads to the exploration of storytelling possibilities, imagining picture-and-word sequences, making discoveries, and uncovering unforeseen problems. Out of this design puzzle, is then formulated a “theme.” A theme grows out of the communication goal. It affects all design elements. It needs to be appropriate to the client and the audience. It’s frequently a metaphor, a stereotype, or a cliche as these accelerate understanding. Memories alter perception. The reader/viewer’s historical memory (emotions) helps them recognize and interpret “theme” (images, symbols, fonts, colors, etc). The theme alters their perception of reality.

#54 Vintage Webpage Crafting: A Philosophy

The text of this webpage example is excerpted from an INFP writers emails to me. The site was built as an experiment of balancing speed and beauty. Her text is worth reading. Almost all links are disconnected for this demo. Once the text snippets were put together and edited it made a nice philosophy about her writing. Notice she is talking conversationally about “why she cares.” Very important and great example.

Low-bandwidth websites are about the actual making of DIY websites, the joy of building (and owning) something unique. It’s about crafting faster websites using free and lowtech resources. LoBand borrows from antiquated code recycling, scavenging, and reuse. It takes abandoned, throwaway code and plays with it. Especially code that is considered old-school, unfashionable, taboo, or forbidden by mainstream “web standards” programmers. These are “old code” like HTML Frames, Tables, single-pixel GIFs, marquees, and others.

Complex technology is an enslaving force.
LoBand are built from rediscovering “web artifacts” belonging to another time, primarily the 1990s. Modern websites are too complex today. LoBand sites are nostalgic and have the mark of a craftsperson burnished into them. Reusing old elements is classic craft like during shortages or rationing in a web cottage industry. This provides timelessness in a constantly changing modern technical culture. LoBand are a response to modern plastic-blob consumer technology. They are built with low-tech tables, CSS tiling background and HTML text.

Low-bandwidth sites aren’t mass-produced; they’re anti-slickness and unique.
They rely heavily on re-purposing vintage, legacy, low-technology code and software tools. Production requires learning low-tech and no-tech techniques to deliver project’s faster with little budget. They’re built with small or zero investment. There is nothing dogmatic or Utopian about them. This blog is about reducing production lead times and getting things done now —about things that work today. Results and workarounds.

Low-bandwidth sites are the answer.
Buyers of products and services have been tuning out traditional forms of marketing and advertising. At the same time, buyers are increasingly relying on search engines, blogs and social networks to research, form opinions and compare solutions. As a result, the effectiveness of traditional marketing services has been waning rapidly. However, despite this transformation, most marketing agencies and professionals have not adapted. Low-bandwidth sites are the answer for fast adaptation.

Simple and Fast Decision-making Process
To create this fast-loading, lo-band, single-page website, I decided to apply the “tradeshow booth” formula I’ve described elsewhere. The simple elements are:

1) color

2) foliage

3) lighting

4) legibility.

The color theme was determined previously –and I wasn’t going to change it but I did enhance the palette with a sampled yellow.

I selected a shot by searching on “purple flower” at stock.xchng – free stock photo site. The original image is shown below and was 3.7MB. Very large!

I then cropped and optimized the image as a 30Q 17K JPEG.

This was then placed as a HTML Table cell background image with an inline CSS style. This allowed HTML type to float above the background without “baking-in” the text on the image which would have made the text “fuzzy.” JPEGs frequently don’t render text as well as GIF images.

Lighting (depth and shadow)
A 13K GIF 32-color gradiant “string tile” was created in Photoshop to use as a CSS background image. It repeats in the x-axis at the top of the page. Gradients and shadows create a feeling of light-depth to a page. The screen at the top was “harvested” from a larger image after searching for images that were “delicate.”

The HTML Times New Roman author’s title was black and horsey. It was hard to read. Adding an inline Style “text highlight” with a yellow #FFCC33 sampled from the flower made it pop and allowed the type size to be reduced significantly.

The column width is set to 50% of the screen size.

The website now is attractive and weighs very little (36.6K) –a bonus. What needs changing now? The carrot image no longer seem to match the theme so I used a pencil sketch Photoshop filter to make it a little more artistic.

The page is extremely liquid as shown in the image below. And the window can collapse even further and still not break.

#53 The body language of business

LIKE HUMAN BODY LANGUAGE, graphic design expresses similar implied non-verbal business attitudes or values. Graphic design is a method of differentiating business or products in the market. Graphic design is considered of equal value to other intangible assets like special customer offerings or an in-house mailing list or goodwill. Design builds a sense of community or habitat for customers and employees. Graphic design really is the body language of business.

THERE ARE TRADITIONAL positions for elements for different format like newsletters, a letterhead, a business card, a catalog, etc. It’s best not to deviate from tradition. People search the usual spot for information. If it is not there, it becomes a barrier to understanding. This is where creativity becomes a negative. Examples: Headlines should usually be below a photo not above it. On a brochure, ad, or slick, the logo and address should occupy the bottom right-hand corner. Place it anywhere else and people can’t seem to find it. (In web page creation, this is called usability.) Are things where people expect them to be? Placement of design elements is also influenced by printability, mailability, and postal codes.

THEMES FOR A BROCHURE or website grows out of
client communication goals. It affects all design elements. It needs to be appropriate to the audience. It may use a metaphor, a stereotype, or a cliché. These can accelerate understanding. A theme builds upon historical emotional cues to alter the buyers perception of companies and products. Words, color, fonts, images, and symbols all orchestrate to create a unified theme.

Color combinations remind customers of feelings, emotions, and memories they’ve had in the past. They powerfully reinforce a theme (but they are not the entire theme, just a component.) Instead of preoccupation about colors, it’s best to focus on what your client wants their customer to feel when they see the literature or website. That feeling is easily translated into acceptable
color palettes. Colors can also be sampled from photos or generated using Color Harmony Theory with software to select complementary and harmonic color schemes.

can be evaluated, ranked, or scored. There are 3 aspects to any word or symbol.

  1. Evaluation is the degree of favorableness. How good-bad, fair-unfair, valuable-worthless, honest-dishonest does the word seem.
  2. Activity is the degree of movement or activity in an object or event. How fast-slow, active-passive, varied-repetitive, vibrant-still, dynamic-static does the word seem.
  3. Potency is the feeling of strength and weakness. How strong-weak, heavy-light, hard-soft, serious-humorous does the word seem. Sometimes an intensity (or potency) of certain words increases the connotation like the following:
  • confused > insane
  • trusting > gullible
  • thin > skinny
  • unattractive > revolting
  • sensitive > unpredictable

Can you feel the difference in these words?

Meaning may be derived from an elements position in relationship to other page elements. Two different symbols or images side-by-side can imply a third unspoken meaning. Or something on the page may imply something is happening off the page. The human imagination fills in the blanks. This is called implication. Our imagination is the great special effect method.

THE GRID CONCEPT is from the German Bauhaus design school (1919-1933) The Bauhaus believed industrial potentials were to be applied to satisfactory graphic design standards, regarding both functional and aesthetic aspects. The Grid concept affected all design fields from architecture to product packaging. This invisible grid is consistent from page to page and consists of rows and columns. It is the skeleton for the design. Breaking the grid causes tension in the viewer. Project limitations (time, budget, energy) define what page format will influence the invisible typographic grid. The grid is a structural layout tool. Some grid patterns work best for certain formats, like 12-columns on a newspaper. A grid produces beautiful books, brochures, magazines, and websites. Grids make it possible to bring all the elements of design typography, photography, and drawings into harmony with each other. When telling a story sequentially, over a series of pages, contrast is needed on the overall sequence as well as on the page. Two opposites: the need for order and the need for variety are needed. Without order, the reader is likely to become tired, frustrated, or bewildered by an overabundance of details. Yet without variety, the reader may become bored, overwhelmed, or numbed by too much repetition.

means Emphasizing Everything equals Emphasize Nothing. There is a hierarchy of page elements. This affects placement, size, visual weight, color density, and more. No emphasis creates confusion and visual noise. Obviously, two things cannot be dominant or emphasized at the same time. The page needs a hierarchy of dominant, subordinate, and accent ranking of colors, typography, and images. Without a hierarchy, there is no emphasis. Without emphasis, there is confusion or chaos. The idea is to communicate. Without emphasis, the viewer doesn’t know what to focus on and gets overwhelmed and frustrated. Bad pages have weak focus and weak hierarchy. The central theme or idea would be muddled. Order is determined in the human mind, but there are visual cues that help direct our mind from most important to least. This is not always easy. Sometimes we have to discard something we really like to achieve the right emphasis.

PHOTOGRAPHY IS A PRINCIPLE communication device for design. Good photography generates interest and curiosity. It has energy. The most powerful or novel words in the body text, when converted to images, enable the viewer to quickly fill in the blanks. Photos frequently influence the theme color palette. If photography is beyond the budget, illustration sometimes works in its place but not necessarily for products. Products need the realism of photography even if it’s only a dummy or mock up. The potential customer will generally not believe an illustration or drawing is a real product.

Text placed over photos usually ruins the type and the photo simultaneously. About 30% of space in a publication is allocated to photos, as a rule of thumb. Besides photography as rectangular boxes on the page, it adds interest when we include a cutout photo object or two. A cutout is a photograph from which the background is removed to produce an organic edge. This image breaks the grid. Word wrap can be used around the edge. It’s a visual break from monotony and gives more life and freshens a page.

Photography helps the customer visualize what a product will be like in their possession after delivery. This should give a feeling of empowerment to the customer (not for the product or company.) The customer gets to be the hero, not us.