More thoughts by Samantha Warren
Marketing websites: we have all made them. They’re the online version of a brochure, better than a PDF download but not quite something that supports a dynamic flow of content. An easy win from the perspective of a design agency or freelancer; there isn’t a ton of backend tech, they are predictable in scope, and produce understandable metrics. Not only can we create a known set of deliverables, we are nearly guaranteed that they will need a new redesign in 2-3 years (bonus, more business!).
But, who the hell makes decisions about what they buy solely based on a marketing website? How much time do you spend browsing product marketing sites each week? Whether it’s choosing a restaurant or buying a car, I rarely observe influences in behavior based only on static marketing lingo on a website. Instead, I believe people spend their time online where they connect with other people or find transparent data.
Frequently I see people making decisions based on word of mouth, too. Whether it be from a trusted friend or an anonymous rating, people tend to value the sentiment of a third-party far above that of manicured communications. In the project discovery process I have heard some refer to this as a “social media component” or making a site “sharable”, but I loathe that terminology. Rather than getting inventive in how we facilitate this conversation we just sell our clients the same sites that we have sold them before.
Are we being as creative as we can be when it comes to connecting people online?
In the summer of 2002 I worked a few blocks from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I would often eat lunch there and it wasn’t long before I discovered the one work of art that has lived with me ever since.
Crowd Scene by Sidney Goodman is a realistic panorama that barely reveals the back of a group of people looking at something. The subjects are juxtaposed against an evening sky, basking in the warm glow of a low hanging sun. The scene is cropped in a way that makes the viewer feel as if they are looking up, while subtle hints of retro clothing and classic cars transport you to a time long passed.
What are they looking at? Where are they? Who are they? Wait, what on earth are they looking at?
It was hypnotic: first the feeling and then the questions, spinning out of control in my mind.
Goodman painted a mesmerizing atmosphere rather than a mere landscape. It was as though he’d started a sentence that I couldn’t help but to jump in to finish. Like Alice being thrown down a rabbit hole, I was delightfully lost inside of the Crowd.
I often think of this experience and the mood that Goodman created in that painting when I am designing. Setting a mood so that users can fill in the blanks is of paramount importance. Sometimes we are designing for content and other times we are designing for the content yet to be created. Wherever possible, I strive to make that place people go to for the journeys still to be discovered. A place like Goodman’s Crowd Scene.
Crowd Scene was rotated into storage years ago, much like some of my favorite web experiences. I check the museum on trips back to Virginia, but the painting remains tucked away somewhere. According to the VMFA website, the Lewis Gallery of Realist Art is scheduled to open March 2, 2013 with work from Sidney Goodman. My fingers are crossed that Crowd Scene will be housed in this gallery.
Style is the most distinguishably unique aspect of a designer’s identity. While style can be defined as a visual execution in a design, it can also be how a designer decides to execute. It is the most personal attribute of being a designer, and while a style may differ depending on the context of the problem being solved for, it is an essential quality that contributes to the evolution of a designer’s career. It is as personal and unique as a singer’s voice.
I can truthfully say, out loud, that “Gangnam Style” is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. It is! Is it any better or worse than the latest Atoms for Peace album? Hmmmm… If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us! What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork, come in, come in! Pitchfork, we need you to help us determine the value of a song! Who fucking cares! I fucking LOVE IT! Who is to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowin in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera. “Mmmmm… I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next…” It’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last…
—Dave Grohl SXSW Keynote 2013
While one could measure the success of a design, when it comes to emotion and innovation there is a lot to be learned from Grohl’s statements about taste. As an industry the more we push agendas around style and taste the more creativity we stunt. Find your own style as a designer and not only will you be happy, but you will do your best work.
A few years ago a friend asked me what I was doing differently; my design work had “just gotten better”. She had worked with me in a previous environment and was collaborating with me on a project at different agency. It was clear that something had changed, but it was hard for me to articulate what it was; not only that, I felt noticeably happier. Without realizing it, I had found a way for me to maintain my “flow” at work.
Flow meaning my actual mental state: I was in my zone, designing like time didn’t exist, food didn’t need to be eaten, and all the puzzle pieces were snapping into place. It was a luxury that I tried to ration to myself for fear of becoming an unsocial hermit. It was a state fostered by a complex web of factors, all contributing to my ability to find my optimal state: being highly challenged and having the skills to meet those challenges without interference. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me at the time, but things like having a solid organizational infrastructure, working with a supportive team and reporting to management who championed my need to succeed all helped contribute to my happiness. Overall it was a cultural system that empowered me to seek my own challenges and face them uninterrupted.
I didn’t know this was an actual recognized psychological state until I watched a documentary called Happy, where I was introduced to the positive psychology concepts of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi doesn’t just recognize my flow, he says it contributes to happiness. This perfect storm of factors actually contributed to me feeling very content.
While flow had previously been an achievable mental state while working on personal projects, painting, or gardening, I am not sure I truly had found a sustainable state at work. Contrary to popular belief there is no recipe for the perfect environment for a designer. I have had conversations with friends who swear that exposed brick and hip furniture make them feel more creative. Others feel inspired when they can dress however they want.
Both process and culture are the two most underrated topics in the design industry. They form the infrastructure that can make or break a project; it dictates how teams work together, how communication is performed, and how a designer finds their flow against all challenges that face them in creating a solution. We talk about innovation, but how do we build the systems that breed it?
Just because you can do it all doesn’t mean you should do it all. Focus can mean the difference between good and great.
The thing about improv is that it isn’t about being funny, it’s about being a creative contributor to a larger whole. Web design is very similar, I like to think of it as a team sport. Every role has a very specific contribution to something much bigger than the people who built it. Live performance has a lot in common with an online experience.
I am currently taking an improv class and here are a few of the things I have learned from it:
- Don’t try to be anything; good, funny, or energetic. Just be.
The harder you try to be any one thing, the more you miss the opportunity that presents itself at the time. In design, react to your client’s needs, your team’s capabilities, and your user’s goals. Preconceived ideas can limit your possibilities.
- Make your partner look good
Set the people up around you to make awesome. Whether you are in a scene or on a design team every role is equally important and the better everyone else is doing, the higher they can elevate you to succeed.
- Say “Yes, and…”
The word “no” can ruin project and scene mojo pretty fast. In both design and improv the sky is the limit, you can keep things positive while still setting realistic expectations. With the ever-changing nature of the industry, flexibility is invaluable.
- Know everyone’s name
I am horrible with names. The. Worst. (Though I am pretty good at remembering Twitter handles. ;-) ) Learning everyone’s names in my improv class has been a serious challenge for me, but the benefits have been off the chart. No matter who the next person I get thrown into a scene with is, I know their name. Knowing your team will help create a bond and respect for working quickly under pressure.
Taking an improv class has had an impact on my perspective as a designer and my role in the teams that I work with. If you have the chance to take a class I highly recommend it.
Here are the dates of Samantha Warren's future thoughts
- Tuesday, 16 July
- Friday, 16 August
- Monday, 16 September
- Wednesday, 16 October
- Saturday, 16 November
- Monday, 16 December