Interview with Douglas Davis:
Creative Strategy and the Business of Design
To be a successful designer, freelancer, or small business owner you need to understand strategy and business, so to kick off season 3 Ian chats with Douglas Davis, the author of the hugely popular book “Creative Strategy and the Business of Design” to discuss the importance of understanding business, and using a strategic approach when working as a designer. Douglas is the associate professor within the Communication Design department at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn.
IP: In your book, you discuss a number of business terms. Why do you feel that it’s important for designers to know and understand the business lingo that you described in your book?
DD: This is important, Ian, and I’ll tell you a story as a result of answering this question. Back in January 2015, I believe it was, I received a really kind invitation to give a keynote address in St. Petersburg, Russia, at an art and branding conference. So I would be one of four international speakers, the only American. And I was invited to share the stage with the top Russian experts in branding. And so, Ian, my first thought was, “Yeah, right. Who knows my work in Russia. This is fake.” But in New York, everybody knows somebody, and I just happened to have quite a few Russian students in Brooklyn at New York City College of Technology where I teach. And I showed them this invitation, and they were like, “No, professor, this is a legit invite. They’re asking you to come through.” So I’m like, “Wow.”
So fast forward. I’m on state, and the discussion begins in Russian, so I can’t understand anything. My translator, he’s furiously scribbling down notes and every so often he whispers a summary of what’s being discussed in my ear. And I answer a few questions in my opinion with some well-reasoned insight, but to tell you the truth, I can’t be sure that I answered anything because I’m being translated.
So here’s how it went: when I said a lot, I’d pause so the translator could translate. And to that, my translator would respond, “Go on.” So I did. But then when I’d say a little bit, he’d translate for a really long time, and we continued like that, back and forth, standing next to each other on stage. So after my session, I had no idea whether I connected with the audience through translation. Obviously things get lost. The rest of the speakers present, the same translator translate. We do the interviews, he translates. After a full eight-hour day of presentations, the conference is over, Ian.
So we’re all relaxing. We’re at a mixer. The three international presenters and I were acknowledging the translator’s work. We’re all recognizing that this dude was working harder than any of us were individually because he translated the whole day, four presentations, four panel discussions. So, as I’m thanking this guy along with the group, he turns to me and says, “Actually, I’ve never translated before, and I didn’t know how to communicate most of what you guys were saying.”
So you ask why the terms. The takeaway from this story, that I flew halfway around the whole world to basically stand on stage next to these experts and have this guy who couldn’t even communicate what we were saying, is that the reason why I start with the terms is that as visual communicators, we’re asked to translate the rational language of business into the emotional language of design. And the commonality is that communication requires understanding. And business is a language. And yet, we weren’t taught that in design school. Creativity is a method of communication, and most business people, they won’t learn that. So, really, you, your firm, the client can really only get by for so long sitting in meetings nodding your heads when you actually don’t understand each other. That’s why the terms start, first things first.
IP: Yeah, I think what you put together in your book is a really useful guide. I know personally I picked up a lot of the terms you described literally on the job. I’ve been fortunate to be in meetings with more senior people that do understand these terms and you kind of pick them up. But I think if you are freelance or just starting out, you’ve got no idea what these terms are, so I think what you’ve done is a fantastic guide for that, and it will definitely help a lot of people if they haven’t already read your book.
DD: Thank you. I hope so.
IP: So, moving on from that, another important factor of talking the business lingo is designing based on strategy. And I know in your book, you dive into that quite a lot. So I’d be interested to talk about this a little bit more. So what would you say are the benefits of using a strategic approach when working on design?
DD: Right. Well, I personally have found several benefits and they range from landing more creative work to growing the piece of business that you might already have as a freelancer or as a firm or as an agency. But that’s really the low-hanging fruit. Ultimately, designers, really, the real benefit is understanding that what we’re ask to do is that we’re being asked to solve a business problem with design. And I personally think and have found that our way of communicating is a means to an end. And that took me a little while to understand as well. I was like you, on the job, not really understanding what was the high level conversation that was going on. Because in design school, you’re taught make it pretty, make it beautiful, choose the right type face. And those things are important. They’re very important because those are the tangible aspects of brands. And we have to really choose those carefully.
But again, the vocabulary in the first chapter of the book, if you’re familiar with this designer called Tibor Kalman, I think in the ’90s he passed away, but I really love what he talks about in quite a few interviews. But in one interview, he said, “We’re here to inject art into commerce,” and that was at the end of a longer statement from him. But we can’t really do that if we don’t understand what commerce is. So to put it another way, we as people providing creative business solutions, you can unlock the difference between a one-time transaction with a client who needs a logo, and a strategic partnership where you, the creative problem solver, are invaluable to their business. And that last part is what I would say is really the benefit of approaching your job, regardless of who you are and what you do, as a strategist. That’s my philosophy. Approach your job as a strategist. You could be a designer, you could be a coder. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, there’s a reason why we’re in the room and we really have to make sure that we’re not misunderstanding that reason.
IP: Yeah. I know a lot of designers, especially when starting out, they become order takers. And that’s when the client starts treating them almost like a puppet. And I think taking more of a strategic approach, like you said, I always think that it makes you the expert and there’s more respect as well, and it’s a mutual relationship with you and the client. So I think that’s fantastic.
IP: Steering on from that question, to have a different perspective on this, what are the disadvantages of not taking a strategic approach?
DD: Well, I guess I’d leave that to … There’s this gentleman named Fred Nichols. And I guess I would answer that by saying one of his three outcomes, he has four, but I’ll give three of them. His paper’s called “Strategy is Execution. What you do is what you get.” So he lays out a matrix where a sound strategy plus a flawed execution equals a botched job. And really another term for that, Ian, is blame the designer. How many times have you been blamed when something doesn’t quite work out? And at the same time, the real question is, “Hey, what happened in our process between teams?” Obviously something wasn’t clear or didn’t translate, but it’s so much easier to blame the person who doesn’t even understand business in the first place. So, the design didn’t quite come off. Or for some reason we didn’t have what we needed on the execution side. It’s really easy to sort of push that off when there’s a sound strategy or flawed execution, but at the same time, sometimes there’s a sound execution, sometimes we do our job, and yet there’s a flawed strategy. And at that point, you’re shooting yourself or your team in the foot.
DD: So when you look at that, our work was beautiful, but the why behind what things looked like wasn’t solid. And so at that point, now it’s obvious that the creative team should have been brought into the process at the beginning. So when you look at these two situations, they really sum up 50% of all the times where you didn’t have what you needed to do your job. You worked a miracle, freaking miracle, and yet you still weren’t trusted or you were blamed whenever things didn’t work out.
And so the other one is where you can see failure coming a kilometre away. Bad communication, bad process leads to this is definitely not gonna work out. Flawed strategy and flawed execution, that’s never fun. I guess I’d say that the disadvantages are the opposite of approaching your role as a strategist. You’re in a situation where you have to … in some ways you mentioned being an order taker. You’re in a situation where you have to basically accept what’s going on in the room without even understanding what is going on in the room. So, all the times when they come out of the conference room and they’re like, “Hey, we need to see five versions of whatever it is by 3:00. And give me some coffee too.”
At that point it becomes, “Why are we doing that channel in the first place?” If you can’t even ask those questions, if you can’t even recognize that what you’re being asked to do, the channel you’re being asked to do it in, the target that you’re being asked to reach, and all those things don’t align, then how many times do you think you’re gonna be asked to revise that? Because as the designer, as the person standing in between the client and the target that we’re trying to reach, I always say that we, as designers and creative people, we provide that spoonful of sugar that make business and marketing objectives palatable to the public. And so if that person, who’s supposed to take that message to a specific target in the channel that they speak in, if that person doesn’t understand how to question the answers that either our clients or coworkers are coming to us with, then that’s a real issue. So I think as designers, we can find inspiration in order. And at that point, we can recognise when we don’t have what we need to do our jobs and then we can ask for it.
IP: I think some of what you said then is probably resonating with some of the people listening because they are probably in the situation where they are working on logos or branding or whatever they are, and they are being treated as a puppet. They are constantly having to make changes and stuff like that. So what I’m trying to stress with this podcast is the importance of using strategy. Now, one thing that I do find when we start talking about a strategic approach, a lot of people will be thinking how do I do that, what do I need to do. And I know in your book you mentioned about using a creative strategy framework. Could you explain what that is and you would use it? And if possible, kind of steer it around logo design or branding in some way so that the audience can relate with it.
DD: Absolutely. So, if you do have the book already, Creative Strategy in the Business of Design, the tool is introduced on page 42, but chapters six and seven are completely dedicated to it. So, what is it? Well, first I developed it during my time at New York University. And it is the basis of how I serve my clients. My approach is the basis of the philosophy in my classroom at New York City College of Technology, where I teach in the communication design department. So I’ve used it for new business pitches, focusing creative briefs, group strategy sessions, or even as a thought-started tool when it’s time to begin design. I always say that as the very beginning, because I never know who exactly is listening. There may be some more mid-level or senior folks who are managing teams and things of that sort, so just to get the value of how to use this tool out front.
Information overload was a huge issue for me when I began to learn business. So, this is one of those tools where I learned to weave strategy into the creative process that’s just focused on relevant information. And it for me ensures that the work is on brand, on strategy, and on message. So, what is it? There are four columns and three steps to use in this. First column is the target. And that’s where I’m in a short fragment trying to boil down who we’re talking to in demographic, psychographic, and behavioural characteristics. So, if I were to use a urban single parent who something else, some other descriptor, but it would help me to understand, this is where they live, this is their life stage, this is what things might be like in their house and how they make decision. So that’s the first column, that’s the target.
Then I move to the facts, that’s the second column. And really that’s the facts on whatever we’re doing. Is it brand, product, or service? And that’s gonna be really important whenever you’re designing logos because you’re gonna want to understand is this a rebrand and what heritage has this brand been through? Or is this a launch, is there no heritage to draw on? What are the connotations that they’re trying to articulate based on the product or based on the features or the benefits, which is the next column, column three.
The last column is the message or the objective. And this is depending on what’s needed. So if you’re pitching or if you’re freelance, you may be proposing a brand campaign. So, if you’re proposing a brand campaign, the message might be really important, what people need to take away when they come in contact with your packaging or the application of your logo or identity system. Or if you’re in a meeting and the client comes in and says “We need to increase brand awareness.” That’s an objective that would go into that column. And that really would be the only thing that would be in that column unless you were proposing other objectives.
So, in my experience, the quickest way to really get utility out of this framework is to write down your notes from kickoff meetings. And again, this is speaking to senior designers and art director folks or creative directors. You can write down your notes directly into this framework in the kickoff meeting. And then transition those notes into a brainstorming session on a whiteboard, either by yourself or with your designers who report to you.
First step is quantity. And you’ll need to just remember that when you’re creating, we never receive all the information from one place, or even at one time. It’s really a process. And that’s how step one is completed. You’re just putting as many things in those columns as you can find from the website, you’re gonna be on the website. You’re going into chat rooms or you’re going to places where people post about the brand, Yelp. You’re finding good information, bad information about that logo or about that identity or about that brand really. Because if somebody’s speaking about the brand, they’re talking about all the different touch-points that you’re going to either have to influence or recreate or in some way address through design. So that’s the first step.
And even though I’ve left briefings with either too much information or irrelevant information, I’ve never left with all the information. But even after I think go back to the creative team and transition us to the whiteboard and we keep going, and we get more information or all the information. At that point we still have to whittle it down to the right information. So step two is quality. And this is where you question each element in each column, such as, “Hey is this target accurate? And if so, what aspect of who they are or what they believe or what they do is most important to this particular assignment. That’s where you’re gonna have to add a little bit of brain power to figure out as either a group or as the senior creative who’s going through this, which aspect is more important? Is it who they are, like the facts? They’re a man, they’re a woman, they’re married, this is how much household income they make.
When they’re married, this is how much household income they make. They have this many kids, or they have no kids. Is that more important, or is what they think or believe, how they make decisions, is that more important? Because at that point, you can then refine what you have concerning their target. Because if you can’t get the target right, there’s nothing to aim at. So your logo, your colours, your choices, your channels, where you speak, all of that is going to be built according to how well you understand who you’re talking to.
And then the next column, in the fact column, we’re asking ourselves, can we build a campaign concept on that? Or can we build an identity on that? So if there’s something in their history … Again, really easy example, BMW started out with, I guess, making propellers, or engines, sorry. So it was about engineering, and so the logo is really a propeller. That’s in their heritage. The engineering is in their heritage. And so obviously, that came about when it was time to design the logo itself. These are the types of things that you’re gonna wanna ask yourself of all the elements in that column. Can I build a logo concept on that? And if not, then you should take it away.
Another recent example is Apple for instance. Apple started, I believe, in a garage. Steve Jobs and, I believe, Wozniak…
IP: Steve Wozniak?
DD: … Steve Wozniak, right?
DD: So they’re in the garage and they’re starting Apple. So when you’re looking at that, if you’re doing a brand heritage campaign, maybe that is relevant, but not necessarily for the logo itself. You’re not gonna add a garage door to the apple. It’s not gonna be relevant. So really, this is gonna require your judgment.
So yeah, you’re not gonna add a garage door to the logo itself. So this is where, as a designer … Again, this is just a framework. You’re going to have to … And it’s only as good as the information and the thinking that goes into it. So you’re gonna have to think through whether something is relevant to what you’re being asked to work on right now. If the answer’s no, you can take it out of there, that second column.
Then features and benefits. So this is a complete list of features that we’re saying that this product offers. Are they aligned with the right benefits? Now remember, this is a ratio. This is where you connect the brand and the target. Brands are concerned with features. People are concerned with benefits, like, what is that going to do for me?
So you’re gonna have to understand all of that, because your identity, your logo system is going to need to be the platform where the other communications are built on top of that, if that makes sense, ’cause the last thing you wanna do is create something that’s going to be forgettable, where the brand is spending all this money, and yet people can’t really remember who’s bringing them this message or where that packaging is coming from.
So the last column, the messaging, what exactly should the target understand, the people who you’re trying to talk to, when they come in contact with our posters, our branding, our campaign work? And that’s going to go into the way you’re using space, the typefaces that you’re proposing. All of that is going to articulate whether this is an upmarket brand. Is this something that’s about convenience? Who are your competitors? All that stuff has to factor into your work. And obviously, that’s clear to all your listeners.
But what I wanna do here is explain that this tool is to help you organise all that information and then pull out what’s relevant to what you’re being asked to solve. And that’s the third step. You’re connecting the dots. You’re looking across the categories for horizontal connections. This is about finding inspiration in order. And the value here is about the unexpected connections that emerge across categories. Really, ultimately you should end up with quite a few options that you could discuss.
And really, I saw on Facebook earlier where you were addressing presentation. This particular part is where those two things align. So once you’re pulling out that thread, and you’re looking across categories, and you’re choosing one piece of information from each category, you can then defend your concept or write a creative brief or begin brainstorming concepts.
Or if you’re in a meeting, an internal, or if you’re in front of the client, you can defend your work or start presenting it like this. Based on the target’s need or behavior, so that’s the first thing, let’s start a conversation censored around this fact or truth from the second column using this feature or benefit and any headline or copy or messaging and deliver this message or accomplish this objective.
The way I like to talk about strategy when I’m speaking to creative people is it’s like brainstorming for a chess match. And the last thing I’ll say on this is that you’ll notice the benefits of weaving business and marketing considerations into your creative process when you notice that you’re defending the work without being defensive.
That’ gonna be a really important benefit of being able to organisation your thoughts and then focus only on what you’re being asked to solve in a way that … especially if you’re in a situation where you’re being viewed as an order taker. If you sort or come in like this, it’ll be a very different dynamic in the meeting, because of the fact that you’re addressing the things that are keeping people up at night.
IP: Well I know when I work in this way what you can do is you can basically explain to the client that this is what we’re trying to achieve. And you can then present your work based on that and encourage any feedback based on that. And what that does is it keeps you in control of the whole process. And it stops the client making silly suggestions that could essentially ruin your work, ’cause what you’re doing is you’re all working towards the same goal. And it means that you can kind of stand up for what you’re doing, any choices that you’ve made. You can actually explain the reason why you’ve done that to achieve specific things. So the framework that you’ve explained sounds fantastic for that.
DD: Yeah, it’s definitely helped. And you’re mentioning a couple things that I wanna manage people’s expectations on. You’re never going to able to completely get rid of the left-field, crazy suggestion that we need to merge all of them together. Let’s use purple. I like Chelsea. Use the blue from … There’s all these different things that, at the end of the day, if you’re not trusted, or if your client is ignorant of what we do … now again, that’s not saying stupid. That’s not saying stupid. But that is saying that you are the expert in the room. That’s saying that they’re not versed on what you’ve been taught and the way you’ve been taught to solve problems.
So I believe that, as designers, we are inherently teachers, because we have to teach our clients why this is the best way forward. We have to teach them why we shouldn’t do that, why we need to do that, why we need to do that for this amount of time, in this way, in that channel, why things need to look like this and not like this. That’s a part of our job.
So we’ll never be able to throw out the possibility that if we set this thing up in the right way, if we do everything right and check all the boxes, if we learn language fluently, business fluently, and we’re able to walk into that meeting, you’re going to increase the probability that things go well. And you’ll be able to drive things back on the road when they start going left or right. But at the end of the day, this is gonna be a process for you. It’s gonna be a process for them.
IP: Yeah, I totally agree with what you said then, because to some degree, what we’re doing is subjective. So everyone’s always gonna have some kind of opinion. But like I said, working in this way gives you the best possible opportunity of actually getting the work agreed and I think adds more value as well, ’cause you’re on the same level as the client.
Now you briefly mentioned about presenting the work. And I just wanted to ask the question just to expand on that. Could you give some tips of how you would actually go about presenting your work when working strategically. How would you go about doing that?
DD: Yeah, so just one last thought that sort of will lead us into this answer. Yes, we can say that this is subjective. We can say that. And everybody has an opinion. But I need every designer or creative person listening to understand that, yes, everybody has an opinion, but clients pay us for our analysis.
So it’s gonna be really important for you to come into the room knowing what you think and why. And I think, in terms of getting good feedback, it’s gonna be really important, because that’s gonna … what you think and why you think that, your analysis of the client business problem, the other competitors who they’re trying to face, are they a challenger, or are they the top brand in the category, all those things need to factor into what you’re creating and how you’re presenting it, which logo you end up choosing, or which three logos you end up choosing to present to them, however your agreement is going to work, all those things need to factor into it.
So that when you walk into the room, and you have an opinion, you can have that opinion rooted in all those things, and you can start peppering your answers. You can start peppering your setup with nods to those things, so that you’re really explaining to this person, you’re teaching them, that you understand, that you’ve listened to what their business problem is, that you understand what’s keeping them up at night.
And so I personally believe that part of getting good feedback is really ensuring that you’re doing your job in the presentation by giving the audience or the client exactly what they need to understand, the business rational, for the creative choices that you’re recommending.
I also think it’s really about who’s in the room. So if I’m presenting to a business or a marketing team or client, they really want the recommendation first. Then they want why that’s the recommendation. So that dovetails into everything I was just saying. You’ve gotta understand the business problem.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re presenting internally to your creative director or art director trying to get to the next phase or trying to be the firm’s recommendation to the client, as a design audience, we wanna hear the process, and then we wanna see the result at the end, like, ta-da!
But a business person doesn’t wanna hear any of that process, because they didn’t go to school to learn about typefaces. They don’t understand what we do. And so talking to them is like wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah. It’s almost like when you’re speaking to a technical client or a technical coworker. And you’re asking them, “Well why does this site not have this particular functionality? And then they tell you all this backing and coding language. And you’re like, “Dude, why doesn’t the functionality …?” Like, “Give me an answer.”
You gotta understand when an answer is not an answer. Even though they’re giving you the answer, if you don’t understand it, it’s not an answer. So it’s the same thing here. This is a really important point. And I wrote this in the chapter in the book called Sell Without Selling. There’s a whole chapter on this.
But this is gonna be a really important thing to remember, that you’re gonna have to think about who’s in the room. If you’re speaking to that business or marketing audience, just lead with the recommendation. Here’s the decision. Here’s what we decide. This is what we don’t recommend, and here’s why. Whereas speaking to a designer, start with the process. We were inspired by an insight that we saw, whatever it is. And then you talk about how that led you to the end.
That sort of leads into another couple of things. Are you speaking to a decision maker or an influencer? And the difference between these two is if I’m definitely talking to the person who’s gonna green light the project or write the check or kill the project or not write that check, you have to know that going into the presentation, because you need to frame it in a way that’s gonna help them to get to yes.
That’s why, again, I’ll go back to what I said earlier. You must understand the context of the business problem that you’re being asked to solve with design, through design, with marketing, with strategy. It’s imperative that you understand that, because if you’re speaking to that decision maker, and it comes across that you’re not factoring in that stuff, then the conversation’s gonna be over quick. And then nothing’s gonna go forward.
Now if you’re speaking to an influencer, so if you gotta talk to a person who’s then gonna talk to the decision maker, you also need to know that, because your presentation has to be transferable. The last thing you wanna do is present something, give them your best pitch, ensure they’re gonna recommend, and then leave in their hands to remember everything you said the way you said it in your meeting, when you know that they’re not a creative person.
So you’re gonna need to make sure, in that sense, that the feedback is coming from you deciding to write down everything that you’re actually going to present in person. The reason why you’re presenting in person is that you’re getting to the decision maker through this influencer. But at the end of the day, you’re sending a presentation, a deck, something, after you leave this physical presentation. And then whatever you leave behind is going to go from the influencer to the decision maker.
At that point you can decide through designing that presentation, adding whatever copy you need to add to it in the way that you presented it, so that someone can read it. They can pass it around the organisation. And it’s going to be, ultimately, the same impact as if you were in the room, even though, obviously, can’t be the exact same impact. But you just don’t wanna leave it to that person who is the influencer.
And I feel like at that point you can get great feedback, because you’re laying the groundwork, and you’re rooting what you’re talking about in the context of the business and the marketing objectives. And so at that point, you’re framing what you’re doing. And in some ways, the way that you said earlier you’re reminding them that here’s the problem that we’re facing. This is the answer that I’m proposing. So you can then have that be the yardstick.
The worst thing you wanna do is walk into the room, and I made these mistakes, walk into the room and just be like, “Ta-da! Here it is,” with no context, because at that point, you don’t give the reviewer the yardstick with which to judge whether you’ve actually met the criteria or solved the problem.
At that point you’re begging for them to say “I don’t like it, or, “I like it,” even if they love it, right? That love is not based on anything but subjectivity at that point. So if it’s not about does this work, or does this not work, and why, according to the target, or why, according to the business problem, or why, because of the brand heritage, and that’s why I chose this identity system. That’s why I chose this typeface. That’s why I chose this logo. That’s why I’m recommending this. That’s why I’m not recommending that. At that point, you’ve set the stage to get the best feedback possible. I’m hoping some of that answers that question.
IP: Yeah, it does, very much so. I’ve got a followup question, actually. You mentioned about going into the meeting and desperately want to go, “Ta-da! Here’s what we did.” How would you actually set the scene? Would you recap what you spoke about in the previous meetings, like the strategy that he was working towards or run through some kind of story? Could you talk through how you would go about doing that, so that you are kinda like laying the foundation, so that you don’t get that initial subjective feedback?
DD: Yeah, so I have a structure that I love. And again, structures and frameworks are this is what worked for me. This is what works for me. And at different points, I’ll do something different, but …
Me and at different points I’ll do something different. But ultimately I’d like to start with the insight. I like to start with what truth did I find about the brand, product or service, the business category, the people that we’re trying to talk to. What exactly is the pain point? What exactly was the business problem? Because you can say, “Hey, we want to increase sales.” Obviously you’re trying to increase sales among a certain group of people. So before you can do that you’ve got to understand why they look for what it is that you’re trying to sell and then figure out, well how does that fit into what they believe? So again this is why going back to being able to use that framework is really important, because while you’re observing those people, while you’re looking at what actually happens and trying to understand, “Well why do they do that,” you’re ultimately going to hopefully extract insights.
That’s an observation that you then say, “Well this is happening,” and you try to make sense of why. I always start with that because that ends up inspiring the concept itself that I’m then going to execute. From there I talk people through what the executions are. At that point I can just read the work or show them or take them through what I did. It all is based on something that came from research, either from their brand heritage, either from the people that we’re trying to talk to or from the business category at large so that it’s really clear how the rational sort of data points that we’re all being asked to pour through then turned into emotional language that we call design. And then it becomes clear because you’re drawing a straight line between what the research was and the business problem was and the execution, your solution is.
You really help them to understand that at that point. So that’s what I do. Now, again you have to read the room. Who are you in the room with? How much explaining do you have to do? I remember being in a lot of situations where you’ve almost got the yes and then for whatever reason there’s this hesitation and they say, “Oh, this is great. Let’s do this exact same presentation with someone else in the room, my partner or whoever.” Now when this partner comes out of nowhere it’s almost like, “Okay. So we thought we were talking to a decision-maker but we’re only talking to an influencer.” Or for some reason the fear is still there and we need to figure out exactly what that fear is so we can address it. Does that make sense?
IP: Yeah it does.
DD: So there’s all these different things that you’re going to have to as a designer read. Now again this, I’m not saying that you’re going to come out of school and be able to do all this stuff. You’re going to screw it up. That’s the way it works. And that is okay. That’s actually good because you need to see how many ways something can go. I remember being one of the youngest people in the room who just presented some concepts for a restaurant we have here called Ruby Tuesday. And the client was asking questions about what the concept was behind the imagery that we chose and why we were doing things. I was probably all of 25, 26 years old. I had just proposed that we even start the digital arm of this advertising agency so no-one else knew how to do this stuff in the room. And yet I didn’t know that the questions that the client was asking me had to do with the fact that they weren’t convinced on this particular point.
I couldn’t understand that because I was too young. So I wasn’t even ready to have that meeting because I was too young. And yet because I was the youngest person in the room I was able to be the expert on this digital stuff that no-one else in the room understood. Does that make sense?
IP: Yeah it does.
DD: You’re always going to be in situations where maybe you’re not ready even though you’re the most qualified person on that particular point. At that point just do the best you can. Yes you might lose the business, yeah, the media might go bad. But at the end of the day that’s going to be a learning point for you and you’re going to be able to bring that to your level of experience going forward. You don’t win them all. You’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some.
IP: Yeah, I agree with that. What I tend to do, as a piece of advice, what I normally give out is that every time you screw up you need to learn from that and apply it back into your business. I mean I’ve done it so many times where when I started out I offered unlimited revisions.
DD: Oh wow.
IP: Well I literally thought, in the agency I worked at they had bad clients. I thought, “Yeah, I can get good clients and I can keep control of this.” But then the first time I had someone that just kept coming back and back and back I just put in new processes so I could do unlimited revisions but within the quote there’s a fixed amount of time. I always say that there’s no set way of doing things, you kind of need to find your own way of doing it. But if you learned from those mistakes, you screw up, it doesn’t matter. You just learn from it and improve your business ongoing. So I think that was really good advice. Now I think we’ve got time. I want to ask you one of the questions from someone in the Facebook community because I asked everyone in there if they’ve got any questions. I thought Steph had a really good question. He asked, “How do you present strategy in your portfolio and how do you make a strong case for it?”
DD: Steph, big shout out from Brooklyn. How do you present strategy in your portfolio? Just keep this in mind. You’re going to attract the type of client that your work says that you can service. So if your work sucks or let’s say you’ve already gone beyond the ability that you’re showing in your website because you’ve been so busy doing the work that you haven’t updated your portfolio online. You’ve got to remember that people are going to respond to the level of work that they see that you can do. Brands are going to respond only if they feel like you’re doing the caliber of work that they’re used to. So the first thing is to understand that what you give off is what you’re going to attract. How do you make the case for strategy is you have to make sure that you’re presenting what the business case is in your portfolio.
This goes back to what we were talking about earlier about having things be transferable. Back in the day whenever you could just drop off your portfolio physically and you had multiple copies of the portfolio you physically went somewhere and dropped it off. Now you’re being weeded out at 1:00 in the morning whenever the intern is looking through who you’re going to call in the next morning. So you’ve got to understand that the first point of … I guess the first cut that you make is being a part of the people who we’re going to call in the next morning to actually meet maybe five people out of the 500. Making the case for a strategy needs to happen upfront in your portfolio and the way that you’re presenting what the problem was. That’s going to require designers to write. You’re going to have to make sure that you’re setting up what the business problem is right there on your website.
Or right there in whatever format that you’re using. And you’ve got to lay out what the business problem is. You’ve got to talk about what exactly you’re being asked to solve before you then talk through what the insight is and then what your concept is. The same way that I was saying that I like to walk into the room to frame what I’m presenting is the same way that you’re going to do that in writing on your portfolio. It doesn’t have to be several pages but you make the case for strategy by presenting your work within the strategic framework. You make the case for a strategy by making sure that you frame what you’re doing creatively within the context of how those decisions addressed and therefore solved the business problem. And you’re going to need to do that on your website so that you can get past the person who is cutting people out who don’t understand that stuff.
And then the next phase is to go in in person and then make sure that you’re continuously referencing, and not just as this very stiff, scripted way. But more so the questions that you’re being asked, you need to then frame or at least respond in a way that shows that you’re considering all of the business and marketing objectives, the business problems that might be relevant to that situation. And at that point that’s how you’re making the case because you’re standing on strategy if that makes sense.
IP: That’s fantastic advice. Now we’re close to the end of our time so I just want to ask you one last question just to wrap things up. If you could offer one piece of advice to designers just starting out what would that be?
DD: I love this question. Find a fear and then push past it. So many creatives, whether they’re young or whether they’re not, they’re afraid of making the wrong decision or they’re afraid of failure. Screw that. Failure is how I got here, so fail. Fail hard, fail often. And then find out what you think from your mistakes. Just remember this, that everybody has an opinion buy clients, our clients, they pay for our analysis. I address this fear in Chapter 14 I believe, Chapter 14 of my book. It’s basically I created a short film and I dedicated it to anybody who’s willing to address their fear or to even admit it. People who are dealing with their fear I believe are going to be stronger for it. But the short film that I created is called Slay and it’s a visual essay about successfully managing fear.
It just chronicles the story of the fact that for me, and again I’m still afraid of things. I want to be really clear about that. No pedestals, none of that stuff. I’m still afraid of memorising stuff and again I’m a public speaker. I speak all over the world and yet memorising something and delivering it in a room full of people is terrifying even though I’ve been doing this for 20 years. So I basically decided to take a stand up comedy class at New York City. For five minutes standing on stage in front of strangers who were showing up to be entertained, I mean talk about scary.
DD: My God. What am I thinking? You know what I’m saying, you know? But again, find the fear. How do I write a chapter in a book about successfully managing fear, Dragon Slaying is the Chapter 14, that’s what it’s called. How do I write that chapter unless I’m doing that myself? So everybody faces doubt, fear or excuses but a creative person has to fight those things to unleash the creativity inside. Fear is a dragon that won’t shut up. You have to silence it. This visual essay really illustrates that struggle to push past the fear that hinders creativity and again it’s inspired by Chapter 14, Dragon Slaying of creative strategy and the business of design. I hope that inspires anybody listening to successfully fight their fear and push past that to move into a position of strength and more business. So you can see that on my website at Thinkhowtheythink.com. That’s my advice, find that fear.
IP: I am definitely going to check that out. I think that’s amazing advice. I can relate to that because one of the reasons why I’m actually doing the podcast is because I have a fear of public speaking and-
IP: Well a few years back I was diagnosed with social anxiety and I had quite … It wasn’t bad stuttering but when I was under pressure I stuttered and podcasting has been a really useful way to overcome that. I’ve been going to speaking classes, stuff like that.
DD: That’s great.
IP: If I didn’t do any of that I wouldn’t now be talking to you.
IP: I think it’s good to … I think it’s better to try and fail than to never try. You don’t want to be an 80-year-old man looking back and regretting. You don’t want to regret never trying. I think you can do a lot by facing your fears and I think it’s more rewarding as well. Like you’re living rather than just hiding and never facing your fears. Once you start facing your fears and come through the other side it’s more rewarding than any other thing that you can do in life so I think that’s fantastic advice.
DD: I respect you Ian and again I appreciate you as someone, again in the public eye, we’re leaders and I don’t take that lightly. So I always talk about my own weaknesses so I respect you for mentioning your struggle as well because it will help people listening. We are normal people, we put our pants on one leg at a time. Though people see us and they appreciate what we’ve been doing I appreciate the Logo Geek community. I’m thankful to even be on this podcast and it’s just really important to talk about fear and what we struggle with because hopefully it does help somebody to push past what they’re going through. So thank you for this opportunity.
IP: Yeah, no worries. Thank you very much. Well Douglas, it’s been a fantastic interview and as I said it’s been a real honor to be able to speak to you. I want everyone to check out your book. There’s so much in there, there’s so much amazing advice in your book.
DD: So much in that, thank you.
IP: I think it’s essential reading. There’s so many books out there and I think yours is one of the ones that are worth picking up first and reading through because you’re going to get a lot out of that. So I appreciate you sharing some of the information from the book and I want people to go and buy your book now. So Douglas, thank you very much.
DD: Thank you so much Ian. Take care.
Logo Geek Podcast Sponsored by FreshBooks
FreshBooks is an online accounting software that makes it easy to create and send invoices, to track time and to manage your incoming and outgoing money. It’s designed specifically for small creative businesses, so it’s beautifully designed, and continually optimised and improved. I highly recommend it, and you can try it out for yourself free for 30 days. Go check FreshBooks out!