Weeknotes 15

Posted Week #34, 2015

Airports are good for this kind of thing, I guess. I'm back off to the UK for a few days. What is it about airports that encourages reflection? Maybe it's all the shiny surfaces.

Work has been busy. I feel like we're finding our feet a little bit, and we had some POs signed off on some proposals we put forward last month. It's a huge piece of work that will see us through pretty much to the end of the year I imagine. We also have another client looking to pilot some of our ideas in one of their markets next year. And those pilots should be damn interesting. We have aimed for a brand to do something useful, rather than something noisy. And if it all works as it should, then we will have helped a brand develop a series of services that people actually want to use. What I mean by that is that often when brands develop services (and sometimes products) customers are coerced or 'incentivised' to use them. Which feels backwards. As Ben Terret (HERO) tweeted at some point last week, 'The product is the service is the marketing'. That feels good.

Something else that has been buzzing around in my empty head lately is this phrase 'there is no strategy without execution'. One of my barf-worthy clients used to say it all the time, and I had no idea what they were banging on about. The idea of 'strategy' had always seemed awkward to me – that if you have to mention it, then it's kind of pointless – that this is part and parcel of the design process. So whenever anyone uttered the word 'strategy' then my brain would flip some kind of mental trip-switch and I'd start thinking about flowers or skateboarding or beer or whatever. But then I kinda started to embrace the idea a little bit, and even got bogged down with calling myself a strategic designer for a bit, whatever the hell that is. ANYWAY now this phrase is starting to make sense. I think. Here's an attempt to give form to some abstract thinking. It's the first time I've tried to write this down and I might not eventually agree with all ths. Anyway, here goes:

The idea of design strategy feels like a hangover. From a time when design and its implementation was very expensive. The tools required to practise design demanded that a lot of time and effort was spent planning and implementing — paste-up, drawing-boards, marking-up proofs, press passing, printing (and that's just graphic design – imagine product or service design, or advertising). The tools and processes were slow (by todays standards) and everything was so permanent. Of course it made sense to really think about your approach before getting started, because if you went the wrong way then it was a costly mistake to correct.

Strategy gave you a buffer. It allowed you to think about, and plan what you were going to do as a designer. To look at the market and opportunity, formulate the best approach, think about a clear and concise 'positioning' (or if you like plain words, just have an opinion). And by giving this part of the design process a name, you could bill for it.

And now there's a whole industry built up around strategic services for design. Part creative, part management consulting. And there are also designers (like me) who want to build up their strategic credibility. This should be a good thing. But all too often it means you spend six weeks talking about a brief, then another six weeks writing it, blah blah blah round and round you go, talking, refining, discussing, 'articulating', and waffling. And then, when it all seems to make sense, when you've crafted the perfect narrative and raison d'etre (get me) you put pen to paper and begin actually designing.

And then it all falls apart. Because you're bound by a strategy that you've sold, and it doesn't translate. It doesn't work. Because the narrative is too neat, too tidy, lacking nuance. It's making your work boring and safe. And now you have an internal client that you answer to as well as an external one. So it takes longer to get things out of the door when you do have something that's starting to work. Things can take so long that ideas never come to life. So the strategy is academic. It doesn't matter any more because it didn't go anywhere (or it went somewhere shit). So there is no strategy without execution.

But now it's different. Design tools are so fast. They're so cheap, too. Never before has it been so quick and easy to give form to ideas. This doesn't apply to just graphic design either, but all kinds of design – business, product, service, advertising, blah blah. There's only one strategy that anyone should have: if there's an idea that might work, that feels good and right, then test it. Make it somehow and test it. Right away. Testing ideas can be as simple as building a website outlining the idea and seeing if anyone signs up to learn more, or building a prototype of an app and letting people play with it, or 3D printing a scale-model of something, or making a film about it or a poster or whatever. And through that journey, either your idea gets better or it dies. And if you do this a number of times for many different projects then your ideas get quicker and easier and better.

My zines are now for sale in a shop over here called Naiise. It was surprisingly easy to get them stocked. Not sure if anyone will buy them, but it's not really a problem if they don't. It just feels good to have them in there. We shall see.

Listening to:

Heresy mixes