Lately I've been thinking about how I manage my work. I'm curious how other designers and self-employed folks tackle it, but haven't found any detailed conversations along these lines. Since so many of us work in isolation, maybe it's helpful to share our approaches and how they've evolved over the years. Some of you in larger corporate and agency settings may also find it just as interesting. So I'll go first. Here's a fairly detailed description of how I manage my workload, with a few recommendations at the end.
Soucier Design launched on April 1, 2010. The timing was right — I had given my employer notice several weeks prior — but the Quixotic overtones of the whole thing made me smile. There were (and always are) many reasons not to start a business like this one. It seemed a bit foolish. So Soucier Design became official on the day named for fools.
The three year mark is significant. Experts say a business lasting three years has crossed some kind of viability threshold. Good news, I guess. But the real significance has to do with my own patterns. Every job I've held as an adult follows a pattern: cycling from excitement to satisfaction to disenchantment in three years' time. (Staying longer was increasingly toxic.) So my job transitions have maintained a very predictable three-year rhythm. And lately I've been reflecting on what that means this time around. (Apologies for all of the first-person pronouns.)
- I'm breaking the cycle. Running a freelance business fits me better than any other job and this one is far from over. I'm still learning and feel like I'm doing a little less than half of it correctly, but the satisfaction is extremely high.
- It's a trade-off. No job is completely secure, but choosing to work for yourself means sacrificing a certain amount of stability and predictability. The stresses of entrepreneurship are significant, and I'm bringing home less than I was at the peak of my corporate gig. But I'm working directly with clients, taking on work that fits well. I'm helping non-profits, which was the original dream. And I'm focused — no mandatory meetings, Dilbert culture, political maneuvering or needless distractions (other than podcasts). I'd take that trade-off any day.
- I was part of the problem. Some of the issues and constraints from previous jobs have cropped up in this one. It's been healthy to recognize them, learn about myself and try to keep growing.
- If I'm ever an employee again, I'll be a better one. My perspective is much broader now. It changes how I see employment opportunities, and if employed I would engage very differently with everyone in the organization — especially those above me. I'd be more understanding and less judgmental, but also much more honest. I'd be more inclined to share the last ten percent of my input.
If you've been a client, partner, vendor or supporter of Soucier Design over the last three years, I am grateful to you for playing a role in this success. Thank you for making this such a fulfilling, exciting, educational and rewarding experience. I couldn't have made it to the three-year mark without you, and I'd be a fool to think the next three won't be even more of an adventure.
I've been thrilled to work with the outstanding folks at LaBarge Media lately, doing some script writing. One of the recent projects is now complete. I guarantee you'll learn something if you watch it.
I decided from negative time zero — a long time before he talked to me about his decision to pass the CEO title — that I was going to be my own self.
That's Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent interview with Time Magazine. It's a very interesting piece and he's a fascinating leader. To be honest, he had me at "negative time zero." What a wonderfully nerdy phrase. I'm sure it's common parlance in the tech world and something an operations mastermind like Cook uses multiple times a day when discussing launch dates, product development and long-range plans. But it's new to me and I wish I had thought of it.
More important is Cook's point: he decided to be true to himself, and that's really where the story of his success begins. I'll say it again, because it's true in branding, marketing and — as I'm still learning — running your own business. There is no better strategy than knowing who you are and being true to that as relentlessly as you can. We all grow and make adjustments based on what we learn; Cook has demonstrated that, as well. But self-knowledge, self-acceptance and a decision to place your bets on what is uniquely you? There's no substitute.
Over the past several months I've had the pleasure of working on campaign materials for Scott Odorisi, a candidate for NYS Supreme Court. Knowing Scott personally and professionally, I jumped at the opportunity to help in any way I could. Not having any previous experience designing for political campaigns, we learned as much as we could and leaned heavily on the expertise of other seasoned professionals Scott was able to recruit to the cause. It was an eye-opening experience for me and a small window into the amount of effort it takes a candidate to win. Scott is a triathlete who completed the Ironman (with a shoulder injury suffered early on in the race) a couple of years ago. I bet the campaign felt very similar.
We started with the logo. It's a lockup we used repeatedly, with the primary aim of building awareness and recognition for the Odorisi name people would be seeing on the ballot in November.
Other materials were created as needed. (Kudos to Natalie Sinisgalli Photography for the portrait.) From business cards to bumper stickers to bus wraps, we just kept at it until we were sure everyone was seeing this stuff in their sleep. Postcard invitations to fundraisers were a common opportunity to have fun and explore ideas beyond the core brand they were customized based on the audience, host and/or venue for each event.
I couldn't be more proud of Scott, his family, and the entire campaign effort. It was a privilege to contribute my services to his campaign and I'm grateful to have had this opportunity.
(And yes... he won!)
Brands are powerful. They also represent a unique challenge, because many people think a brand is a logo, a set of colors or a typeface. But those are just external expressions of the brand. (A logo is like a wedding ring; the brand is like a marriage.) So developing a new brand (or updating an old one) depends entirely on making sure we start with the essence of the business and then create assets that represent it accurately. It's as much therapy as design in the early stages, but it can be an immensely rewarding process for the designer and the client.
I was excited when an amazing photographer, Natalie Sinisgalli, approached me to help with her brand. She started her business fresh out of college (around four years ago), and has grown it steadily since day one. The original brand served her well and covered the basics, but she knows her business much better now than she did when she started. With a fuller understanding of her audience, her value to them and what differentiates her from other photographers, she needed new assets to communicated those ideas visually.
The original logo did a good job in the early days of the business, mostly because Natalie has a good eye and was smart in realizing the value of consistency. It established her name in the area and hinted at her personality and creativity through color, typography and arrangement. As she repeatedly used it at bridal shows, on her Facebook pages and in sales materials, it developed equity and became synonymous with her art.
Her website was similarly effective, but it also represented some challenges. It was built by Natalie, and she was spending more time than she wanted maintaining it. Updates were cumbersome, especially during the busy seasons when time (and energy) are scarce. She's a good writer, and struggled to find a simple way to incorporate her blog into the site. And most importantly, she felt like the images were too small. To be successful, the new site had to showcase her stunning work.
Natalie was wonderful to work with. She was willing to take risks, collaborate, question anything and involve others in the decisions she made. We met several times to discuss the personality of the business, identify customer experiences we could learn from and put our fingers on specific business goals she wanted to achieve. This led to a documented, agreed-upon brand platform that articulates many of the core ideas that had been assumed or unspoken in the past. With it expressed on paper, it began to inform all of our other decisions. We moved on to the logo, brochure, sales materials and website all developed through an ongoing conversation around our clear understanding of the business.
Natalie (and I) couldn't be happier with how the project turned out. The logo utilizes her signature as a mark of quality and individual artistry. It also functions much better when incorporated into photography. We created the tag line, "Epic images. Remarkably you." to connect with the brand essence of decidedly bold storytelling. With a bridal show approaching, we quickly put together a brochure featuring images that best embody the brand, supported by small amounts of copy to communicate the tone and personality Natalie brings to her craft. The website took the most effort, but was well worth it. Now launched, it presents amazing photographs in a clean, simple, classy environment. It also seamlessly incorporates her blog. Built on the Squarespace platform, it's easy for anyone on Natalie's staff to edit as needed. Now, when she has new photography to share during peak season, she's only a few clicks away from updates (and some much-needed rest).
I want to thank Natalie for the privilege of working with her on this fulfilling project. It required strategic thinking, creative solutions to interesting challenges, a little perseverance and a few hand-delivered treats. I enjoyed the process, and was fortunate to have such wonderful photography (from a wonderful person) to work with. She's already building on the work we've done, keeping the core elements in place and pushing the boundaries of bold, evocative artistry. I can't wait to see where it goes next!
I recently finished up a branding project for Surdey's Fitness, based in Binghamton, New York. Jessica, the owner, has a strong sense of personal style and offers a unique personal training service. Early on in the project, she found some old receipts and other artifacts from her grandfather's business (slip covers and drapes) many years ago. Yes, that's Futura... and although we decided not to tie directly to the same typography, we used those for inspiration to develop a brand that tied into her history and differentiated her from the typical fitness genre.
After exploring several solutions and refining the core elements of the brand, we landed on a final logo and rolled it out to business cards (letterpress, of course), her website and a handy rubber stamp she can use to enhance just about anything she sends out.
This was a fun project, and it allowed me use a variety of services — logo design, website development and creation of marketing communications materials.
Last night was my first trip to the ADDYs, the annual awards shindig put on by the Rochester Advertising Federation. Not having any sort of reference point or expectations, I went into the evening with an open mind and hoped I would find it challenging and encouraging. I found all that and more. Here's what I learned:
- I need to collaborate more. Being a freelancer and small business owner, I tend to work in isolation. My clients are small and typically can't afford a large team of specialists or a full agency. In fact, it's one of the reasons they hire me — I can develop the strategy, write the copy, select the photography, art direct the materials, build the layouts, hand off to trusted vendors and manage the client relationship. But last night's event was a clear indicator that this needs to change. There were a LOT of talented people and some very impressive work. But for all of the talent, the best work was collaborative. If people way more talented than me aren't trying to do it all themselves, I'm a fool if I think I should.
- These people understand me. I didn't expect the night to start with a manifesto (see video at the top of the page), but it did... and they nailed it. The event was a celebration of the creative process itself, starting — where everyone starts — with a blank page. I find a blank page inspiring. A fresh start, a new sketch, one more idea. Everything recognized last night was born in that moment while someone was staring at a blank page. It takes hard work to nurture that idea, build on it, refine it, criticize it. In the words of the evening, "Extraordinary starts from nothing... and takes everything." It also takes a certain kind of insanity to enjoy that process, and they're as crazy as I am.
- Recognition is great, but it's not the most important thing. Some people submitted stellar work and walked away empty-handed. That has to feel crappy on some level. Even though I didn't have any entries this year, I immediately started thinking about my own clients. They don't care if I win awards for their projects... they're thrilled with the results and enjoyed the process. If it wins an award, they won't be surprised; if it doesn't, they won't really care. Their satisfaction is the highest praise, and I suspect many of last night's non-winning entries were already gold to the people with the most at stake.
I can't hit "save and close" without congratulating a few winners. Ron Manley picked up an award for his work on a project at Partners + Napier. I worked with Ron back in our Icon Graphics days, and he was a dependable source of bullpen entertainment while constantly amazing us with his talent. You deserve it, pal. LaBarge Video and Roberts Communications produced a killer promo for Gould Pumps, walking away with ADDY Gold and Best-in-Broadcast honors. Dave, Jason and the team are at the top of their game and wonderful people. Congratulations, guys... well done. Dock 2 Letterpress came away with two awards, and I couldn't be happier to see Tony Zanni and crew recgonized for their superior craftsmanship and demonstration of old-school design chops. Beautiful work, as always.
I'm grateful to the RAF for their considerable effort in producing a show that was so much more than empty glitter. What could have been a vapid, self-congratulatory freak show was in fact encouraging and challenging after all. You've made me look at that blank page with higher expectations. Color me #RAFAddyInspired.
It might be the height of self-absorption to write about a site redesign, but a few things bear explanation. The original design was coming up on two years old, and it was steadily becoming a poor reflection of what I've been doing for people lately. It's not unlike the long-haired barber or the cobbler whose kids don't have nice shoes. When you design sites (among other things) for clients, it's hard to make time for your own. But a few late nights and some serious thinking have resulted in what you see now.
Several major changes are reflected in this design, most notably the high-level categories of Marketing Communications, Sales Support and Branding & Identity. I was tired of talking so much about myself, my process, my background, and other general noise. I just wanted to get out of the way and show the work, which is what lots of people are looking for when they visit (according to the analytics). This also meant making the blog a secondary page instead of the first thing you see. I'm really okay with that... again, trying to reduce the verbal noise. I also ditched the twitter feed. (The link is in the footer.)
The "services" page has gone away now, too. I decided to show instead of tell, especially since there was a lot of marketing-speak in there and I was starting to sound less and less like a normal person. Nobody was downloading the e-book, so that's gone as well.
So what's new? The width, for one thing. The old site was too narrow for modern browsers. The most significant revision, though, is the overall message. I've done some rebranding for clients and taken them through exercises to articulate their brand essence and promise, their personality. My own introspection helped me realize the older "tell your story" message was weak and too general. "Look your best. Say it well." is a lot more precise and is exactly what I help people do.
It may take a little time to discover little things that need to be adjusted or tweaked in the new design. In the meantime, try to adjust to the smell of fresh pixels.
Update 12/6/12: I've updated the design again, and thought about deleting this post. But it's helpful to see how it was a stepping-stone to what I have today. I've simplified the site even further, bringing the "about," "contact" and "testimonials" pages together, and making that the home page. That decision was made after looking at site traffic and where most people spent time. I also reworked the portfolio, because I wanted visitors to be able to filter the items based on categories. In the interest of relentless simplicity, it's now just three pages, but still contains what most people come here looking for. I hope you like it.
While on vacation recently, I discovered a couple of great shops in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. One was a bakery, the other was a stationery boutique. Relaxing by the fountain in Bar Harbor, I enjoyed a whoopie pie and found myself reflecting on why I liked those two stores so much more than the other nice places we wandered into. I really liked them. My traveling companions liked them, too. But I was falling in love. Why?
Aside from the obvious reasons to like a bakery (my affection for baked goods requires no further exposition) and a letterpress shop (I'm a desginer, after all, and got my hands dirty at Dock2 making my own business cards), there was something else going on. It wasn't your typical they-have-what-I-need arrangement. Both businesses connected with me at a much deeper, more personal, level. It may sound strange, but it felt as though they understood me. They were somehow like me. The bakery wasn't just a bakery — the illustration style and design of their logo, the fact that they had milk on tap, the elevated kitchen behind a wall of glass, the toy train delivering samples, even the interior decoration and that massive wood table — it was like I stumbled into something built to my specific taste in every way. The stationery boutique had everything from Pantone® mugs to items I've been coveting from the Veer merchandise store. There was a dog lounging behind the young lady at the cash register, and even a selection of letterpress coasters. How did they know I collect coasters?
It seems that in both cases, I wasn't just becoming acquainted with a business. I was meeting people who have much in common with me, who share and amplify my interests. In that way, falling in love is a fair description for it. At the very least, it's an emotional connection, and upon further reflection (yes, I do that a lot), it's also the reason I buy from Apple and listen to 5by5 podcasts. They are the products of people who are passionate about a few things, do them extremely well, and are committed to delivering.
Here's what I'm learning, especially when it comes to business. The benefits of amplifying what makes you unique far outweigh the risks. The world doesn't need another run-of-the-mill bakery, stationery store, computer manufacturer, podcast or designer. It needs passion and originality. When we clarify and highlight our uniqueness, people discover us and make an emotional connection. We give them something to resonate with. I love being that kind of customer, and those are my favorite kinds of clients.
If you don't have one, consider this simple marketing plan. Step one: Know yourself as completely as you can. Step two: Be yourself as wholeheartedly as you can. Step three: Repeat. Customers are waiting to be swept off their feet.
Great article today by Katelin Ryan on the Ad Council blog. She put a ten-dollar rhyme in the title, and it gets better from there... it's a good read for kick-starting your strategic thinking. Among other things, she suggests volunteering for a strategic roundtable, which I can't recommend highly enough. Aside from the notable benefits she described, here's why I love participating:
- Collaboration with other professionals. I typically work in isolation, and am always energized by spending the morning with a) other creative people, b) the Ad Council staff and c) clients who are passionate about helping others through their organization.
- Applying old solutions to new problems. So many of my roundtable experiences have been great reminders that creativity is less about coming up with something completely new and more about connecting two or three existing ideas in a new way. I've sat in amazement at other volunteers who make connections between things I dismissed in my own head. (Never dismiss an idea during brainstorming, by the way... Katelin, I owe you a dollar.)
- Time in the mirror. Without exception, as I'm driving back from a roundtable, I find myself daydreaming about my own marketing challenges and ways I could incorporate the morning's ideas into my own business. The combination of focused brainstorming with a 20-minute drive is powerful and always fruitful.
If you're in Rochester and haven't spent time with the Ad Council, you're going to regret it... and our non-profits need your expertise. I hope to see you there!
Now I know how a good actor feels about his/her make-up artist – wouldn’t go on stage without seeing them first. I wouldn’t submit a proposal of any weight without you making me sound good. Nice job, thank you.
That's from a client email I got last night. Talk about an unsolicited endorsement... wow. But the most encouraging part of the compliment is the way it articulates one of my core beliefs. Unfortunately, many designers, marketers and creative types are bent on talking about how great they are. You know the type — every conversation turns into a recounting of their latest unbelievable success. In their minds, they are the heroes. Bogus.
The client is always the hero. Designers, marketers and creative types belong behind the scenes, bringing out our clients' best features and building their confidence. If we go hoarse, it should be from cheering while they're in the spotlight, not from singing our own praises. (It's probably okay, on rare occasion, to write a blog post quoting a happy client. Just as long as it illustrates a larger point.)
No matter how you communicate — speaking, teaching, blogging, selling, presenting, writing — somewhere on the short list of essential skills is knowing your audience. Basic communication theory, right? Unfortunately, we often don't give this the consideration it deserves. Excited about our ideas and our messages, we naturally build our communications around them. But the difference between great communication and ineffective noise is building our lessons, articles, presentations, talks and other communications around the audience.
Many would describe this empathic element of communication as "putting yourself in their shoes." That's more like narcissism than empathy... it's 90% yourself and 10% shoes. With this approach, since we already love our product or idea, we'll come up with a list of reasons why the audience should love it, too. We bring all of those biases with us. But it's not about the shoes, it's about the person. The trick is to, as much as possible, remove ourselves from the picture and simply be the audience, dropping our own baggage (and hopefully, picking up theirs).
It's nowhere near easy, so here's one suggestion for getting started: tell someone else's story. Shine a light on one of them, someone whose experience demonstrates the power of your idea. This is immediately helpful because it forces us out of the picture, keeps us from becoming the hero. When the story is about them, it's more natural to tailor our messages to their needs and aspirations. Put another way, instead of putting yourself in their shoes, put your audience in someone else's shoes… where they see the value of your ideas from their own unique perspective.
Think of a communicator you admire. I bet they're great at telling someone else's story, probably someone a lot like you.
Listening to episode 5 of Back to Work this week, there was a general undercurrent of tough love. Discussing the plight of frustrated cubicle workers in dead-end jobs, Dan kept poking at Merlin to extract advice for people who desire the independence to pursue something bigger. Here are some of the high points (not exact quotations, but close enough); brace yourself.
"Maybe you don't deserve independence yet."
"Start with a soul-searching idea of how good you really are... you may not have independence because you don’t have expertise."
"If you're good at what you do, you also have an idea of how good you are at it. If you think you're an expert, but you suck horribly (and people haven't told you how bad you are at it), a podcast isn't going to help you."
"If you were THAT good, you wouldn’t have the job you have."
"You first have to own up to the fact that you don’t know as much as you think, and then do a lot of work to keep getting better."
"If you’re struggling that hard with what you want to do, you just haven’t distinguished yourself yet."
"What have you ever done that was that great? [Your boss] isn't gonna put his/her job on the line for you without having seen it out of you before."
"When you stop worrying about what other people are giving you and start worrying about what you are able to produce for yourself, your vision changes so completely you’re not going to believe the question ever came out of your mouth."
Sobering advice. (In fact, there was some discussion around whether there's a nicer way to say it.) And in a post today, here's a very similar sentiment from Seth Godin:
"If you’re not getting paid what you’re worth, there are only two possible reasons:
1. People don’t know what you’re worth, or
2. You’re not (currently) worth as much as you believe
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Once the sting wears off, we can discover some valuable insight in these ideas. It takes guts to make an honest assessment of how good we really are at our craft, and might even require some outside opinions we're not comfortable hearing. Likewise, it takes a certain amount of swagger to be unapologetic about our bona fide expertise and confidently look people in the eye and make a meaningful promise. But both need to happen.
This gets at the heart of effective communication. When you know (really, really, know... based on more than your own opinions) what you're great at, and build your message/brand/service around it, things really start to click. The greatest ads, best-selling products and most successful businesses are the ones built around this discipline.
In a post about the Verizon iPhone, John Gruber deftly pointed out something many people misunderstand about design. He was responding to a post by Dan Lyons, who feels Apple's "control-freak nature" is a weakness. Here's what Gruber says:
“We’re going to make these decisions for you and offer a limited number of choices” is indeed the company’s philosophy. That’s called design.
Too few think of design in terms of limiting choices. Many times the creative folks get pulled into a project when there's a perceived need for more options. Exploration is absolutely part of the design process. But the difference between creativity and design is commitment. At some point, you have to make a decision, choose a direction and go. Creativity is generating a list of vacation ideas; design is the real adventure, with milestones, risk and (importantly) a final result.
I can understand some folks' aversion to Apple's clarity of intention. If that's not the trip you want to take, fine. Maybe you prefer the freedom to wander around on your own. Personally, I really like the places Apple takes me, and don't want to be handed the keys to the truck with a full tank of gas. I admire Apple's ability to come up with new design directions, but I really admire their ability to choose one and take it farther than anyone thought was possible.
I have a (mostly) regular morning work routine, which starts with reading several sites to wake up my brain and feed my creativity. One staple of this diet is the work of James Lileks, whom I've been reading for over ten years. His unique mix of excellent writing, wit, design criticism and trivia just connects with me... and is a great example of doing what you love because you enjoy it. People visit his site(s) because his passion is contagious, but even if his traffic was zero, he'd still be doing it.
He recently overhauled his Institute of Official Cheer, which is one of those web destinations you could dive into anywhere and swim around for hours. Since he's unveiling it today, I figured it's as good a time as any to point you in his direction if you've never visited.
I hope you have a regular source of inspiration like this... a site, podcast, publication or person you gain inspiration from. If you don't have one, I'd challenge you to pick something and try it for a week. You might be surprised how much it shapes your work.
I just stumbled across this thought from David Seah:
"I think the key element is having the guts to tell a story that people can buy into, [which] means you are putting yourself on the line. It's leadership. It's political. It's impossible to appeal to everyone, and yet everyone has the right to cast their judgment on you."
Pretty sure I agree with that. The greatest stories are vulnerable, honest, and real. It does take guts to tell those stories, but that's the price of admission if we want real buy-in. Safe stories get safe buy-in... lip service and loose handshakes. When we put it all out there and say what we really mean, there's a pretty good chance that those who engage with our stories (and us) are clear about where we're coming from. The risk of being that honest is obvious: people can disagree, or decide they aren't interested. But the opposite can happen. In fact, it's the only way to truly know if someone is interested in your story or agrees with your approach. The story people can reject is also the one they can buy into.