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  • June 2, 2011

The Secret Ingredient

Variety is a blessing. Here at Happy Cog, each and every design project is radically different. Show me the day when any two client design challenges are exactly the same and Decorative Illustration I’ll turn in my font library, ergonomic chair, and scribble-filled Field Notes. Retirement at 34? Sounds good. Now, where’s my fishing pole…

Since we deal with such variety, how we get to client-ready designs is as important as the outcome. Planning the right mix of tactics creates a roadmap that steers our team towards success. Situation-specific design exercises arm our designers with the ingredients for that success, and different clients require different recipes. Combining, tweaking, and blending techniques becomes part of the design-making process. Recognize a challenge? Bring the right tool for the job. Then the process becomes the art, and the design itself becomes the artifact.

You may recognize most of the ingredients that follow already, but the three specific situations for which we employ them might be a surprise.

1. Weak Brand

“Our brand just, well… isn’t exciting.”

The client’s brand needs an intervention, and they’ve decided the website is the place to start. Unfortunately, there isn’t a true rebranding effort anywhere in sight. A brand identity is made up of many different pieces; the logo, typeface choices, colors, voice, and tone. But the actual brand is the combined emotional experience of all these things. Contemplate the effect of this on your design process.

In this situation, we’ve found that jumping right into website layout exploration creates undue stress. Each website concept in our Rule of Three now has an additional, very heavy variable to solve. It must not only visualize a new experience, but it also has to introduce a smartly reinvigorated brand.

Our ingredient of choice here? Samantha Warren’s Style Tiles. By focusing a more precise effort into conversations with the client about the building blocks of their brand, we get brand consensus before moving onto the website.

Trying to hit the target by blending the brand work into the site layout creates a monster task, so when the brand is weak, we have presented the Style Tiles as the first step in visual design work. An agreed-upon, homogenized set of identity and brand design decisions saves countless hours downstream. Without this approach, feedback will inevitably be a blend of website critique and brand critique, and trying to sort out the mess can lead to endless rounds of revision and trouble finding a clear path forward.

2. Strong Brand but Inconsistent Identity

“Of course we have a brand identity! Here’s our 15 typefaces and 23 color swatches.”

Sometimes we have the honor of working with a world-renowned institution. And sometimes, they lack an internal brand identity shepherd. The pieces are there: logo, typefaces, colors…but their application is inconsistent. Turning this confusion into a logical visual design strategy can be tricky. A situation like this lead to our first successful use of Mood Boards.

Mood Boards always felt a bit too “arts and crafty” to me. They also seemed to be a very poor client-facing deliverable. Internally though, they work wonders. Wading through a schizophrenic brand and selecting different art directions is tough. Combined with a project that requires three different executions, it can be difficult to visualize where the concepts will go. Mood Boards have gotten us unstuck in this situation.

In our application of this ingredient, each of our three visual designers combines the identity building blocks with design ephemera to create a unique visual fingerprint. They push and pull their Mood Boards in different directions to represent divergent visual approaches quickly. When done well, a Mood Board becomes a lighthouse for staying true to an art direction. Honor thy Mood Board and thy Mood Board will lead the way.

3. Reliance on Cliched Approaches and Patterns

“Where’s our messaging carousel?”

Within our Rule of Three process, three different visual designers tackle visual design using the same set of wireframes. While we are prepared for the differences in the brand or identity in our designs, we also want to make the experiences of our concepts unique.

I hereby dub this process ingredient, which is relatively new to us, “Game the ‘Frame.” Despite the silly name, the tactic requires that we don’t simply execute upon the user interface patterns defined in the wireframes. We single out approaches to those interfaces that are considered cliché. Then, we partake in a sketching exercise that focuses just on the patterns in question. By sketching the translation of a single pattern or user interface element, designers are free from the stress of completing an entire page (for now). This achieves additional creativity by adding constraint.

For instance, take the pervasive web pattern known as the carousel.

Lately, the carousel has been under the microscope here at Happy Cog. Employed again and again, it has become synonymous with messaging-heavy modern web design. “Game the ‘Frame” looks at the purpose and function the carousel pattern brings to the site experience, but also acknowledges its shortcomings. We refuse to blindly accept a landscape photo box and two adjoining arrows. We break it apart. Rebuild it. We try to remember what it was like to play with LEGOS.

Steps to More Successful Design

Hopefully you’ve found these tactics promising, but the real moral of the story is this: never be satisfied with your process. New scenarios that require calling an audible help you innovate and hone your tactics.

Stop looking just at the end deliverable and take greater care to recognize the important opportunities for a better understanding of the design problem, or for the best of all tactics: good old-fashioned teamwork. The byproduct of this might mean less total hours spent in Photoshop, and no one will complain about that. Except maybe Adobe.

At Happy Cog, successful design means smarter process. There’s a stirring satisfaction from discovering and implementing new tactical tools that help us work better. The journey, as they say, is as important as the destination.

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