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  • July 14, 2011

What's the ROI on Cool?

Industry creative folks I’m friends with personally and respect professionally have uttered the following to me on multiple occasions: Decorative Illustration

“I want to make cool shit.”

I’ll be honest, I just don’t get it. To be fair, it’s safe to say I don’t get “cool” in general. I routinely dress like I’m headed to a corporate team-building ropes course, and I’m still waiting for Firefly to be picked up for season 2. So maybe it’s no surprise that the quest for cool escapes me. I don’t get the allure of making something cool for the sake of it being cool. Further, I don’t understand how you sell that to clients, or more importantly, why they would pay for it.

Cool is a byproduct

Steve McQueen never tried to be cool, he didn’t have to try. He could even make riding a motorcycle into a barbed wire fence cool.

Cool just happens; it shouldn’t be the target a project tries to hit. I don’t think great work and being cool are mutually exclusive. I think a lot of creative agencies are cool. But here’s the thing: the coolest agencies I know do great work with some excellent people, thus they are cool. They don’t have to spend a lot of time or effort convincing you how cool they are. Sure, they may have a foosball table (almost a requirement for creative agencies these days), but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you see when you walk in the door. It’s a company’s work that makes them cool; their output, not their amenities.

Great teams do great work. They take their projects and clients seriously. They push ideas, reconcile them against business requirements, stretch them, make them intuitive, and take the time to deliver something awesome, on time, and on budget. That’s what’s cool.

What’s not cool?

Bragging about how late you stay at work, how many weekends you spend at the office? Not cool. How hard you play; lawn darts in the hallway, all night client benders. Also, not super cool. I think long hours tend to be a product of poor process. Going bananas in the office probably means you have nothing to do. The Princeton Review’s motto when I worked for them was “Work Smarter, Not Harder” and I want it engraved on my tombstone.

Clients want maximized results, especially in this economy, which is why having a moon bounce in the office seems to be happening less frequently. Imagine if some of the energy dedicated to pushing the limits of creativity, was applied to refining process, streamlining internal approvals, or developing a joint creative/project management/client services approach.

So what is cool?

Sites like have been defining what’s cool for our community for a while now. Certainly they focus on championing innovation and risk taking, but most of the projects featured seem to border on impractically cool. Was The Wilderness Downtown cool because it was Arcade Fire or because of the integration of Google Maps and HTML5? Or was it both?

I’m certainly not saying there is anything wrong with a desire to be innovative or take risks. And maybe I’m undervaluing the direct correlation between innovation and the quest for cool. It just feels like sometimes the creative execution of these sites are geared purely to “wow” at the expense of solving genuine business goals. I’m not saying that’s what happens, it’s just how it feels to me.

Clients aren’t entirely off the hook though. “We want an award-winning experience” can be interpreted as “We want to be the coolest.” Awards certainly serve a purpose, but again they’re a by-product. Winning an award shouldn’t be the stated goal from the start of a project. Instead, we should urge our clients to focus on what’s most important: their site’s users. Meeting that kind of goal, combined with a fun, collaborative client-agency relationship makes a project cool.

What’s in a word?

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding folks’ cool intentions. Maybe they mean “great?” I’d say Amazon offers a great experience, but there is nothing compellingly cool about (Amazon – sorry, please don’t delay the shipment of Dance With Dragons). Maybe their definition of cool is, in fact, grounded in utility. Maybe they mean they want to build a cool jQuery slideshow plug-in, or a cool accessible user interface, but I’m not convinced. The decision to use the word “cool” instead of “innovative” lends a sense of style or image to the work. Polish over structure, form over function.

The truth is, some of the professionals I know crave an opportunity to “make cool shit” because their client work leaves them hungering for more. If you have to make a career move to get to the work you want, do it. Life is too short. Or, create a business development strategy to get the work you want. Reign in your client services and creative team and make something awesome happen. A wise man once said to me, “You get the clients you deserve.”

You know what I think is cool? When a project hits on all cylinders. Gorgeous and imaginative design, intuitive and engaging UX, seamless and accessible development, all managed pleasantly and collaboratively with a happy client. When a client gets a promotion because the KPI’s and ROI’s and all of those other jawns are clicking – that’s cool. Also, I think the word “jawn” is cool.

I’d say it is fair to conclude that the quest for cool still confuses me (and anyone that knew me in high school would agree it seemed to elude me then as well).

I’m asking you.

What is your definition of cool? How does “cool” factor into your project and approach goals? How do you manage clients that prioritize cool over utility, or award-winning over user-focused?

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