In June of 2017, I was preparing to leave Dropbox. I made the decision to leave at an exciting time for the company. The rebrand was in full swing and the team was super strong. I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I have ever worked with and I often found myself wondering how I had managed to land a spot on such a talented team. However, I wasn’t fulfilled with my role. Dropbox needed me to do a specific type of digital design and that need wasn’t expected to change anytime in the near future.
I spent the previous two years of my career devoting my energy to learning more about digital design, a part of my design toolkit that I felt was lacking. I have always considered myself a generalist designer but like in most professions, as you become more specialized, you are no longer sought after for the skills outside of your specialty. And after slowly moving towards specializing in digital design, I found myself unfulfilled.
When I decided to leave, I was planning on going freelance. It was something I’d always wanted to do; I also felt it would give me the opportunity to utilize my full skill set in a way that never felt possible as an in-house designer. But then, another opportunity presented itself.
I had been talking to Book of the Month about a Creative Director position for a couple of weeks and I was really excited about the role and the company. It had been awhile since I worked at a place that offered physical goods, and being in the book industry was both completely foreign and exciting to me. Reading has always been a major part of my life and the company’s dedication to making its users happy aligned with my own values.
Unfortunately, I also had a major freelance opportunity on the horizon and I wrote the Book of the Month opportunity off as something that I could do when I was truly ready. Oddly enough, freelance felt less risky.
I struggled with the decision for a while. The more I thought about my situation, I realized that waiting to be “ready” was an easy way for me to prolong the hard work involved in taking on such an unknown and large responsibility. I realized too that Book of the Month was also taking a risk on me. I believed in the leadership of the company and the company believed in me as a future leader. Opportunities like that are rare and, upon further deliberation, I came to the conclusion that the biggest risk would be passing up the role at BOTM.
So, here we are. I have been at Book of the Month for six months and I would love to share some of the highlights from the second half of 2017.
Redesigning the homepage
Book of the Month is a company with a 90-year-old history. However, the BOTM that exists today is only about two years old. Those two years have been full of lessons about: books, the community of readers the company serves, and the values the club shares with its members.
Before I started, there had already been a lot of thinking around where the brand should go. The homepage felt like the perfect project to test some of our hypotheses and start to utilize the knowledge we had acquired. It also served as the perfect project to begin developing the new visual identity for the company.
The quick story is that we did a ton of work around typography, color, photography, and all of the good stuff in between that contributes to a company’s visual identity system. Without turning this into a whole case study, here is a brief visual representation of what this process looked like:
After rounds and rounds of revisions, we landed on a homepage we are extremely proud of. It set the foundation for our new design system, our new messaging, and outperformed the previous homepage 2x.
This project also had some pretty huge implications for what was going on in-product and informed a bunch of new projects: a redesigned enrollment flow, a new gifting experience, and a bunch of in-product optimizations to enhance the experience of being a Book of the Month member.
Our first TV spot
With the help of Partners & Spade we put out our first TV spot. The process was a huge learning opportunity for the entire team and put a lot of our aquired knowledge from past brand exercises to the test.
The extremely talented group at Partners & Spade were the perfect creative partners (no pun intended) and, after a month of hard work, they produced a spot that we couldn’t be more proud of.
Our first subway ad
In addition to the TV spot, we also worked with Partners & Spade on our first subway campaign, using a concept centered around gifting. The ads went up at the end of November, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to add some winter magic to the photography we had been working on for the past months.
I led the production of the visuals with some help from our friends at Mosspark. We put in a ton of rounds on the creative and learned a bunch about how hard it is to blend your brand’s identity with a brand that is iconic and overpowering: the holidays. This was a huge win for us and we are super proud of the end result.
Here’s a look at some of our process, me getting way too hype and taking 500 selfies the first time I saw the ad, and people blowing me up on Instagram:
A rebrand in progress
This might seem odd coming last on this list because it obviously has major implications for all of the projects that come before it, but this placement is intentional.
At the time I’m writing this, the Book of the Month creative team is fairly small. Ronin Wood and Amy Hunt have been putting in an amazing amount of work to push the brand forward and we are learning more each and every day. Each of these major projects has a several small projects in between. We send a bunch of e-mails, photograph a lot of books, and make some cool swag on occasion.
Book of the Month Club was founded in 1926. 90 years later, the company is much different, and with time the current iteration of Book of the Month will continue to evolve and grow in new directions. We have already made amazing progress, and as we enter 2018, I’m excited to make even more progress.
On top of the amazing collaborators I mentioned above, I have to give a huge shoutout to:
The entire BOTM staff: I know this post is focused mostly on the creative team’s work, but the creative team only handles a fraction of what’s needed to accomplish this much progress. We have amazing people working with us every day who support us and push us to do great work.
There are many times where I have realized projects aren’t going to work out, but have pressed forward after reaching the point of no return. Reaching this point can happen for a bunch of different reasons: too many resources have been invested, contractual obligations, pressure from deadlines, concerns about my reputation, etc.
The tricky thing about points of no return is that they are informed by both subjective and objective reasoning. This often causes us to act in ways that economists might say are irrational. This irrational behavior is typically caused by the fact that humans are loss averse, meaning we prefer avoiding losses to making gains of equivalent value. The key here is understanding what we define as valuable and how we place that value on our gains and losses.
This is where sunk costs come into play. Sunk costs are costs that have already occurred and can’t be recovered. There is no going back. Naturally, we can compare sunk costs with future costs. Future costs, or prospective costs, are the estimated costs of doing business in the future. As per the Wikipedia page for sunk costs, which by the way is a great resource for an amateur like myself, we see that only prospective (future) costs are relevant to an investment decision.
Now, if we combine all of this together we can see where the decision-making process gets complicated. If future costs are the only costs that should matter in an investment decision, but humans are prone to loss aversion, how can we make the right call when faced with a decision? This tension can create a sunk cost fallacy.
Example 1: A designer is hired to redesign a website for a client. After spending a month or two working with the client and hours working through visual design and complex UX challenges, the client begins to develop the website with their in-house team. In order to hit the deadline, and feeling the pressure of reaching the point of no return, the team implements the designs in ways that don’t respect the restraints of the new design system, resulting in a poor quality interface and bad UX.
Example 2: A designer is hired to redesign a website for a client. After spending a month or two working with the client and hours working through visual design and complex UX challenges, the client begins to develop the website with their in-house team. In order to hit the deadline, and feeling the pressure of reaching the point of no return, the client decides to revert back to their original website and optimize the content in a way that allows them to hit their quarterly goals. They postpone the original project to a later date.
Both of these situations might feel familiar. If you’ve ever been in the situation described in Example 1 you might know how heartbreaking it feels to see something you designed turn into mush in order to meet a deadline. Example 2 can feel equally heartbreaking, but from a business perspective was probably the right thing to do, assuming the client will actually hit their quarterly goals.
Example 2 is the winner. It avoids the sunk cost fallacy by prioritizing future gains over sunk costs and by releasing attachment to past investments of time and money, provides a result that is more beneficial for the company. From a creative perspective, both suck. What’s interesting about creative work is that it’s nearly impossible to release 100% of our emotional attachment. The creative community has dedicated websites to killed projects and we create digital shrines for process documentation and failed concepts. This emotional attachment can create creative traps that lock us into sunk cost fallacies that often put us in lose/lose situations.
I’m not sure that I have a conclusion on the matter. I find this happens more often with visual designers and brand designers than with product designers. I don’t think brand designers should adopt product design practices for validating their designs. It might actually be impossible. Illustrators might have it the worst.
So maybe there is no fix. It would be easy to ask everyone to turn off their tendencies toward loss aversion, but the traits that make us loss averse are the same things that make us humans. Turning off the tendency to be emotional about our work might mean turning off the part that makes us good at doing the work in the first place. Maybe creative isn’t a sunk cost? It can always be reused and recycled. Or maybe just being aware of all of this is enough.
When I first decided I wanted to design for a living there were only three things I really wanted to make: t-shirts, skateboard decks, and album art. I was seventeen when I decided this. I had grown up drawing and playing music and this felt like the best way to use my passions to make money. Most of my time listening to music was spent with punk and rap. Both of these cultures have rich visual histories, and both were impossible to escape in Southern California.
My first interaction with punk music was when my dad bought me Los Angeles by X. It had a cover that felt like it was from a different world. At the time I only owned two CDs: Love Always by K-Ci and JoJo and the N Sync Christmas album. It was 1998 and I had just received my first portable CD player as a gift from my grandmother.
In the months after that, I begged my parents to buy me more music. Parental Advisory stickers ruined my life.
My collection of album art slowly taught me the visual language of cool. Effectively, I could walk into any Virgin Megastore or Tower Records and navigate through the aisles solely based on the art I was looking at. I could tell what was southern rap based on the Pen and Pixel style, all nu metal albums had weird illustrations that felt kind of hip-hop inspired but were also aggressive in a way that felt more House of Pain than Geto Boys, and boy bands were dead giveaways because you would just look for five guys in all white. Every culture had a language, and those languages changed rapidly.
I recently tweeted something that I have been mulling over in my head:
I struggle with loving design as the visual voice of a subculture and that also marking the beginning of that culture’s commercialization.
In recent years I’ve come to realize that music has always been a way for me to connect with the world outside of my immediate grasp. Of course, growing up in California exposed me to my fair share of west coast rap and white guy reggae, but exposure to the rest of the world was through music.
My struggles with these visual languages are their journey from the original subculture, to me, the 9-year-old white kid. By the time it got to me, I was able to admire the artifact of a culture and appreciate it, but it also represented that it had gone through a long and drawn out process that marked its selection from its place of origin, and its packaging for my consumption. I was not a member of the original subculture, I was an observer.
This has always been an interesting thing for me as a rap fan. As a designer, I take a special interest in album art and any graphics related to music. But all facets of a subculture can be analyzed in this way. For example, nearly 3 million people follow this playlist on Spotify:
This playlist, while it may be a celebration of rap culture, is a feature used to keep listeners engaged with the product. And as a white rap fan, I have to be aware of the fact that the origin of “turnt” was black culture, not rap culture. I do my best to respect the complexity of this journey, and I know a lot of people don’t.
Appropriating subcultures for money isn’t anything new. But with the internet it seems to happen at warp speed. Things get removed from their origin point so quickly that people don’t have time to see the transition from underground to commercial. In example, Hassan Rahim’s artwork for Jacques Greene and Nick Jonas’ blatant rip for his house-pop single.
So, in short, I will always love seeing and hearing new things from the subcultures I feel connected to. It’s truly inspiring to me to see people create new things inspired by their life experiences. As a fan, I feel honored to have those things shared with me. Out of respect, I have to remember what it took to get these things in front of me, remember the risks people take by sharing themselves with the rest of world, and do my best to make sure members of my family don’t dab.
Designers should be aware of how our decisions can change culture. We should be aware of the distinctions between inspiration, appropriation, and plagiarism. If we’re inspired by a culture different from our own, we should do our best to understand it, and think twice before using it for personal or commercial gain.
Recently, I’ve been digging into some texts that have made me introspective about my role in the workplace.
I find it easier to think about these problems when I’m not projecting personal biases as a designer. I try to think of myself only as an employee. It frames issues in more foundational terms and helps me understand the larger picture. However, I am a designer, so to understand these concepts in a more personal way I to link these two worlds together. If I don’t do this I tend to justify certain issues with the caveat that designers are “different.” We’re not.
Lately, I’ve been focusing on the idea of the Protestant work ethic. The theory by Max Weber claims that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism. For some reason, I can’t shake the urge to map this back to design to see the impact in the industry.
Protestant Work Ethic
You could spend a lot of time doing research on the Protestant work ethic. You could do more than I did and actually read the book by Max Weber. But a good TL;DR version is the view that a person’s duty is to achieve success through hard work and thrift. The Protestant’s believed this led to being saved by God. God wants you to work hard. Hard work and success are connected to your salvation. Want success and glory? It’s on you to work harder.
Creatives tend to think they are different than other workers because their output is more connected to craft or art than it is to traditional labor. Working hard as a creative might feel more true to one’s self, but if someone does it as a professional they are doing work in a traditional sense.
Also, if someone is a creative worker, chances are they got into the industry because of a calling to work creatively. They were driven by something bigger than themselves. For the sake of this post, I’ll refer to this calling as the higher power.
A key aspect argued by Weber is the importance of individualism in the Protestant Reformation. It was the individual’s job to find salvation rather than by simply being a member of the Catholic church. As a creative, I can relate to the fact that I usually function within a larger team, but I feel defined more by individual contributions than the outcome of the teamwork. I’m also judged by individual contributions when it comes time to talk about my work.
So, taking this into consideration, it makes sense that I always feel lousy at jobs if I’m not designing at the top of my ability, and I’m sure you feel the same way. I have a need to produce quality work in order to feel productive. That struggle I have with the higher power is internal, and in order to feel like I’m doing my duty as a creative, I must push harder.
Meanwhile, there are factors externally that push back on my ability to produce my best work. In a world where I am being judged by my individual contributions, it is a constant balancing act for me to juggle internal pressures with external factors: business, resources, etc.
There are a lot of criticisms of the Protestant work ethic. Most of them are general, but I want to frame things from the lens of a creative.
If creatives are Protestants in this analogy, and we need to commit ourselves to the calling of the higher power, then surely the most devout followers will rise to the top. We can’t make excuses for the factors that hinder us: in this example business problems, access to resources, etc. It is our individual responsibility to live up to our fullest potential. Only then will we be fulfilling the commitment of what it means to be a follower of the higher power. We must always pick ourselves up by our creative bootstraps. (Gross.)
In response to this belief system, we have created a culture that supports this thinking. Instead of fixing the problems at work, or helping people get resources when they have none, we have created ways to fulfill our duties that ignore the issues hindering our progress: doing side projects, designing fake interfaces for Dribbble posts, Behance rebrands, etc.
This response is driven by guilt, and also by false logic. The Protestant ethic assumes that those who are successful work hard, therefore if one is not successful, one does not work hard. When applied to design it goes: Those who are creative do creative work, if one is not doing creative work, one is not creative.
This is problematic for obvious reasons. It keeps us from challenging the forces in front of us that are hindering us, and others, from making creative work.
If we take a step back and understand the impact of this false logic we might be able to change some of the problems in our industry. Problems with diversity, burnout, and design management can be reframed and dealt with in more logical and realistic ways.
Creatives are in a constant struggle for collectivism in an individualist culture. Hopefully, understanding this struggle and where it stems from can point us in the direction of progress.
I’ve spent the past couple of years working with digital design teams both as an in-house designer and as a freelancer. Some of my experiences have been pleasant and some of my experiences have been…rough. I could list all of the things that make a team great: the people, communication, shared understanding around objectives, etc. But this post is about a specific problem that I see with in-house design teams, and it centers around the responsibilities of a web/interactive designer on a brand team.
Working on a brand team can be confusing. Depending on who you’re talking to people might have a different idea of your responsibilities. Some people think you’re responsible for visual design, some people think you’re responsible for systems design. Marketing might hold you responsible for conversion (UX among other things), and other stakeholders might hold you responsible for the narrative of a webpage (content). If you’re working on a sign-up flow or a plans page you’re basically working on product, even if you’re not on the companies product team.
The easiest way I can visualize this is with this chart:
The web designer’s responsibilities touch both brand and product. Splitting these into two different disciplines could be disputed, but for this we will treat them as separate disciplines. If a company is organized in a way that separates these disciplines into different teams you might run into some problems. Teams might be categorized by certain responsibilities. (It varies)
As you can see, there are some overlaps. There are also some questions like Who owns the design system? Who defines interaction patterns? What team owns the information architecture of the website?
There are also larger implications to the way this structure is broken out. It implies that one could design a website that doesn’t involve UX. Art direction, content, and the brand’s identity have major implications on all necessary facets of interactive design. If a web designer isn’t responsible for how a user interacts with a design, he/she is only responsible for a conceptual artifact.
I often come back to this chart:
When an interactive/web designer is forced to design at the artifact level the project is destined to fail. The design will eventually fall apart for the user, not reach it’s predetermined goal, or create confusion within the larger design system.
One could put the responsibility for this failure on the designer, but unless the designer has control to shift resources and priorities within his/her design org, you could argue that other forces are contributing to this failure. I’m still thinking this through, so I’ll elaborate on that in the future.
This week I received a product in the mail that came with a printed insert. The insert had a hashtag on it and encouraged me to post a photo on social media. After checking the hashtag it showed me that this insert has led to a lot of user engagement with their company on social media and has also given them a decent amount of user-generated content to utilize in future marketing efforts.
This isn’t a new strategy, but for some of their customers, this might be the first time posting content on their personal feeds to promote a brand. Now, I have nothing against this behavior. If I like a product or a service I’m very quick to share my thoughts about it. For instance, I swear by a finance service called Digit and have shared it with a lot of my friends and family.
I did this of my own free will. Digit earned my trust and after I saw the value it provided to me I decided to share that value with people I know. Digit earned my “share.” However, because I’m not new to this, I checked their site before sharing. Digit uses a referral system that rewards me when another user signs up with my custom sharing link. This is what I was looking for. By utilizing Digit’s referral system I’ve made $115.
Let’s be clear, referral systems weren’t created to reward users, they were made to create users. The reward for a referral is simply an incentive to let digital marketing teams hijack people’s feeds. But, as in the case of me and Digit, sometimes people post on their own free will. The referral was a bonus.
That got me thinking about the company I previously mentioned. Do customers understand how companies utilize this content? Should these customers be compensated for the attention hijacking practices of modern marketing? Maybe? Maybe not? I tossed this crude example together to show how a user might be rewarded when he/she isn’t aware of referral systems. Think of it as a way to fairly compensate users for the work we have convinced them to do for us.
In this example, Instagram could recognize branded hashtags and ask a user if he/she is posting a partner’s product on their platform. If the user wants to, they can sign-in to their account on the partner’s website and attach a referral link to their post.
This isn’t really “solving a problem” for the user as much as it’s an ethical question about the way we use people to market our products and compensation for that work. This couldn’t be mandatory or regulated, but it’s nice to think about a digital environment where users are getting paid for the value they are contributing to businesses.
After talking about this with a couple of people it occurred to me that this way of thinking might create a social media culture that is driven by rewards and commodifies personal experiences. My theory is that this version of social media already exists, and this type of thinking gives a small bit of power back to the user.