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Page1of 1 Design Gets Messy
by Eric Karjaluoto

I’m a control freak. I believe things are better after I’ve had an opportunity to assess, organize, codify and shape them. This presents a few obstacles. The first is that my wife rarely shares my perspectives on household organization. The second—more relevant one, here—relates to how impractical such impulses are when it comes to design.

Think back to how you designed for the web, a decade ago. The control-paradigm was central, as we were used to tweaking and teasing details in the print world. We could optically align type, match a Pantone spot, and get out our loupes to scrutinize tiny details.

The fact that the web would not allow this level of control didn’t matter to us. Design, as we knew it, was more powerful. The web would bend to its demands. We would make the web beautiful. We would hard-code type sizes, embed images and apply print paradigms. Screw you, flimsy HTML...We’ll make you change! Except, we didn’t.

The wave was bigger than any scaffolding we could erect to maintain the ways we were used to doing things. Under its weight, many of our preconceived notions simply collapsed. Eventually we came to understand the limitations of our biases. Type on the web would not be contained; download speed trumped image quality; print models were proven inadequate. Those who adapted survived; those who didn’t were left behind. And the next wave is even bigger yet.

It’s upon us now, and it will drive you absolutely mad, if you let it. It turns things you’ve treated as fact upside-down. You’ll create a beautiful ad, only to have it underperform an image of an LOLcat. You’ll spend months perfecting a website, to have a competitor’s shitty single-page site make a mockery of your conversion rates. You’ll sweat details of a client video, to have it linger in YouTube obscurity, while home-grown ones leave you in the dust.

Then, you’ll whine about how folks don’t understand quality. Or, you’ll blame the client for screwing up something. Little of this will change the actuality that you will have failed. You’ll have crafted beautiful gems that achieve nothing. (This isn’t design; it’s only polishing.)

Alternately, you can change. You can open up to new possibilities, ask questions, test alternatives and pivot. It’s not as though what we’ve learned over the years is all for naught; it’s just that the playing field has been reorganized. We’re still working to help our clients tell their stories, create competitive advantage and grow their organizations—alongside a whole bunch of other stuff.

As far as prognostication goes, I have about as much accuracy as a television weather-person. This one’s a little different though, because it’s already happening. So, I’ll just say it: to survive, we have to work differently. We need to run more tests, produce faster and iterate. “Yeah, yeah...but we already iterate,” you say; but you aren’t really.

As designers, we’ve been trained to aim for perfection. The web doesn’t wait for us to get it there, though. Moreover, breaking that habit of slow movement and careful refinement isn’t done overnight. It’s great that you went from 5 to 25 MPH, but the web is a bullet-train.

To make headway, we’re going to have to act more like startups, which perpetually face the unknown. They generate a hypothesis, prototype, deploy and revise—so fast it makes a traditional agency look like a beached whale. Whole companies are conceived, born and getting users in the time it often takes to get a campaign to market. Tell me there isn’t something fundamentally screwed in all of this.

To change this, we may need to kill a couple of sacred cows: like what we spend our days doing, and the things we get to show off.

Our most recent campaign has no single underlying concept. Instead, we have a trajectory (goals and objectives) and a bunch of loose ideas. We’ve started with a dozen of these and will soon be working on about twenty of them. Over a sixteen-week period we are creating, deploying and adapting each of them, with some assets taking just minutes to produce. The strange part? Engagement on some of the quick ones surpasses others that have taken us weeks to prepare.

Frankly, I hate many aspects of working this way. It requires us to hustle all the time, coordinate maddening, overlapping schedules and at the end not even have beautiful assets to showcase in our portfolio. It’s also the most real way of working I know, in that it’s measured and we can’t hide from these numbers. No more talk of hypothetical “impressions,” that just won’t cut it any longer.

Ultimately, I’m talking about the end of the set-it-and-forget-it creative/advertising mindset. No longer can we toil away for months to create beautiful work, with little real-world understanding of whether we’re hitting the mark. The ability to test, gauge and interpret actual audience behavior—not focus groups—is too powerful a thing to be forsaken for outdated habits. And, yes, our clients will have to move faster too, if they want to see results.

Sure, I’m speaking primarily from a digital and advertising standpoint, but couldn’t this same thinking be brought to things like brand-related design? Have you ever seen an identity not erode once transferred to the client? Is it perhaps time for us to build such things faster and more collaboratively, in order to ensure they’re adopted by the organizations that buy them from us? (I know. It freaks me out too, but it’ll probably end up moving this way.)

It’s your choice, but not changing may kill your studio/agency. ca Karjaluoto
Eric Karjaluoto is creative director at smashLAB, where he helps organizations clarify, align and tell their stories. He also writes about design on the blog: ideasonideas.