Left vs. Right-brained

I thought I got it. I thought that was it. Sure of my design process being "the" design process, my path to deliver successful designs was always smooth and straight forward. My pre-established, proven-record, wow-amazing design process included what, in summary, many design processes include: definition > research > creation. Plain and simple. Through this method, I designed many campaigns and guaranteed buy-in from clients. That, added to my sell pitches, have been on target because I would demonstrate a good understanding of the strategy and the ultimate goal and used that to feed my design process. By following that process, my designs always made sense to the business crowd.

It was not until recently, when I discovered that there isn't a single road to a successful design solution. I realized that I could look at this from an analytical perspective but also from a more empirical view too. Once I faced this situation I thought of categorizing this two different ways to approach design: 

  1. The left-brained design process, which looks like this:
    Define > research > brainstorm > conceptualize > choose solution > apply
  2. And the right-brained design process, which looks like this:
    Define > research > brainstorm (here is where it starts getting messy) > conceptualize (here’s where it gets messier) > choose a solution (here’s where you think there was a decision made) > apply (here’s where the application looks nothing like the solution provided > iteration (here’s where the design forever evolves)

In #1, there is no testing, no iteration, no redesign. That is simply not acceptable. There is never time, it is not what was agreed on, and nobody cared anyway.

Whereas in #2, the process is a messier one but more collaborative too. One that goes both ways and not just one. One in which conversations--instead of isolation--bring up the ideas. One in which everyone cares. Notice that the steps of process #1 are still there but they don’t have a clear finish line. Once brainstorming starts it’s all about a combination of ideation, conversations, iterations, and going back and forth to the drawing board, and start all over again. It almost feels as if you are never getting there. But it is just that you are perfecting your way there.  I wish I could define this process in a better way but I’m still trying to figure out how can it be explained as an organized chain of thoughts that are sharable and applicable to any work environment.

The right-brained approach is not the process of just the designer, it is the process of everybody: art director, creative director, copywriter, marketing director, chief marketing, program manager, photo editor, you name it. In this approach everyone matters because everyone brings in a new perspective, and everyone is included.

If you are for the establishment you may work best in a left-brained design process. If ongoing conversing and brainstorming is your thing then you may fit best within the more relaxed but also chaotic right-brained format.

That Tiny Little Image On Your Shirt

I just completed a fall class for my MFA at SCAD. The class offered a new perspective on the design process and how designers help create meaning. I thought of publishing my final paper via this blog as I discovered that the subject of semiotics is very often forgotten in the design process. I hope you enjoy it.

Semiotics Help Build Stronger Brands

People buy brands for multiple reasons, because of their function, like comfortable Aerosoles shoes, because of their form, like a suitcase in the shape of Hello Kitty, or because of the way they make them feel, like Nike’s apparel. Marketing and advertising are natural carriers of messages to consumers through their communications campaigns, but there’s an inherent message embedded in product design and its symbols themselves that persuade people to buy them. What makes the consumer select one brand over the other? Semiotics plays a key role in communicating with consumers as it is through a set of signs—in the form of product design, and marketing and advertising images—that the brand message is conveyed. By focusing on the meaning of brands to consumers, this paper argues that semiotics can help build stronger brands when they are a part of an integrated visual strategy and system.

An exploration of semiotics as a way to build stronger brands begins with a definition of a brand. There are multiple definitions of branding depending on perspectives; Leo Burnett defines a brand symbol as “anything that leaves a mental picture of the brand’s identity” (Cohen). The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand from a product perspective as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Multiple components come into play when developing a brand, and they need to work together in a harmonious way in order to make the brand strong and meaningful. As Charles Berlo’s Message Components theory establishes: content, elements, structure, code, and treatment must work together in order to create meaning in visual communications. When these components are put together in a coherent and strategic way, the results will have an effect on the humans’ senses. As Davis explains, the response to visual communications is not only physical but also emotional. From the cognitive perspective, Donald Norman, a psychologist, (Davis 69) states that emotional responses are linked to the physical characteristics of a product. He explains the visceral level of emotion is based on product appearance. This theory leads to think that the visual aspect of a product and the images associated with it have an effect on what consumers choose to buy.

Semiotics focuses on the study of signs, particularly their production and interpretation in the context of communication and social interaction (Davis 104). If we apply this concept of semiotics to the development of brands, we observe how it affects consumer behavior. Semiotics, by means of signs, becomes the tool that brands use to communicate with the world in a meaningful way. Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of semiotics, viewed language as a system in which the basic unit is the sign. One example is the Hello Kitty character turned successful line of products. Christine Yano, a Harvard University professor who has studied Hello Kitty for more than 16 years (yes, she exists), attributes the character’s success to its "very clever, aesthetically pleasing design" (The Week).

To expand on the example of the Hello Kitty brand, we can draw some conclusions about the use of semiotics and how it can help generate loyal consumers. When most people think of Hello Kitty, they think of cuteness, girlhood, happiness, and friendship. The iconic brand was worth $7 billion in 2014 when it turned 40 years old (Wikipedia). This is considered a successful brand because of what it represents. If we analyze the character design, we find it to be a symbol that is an anthropomorphism of a cat as she is not a cat standing on four legs, but a cat that stands on two legs, like a human. Choosing to buy Hello Kitty is choosing to be “cute” and “adorable”. Roland Barthes, a French literary critic and theorist, calls this phenomenon a “readily” creation in which the creator controls meaning. The character designer made decisions, deliberately, about design elements (round face, a tilted bow in between its round ears, pink color, and no mouth because “Hello Kitty speaks from the heart”) in order to convey pre-established connotations assigned by Sanrio, the company owner.

The Hello Kitty brand keeps getting stronger as its network of product development expands. Yano describes how “part of the genius of Sanrio lies in offering the Hello Kitty imprint upon any number and variety of goods. Whether a girl purchases one item, two items, or ten, they link easily into a well-coordinated suite… in effect symbolic cocoon of age-graded, gender identity” (Yano 30). In a recent statement, Yano declared that, "Hello Kitty is not a cat… She is a little girl.” These generated controversy among media channels such as CNN and Daily Mail who have described Yano’s statement as “outrageous” and “shocking” respectively. The idea that this representation of a cat was described as a girl and had no mouth, led to the perception that it did not speak for itself. The semiotics of this character, through humanization in this case, leverages physical characteristics and personality attributes—Hello Kitty’s favorite saying is “you can never have too many friends”. The components of its physical characteristics have contributed to the way this symbol is perceived, having pre-teen girls raving about it. In this regards, Jessica Helfand explains “to engage the eye while simultaneously lassoing consumer loyalty is the stuff of branding, but at its core it’s all about an enduring desire that links a person to a designed thing, for as long as it is humanly possible to do so” (182). The semiotics of the Hello Kitty character are consistent and present in all the merchandise the brand develops, engaging consumers and creating loyalty, from coin purses to jets.

Part of the Hello Kitty success was its resemblance to a cultural symbol that predated her, maneki-neko, which is a Japanese figurine that is a symbol of good luck. The creation of the Hello Kitty character in this case came from an existing cultural sign that carried a positive connotation. Semiotics made the Hello Kitty brand stronger, not only because its unique design as a symbol, but also for what it represented, culturally.

Virginia Valentine, a founding partner of Semiotics Solutions, Ltd, in UK, establishes that “semiotics is the other half of the equation in market research”. In her presentation, Semiotics and Market Research (The Other Half of the Equation), she says that semiotics do not talk to consumers, instead it utilizes the rules and body of culture to communicate.

The market presents consumers with numerous brands in which some are more successful than others. The ones that have survived the test of times are the ones that have proven to have an inherent meaning to their consumers. The visual forms of these brands are key to that success as they carry a cognitive power that is important to the one buying them. These brands, like Hello Kitty, have benefited from the value of using semiotics in the development of both their visual identities and product lines as integrated systems. As Helfand puts it, “the things that we want make us who we are, and if we all want the same things…then the fulfillment of the International Style may reveal itself as a truly dystopian legacy…” (194).

Brands create symbols such logo marks and graphic elements with a focus on how they will represent them, but ultimately, focusing on how those symbols will represent consumers, will define the brand’s strength and success.


Works Cited

Catalin, Munteanu Claudio, and Andreea, Pagalea. “Brands as a Means of Consumer Self-Expression and Desired Personal Lifestyle.” Procedia – Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 109, 2014, pp. 103-107.
Cohen, Heidi. “30 Branding Definitions.” Actionable Marketing Guide. 8 Aug. 2011.
Davis, Meredith. Graphic Design Theory. Thames & Hudson Inc., 2012.
Cohen, Heidi. “30 Definitions of a Brand”. HeidiCohen, http://heidicohen.com.
Helfand, Jessica. Design: The Invention of Desire. Yale University Press, 2016
“Hello Kitty.” Wikipedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hello_Kitty.
“Hello Kitty Turns 40: How Did She Become so Popular?” The Week, http://www.theweek.co.uk/business/61149/hello-kitty-turns-40-how-did-she-become-so-popular.
Valentine, Virginia. “Semiotics and Market Research (The Other Half of the Equation).” HSTalks.com. 22 May 2008.
Yarrow, Kit. Engagement. Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Wiley Publishers, 2014
Yano, Christine R. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific. Duke University Press, 2013.


Invention Beyond Imagination

"One invention a day", he said to me and established his own rule. He always does that. I was only trying to get this 2nd-grader-to-be to write a few sentences a day on this diary and keep him occupied this summer break. The experiment turned out to be better than what I naively but intentionally planned.

My son is only 7 years old and I could see how this exercise completely changed his state of mind. He went from not wanting to write about anything at all to constantly thinking and recording his new ideas about how to grab something that exists and make it better.

For a few weeks this summer his brain became an idea making machine: the baby feeding slider, the eggsmart machine, the mechanical tree house, or the double-function bacon for both dogs and humans--controlled with water temperature! Considering that scientists are even suggesting that cockroach milk will be the next new super food, my son's inventions made a lot of sense!

I realized how this simple exercise got him to think about the things that surrounded him daily and how to improve them. He discovered this while playing on the sidewalk, while swimming on the beach, or while eating his food. It became his way of thinking about the world. He discovered that what's around is not necessarily the best possible option, but only the best version of something up until that point. He discovered that there are many more opportunities to the one thing that he knew and that he can make things whatever he wanted them to be.

What if we could all start a diary of inventions and reset our state of mind? What if we think about one object or process that we utilize every day that hasn't quite fit our needs, and think about how to make it better?

You only need one notepad (no computers allow) and a pen to start sketching away with no limitations and create that world made of systems and objects that you always dreamed about.

The Eggsmart by 7-year old, Silvestre Earle. I'll  ©  this, just in case.

The Eggsmart by 7-year old, Silvestre Earle. I'll © this, just in case.

Innovation and other design intricacies

I've been away for a long time but for good reasons. I was accepted to SCAD's (Savannah College of Art and Design) Design Management graduate program last spring. As I've been juggling a full time job, volunteering, being a mom and a wife, I've also been digging deeper into the meaning of design. This is exciting and eye-opening for me as a designer since subjects I usually don't get to discuss in a daily basis, are now a part of my daily vocabulary. Concepts such as invention and innovation, its history and relationship with anthropology and sociology, and its needed support system in order to happen and be successful, have been so fascinating that have led me to want more.

You would think that after more than 20 years of experience in the design field, the design process would be obvious to me. Luckily, I have discovered, that that's not the case. The amazing intricacies of the human factor, design thinking, anthropometrics, ergonomic analysis, ethnography, and contextual research, among other previously obscure subjects, have awaken my curiosity.

I think about how much richer any type of end user experience would be if all things designed would incorporate more about getting to know humans.

This is an example of heterogeneous engineering. Portuguese explorers' missions were supported by a well-oiled network, which included the crown and the use of technology and best practices when reaching far lands.

The Ever-Changing Story

"Change is the essential process of all existence." That was Mr. Spock opinion on change. 

Just as any project that has a process, your marketing tactic that finally got a clear direction might soon change. That's the nature of storytelling. Of course, the goal is not changing just because, but only to lead the story to a perfect ending.

It happens in any creative process, with authors, with screen writers, and within the design process. The point is to welcome that opportunity for change rather than feel frustrated.

Writers start out a book with an idea that, initially, seems unique and perfect, but as they move onto writing a proposal the writer might discover that there could be more to the story than the initial idea. The subject starts getting a lot more substantial once a publisher becomes interested in the book, BUT with another tweak to the story. That evolution is what might make that book a best seller.

If we look at screen writers' work, it's a very similar situation. The script is fantastic and producers love it. BUT scenes might be re-written to the point that you wouldn't be able to recognize the initial idea. The direction of the film changed! That evolution is what could make the movie an Oscar winner.

And there comes the design process. Decisions are made earlier in the process and that's healthy for progress and a smooth process. BUT what happens when you start seeing things differently as the original idea moves along? 

Here are 4 possible factors that could alter the direction of your project or idea:

1. Discoveries before the process starts

Once you have gathered all of your assets and have a beautiful creative brief written, some other unforeseen elements might arise during the design research phase such as new competition offerings.

2. Triggers within the process
You might notice that the new design created for your outreach campaign does not work well in your direct mail piece. Something might be wrong in the way the design was created that is not flexible enough to adjust to different types of media.

3. Environment
Have you seen the news? You might have to reconsider the use of a graphic in the shape of a gun due to current sensitivity.

4. New Trends
The beautiful campaign your team designed last year that was supposed to have a shelf life of 3 years just got outdated due to new marketing trends or technologies.

So, how will you rewrite your story?

Advertising Giantism?

Or gigantic distraction-ism? This is a compilation of images I took on a road trip to the south of Lima, Peru, over the holidays. Distracting for the driver? Sure. Creative and resourceful? That too. These collection of outdoor advertising utilizes natural landscapes to integrate advertising.

Someone dropped the cooler

Coca Cola invasion going south

Coca Cola invasion going north

Inca Kola and "anticucho de pollo", impossible to miss.

I was obviously in the right direction to the beach.

The True Honest Sign

It lives in the woods of West Virginia. It is quiet and non-intrusive. It is natural and it feels organic in the sense that no added ingredients interfered with its production. The most honest sign you could possibly see.

Bear's Lope and Cedar Run crossing in Cacapon, West Virginia
When looking at this sign, I couldn't avoid thinking about what's in a sign that makes it work. I thought of 3 key elements to consider: 1) it obviously needs to be positioned in the right place so it helps you find your way, 2) it needs to communicate directions clearly, and 3) and most of the times overlooked, it needs to be true to its context and surrounding environment.

I can go on and on about this sign's greatness and what makes it beautiful. Its design shows respect for the environment it was placed in. Its simplicity speaks to the passersby instead of yelling at them.  Its style clicks with the visitor who wants to experience nature. Its voice, even though mute, makes an emotional connection.

If we do a quick analysis of its fashion, the color is right to naturally blend in and surprise you. The font lacks embellishments but represents its context perfectly and communicates the immediate message. It's texture is precise and friendly because it belongs. 

How many times we wanted to be heard so badly that we have displayed our message so prominently that we have forgotten about its surroundings? How many times our message has gone unnoticed because we overlooked its context and got lost in irrelevant  embellishments?

Next time you are working on your message and how to display it in a way that creates a connection, think about its surroundings. As in a road trip to the mountains of West Virginia, pay attention to the basics of simplicity and the natural state of things.

Dirt road in Cacapon, West Virginia

Help Yourself First

Yes, you should to be polite to your guests by letting them help themselves first. Well, the news is that if you decided to become a marketer or graphic designer, you would hurt your guests, a.k.a. the audience, by doing that.

This morning I went to Starbucks for my traditional tall skinny cinnamon dolce latte and noticed that one of the baristas behind the counter was walking around offering her co-workers a cup of coffee from a tray. Everybody took one. From the
perspective of a customer waiting for her coffee on the other side of the counter, it was a sweet scene. As a customer, I expect the barista behind the counter to know about the coffee I’m buying, and what better way to do that than by actually tasting it.

Many food retailers with employees under the minimum wage feed their staff with a meal
for free only if they are in for a shift longer than 4 hours or so. But how many of them actually let their employees try everything in the menu just so they become the well-informed experts on the product?

The question is, how many times have you tried to experience what your audience is experiencing from your organization? How many times have to stepped on the opposite side of the counter? For example, try mailing that postcard you just sent out to yourself, or try registering for that event you are putting together, or try browsing through that magazine you just placed and ad in.

You have heard a lot about user experience lately, but that shouldn't be new to digital interactive experiences only. Customer experience, recipient experience, client experience, etc. applies to everything you do in relation to your audience.

Knowing that the brand experience is in every touch point your customers have with your product or service, helping yourself first is one simple thing you can do to improve it.

5 Scary Design Practices

The design process can turn scary at times if you don't consider these 5 practices. Compiled from my non-fictional experiences, these are practices that were overlooked and took projects in spooky directions:

1. The Silence of the Lambs. Do you know what's scarier than than someone telling "the design is not good"? Not telling. Silence is not good in the design approval process. If the person assigned with making the final design decision doesn't like it, get her/him to say it... at the right time. Open the door for constructive critique to save the project.

2. Poltergeist. Leave design to the designer and set clients' personal preferences aside to focus on the product's brand otherwise you will see your project dressed up in an array of patchy visual effects only compared to the effects of director Tobe Hooper. 

3. The Fog. Excuse me, I can't see the budget? You will not want to swim into foggy waters without knowing how much money there is for producing the idea you are about to come up with. Don't kill yourself by not knowing the budget.

4. The Phantom Carriage. Now, this is really frightening. You need a driver on your design project and that's the creative brief. If you don't have it, you better start writing it one now before you become a wretched soul.

5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Design by committee does not work. Even though it satisfies people's egos involved, it hurts the communication between your organization and your audience.

So, don't spoil the story and bury yourself in a senseless thriller. Make it real but not scary.

Connecting print and online: techno-channels

I could see Nashville from above now. The ASAE conference was over and along with it, the buzz of almost 6,000 people who attended. Impressed to see almost 200 of them at my latest panel "Making an Impact with your Membership Materials: What Works, What Doesn't". The biggest take away as a presenter? The amount of small-staff organizations with basic needs and lack of tools to meet them. What a great opportunity to give you an insight of what was discussed in this exciting 4-people panel. 

What are techno-channels?

We introduced a new term thanks to Denise Gavilan's creativity, the "techno-channels". The techno-channels are what connect your print efforts with your online presence. I asked the audience, what are you doing on print to generate traffic to your online presence? And what channels are you using when talking to your different audiences?

If we use a professional association as an example, as Sheri Jacobs puts it in an article for Associations Now, you might have two members in your association that demographically look very similar--they are both the same age, they both manage the same size of organization, they were both promoted at the same time, etc.-- but each one connects with their industry in different ways. One likes going to the annual conference and volunteering in local programs whereas the other one has no interest in face-to-face conferences and prefers to connect through e-newsletters and webinars. How are you communicating/interacting with these audiences? 

What are the techno-channels you are using when communicating with your audiences?

Forms of techno-channels

These questions take me to explain a few forms of techno-channels:
  1. Vanity URL: you might already be doing this and that's the URL you use in your direct mail piece with a clear call to action such as "visit", "register now", or "find out more".
  2. QR codes: I'm sure you've heard about them. They've been around for a few years now. QR codes direct you to a place online when you scan a printed code with you cell phone.
  3. Digital watermarks: just as QR codes, these are scannable through an app on your cell phone but the code is not visible, it's embedded on an image or page.
  4. Purls: created through variable data, Purls display the recipient's name on your direct mail piece, and directs the person to a personalized web page.

Why do you need to think about techno-channels?

Simply because you need to connect your print efforts to your online efforts to tell the whole story and being able to communicate with your audiences in different ways. Some forms of interactivity that techno-channels create are:
  1. Landing pages: these are single web pages that live within your website and have a specific purpose such as a registration form, a special offer with an expiration date, or a video testimonial to give a few examples.
  2. Microsites: they live within your website as well but display their own navigation menu and most likely will carry the brand you just developed for a marketing campaign.
  3. Personalized web pages: these are developed through variable data with Purls
  4. Social media: this isn't new anymore and you need to be inclusive of social media to let your audiences share their own stories through photos, selfies, comments, and video.

How do you select the best channel mix?

You don't want to randomly pick your techno-channels. Just as the rest of your marketing tools, you will need to look at some indicators. Here are 3 main ones that could help you with the selection:
  1. Project goals: it's easy to loose sight and forget about the main goals in the middle of the process. Therefore, always go back and review those goals you set up for the project. This will always give you a refresh and keep you focused when making marketing decisions.
  2. Audience behaviors: always overlooked since most organizations focus on demographics only. Do some research and try to do a quick survey on your audiences' behaviors before you choose a channel to communicate with them.
  3. Budget: this is a key indicator on how you will use your money in each of the different communication channels.

Move Great Ideas Forward

I just came across a project with a "pre-established" budget. It sounds ideal since you want to have  control over your expenses. How much is the "pre-established" budget holding you back from moving your best idea forward, however? You don't want to seem out of touch by proposing that crazy idea that's out of the budget, but at the same time you don't want your client to miss out on the opportunity of seeing your great idea. That doesn't seem fair for anybody: the client, the audience, or yourself. And you know that that great idea will resonate better than what was previously done! You believe that it's your role and even more so your ethical responsibility as a professional marketer or designer to present that great idea.

So, my advise to you is don't shy away. In my own experience I've heard clients saying "this is all [money] we've got" but once they see the great idea presented, they search for funds to do the extra investment from wherever they could possibly find it. An immense opportunity has been unveiled! Your selling skills and your determination that that great idea meets the ultimate goal is what will open the doors to bigger budgets!

So here are 5 quick tips to get those budget doors open:

1. Don't shy away from budgets but understand them. Budgets are established, but they have cushions. Those cushions can be invested in a good way!

2. Don't shy away from "that's how it's been done before". You know better and you have higher expectations because you know your material. So phrases like that should not stop a marketer or designer from proposing new ideas.

3. Know the organization's culture so that you can navigate through it. Learn who the decision maker is, learn about how s/he thinks and start conversations.

4. Know your audience. You know that your audience will response to that new brochure fold you came up with for the next event invitation so put that on the table as an option.

5. Understand current economic trends. If there's been big layoffs in the industry in which your organization is in think about that next marketing piece, don't just update last year's postcard. You don't want to send a message (even visually) that makes you look out of touch. And you do want to make the right investment to let your audience know you understand their pain points and concerns.

I do find amazing how a great idea can really move a client and get him/her on board! You just have to try and take the risk.

What am I looking for?

Have you ever been handed off a piece or marketing material for review and you are not really sure what you are supposed to look for from the design aspect? From a marketing perspective I'm sure you'll make sure the copy reads right and has no typos, and that there's no information missing. From the design perspective, you are not so sure what you are supposed to be looking at. Even though you don't have an art director or graphic designer in house to help you, there are only 5 main things you need to pay attention to:

  1. The focal point. If you are not familiar with it, the focal point is mandatory in any design piece, not only in marketing but also, in advertising, architecture, fashion, industrial design, and any other industry that utilizes design as a way to communicate. The focal point is the visual element that will drag people into your design so that they will read your message. The focal point is what will catch their attention. And bigger will not make it better. You might even have a large blank area and that might do it. Remember that Volkswagen 70's ad campaign "think small"?

    Think Small was an advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle, created  at the Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) agency in 1959.It was ranked as the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age, in a survey of North American advertisements.

  2. The eye path. Once the eye finds the focal point, it needs to follow a path to walk the user through the piece. That path should guide users through that visual piece and direct them to find the way out to finally leave them with a message in mind.
  3. Give me break. In between visual elements, that is. The reader needs to take a break as s/he reads your piece of collateral just as you need to breath in between sentences when you speak. I'm sure you have a lot to say in that little space available but a piece of collateral filled up with information from top to bottom will not be noticed by the recipient.
  4. Readability. The type needs to be laid in a hierarchical manner so that the recipient can skim through it and pick up the most important information as s/he looks at it at first sight.
  5. Negative vs. positive space. The alignment of all design elements (words and images) will generate spaces in between them. That space needs to be balanced out. Too much white space that is not well utilized, or too many contrasting images together will be too distracting for the recipient.

  6. Your logo is not important. This might sounds painful but it's true. Your logo is not your focal point, it is not your positioning, and it is not your call to action therefore it doesn't need to be big as a melon on your collateral. What will make your organization recognizable is your overall branding, meaning the way your organization interacts with your audience at each touch point, not your logo. 


Like Salt and Pepper: Designer-Marketer Synergy

As my panel peers and I start the conversations to get ready for the ASAE's Springtime conference, we thought of what's the most practical advice we could give our audience. This was a great exercise since it made me think what would be the 5 best practices for designers and marketers to create the strongest work ever, together.

I thought of successful projects I worked on and this is what I found they had in common:

1. Creative Brief
This simple document can bring so much joy to both designer, marketer, and client. There isn't a better peace maker than a creative brief. It needs to be short and sweet and include key elements such as goals, target audience, tone, core messaging, unique value proposition, positioning, a list of deliverables, and a timeline.
2. Conceptualization
A design-message is strong when images and words work together. You can't design and then write, and you can't write and then design. This collaboration needs to happen concurrently in a brainstorming session.

3. Visual integration
Your message get stronger through repetition, but not the kind that gets duplicated in all pieces of collateral, but the kind that's integrated and customized to fit a specific media, a specific size, a specific audience and preserving the essence of the design concept and message.

4. Core message/clear positioning
Think about in how many ways you can say something but with  different words. How many ways are there to say something but keeping the same desired tone and positioning. Your message is not your call to action. Your message is what needs to stick in your audience's mind after they have turned the page of that magazine in which you are advertising.
5. Empathy
Something we all tend to forget. We are so focused on trying to sell our next product or service that we forget about our audience feelings and sentiments. What if we have experienced the frustrations they currently have? We need to knowledge that when we are talking to them because that's how we will create the connection that will bring them to us.

This is an ad that I keep on my wall as a sample of empathetic messaging.

DOs and DON'Ts for a Happy Holiday Message

Happy Holidays and a Prosperous New Year? I’m sure you have something better to say [that hasn’t been said].

It’s that time of the year to send an official holiday or end-of-year message to your clients, your stakeholders, the whole world! And I’m sure you are very thankful with them for being with you all along 2013. For this purpose you invite your whole team to brainstorm ideas on how to send a nice greeting, and this is what they come up with: a card in the mail with a picture of the staff, an email message with a Christmassy email banner at the top, or even a video on a landing page on your website. You consider the ideas very creative but have you thought about the goal of sending that message? And have you thought about your value proposition when coming up with all these communication efforts?

Do create a sincere message and focus on your value proposition.

Rewind to the basics and think again. This is a great opportunity to connect with the people you love, your audience. So consider these dos and don'ts when greeting them at the end of this year:

  1. Be yourself and be creative: this is the perfect opportunity to show your company’s human side and purpose. Connect with them with warm words and tie that into your mission
  2. Keep it short and simple: the amount of greetings received this time of the year is overwhelming and yours need to pop among the clutter.
  3. Give them a bit more than what they expect: it’s expected to receive a greeting card or even a box of chocolates but what it's not expected is something extra that is actually practical and  can be put into good use, such as the “The Three Tips for a Prosperous New Year” or “The 10 Commandments to Meet your 2014 Goals”.


  1. Loose track of your company’s motto: what’s in your holiday greeting for me and why should I care?
  2. Be a cookie cutter: your mom told you to always say thank you but how you say it is more important. There isn’t one way to say it. There are many. You might not even have to literally say it. So make it personal to your organization.
  3. Try to sell them something: this is not the time to get them to purchase from you, or to subscribe to your publication, or attend your event. Be sincere about what your audience means to you.
Happy holidays!

3 Steps to Create The Emotional Connection (emotional what?)

Yes, you need to create the emotional space between your company, product, or service and the audience if you want them to buy from you. And that requires to look again at what your purpose is. So these are 3 first steps you can take to get closer to that.

1. Share
I almost fell from a 5th floor window at 6 months of age.
I traveled by bus, from Peru to Argentina,
for 7 seven days, at age 14, alone.
I ran a full New Orleans marathon at age 33.

I just told you 3 things about me. Why would you care right? Well, you just learned a little bit more about me. Don't you feel more connected? Sure, but what does that have to do with marketing and design? Wouldn't you be more likely to buy from me if you knew me? Yes. So find something about the company or organization that's unique and that will speak to its audience. Then go out and share it.

Share your stories. Identify your values. Bring that to the decision table.

2. Identify your values
How many times have we been slammed with a project this way: "here it is, this is the text and here's the deadline for the new brochure. I need a draft by Monday." When you read the content, it's all about mere facts and a long list of what the company does. You know better that nobody will pay attention to that therefore it will not accomplish any goals. Our job as marketers and designers is to dig in deeper just so that we can create something meaningful.

Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, doesn't tell you "we offer a wide range of accessories perfect for every occasion or gift", they say instead "small gift, big smile". Everything that Sanrio creates is based on that unique philosophy and it's the basis for making decisions on product development, graphic design, promotional, vendor selection, distribution, etc.

3. Bring it on
In order to identify those values you need to know your story, that's where you come from and who you are. You will then carry those values over everything you do and all decisions that you make. Always have those values on the meeting table so when decision time comes, you and your team will look at them, and find the answers you were looking for. It's a process of honesty and humility which results will then be reflected into the end product or service. And that's when you spark the connection with the audience.

Share your stories. Identify your values. Bring that to the decision table.

Fall Food to Make You More Creative

I know what you are thinking and it isn't coffee! Fall is here and therefore the beginning of a long trail of never-ending yummy eating all the way from Thanksgiving through New Year's. The great news is that the foods I'm going to list below, not only will shake your creative juices but are also seasonal and healthy. So you can just walk to your local farmers market this week end and get them all at once.

One thing to keep in mind is that I am not a nutritionist. I did some research in terms of what keeps your brain going longer in a healthy way, however. So take it from who it comes from. I'm a designer who needs to keep producing big ideas and making sure my brain is fed with the right fuel to keep going.

Give your brain carbs, omega 3 fatty acids, and antioxidants to improve creativity.

1. Carbohydrates: they are a big source of energy but choose right when it comes to it and always pick whole grains. Our body processes whole grains slowly and that provides longer hours of great ideas. Here's where you can find whole grain carbohydrates:
  • whole-grain corn
  • whole wheat bread
  • stone-ground whole grain
  • brown rice
  • whole rye
  • whole-grain barley
  • wild rice
  • quinoa
  • whole oats, oatmeal (including old-fashioned oatmeal and instant oatmeal
2. Omega 3 fatty acids: it fights depression therefore they keep you positive. Studies have shown that they improve the cognitive function (source Web MD) which includes the process of problem solving and decision making. Where can you find these foods:
  • Flax seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Oily fish such as salon, sardines, trout, tuna, and halibut
  • Seafood: oysters and shrimp
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Soybeans
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe 
  • Peanut butter 
  • Spinach
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Soy milk
3. Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene: they protect your brain, improve your eyesight, and relief stress. This is where you can find them:
  • Vitamin C: oranges, guava, sweet and red peppers, grapefruit, strawberries, brussel sprouts
  • Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, paprika, almonds, pine nuts, peanuts, dried apricots, kiwi, tomatoes
  • Beta-carotene: carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, spinach, collards, kale turnip, beets, winter squash, cabbage
That's your grocery shopping for now so that your next project is charged with healthy creativity.

3 Key Tips for a Painless Approval Process

Yes, we've all been there: uncountable and painful rounds of revisions. Once you thought you got final approval you find out that the decision maker on the client's side has never seen the final draft. Both marketer and designer are back at square one now, juggling through a deadline that's approaching, and almost ready for a panic attack.

How can we prevent this from happening or at least minimize the stress damage and frustration? These are my 3 key practices for both designer and project manager to consider:

1. Who's the final decision maker?
This is a key element to identify before the design process starts. Not only identify who that person is before you start the project, but also know that person's way of thinking and style so that when you approach her you stand on solid grounds. Understand what she expects of the design project directly from her in her own words with no intermediaries, and get all your questions answered directly by her. You do this, and you will be one step forward from your counterparts.

2. No cookie cutter approval process
Remain flexible. Yes, there's a process established. Yes, that's the way you've been doing things. You need to be flexible to adjust direction and attention if a project needs it, however. Remember it's all for the benefit of the final product/project and the goals established for it.

3. No talk about design
But about the ultimate goal. Yes, you love the design your designer came up with and you both will try to sell it the best way possible. When doing so don't focus on font and color, focus on the ultimate goal of the project and how that design is helping achieving that. Focus on the strategic picture, not the tactical picture and your client will be more welcoming with your solutions.

This isn't simple so you will have to polish up your communications skills. Make that communication process simple and get that client involved for honest feedback at the right time.

Who is the decision maker?

What's Design Honesty Anyway?

What happens when the design solution steers away from the object or piece's main function? The answer is, it creates visual noise. Not only in the end solution but along the process as well. You will be able to notice that if the design review process becomes tedious, with infinite rounds of revisions, and end up not happy with the final outcome.

I have developed 6 tips that help trigger honest design:

  1. Transparency in the communication process, by implementing sincere feedback at the right moment
  2. Concentrate on the final experience and interaction rather than the layout
  3. Always focus on the ultimate project goal
  4. Develop story-telling concepts that create the emotional connection between your company/organization/product and your audience
  5. Detach from pre-established paths that might have worked in the past but are not longer applicable
  6. Self-question, "is the design a good design?". Even though the answer is subjective and difficult to measure, I would like you to refer you to Dieter Rams' 10 principles of "good design".
Dieter Ram's 606 Universal Shelving System, 1960. Source: Wikipedia Commons

What a Thousand Words are Worth

I'm in a beach vacation in Delaware and couldn't avoid writing about this particular experience. After coming here every summer for the last few years I've been able to witness a few changes through time. In regards to advertising, traditionally, I see a small airplane flying over summer bathists carrying a long paid banner advertisement. The sound of its motor even reminds me of summer since it's been part of the beach experience for a while. Well, the plane is still there and sometimes it's even fun to watch.

Last year, advertising was taken to water level: I noticed a small boat riding along the shore back and forth which had a bow in the shape of a shark jaw. My 4-year old boy loves it by the way! This particular boat would carry a giant printed advertising sign that would change every time it would come back. This year, the captain decided to swap that printed sign for an electronic screen. One should assume that his business has been successful since he installed an "upgrade". What does this tell me about modern communication, however? We want to tell/sell so many things at once! Of course, this guy can fit now five different advertisers in one single ride rather than one, by scrolling, in multiple type faces, all of their products and services including phone numbers!

Two things to this situation: 1) do you really think that these advertisers are getting the attention they think they are getting for their buck? And 2) is the new electronic system really creating the connection with the customer?

There was one thing that was nice about a printed sign in this specific case and even though advertising is not what i want to specifically see on my beach vacation, it did feel more organic somehow. First of all, look at the surroundings-or channel- in which you are advertising. This might be the best technology available but the context is not something to be ingored. If I'm at the beach, most likely, I'm looking for a more organic vacation experience. Why sabotaging the beautiful landscape with intrusive electronic screens? A bit out of place if you think about it, which brings me to my next point. When you design a piece of advertising you want to create the emotional connection with your target audience. You pick elements (an image, a font, etc.) to deliver a message, which even if it's just your business name and phone number, should evoke a sentiment, a specific feeling or emotion, about your product or service, that hopefully will stay and connect with the recipient. 

The shark ad boat in the coast of Delaware.

Design in-house : 6 must-haves

Your marketing department is growing. Project expectations and volume keep increasing and outsourcing design talent are becoming pricey and tedious. Even though the post-economic crisis has opened opportunities to temp and short-term designers to come in and help with the workload, the need for full time multi-talented designers are now visible in many organizations.

It's the best time to take advantage of the situation because there are many well experienced and talented designers ready to take on your challenge. Besides of the soft skill-set that your potential designer must have such as communications and organizational skills, here are 7 logistical must-haves that your designer will have to implement to establish a basic design operation in-house:

1. Creative process
The creative process is a broad process and has nothing to do with the production process. It establishes the thinking process for getting to a refine idea. The steps might vary but as basic one will include:
  1. Discovery, meeting with project manager/client to learn about the scope of the project
  2. Interpretation, the project manager develops the creative brief
  3. Conceptualization, the designer focuses on research, sketching, and ideation, and prototyping
  4. Presentation, the designer presents several design concept options to the project manager/client
  5. Refinement, based on feedback, the designer touches up the design concept that was selected
  6. Implementation, the new concept is applied to specific deliverables
6 steps of a basic creative process
2. Production process
Once the design has been selected during the creative process, you move onto the production process for all the nitty-gritty. The design will be applied to specific pieces such as brochures, postcards, web graphics, etc. Here's where specific sizes and quantities will be decided.

3. Job order forms
A job order is key for a design project initiation since this will include all specs needed for the designer to get it done: size, print date, delivery date, delivery format.

4. Production schedule
Since your designer will be handling multiple projects at once, the best way to keep track of all together is a production schedule that could be in the shape of a spread sheet or some kind of project management tool. Believe me, this will prevent the designer from missing deadlines and minimize overall insanity and stress.

5. Approval form
No project can get released to a print shop or the Web without the project manager or client's approval. Make sure you get a signature or initials at every round of revisions to ensure that the project is following the right direction until it gets published.

6. Technology
To be clear on this, technical knowledge doesn't define a good designer. The designer's role is to find solutions to a problem through a design thinking process, therefore imagination is the main tool. Having the right technology to implement those ideas is important for a good execution, however.