165. Creativity

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Jim Coudal shares his thoughts on monetizing creativity, Marcus talks about questioning clients and Paul gets excited about eye candy.

Download this show.

Launch our podcast player


The power of asking questions

I am spending a lot of time recently advising clients how to ‘engage’ with their users. Engagement seems to be the buzzword of the moment, and to some degree rightly so. Engaging with your users is important for a number of reasons including (but not limited to)…

  • It increases loyalty and repeat business
  • It encourages users to promote you and your services
  • It informs your products and services

Although a lot of people understand the importance of engagement, few know how to do it effectively. As is so often the case website owners turn to technology as the solution. They launch forums, add comments and sign-up for twitter. However, when it comes to engaging with human’s, what you say is considerably more important than the medium through which its said.

Take for example your blog. Just because you have comments enabled, does not mean users will post. As is pointed out on the Pro Blogger website, if you want to encourage comments you need to ask questions.

Pro Blogger provides 10 reasons why questions are good, before going on to share 12 tips for asking them. Some of the suggestions are extremely useful, such as using the answers you receive as the basis for another article. Its a good post and definitely worth reading.

The do’s and don’ts of modern web design

I don’t normally highlight new web design sites, but this one caught my eye. Called “the do’s and don’ts of modern web design” the site is essentially a directory of web design posts. What makes the site different is that each article is boiled down to a single  concise tip that is either assigned to the “do” or “don’t” column.

The Do's and Don'ts of Modern Web Design Site

Posts are also tagged according to their level of complexity (beginner, intermediate or advanced) and users can  view posts by popularity or date.

The user also has the option to read the entire post or simply rate the advice being given.

As a blogger I do have some concerns about this site. The idea of somebody boiling my posts down to a single point is disturbing to say the least! However, as a user there is something very convenient about getting short condensed snippets of information. We are all busy people and too many bloggers take forever to come to the point (myself included).

Uses for hover

The Web Designers Wall has released a post this week entitled “Maximize the Use of Hover“. If you are a designer it is definitely worth reading.

I am a huge fan of using hover in my design work. This is primarily because it makes additional information available without cluttering up the user interface. It keeps things simple and prevents the user becoming overwhelmed.

The post breaks this argument down further and identifies 4 reasons to make greater uses of hover. Their reasons include…

  • Using hover to beautify layout
  • Using hover to minimize clutter
  • Using hover to display additional information

Each point is supported by some great examples of hover in action. The post also ends with some links to useful ‘hover’ tutorials to get you started. One is a CSS only tutorial while the other uses jQuery. Personally, I use jQuery a lot for achieving hover effects simply because it is visually more attractive and also easier to build.

In defense of eye candy

I want to conclude this week’s news with one of the best articles I have read in a long time. ‘In Defense of Eye Candy‘ on A List Apart is a well constructed argument for the importance of aesthetics.

The author (Stephen Anderson) explains how aesthetics affect…

  • our understanding of a user interface,
  • the level of trust we have in a brand
  • our ability to complete a task.

It is a beautifully considered case that delves into the world of cognitive perception and provides some excellent examples of how aesthetics alter our attitudes. One particular favorite is the example of the Sony AIBO and their decision to make the robot look like a puppy. Stephen writes…

Here, you have a robotic device that isn’t perfect. It won’t understand most of what you say. It may or may not follow the commands it does understand. And it doesn’t really do all that much.

If this robot was an adult butler that responded to only half our requests and frequently did something other than what we asked, we’d consider it broken and useless. But as a puppy, we find its behaviors “cute.” Puppies aren’t known for following directions. And when the robot puppy does succeed, we are delighted. “Look, it rolled over!” What a great way to enter the robotics market.

However, ultimately the entire article is summed up in the following quote…

According to a 2002 study, the “appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size, and color schemes,” is the number one factor we use to evaluate a website’s credibility.

Back to top

Interview: Jim Coudal on monetizing creativity

Paul: So, joining me today is Jim Coudal. It’s good to have you on the show.

Jim: Thank you.

Paul: Thank you for coming along. We’re actually sitting here at the Future of Web Design. Jim has just given his keynote presentation, and I’ve also got Marcus here, hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul. Hello Jim. (Laughs) I’m not normally in on the interviews, that’s why it feels a bit weird.

Paul: Yeah, you’re not used to this bit are you really?

Marcus: No, I’m not used to being at the Future of Web Design doing it either. He does the interviews over the phone usually.

Paul: Yeah, this is weird – face to face. Um, so, brilliant brilliant presentation as always, um, and I wanted to talk to you about some of the different, um, issues relating to creativity, because you seem to talk a lot on that, and obviously at, um, Coudal Partners, isn’t it, Coudal Partners, yeah, you have to deal with this kind of issue all the time and working with creative people and how to encourage creativity and you do some very interesting stuff.

Jim: I mean, first to say, I think part of the structure of Coudal Partners is in response to a, er, earlier career frustrated with creative things, so really Coudal Partners, er, everybody there is artist or writer. So, you know, there is no, you know, we probably without business plan for 13 years, you know, there is no superstructure of account planning or any of that.

Paul: OK.

Jim: That’s possible, I think, because we’re all responsible people, but it’s also possible because we’ve made a concerted effort over the last 5 years to reduce the amount of revenue that comes from clients.

Paul: OK.

Jim: So, erm, we. Our biggest clients now are companies we own.

Paul: Right.

Jim: So, which is a blessing because we can do whatever the hell we want, and a curse because things don’t work out. (laughs). You konw, you’ve still got to make payroll.

Paul: Yeah, totally.

Jim: So, yeah, I think that the, you know, we’re all adults and we’re all responsible people and we all have a variety of interests and I’m reminded of a story. Do you know Cabel Sasser, from Panic, Panic Software in Portland – Transmit, and Coda and all that?

Paul: Oh, yes.

Jim: Well, he posted, at that time, Panic was just Steven and Cabel and he posted a video on his site, because everybody said: “what’s a typical day like at Panic?”

Paul: Yeah

Jim: So, he posted a video on his site, and I think it was like 20 minutes, of 2 guys with headphones on, staring into computer (all laugh), and like about 10 minutes into it, one of them gets up and goes to the washroom and then comes back and puts his headphones back on and stares at his computer.

Paul: Right.

Jim: And so, I watched the whole video and I wrote him right back and I said: “Cabel, it’s amazing, it’s exactly like that here!”(all laugh) Everybody has this idea that, you know, the rock and roll is blaring and, you know, someone’s having a bong in the back, or whatever, but it’s very much a individual efforts in a collective environment.

Paul: Ah, see that’s very interesting, because you’ve got a company full of creative people that are obviously coming up with lots of creative ideas and the question is: “how do you monetize that?”You know, you’re trying to move away from client work and we all understand how client work is a nice neat model and a way of making money, but you know, you guys are coming up with ideas all the time and they’re very broad-ranging. So, how do you decide which ones, you know, you can make money out of?

Jim: I mean, the purist answer to that is, the ones you’re most excited about. Erm, and try them all and get ready to bail on the failures, you know. The one question I always get whenever I speak, the first question I really get is: “Jim, what is your most spectacular failure?”people always say, and my answer is always the same is that we’re working on it right now! (all laugh) Its going to be a beauty! Erm, you know, we… Ideas tend to take the path of least resistance and frequently that path is being talked to death. It’s very easy to have a good idea and then sleep on it and then the next day come up with a thousand reasons why you can’t do it. Er, in this day and age, where we have, at Coudal, we have the superstructure, we could pretty much sell anything in a couple of hours. We have built our own e-commerce background for, we own a brand called Jewelboxing, which sells custom DVD and CD packaging systems, we own Fieldnotes, which is a, er, series of memo book, cool memo book, designer’s sort of memo book, and various other things and so we can put an idea into play very quickly, and, erm, and just a little less quickly find out if it’s going to work. The key to the whole thing, though, is that, erm, when we started this idea of creating products and services, erm, as opposed to, erm, doing work for hire, we sort of looked at the things we had, what were our assets and what were, you know, what were the things that we had, and what we had was this site coudal.com which generates a lot of traffic and the site is strange. It is not, it is sort of a daily magazine of web design intellectuals, I guess, for like a better term. And, erm, many people don’t get it at all, but a lot of people do so we figured that those people must be like us, in some way. I mean, it’s, it’s impossible to think that they are people who are unlike us, who are coming to the site and a) understanding it, and b) coming back tomorrow. So, these people must be like us. So, if we make that leap of faith and we develop products that we want, there’s probably a lot of people like us out there and we don’t actually need 5% of the global notebook market to make a lot of money, you know, so, erm, the same goes with our ad network, The DECK ad network, which is tremendously successful because it targets web-designing creative professionals like us, so the idea is, if you’re true… The question is how do you decide which ones you do, and my answer is it’s the ones you’re most excited about. I think that the secret underneath that is, if you make something you’re excited about, somebody else is going to be… Somebody like you will be excited about it as well. So, erm, but not everything has to make money; a few things have to make money, we have mortgages, we have tuitions to pay, for our kids, you know and we’re not getting rich, but, you know, we’re pretty satisfied creatively and we have the freedom to do pretty much whatever we want, so…

Paul: I mean, I think a lot of people that will be listening to this show that may be a creative, um, are kind of creative, um, within an organisation that isn’t creative and you talked about the frustrations you experienced, you know, they’ve got to, kind of, justify to management and all the rest of it, that they need time to play and to experiment and to try new things. I mean, how, have you got any advice for those people about how they tackle that, you know, how they, they kind of demonstrate the need to be creative, if that makes sense.

Jim: This is, I’m going to come off like a smart-arse, but I think that the real advice to somebody who’s truly creative and in that situation is to quit.

Paul: Right, OK.

Jim: I mean, you’re never going to succeed in that environment; you may succeed, but you’re not going to be happy or fulfilled. But outside of that I realise that there is a wide range of things and I… But, I don’t have any advice, because I tried everything I could, within a corporate structure as a creative director of a large ad agency, erm, and it got to the point where we were doing work I wasn’t proud of for people I didn’t like, and, you know, no amount of money can make that feel better; like, you work for a month on a project and, the revisions and the bullshit just steals your soul and by the time you’re done with it, you don’t even want to show it to anybody, like, there’s no amount of money that can make that feel better as a creative. So, so, you know, I think, you know, we all have to make our bargains, but I’ll say one other thing, Paul, is that I know a lot, through this whole, we’ve talked about this moving from work for hire into a more, what Zeldman calls sort of a design entrepreneur, sort of, er, piece. We’ve talked about it a lot in public so we’ve got a lot of feedback and I’ve spoken about it on a number of occasions, so I’ve met a lot of people who are sort of in the same place and there are a lot of people who are in the same place.

Marcus: We are.

Jim: Who are creative firms, what you’re doing for other people. The guys at Threadless are good friends of mine, you know, like all these people who have taken the skills that they used to use on behalf of clients and put them to work, their craft, on behalf of themselves, and every one of them, without exception – I will include you in this and I’ve never even asked you this question. Every single one of them says exactly the same thing about the process and they almost always say it in exactly the same words.

Paul: OK.

Jim: And what they say is: “I should have done this sooner”.

Paul: Yeah, totally.

Jim: So, my unanimity and this response continues with Paul, who agrees with the whole thing, but sometimes you know that first leap is kind of difficult. I would say that if you don’t have kids and you don’t have a mortgage, you better get on it.

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: After you have kids and a mortgage you got to make other decisions but, you know, we did it when we had kids and mortgages.

Marcus: So have we. It was your chat with Brendan Dawes at the 2007 Southby.

Jim: The ‘Short Attention Span Theatre’?

Marcus: Yeah, but you were talking about The Deck and various products and it was kind of, I was sat watching it, not with you, you were in another talk…

Jim: You were in another talk? What the hell!

Paul: I know, it’s disgraceful, I’m ashamed, I’m sorry.

Jim: That was a funny day because that was like Twitter was just new and so like people were twittering that, because Brendan Dawes is such a great speaker, he’s so funny and so they were twittering that: “oh, you got to come and see Coudal and Dawes”, and so we encouraged that so we’re like, so everybody tell people in the other rooms to come over here and we’ll give them a book and so people started doing it and then people started coming in and I’m like: “oh, my God, I feel so bad for the people next door”, you know, so it was really an interesting kind of a…

Paul: Social experiment.

Jim: It’s like live social reviews. Anyway, go ahead.

Marcus: It was great, I mean, basically what it did, Chris and I – another partner and I in our firm – we basically walked out of that speech and said: “we’re doing this wrong”. We were just thankful that clients wanted to work with us at that time and more and more clients were working, but it was kind of like we got this huge team of very creative, very talented people, let’s do something ourselves and ever since that day, I mean, we haven’t been as successful as, as successful in doing that as you have, but I think you put the nail, you hit the nail on the head…

Jim: Well, it takes time, I mean, we didn’t just flip the switch, I mean we went from 75% client work, 25% our own work and then eventually we got to 50%; I remember, I remember that month when I was doing month-end numbers and I saw that on gross revenue we had made more money from our own than we had made from client teams for the first time, I remember that being a significant moment for us as well.

Marcus: Time for a drink.

Jim: So, you know, um, that’s interesting, you know Brendan’s doing the same thing.

Marcus: Yeah, I know, I keep up with him on Twitter, but it was the fact that you said you can do things quickly and we’re always, we get these great ideas and then it’s like that’s going to take 3 months, or that’s going to take 6 months.

Paul: We faff around a lot.

Marcus: And client work gets in the way.

Jim: We share space in Chicago, in a big loft space, with 37 Signals.

Paul: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Jim: And they are, they’re rapid to the, to a fault, where their ideas, if they have a good idea, let’s whack it together and put it out there and then, you know, let’s launch the ship and then we can turn it once it’s moving, but we can’t turn it if it’s still up here in dry-dock, you know, which is an interesting thought, so you know, and it’s… The thing is when we’ve worked for clients, the problem with exclusively client work is that you have to feed the beast, so if you get good at it, you’re screwed (all laugh), because you get more work.

Paul: That’s exactly what we’re finding.

Jim: And then you’ve got a bigger payroll and overheads, so now you’ve got to take more work and eventually you’ve got to take a project that you might not take that…

Marcus: We’re screwed, Paul.

Paul: Yeah, we are, we need to do something.

Marcus: We keep hiring more people.

Paul: This is turning into a therapy session for us.

Marcus: I told you that.

Jim: How do you feel about that, Paul?
(all laugh)

Jim: You know, generally the thing is this, the opposite it true, because the best thing that ever happened to us is that our client business went to hell, through no fault of our own.

Paul: Right.

Jim: Right after September 11th, you know, a couple of clients cut budgets and all of a sudden, nothing will get your attention faster than not having the money in the bank on Wednesday to make payroll on Friday, so…

Paul: Which is often the way with this whole, you know, leave if you’re somewhere where you’re not happy and set up by yourself. Often you need that push.

Marcus: It happened with us, yeah.

Paul: I mean we worked for a dot-com and that went under, so it pushed us into doing something ourselves. I mean that’s interesting, that… When you, when you left the big agency, and you set up by yourself, was it just you or did you set up with other people?

Jim: One other fellow.

Paul: Right.

Jim: And one accountant.

Paul: Because that’s a lot of problem, there are a lot of freelancers out there, that are working in isolation, and that’s quite hard as well, from a creative point of view to, you know.

Jim: Very difficult.

Paul: I mean, where, where do you look for inspiration? You talked in your talk about looking to the past, which I thought was very interesting, but what kind of, where do your ideas come from?

Marcus: That’s a fair question.

Paul: That’s a really unfair question, I’m sorry.

Jim: Erm, I think they come from Dublin, no I don’t know. Let me take the two parts one at a time.

Paul: Yeah, I’m sorry it’s a messy question.

Jim: The first thing about working alone, erm, we are not a distributed company, unlike a lot of companies, we actually, we’ve tried some of it and been unsatisfied with the results. We actually all get together, we all get together in the same space and then don’t talk to each other (all laugh).

Paul: But at least you’re together.

Jim: But there is some advantage in adult conversation, there is advantage in: “hey, how about this?”There is: “can you look at this and see what you think?”or “do you have a headline for that?”You know, there’s some advantage in, sort of, serendipitous conversation, there’s advantage in going to the tavern and having some beer and blue-skying, you know.

Marcus: Boardroom B.

Jim: Yeah, conference room B. Er, conference room D, whatever, whichever conference room it is. So I find it difficult; now, I’m particularly good at working alone as an individual.

Paul: Right.

Jim: But as a firm, maybe we’re not so good at it. So, you know, I need help because I’m like Brendan, I’m a great starter but not such a good finisher.

Paul: Yeah, I’m the same.

Jim: So I need people to sort of clean up after me and make sure things get done. I’m OK with it.

Paul: It’s so nice to hear someone else say that. It’s OK that I’m like that, Marcus.

Marcus: Well, I’m kind of not far from it, to be honest, but Chris and the rest of the guys…

Paul: We’ve got a whole company that exists purely to pick up our rubbish.

Jim: And they just roll their eyes, like: “there’s another idea from those guys, like that’s going to happen”. Well, that’s the thing, we have this thing, maybe I talked about it in the, Brendan talked about this thing: ‘The Book’ – we’ve had this thing for a long time which is this repository of un-, unrequited love, of ideas that we never did. Um, and we’re getting so good at it that we know immediately when an idea is for The Book; it doesn’t stop us from blue-skying about it, say OK, in fact sometimes we say: “here’s one for The Book”. We know immediately that, you know, everybody knows immediately. We have this other, we used to have this thing, we haven’t been doing it lately. We have this other thing is that when we’re brainstorming about something, it helps if, um, you, er, talk about potential taglines and headlines, while you’re brainstorming an idea, but you don’t want to get the conversation caught up in the specifics of the headline or tagline that you’re suggesting. So, we used to have this thing where, if you keep your hand over your head when you are talking, it means: “like this, but not this”. (Paul & Marcus laugh) Try that sometime in one of your creative meetings, seriously. “I want this to be, sort of, you know”, Tim is holding his hand on his head, sort of thing. Erm, collectively ideas come from a variety of different interests, I think, and obsessions. I mean, it wouldn’t be too difficult to go through the archives of all the links we’ve posted at Coudal and figure out that we, you know, you could build a Coudal robot pretty easily that is a Stanley Kubrik freak, who is into Swiss design from the mid-part of the century, who is a James Joyce and a, er, Terence Malik fan, you know; it would be pretty easy to see Bob Dylan, you’d be able to see the sort of influences in some places. And, erm, I think to have a lot of different skillsets together, like Steve in our office is a film, primarily, he writes some copy and does a lot of things, but primarily he’s a shooter and an editor and a creative guy and I don’t do either of those things, you know, and, erm, Brian is a print guy, I mean everybody does everything at Coudal but we have like a bunch of different skills and so i guess that’s it, I don’t know.

Paul: Yeah, that’s good.

Jim: I probably didn’t answer anything.

Paul: Well, I think the trouble is with a question is that it’s, you know, to some extent it’s different for every person, you know.

Jim: Different for every day.

Paul: Yeah, that too, yeah. So, you know, that’s understandable.

Marcus: I thought you were going to go off into the into the equation of, I don’t know, maybe you covered that in your talk? The er, what was that…

Jim: The ‘General Theory of Creative Relativity’; we don’t have enough time for that.

Marcus: Let’s move on.

Paul: You could google it if you want to know about that.

Jim: Yes, actually that was the South-by talk for last year, and that, erm, was a pseudo-scientific to sort of come up with an equation to solve all creative problems, erm, and somebody said: “what is the answer?”and then someone from the audience yelled: “42”.

Paul: Well, obviously. It would be, wouldn’t it. Um, let’s just wrap up by talking about layer tennis, because you’re kind of quite well known for layer tennis and, just explain the basic principle for those that maybe haven’t heard about it before.

Jim: Layer tennis started 5/6 years ago as Photoshop tennis and it started in our office where we were, we just swapped a file back and forth continually adding layers and type and images to it and it was sort of a collaborative dance, and, erm, we just had the idea that maybe people like to watch it, so we put it online and invited designers that we know or, even better, designers that we admired but didn’t know, to participate and we had the brilliant, somebody had the idea to do it on Friday afternoons because no work gets done on Friday afternoons anyhow, and so we did it for a couple of years, it was tremendously popular, and then we left it on the back burner and went on to other things and in the meantime we had been working with Adobe on a couple of things and they were looking for an innovative way to promote their CS3, Creative Suite 3, and we said: “well, we have this Photoshop tennis thing, we could sort of restructure this in a way”, one of the big parts of CS3, a big, big step forward for me as a user was, the interoperability of the apps, it was the bringing together the Macromedia applications, as well as original Adobe applications into one place in which you could really move a file back and forth from vector to Photoshop to Flash, whatever. And so we proposed that we re-launch it as layer tennis to, not only that I didn’t want to have someone else’s trademark in my trademark, so we re-launched it as layer tennis and now I think we’re in the tenth week of this second season, we’ve had some tremendously talented designers from all over the world and basically what happens is there are 10 layers, somebody serves by serving up an image or image and type and, or illustration, or Flash animation, whatever it is, and the other designer takes the original source file and revises it in someway, either adds to it or changes and then he sends it back to the original guy and they trade the file back and forth over about 3 hours and each of their volleys gets posted live to the web. In addition, we invite a third person, frequently a blogger, or a writer, or a smart ass, to write play-by-play…

Marcus: That’s the bit I like!

Jim: To write play-by-play commentary. Quite frankly, that’s the hardest job (Paul: Yeah) on any Friday, to write play-by-play commentary; and then everybody watches and twitters about it and votes who they think the winner is and, you know, we’re doing 30-40 thousand people every Friday are tuning in to watch the match live, which is like, if you think of it, that’s a full football stadium, so we’ll have a couple more weeks of the regular season and then we have, we’re going to do some play-offs and hopefully there’ll be layers tennis season 3 next year, so (Paul: excellent) it’s interesting because we’ve tried to get out of the client business, right, and now we’ve got this sponsored web event which is sponsored by AARRGH! Adobe, a client. But, I think the difference is that it’s on our terms and they, it’s through good being in San Francisco, they couldn’t have been greater they’re great supporters of it and they take great ownership in it, so…

Paul: And the other thing about it is that, you know…

Jim: It’s relevant.

Paul: You did it anyway, you know, it was an idea you’d had previously that you then found somebody to help fund it and sponsor it.

Jim: And make it bigger and better, right? And it’s relevant to the product, like, you know, I’m not sure that Budweiser layer tennis would have the same relevance.

Paul: No, of course.

Marcus: Friday afternoon?

Jim: Maybe a little sloppier, but, you know, so, I think, it was just a lucky, you know, I mean, we’re pretty smart about things, but that was, kind of, a lucky break for both of us, I think that Adobe gets a lot of valuable exposure out of it that is not seen as “advertising-y”, you know, layer tennis exists on our site, it’s not on the Adobe site, it is seen as an independent, which it is, very like you said, it existed before the sponsorship and will exist after it and it was seen as an independent thing for the good of creativity on the web that Adobe is a good citizen for sponsoring and, you know, that’s a nice thing, maybe that’s the future, you know, that sort of which is actually…

Paul: Collaborative relationship

Jim: And that’s actually looking to the past as well, because think about the beginnings of television, or at least in the United States, the beginnings of television were a single company which sponsored a single hour drama, they would be the ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’, where, here we have this lovely drama brought to you by Hallmark and they’re all about emotions and drama’s all about emotions, you know, and then somehow we got to the point now where we have an hour where we have 22 minutes of 30 second commercials, you know what I mean, like, you know, there’s, you know, so…

Marcus: It comes down to the fact that the content’s got to be good and it’s something that people want, and if it is good, then you’re going to get sponsored; it’s like sports, isn’t it? From that point of view.

Jim: It is a sport, I mean, in a way, the layer tennis thing is attractive, I think, because we do compete as designers all the time, like my firm will compete with your firm for a piece of business, but we never compete head-to-head (Paul: No) and never, ever, ever, compete head-to-head in public. So, it’s nerve-wracking, the designers are like: “Oh yeah, I’ll play”and then they get to see the site, “oh my God, 15 minutes”, you know, and the poor writer, like the designer at least volleys and then gets to breathe for 15 minutes while the other guy has the file, whereas the commentator has just got to be funny all the time, you know. I just did, for the first time ever I did commentary myself two weeks ago.

Paul: Ah, that’s why it’s showing up that you’ve got sudden sympathy for it.

Jim: And all the other commentators were writing me, like “ah, now you’ll see, asshole”(Paul & Marcus laugh), but I bailed out, I’m such a terrible typist I did it, I did audio.

Marcus: That’s alright

Jim: Yeah, I just talked about it, you know I got nervous that I wasn’t doing well enough, so I called my friend John Gruber and brought him into the booth, so everybody got mad at me, because I didn’t do it the way I was supposed to.

Paul: You cheated.

Jim: I did, but I have that option.

Paul: Hey, it’s your game.

Jim: Since I’m the commissioner.

Paul: Exactly, yeah.

Jim: The ‘Royal and Ancient Society of Layer Tennis’

Paul: So, what do you think people are getting out of it, you know, as they watch layer tennis? Is it just to waste a Friday afternoon (Jim: Yes) or do you think there’s a… I was going to, I was expecting some profound answer about the value of it.

Jim: No, I mean, I think it’s interesting and I think it’s entertaining and I think people like to see designers they know and with talent compete in a interesting situation, but it’s the almost perfect sport for procrastination.

Paul: Right (laughs)

Jim: Because nothing happens for 15 minutes and then something happens (Paul: Right), so you just leave it open in a tab and you can do your work and then bounce over and see it and, er…

Marcus: Is there not the kind of moment – sorry, Jim to interrupt – of kind of like: “I would never have thought of doing that?” and then you take that away to something you’re working on, so…

Jim: Yeah, we could…

Paul: Yeah, yeah. Let’s pretend, let’s pretend there’s value in it.

Jim: I can see, because you do so much client work, you’re getting good at rationalising things (all laugh).

Marcus: This is why we did this, and this is why it’s going to cost you.

Jim: This is my idea and this is why it’s great – it’s the Python skit about, you know,“I want you to help me sell all of this string that I’ve got left over”, “oh great, string, good for tying everything up, perfect for putting around your backyard”, he goes, the problem is that the string is all cut into 6 inch lengths: “just the right length!”

Paul: Well, that’s great, Jim, thank you very much for that. Where can people find out more about you and about layer tennis and stuff.

Jim: Coudal.com pretty much has links to everything; layertennis.com is where that is and I’ll make a pitch for our products, go to fieldnotesbrand.com and buy some notebooks and add a note that says you heard it on this and we’ll throw something extra in the package.

Paul: Excellent. Good stuff, thank you very much, Jim.

Jim: You’re welcome.

Marcus: Cheers!

Thanks goes to Simon Douglas for transcribing this interview

Back to top

Listeners feedback: Questions, questions, questions

We have this question from Iestyn:

I’ve done a quick search on your site and on Google but can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. I’ve been in the print industry for 9 years now and finally making the jump to web design with a friend of mine. What I’d like to know before getting our first client would be what questions should we ask the client about what his or her requirements are, as the client might take some stuff for granted or wouldn’t have thought of some things? And what questions are we likely to receive off our clients? To be able to have a questionnaire at hand to refer to and to go back to if the client changes his/her mind.


One of the most important areas to consider when first discussing requirements is user focus. Does the client think in this way or are they looking for a site that meets internal expectations for design and content?
Who are the target audiences? ‘Everyone’ is an unacceptable answer. Get the client to prioritise their audiences.

Talk about your expectations of the roles of client and agency. You don’t want them to comment “I don’t like the red” rather you are looking for “I don’t think red will work for our users because…” Stress that it is their responsibility to highlight issues but yours to solve them.

When reviewing information architecture, ensure that content is grouped for users, and not based on internal structures and ensure that labelling is clear and descriptive.
This will underline the importance of the role of the user to the client and hopefully start them thinking in a way that will help you deliver a more usable site with fewer hiccups during the build.


It’s important to get to the bottom of why a client has a website and what they want it to do for them. What are their business goals and why?

For example, are they looking to increase sales via the site? The goal may simply be ‘we want more sales leads through the website’. But, more leads do not necessarily mean more sales. The quality of the lead is likely to be paramount. The design of the site should not simply encourage more leads, it should help to encourage more high quality leads.


When you have a good understanding of the client’s business objectives, it is then a good idea to agree how best to measure them. You are not necessarily putting a personal guarantee next to each of them, but it will help you focus on the priorities for the site.

The good, the bad…

It’s very rare to be asked to build a brand new site these days. Chances are there will be a number of previous versions of the site that you are being asked to redesign. These old sites are goldmines of information.

Ask the client to list what works on their current site and why. It’s possible, for example, something that is popular is distracting users from achieving calls to action associated with the business objectives.

Ask the client what their top three issues are with existing site and ask them to prioritise them. Ask them what the most important content is on the site and ask them to prioritise it.

This information needs to be checked against user requirements and business goals. I’m heading off track here… back to questions.

Other sites

Even though I have said that clients need to focus on what their users want from their site, it is also important to cover competitor sites and sites that they admire. Let’s face it, these people have to live with the site every day – they do need to like it!

When reviewing competitor sites try to focus on areas that differentiate each site/company. Are there any common issues? For example, do all the competitor sites avoid plain English? Is this an issue for the user base (or not)? Could the client make it a differentiator for them?


Make sure that you have a good understanding of why people ‘buy’ from your client? What makes them different?

Also, make sure that you are aware of any strategic goals and possible changes in directions that might be coming up in the future.

Nuts and bolts

General areas that you need to cover on top of all this could be:

  • Branding/corporate identity – what, if any, are the constraints?
  • Technological constraints
  • Assets – such as content and imagery
  • Timescales, milestones and project management
  • Contracts
  • Support

So what about you?

Most client concerns will focus on your reliability. Have you done this type of work before? Was it successful? Did you deliver on time and on budget?

There is a mutual trust issue at the start of any client/contractor relationship. We have found that the most effective method of calming any client fears is to actively encourage them to speak to your existing clients. If you’re really brave, let them look through your portfolio and let them select the client!

I guess this wasn’t really a checklist of questions but I hope it was useful.

Back to top