Dan Rubin joins Paul and Marcus on the 200th episode of Boagworld to discuss the importance of giving attention to details.
Paul: So next up on the show we have Dan Rubin, and Dan is going to join us for the final leg of our journey, on the 200th episode of Boagworld.Com
Paul: Hello! Is that you Dan? Do you have video?
Dan: I pressed the button, let’s see if it comes up!
Paul: It’s working! See everything goes so smoothly!
Ryan: It looks like you’re flying an aeroplane there!
Paul: ‘Coming in for landing!’
Dan: Are you going to make fun of my headset then?!
Paul: Yes! We are! By this stage we’re so punch-drunk we’re giggling over the silly things now! You know when you get over-tired and you get hysterical?! That’s where we’re at at the moment.
Dan: It’s a constant state for me actually!
Paul: Oh right!
Dan: So I guess the way this works is that you can see me but I can’t see you?
Paul: Yeeeaaaahhhh! Unfortunately that’s the way it’s going to go I’m afraid.
Dan: There’s no unfortunately about it really!
Paul: Oh! You see that’s hurtful! Just ‘cos you’re ‘handsome Dan’! Doesn’t mean I can’t be ‘pornographic Paul’
All: (groans) Oh God!!!
Dan: I’m saying nothing! I hear there are people in the chat complaining that the sun is too bright?
Paul: Now you’re just taunting us with the nice weather!
Dan: Maybe I can do something and just close the blinds a little bit.
Paul: That would be good if you wouldn’t mind.
Dan: Hang on a bit…
Paul: Take your time Dan, we’re not in any hurry!
Ryan: That’s worse!
Dan: I heard that!
Paul: Dan it’s really nice of you to join us for our last hour, we need a bit of a pick-me-up and you’re the man to give it to us – that sounded wrong?!
Dan: That came out exactly the right way!
Paul: So what on earth are we talking about with Dan then?
Ryan: Whatever he wants! Go on Dan, entertain us, sing a song!
Dan: So you guys have been going 10.5 hours a this point right?
Paul: Something like that yeah, you’re going to draw us in till the end.
Dan: And you can manage to not kill each other? I’m impressed.
Paul: And we’ve largely managed to stay online which is pretty impressive!
Dan: I heard there was some roughness in the morning, but sadly I was asleep so I didn’t get to see it.
Ryan: That’s not dedication that if you weren’t watching!
Paul: There were people in Austin, up at 04.00 in the morning to watch this!
Dan: Errr….no comments!
Paul: So what are you up to these days Dan? What are you working on?
Dan: Oh goodness! Well, a lot of conferences, a lot of training and workshops and consulting, which means not a lot of writing, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s attempted to read my blog in the last couple of years. It’s been interesting, the last couple of years has been a big shift for me from doing a lot of client work, where there’s an end product which you can show to people and post on your portfolio pretty easily, to doing a lot of teaching and conference lecturing and workshops – public and private. That’s lead to a lot of consulting – well, I say consulting because I have no better term for it. It’s the giving of advice and aid to in-house teams or other agencies, but not in the training aspect, on a project by project basis – which is really an interesting way to work with clients because it’s not coming up with an idea from scratch and kind of leading the project, you’re there in an advisory role but you’re really the go-to advisor. I enjoy it a lot, it’s really a huge change from 15 years worth of client work – it allows you to focus on things that you otherwise wouldn’t get to focus on if you had everything to do and you were managing an entire project which is what I’m used to. So I like it, I’ve been doing it a lot over the last 2 or 3 years for Garcia Media and Garcia Interactive – they’re big companies in the newspaper design world, and Mario Garcia Snr and Jnr are wonderful guys and they work with a lot of the biggest newspaper and publication brands in the world and its really really exciting to get a chance to work with people like that. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to land some of those big papers or publications on my own as a client, but through them I get the opportunity to work on them, and to focus on exactly what I’m good at – user experience, UI design, attention to detail which if you’ve looked at a lot of newspaper sites you will know that’s not always high on their priority list! So that’s what I’ve been up to in the last year!
Paul: So how does that work on a practical level? So as a consultant are you there to go in – for example when I do it I’m there to advise on strategy, to advise them on the bigger picture – I’m sounding like a real marketing bullshit guy now aren’t I?!
Marcus: Sorry, I’m just reading jokes!
Paul: (Feigns booming executive voice) The Bigger Picture!
Dan: You sound completely normal to me Paul!
Paul: That’s because you’ve fallen into the same horrible world! But to have that outside perspective, because when you’re in a project it’s hard to see the wood for the trees, and other bad analogies? Is that what you’re kinda talking about? That kinda thing?
Dan: (Pauses) Yeah, Yeah…
Paul: I’ve left you speechless!
Dan: To be honest it varies in my experience so far between getting the opportunity because you are an outside party to the majority of the project and the nitty gritty, the project management and everything else. You can get that real 50,000ft view of the project and everything that’s going on because you’re not responsible for any of them.
Paul: It lets you think outside of the box….(sniggers)
Dan: Boy, you just don’t quite do you?!
Paul: Make a paradigm shift?
Dan: Think outside the rhombus!
Paul: I’m sorry, I’ve thrown you again, I’ll shut up!
Dan: No, it’s alright, it’s not hard to do! One of the things that running a small agency, and small for the last few years has meant my brother and I – my brother Alex and I have run our little agency webgraph – we’ve purposely kept ourselves small – we’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, and we have a lot of things outside of the industry – whether it’s his end, his end is engineering software development, mine is the design, the front end side, the experience. But we also have a huge interest in music, which most people at some point know about my barbershop quartet, my a capella life’, the other half of me. We’ve purposely kept the agency small so we can spend time singing with the quartets, and the ensembles that we are part of . We’ve been doing that for over 20 years, and I’ve only been doing design professionally for 15 years now. Music started first so it’s always been about battling top priority with work. And we knew that if we picked up employees and grew bigger that we would have to start spending most of our time focusing on the needs of the business, and the needs of our employees and taking care of them – in addition to the needs of our own families and so forth. So we’ve kept small and that’s done the trick, but it also sometimes limits us to the size of the projects that we can take on, even though Sidebar Creative as our collective with Ordered List, Revyver and Snook and other associations that we have with a lot of other people like Blue Flavour and Happy Cog and Andy Clarke, Mark Boulton and Clearleft – the list goes on and on – it does still limit us to the size of project and so half of what I love is getting to work on these much bigger projects whether I get to oversee them or not, but when I get to work on projects for own agency and clients, because we’re so small we’re managing so much of the project and wearing so many different hats – something that has always frustrated me is that it limits the amount of time I can focus on the attention to detail and the things that I like to focus on. And it’s always frustrating because, you know how it is, you’re always battling budgets and timelines, as well as client approval and all these different things, so there’s always a point where you have to reel yourself in. And I find that when you’re really small you think that point comes sooner in the process of paying attention to a lot of the smaller details. So as an outside consultant it allows me to almost focus exclusively on a lot of those smaller details that I know for a fact normally get missed. And I feel really good about the opportunity to be able to do that because we see projects launched all the time, even by competent agencies of a larger size, that are missing details – and it’s only because you kind of get the blinders on when you are working on a project yourself, even when it’s with a big team. There’s only so many angles you can come at a certain project. When you bring someone in from outside, who isn’t encumbered by those blinders, they can catch things that you wouldn’t otherwise see. I think that’s probably the part of it that I love the most.
Paul: Yeah, this thing of details is something that you’ve talked about loads in the past, this is something that I’ve heard you speak of before and it’s something that has become your real passion. Give us an idea of what you mean when you say ‘details’?
Dan: Oh goodness. Well, it can be anything from the typography to…well, Headscape might not have this problem, and a lot of the agencies that friends of mine work with don’t have this problem but, there’s a massive issue with a lot of sites that I see produced, with just making sure things line up!
Dan: It seems like it’s a very basic thing and that you shouldn’t have to say it but you’d be amazed – whether it’s happening in the front end CSS side or whether it’s happening in the design – usually it’s some miscommunication between the two but a lot of the time I’ll open up .PSD or Fireworks documents for clients that I’m consulting for and nothing is aligned – there’s no consistency of spacing and margins and margins – all these elements that create the glue around all the elements that give us sight lines and white space and lead us from one space to another. When these things are even 1px off they break the spacing and the lines and the patterns that we use to recognise related objects. And those things get missed a lot. And I find that most of the time with this consulting work that’s what I spend my time on, going through and fixing those basic things. Typographical consistency is another one – it’s not hard to do but somehow it just gets missed. Sometimes, even when a colour palette has been defined I’ll be sorting through screen shots that a client has produced already and I’m reviewing and I find things that should be the same colour but aren’t. And they might be minorly different, but someone just randomly used the colour picker to pick a colour that was close – and I know that there are a lot of people who don’t care about that sort of stuff, and on a certain level those are the details that are never seen, but I’m passionate about the details that are never seen. If they are slightly out of whack, slightly out of alignment or slightly out of colour, users notice it. They might not be able to put their finger on what it is, but that’s because they don’t have the language, they don’t know what they’re looking at, but they know it’s not right. And we all know that even offline with products that haven’t been manufactured properly – there’s a seam that doesn’t quite line up – we know it, we might not know which part of the process caused that problem, but we know that it doesn’t quite feel right in our hands, or it shifts just a little bit or that button that we press doesn’t go straight in, it brushes up against it’s bezel a little bit. We all pick up on these things and it effects the experience in slight ways, but add up to be more than slight details.
Paul: Yeah, it’s like death by a thousand cuts.
Dan: Exactly! You’re good with the quotes, let me just write that down!
Paul: Ahhh, I’ve turned into such a salesman! It is quite a hard thing to argue though isn’t it, because it’s not as if people consciously notice these things and it could come across that you’re just an obsessive compulsive designer that is obsessing over details that nobody else cares about!
Dan: Well you’re right, and I worry about that to be honest because I’m not an OCD person – all you’d have to do would be to look at my apartment or my desk to understand that I’m not – but there are aspects of what I do professionally that I get OCD about. Things bug me and I can’t let go of certain details. It’s not that the details themselves are what matters per say, it’s the approach that the details don’t matter vs. the details matter – it’s a higher level of thinking issue, rather than a ‘we need to fix these pixels issue’ The logic is that, if you’re OK with these little details slipping by, then you’re OK with experience issues slipping by. And you’re probably OK with copywriting details slipping by, and information architecture details and so on and so forth. And that’s the bigger picture to me, it’s just that my area of focus is the UI and the experience, even though I dabble in the other areas. And so when I go in-house, I won’t fix the copy, but I’ll pay attention to it in ways that perhaps the in-house team won’t, and so I can say ‘this just isn’t right’ or the IA or any other aspect of the content such as the way the URL’s are formed or the way the CMS is functioning. It’s kind of handy to have someone whose sole purpose on a project is catching those details – yet we don’t necessarily have that. Maybe larger agencies might have someone in a producer role who should be catching that stuff, but I see too often that even in larger competent agencies, the work they produce can miss that kind of thing. And I’m wondering if that’s a role that might be missing from teams in general? Someone that doesn’t have anything to do with production – some who is like a proofreader, only they are proofing the entire design and who is separate otherwise from the inner workings of the project – so they don’t get bogged down by things that will distract them.
Paul: I mean, essentially it’s a quality control role isn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that’s been around in manufacturing for years, but that we don’t take across to the web? It’s kind of justifiable as a role for the web because we as the web standards community, we who are passionate about usability and user experience and all these kind of things – we concentrate so much on usability – ‘Can someone complete a task’ but what we often forget is that a website is often more than just ‘Can it be used’ it’s also about ‘How does it feel? How does it resonate with you?’, and that’s where details matter. And I hate to use the Apple example, but that’s where Apple excel. They have this attention to detail where what they produce feels good! I mean, the one thing that’s being said about the iPad is that when you hold it in your hand, that’s when you fall in love with it. And what sets apart excellence in web design from merely good web design is that something, that something that makes you feel – and I think that detail in design is that something, or a part of it.
Dan: I think you’re exactly right, I think the product design parallel is very important. It’s something I began speaking about a lot last year. I’ve always been a fan of product design, of applying these things to three dimensions instead of just two and I’m spending a lot more of my time, especially in the last year plus focusing on product design and how team approach product design, and how we can take lessons from that and bring it into the web. Because web apps, and in a large way websites are products as well, they’re virtual products but they’re still products. And we get a lot of our terminology that we use on the web from the world of product design and the world of environmental graphic design – information architecture terminology really comes from wayfinder graphics and the world of environmental graphic design. So all of these things we’re doing, we’re not actually inventing anything – there are tiny types of interaction that we’re inventing but the concepts have been around for decades or more than thirty years in a lot of respects and yet we’re treating them like we were the ones who came up with it and isn’t this new challenge exciting!? And it’s not really! There’s precedent for solving this sort of problem, we’re just not looking outside of the web, outside of the screen. And something that you find in the product design world a lot is that attention is paid to a handful of things that we can’t necessarily do online such as weight, the physical weight of an item – well that’s something that we can’t do – also shape, the ability for someone to actually touch something – we can’t do that either. But then you get things like texture and colour and shape in the aesthetic sense and you start to find out that in the physical product design world, these things are really important as to how humans decide to interact with objects. Before we even touch something we look at it and we make a lot of decisions that are ingrained at a very basic genetic level but a lot of them are just learned behavior, as we grow up we see people interact with things and play with things. As we grow up we realise that this texture looks like this – we don’t need to reach out and touch it to know what it feels like. We make a lot of assumptions based on the shape, size and texture of something, and I’d love to see stuff like that brought online. It is in small ways – Apple again! We all say we don’t like to keep using Apple as an example, but when someone is so continually doing things right both online and off we should champion them as an example! They’re also championed in the branding world for their insanely consistent application of their brand elements. That’s a not a bad thing, that’s a good example. And I also think that most of us, including the Mac pundits out there that don’t just design for the web – when Apple makes a misstep we’re quick to point it out, so we shouldn’t feel bad about championing them! They do an awful lot of very good, very subtle things online – and not just online, on screen in their interfaces. And if we start to look at their hardware, we start to see that a lot of the lessons they’ve learned from designing physical hardware have been brought into what we see now on the screen. The subtle refinements that we see in the navigation bar in OS 10 and the windows, they parallel what we are seeing in the evolution of the hardware also. Anyway, I can ramble! Ryan or anyone else who’s had a conversation with me can attest to that!
Ryan: That’s why we put you on for an hour!
Paul: At the end!
Dan: Aren’t you lovely Ryan!
Ryan: I knew you’d save us at the end of a long day Dan, that’s the reason!
Paul: There is a good question that’s been raised in the chat room that I’m quite interested in your opinion on which is that you’re sounding like you’re trying to do pixel perfect design on the web, and we’re being told that we should be trying to move away from doing pixel perfect design on the web. How do you sort of, respond to that argument?
Dan: I respond to that by saying that our medium is based on pixels. If you’re designing using fluid layouts, using em’s and percentages, you’re still using pixels. And anyone who forgets that is missing one of the key points about the presentational element of what we do. I know that in the web standards world we talk a lot about the separation of content and presentation but we don’t talk about the exclusion of presentation. Ultimately if we’re designing something that is meant to assist the end user in accessing or comprehending whatever the content is we have to pay attention to details like alignment. Pixel alignment happens if we’re dealing with em’s or percentages. It’s just the way that those pixels are calculated is different. So just because you’re saying we’re not going to worry about designing pixel perfect layouts – I wish the term had never been used! I groaned the first time I heard people talk about pixel perfect layouts! It’s a very ‘Photoshop’ way of thinking and designing in Photoshop and designing in the browser has been a big topic of conversation lately. Those are two different things, and the browser, no matter what way you’re doing it is what the user is using to view your design. So if your text columns are not lining up, that’s a problem! I don’t care whether you’re measuring in pixels or percentages, you’re shit should line up!
All: Lots of Laughter!
Paul: There’s a quote for the day! ‘Your shit should line up!’ I like that!
Dan: And the discussion about browsers not rendering things consistently comes into play there is that – just make sure it lines up in each browser – it doesn’t need to look consistent from browser to browser. Those are really two different things. I for a long time haven;t cared whether my designs look identical in Firefox, and Safari and Opera and Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8 – I’ve never really worried about that, even back, 5 or 6 years ago because I could see that they wouldn’t render the same way between the typographic differences and other slight differences. But I still wanted to make sure that whatever the user was seeing, looked like it was intentional rather than some arbitrary decision. And again, not that they’re going to notice that particular misalignment, as a mis-alignment…..one of the examples that I use for this lack of attention to detail and arbitrary decision making when it comes to alignment and spacing was the old Fox News site – the new one is marginally better, but it’s still Fox!
Dan: And the previous version was left-aligned and had 8 or 10 different measurements from the left browser point for all of the elements to be aligned. There’s no need for that! It looked sloppy, it looked like it was all unintentional. That kind of lack of attention to detail was pervasive throughout the design – it looked sloppy, it didn’t look professional. All they had to do was align everything and make sure they were consistent with their measurements and they would have been fine – it had nothing to do with pixels or em’s or anything else.
Paul: OK. Let’s ask the tough question in this. It’s all well and good to talk about this attention to detail, but the majority of people can’t afford to get someone in to design the website, and then get you in as well to quality check everything that’s been done. It’s a difficult thing – and it’s not just a money thing, it can be a time thing as well. Picking over these details takes time, polishing these things takes time. How do you overcome that mentality – we can’t afford this, we don’t have time for this?
Dan: (Laughs) Well, the answer doesn’t do me any favours but the situations where in my experience I need to be brought in is where things have gone wrong already. And I’m doing clean-up. That’s really what I’m doing. I’m very. very careful when clients contact me for that kind of work – I ask to see what they have done so far, and I’ll tell them if they need my help or not. If it’s going to be a waste of their money to bring me in because they’re doing a good job I tell them – and what I find is that a lot of the time, the problems that I end up having to fix could have been avoided entirely at the beginning of the project if everyone involved could have established these rules, whether they be systems of measurement – or there’s been a lot of talk these last few years about using grids in design. Why grids are good is that you use them from the beginning and it removes a lot of the arbitrary decision making in measurements. If you did the same before laying any type down whether it’s in the browser or in Photoshop it doesn’t really matter – you just wrote down or established in your head, this is the kind of structure we want to have, we’re going to shoot for this measurement as our base text size, and from that here are the percentages larger that our headings are going to be, we’re deciding ahead of time what size our lists are going to be, what size our sidebar is going to be and what our other content modules are going to be relative to that core system of text. You can establish all that before you actually start designing and if you find you need an adjustment, then you make an adjustment to that core set of rules that you put down to begin with and it’s easy to apply everywhere after that and you know that if you’re laying out a new page type and you know that you need this style of text in place, then you go to what is basically a working ‘style guide’ – and if you do that for margins and padding and for text elements and navigation and sub navigation, you give yourself an outline. You say this is the structure that we have in mind – we’ll adjust it as we go if needed, but whatever the current version of this working style guide is, is what we design everything to – nothing goes wrong throughout the project because there is no such thing as an arbitrary decision anymore. Everything refers back to that guide, and you don’t need an expensive outside designer to help you do that, you just need some common sense and to pause for a little bit before you start the project – it doesn’t take long to do.
Paul: So in effect you’re creating a style guide in advance, of the rules and structures of the website?
Dan: Yes, with a lot of emphasis on the word ‘guide’
Paul: So it’s something that is very flexible and fluid and can be changed – there can be exceptions to it etc?
Dan: Yeah, and the correlation is that once you start working that way you still need to be flexible for the things that you didn’t plan for! That should be a given. But when those things come along you know that you haven’t planned for them because you know there isn’t a rule that you have already established – so you sit down and you take a couple of minutes to decide how best you should design that new element so it fits in with everything else and then you include that into your guide and that’s the updated spec. We do this a lot for code – we talked about it a lot in the last few years, especially about content strategy – and what is content strategy? You’re making a plan before you write anything. It’s the same thing. It’s the same approach we use in information architecture too. We map out all of the content that we know we have to account for, and we don’t design first. We do all of the thinking and the mapping first so that when we start designing, IA isn’t arbitrary, we’re not just naming things and sticking them up in the main nav. But as an industry we haven’t cottoned on to the fact that we need to do that for design as well. And it solves a lot of problems before they become problems as well.
Paul: But isn’t it a chicken and egg problem? I’m trying to get my head around this! For me to sit down and create a style guide which outlines the size of headings, the size of sub-headings, the size of margins and padding and all this sort of thing, surely I need to know what the design is going to look like first, in order to write that? I’m a little bit confused as to what order things happen here?
Dan: I don’t think so, not to create an idea, an initial guide. For instance – once IA is done, and there’s some content planning that’s been done, as a designer, and with the amount of experience I have – the more experience you have the more able you are to picture something in your head – but I know some new designers who do a really good job of getting the big picture so I don’t think it’s a given. When I start to sketch something, and I’m talking really rough, one inch square thumbnails to give form to something in my head – I’m already getting a picture of the sort of elements I’m going to need – which I’m really taking from the IA and the content strategy anyway, and I’ve got an idea about how they are going to play against each other relatively and so I’ll know what sizes of text work well in the browser – chances are my main text content for most text heavy sites is going to be rendering out to somewhere between 12 pixels and 14 pixels, maybe up to 16 sometimes – it depends for me on the volume of content – but I have an idea in my head based on the IA and based on the content of what I can work with. If there’s not a lot of content and it’s not going to be a very text heavy site then there’s going to be emphasis given to short sentences of type then that tells me that type is going to be large – and I always have a picture in my head so it makes it easy to write that all down. And it’s not fixed which means that when I start going into Photoshop to start laying things out then I can go ‘Well I figured that was going to be 14pixel type, well I think I can go to 16 because I can start playing around with it.’ And then, as long as that works, I update the spec. It’s not really that hard – it’s just having the framework in place before you start designing, I think, forces you to think a little bit more. Then even if you change what you anticipated at the beginning, you’re now changing it for a reason. It’s not arbitrary, you’ve thought about these things. And it’s the thought process that I see missed more often than not by designers and by creatives of any sort. Generally the people that think all of the time, are really good writers. Content people are always thinking, if they’re good at it. No word is wasted. They are even more ruthless than we are as visual designers, at editing their own work. So I think we can take some lessons from that. Designers could benefit from writing an outline of their design intentions as it were.
Paul: I think the big thing there is can you picture the design before you at least have an outline – I guess, if you’re doing as you say sketched wireframes then that kind of helps in the process, But it is somewhat dependant on your approach to design. For example Mike Kus at Carsonified
– I know that when he sits down he has got no idea of what the design will look like – he starts playing around with images and moving things around, so I’m not so sure this process would necessarily work for him? I mean Ryan, how do you work, Oh, you’re just picking up a dessert there! I was going to ask when you design, how clear a picture do you have at the start, what the final result is going to look like?
Ryan: I’m shit!
Paul: OK thanks, let’s move on! Yaili?
Ryan: I can actually wireframe a design, get it all working fine, get it in Photoshop and then go back and change all the wireframes!
Paul: Right, so it’s very fluid?
Ryan: I typically design everything twice. Once which is the original idea in my head, and twice when I go back and build something better.
Ryan: I get in the zone with the first design, and then I’m kind of going on full power for the second.
Paul: (To Yaili) And what about you? Sorry, Marcus has just leaned in front of you! What about you? DO you have a process?
Yaili: No, I like to spend some time looking at different stuff that may inspire me before, but I also like to get some nicely done wireframes to work around them. I don’t like to receive wireframes that already have a lot of design.
Paul: Yeah, I know what you mean – overworked wireframes.
Yaili: Yeah! It’s like, now you have to colour in the numbers or something like that!
Paul: It’s almost like skinning a WordPress blog, it’s not really design is it?
Dan: Now lest I come across as being too heavy-handed here with that guide and pre-planning idea, I agree with everything I’ve just heard in the last couple of minutes here – whether you’re doing wireframes first of whether you’re just looking around for inspiration – all of that stuff happens before you start to get a picture in your head. I don’t think that anyone should just magically ‘POOF’ here’s my design and here’s my outline! And in some cases to be completely honest, for my own work and my own projects, I don’t write any of that stuff down, but it’s all up here (gestures to head), I’ve still got a clear picture in my head. That said I may still play for days with just moving things around and not knowing how it’s going to look, but I have a picture in my head. The fluidity of that picture is what’s key. I have some sort of idea in mind, and then I start working towards it. And that’s what I’m saying. A lot of the time I see this on larger teams – with a single designer it’s much easier because your plan can be more fluid because you only have to tell yourself that you’re changing these goals – but if you’re on a team, once you start designing as a team, you need to be on the same page. That’s where what I’m saying comes into play. Not so much with individual designers who are responsible for their own work. A lot of the time, the individual designers I know, once the IA is done, once the concept it done, once it’s just down to design and they are the only ones involved, they do really good work because they tend to be really obsessive about their own stuff. If you’ve got two designers, I don’t care how well you work with each other, and how obsessive compulsive you are, you need to communicate. You need to communicate your goals and the standards that you are going to be working towards. Once you go beyond two and three and four designers – the larger the team becomes, the more important it is to set down some sort of guide when you start. And when you start, I mean when you’re past the inspiration stage – the same way that when you set out for inspiration you set out your goals for the project, who your audience is. You know you’re all heading in the same direction. It’s the same thing, it’s just putting a marker in the sand that says, now we’ve done all this, here’s where we’re going to start looking for the next direction, here’s where we’re going. Just so everyone is starting at the same point and heading generally in the same direction. And as that starts to adjust, as needed, you start to communicate as a team and say, ‘That wasn’t working, we’re now heading over here’ – because if you started that process too early then you’d have really boring designs.
Paul: Yeah, I think that was my misunderstanding about what you were saying. I think the idea of doing the initial inspiration, messing around with a concept then doing the design – I’ve got this idea of where I’m going with this, I’ve got all these pages that need designing, now’s the point I need to put together a spec. And to be honest, the more I think it through, especially if you’re working on a website that has a lot of different page types, a lot of different content, having that document would be really useful because you don’t want to be reinventing the wheel with each page. You want to know that this page is going to be really easy to put together because I know that the type is going to be this size and I know that my padding and margins are going to be this size. And also when you’re dealing with a large number of templates like that, it’s easy for errors to creep in and differences because – especially on the type of projects that we work on where they creep on for flipping months! – because they are so big you forget what you did at the beginning by the time you are 3/4’s of the way through!
Dan: Exactly, and that’s the exact reason why we agree on a colour palette at the beginning of a large project. So that when you need to pull a colour you don’t need to invent it you just go to that light blue – you don’t need to remember the hex value, you just go to the colour palette, pull it and that’s it. So it frees us as designers and creatives to focus our efforts on the important problem solving, not all of these little details which should be consistent once we’ve established them.
Paul: Have you noticed guys how it’s taken me longer and longer as the day has gone on to actually get what people are saying?!
Paul: At the beginning it was like (excited voice) ‘Yeah, I agree!’ and now it’s more like (tired, slow voice) ‘ I don’t get it, I’m confused, what’s going on?’
Dan: By my clock we’ve got 13 minutes left…
Paul: For me to be convinced?!
Dan: Well either that or to go in a completely different direction and go on a great rant tangent!
Paul: Oooh, go on then! What do you want to rant about? Let it rip!
Dan: OK, well I have to because when Ryan and I were bouncing around ideas about what I might want to talk about today, what we just talked about for 45 minutes wasn’t one of them!
All: Oh no! (much laughter)
Dan: But it’s totally cool! Because I love that and I’m passionate about that. So lets round this out, because I’m going to rail against certain aspects of the agency model for a little bit.
Paul: Hang on a minute, I run an agency here, just want to be clear about that!
Dan: I just want to be clear you’re paying attention!
Dan: Not the idea of agencies per say, as a whole. There are plenty of people I know who have a big problem with the idea of the agency ‘model’ And I don’t think that any particular business model that’s successful as far as the internal running of that business is concerned – if you don’t like that business model, then don’t run your business like that. And it’s unfortunate that people call companies ‘agencies’ – I call webgraph an agency but it doesn’t mean we run out business like other agencies, right? But in this case I’m referring to agencies as per the original ad agency is concerned. And there’s a problem I’ve had for a while, and by a while I mean the entire time I’ve been designing for clients!
Paul: So a long while!?
Dan: A long while! And it seems to be a problem that I’ve noticed everyone in essence, has. Even the designers and agencies and studios that have great phenomenal relationships with their clients, you can still go to the pub at the end of the work day and still bitch about some aspect of the project. Whether it’s something not getting approved that you wanted, or some push back from the client – there’s this consistent run of a communication issue between client and creative. Anyone who does creative work for hire. And the issue is one of either authority and respect in my opinion – I’ve been trying to form this into something that makes sense for a while. Advertising as a concept started in the 1940’s. For a couple of decades there weren’t enough agencies and there weren’t enough clients needing agencies for their to be enough competition between them. There was plenty of work for everyone. Every agency could have as many big name clients as they wanted – no-one had to go out and fight for work. And at some point between the 50s and the 60’s, so around about the point when the advertising industry and agency was about 20 years old, right when it became legal! Agencies started pitching for work. It’s possibly where that idea of spec work that has people on two sides of the fence came from. Once agencies started competing with each other aggressively to steal work from each other, the dynamic between client and creative changed drastically. And it continues to this day and it has spread far beyond the world of advertising agencies. And the reason I have a problem with it is – and I don’t work in advertising – but for the last half century of more, the primary point of interaction between the business world and creatives has been the advertising industry. And so the way business people, large or small, assume that this interaction is going to go, that’s based on what they know, what they think, what they’ve experienced from working in the advertising industry. Even if it’s just what they’ve heard or what they’ve seen on ‘Mad Men’. And this trickles down to all of us. In the fact that – how many people have you spoken to today, or just yourselves in that room, or anyone that’s listening, have this expectation or have run into the client expectation of having to design and preset three ideas? Very, very common right? And that comes from the advertising industry? Is it right? I don’t think so. Do a lot of people do it? I don’t, not since the second year of doing graphic design when I realised ‘Why am I doing this? I’m doing this because I think this is how it should be done, it’s how it’s always been done and I know for a fact that the worst reason to do something is because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’
Paul: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan: What you end up with, when you do things like that, this concept of pitching that agencies still do. We’re going to have to give up work, whether it’s for a free or sometimes when pitches are paid for. The concept is that ‘were going to convince you that we’re the right people to work for’ rather than you come to us because you’ve done the research as a responsible client to decide who you want working for you. And when the relationship starts like that it’s basically us begging to get work. I don’t care whether we’re getting paid to beg, we’re still begging. And you’re giving up the high ground as it were, of the respect the client should have for a creative. And I know that people disagree with me on this because you still need to respect the client, you need to have the utmost respect for the client because of what they do and their opinion, and yes they are paying. But what they are paying for is our experience and knowledge and expertise as creatives. So when you establish the relationship based on the opposite balance of power; when you give that balance of power and authority and control of what gets designed and written and created to the client – who is not the expert in whatever field we’re talking about – you end up lowering the quality of the work. And lowering the quality of what all of us in the industry produce. Now this isn’t saying anything about whether spec is good or bad, this is about the relationship you develop with a client as a creative. And I really firmly believe that the ad agencies back in the 60’s are responsible for this. Once they gave up that position of authority of ‘you come to us when you know you need us, and we’ll tell you how to fix your problem’ to ‘we’re going to come to you and beg for work and show you why you should work with us and isn’t this stuff fantastic, hire us’ it completely changed the way that we work with our clients. And I’d be interested in your thoughts on this now I’ve spoken for ten minutes
Paul: Ha! Well, I’ve got to say that I can see where you’re coming from, and I can see the point you’re making, my problem with is it that I think…..the pitch work, we do pitches, we don’t do spec work. We’ll go in, we’ll meet the client, we’ll produce a proposal for them, we will lay it all out. Now you could see that as us begging for work, right? We don’t see it that way, and we wouldn’t want our clients to see it that. Whether they do or not I don’t know, but in most cases I don’t think they do. What I see that process being about, of the proposal writing and of the going in and speaking to the client, is about establishing a relationship. Because it’s as much about us judging them – we’ve gone to pitches before and then walked away from projects. Because we gone to pitches, sat down with them and they’ve got to decide do they like us, do they like our attitude, do they like the way we approach things – you have to decide is this going to be a pain in the arse client, do they get it, do they understand it and these kinds of things. So I think there is more to that process than a sales thing, I think there’s a relationship building thing too.
Dan: Yes, and you’ve pointed out a missing link in my argument which was the definition of pitch. What you’ve just described I totally agree with, because that is the process of establishing a relationship and trying to decide whether the personal relationship not just the portfolio relationship or the financial relationship is gonna work – that’s very important. But when you’d go in a do a pitch like that, a proposal, does that include work?
Marcus: Work spent on the proposal, and time spent on the pitch yes.
Dan: There’s got to be some creative thinking that goes into that process, and yeah, you’re probably not getting paid for that, but we all do that at the proposal stage, and so maybe this is to a certain extent influenced by my dislike of spec.
Marcus: We agree entirely.
Dan: But I’ve been asked to pitches before where creative work was required, visual comps, but it was paid for – this is where the line of spec or not spec comes into play. That’s a little bit better because you’re almost being paid as a consultant.
Paul: Well I think we have done paid spec work before, but to be honest I don’t really like that very much, and the reason I don’t like that very much is that – the primary reason we say we don’t do spec work is – the client doesn’t give a monkey’s arse about our integrity or that we consider ourselves ‘too good’ to do spec work, they don’t care about that. The main reason we say we don’t do spec work is that we don’t understand the business yet we don’t understand the background, we don’t know what we’re doing at that stage! We haven’t consulted with internal stakeholders, we haven’t done usability testing, we don’t even understand the brand, so all we’re doing is producing pretty work. Which is exactly the same as if it’s paid for or not.
Marcus: Absolutely. The major point based on that is that the audience for those designs at the pitch, is not the audience those designs are finally meant for. That’s the bottom line. And that’d the case whether you’re being paid for it or not. The designs are being made to impress the people in the room.
Dan: And that’s a problem. That has felt wrong to me for a very long time. I think what I’m hearing is that you agree with that?
Dan: And that essentially runs us out of time. But at least you got my point in less than 15 minutes!
Paul: That one’s a point that I entirely get! We’ve been thinking this through for a long time. We’ve really moved away from certain spec work.
Marcus: I would like to make one more point on that. We’ve found that clients who ask for spec work up front, and we say we don’t do this and this is why, we’ve ended up winning work because of that argument. You suddenly put yourself up a step from the competitors.
Dan: I think that what you do, and this’ll be the last I say on it, is that by doing that you’re not giving up your self-respect, and you show the client that you not only have respect for yourself, but also for the work that they are hiring you to do.
Paul: Absolutely, absolutely! I entirely agree. So that was brilliant Dan, thanks very much, please hang on till the bitter end if you want to, the next half an hour but that’s entirely up to you – if you need to go, go by all means.
Dan: I’ll hang on!
Paul: Great, well we’re on the final stretch! The last half hour of Boagworld!