The User

I saw this on television. A young girl, maybe 5 years old, sat next to a young chimpanzee and each of them were presented with a wooden box that was equipped with a few buttons and levers. On one side of the box, there was tiny door. A female and friendly-looking instructor, demonstrated that by pressing the buttons and pulling the levers in a certain pattern, one can open their tiny door and find a piece of candy. The eager students both repeated the behaviors, pressing buttons and pulling levers just as hey had been taught, and as promised, when they opened the tiny doors, they found a yummy surprise, and they were happy.  

Next, the girl and ape were given the same box, but this version was made of clear lucite, which revealed the the candy was behind the little door the whole time. The ape, simply lifted the door and ate the candy. The little human, however, looking a bit foolish, preformed the ritual again, step by step, before accepting her prize. And again, they were happy.

A good designer is at the service of the user. In Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the tree makes the boy happy by simply being a tree. He swings from her branches and sleeps in her shade. And they are happy. But as the boy grows, his needs change. He is the user, once so delighted by the tree’s service, he now feels entitled to the tree’s increasingly refined solutions for his increasingly complex needs. In the end, the boy takes everything from the tree. She is a stump, alone in anonymous field. The user never says thank you, or demonstrates that what the tree has given was put to effective use. The user simply takes what he feels he deserves. And perhaps the tree enabled this. Perhaps, when he came asking for her apples, her branches, and finally her trunk, perhaps she should have said no.

I imagine that one day, the little girl with the box, now a young woman, will stop being happy. Over time, repeating the ritual day in and day out, she’ll start to question the point of it all. Why do I do this? She’ll wonder with a resentful tone. What if I just took what I wanted and stopped doing what Ive been told to do. She’ll reconsider the kind instructor. What if she wasn’t just teaching the girl how to win—what is she had other objectives. What if she was just sharing her opinion? Or—and this is the most troubling thought for the girl—what if the instructor was just repeating the same bullshit that a seemingly kind woman had taught her, and that the ritual had been passed down for generations without explanation.

Could a designer exist without a user? It’s one of the key differences between designer and an artist. An artist works with no boundaries, bringing their personal vision to life without compromise. The designer thrives only a cage of boundaries. The designer solves a problem for a user and while her personal style might be indicated in the solution, it is always compromised as per the user’s preferences. It is an unfair marriage to your enemy—a type of Stockholm Syndrome—that compels you to love and serve your enemy, knowing he will never be satisfied and he will never die.

One day, the little girl with the box, now a middle-aged prominent politician, will stop doing the ritual. She’ll regret that it took so long to question the process, and that she was once so vulnerable and naive. (She knows this is an unfair accusation to charge at her 5-year-old self, but this doesn’t fully alleviate the guilt.) And she’ll stand at a microphoned podium and tell the people in plain language, We no longer need to preform the ritual. Rigorous testing has concluded that, while the ritual may have been useful to people of the past, it is no longer necessary. We know now that there are no benefits. And by not preforming the ritual, nothing bad will happen to you or loved ones.

Amidst the reporters and television crews, many audience members will applaud her discovery—a victory over ignorance. But others will feel hurt by the discovery—a pain that will quickly become anger. These others will eventually organize and achieve policy protecting a person’s right to preform the ritual. Textbooks will be pulled from schools and revised to include both pro- and anti-ritual beliefs. And the girl, now an old woman, will recognize that this was the moment she lost interest in serving the people. And though it took a long time, she had eventually learned how to resist the urge to help. 

The ocean has no choice but to follow the moon. It simply cannot stop itself from obsessively pulling towards the moon’s trajectory. The ocean doesn’t understand gravity or even that it’s tides are predictable. The ocean, messy and shapeless, only knows that it wants the moon—this simple, beautiful, and evasive white circle in the dark and lonely sky. Every night, the moon only uses the ocean as a mirror to admire it’s own beauty. And every night, and for millions of years, the ocean desperately throws kamikaze waves, love letters, into the moon’s sky. She doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, that this flawless and vicious white circle is really just a cold rock, completely unaware of her, and blindly following it’s own master.

Courage to Look Away from the Mirror

After spending so much time thinking about human-centered design and consumer-centered marketing, its easy to see the right choices. Its easy to see the difference between a voice that is self-aggrandizing and one of authentic empathy and service. But it’s also easy to see how hard it could be for a marketer to take the leap.

Recently I’ve been listening to friend review the brand rebuild at his company—a company that produces protective gear for athletes. The process has been difficult in that Sales, Marketing, and Product haven’t been able to agree on messaging.

Product wants to focus on visual and technical differentiators: the pads and other impact guards are slimmer and more modern looking than competitor’s. The patented material science behind the product is visually distinctive and more effective against impact.

Sales wants to use broad messaging that will work for all markets, so that they’ll be better positioned to approach buyers from the youth and team sports markets, as well as professional athletes.

And Marketing wants to say it all, but in a slogan-length epic message that is as un forgettable as it is hyperbolic.

And these are completely natural impulses: tell the customer how awesome our product is, how its unique in the market, and how buying it will elevate coolness beyond your wildest aspirations. Tell the customer these things and the costumer will be impressed and convinced to buy.

Or maybe not.

Maybe they’ll be bored by your lecture. Maybe they’ll simply hear that YOU think the product is great. Maybe they’ve already clicked away because, well, the is what everyone says about their own products. And no one had time to sift through the bullshit anymore.

A user-centered brand wouldn’t tell the customer about the product. Because that brand is in service to the customer. That brand would tell the customer that you should be able to rule the world, reach the heights of your athletic potential, without being held back. To get out there and kick some ass without fear. In other words, just do it :).

Planning: Brand Focus

So, I’m starting by attempting to outline the steps for each category of work. Starting with the most foundational piece:

Brand Purpose

  • Identify Leadership Team (LT) and Key Stakeholders (KS)
  • Work with LT and KS to establish definition of core motivation
  • Work with LT/KS to establish 3 focus areas or pillars, which turn core motivation in to focused behaviors/actions
  • Work with KS including focus-area experts, to determine the methodology practiced that has led to Client achieving expertise, giving Client unique selling proposition
  • Work with LT to determine key markets that warrant custom messaging; work with writers/editors to finalize language
  • Work with KS to determine which existing products best articulate expertise in a focus area, and create focused descriptions of these projects with highlighted achievements and learnings.
  • Identify copy editor resource to review copy holistically before final “going live” stage

Human Centered Branding (HCB): Wireframes

A website seemed like the right platform to bring this project to life. A website offers a 'show, don't tell' experience that you couldn't achieve with a deck. The wireframe site will serve as a pitch when working with other teams throughout he process, and eventually become the "living organism" that it describes. 

A quick note about the client. This project is being designed for my current employer. This model, which I'm calling Human Centered Branding (HCB), should be applicable to any brand, so it doesn't seem necessary to mention the client directly and risk the confusion that this model would only work well for a specific industry. 

This wireframe is the core model for HCB:

I made these wireframes using Adobe's Xd program, and as a new user, the experience was intuitive and useful.

I made these wireframes using Adobe's Xd program, and as a new user, the experience was intuitive and useful.

The Brand in the center represents culminated content from the 4 modules that surround it. All of the modules are connected, informing and being informed by each other. 

The Brand Purpose module is a space that identifies the primary motivation or "soul" of the brand. Within the space, we learn the how that primary motivation has developed into services or products, and then, how the brand is uniquely positioned in its markets. For example, if we were talking about Nike, the primary motivation or soul of the brand might be 'fitness,' and its product 'running shoes.' Its unique position in the market might be 'a superlative commitment to increasing user-performance through innovative design and materials.'

The Brand Experience Module provides key experiences that allow users to come to understand the brand through more engaging and interactive storytelling devices, such as games, interactive videos, and learning sessions. When a user enters this space, they should feel invited to explore. And when they leave, they should have a new emotional understanding--if not connection--with the brand as a humanized organism. This is the device that will help users come to believe in a brand, rather than just buy a brand's product. 

Community Input is a space dedicated to aggregating research such as social listening, and actively seeking input through surveys and other tools to acquire user-feedback that can inform the brand. Everyone values customer feedback, and a rand cannot thrive without market support, but how often do brands actually design an infrastructure that puts that feedback directly into an algorithm that incrementally informs/modifies the actual DNA of the brand. This feature, feedback collection resulting in real-time brand refinement, is crucial to the concept. It measures and ensures the authenticity of a brand's relationship with its users. 

The Brand Out Tools module gives users a toolkit for what you might call "brand advocacy." This would include the nuts and bolts, like logos, but also more significant assets, like repots and other information that empower the user with knowledge and a sense of expertise within the brand's areas of focus. 

So these are the four essential components, and each one carries a hefty load of responsibility, My hope is that the site's creative direction and use of emerging technologies will drive users to explore, connect, and start to feel integrated, and even somewhat accountable for the brand. 


Human Centered Branding: Getting Starting

After sketching out some wireframes for a website that would bring this idea to life, I was able to get approval to move forward, but while pitching this idea, I realized it was a bigger ask than I thought. The idea, which is to create and implement a brand model that is as much about user input as it is about the brand's presenting values and goals, is exciting, I hope, if you are already a brand nerd, but not necessarily to anyone else. In the worst light, it looks like a project with considerable challenges:

• Large draw on the time of senior-level creatives
• Long-term collaboration with teams across the organization
• Costly
• The value of a solidified brand identity is difficult to convey to some groups, whose buy-in is essential
• Success relies on input from employees and consumers
• The website will require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, which would require the generation of a new governance structure
• The result may not deliver on it's promise
• And (worst of all) there's no direct relationship between brand awareness work and revenue

I'm not deterred. Perhaps this is a naive optimism, but I believe we can achieve a better relationship between users and brands with radical honesty. An honesty that allows the brand and its users to change in real-time based on new information.

There seems to be a simple truth at the core of what should make this work. Every brand is influenced and affected by the people who work behind it and the markets who support it. But as marketers, we let brand act as a veil between these two groups and that veil almost always includes an inauthentic posturing. What do we have to hide? And who do we think we're fooling? 

Tomorrow, I'l get into the structure for the site, or at least post images of the wireframe sketches and hopefully a planning calendar for the initial construction of a test site. Full expecting to practice a rapid prototyping approach to all off this. Inspired by something one of the Kelley brothers said, 'what might we accomplish in just one day?' 


Website Layout

Designing this website for a client (local farm) who is ready to jump forward with their design strategy. Their current site is text heavy but they have an amazing cache of farm photos that I wanted to bring forward. This site is going to look great on mobile  and I'm very excited about the whole thing. They have a lot going on between farming, running a successful farm stand, operating a kitchen that makes prepared foods, and a budding floral design business (forgive the awesome pun). So I want this design to let viewers know right away that this farm, located in a sleepy up-scale area, is alive and buzzing with activity and might have more to offer than poeple  realize. It's always great when a client has this kind of energy to do the work it takes to get the word out and develop a solid, consistent brand design and messaging strategy.


Identity Series

Now that I feel like I have my footing in After Effects, I want to create a little design series that communicates ideas about identity. I'm attracted to ideas about the impermanence and transitory nature of personality and our beliefs, however misguided or helpful, that it is possible to know others, be know, and be understood. All of these things seem personal and mysterious (and sometimes deeply confusing) to me, so I'm looking forward to translating some of these thoughts to design because visual metaphor will be better than words in this case. Visual metaphors after all, have space in and around them that the viewers can fill up with their own nuanced reactions, memories, details, etc. I guess I can think of writing that works this way too. Maybe I just like Art better :).

Lip Sync Animation Study

I learned a great method for rigging mouths for lip sync animation and applied it to this audio track I had of my 4-year-old recounting one of her crazy dreams :). I think it worked out pretty well, although next time I'll probably make more than the 7 mouth positions I used here (to include some softer/lazier mouth positions like "nuh" and "uh"). This only took a couple of hours to animate, once the illustration were complete. Roughest part was the render, which took over an hour.

30 Gifs in 30 Days: Lost in Space

I learned a lot--especially regarding my CPU limits--with this one. Drew the astronaut in Draw and imported but all other elements were created in AE. The stars are a simple effect but the colors are blobs with displaced turbulence. All in all, there were about layers that each had at least one effect that included an evolving element. The duration is just a few frames over 4 seconds, the frame rate is low (20) and the size is only 750 pixels wide. Still, my computer could not render this file with crashing After Effects. In the end I had to reduce/delete many effects and tweak the export settings. The resulting render turned to be less than ten megs, which leads me to believe that all of those vector calculations are difficult for the processor for a brief moment and then the rest of the render must be very light work. 

I love the way the outer space effects came out and want to do more of these on their own (no character). So next time, I'll probably have to consider knitting elements to gather in Photoshop and/or test-rendering as I add each effect to know when the compass reaching its limit. 

Elsa's Walk Cycle

It's finally done! After two months of working on this in every bit of free time I have, this little walk cycle animation is finished. This started as a tiny little project for me to learn how to make a proper walk cycle and ended up as a 35 second journey through a complicated landscape. And while I need to disclose my understanding that I'm still terrible, I am kinda proud of this! 

The illustration was done in Illustrator and imported as a massive layered file, which knowing what I know now, should have been broken into many little pre-comps. And what I really like about this project in the end is the art direction. I'm really happy with the palette and all of the texture.  

By making this animation I learned a lot more about rigging, how to make a simple walk cycle, and a ton of effects and tricks for more polished looking movement. Some of the biggest takeaways were learning how to better use the graph editor and control pre-comps with null objects. Can't wait to do it again and do it right.

30 Gifs in 30 Days: Insect Generation

Entirely generated in After Effects so everything is vector; I can have this rather long animation save down to just 2-3 megs. Learned some new tricks for generating the complex patterns in the wings which will surely dominate the next piece I make. Just need to better understand what their ideal use would be. I'm thinking passageways to the future or a tunnel around a black hole (?).

It goes without saying that I'm not 100% satisfied with this, but I am starting to feel more competent in After Effects, so much so that when I have an idea, I almost immediately understand how to approach/execute (or so I think).