⨳   27 Aug 2021

From the Desk Of

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could actually peer over another designer’s shoulder once in a while and see what they actually do?

⚐   Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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If I introduce myself as a designer, what have I really told you? The word design means different things to different people, as does the title Designer. As much as I prefer the simplicity of Designer to, say, Interaction Designer, or any other of its many contextually specific variations, when I actually say “I’m a Designer,” I’m saying so many possible things that I might as well say nothing.

The same thing is true if I tell you my official title (Chief Design Officer) or if I were to recite the what-I-do portion of my bio on my firm’s website verbatim. Yes, as Chief Design Officer, I “advise clients about how to apply visual language, design, and technology to solve business and marketing problems and coach them on how to decipher the patterns that show what is working and what is not.” And, internally, yes, I am “responsible for creating and optimizing systems and tools that keep our operation running with excellence.”

But what does any of that mean? Even having said so much, I think you’d still be justified in wondering, “yeah, but what the heck do you actually do?”

The cloud of ambiguity that hovers between how we all describe ourselves on the internet and how we all actually spend our time — or, in the professional world, for what we are actually compensated — is often at its most dense around the content we create. I continually “share my expertise” through “content” on the internet, and though many may derive value from it, it’s rarely specific, practical, or anecdotal. You could have read hundreds of articles I’ve written and still be unsure what it means for me to say that I am a Designer. How do I actually apply the discipline of design? Am I deep in the weeds, making images, crafting layouts, arranging information? Am I ten-thousand feet out, guiding things strategically? Or am I somewhere in between, managing and making? The truth is, for me, that I do all of that. I have always worked in contexts where hat-and-proximity-switching is the norm, and at this point in my career, I’d say it is likely that’s how things will stay.

But we all can benefit from peering over one another’s shoulders. It’s one thing to hear what someone says about their professional perspective or their work when they are presenting it, but it’s quite another to observe it in motion.

I recently urged a friend and fellow writer to experiment a bit with his format. He’s a UX’er and writes from the industry front lines — picture The Verge ten years ago, but instead of dozens of people, he’s just one guy earnestly observing what the heck is going on with devices so that he can better know his medium. So each post from him is a simple rundown of here’s-what’s-happening or here’s-what’s-coming, or both. I dashed off a text to him last weekend saying, hey, what if you added a small section that covers and-here’s-what-I’m-doing-about it. We joked recently about the UX’er plight of laying awake at night, wondering if they should change the corner radius of their buttons — about the details, and how they nag at us because there’s no one way to handle them. I thought to myself how interested I’d be in a few words from him that better help me visualize his working reality. After all, the big things most of us do are really just the collapsed hindsight over a series of very small things. And so, of course, if I wanted that from him, I thought about what it would look like if I took my own advice.

So below is a brief working diary. I maintained it throughout the week in a text-file I kept open all day, every day. And I’ll spoil it for you now, there is no big point here; no one day yielded a grand accomplishment, but instead was a series of bits of progress. Sometimes progress came in the form of a task started and ended by me, while just as often, it was just a single conversation or a message from a long-term journey in which I’ve helped steer clients or colleagues toward the outcomes they need. These entries are not comprehensive, of course. Like you, the list of things-I-did in a single day can sometimes be incredibly long or equally short (depending upon whether attending a meeting can be considered having done a thing). What I’ve put here are selections — one or two things — that I thought would be most useful read about and, together, paint the most accurate picture of what I do. These are the things that, if you were to peer over my shoulder, I’d hope you’d see.

To situate you properly, my clients are businesses that sell expertise to other businesses. I don’t work in the consumer product space.

Monday

Spent an hour today giving the campaign team a pep talk. They needed to hear again how a more coordinated approach to our clients’ marketing will enable the kind of results our clients actually need. But we also needed to review again a possible dark pattern — that the holistic, coordinated campaigns we are designing may also diminish the stats some of us ordinarily look to in order to validate our individual efforts. We talked about how things like organic search traffic, page views, and content conversions may actually decrease over time as the overall system gets better at engaging the right people, in the right ways, and at the right times.

Something that hasn’t occurred to me to talk or write about — but does now — is that a conversion may not necessarily be evidence of success, though it may be evidence of intent. Sometimes I look at the session data gathered by the tech we’ve built for our clients and see wandering prospects. They might click through many pages and even fill out forms or download content not because those specific actions — all of which we measure and tabulate to prove that things are “working” — are their goal, but because they perceive them as possible steps toward it. Sometimes, a session stuffed with conversions paints a picture of a confused prospect more accurately than an engaged one. Something to think about for later…

Tuesday

I finally finished an article that our internal marketing team’s Content Coach has been very patiently reminding me about for…months. I spoke at a conference last Spring about Prospect Experience Design, and one element of that talk had to do with how, if you really look, you can tell whether a website is actually functioning as you think it is or should. It’s as if a web page’s design can be read like a horoscope (or, if you prefer your analysis to be purely scientific, like a DNA test).

Finishing an article, by the way, isn’t just hitting “save” and “send.” In this case, I worked back and forth with our Content Coach (he’s an editor, too) to fine-tune the piece itself as well as do the “marketing of the marketing”, which involves creating the right metadata, creating the imagery for the article itself, trying out a bunch of different titles and URLs, and even drafting an email we’ll use to promote the article later. It’s interesting how much writing and creating you do around a piece of writing.

As much as I enjoy writing, the most pleasurable piece of this, for me, is the back-and-forth with a good editor. Besides the necessary corrections, working with an editor is like having an asynchronous chat about ideas. The article is an artifact of it. I know plenty of writers who have enmity for editors; I am not one of them.

I also began a consulting engagement with a new client. I always begin my portion of a new engagement by presenting a one-hour overview of Prospect Experience Design — what it is and how it applies to a client’s website — which then serves as a documented source of truth as we work together to redesign, rebuild, and relaunch their digital properties. It’s always inspiring (and validating) to see a client’s face register understanding or excitement or inspiration as I take them through the material. The material I cover in this first hour is documented in a ~40-page deck that makes the theory clear, enumerates specific objectives and steps toward achieving them, as well as describes the proper information architecture of nine unique page types that do the most work toward attracting, informing, and engaging prospects. Every page type I prescribe comes with a variety of research-backed functional and design recommendations, and I also wireframe each one so that the visual priority is clear. What I want is for this document to stand on its own so that nothing is lost in translation if it is spread around my client’s organization without me being their to explain it.

Wednesday

This morning, I updated a document I maintain for clients that contains a large sample of examples of various page types a functional marketing website should contain. I try to do this about once each quarter. Each example comes from a client that has already been through our program and, specifically, has been through my Prospect Experience Design consultation. It’s gratifying to review these examples and validate their designs with data in our system. But it’s also fun to update my materials and see how visual design trends move, almost like waves, in seasonal tides. Because my structural recommendations tend to be pretty consistent, I can quickly identify trends in visual language while separating out in my mind the base information design of a page (which typically comes from me) from how my client interpreted it.

…Also created an illustration for the article I finished on Tuesday that, though abstract, combines web-page imagery/shapes with a zodiac chart. I generally want the imagery that leads into an article to be as abstract as possible without just being decoration. It’s a tough balance to maintain, and I don’t know that I always pull it off. I used Figma for this, which has become my main creative composing tool - not just for managing design systems and page layouts, but also for generating imagery in the way I might have once with Photoshop and/or Illustrator. I can’t praise Figma enough!

Thursday

A few colleagues and I met with a client’s team to help guide their developer in implementing some changes to how their website’s engagement points look and work. Ultimately, we wanted to more seamlessly integrate things like content gates, subscription forms, and content promotions throughout article pages. I provided our client’s team with a visual mock-up of how I thought the system should be altered. That included a revision to the page’s overall layout — where things are on the page, how their priority is communicated, and how much room they’re given to “breath,” — as well as to the established visual patterns. For example, this website’s visual language tends to box-in engagement points, which makes them easy to identify when scanning, but also tends to draw the eye away from the page’s core content. I adapted them by almost inverting their visual rules. I de-boxed them, gave them much more space, and put a greater emphasis on straplines and iconography to assist with scanning and quickly identifying their purpose and function.

That’s all “design” work, but the real work for today was in walking through the new pages with their developer — who lives in Paris — and making clear to him what was a change of functionality and what was a change to the visual language. From that, he could derive a clear list of to-dos and plan his time accordingly. To do this well, you’ve got to be meticulous and have a ton of patience. This is true for the designer (in this case, I played that role) and the developer!

Friday

We shall see! I wrote this on Thursday evening. My Friday’s tend to be quieter — fewer meetings, that’s for sure — and they’re a great chance to finish up any tasks I can, close the loop on communications, write up notes from things that happened with client work over the week, etc. We tend to call that sort of thing a “focus day” in the office and it seems pretty essential to have one of those each week.

I hope writing this has given you, the reader, something of value. It’s healthy to reflect back upon the week; you can put things to rest in your mind far more easily, I’ve found, after writing them down. So for me, the writer, this has been a useful exercise. But more importantly, my goal was to create that space over my shoulder for you to hover and peer. Was there anything you didn’t see that you thought you would? Or anything you want to see that I didn’t mention? Hover back any time.

 

 

On Screen

This ABC News clip from 1973 details how Australia’s “biggest” (read, most powerful) computer predicted the end of civilization. What you’ll notice is a recurring theme — of how the many things we do that we think will help “save the planet” are simply not enough. Now, we hear this all the time. But here’s the point: this piece aired almost fifty years ago. Looking back, it’s astounding to me how much we knew then about what would happen, why, and what we could actually do about it, not to mention how little those who could actually do something meaningful about it have done. Remember, we’ve had half a century to do something. But this clip isn’t just about projecting the disintegration that climate change, growing population, and resource deprivation would have. It’s also about how accurately a computer plotted out the path, indicating a tipping point that we have just crossed. That’s right, this computer singled out 2020. Watch and see what the program had to say about our present time.

The Chair is one of the most compelling, frustrating, angering, provocative, and moving things I’ve seen on screen since Eighth Grade. A good disaster film is more than just destruction-porn; it will cast you into despair over the inexorable loss of the world. It’s frightening not just because of its violence, but because of its injustice: we lose the world, and with it the future and our potential. That’s the form of the disaster narrative — an outside threat reduces the interior to chaos. The Chair is a disaster story inverted. The destruction is interior. And though quieter and less visible than, say, a comet hurtling toward Earth, it is actually more devastating. How tragic it is, after all, to retain the world yet destroy the future at our own hand. Like Eighth Grade, The Chair shows how willing we are to ruin even the simplest, most straightforward goods in society; here is a place where education is meant to happen but can’t because of the agonies of its teachers and students. They’ll tear one another apart before sowing a single seed of knowledge. It’s a tragedy. This show, save for one misguided diversion into David Duchovny (who is, to be fair, doing a great job of playing an alternate version of himself), is a masterpiece. The performances are astounding. It depicts injustices from every angle. It will make you as angry as some of its characters are, for good reason! You’ll be as angry as Nanna Mensah’s character, who calls out the University for treating women and people of color as objects — for courting them only to withhold support for them and their scholarship just when it is needed — and angry with her when she espouses treating universities the same way — cynically abandoning loyalty and collegiality and following instead the maximum personal reward. If you hate the sentence you just read! then this is the show for you! The Chair depicts human frailty, strength, beauty, conviction, generosity, and hope, too. It will make you weep. There is a moment in which Sandra Oh’s character looks upon a Day of the Dead shrine her adopted daughter created for the grandmother she never knew that moves me even now, replaying it in my mind. And, there is also a moment in which Jay Duplass’s character confronts a mob of angry students that is, as a good friend pointed out to me this morning, basically…Twitter. My god, this short, six-episode series is well worth your time.

Recent Tabs

California Landscapes. Against Recognition. In Design, Small Things Can Make a Big Difference. Generalism. This one-man-band is outstanding. The Three-or-Four-Hours Rule for Getting Creative Work Done. What is the Carbon Footprint of the Internet? Kazumasa Nagai! “Me is cheap, Me is easy to control, Me is easy to channel, Me is slave of its own reflection, Me is a slave of the platforms that make the reflection glossy. Me is data. Me is data closest to metadata. This makes Me just perfect to satisfy advertisers and to sate neural networks.”