Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Content and its Discontents

1176663820_ecc5f27a17_mThe other day I posted, “5 Rules for Creating Content that RULES!“, which I wrote with PJA’s Mike O’Toole. We were walking a fine line because we wanted to talk about ways to effectively conduct content-driven marketing but, at the same time, we said that your content strategy had to flow from your marketing strategy AND that content itself, in order to be useful and ultimately shareable, had to be created with the audience in mind.

In other words, if you want to create content that rules, actually creating content is the last thing you should do.

The underlying message is: Don’t confuse means with ends. The goal of marketing is not to pump out advertisements, for example; the goal is to market products and services and use advertising or pricing or merchandising or channel management or whatever to do that.

But there is another, more subtle message underlying the aforementioned message: For content to be of use to you, it has to seem like you created it primarily for others. That is, if your content is too obviously self-serving (by being “salesy” or overtly promotional), even if others could use it, they will probably choose not to.

If you are going to give something away (valuable information, useful tools, practical insights, etc.) in order to get something, you have to give it away without expecting anything in return. I think there is some kind of life lesson in here somewhere.

Image Courtesy of dogeared-1144.

How Do YOU Measure the Impact of Design?

design metrics

Five long years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Return on Creative.” The crux of that essay was that design was critical to business success and, naturally, that a clear understanding of business principles and a focus on creating value was critical to successful design.

This was part of marketing campaign that we were running in order to position Aquent as the company that “got” both business AND design, making us the perfect choice for any organization looking for increased efficiency from creative execution (as we often called it). Of course, it also jibed with the growing (and still prevalent) trend amongst AIGA-istas and DMI-ers to insist that design deserved a “place at the table” – that is, the table where important business decisions are made.

This “place at the table” thinking has been questioned by folks like Michael Bierut and, more recently, Dan Saffer. Bierut sees it as symptomatic of an insecurity complex and insists that designers should focus on being good at design, not business. Saffer says that designers need allies at the table, but should relish their place away from it as outsiders who can “speak truth to power.” As high-falutin’ as that may sound, Saffer rightly emphasizes that, place at the table or not, designers need to be able to explain their work and decisions in business terms.

When a client or manager asks about the return on investing in “good” design, she wants to translate it into the language of profit and loss. Paying designers is an expense that she must weigh against other expenses and justify in terms of relative profitability. How do YOU handle this question? How do you measure the impact of DESIGN? Do you?

Or is that, ultimately, the wrong question?

Image Courtesy of Wessex Archaeology.

Interactive Design is a Team Sport

In the early days of the Web, it was not uncommon for companies to say they wanted to hire someone who knew HTML, Photoshop, JavaScript, Java, SQL, Cold Fusion, PHP, etc.

As the Web grew and people became more sophisticated, it was understood that there was a division of labor on the Web and that someone might know a lot about JavaScript without knowing anything about Java, and vice versa.

This post, which first appeared in February of 2009, addressed the fact that, sadly, there are still some people out there who think that if someone knows one Web technology, then they probably know them all.

2212455873_f6e4853b1b_m.jpgI wrote a post here advocating greater transparency in the staffing business and someone left the following comment:

“Graphic design is a tough business. That being said, seeing positions posted for a web designer that knows Flash, web design, and print design for the jaw-dropping salary of 35K isn’t going to cut it. That is senior-level design knowledge.”

I couldn’t help but agree with this individual, and not just because recent salary data published by Robert Half puts starting salaries for graphic designers at $36K, with motion graphics specialists commanding salaries starting in the mid-$50Ks.

I thought that we had put the days of kitchen-sink web positions well behind us. Overlooking the significant and long-acknowledged differences between print and web design, a position description like the one above indicates a failure to recognize that certain sub-specialties of web design, as one might consider Flash, for example, have actually become viable career options in their own right.

Interactive design has always been a team sport precisely because it is interactive. The web is undeniably a visual medium, hence the importance of visual design in the creation of websites. But a web site must function in addition to looking pretty and the technical complexity of its functioning demands skills and expertise that are more math than Matisse, if you know what I mean.

The classic division of labor on web projects has always been design AND development. Although most designers will have some technical chops, and developers, on the front-end anyway, will understand design basics, this just means they can communicate and collaborate with each other, not that they are interchangeable. Indeed, they are less interchangeable than ever as the “classic” division of yesteryear has been replaced by today’s “baroque” arrangement of sundry strategists and marketing mavens corralling a shifting constellation of user experience specialists, designers, copywriters, Actionscripters, programmers, and analysts, and more.

I know that money is tight and that the web is critical to everyone’s efforts. Nevertheless, you don’t do yourself or your business any favors by trying to cut costs by hiring one person to do the work of four (or more). Instead, you will be better served by starting with a comprehensive plan for your web efforts, which may in the end be “owned” by one person, and then hiring talented specialists on a project or contract basis to bring the plan to life. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it ALWAYS takes a team to create good web stuff.

Image Courtesy of elvissa.

“Don’t Just Take Any Job You Get” and Other Tips on Running Your Own Design Studio

In 2007, I interviewed Minh Nguyen who was working through Aquent’s San Diego office. He had built his own web design studio from scratch and was kind enough to share with me lessons he had learned along the way.

rsz_minhrooster.jpgMinh Nguyen, a Southern California-based web designer currently working for Sony Electronics, has been represented by our San Diego office for a little over a year.

Interestingly enough, his entrance into the Aquent world was fairly coincidental. “A friend of mine was looking for work and I told them about Aquent,” he tells me. “I was walking them through the application process by setting up a profile of my own. I didn’t think much about it but pretty soon someone from Aquent contacted me.”

Minh got into graphic design at an early age. As he puts it, “I owe it to my family. My grandfather taught me how to draw when I was 3. My mom taught me how to color inside the lines when I was 5. My dad taught me HTML and introduced me to Photoshop when I was 14.” He was doing web-design casually as a teenager, but by the time he got into college realized he had a passion for it.

Having a hard time getting a full-time design job after graduation, he started his own studio with some friends. Although the studio did fairly well – garnering clients from Jack in the Box to the Surf Rider Foundation – he decided that he was more interested in doing design work than running a business. He turned to Aquent to get back into design and eventually found a permanent position through us.

Since running one’s own studio is a choice that many designers make and even more consider, I asked Minh what he learned from his experience doing so. Here’s what he told me:

1. Don’t just take any job you get, do things for free, or do things on the cheap.

Not only does this lower the bar for other people working in the field, the sites usually aren’t that great, and the client will ultimately be dissatisfied.

2. Try to maintain control with clients.

In my first meeting, I am very clear about what I’m going to do, what it’s going to cost, and the timeline I’ll be following. If there are any changes to the timeline or the scope of the project, I have to approve them. If during the course of the work I think that the timeline isn’t going to work, I address it immediately. You need to speak up and restructure things when it’s not working out. Finally, if the client is giving you a timeline that’s too tight, don’t be afraid to ask for more time. Chances are, other things will come up in your life making that deadline even more impossible to meet.

3. No matter how badly you want a client, if they give you a bad gut feeling, its best not to work with them.

Good money is important. but if they keep you up at night and you find yourself utterly aggravated working with them it’s just not worth it. If the client is too focused on the money, that’s a red flag – they’ll jump ship the moment they can find a better deal. Likewise, if a prospective client tells you he/she has had 4 designers quit while on the job, watch out. Don’t let yourself become the 5th to bail.

4. Plan out your pricing.

You need to consider what you need to make. It’s not just about your time and the materials. When you’re running your own business, you have overhead, taxes, benefits, etc. you have to pay for. That needs to be factored in. If you don’t think about the real cost of doing business, and keep and eye on your margins, you won’t have any.

Coda: The Talent Bridge

As it turns out, Aquent placed Minh at his current position through our “Talent Bridge” program, whereby people can try out a job before ultimately committing to it. When I asked Minh if he would recommend that arrangement for others, here’s what he said:

“I would definitely recommend Aquent, or something similar, for other designers seeking permanent or temporary work. For me, they’ve always been fast, reliable and compliant to my needs. When I needed a job, Aquent would find multiple openings tailored to fit what I wanted. They matched or exceeded my pay scale every time and only sent me on jobs that I felt comfortable doing. I tried finding my own work on Monster and other job sites and it was nearly impossible for me to find the kind of tailored fit they were finding for me. It would take me a whole week to find 2 decent job openings while Aquent was calling back every day with 2 or 3 options.

“Another reason I would recommend Aquent is because they’re great for designers who’ve had a few years of experience at one design firm and want to move on and explore their options. Through Aquent I got the chance to go from one company to the next, small, medium and large. It allowed me to find and gauge what I was looking for in a long-term job. Without you guys, I think it would have taken a couple of years to do all that. Instead I did it all in less then one.

“As a designer, working for myself I didn’t really have much experience negotiating with HR or even knowing how to get a fair chance at an interview. I loved how Aquent took care of that for me. All I had to do was show my work at the interview and it was a done deal. Its nice having a team of agents negotiating my every need.”

And, frankly, it’s a privilege to work with folks like Minh.

Image courtesy of Minh Nguyen.

The Art of Attracting without Distracting

As part of my work with Aquent, I interviewed a number of the many talented people who work for that company. I posted these interviews as a way of spotlighting the aforementioned talent. This interview with web designer Jon Billett first appeared on February 12, 2009.

jbsixers.jpgJon Billett is a designer represented by Aquent’s Philadelphia office who has spent the last several years making the transition from print to web. Of the work he’s done that you may have seen are a set of banner ads featuring Regis and Kelly which Jon created for TD Bank.

I asked Jon a few questions about his career, the process of moving from print design to interactive design, and the key to creating effective banner ads. Here’s what he told me.

You started your career as a graphic designer, right?

Yep, my background is in print design. It’s what I studied in school and it’s what gave me my foundation in layout, aesthetics, and making things look pretty.

So how did you build your interactive chops?

After I graduated, I basically taught myself at first and then networked with as many people as I could to learn from them. I made an online Flash portfolio and was fortunate enough to land a job through Craigslist with 3601, the internal ad agency at the Wachovia Center here in Philly.

What sort of stuff did you do with 3601??

This was back in 2006 and they really hadn’t done too much Flash or web stuff themselves, so they hired me to create banner ads, put together the web site for the agency, and things like that. I also worked on the design of the iWalls that they have installed there. These huge displays allow fans to interact with hi-def timelines dedicated to the Flyers and the Sixers. It’s really great to see people on TV playing with them, and being a fan myself, I had a lot of fun creating them.

Was it challenging to be “the web guy” on the team?

In a way. I was the only person who knew how to do this stuff, so when I had problems, there wasn’t anyone in the office that I could turn to. I had to reach out and find other sources to get answers.

What sources did you find?

I got a lot of help from, which also runs I joined as a member so I could have access to their tutorial videos but the best part of the service was access to mentors – experts who have really mastered this technology. Having a specific person you can tap for help is ideal, though you really need to be at a certain level to make the most of mentoring.

I realize that banner ads are just part of what you’ve done, but what would you say is the key to a successful banner ad design?

A banner ad can’t be distracting, but it still has to attract attention and be intriguing. You have to put enough in the ad to pique someone’s curiosity and get them to click without making it too busy (and not just because you want to keep the file sizes down). Aside from making the ads entertaining and engaging, I like using the format to throw in new animation tricks I’ve learned.

Last question. Who are your influences?

On the print side, I would say that my biggest influences have been Saul Bass, David Carson, with his “type as image” stuff, and street/urban things like Shephard Fairey. On the web front, I absolutely love the work being done by AYC Media.

The Ecstasies of Metal

Learn from the mystics is my only advice. – Roxy Music [misheard]

opeth super metal mages and spiritual conduit to other dimensionsA friend suggested that I write a review of the Opeth show I attended on Saturday, May 2, 2009. I find myself quite incapable of doing so because, frankly, I cannot judge their music objectively or provide an accurate recounting of their performance.

This inability stems from the fact that my experience of Opeth was not primarily aesthetic in nature. Rather, as has been the case with the best metal shows I have attended, my experience in the presence of these masters of the art tended more towards the mystical/ecstatic realms of human consciousness.

Indeed, my most immediate memory of the show finds me in a state of frenetic, possessed movement accompanied by an ego-annihilating oceanic feeling. I give Opeth credit for inducing this state, a thing they accomplished via a sometimes subtly, sometimes savagely evolving rhythmic intensity coupled with serpentine melodies, strange words, and the trance-inducing repetition of droney, modal patterns.

Through its deliberate and complex structures – not to mention the aggressive amplification of sound and hypnotic manipulation of light – Opeth’s music invited the listener to become lost in its labyrinth.

However, it was not an all-devouring minotaur that awaited it us at the center of these intricate and winding passages. It was, instead, a refreshing, liberating, and, dare I say, “communal,” transcendence.

For all who seek the fortuitous and often unexpected profane illumination sometimes afforded by the marriage of technology and spirit in this post-everything age, I recommend that you seek out Opeth and especially the public display of their conjurings.

Image Courtesy of deep_schismic.