The Best Ever Failed 63% of the Time

Ty Cobb failed 63.4% of the time, finishing his career with a .366 lifetime batting average. The ultimate benchmark for greatness for a hitter is the .400 mark, and that has only been eclipsed 26 times in history. Hell, some of the sports’ greatest hitters failed 72-73% of the time, and made up for it with the ability to hit homeruns.

Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson
Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson

I think life operates much like baseball does. What makes professional athletes so incredible is the resiliency required to perform at such high levels in pressure cooker situations when the odds show that you will fail more often than you succeed. They endure weeks-long streaks of failure and still figure out a way to dust themselves off and return to (relative) success.

Would your job keep you if you failed at your primary function for a week straight?

The reason that batting averages vacillate between .200-.400 is because of the high level of competition and the incredible skill required to hit a 4.5 ounce ball which is traveling upwards of 90 mph all the while moving laterally, dropping or changing pace as it covers the 60′ 6″ from the pitchers hand to the plate. Some consider it the hardest feat in all of sports.

In comparison, I just have to navigate clients, come up with some fun creative concepts, move some pixels around, and make some things look pretty. Success in my industry is measured by the ability to increase sales (and/or membership), effectively communicate and inspire a message, spark conversation with the design, and an increase in site traffic (or brand engagement, if not an online project).

What are the benchmarks for success in your life? In your career? When you fail, do you learn from your mistakes? How do you deal with failure?

Loss is research.

It’s not always straightforward quantitative research, but if you mull over the situation you’ll be able to figure out what went awry and why you failed if you are honest with yourself. That is the ultimate key. Self-honesty, if taken seriously, can provide the greatest insight into your own performance and weaknesses (strengths, too, of course). While there might be external circumstances adversely affecting you, figuring out what you need to change will always keep you ahead of the game.

As long as you are willing to fail, and learn, you’ll continue to find overall success.

Set Your Clients Up to Succeed

Every service provider, regardless of their discipline, has at one point or another performed great service for a client only to have them call back a month later saying something broke. For us designers, we cringe as we close the email or set down the phone, and type in the client’s web address “brokenwebsite.com”, because 9 times out of 10, someone decided that they should play around with the HTML or CSS and broke the site or created a 403 error.

iis_errorBut as time wears on, and more experience is packed into your belt, is it your client’s fault for breaking something you’ve built, or yours for not properly planning for the inevitable? If I know that my client is going to keep trying to mess with the HTML of the webpage that I’ve delivered, shouldn’t I give them a CMS solution that will avert their desire to muck around, allowing them to make all necessary changes in a way that can’t completely destroy the site? When I see images being formatted incorrectly, repeatedly, shouldn’t I make a tutorial showing the client how to set up batch actions in Photoshop to help them prepare correctly?

Perhaps sometimes it’s our improper planning that is to blame, not the knuckleheadedness (lovely, Webster’s, please take note) of our beloved clients. Of course, clients are still going to break stuff (just ask the plumber who comes back to your apartment over and over telling you to make sure that you clean your drains regularly to avoid clogs…do you ever listen?). But as service providers, we have to go the extra mile because we want our work to show beautifully and for our clients to be happy. Happy clients are always talking up to their friends, family, and colleagues.

Besides, don’t we get paid to make the best possible product? How would my employers feel if I was cutting corners and not always setting our company up to succeed? I think too often we get myopic on our approach to projects, focusing on the design, the beauty, the aesthetics; at times forsaking the most quintessential piece of everything we do: creating happy and satisfied customers.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining (or starting) the conversation by leaving a comment below. Thank you kindly.

The Self-Proclaimed Expert

If stock market experts were so expert, they would be buying stock, not selling advice. – Norman R. Augustine

experts-090109So-called experts are quickly flooding the relatively new social media niche in large numbers, each and every one clambering for attention. While Facebook, Myspace, Virb, Flickr, Twitter, and countless other social sites and apps have been around for years, we are currently experiencing a significant boom in focus, understanding and adoption. There’s a massive influx of new users, people that normally remain on the sidelines waiting for the early adopters to help apps through beta phases and assist in ironing out the kinks.

But, how are those new to the scene supposed to find their way? Who are the leaders?

Perhaps these self-proclaimed experts are under the impression, as Seth Godin suggested in his review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers last week, that it’s much easier for people to get past The Dip1 and find success in “niche areas, new areas, unexplored areas. You can get through the Dip in an online network…because being seen as the best in that area is easier…”

What are the benchmarks for success? Is it number of blog readers? The size of your Twitter following? Is it your ability to soapbox, wax poetic and pontificate with confusing 2.0 jargon?

Or is it the ability to convince a town to rename itself for one of the largest marketing coups in history that makes you an expert? While Mark Hughes is undoubtedly an expert, he isn’t the benchmark either. He is one of those grand slam success stories.

So then where is the marker for the upper echelon of thought-leaders and exemplary masters? Do we leave that title reserved for people who have figured out how to make a name for themselves, or are we frugal with the moniker, giving it more often to people who are masters in making a name for others?

Does being an expert even matter in this landscape, or are we all just people trying to figure out the best way to connect with each other?

Just whom is that “expert” stamp in the social media arena reserved for?

1 Godin defines The Dip as “a temporary setback that will get better if you keep pushing.”

If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining (or starting) the conversation by leaving a comment below. Make your suggestions on who you think should be classified as an expert. Thank you kindly.

Keep Your (Design) Job Right Now

It seems that the world’s economy is on a steady collapse, each day bringing new stories of companies closing shop, and another industry asking Congress for a bailout plan. Our industry is no different than any other. I’m sure that you all have a handful of friends that have lost jobs in the last 3 months.

Well, let’s take a look at a handful of things that we can all do to help protect our design jobs (these tips will nearly all work for non-designers, too, but a few things might need to be translated and interpreted for your own industry/career). There are tough decisions being made in conference rooms and owners’ offices all over the world right now, and your name might be inextricably on one of the cut lists. So, let’s assume, for the sake of this article, that you are on the chopping block, but you are in the gray area. You still have the possibility of affecting whether or not you get pink-slipped.

If you think this article is a bunch of bullshit, I want you to go do some job searches on Krop.com right now (also try Creative Hotlist, Authentic Jobs, and LinkedIn). If you come back with 15+ available positions in your field, location and experience level, maybe you can relax a little bit. If not, I’d get involved here because it could mean the difference between P.F. Chang’s and Cup O’ Noodles for you.

First seven “good employee” things that you can easily do to get your employers leaning towards keeping you (these apply to every single employee on Planet Earth, by the way…not just designers):

  • Devour tasks on your plate. Don’t let things assigned to you linger or sit uncompleted.
  • Show up on-time, or early, in fact. I don’t care what your boss says about being okay with you coming in sometime between 9-10am, when you show up at 8.45am consistently, everyone notices.
  • I don’t know whether I’d say stay late, but don’t be the douchebag packing up at 5.54pm everyday in anticipation of the 6pm bell. (I say this, and I leave work everyday at 4.30pm to go pick up my kids…but let’s just say I work more hours than you, so no shit-talking that point.)
  • Do your homework and come to brainstorm discussions prepared. If you’re the one delivering the ideas your clients are picking (or at least the ones your bosses are presenting each week), they’ll have a hard time justifying your dismissal.
  • Don’t take long lunches for a little while. Try to keep to the hour (or other time) allotted.
  • Try to minimize the amount of appointments you make during the day, when you can. If you can’t, ALWAYS ask for the first appt of the day, or the last, and then compensate on the other end (i.e., 8am appt, arrive @ work at 10.30am, work until 6.45pm instead of leaving at 6pm).
  • When your bosses are cruising the office, minimize your blog, feed readers, Twitter apps, and NSFW content. I know this seems simple, but you’d be amazed how often it happens.
  • Oh yeah, don’t EVER be caught working on a freelance client’s project at your 9-to-5. Nothing will get you scraped quicker.

These seven tips are pretty standard. Getting square with each and every one of them will maybe add 30 minutes to your day, maybe an hour. Isn’t that time worth not having to go brave that job market? I didn’t think so…let’s keep reading.

As a designer, chances are, your team has dwindled a little bit in the last few months. If you’re in a place that hasn’t suffered any firings, well, a big congratulations to you and your firm for surfing the waves when everyone else is battoning down the hatches to weather the hurricane. Yeah, a big congratulations, or…your company is next.

So, down to the more design-specific work habits and characteristics that will keep your neck clear of the hangman’s axe:

  • More than just finishing the tasks on your plate, be a production beast. Beat deadlines, advance work from the left side of your desk to the right as quickly as possible, not forsaking quality.
  • Win the creative battles. When you’re going up against other people in “comping” phases, or if you’re pitching clients or higher-ups, get your designs into development. The more work your company is producing of yours, rather than the designs of your peers, the more essential you become to the company’s current trajectory.
  • Make yourself wide-open to criticism and evaluation. This is not the time to be defensive with your art directors / creative directors / owners. Don’t get me wrong, don’t become a push-over, and don’t change who you are. Just be quicker to get back to task and ditch the arguing. It’ll go a long way. Remember, your bosses are quite stressed out trying to keep the company going, which in turn keeps your lights on, your cellphone paid, and your spouse/significant other happy.
  • Now is the time to head over to Lynda.com and do some learning. Pick up a new program or language. Try to see what skill set your company could benefit from the most, and go figure out how to add that to your toolbelt. All things being equal, if you’re the only designer who knows Flash as well…hmm, it becomes an easier decision.
  • And quite possibly the most obvious, but essential tip…ask your boss / supervisor straight up what you can do to help secure your job. More importantly, if you are given suggestions, make sure that you live up to the expectations you’ve just set. They will now expect to see you perform on what you discussed.

This is an economic earthquake, and there seem to be aftershocks steadily running amuck. Protect yourself from falling debree.

So in addition to protecting your current job, you should probably start to get some things in order just to be safe:

  • Get your resume cleaned up.
  • Beef up on your LinkedIn profile, and if you haven’t done so already, build up your network with all the peeps you’ve worked with and for (co-workers and clients). This is a BIG deal. I love getting LinkedIn links in job application emails. Shows that you have some business sense about you (or in the least, that you are not dead and have actually used the social web in the last 12 months). Solicit recommendations. A good way to get reco’s quickly, is to post up recommendations on the people you want a reco from.
  • Put together your portfolio, whether that’s in a book or not. Oh, yeah, it might be in a book, but it sure as “H” “E” “double hockey sticks” (my son’s way of saying “hell”) better be online as well. Look over at Behance, Carbonmade and Coroflot for starters if you don’t have something up yet.
  • Do some of those job searches I mentioned above, if you haven’t already. If for no other reason, it’s good for you to know what’s out there. If something does happen which you didn’t expect, you’ll be less scared (or more, depending on your results…lol, sorry) about getting a new job.
  • Start thinking about new revenue streams, preferably passive income sources (important note: your company will always be more supportive of your moonlighting if it doesn’t compete with their core services, and also of course, that it doesn’t interfere with your job):
    • selling WordPress themes
    • creating custom fonts
    • making icons / illustrations (ala YouWorkForThem)
  • Talk with your friends out in the workforce. Feel out your network to see if there are jobs waiting for you should you lose yours.
  • Don’t be too proud to file for unemployment if you lose your job, to help keep things going while you look for a new job. Do so by finding your state in this list.

Remember, at all times, you are not alone here. I mean that a couple of ways. First, we are here and most anyone whom you reach out to will grab extended hands and give advice when solicited. Secondly, there is a lot more supply than demand for designers right now…for all employees, in fact. So put your best foot forward, stand out from the crowd.

Make yourself indispensable, however you must.

Show your appreciation, kindness, and support to those you work with

Appreciation and kindness should not just be reserved for your personal life. One of my friends always says, “If we can’t figure out how to be the best versions of ourselves at work, when and where are we going to do that?” Because the fact of the matter is, we probably spend more time at work and with our co-workers than we do anywhere else. Depending on your schedule and extracurricular activities, you might spend more time at work than you do at home. So again, why not figure out how to be the great guy (or gal) you are at home while you’re at the office?

It seems a rather simple concept: be kind to those around you, wherever you are. But ask yourself, do you always give thanks and praises to the people on your team for a job well done? It’s an often overlooked piece of the puzzle, and when exercised, a simple congratulations can strengthen the connection inside your team and help build loyalty and dedication. This is not a tactic or ploy – simply tell people they’re doing a great job when they are. Write a LinkedIn recommendation when your clients or vendors have been awesome, because I guarantee that they will appreciate it.

The power of spoken (or written) gratitude is amazing. This does not have to be a concept and action reserved for management level. And, more importantly, it shouldn’t be saved just for people within your company or organization. Surprise recommendations from clients or vendors are the greatest thing. To that end, submit positive reviews at Yelp.com for businesses when you have a great experience. I have a few I need to post actually. And just for today, reserve that negative post that you really want to flame that @ssh(*# with who gave you attitude at the coffee shop. Just let it slide today.

But make sure that you reward your co-workers and clients and/or vendors with praise when they deserve it. You can make someone’s day, with a very short couple of minutes of thought.

Hope you all have a great day today.

Satisfaction vs. recognition

Of course, there’s no reason that these two words need be on opposite sides of the net. They are not opposing forces, and quite often arrive together at the end of a project. And of course, every client would love to walk away from each project with a big fat smile, and a large gold pencil or Webby in their hands.

But here we are, smack dab in a world where not every client is Coca-cola, Addidas, or Nike. The same world where budgets shrink and expectations rise. Where clients push you to move quickly, and often lose focus of the greater picture through the development (or design) process. So, for the sake of conversation and spirited dialogue, I want to know which of these are more important to you.

Would you rather have a satisfied studio and client with less recognition in the industry, or overworked and beleaguered staff, stressed out clients, and an award for your efforts? (Of course, there are other options, but I am Oz in this line of questioning. Deal with it.)

Which is more important to you and why: client satisfaction or project recognition?

Conversation with a client

I have decided that I’m going to start writing about some of my client communications here on this site. I’m under the impression that I need to speak my mind with my clients (within reason, of course) and give them my advice when it comes to the projects that they’ve hired me for. If I don’t, I feel like I’m wasting their money just delivering back a comp or making design revisions that were handed down by someone with no design sense and/or understanding of the intricacies of the design process. (Granted, I always have a discussion about my role with new clients, making sure that they want to hear what I have to say.)

When I’m called in to art direct or run creative on a project on a freelance basis, I’m a consultant. Therefore, consulting with my clients is one of the main responsibilities. In that place, it is my job as a service professional to open a dialogue with my clients taking full note of all of their desires and main objectives, and making sure that I manage the communication throughout the entire process, which includes giving them suggestions and ideas if necessary.

Have faith in your knowledge and confidence in your ideas. Make your recommendations and explain why. It won’t always work out how you suggest, but it will have a positive effect on the process more often than not. The point isn’t to sell your designs or to make things the way you want to. Rather, you are responsible for helping your clients understand what you are doing for them, and why. Remember, this is your profession, not theirs. Also remember, this is their money, not yours.

So, here’s a recent back and forth with one of my clients. The names and projects have been omitted for privacy reasons, but that shouldn’t be of any real concern. I hope that this helps in some way. I’m going to give this to you backwards…with the initial response to the comps I delivered shown first:

Quoting the client (initial comp feedback):
Yo. slight curveball for ya….can you retro fit the home page look and the profile page and the feel like {client’s favorite site}? {Name here}…the lead guy is really hoping to just copy the general look of that site.

Quoting me (my response):
{Client Name},
The short answer is “yes, I can.” The long answer is much more involved and filled with opinion and advice. And, since you’re paying me, I’ve gotta give it to you.{Project name} is going to be a huge site. It’s currently #3 or #4 when searching for “{some keyword}” on Google. So, imagine the traffic and the readership immediately upon launch. It’s large. I think it’s absolutely shooting yourselves in the foot to copy, emulate, or even heavily borrow on the design ideas of another greatly successful site and brand. With all the focus on music distribution online, this brand has left a rather indelible mark on folks.With {project name} we should be attempting to set ourselves up with a new brand, with something strong that can stand on its own. Not something that will make someone think or feel like they’ve seen this site before. And the backlash in the design industry will be quick and severe if we piggyback on the design concepts and layout structures of last.fm. It’s one thing to do that with an adult site…in fact, it’s almost expected on some level that a great site design will end up with a counterpart in the adult industry.

So my recommendation is that you really mull this one over. It’s not a small decision. What if we decided that we liked say, SoBe drinks’ logo, and fashioned {project name} after it? It’s not like SoBe has the recognition of Coca-Cola or anything, but it’s a brand recognizable enough to trigger a reaction like the one I described above. You don’t want people to associate your brand with anything else. You want your brand to stand on its own. No other great site out there emulates another when it redesigns.

What we’ve created thus far does just that; and I’m not speaking in defense of the design that I’ve completed. I always know that this is your money, and you can do what you want with it. I’m not fighting for my design. I’m merely saying that this design is something that can stand on its own. I would just hate to see you guys shoot yourself in the foot before the starter’s gun has sounded. I don’t want {project name} to limp out of the gate – I want to charge.

So please think about it, and talk it through. Let’s create something that is eye-catching and strong in and of itself.

In a good way,
Greg

Quoting the client (final response):
cool…i agree…so i think i need you to look at why we like {client’s favorite site}’s soft feel…or {another client favorite}’s soft feel…and come up with something new like those. i like your design but i feel like it needs to be a little softer. give me a shout whenever.

So, the end result was not exactly what I wanted, and I had to go back and rework some of the design, but I was able to help my client avoid design suicide. I remember at all times that my clients have hired me, and I am responsible for much more than just delivering source files, HTML, or animations. In my opinion, I am responsible for helping guide them past potential pitfalls and short-sightedness (not due to any defect of their own, again, web design is not their job, it’s mine).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with clients making requests like the one made above. They like a couple of different sites and would like for their site to have the same feel. And they trust me to help advise them; I am more than just a hired ranch-hand spitting out design emulation. I will tell clients straight out that I am not the best designer if that’s what they want – I will tire too quickly if I’m being asked to copy something else, and I’m far more expensive than other cats who’ll do it for next to nothing and claim credit for the design.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, please share your experiences. I’d love to hear more.

Changes this summer

After nearly three years on the farm, Brian and I have decided to hang our saddles up on the barn wall. Go Farm is shutting down, and I am starting a new position with a local firm here in Beverly Hills, Real Pie Media. I have been working for myself for the better part of seven years, after leaving my post as creative director of Media Temple back in the day. I had a brief stint down at Juxt in Orange Country, but have been on my own (or with a partner) for a long time now. And I have to tell you, I’m a bit apprehensive about working for someone else.

I’m leaving for Italy in about 18 hours to see one of my best friends off into marriage, and when I get back, I have about 3 days until I start the new gig. That being said, I’m going to be completely forthcoming about the variables in my decision, and about the things that went through my head. In no particular order, here are a few of the thoughts, both pro’s and con’s:

Pros

  • No more long drives to Pasadena every day; my daily commute has shrunk from 2 hours in the car driving across hellish downtown twice a day to a leisurely 12 minute walk, door-to-door. The other great thing about the short commute, is that I’ll soon have a newborn at home; the closer I am to home, the closer I am to my baby girl.
  • Working for someone else means a release from the stress of owning a company. I’ll still be responsible for keeping projects under budget and making the company’s clients happy, but I won’t have the daily weight of the books, finding new work, salaries, benefits, vacations, scheduling, etc.
  • Starting a new job means meeting new people, making new friends, and challenging myself in a whole different way.
  • Have I mentioned I can walk to work? My son Sidney can walk to my office after work, to boot. How cool is that?
  • Steady paychecks are always nice. I freelanced for a long time, and while large checks sure are nice, 2 months without any checks can get real old.
  • The company I’m working with has a very nice client roster and lots of projects. It’s always a good feeling to be in a studio that’s steadily producing, and producing great work.
  • I get to do what I love doing – growing brands. Very excited about this.

Cons

  • Less freedom
  • I have a boss now. Urgg. (Fortunately he’s cool, so I can’t put too much else about him here, otherwise I won’t be able to count this as a “con”.)
  • There’s a ceiling for how much I can make now, as opposed to the limitless horizon of working for yourself.

Freelancing (Option #3)

  • Pro: more money
  • Pro: ability to decide how much time is spent developing side-projects and income-generating ideas
  • Con: more time to manage the projects, clients, accounts, etc.
  • Con: very unstable pay cycles
  • Con: it always feels like you’re at work when you work at home
  • Pro: working from home means more time with the family (errr, read the previous point…maybe not)
  • Pro: can vacation whenever you want and make the hours and schedule that make the most sense for all the other priorities in life

As my new mother-in-law said to me recently, “I’m sure that you’re going to have a hard time working for someone else, and it might take some time to get used to, but I think it’s a good thing.” I was telling her about some of my concerns, but also making it clear that I feel very solid about my decision. Freelancing was a thought, for sure, because of the money, but it’s just not a stable environment for starting a family.

For anyone out there struggling with the same quandary, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line to discuss. It’s been a decision that has taken about 6 months to finalize, and I’m terribly excited about what’s happening right now.