Throwing Wrenches at Monkeys; History of a Designer

When I first got into this business of “lining things up and giving them drop shadows” that I call Web Design, I did so by showing up for my first day of work at a Public Broadcasting non-profit in Erie, WQLN, where I thought I would be a television animator and graphic designer (which I was), when my boss told me “Oh yeah, and take care of the website, too.”

Aside from that being a cute aside as to how important websites were at the time, it was a wonderful little non-profit for which to work. We played Carcassonne or croquet or Mario Kart at lunch time, got free wine and Sesame Street toys and NPR coffee mugs, and one time even threw a film premiere and got a little tipsy in the copy room. The company had its share of flaws, to be sure, but there was one thing I loved about that place that too many businesses don’t have: a good outlook on how brand and visual communication should be handled.

1. The President didn’t Design the Logo

Now, first let me say that there is nothing wrong with a founder of a company creating a logo. Startup comes with costs, and yes, regardless of what your ad agency friends will tell you, your product is more important than the picture you put on it. But that’s for a startup. At the point where you’re hiring graphics people, you should be working on an actual brand, not just building on that italicized Arial version of your company name because the President or founder’s nephew drew it and it’s near and dear to their heart. The President of WQLN not only did not draw our logo, but he realized that branding as a whole was best left up to our department. When questions came up between departments as to how we would handle this or that aspect of design, if another department wanted to butt heads with our vision, the answer was simple: Creative has the floor when it comes to, well, the creative.

2. The company had a Graphic Designer and a Creative Director, not 53 Creative Directors

The Creative Director set the standard for what he expected from me, and clearly defined their brand. He had other “big picture” things to think about after that, such as the direction of our next television series or managing advertising campaigns, so the majority of maintaining the brand as we created new things and branched out was on me. We never, ever, even once, sat down with the President, a few board members, several other people from upper management and a couple of engineers so that we could all discuss my latest concept for the website redesign. I designed things and they managed the company, etc. That’s why we all have different jobs and it all too often is apparent that people view design as something that anyone can do. When a company values their design collateral, they benefit from the division of labor by skill-set that is the basis for modern civilization.

2. Ok, You’re making those decisions and I back you – as long as you can tell me why.

This is where I see so many companies really missing out on doing something that can put their website, and therefore business, above and beyond their competitors: research. Why should something look or function the way it does? Not just because it looks pretty, and not just because that’s the way other websites do it. If you’re not analyzing Google Analytics, researching other companies in your industry (and beyond) and what is working for them, and doing some kind of user testing (even if that is just researching other existing usability tests performed elsewhere), you’re missing the boat. There are too many websites out there to just “take a stab at” your site and hope it works out well. WordPress is more successful than Blogger because they did things right and continue to do them right before every one else does. They lead the pack. Twitter is more popular than Tumblr, Gmail is better than Hotmail, iPhone is still more relevant than Android and even Blackberry, etc.

The gist of this all is simple: if you just want a website, there are so many options out there to create your own. If you want a website that is specifically focused on your business, designed and built to meet your specific goals, then you need to find a designer who’s work you like and stick with their input on what will work best for you as well. Designers listen to their clients, its how they come up with these designs in the first place, but we’re not just lining up images on a page, we’re creating an experience for users, and throwing wrenches at monkeys is not the same as hiring a guy who knows how to use a monkeywrench.

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