September 2010

Why “One Size Fits All” Design and Marketing Fails

Like many creative types, I have to rely on freelancing to supplement or at times support me financially. That means I have to market myself. I’ve become more comfortable with marketing and promoting myself over the years. Each year I learn a bit more and feel I’m making great headway. However, I’m young and I’m bound to make mistakes and was reminded of so over the weekend.

I attended an event at a local university. It was definitely an event that was outside my profession but I had the bright idea that perhaps this was a great opportunity to network. I knew I’d possibly find myself in a situation where I’d be ask what I do and felt comfortable talking about how I am a designer and how I blog, sort of the best of both worlds when it comes to my degree which happens to be in journalism. I planned on passing my business card on to those that I spoke to and that I felt I’d connected with on some degree. There was an older woman, very eccentric, who responded well to finding out that not only was I a graphic designer but a journalist (of sorts). “Oh, you could help me make PowerPoint presentations look good!” she exclaimed in her Southern accent that’d remind you of Blanche from ‘The Golden Girls’. Sweet, I’d potentially made a connection! Then came ‘the moment’. I handed her my business card and she gladly took it and examined it.

And she frowned.

I have to admit, in a way, I was devastated. It’s taken me years to settle on a business card that I feel properly promotes and shows off my style as a graphic designer. I’m really into illustration – I know what sets me apart from other designers is my illustration style, my use of vibrant colors and my edgy, no-holds barge attitude. I designed my business card to be pop-ish, bright and packed with attitude. Do you know what I forgot to do? Consider all of my audience. The card goes well with a younger crowd – younger people tend to want to work with designers and other creative types who aren’t dull, boring and stiff. They want someone they can relate to, someone who’s going to give them a product that stands out and looks unique – you know, design and creativity that goes with being young and wanting to show off your own style. My business card and the illustration on it landed me a freelance gig that was a couple hundred dollars – that right there tells me that it’s an effective design and that it works. It’s an illustration and style that I carried over into my website and whenever I’m approached by someone via my website, they usually remark that I’m obviously very creative and they want me to make them stand out like my work.

But, there’s a flip side. Older people really aren’t interested in bright colors, attitude, standing out and being unique. Often times they want design and creative workers who can work within a very confined, limited, familiar style. Yes, it’s a tad bit boring but it’s just how it goes. I’ve found that when designing for an older audience you have to rein in all that pent up energy, attitude and ambition to create something totally new and outlandish or else they equate all of these things as being a bit unrefined, unprofessional and not worth spending money on. My business card, as witnessed first hand and told by older people (like my usually inebriated uncle or very frank grandmother and the older Southern belle at this event over the weekend) doesn’t work for them. It’s plain and simple. They expected professionalism, sleek design, almost no real presence or personal touch. Which brings me to the whole topic of this post:

“One Size Fits All” design (or marketing) doesn’t work. Here’s why –

Too often as designers we approach a problem and come up with a solution (our design, photo, written piece, etc.) and call it a day. Do we take into consideration the entire audience who’ll consume our work? Probably not. I’ve been on both sides of this issue. When designing a publication, it’s usually thought that you should design it to always imitate what’s expected by your average reader. Here’s the problem – what if your average reader is, say, in his or her 50s? Or 60s or older? There’s nothing wrong with being these ages but this group isn’t going to be interested in the same design or creative elements as, say, someone in their 20s or 30s. And why should you “preach to the choir” when you’re leaving an entire group of people out? If you’re a publication and your average reader is near or over 60, isn’t there value in trying to appeal to a younger base who’ll potentially stick around with you for decades to come?

As designers and marketers, how do we get around this issue? Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Two-Pronged Attack: For a freelancer or someone marketing their business, I think the best method of getting around the “one size fits all” mentality is to actually market to both young and old, women and men, gay and straight, etc. You see, our society is very diverse. Old school marketing has always been very one-sided: we targeted the group with the most money or the group with the most dominance. A lot of the times, we’re leaving someone out. And that someone could very easily turn into a loyal client and associate. With this digital age, it’s not really hard to market to many groups at once. Sure, it’ll take a bit more time but I think it’d be worth it. I haven’t ditched or chucked my business cards. I have seen they are effective – just not with older people. So I’ve developed an entirely different design geared toward the older crowd. It’s polished, refined, reserved but still very stylish. I think Grandma would approve.

2. Design for the ‘little people’: There’s always a group that ends up being left out. If you’re into marketing and want a diverse client base, then instead of thinking about the audience you already have, look at the audience you don’t have. For example, take men’s fitness magazines. There are tons on the market – Men’s HealthMen’s FitnessMuscle & FitnessFlex, so on and so forth. What do all of these magazines do? They target men – often straight men, with articles that go beyond fitness – they talk about sex, relationships, marriage. The problem? They never ever ever mention gay males, who we all know both exist and love health & fitness. What gives? The point is not to ignore untapped sources of profit. Whether you’re a designer, writer or photographer, look outside your comfort zone or usual suspects and start hitting those that aren’t usually on your radar. They’re out there and they’re more than willing to spend a little money on great service and creativity – if you’re willing to spend the time to market to them and include them in your business.

3. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, but guess what – your job is really never done. Too often when it comes to marketing or self-promotion, we all tend to spend very little time doing it. For some it’s a once a year occasion. Others do it once a season and center things around holiday themes or big events. You should be marketing and reaching out to new and old clients every week, month, all year and every year. Just because you’ve actually done a marketing or self-promotion campaign doesn’t mean you’re done and should be congratulated and take time off. Start looking at the feedback and measurable results. Did you get new clients? Did your website get more hits than usual? Are you making more in profit? If you can’t tell a difference in how your promotion efforts have helped you then it probably means it didn’t work. That’s ok, it’s all trial and error. Keep trying until you find something that does work and then work hard to perfect it.

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Being An Effective Creative Manager, Boss, Leader

With graphic designers, photographers and other creative professionals facing layoffs and cuts in today’s job market, one has to ask or wonder – what gives? Some will say that technology and the digital age is rendering certain workers extinct. Then there is the usual spill: creative professionals aren’t … ready for it … creative enough; they aren’t skilled enough; they aren’t working hard enough; they aren’t bringing in enough business or revenue like the sales people. This got me thinking – why is it in today’s job market we automatically assume the employee or creative team member is at fault? Why aren’t we looking at the managers, bosses, leaders and evaluating them on a higher standard and level?

I think television tends to be a decent enough reflection of how society views certain groups of people. Think about leaders or boss-type figures. In the old days, the boss in a show or sitcom was hands on. He or she was a part of the regular cast; they contributed to the team; they were always present, always adding something to the pot. They were intrusive, nosy, and their interest in their employee at times went beyond the confines of the office. I think about Darren on Bewitched who worked in a creative ad agency. Remember his boss Larry Tate? Larry was forever present, hands on, always in Darren and Samantha’s business. Though this presented many stressful occasions for Darren Stevens, he never really seemed to mind. Larry was a good boss, one that was demanding yet friendly. Consider other television bosses of the past: Lou Grant of Mary Tyler Moore; Colonel Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie; Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women; Leon on Roseanne. These were bosses that yes, at times were nosy, demanding, over-the-top but in the end, they weren’t bad guys. They were pretty good and likable.

Now, consider the role of bosses in today’s television. They’re usually aloof, bad, imposing, demanding, hated figures. What happened? I believe to a great extent it’s because unlike in the past where the workplace was all about team building, we’ve come to expect a lot less from the office. Especially in terms of creative teams, we’ve gone from the collaborative environment where everyone contributes to the overall product to an environment where everyone works in isolation, in his or her own office, in his or her own space. The boss figures aren’t really a part of the team experience since the team itself is a bit ambiguous and loose. Now the boss is more of an overseer and often times the point person who communicates with clients or another boss figure. Kinda sad isn’t it? Perhaps the creative workplace is in distress because bosses, managers and leaders are choosing to keep their distance from employees. Before we shift blame to employees and wag a disapproving finger at them as not pulling their weight, let’s take a look at the bosses, leaders. Here are some of the boss types I’ve seen in the workplace:

1. “Charlie” – Like Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, this type of boss is hardly seen but can be heard dishing out orders and making requests of their employees only in times of need or distress. This presents a problem of course because this type of boss has no real connection with his or her employees. They can come off as imposing, daunting, uncaring and disconnected. In a creative environment, the “Charlie” is a creativity killer. They are known as handing out orders and making demands, not for collaborating or taking part in the design or creative process.

2. “The Swiss” – This boss, like Switzerland, chooses to stay neutral. They want to be liked, they fear and run from conflict. This boss is usually well received but can come off as indifferent, too nice or indecisive in their attempt to please all parties. You don’t want a “Swiss” as a boss if you need to be creative – the Swiss may have a hard time giving you feedback and criticism that will push you to be a better designer, photographer, writer or whatever your creative field is. Sure, they may agree with you in an argument or question imposed on them but are they really on your side or are they attempting to keep the peace by making you and everyone else happy?

3. “The Susan Lucci” – This person has been around forever. They’re viewed as a company staple, an integral part of the business but not so much for their contributions or measurable success but the fact that they’ve stuck around through thick and thin. This boss can be many unpleasant things and described with many colorful adjectives that can’t be listed on this blog. What drives a Lucci? His or her quest for recognition that they feel they’ve earned and have not been rightly given, mostly. In their quest to prove themselves to the company and perhaps their superiors, they are the types to make your worklife nearly unbearable. Your contributions will suddenly become his/her ideas and you’ll be left to fend for yourself.

4. “The Ewing” – Money is everything to this type of boss. Your life, happiness, issues matter little to a Ewing because his/her eyes are always on the bottom line. You have his or her ear when you’re talking money or a way to make them look good. Try as you might, you’ll never feel like an equal in the eyes of an Ewing. Similar to a Charlie, you’ll hear from this boss when something is going wrong or when they have a job for you. Unlike Charlie, an Ewing loves to be seen and will make him or herself very present and visible if only to remind you who’s the boss. Don’t be surprised when you get the boot or tons of work dumped on you and impossible expectations imposed on you by an Ewing – he or she will sit back and spend money lavishly at the expense of your time, effort and stress.

These four boss types are humorous but unfortunately very real in today’s workplace. We need to return to the days where we worked as an ensemble or team. Sure, an effective creative manager, boss, team leader or supervisor can’t ever be a real equal but the level of how far removed he or she is from the team is really up to the individual. Want to be a good leader or boss? Lead, mentor, foster trust amongst your team and not only will you be viewed as an authority figure but as a good leader, boss and dare I say it – friend to your employees.

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