Why your designer just might be your best asset

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Design & Marketing

Down the hall, perhaps in the common space pitching her latest groundbreaking idea to a largely disinterested colleague, you will find one employee among the ranks with vast untapped potential. Let’s call her Amy.

Amy is the kind of person who sees the big picture, but also understands the roles of various parts and how they relate to make it work. She is a creative problem solver whose job entails constant innovation. She knows the importance of your company’s brand, not just through logo standards, but through quality experiences, because she sees your company through the eyes of its customers. She is responsible for presenting the company to the outside world, and her work—when done well—can substantially increase new customer leads and engagement. Her contribution is extremely valuable.

But Amy is a designer. If she is fortunate, she’ll have a boss that understands her real strengths and is able to cultivate them, but otherwise she risks being seen as as a glorified art student whose vocation is reduced to making things “look better,” because she knows her way around professional design programs. Her value will likely be recognized in terms of creativity and technical know how, but not necessarily good judgement and problem solving. For this reason, she will be treated as the last step in every project—the worker bee who gets it done. What a missed opportunity.

Companies must learn to recognize the difference in an architect and a construction worker. Both can create buildings, but their roles could not be more different. Designers serve both roles, so seeing the difference can be more difficult.

To help companies better utilize their design talent, let me start by clearing up some confusion.

First, design is not art. Art is interpretive, demands reflection, and tends to break with established traditions. Design uses a principled approach and has a clear purpose—an explicit function intended to generate action on the part of the audience. Real artist rarely make great designers, and vice versa. One is structured and disciplined, while the other is exactly the opposite.

Second, design is not simply the arranging of given items into an appealing composition. Design is the way a thing feels, how an audience interacts with it, what it tells them to do, and the overall message it communicates.

Thus, great design starts from the very beginning of a project, both shaping and responding to functions and challenges. Bring your design talent into discussions early on, and let their innovative nature and laser-like focus on user experience become an asset to your team throughout the whole process.

It is also worth encouraging designers to develop a greater confidence in their own gifts. If Amy begins to accept the limited view projected upon her by colleagues, she may never realize that the same strengths she uses to walk a new customer through a slick and compelling brochure or website is the same set of strengths demanded of top executives. She has to bring order, clarity and direction to her project, all in a way that aligns the company’s interests to that of its stakeholders and customers.

If Amy can design a website, she may also try her hand at designing systems, organizations, campaigns and initiatives. This is not to say that every designer can do these things well, but only to argue that if your company isn’t recognizing the potential in your design talent, you may be wasting away one of your greatest assets.

The difference in “marketing,” “advertising” and “branding”

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Design & Marketing

People use the words marketing, branding, and advertising interchangeably. Though they are clearly related, it is helpful for any businessperson to understand the difference.

Advertising refers specifically to media that “gets the word out” by interrupting your day with some useful and memorable message. I use the word “interrupt” not because ads are inconvenient—though many are—but because they tend to find you, not the other way around. Good advertisers predict why you might like a given product, what you might be up to today, and how to use the right words, visuals and tactics to make you consider using that product. Advertising is typically handled by a separate agency, and is measured in short-term results.

While advertising can have huge payoffs, it is expensive and has almost nothing to do with making the product better, or keeping customers happy, and is therefore often the hardest thing for companies to invest in.

Advertising is but one tool in a broader marketing and brand strategy.

Marketing is the whole set of tactics that describe a company’s efforts to gain business, and is therefore mostly an internal function. While a company can choose not to advertise, there is no such thing as not marketing. The philosopher and theologian William Craig once said that “the question isn’t whether Christians will be philosophers or not, but whether they will be good philosophers.” Thus it is with marketing.

Good marketers spend time learning about what you want, then they use that data to either show you how their company can meet your needs, or they help the company produce better products. They can set prices, lead new R&D, plan events and promotions, launch ad campaigns, create web content, and develop an endless variety of strategies to ultimately turn you into a customer.

Many companies believe marketing is so central to their business model that they appoint a Chief Marketing Office (CMO) to operate at the highest levels of executive leadership.

Still, marketing is just part of what makes up something even larger and harder to define: branding.

Branding is the business—or at least the way it is perceived, and as the old saying goes, perception is reality. Branding seemingly has no boundaries, because it is the sum of experiences, promises and values of an organization, which establish its reputation. The brand is shaped and measured over time and is the single most valuable thing a company can improve. Why? Because it determines the window of opportunity for everything else. A negative brand will kill all other efforts. A positive brand will buy forgiveness. Companies like Apple, Google and Whole Foods are masters of branding.

In a sense, almost every branch of a company owns the brand—yet, in the real world that means none of them do. This is why many companies have created the CBO (Chief Brand Officer), whose job it is to root a company’s various branches in a particular vision and identity. This is particularly useful when a CEO either lacks the requisite strengths or prefers to spend his or her energy on other aspects of the company. A solid branding strategy gets to the core of what makes a business meaningful, and works to rally the entire organization around this central idea in order to build momentum, excitement, loyalty, focus and purpose for every current or future customer, employee or investor.

As communication is the primary tool for this rallying activity, the tools of marketing—and, by extension, advertising—are critical parts of brand building, but are quite different things in themselves.

Houston schools should keep their names/mascots

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Houston / Political Commentary / Society & Culture

Back in April, the Houston Independent School District unveiled four new high school mascots after their previous names were deemed too “culturally insensitive.” The offending mascots included the Indians, the Redskins, the Warriors and the Rebels.

The argument that these names are somehow discriminatory is absurd. School mascots are chosen because they’re awesome—something to emulate and admire. Students take the identity of the mascot upon themselves: “we’re the Indians!”

But there are plenty of people for whom protesting is a cause unto itself, and it’s just enough to make everyone’s day miserable. That means that even such awesome and innocuous names as warriors and rebels were marked for banishment.

Someone decided all this was worth the $250,000 required to change the mascots. Your tax dollars at work, folks.

Jump ahead a few months and it looks like the names of some schools are also up for the chopping block. In particular, schools named after Confederate-era figures. After all, why should we make heroes of people who were obviously on the wrong side of history?

I suppose, while we’re at it, we should look through our history books and national monuments and eliminate those individuals whose views might be out of step with today’s enlightened perspective.

The Washington and Jefferson memorials should be razed at once, since they participated in slavery. And even though Abraham Lincoln fought to end slavery, he still held racist views, and for that he was a necessary evil at best. Pretty much every president up until, well, halfway through Obama’s term, believed same-sex marriage to me immoral, or at least unwise. Perhaps we should just teach children that no prior president, including first-term Barack, really deserves our respect.

That’s ridiculous, of course. The point is that society evolves and our definition of what is acceptable today may not be tomorrow. If we get into the habit of shaming everyone who preceded us and fails to match our ever-shifting—but always superior—cultural norms, you may be the one your grandchildren refer to as “that ignorant bigot.”

There are a lot of bad ideas in books. We don’t burn them. There are a lot of historical figures who made bad decisions. We don’t shame them. We let them live, and continue to debate them, because the only guarantee of a wise and virtuous people is the freedom to engage with all ideas, to understand the evil we’ve overcome, and  to learn that even being wrong has a role to play in helping us all get it right.