Saturday, August 22, 2015

Brand = Reputation

Visual Identity at ThoughtWorks

I’ve always been sensitive to the look of things. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be constantly tuned in to the lopsided, accidental world around me. I’m always looking for evidence of design and underlying structure and marvelling at the mastery and the chaos of the built world. My eyes are a high-bandwidth channel. I can’t help but notice everything.
Four years ago when I joined ThoughtWorks, I was inspired by the opportunity to work for a company that was famous for agile, for reliable delivery and smart collaborative teamwork. However the lack of sophistication in the visual identity bothered me. The website had been designed by developers. It was not pretty, not responsive, hard to use. It was disorderly and wordy. That was back then. A lot has changed now, and this is a small part of the journey we took to capture the essence of ThoughtWorks in a visual and powerful brand identity.

Sowing the seeds

When I joined, Experience Design was a fledgling capability that ThoughtWorks was nurturing. We had a small team of passionate, opinionated designers who cared about the same things as me. We ruminated on the parlous state of the website. Eventually, in a potentially mutinous act, we assembled examples of world-class digital brand experiences from the best in the business and presented them to our Chief Strategy Officer. Chris was an extremely supportive sponsor of the brand refresh, which contributed in great measure to its success.
Branding and marketing does tend to be viewed through a skeptical lens by highly technical and logical folks. I sensed among some of my colleagues, a suspicion of the artful manipulation of perceptions that marketing and design can achieve. So for all the left-brain people in the world, here's a formula to demystify things:

The Brand equation:

[visual identity + messaging] x [word of mouth + relationships] = reputation
For too long, ThoughtWorks had relied on word of mouth and relationships to build our reputation. Our brand had not been something that we controlled - we let our external markets decide our brand. Worse than that, because our disparate efforts at marketing ourselves were done with no consistency across regions, it was actually damaging our brand, and making us invisible to those who we most wanted to reach.
By creating powerful messaging and a consistently strong visual identity, we knew we could maximise our impact and reputation in the market. We spent the better part of a year on defining and then testing and refining our messaging both internally and with our clients. 

The Visual Identity - Cohesion in Diversity

We worked with both ThoughtWorkers and design agency Smith + Robot, to address the brief for our new visual identity. The key aspects of the brief that we considered important to achieve were:
  • Giving a human and authentic face to ThoughtWorks (our value is in our people).
  • Projecting the diversity of our business and our people (not just an equal opportunity employer but actively engaging in the global south).
  • Developing a flexible framework of visual design elements that could be adapted for different audiences and across different regions.
There was a lot of unbridled creative thinking - a bunch of work was presented and refined and presented again. After the initial enthusiasm had abated, all we had were a bunch of rejected concepts, some with tantalising possibilities, others completely missing the mark. Following much soul-searching and u-turns, we realised that we had to knuckle down and make some hard decisions on the design approach.
So the core team of four designers decided to use an immersive guerilla-style approach. Laptops open, we worked in feverish time-boxed spurts of creativity, to finesse the key elements of our new visual identity. It felt like the mother of all design-jams.
At the end of the week, we had the following basics for the identity established and agreed:

#1 The Font: Open Sans

We loved it for so many reasons. It was a free, open source font that anyone could download. It came in many font-weights, which gave us a lot of freedom to provide emphasis and structure to our words. 

#2 The color palette

6 warm tones + 6 cool tones + 6 neutrals = 18 colors of diversity
The color palette is a broad one. ThoughtWorks is not one color. We’ve even liberated our word-mark in the colors of our new palette. We particularly liked the disruptive element of the neutral flesh-tones, which bring a warm humanity to the otherwise bright assembly of hues.

#3 No. Stock. Photography.

We wanted to be honest in all our visual communications and present an accurate image of who we are and what we do. Our photography had to be authentic. It had to be our own.
In ruling out the convenient option of stock photography with all of its artificial studio lighting and perfectly focused imagery, we were left with a pretty tough constraint. We had thousands of photos taken by ThoughtWorkers over the years but they were distributed across various Flickr accounts and none of them were in a central spot where photographers were happy to share them for general use. So we ran a photography competition to generate thousands more photos that our people were happy to share.
Many of the photos were shot on smart-phones and weren’t always shining examples of the art of photography. The solution was to develop a consistent color treatment for the lower quality images that were not of SLR standard. The color treatments allowed us to de-emphasize the quality of the image. We could still tell our stories in a visual way and the photos could provide an engaging backdrop for our words. We also had lots of really beautiful photos taken with DSLRs and these photos of our people and our work have been used extensively in our client stories, printed collateral and on our website.

#4 Surprise! The Story of 11 Glyphs

Whilst fonts, colors and photos formed the core of our visual identity, there was still something missing. Where was the quirky, unique and unpredictable element that characterizes ThoughtWorks? That’s how the glyphs were conceived. They are asymmetrical, organic little characters that we use to express an emotion or illustrate an abstract concept. Chad hatched them out of nowhere; they were magically born during that feverish week of design. These little bundles of fun give voice to our ideas, and we like to sprinkle them liberally across our communications. When two of these little characters get together they can form new shapes, and endless possibilities.


So that is the short version of how we created a new visual identity.
But it's not the end of the story. The hard bit came after - the rollout.
Testing the new identity with our various external audiences gave us the confidence that it would work. But our toughest audience is our own people. Over three thousand ThoughtWorkers around the world - how would we induct them into their new visual identity? This is still a work in progress, part change management and part evangelizing to win the hearts of naturally skeptical people.
Analytical thinkers often look for the rationale for change and for evidence that it is the right thing. Rather than thinking of brand as a dirty word, a game of deception, we are asking people to think of our new visual identity as an agency to amplify our message and underline the truth behind our ambitious mission in the world. It’s a long-term goal, and we’re learning and improving each step of the way. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

SxSW 2012

On the first day at SxSW in Austin Texas, there are swarms of coffee-fueled digital punters, battling long registration queues and trying to decide between a long program of competing speakers and panels.
The keynote address delivered by Don Tapscott "Rethinking Civilisation for the Social Age" was inspiring and dealt with a range of social themes around networked intelligence and finished with an awesome video of 'a murmur of starlings' - his grand metaphor for collective action.
The image below captures the themes - there are some talented graphic artists taking notes in a visual way:

Amber Case

Amber's keynote on Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface was a highlight of this year's SxSW.
Her area of expertise is Cyborg Anthropology, the study of man-made extensions of our physical and mental selves.
Her talk described her future vision of how technology would recede into a 'calm' background where we wouldn't really be aware of it.
Rather than physical or visible interfaces to technology, increasingly our actions and our location will act as triggers for technology through geo-mapping and geo-fencing we'll have access to opt-in data, notifications and prompts. Already the potential of these new technologies are being experienced through gaming. One example of this can be found at
An emerging theme of SxSW is location based services. With the celebration of FourSquare's launch at SxSW three years ago, and the buyout of Gowalla by Facebook this week, location based social media and marketing is becoming a valuable channel for both users and brands.
The applications and relevance of location based technologies is not limited to social media or retail or gaming but has potentially far greater applications in all aspects of life but it does rely on access to the technology in the form of smart phones and other mobile devices. Amber's prediction is that these devices will become increasingly invisible and pervasive.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Continuous Design

Continuous Delivery allows us to Build, Measure and Learn, but how do you know what to build? Whether you have established products in the market or you simply have an idea of a product to fit a gap that you’ve seen, how do you get started on that journey and how do you know that your customers will love what you make?
That's where Continuous Design practices can drive the evolution of your product. Jason Furnell and I recently presented the ThoughtWorks thinking on Continuous Design at the inaugural Australian ThoughtWorks Live Conference.
We began by painting the familiar picture of traditional design practices that date back hundreds of years through our history of print, architecture and manufacturing. This is a world of big upfront design that assumes that design must be thoroughly specified and tested prior to production. What this has meant for software delivery is large upfront research phases followed by extensive design activities aimed at delivering a high fidelity prototype or documented design specification.
Designers quite like this process, because they are in control of the deliverables, which generally look slick and fabulous. It also may appear a risk free process for businesses because they know the full scope and requirements, budget and timeframe upfront and this helps them secure funding and drives the procurement process.
But the traditional approach to design isn’t as risk free as it looks on a project plan. The problems are well understood by companies that have embraced a more agile approach:
·      Upfront design can take a very long time – ruling out speed to market
·      Upfront design is not focused upon the minimal viable product, quite the opposite – all the activities are geared towards an exhaustively over-engineered product of which a large part of the functionality may be of little value to customers
·      Big upfront design projects are more expensive than the comparable integrated design activities that can be run in parallel with the build
·      Products designed with front-loaded design often miss the mark with customers once the product is finally launched.
What’s is surprising is that even with the uptake of agile methodologies, big up front design practices are still alive and well.
At the conference we presented the Continuous Design approach as an alternative to traditional design practices. Core to this approach are the five thinking modes of:
1.   Empathy - really feeling customer needs, motivations, fears and goals. This requires a continuous stream of activity focused on learning more about your customers.
2.   Creativitya structured and facilitated process for inclusive group ideation methods for rapidly harnessing the creative powers of multidisciplinary teams.
3.   Rationality - Guiding the team on a design journey, focusing on prioritisation and creating a shared understanding of the objectives through breaking the problem down into parts and ensuring a rigorous and structured project approach to execution.
4.   Agilitybeing adaptive to new customer insights and iteratively crafting the envisioned product into customer-validated experiences.
5.   Measurability - fine-tuning and responding to real world data; scanning for patterns and human footprints. Measurement allows us to drive continuous improvement and assess the success of new product features.
What do organisations need in order to adopt continuous design practices? Balanced teams and an ownership of the design of both their products and their customer experience.
Balanced teams
Key to success of Continuous Design and Delivery is the notion of ‘balanced teams’. These teams need to comprise of product owners, researchers, designers, developers and testers. It is through the daily collaboration and feedback of this team, that design decisions can be made based upon up-to-date information from their customers, the business and the technologists. These teams function through their ability to measure and learn, not just build. Building balanced "business teams", rather than single focus "delivery teams" is key to creating an environment where continuous design can take hold and thrive.
Ownership of the design
Increasingly businesses are realizing that they need to foster a practice of organization wide ‘design thinking’ in order to solve complex problems in new and innovative ways. Channeling the raw ideas within the business and the needs and requests of their customers into a pipeline of innovation can provide the raw fuel for continuous design. If businesses completely outsource the design of their products to external agencies then they are less likely to take full ownership of their customer experience. Because Continuous Design practices are evolutionary in nature, as opposed to a point in time project, they need to find a home within the business. Product teams must not divest themselves of the responsibility of design and continuous improvement if they want their products to evolve and continuously outperform in the market.
Core to the principles of Agile and Continuous Delivery is the idea of the minimal viable product. Continuous design and delivery practices ensure that this minimal viable product will continue to evolve and improve based upon the regular feedback and measurement of the customer experience.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Designing for trust

Recently I was briefed to develop an entirely new online brand and customer experience that would convey trust. It sounds like a reasonable requirement given that so many websites (particularly eCommerce and social networking sites) rely on the basic premise of trust to engage new users.
However as soon as I started thinking about what trust 'looked like', I began to have a failure of imagination.
I had to break down the concept of trust into what it really meant in the context of an online experience.
Key drivers of trust online include:

  • Privacy - my personal details and identity are secure and will not be misused
  • Reliability - the product/service will work the way I intend it, without error (including my own)
  • Honesty - what I see is what I'll get, no hidden fees or nasty surprises  

Sure, there are all types of design devices to reassure customers of the above three attributes. For example:

  • Privacy - include a privacy statement, include security payment gateway badges, credit card icons
  • Reliability - ensure the site is usable, thoroughly tested (usability, ethical hacking, load & performance) and conforms to web standards and common browsers/platforms. More than this, provide good online customer support in case anything goes wrong or the customer has questions.
  • Honesty - transparent product/service descriptions, good photography, customer reviews and ratings, delivery times and return policies.
But only some of these things, through user centred design practices, are in the control of the designer and I still had to create a new brand (including a name, a logo and a tagline) that would stand alone as a symbol that could be trusted. To add to the challenge I had to demonstrate that it was a trust-worthy brand experience through testing it with the various audience segments.
After months of customer research, iterations of design and user testing, we finally had a new online brand and site design that audiences trusted slightly more than either the existing online brands that it was replacing or competing with or any of the alternative designs.
It wasn't my favourite design and it probably won't win any design awards, but audiences felt that it was an honest and accessible brand. From a design perspective, I guess you'd say it was predictable, but that's not such a bad thing when trust is the most important goal.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

3 Tips for design block

Design block sometimes feels that you’ve painted yourself into a corner and there is no where left to go. I find it most typically happens after you’re confidently presented your first design concepts to the client, with a beautifully argued rationale for how you’ve delivered on their brief, and to your great consternation, the client just doesn’t like them. Puzzlement slowly gives way to a gradual erosion of confidence in your own abilities. 
I’ve found the following 3 tips help to get the creative juices flowing in the right direction.

1 Start with the problem, not the solution
Designers tend to be most comfortable operating on the visual plane and will often brush over the functional specifications, customer research and business requirement documents and go straight for the crayons. Another pitfall of designers is stalling the design process by spending too long looking at other designs in the market and pouring through design annuals – they are all solutions but not ones that perfectly match your client’s problem.  It is a mistake to start visualising a solution before you have all the information. If you can’t answer the following questions, then you’re not ready to start design:
  • Why is my client doing this and what outcome are they looking for? What does your client want to achieve from the initiative, what are their priorities and constraints, what are their competitors doing in this space and who is doing it best
  • Who is this design for?  Who will be using it, what do they want from it, why would they use it and what are their alternatives – don’t rely on your client to tell you this, get if from the horse’s mouth, whether that be interviews, contextual enquiry, focus groups or online surveys
Once you have a good understanding of the business requirements and customer context, the scope of your design will be well defined and I always find it easier to design within boundaries. Once you feel a constrictive design block, it helps to return to the problem.

2 It takes a lot of ideas to know that you’ve got the one idea
It’s tempting with small budgets to reduce the design effort to one concept. Big mistake – you’ll end up doing the extra concepts anyway – after the first design misses the mark. A basic principle of innovation is that great ideas start with lots of not so great ideas. Here’s how to get the creative juices flowing:
  • Get more than one designer working on the problem, work in pairs 
  • Start on paper, whiteboards, post-its, make it easy to throw away if it doesn’t work
  • Get peer review and brainstorm the problem before you narrow down your solutions. It’s also OK to involve the client sometimes in these ideation sessions, their perspective can help focus the solution on the problem and they’ll be more aware of your design rationale
  • If possible, socialise the designs with real users of the product – this is quite confronting for designers but it almost always leads to some further refinement of the idea
Then when you’ve got two or three winners, you can review them with your client.

3 Refine and iterate
Complex design problems often take you repeatedly back to the drawing board. When designing large scale interactive systems like transactional websites and online applications, often there will be many interconnected design problems to solve. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the creative mojo throughout the design and development of the product. The principles of iterative design will help ensure that you stick to good design practices:
  • Start with a master set of design principles for use across the project. This helps to ensure a consistent and efficient approach to solving the composite parts of the design and allows a design team to work in concert
  • Break down the project into individual design problems and do just enough design to have something to test, review and refine
  • Follow the same process of brainstorming and exploring multiple options and involve your client and their customers in the process 
I’ve found that following these basic principles really help to keep the design team engaged and motivated by the problem. Design fatigue can be a problem on really large projects but an iterative approach helps to break things down into manageable and solvable challenges.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

What's next with Mobile CRM?

Remember that scene in 'The Devil Wears Prada" where Andy rescues Miranda from a networking catastrophe by remembering the name of the wife of an important guest at Paris Fashion Week? Wouldn't it be useful if your CRM system was able to leverage customers' digital ID via mobile? Imagine a world where the opt-in options for your customers include allowing you to recognise their digital ID or URI via their mobile when they attend your event. The moment they walk in the door to the conference / art opening / product launch / auction, they are located by GPS and their customer details appear on the mobile device of the event hosts.
Does this represent an erosion of an individual's privacy? Not when your customer has agreed up front and understood the terms by which you can use their digital ID.
The potential extends beyond mobile ticketing and checkin as we use it today for paid events, to more diverse possibilities whereby customers can choose to be recognised when they visit the types of venues, stores or travel destinations where their VIP or loyalty status can be recognised immediately. How much more valuable would your customers feel when they are greeted by name when they enter the room and when you can remind them of the last time that you had the pleasure of their company. And if this customer courtesy is not enough value on its own to incentivise people to allow their digial ID to be read, then you probably need to rethink how you present the value and incentives for your loyalty program.
To date, most of the attention around mobile identification tracking seems to be polarised around two ends of the privacy spectrum - on surveillance and use by police at the 'big brother' end and purely social use for sharing your location with friends using mobile apps like FourSquare. Somewhere in the middle, is a valuable B2C opportunity that could deliver greater engagement between businesses and their customers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adobe Refresh Sydney

Having missed the keynote address, I wasn't really sure what Adobe had planned for this year's Refresh. Paul Burnett's first session on Extending PDFs with Flash was way more interesting than it sounded. Basically anything you can create in Flash can be embedded in a PDF assuming that you don't require a backend database for the flash to work. There are heaps of existing flash widgets including RSS feeds, calculators, date pickers and other goodies that can extend your PDF into something really useful, collaborative and interactive. Integration of video, google maps and external files present endless possibilities for what can be shared online.
However, the edge-of-the-seat goodness came with the CS5 sneak peaks. Due for release later this year (the actual date is still a hot topic of debate in the forums) the big ticket item is likely to be the Flash iPhone capability. With a flexible compiler that understands ActionScript 3 and can publish native iPhone applications and loads of iPhone plugins for FireWorks, creating apps looked pretty easy to this designer. Flash is shaping up to be the jewel in Adobe's crown, and with support from Device Central for testing all your multi device projects, the iPad will also be a logical channel.
We finished up with a tantalising look at the mysterious Adobe Rome, written in Flex and delivering a strange mashup of photo editing, animation and web editing delivered via a beautiful and innovative user interface - the audience was left wondering whether the program would ever get commercial release. You won't find out a thing about it on Adobe's official site and we were warned to put away our phones and cameras before they unveiled it. Hopefully it won't end up on the R&D scrap heap.