Saturday, February 24, 2007

Designers beware: Is the design manager or leader the one that is “better” than the rest?

I recently held a discussion with someone who told me in order to lead a team of designers, the design leader had to be better than the other designers. I don’t agree with such statement.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m very interested in learning and growing as a leader. I’ve read a lot about leadership and I keep up with design publications so I can feed off the experience of others, as well as my own.

So I thought I’d bring the subject up and see what people think!

What would be my answer to such a question? No.

But before I expand on my opinion, let’s just ask ourselves what “better” means. The person to whom I had this conversation was indicating the design leader must produce better logos than the rest, better visual systems, or the best brochures.

So for this person, being 'better' in the "technical” sense of the craft, meant a good designer would naturally become a good design manager. In other words, somebody who is better has the natural ability to supervise other designer's work, on account of their ability. On the other hand, someone with less ability would be unable to judge the quality of the other designer’s work.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask this question, “Would any really good designer necesarily want to become a design manager? I’ve known a fair share of designers that would decline such an invitation, at least feel uncomfortable with such a possibility. Why? For some being a design leader is “boring” and cuts into the one thing they enjoy most... designing! Managers have to start worrying about clients, deadlines, paperwork, tedious tasks and more importantly, the growth of their staff. I don’t know many, if any designers that would trade their art of designing for a higher position. Designers love designing!

Another question... what qualities does a great leader have to posess? Think of the great leaders of the world; those who have moved the masses, that have created a positive impact in history. In fact, why not consider that great boss you once had? What did he/she have in common with those other great leaders? I would say the ability to bring the best out of those they lead... in the case of the design manager, not the ability to draw better nor apply a more exhilirating color.

I once had a great boss who knew a bit about doing the tasks I normally did, however I surpassed him in many aspects of the work, chief of which was technical ability. But I could never have led the team the way he did. He’s still remembered by many as to how he pushed the team in all the right directions. What was so great about his leadership? He trusted and guided us... he encouraged us to learn on our own... he pushed us to try new heights, always keeping his word as he held the reigns. Was he “better”, in this sense of the word? No. But he was certainly wiser, with more experiences, able to see in us abilities we never saw in ourselves.

In closing here’s my thought: A good design manager is one who hires designers “better” than he or she is able to design. This way they’re able to feed off the knowledge of those they lead which will in turn bring out the best in their designing ability. If I were such a leader I would hire those passionate about their work... designers always learning more, always pushing themselves to new heights. In the final analysis, it’s not who’s better, it’s who forms the most diverse team, where the team feels supported to each bring their best to the table. This, to me, is what makes for a successful design team.

I look forward to receiving some comments! I’d sure love to know what the community thinks.
All the best!

*A special thanks to Mr. Green who kindly helped me proof read this article.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Designers beware: 10 tips on writing emails.

If there’s one thing a designer cannot afford to be is sloppy. Ever. And we designers tend to be a bit sloppy about communication and we tend to believe that whoever doesn’t speak “design tongue” is kind of dumb.

But think again, as I’ve exposed before, it is we, the designers, that need to start expressing in the language of the people we serve.

One of the most used tools of communication for designers is of course, email. Numerous versions of blueprints and projects are sent every day, iterations, discussions about budgets, deadlines, look and feel, corrections, revisions…

It is crucial that we manage email effectively in order to not drown in our own sea of email and communicate a clear message that will help design processes run smoothly. So here are ten tips to effectively handle email:

Tip 1: Be smart about subject lines.
The subject line should provide as much information as possible about the content of the email. Be descriptive and avoid laziness. Include if applicable, the name of the customer, the project, the specific part of the project, the version, if any action needs to be taken. For example:
Nike Running Shoes Ad blueprint, version 04. Comments are expected by tomorrow noon.

I’ve literally received emails with “design” or “strawberry” in the subject line.
Another thing is to update the subject line every time you reply. As the message evolves, so should the subject line.

If there are emails that you constantly send, that have the same structure, come up with a nomenclature for them. For instance, if you send a budget update every two weeks, your subject line could be: "Nike Campaign, Budget Update for February 20th, 2007", where you would only change the date every time you send it. This makes it easier for you and your readers to archive.

You could even come up with some abbreviations to add at the end of the subject line, inside the organization. For example: AR=action required; EOM=end of message; CE=comments expected. This will help other people know up front if there’s something they need to do about it.

Tip 2: Be brief and to the point.
Bottom line up front, state the purpose of the email and the actions required in the first paragraph. This will allow the reader to decide whether they need to continue reading or not. If the emails is more than three paragraphs long, it’s better to call and follow up with a summary email.

Tip 3: Be clear on what the next step is.
And include this information in the subject line or first paragraph if possible. Tell the reader if an action is required of them and state a deadline for that action to be taken. If no action is required, inform that also. You could start the message with “fyi” which means that the email is sent only as information.

Tip 4: There are no urgent emails.
If something is urgent and needs immediate attention, call, and then follow up with an email.

Tip 5: Present ideas in a simple, easy to understand way.
As I said in a previous post:
“This is particularly important when sending emails and explaining design issues in writing. It is very easy for a customer to get confused when he receives an email and it’s not well written. Revise how much detail you want to go into when discussing matters with your clients. Little detail and you won’t be able to convey your message, too much detail and it’s likely that your counterpart will get confused.”

Also help the reader with visual aids whenever needed. Highlight issues with different colors if you need to draw attention to them. Use bullets to list things. Another thing I like to do is take a picture (JPG or PDF) of a given design and use Photoshop to circle the areas I want to discuss. I assign a number to each area and then I explain each of the numbers in writing.

Make sure your emails comply with IP Standards (Idiot Proof Standards, that is, meaning that anything that needs a manual to be understood, is not well designed).

Tip 6: Mind your spelling and grammar.
As I said in a previous post:
“Grammar and spelling do speak about your professionalism, so be aware of the image you’re presenting. Check emails for errors or typos before sending them and make sure your staff does the same.”

Tip 7: Never forward junk or chain emails.
It’s plain unprofessional and goes against the trust customers and people in general, have in you.

Tip 8: Use a signature.
One that includes your name, position and contact details. If you’re part of a design organization, standardize it and make sure everybody uses the same. This reinforces your brand and it looks professional.

Tip 9: Be professional about email.
Do not use email to solve disputes. It is always better to use personal communication first.
Don’t use email to tell on other people.
Don’t use it as a mechanism to track actions.

Tip 10: Archive your email.
In a business where there are so many subjective issues, it’s a good idea to follow up discussions and agreements with something in writing. Come up with a good archiving system to file your email and make sure you can locate it easily afterwards. Use email client rules to help you file more quickly. I’ve talked about filing systems before. Some of this principles apply to archiving email.

I look forward to receiving some comments!
All the best.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Designers beware: Being the interviewee (Part 2)

Last week I covered the first part of this article about designers getting interviewed. I gave some tips that can be applied to ensure a more effective selection process.

Part 2: The actual interview.

You’ve got one foot at the door of the company, which means you’ve probably done your homework and have caused a good impression so far, by means of your resume and portfolio. Now, prepare yourself to show all you can do and be, in the interview.

Be polished.

Mind your appearance. I know that this may be obvious to most of you, but more often than I’d like, I have interviewed designers that were lacking in this department. Basic hygiene is a must, make sure everything is clean, get a manicure, take care of your hair.

Regarding the dress code, to be quite honest, I feel greatly disappointed if a designer shows up in a tie and suit. I like to see some personality, some wackiness, something that I usually don’t see in regular people. But be careful, don’t go overboard, I still expect candidates to look the part, professional and stylish. That doesn’t mean expensive clothes, it just means paying attention to the details, which speaks well of the way to tackle things in general.

Be eloquent, speak the interviewer’s language.

Since you found out the position of the person who will conduct the interview, by now you know if it’s another designer, a creative director, a human resources representative and their ranking in the company. Reflect on what that particular person is going to ask you and what kind of information they might need to make a decision.

The creative director most likely wants to understand your creative process and your ability to express ideas effectively, whereas an HR representative probably will want to know more about how you handle pressure and your academic background.

Be on time.

This is one of the first things I evaluate. If you’re late for a job interview, most likely you're lax about deadlines, not very serious about work or committed enough and wouldn’t mind leaving a customer waiting. Not being on time if absolutely unacceptable.

This being said, anybody can have a problem at the last minute and I would understand if something unavoidable came up, so call as early as possible, apologize and let the interviewer know that you’re running late and ask if they’ll be willing to wait or reschedule.

If you didn’t have a problem, but merely overslept, make sure you do call and make up a really good excuse. No, I’m not advocating lying… but we are all human.

I once had a designer show up more than an hour late, didn’t call, I thought that something really unexpected had to had happened for him to appear at my office so late. When I asked him, he replied that he had to deliver something somewhere else. Lame, wouldn’t you say? Of course, he didn’t get the job.

Be mindful of your body language.

Be upbeat, look everybody in the eye and give a good firm handshake. Goggle some information about body language and handshakes, there’s a lot on the web. You may think that’s a bit nerdy, but these things matter. I usually tend not to trust a person with a weak handshake, it just doesn’t yell confidence to me.

Take a deep breath and try to enjoy yourself, relax… most of the time interviews are about half an hour of talking about yourself! It can be fun and like everything else, you get better with practice.

Now, being too friendly, too chatty, too lose can play against you as well. If need be, practice with someone else before attending the real interview.

Be imaginative, pretend the interviewer is an actual customer.

Think about it, the interviewer wants to see if you’ll be a good match for the position, if you’re all that you said you were, if you can deliver, if you have good empathy and how you can bring money in.

So… basically, the same things most prospective customers would be evaluating, right? Thinking this way will make you prone to be more proactive, assertive and present yourself and your work in a business manner. Remember, nobody is out there waiting for you to ask for a favor. It’s about how you can leverage their business.

Be inquisitive, ask many questions.

Not just any question, you’ve researched the company in advance, right? Ask things that will allow you to a. Get a clear picture of what the job entitles and b. Demonstrate that you can do the job. Here are a few custom questions I expect to be asked (and seldom do, actually):

- What’s the position called?
- Is this a new position or would I be replacing somebody?
- Who does this position report to?
- Who else is on the team?
- What are the regular tasks of this position?
- What are the short and long term goals for this position?
- Where does this position fit in the hierarchy of the company?
- Where does this position fit in the production process, what teams does it relate to?
- What are the overall goals of the company?
- When do you expect to reach a decision?
- Will you let me know the outcome?

Be smart.

Answer questions quickly and with confidence. Phrases like this…

“This, uh, it’s a truly, uh, user-friendly… it’s uh, clean, uh, organized, uh, and uh, you know, I mean, the important, you know, is, I mean, high lighted, uh, you know, I mean, basically, you know…”*

… just don’t cut it.

Be ready to speak about your strengths and your weaknesses. You’d be amazed at how many people seem to be caught off guard with such questions, they never thought about it. Be candid and honest. Don’t try to deceive the interviewer. Remain calm, breathe slowly. Be sure not to badmouth your previous employers.

And last but not least, just be yourself, show all the good things you have to offer. If you still don’t get the job, at least you practiced. Review what went well and what didn’t go so well and make mental notes for next time.

I’d love some comments and your input. I’m sure there are loads more to add!
All the best!

* Rita Sue Siegel Resources.