10th March 2019 - No Comments!

How to Inspire Clients / Product Teams

A bold statement I know. But I have been involved in enough agency pitches and product projects that have gone one way or another to feel like I can provide some intel that might, or might not be, useful to you.

Context: I will mention 'client' a lot. The majority of my experience is working in agencies but even within them, or when working client side, I treat those who are asking me to work with them on something as 'the client'. It could be a manager or a colleague but it helps to keep that line. They want my help to solve a problem. The process is going to involve some conversations, and some confusion as we might not understand each others language, but if we stay mindful of that fact we go through the process together and solve the problem.

Choose your battles.
I don't know if I read this, or if someone told me it, but its great advice. Work hard to turn 7s and 8s into 9s and 10s. If you have a 3 or a 4 then don't worry (too much) about turning them it into a 9 or 10 - it's not going to happen without an insane, and unprofitable, amount of work. If you are in, or leading, a team that has a lack of ambition then I'm not going to lie - its a long road and no quick wins are available to you. Decipher the problem first: Is it coming from the top or the team? Try and get inside their heads and find out what makes them tick. Work on them slowly. Bring in inspiration, share articles of success stories, show them metrics, subtly run a workshop that opens some doors.

I've worked in half a dozen or so agencies - all pretty desirable with long lists of awards for their creativity and design skills. But the truth is even they have plenty of 'money' jobs (3s and 4s). Clients who don't want cutting edge work - they just want something a bit better than their competitors. To entice them to make the leap from this mindset towards something more exciting has probably been tried and failed and it cost time/money to do so. The challenge is trying to sort these clients from the clients who are up for doing something bold. I think the best agencies I have work for acknowledge this and are clear about it to their staff and then provide ways to work around it. Keeping staff motivated who are stuck on one of these types of jobs is challenging but the best thing to do is get it done, keep it profitable, and move onto the next one. Look for those opportunities to do your best work and learn. Some of my favourite projects have been those clients who, after being made to feel like heroes, have provided awesome opportunities.

So my advice is choose your battles. Try not to make every project 10/10. That is the road to madness if you ask me.

Conversation vs Doing
Some clients (the ones I don't really like if I am honest) want you to turn up at the 1st or 2nd meeting and blow their socks off - having essentially Done the hard bit. They expect creative genius to be unleashed without anyone understanding the project. This has always irked me and is especially a problem when turning up to a pitch with some creative work in hand. It, for me anyway, usually goes one of two ways. You win the project based on some stylish yet inappropriate design jizz that just happens to be in sync with the decisions makers taste. Or you don't win it. If you are lucky to hit the bullseye on day one - it usually turns out that you find out its wrong a few weeks later and end up throwing all that effort, and a little bit of the designers' sanity, in the bin. For this reason, I will never advocate creative work being done for a pitch. You can inspire and entice without arbitrarily pushing pixels around. I also think this approach cheapens what is the most creative and valuable part of the whole project! The same can be said of internal briefs. You need to do your homework and get your context right first before diving straight in.

So what are the alternatives? You could refuse to pitch on these jobs - but if that is your bread and butter that's going to be a hard sell. My favoured approach has always been to turn up and explain your creative & production process in more detail - and be strong about it - the clients you want to win are the ones who respect this approach. The ones that just want to 'see it' are generally the clients that everyone hates.. Later down the line, they tend to be the clients that to say things like "I'll know its done when I see it" and shit like that. So yeah - do some of the initial research sure (not too much) but be clear that a project is a relationship, not just a transactional delivery. Give them some examples from other industries is always a good shout. Would a builder build a house without using their experience and digging into what you need? A crap one would. A good one wouldn't. And you would end up with a house that is likely to be unfit for purpose - or worse case be dangerous and fall down on your head. Why bother having all that experience if you just turn up and start firing random shots hoping to hit a target.

Summary: Try not to burn any bridges but have a go at moving towards a better way of doing things.

Set the goal
So you've had the conversations. You understand reason for the project and problems you need to solve. It's time to explore the creative goals.

Clearly, a good place to start. What do you like? What do they like? What are the competitors doing? What do websites, apps & projects (outside of their specific industry) look like?

This is always the beginning for me and if done well can become the bedrock for a great project & relationship. I've been asked at this stage to pin down these conversations into some sort of design brief or goal. For me, its never really worked out. The document is created and never looked at. It's a step that didn't need to be there. My favourite approach is to print out a bullet point summary alongside some mood boards and stick them up somewhere the team can see them. Take them to meetings with the client when reviewing in the future and point to them. Those are the things we agreed to aim for! Let's push towards them. It's far to easy to have a PDF hidden in an email or an Invision Board on a URL and to never see it again.

Probably my favoured approach. It's visual and you can go really deep if you need too. My tips for moodboards are to be really clear what you are showing - call it out. Is it the colour scheme, the layout, the tone of voice, the photography? Setup different moodboards and dig into each element in more detail. Get them printed out large and have your team, and/or the client, study them. If the person you are presenting too doesn't have the vocabulary to provide you with the direction needed to help them. Create a series of questions & pointers. I always try and think about how I would present this to my grandparents, a retired tax inspector and RAF engineer. They didn't go to art school and spend years of their life presenting, discussing and debating design and art. Much the same as a client or non-creative manager. They spent their time looking at excel sheets or writing essays on literature. Try and keep this in mind and not get in a huff when they can't give you the direction you need. Try and see it from their perspective and create a shared vocabulary. It cant be a little pedantic but ask what they mean by certain phrases or words.

Be clear and specific. Ask in plain english for what you need to progress.

Style Tiles
I've never had any success with style tiles - maybe I am just not a fan of the approach or I haven't had a good tutor in this area. Internally if you have a product team and they are working an agile process 'maybe' I could see it working. In the land of Agency and Client, I don't think anyone understands it. It's too meta and they don't tend to have the systems to translate style tiles to their wireframes and into a final piece.

More coming soon...
Thats the end of this ramble for now. I need to go and enjoy my weekend but I want to get this written down before my day starts 🙂

4th October 2017 - No Comments!

Design Sprint with Leeds Beckett

A couple of days ago I took the Numiko design team to see some students who are studying the BSc Creative Media Technology at Leeds Beckett. They are first years and have just started a few weeks ago so I think we might have been their first 'industry' presentation. I hope I didn't put anyone off. Instead of the usual 60 minutes of show and tell I wanted to get them doing something and give them an opportunity to interact with us and each other. Could I intro our company in 15 minutes and do a Google Ventures style design sprint in 45 minutes? Probably not but I thought I'd give it a try.

Setting the problem space
One of their first briefs was around wearable tech for professionals. I had a look at it and decided to tweak and tighten it up a bit so we could be on the same page and move fast in the same direction.

    Wearable devices for families

    With the looming crisis of children getting gradually more obese, Nike have decided to enter a new market and create a device, for families, that will help encourage higher levels of exercise among the children and adults. They have already created a watch series that is built in various sizes to fit adults and children. The primary feature that excites them is the ability to have the watches communicate with each other over long distance via 4G network. They think this will open up a variety of new types of interaction between family members that could encourage increases in movement.

    Technically the watch will have a small touch screen and include various features to help track movement: GPS, a gyroscope, pedometer and a 4G connection to connect the family of watches together.

    Nike invites you to think about the technology available and ideate some creative ways to
    use the watches to encourage family members to stay healthy together.

    Areas of opportunity
    • Gamification
    • Competition
    • Encouragement

Sounds quite good... Actually I wonder if this could be a real thing. Being a Dad myself I'd probably like something like that.

I also pulled out some slides from a Public Health England research paper which highlighted the problem.
- One in five children in Reception is overweight or obese
- One in three children in Year 6 is overweight or obese
- By 2034 70% of adults will be overweight or obese

God this actually makes me cringe. Its not good is it. Anyway it seemed like a decent problem to try and solve. Maybe the family aspect of it would be lost on these youngsters but I hoped they could build a mental model of the situation from their own childhoods.

The Sprint

As I had very little time I had to set a super tight agenda. It just about worked although sadly we didn't get a chance to do the final presentation - I would have liked to get around the other 2 groups to see what they started to hone in on. Also the feedback was limited but I think we (the Numiko design team) managed to give each student a few pointers. Ideally we would have had more time and encouraged them to give good constructive feedback to each other.

• Set the design problem (5 mins)
• Split into 3 groups and find an area to work (5 mins)
• Sketch out a bunch of different ideas (10 minutes)
• Present favourite idea to the group (1 minute each = 15 minutes)
• Steal the best bits of everyone else ideas and sketch out 1 higher fidelity concept (5 minutes)
• Present idea to team (30s each / 5 minutes)


My group very quickly oriented towards a competitive approach that included rewards. Something along the lines of a league table (based on walking distances and intensity of activities) that paid out a reward / punishment at the end of each week/month/year. If you come bottom of the league you have to do something horrible like the washing up etc. If you come top you get to decide something like what's for Sunday dinner.

Sadly they all had to rush into another session but the lecturer grabbed a few bits of paper of some students today and sent me a snap. I'm hoping to get some more, steal their ideas, and turn it into a real product. Kickstarter here we come!

All in all I was pretty happy with the hour. We intro'd them to Numiko and get them working together in teams of around 10. They still didn't know each other's names so hopefully the session will have broken some ice.

6th May 2016 - No Comments!

New job & new workflow

So I’ve recently started working as Head of Design at a digital studio called Numiko in Leeds. I’ve been invited to the team to raise the quality bar and streamline the design process. From the outside looking in they have a pretty nice looking portfolio and the work was way more useful and cultural than the marketing lead work I did previously. This was the main draw for me but it was just time for a change - I like change - be that keeping on top of new programs that speed up the job or new locations to explore.

The design and development team set up

So one of the first things on my list was to see how the design team was working at Numiko and how they collaborated with the rest of the team. As you can imagine this was a bit of a suck and see process. I just wanted to watch how the whole group worked together. First impressions were good. Admittedly very different to my last place, The Neighbourhood, as the digital team was much bigger (5 at the 'hood - 20 at Numiko). Mainly just a lot more developers and a clear split between front-end and back-end whereas I was used to working with developers of the full-stack variety. The company has a much more developer centric attitude that other places I’ve worked which is great in some ways; as I feel I’m at the helm of a starship with a tonne of awesome engineers, and bad in others; 

The design workflow

The designers use Photoshop. I haven’t used Photoshop to design since…. When I worked at De-construct about 7 years ago so this was going to be fun. At some point when I was freelancing, and continuing at AllofUs, I moved to using Illustrator to design. It was (still is) faster and art-boards happened to be super useful. The design to developer handoff process wasn’t as smooth as it could have been - talk through designs and hand over PSDs. To be honest its pretty standard way of working in the industry although I think now we have better tools for the job. Presenting to clients was also a bit sluggish PNGs > Basecamp > Skype + producers & clients adding comments. Quite hard to keep track of whats going on and can be open to interpretation as clients can be looking at the designs in whatever image viewer - maybe not at 100% - not understanding the feel of the website etc. 

Where does Zeplin fit in the workflow?

I’m a big fan of working in Sketch, designing at speed, with many eyes on the work (developers & client) to reduce the time spent designing unwanted things. I wanted to introduce, and enhance, the workflow out that I’d developed at my last company: Design in Sketch. Send clickable prototypes to the client in Invision. Provide Invision to developers and give them Sketch files to pull design details from - or if I have time produce a style guide of some description (not very often sadly). Sketch is a load easier for front-end developers to use than Photoshop - its been built from the ground up with these things in mind. The only problem was that half the developers work on Windows at Numiko and Sketch is Mac only. I needed a way of translating this work into something useful for those guys - after a quick google I stumbled onto zeplin.io which looked ideal. In fact it looked better than ideal - it was going to further streamline the process. After a quick test we cracked straight on and started a project with Zeplin being used to create a more developer friendly design environment. 



Things I am loving about Zeplin

  • Being able to create a style guide of all the elements and see little inconsistencies in typography and colours. If I’ve create a couple of type sizes or colours that are almost the same I’ll try and merge them - and if I can’t I know why. Its not just a designing fast oversight. 
  • Being able to update a design, sling it into Zeplin, and have the team updated via Slack. This although at the start of the project can be a bit OTT in Slack its a huge time/mistake saver nearer the end the project. Trying to keep a small team updated of every small tweak is hard as I don’t want to spoil their working flow. But if the client, producer or developer asks a question about something, I can modify the design and upload it and its ready to go.
  • Seeing the relief on a developers face the first time they open Zeplin and see all the code neatly written up for them to grab. Yeah its not perfect and will require work but its just saved them a day open and closing various Photoshop files looking for type sizes and line heights, spaces between objects etc.
  • A single point of truth. The Zeplin project area is the place the team go for the latest designs. Not the server for Sketch files or PSDs. This is a huge benefit. I’m not sure how other companies create projects on their servers but I’m yet to see one that is minimal enough to be easy to use. They are generally over convoluted and a pain the ass.

9th February 2015 - No Comments!


I got myself some Ardunio lately - with the idea of creating an awesome weather connected chandelier. I've got some learning to do to say the least but the LEDs work well!

8th February 2015 - Comments Off on Design Workshop @ University of Cumbria.

Design Workshop @ University of Cumbria.