I recently went online to pay a credit card bill with a well-known financial institution. Upon logging in, I was presented with a promotional advertisement for the company’s iPad application. As a designer, I was naturally curious as to how the app differed from the Web experience, assuming it might just surpass my expectations. And why not? The iPad presents a blank slate on which many organizations can create a unique experience free from legacy constraints inherent in a long-standing Web application. With this in mind, I quickly abandoned my bill-paying task to download the application on the iPad. A few minutes later, I was happily logged in and navigating the iPad application.
The interface was slick. But there was one major issue: I couldn’t do what I originally set out to do–I couldn’t pay my bill. Not only that, but the iPad app had a completely different look and feel from the Web application. Ultimately, it was a confusing and disappointing experience and convinced me to stick with the bank’s old-school Web interface for the foreseeable future.
How does this happen? My hunch is that this design fail was the result of designing in a vacuum. This generally happens in one of two ways:
- “Expert” design: When the design of a product (or service) is considered without understanding the needs of those who will be using it. While there are cases where expert design may be appropriate, it’s also quite risky. Without user insight and feedback, you have little way of knowing whether your new product will resonate with its intended audience, yet it happens all the time.
- Siloed design: When the design of a product (or service) occurs without a truly cross-functional and collaborative team effort–that is, when design happens in its own functional silo within an organization. Not surprisingly, the finished product doesn’t necessarily mirror what the designer had intended.
At EffectiveUI, we see examples of this all the time. Aside from the fact that large organizations struggle to understand their customers’ needs as they relate to a changing digital ecosystem, these organizations also create (or inherit) false internal structures that prevent great design work from happening in the first place. It’s all too common to see an organization where the Web team is a completely distinct unit from the mobile team.
Here’s the problem: The end user doesn’t care how your company is structured. Customers view brands as a unified entity, and they expect that brand’s value to be delivered across all channels with an equal degree of integrity. The good news is that the digital landscape is forcing all of us to re-think how we work. The bad news is that we’re trying to crawl out of a work style that was better designed for Ford’s assembly line than for digital ecosystem consistency.
Personally, I’m excited. While there’s certainly a ton of disruption (and serious failure) happening across many industries that long thought they were invincible, there are some incredibly bright spots across the businesses that are reconsidering a new way of working so that design’s true values can be brought forward. In a world full of sameness, design can act as a key differentiator. Organizations that never had a design department are now hiring designers at a rapid clip. That said, there’s a ton of work to be done. Adding designers to your staff won’t make much of a difference if the organization can’t understand its customer needs or create a brand-consistent digital ecosystem that serves those needs.
So, how do we move forward? At a fundamental level, we need to resist the way we’ve been taught work happens: Departmental and functional silos are working models of a past era. Obviously, some of the issues addressed here occur at a very deep organizational level. While outside consultants have been brought into large organizations for years to diagnose certain organizational challenges, I believe that designers are in a prime position to observe, interpret, and model back a different way of working.
If we can agree that consumers see a brand as having one “voice,” I’d argue that the internal organization’s infrastructure should be set up to reflect that singular voice: No more Web team, separate from the mobile team, separate from the development team. The unifying principles that guide these teams should center around what customers actually need, not what new technologies we want to throw at them. These needs exist regardless of platform, and they act as a sounding board in conjunction with the core business objectives.
Telling designers to “create organizational change” is like saying “we put our customers first.” Both things are easier said than done. What I’m advocating is simply changing the conversation at a grassroots level by modeling different behaviors.
Your challenge? Re-think the way you’ve been working. Break your old habits. For example, rather than generating a 50-slide PowerPoint to sell your new digital concept, facilitate a conversation with your team in a workshop. Rather than presenting a fully baked concept, sketch something out for early feedback. Present a prototype for user feedback instead of launching a fully functional application. Get out of the design vacuum, bring other perspectives to the table, and ideally, get others to reconsider how they’ve been working to date.
Generating space for design is challenging amidst the general pace of business, but with the right mindset, dedicated team members, proper cross-functional collaboration, and a clear focus on the voice of the customer, digital products and services can be conceived with a fresh perspective.
BY EXPERT BLOGGER ROD EBRAHIMI | 03-23-2012 | 1:00 PM
Paul Graham (PG) is one of the most prominent figures in Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial community, and his reputation is well-deserved. He’s an honest leader, a talented computer scientist, and has an uncanny passion for entrepreneurship. Most importantly, he’s an entrepreneur himself.
The first time I met PG was in the summer of 2010, when my cofounder and I were selected to participate in Y Combinator (YC), the startup accelerator program PG founded that helped to create many successful companies, including Reddit (acquired by Conde Nast), Heroku (acquired by Salesforce), OMGPOP (acquired by Zynga). He’s known to be extremely particular about teams over ideas and, despite what you might think, is often pushing teams to radically change their ideas. In fact, we did exactly that almost immediately after starting YC. Since then, I’ve been asked many times what kind of insights I gleaned from Paul Graham about how to successfully build a company, so I want to share the 5 most important insights below:
1. Genius is not enough.
There is no question that PG is highly intelligent. He holds a PhD from Harvard, still regularly writes his own code, works on the most challenging startup problems on a daily basis, and still finds the time to engage his popular Hacker News website. But he will also constantly remind you that good engineering and sharp problem-solving skills are not enough. He’s openly discussed that his original thinking used to be IQ above all else when selecting YC teams. But when it comes to building a company from scratch, you need tenacity, allies, and the ability to adapt plus IQ.
Why? Because every entrepreneur, no matter how brilliant, will face moments of discouragement, frustration, and even despair. It’s the guaranteed outcome of going off to do something others found too difficult. In our case, we went from nothing to a working product and back to nothing in less than a month during our time at Y Combinator. Our original concept didn’t solve a real problem, so we were forced to abandon it and start again. While we frantically scrapped one idea after another, PG calmly supported us and brainstormed a variety of ideas with us. He wasn’t ever discouraged, and he had a seemingly unlimited supply of practical ideas that could use a bit of technology.
The nature of taking on the difficult challenge of starting a company is that sometimes your best-laid plans will be crushed. In fact, you should expect them to be crushed. That new feature you were about to unveil will have fatal flaws, or the business partnership you worked three months to develop will likely unravel. These kinds of things are constantly happening. Actually, if they stop happening, you’re probably done for. It’s how you respond that will ultimately define you as an entrepreneur. And that’s where your allies and your determination come in. The lows are too low to do it alone, and the dependency on others requires that you persist when the inertia of the outside world works against you (which is most of the time).That’s why PG is quick to remind even the most IQ-heavy teams that genius is not enough to succeed. You have to will things into existence through persistence and hard work. Even with a brilliant mind like PG’s, there are no shortcuts to the hard work required to get to there. He’s even created the “startup curve process” [pictured, right] to visually represent these ups and downs.
2. Solve real problems.
From afar you may think someone with PG’s background is always seeking out complex problems and only interested in complex solutions. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. PG is consistently telling startup teams to get out into the world and solve common problems. It’s too easy to get caught up solving an obscure technical problem, especially when you’re a nascent technology startup. On the other hand, if you stay focused on an idea that creates real value, not just something “cool,” then you’re on the right track.
When my cofounder and I started with Y Combinator, our initial idea was to use technology to solve a problem, but halfway through, despite countless late nights we were feeling like the idea was not gaining the traction we were looking for, and after spending some time with similar companies and products, the future didn’t look too promising, either. That’s when we sat down with PG to brainstorm new problem spaces that were addressing real pain points for people. His encouragement led to us to ReadyForZero and helping people get out of debt.
3. If you stop moving, you’re dead.
Certain sharks, like the Great White, need the pressure of ocean water against their gills in order to obtain oxygen. So for them, to stop moving forward is literally to die. PG believes the same is true for startups. Inertia is your worst enemy. Momentum is your best friend. Stop thinking about possible solutions and start building them. Keep doing it over and over again until things start sticking.
When we were in the midst of Y Combinator, we made an extra effort to meet up with PG as often as possible and, more often than not, he would ask us to show him progress since the last time we talked. He could be critical at times, but it was this kind of tough love that kept us moving. He always pushed us to seek out momentum (in all its forms–product, marketing, press, hiring, etc.). If you stop, even for a moment, you could be losing out on an opportunity to accomplish something that is key to building out the company. Startups by nature have limited resources; when you account for this, you start making serious progress.
4. Use money as a tool.
One of the most common causes of death for a startup is running out of money. In order to avoid this fate, PG advises to raise just enough to get to your next milestone and think of money as a tool, not a means to an end. And keep in mind that it is most effective when directed toward long-term investments and/or as a catalyst toward exponential growth.
For example, when you’re in the early phases of a startup, you don’t want to make major advertising buys, because that would drain your resources quickly with little noticeable impact to the growth of your company (unless you’ve proven out the concept already). Instead, invest strategically to build the necessary momentum that will carry you to your next major milestone. Never think of investment capital as an end in itself, it’s simply a tool to carry you and your company forward. Hire bright individuals who can help you refine and improve your product so that it doesn’t need a big marketing budget to succeed. By having a healthy relationship with your money (and realistic expectations), you can get much further, faster. Use money wisely to build small wins quickly; this often leads to bigger wins down the road.
5. Recognize gaps and build a team that can divide and conquer.
PG taught us: When you start hiring, don’t let titles get in the way of the work that needs to get done. As much as possible, you want to construct a team with complementary talents and personalities. You don’t want to waste time with pointless power struggles, so for each task you must allocate responsibility to the person on your team who is best equipped to do it, and then offer support and guidance as needed.
As an example, PG was very strict that one person speak during demo day presentation. No exceptions: Decide who it is, and move on. It sounds simple, but oftentimes the same characteristics that drive people to become entrepreneurs are the ones that lead them into petty power struggles that impede progress. To make sure you don’t fall into that trap, do your due diligence when hiring your team and then trust them to get the work done. You can’t do it alone, and there is too much work to be done to get caught up in power struggles.
Our experience doing Y Combinator was a memorable one and helped to propel our nascent ideas for ReadyForZero into a real product that has now blossomed into a successful company that is helping people get out of debt. It’s in large part due to the early guidance of Paul Graham. He is one of those extraordinary leaders who trusts his instincts, makes data-driven decisions quickly, and can easily persuade people to believe in the impossible. And that’s what entrepreneurship is all about.
–Author Rod Ebrahimi is the CEO and cofounder of ReadyForZero, an online software program that helps people manage and reduce debt. Rod started his first technology company while still in high school at age 17 before moving to Silicon Valley. He holds a B.S., with department honors, in cognitive science with a specialization in human-computer interaction and has completed coursework at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
Turns out that brainstorming–that go-to approach to generating new ideas since the 1940s–isn’t the golden ticket to innovation after all. Both Jonah Lehrer, in a recent article in The New Yorker, and Susan Cain, in her new book Quiet, have asserted as much. Science shows that brainstorms can activate a neurological fear of rejection and that groups are not necessarily more creative than individuals. Brainstorming can actually be detrimental to good ideas.
But the idea behind brainstorming is right. To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones. We need to work both collaboratively and individually. We also need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing. We need places where someone can throw out a thought, have it critiqued, and not feel so judged that they become defensive and shut down. Yet this creative process is not necessarily supported by the traditional tenets of brainstorming: group collaboration, all ideas held equal, nothing judged.
So if not from brainstorming, where do good ideas come from?
At Continuum, we use deliberative discourse–or what we fondly call “Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss.” Deliberative discourse was originally articulated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication. Multiple positions and views are expressed with a shared understanding that everyone is focused on a common goal. There is no hierarchy. It’s not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to “win.” Rather, it’s about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas.
So we argue. And discuss. And argue. A lot. But our process is far from freeform yelling. Here are five key rules of engagement that we’ve found to yield fruitful sessions and ultimately lead to meaningful ideas.
Breaking down hierarchy is critical for deliberative discourse. It’s essential to creating a space where everyone can truly contribute. My first week at Continuum, I joined a three-person team with one senior and one principal strategist. A recent graduate, I was one of the youngest members of the company. During our first session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, “You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day.” He gave me permission to voice my opinion openly, regardless of my seniority. This breakdown of hierarchy creates a space where ideas can be invented– and challenged–without fear.
It’s widely evangelized that successful brainstorms rely on acceptance of all ideas and judgment of none. Many refer to the cardinal rule of improv saying “Yes, AND”–for building on others’ ideas. As a former actor, I’m a major proponent of “Yes AND.”
But I’m also a fan of “no, BECAUSE.” No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse. And that “because” should be grounded in real people other than ourselves.
We conduct ethnographic research to inform our intuition, so we can understand people’s needs, problems, and values. We go out dancing with a group of women in a small Chinese village; we work in a fry shack in the deep South; we sit in living rooms and listen to caregivers discuss looking after a parent with Alzheimer’s. This research informs our intuitive “guts”–giving us both inspiration for ideas and rationale to defend or critique them.
During ideation, we constantly refer back to people, asking one another if our ideas are solving a real need that people expressed or that we witnessed. This keeps us accountable to something other than our own opinions, and it means we can push back on colleagues’ ideas without getting personal.
We’ve all heard of T-shaped people and of multidisciplinary teams. This model works for us because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas. We curate teams to create diversity: Walk into a project room and you may find an artist-turned-strategist, a biologist-turned-product designer, and an English professor-turned-innovation guru hashing it out together. True to form, my background is in theater and anthropology.
On a recent project, I realized the best way to tackle a particular problem was to apply a text analysis tool that actors use with new scripts. I taught this framework to the team, and we used it to generate ideas. Another time, a team member with a background in Wall Street banking wrote an equation on the whiteboard. It was exactly the framework we needed to jumpstart our next session.
When we enter deliberative discourse, arguing and discussing and arguing and discussing, we each bring different ways of looking at the world and solving problems to the table.
Deliberative discourse is not just arguing for argument’s sake. Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal. We develop a statement of purpose at the outset of each project and post it on the door of our project room. Every day when we walk into the room, we’re entering into a liminal play space–call it a playing field. The statement of purpose establishes the rules: It reminds us that we are working together to move the ball down the field. As much as we may argue and disagree, anything that happens in the room counts toward our shared goal. This enables us to argue and discuss without hurting one another.
We work on projects ranging from global banking for the poor to the future of pizza and life-saving medical devices. Our work requires intensity, thoughtfulness, and rigor. But no matter the nature of the project, we keep it fun. It’s rare for an hour to pass without laughter erupting from a project room. Deliberative discourse is a form of play, and for play to yield great ideas, we have to take it seriously.
But we don’t brainstorm. We deliberate.
Photographed by me
Clean, simple web designs have become a popular trend. This article will cover the subject through a two-part discussion. First, we’ll talk about a few traits that clean designs tend to have in common. Secondly, I’ll share some tricks and techniques that can be helpful when trying to achieve a clean design.
Common Traits of a Clean Web Design
Let’s start by looking at some fundamental characteristics of clean web designs.
Solid Web Page Layout Structure
If you take a few minutes to browse sites that might fall into the “clean” category, I’d be willing to bet they all have one thing in common: a well-thought-out grid that the designer is really putting to work.
For anyone not familiar with designing with a grid, just imagine that each comp starts with an invisible structure of columns and rows, and that structure drives the scale and placement of the elements in the composition. This grid creates a sense of order by helping designers establish hierarchy, rhythm and consistency.
A solid grid layout structure provides order and unity. For instance, Creative Reviewhas several page layouts for certain types of content, however, the browsing experience is continuous because they all share the same underlying framework.
When a site has a lot of content to display, such as an online magazine or a newspaper site, achieving a clean design aesthetic can be more difficult. But sites like The Guardian, a British newspaper, show that it’s possible with a well-thought-out layout grid.
If all their content were plopped onto the page without a solid structure, the front page would definitely be a mess. However, by using their grid as a starting point and relying on rules and white space to establish hierarchy, the robust content feels far from overwhelming. Every pixel of margin and every rule was tweaked until it was “just right,” and all that effort resulted in a layout that feels effortless.
Here are two resources that will help you learn more about designing on a grid:
It seems that good typography often centers around doing more with less, and when it comes to getting that “squeaky clean” feel in your designs, restraint is key.
When too many typefaces are used, they compete with one another, making a design appear disjointed and disorderly.
If you do a quick survey of well-designed sites, you’ll probably find they rely on one or two typefaces, and then vary size, case, color and weight to establish a clear typographic hierarchy.
The New York Times
In both examples above, there are no more than two typefaces in the style sheets, yet the designers have established clear hierarchies by using those typefaces to their fullest.
Good typography is best displayed in the details. Leading, the spaces between lines of text, can help make content easy to read and pleasing to the eye. When there’s just enough space, the reader’s eye can easily return from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. In web design, leading can be adjusted through the
line-height CSS property.
The optimal ratio of type size to leading often depends on the typeface, color and width of the text block.
Additionally, letter-spacing, the space between letters, can allow the letterforms to breathe a bit.
Here are some resources related to web typography:
- A Basic Look at Typography in Web Design
- CSS Typography: The Basics
- CSS Typography: Techniques and Best Practices
- CSS Typography: Examples and Tools
Limited Color Palette
In print design, color is often limited by necessity. A budget may allow for only a two-color poster, and so the designer is forced to work within those constraints.
That’s never the case with websites, though, since most modern computer monitors can display millions of colors.
However, cleanly-designed sites seem to trend toward limited color palettes. From what I’ve seen, these sites often use core grays and one color. The color is earmarked for the most important elements (like links and headers), a trick that not only enhances usability but also helps to visually unite elements throughout the site.
A1 rolls this direction, using a bluish green and gray color palette.
Meanwhile, the fine folks at Fuzzco take it all the way down to a single color: red.
Clean designs that successfully push beyond one- or two-color palettes often do so by using color sparingly and by using neutral colors to break things up. Solo is a great example of this.
Just like the connection between typeface and message, it’s not all about picking colors that look good. Stronger designs incorporate palettes that set a visual tone which echoes the site’s content.
For example, bright, complementary colors make sense for Notologist because of the nature of the site.
Does it bother you when the style of imagery (photography, illustrations, charts, etc.) shifts from page to page throughout a site? Me too.
Making sure these visually prominent elements are stylistically in harmony is a pretty powerful trick when it comes to creating a site with a clean appearance.
For example, IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign touched on dozens of topics. Throughout the related print and interactive materials, illustrations and charts that share geometrical frameworks, bold strokes and saturated colors help tie the campaign’s materials and topics together.
And over on Protein, you’ll notice that even though the photography for the profiles comes out of different shoots, there is a carefully produced similarity across the images in terms of composition, depth of field and quality of light. Consistency across these often-prominent elements helps viewers look past individual pieces and see the sites as a whole.
Obviously, there are instances where it just isn’t practical to produce all the imagery in the same style. News sites and blogs can’t throw out a great image that enhances a story just because it doesn’t fit with others.
And sometimes clients don’t have budgets to produce new charts and illustrations, so the designer is forced to make existing assets work. I’ve noticed that in these cases the use of graphic elements around the imagery, such as borders, can help inconsistent imagery feel a bit more uniform.
Tips for Achieving Clean Designs
What follows are a few tips for producing clean web designs.
Start Complex, Then Simplify
Putting things on the page is part of the design process. In my experience, one of the traps designers can easily fall into when they set out to create something “simple” is becoming afraid to add anything to the page. The resulting designs are usually pretty bland because the process didn’t allow for exploration (and those “happy design accidents” we all love).
To avoid this problem, I find that it’s helpful to “start complex, then simplify.”
In the early phases of the design, don’t limit what you put on the page. Explore different layers of content and try out different design elements. Then, once that design feels like it could be close to complete, start to simplify.
Ask yourself, “what doesn’t really need to be here?” If dropping a design element (like a rule or texture) seems to make the page fall apart, keep it around. But, if that’s not the case, ditch it.
We’ve all heard the adage that 20% ends up doing 80% of the work. We’re just applying that theory to design by identifying the elements that are doing the heavy lifting in our layouts. (Read more about this subject: Reductionism in Web Design.)
It may even be worth bringing in someone who’s more detached from the design for an outside opinion on what should stay and what should go. If you can’t give a more solid defense for why something should be on the page other than “it’s cool” or “they do it on this other site,” then remove it.
Ultimately, you’ll be left with the ingredients that will give you the strongest design. Once you get there, a little bit of fine-tuning should leave you with a strong, uncluttered design.
Tweak, and Tweak Some More
I’ve been told that I tend to “beat my page designs into submission.” Honestly, I take that as a compliment.
To me, a design is never really “finished” and can always be pushed further. Seriously, just ask any designer or student who has had the unfortunate luck of working with me. I’m guessing it’s not all that fun when I ask them to try another shade of green for the twelfth time.
As we explored earlier, that “clean” feel is the product of all the aspects of the design — composition, hierarchy, palette and typography — working harmoniously. If you’re like me, making that happen means a lot of time spent tweaking: adding a point of
line-spacing here, removing 2px of margin there, trying
#ddd instead of
#eee for the dotted rules, etc. These may seem like inconsequential adjustments, but when it comes to getting all the elements in a composition to work together, a single pixel can make a big difference.
So, tweak, and then tweak some more. One tweak will lead to another, and sometimes what you uncover will lead you to fork your designs or backtrack.
Making something look clean and cohesive is a process that takes time and persistence (and, generally, a lot of coffee).
But, if you stick with it, all the details will eventually fall into place and the design will become cohesive.
Don’t Miss the Big Picture
In my previous life as a “mostly print designer,” printing and pinning up your layouts was a daily ritual. The firm’s walls were saturated with everything from annual reports to logo explorations.
But something funny happened when I started to focus on web design — I stopped printing. It was almost like I decided that because the project would never see a press, it never needed to see paper.
After a long spell of blank walls (and subsequent blocks of frustration with how my projects were coming together), it hit me. The beauty of printing and pinning was seeing the big picture.
I was missing my chance to evaluate the system as a whole, shore up throughlines, and find opportunities to simplify.
Flipping through layers in Illustrator or Photoshop just doesn’t offer the same perspective as seeing all the comps side by side.
So, my suggestion is to print, pin and repeat. It’ll help you identify inconsistencies and find opportunities to synchronize your layouts, all of which will result in a cleaner design. (Sorry trees.)
Whether you’re well-versed in the creation of “clean” design or looking to move in that direction, respect for imagination followed by attention to detail will go a long way.
As I said early on, an organic but intentional process — not standards and rulebooks — will come in most handy. Of course, each designer has moments of magic throughout his or her individual process.
So, if you have any tips and tricks you tend to use to strengthen your layouts, or examples of “clean” design you love, please feel free to add them below so we can keep the discussion going.
Ever wondered what the difference between east coast designers and west coast designers?
How designers in New York or D.C. differ from their counterparts in LA or Seattle?
After all, we know all about the differences between east coast and west coast rap (and the rivalry that runs along with it).
But who knew there was the same kind of divide among designers?
This infographic, prepared exclusively for MightyDeals, compares the two camps side by side. Get insight into differences by interest, style, concentration, education, pay scale, and more.
Some have claimed the “yo momma” (also known as “yo mama”) joke has come and gone, its subtle deconstruction of the triad relationship between one’s mom, one’s mom’s personal aesthetic or intelligence, and one’s insulter having peaked some time in the early ’90s.
At least two people disagree. One person is me. The other person is Ross Moody, the one-man design team at 55 Hi’s. And his “Yo Momma Is a Shitty Graphic Designer” printable pads feature the most new “yo momma” jokes since the cancellation of In Living Color.
Expect beauties like, “Yo momma is so ugly she broke clonestamp” and “Yo momma is so fat, every picture of her requires photomerge.”
Now granted, to deploy said insults, your audience will need to:
1. Loosely understand the vernacular of the graphic design world (narrowing the billions of potential victims in the world to a group in the seven-figure range)
2. Still find yo momma jokes funny and/or hurtful (narrowing down the seven-figure field to pretty much just me and Ross Moody and maybe you?)
But hey! You never know when you’ll come across me or Ross Moody on the street. And printing off a few sheets to have in the ready will only cost you the paper and ink (plus an unspecified but large amount of personal pride).
Click here to get your own.