What constitutes great design? Why does it matter? And, why should professional service firms care?
Jason Mlicki: This is Jason. You want to be on Rattle and Pedal? We have a great audience and we think you should know one another. So come on Rattle and Pedal and share success or a mistake. Visit RattleandPedal.com/purestories to learn more. Now on with today’s show.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, diversion thoughts on marketing and growing professional services firms. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki and Jeff McKay.
Jason Mlicki: Jeff, today we are going to talk about your favorite topic ever. You know what it is?
Jeff McKay: Cycling?
Jason Mlicki: Cycling. Oh God, no. That’s way too boring. Way more interesting than that. Your favorite topic. I bring it up all the time. Design.
Jeff McKay: Theology?
Jason Mlicki: Theology.
Jeff McKay: Oh. Design. We’re going to talk about making it pretty?
Jason Mlicki: No. Well, yes we are, but not only making it pretty.
Jeff McKay: So are you a designer?
Jason Mlicki: No.
Jeff McKay: Did you study design in school?
Jason Mlicki: Nope.
Jeff McKay: So what makes you an expert on design?
Jason Mlicki: Nothing. We obviously set that up a little bit, but as a segue, I guess I’ll give a quick backstory on kind of my view on the world of design and how I’ve lived within it. My dad’s an artist and he ran this business as a design firm for the better part of 30 years. In fact, when he first started this business back in the ’70s, actually the first incarnation of his business is back in the ’60s which was a partnership business he had before. What eventually became Mlicki Design, which ultimately became Rattleback. It was called commercial art. There was no such word as design back in the lexicon of business back in the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t know exactly when design became a thing, but it wasn’t then.
Basically I grew up with a designer. I took design classes as a child and then when I ultimately came into this business and 18 years ago, he was mentoring me, a man that had practiced design for 30 years and I was working with designers very intimately on a regular basis for the last 20 years of my life. So I don’t fashion myself an expert on design, but I think I probably have more experience than most in terms of working with designers and applying design and design thinking to business problems just to create value for businesses. That would be my backstory on the topic. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Jeff McKay: I like the way that you described that, how to make design have business value. I think in professional services, and I said this at the beginning, are we going to talk about make it pretty? In professional services world in my experience, consultants and accountants work on stuff and then they say, “Well send it to marketing and let them make it pretty.” I just hate that kind of approach to design where the expectation is make it pretty. Gosh, I think it was in the five roles, or not the five roles, the roles you need on your marketing team.
One of the key roles and one of the hardest roles to fill I find on a marketing team is the role of creative. The role of the creative is not to make it pretty, but to make it understandable visually. It’s so hard to find those types of people that can take design and create business value from it. This is something, and we talked about this, I think on our McKinsey brand breakdown. One of the strengths of McKinsey is their graphs and illustrations that explain these complex concepts to their buyers. So I love that you said that. Design has to add business value.
Jason Mlicki: Well, yeah, it’s interesting. I would say, I’ve said this before, understandable and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.
Jeff McKay: Well said. Well said.
Jason Mlicki: There are also other elements of design that are critical and I’ll kind of expound on those as we get through the podcast. But it’s hard to argue that great design should not be beautiful. It’s hard to say that someone is a great designer if they can’t make something beautiful. But I agree with you that that’s not the whole entirety of design. One of the things I marveled about my dad if I think back to his role in shaping kind of my view on design and working with him in the early stages of this business as he could. We’ve made a living as an agency over the years working on complex technical, difficult to understand ideas since the eighties and nineties. He would never look at that stuff and say, “Boy, is that boring.”
He would look at it and say, “God, this is so unbelievably interesting.” Now how in the world do I take this product that you have? I mean we used to do a lot of work in data centers, so products that were designed for data centers. How do I take this highly technical product that you’ve created and come up with really compelling visual ways to explain what it does and how it works and why it matters? That was really his great skill to your point. So he was the creative in that sense.
The thing I learned from him, and this is an example that applies to thought leadership. At the time it was mostly brochure design. This is sort of I think an evolution of marketing in general, at least for us. I mean I don’t know if it’s true for most professional services firms, but the evolution away from marketing a company’s products and services towards marketing its ideas and its thinking. Right? He would look at a brochure or a piece of literature back in the day, pre-internet. He would always say, “When you look at this document, it’s a 30 page document.” He’s like, “Every page is an element of a score and the whole document is a symphony. Your job as the designer is to figure out how to carry the emotion of a symphonic production [inaudible 00:05:50] on this thing. Taking the reader through the highs and lows that they experience in a great symphony.”
I think that applies to thought leadership in so many ways and in storytelling in so many ways is that there are highs and lows and there are emotions and you have to unpack all that. Anyway, that’s an analogy that he always taught that I thought was a really good one and worth sharing.
Jeff McKay: I love that. I love that. Having a son that’s in a symphony orchestra. I get that. I really like that analogy. All right, so how does that play out?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s one element of all this. A couple of thoughts I was just going to share. This will kind of get to the essence of what I believe good design is or great design as. In the world of design there’s always the argument of form and function, right? In a way when you’re saying understandable versus beautiful, that’s essentially the tension you’re leading into is form versus function. Function making things understandable, form being beautiful. There’s always this argument of does form lead function, or does function lead form? That’s the argument you hear all the time in the world of design.
I would argue it’s not an either or proposition, it’s an and proposition. It has to be both. You have to deliver unbelievable utility from a functional perspective. This applies to any type of design, be it graphic, illustration, product design, retail design, whatever you’re designing. Function has to be there and form has to go with it. When those two things are married together, that’s when brilliance occurs. There’s so many examples of that in our world that you can point to. When you see them together, you know it.
So I’ll pause there for a sec, let you react to that. But that’s essentially, to me, the essence of it all.
Jeff McKay: So what you’re saying, they go hand in hand. Do they have to be balanced 50/50, or is it 60/40? And how do you know when you achieve it?
Jason Mlicki: I think it’s always situational. So I don’t know that you can say, well, it’s a 50/50 balance. It’s this or that. The examples I’ll give, again, there’s so many examples in our culture and I think about how I’ve kind of thought about design. I learned from the people I’ve worked with, but I also learned from the world around me and reading. So to me, if you want to understand great design, there’s really no better book to read than Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Because Jobs instinctively with no necessarily pure design training is one of the greatest designers the world’s ever seen because he instinctively understood that balance between form and function was so unbelievably critical. He would consistently reject a product if it just could not meet the functional requirements of what he was looking for.
I’ll tell a couple quick stories from that book and you probably know some of these stories. When they released, I think it was the Apple 2, when they released the Apple 2, everybody’s blown away by the graphical user interface, the fact that he embedded fonts right into the platform. All these kind of visual things that he did that nobody else had done before they thought were incredible. You know what Steve jobs talked about after the release? He was super excited about the power coupling because he thought that was the most brilliant piece of design in the product was-
Jeff McKay: And nobody would see it.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. If you think back, and I might get this wrong, so engineers listen to this. If I get this wrong, please tell us. I think if I understood it correctly, it’s kind of like if you remember old video game machines, it had that big clunky adapter tied to them, right? It was heavy and hot and you had to plug it in and it was just horrible. He wanted to get rid of that and had sort of embedded a kind of a lot of that into the machine itself. It was sort of a brilliant feat of engineering. To him it was a functional thing that made the product that much better. He sort of brought that to everything to bear.
When he released the iPod, same thing with the dial. I mean that dial to younger people, they may not know about the dial, but the original iPod, that dial was like a very sophisticated interface that was incredibly simplistic that kind of enabled them to essentially enable you to interact with your music in a much simpler way than you ever had before. It was a huge innovation and he had a big part in making that real.
I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s the guy that I always lean to as I think, what would Steve think of this? Did you get to the essence of simplicity? Because to me, that was also his big great strength was he was constantly pushing Ivy and the designers around him to to strip away anything that wasn’t needed. So strip it away. I don’t need that. I don’t need that. I don’t need that. I mean, ultimately the iPhone and the touchscreen interface came out of that saying these hardware keys are clunky. They hog up the whole screen. We’ve got to have a better solution. Well, that led to all kinds of innovation, all kinds of obsessiveness around how do I get to that level of simplicity that I want, which is a single button? How do I do that? He would push and push and push until it was there.
That to me is what it’s all about, right? It’s like how do you get to the heart of the essence of the story, whatever the story is, and make it as simple as it can possibly be in the absence of words and make something memorable and highly useful and highly valuable and beautiful?
Jeff McKay: The WWSD.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff McKay: That’s the mantra. What would Steve do?
Jason Mlicki: The amazing thing about him, and I don’t want to get off side on it, but I think about there are times when I get frustrated with a product and I go, “Gosh darn it, where’s Steve? Why can’t Steve be here to fix it for us?” Because this is a piece of garbage, and I wish he were here to fix the TV once and for all. These TVs stink. God, I wish he’d be here to fix that. Anyway, that’s a bit of a sidebar, but I’m not [crosstalk 00:11:01].
Jeff McKay: Yeah. Well you said something that I thought was really key, and that is great design strips away. The whole concept of less is more. That in and of itself, particularly in a professional services world where PowerPoints are the vehicle dijor and consultants love to put their speaker notes onto their slides. If you can’t get even a PowerPoint kind of stripped down to its essence, as you described, your chances of getting it anywhere else are going to be challenging.
But I think in the professional services world, design often gets over ruled by detail. It has to be in there. We have to answer that question, we have to cover this, we have to have that. Well we’re going to leave this behind. It’s like there’s not a clear purpose or understanding of, to your point, what’s the business value of this. But say more about how stripping away less and more applies to this industry.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. Well I’m going to go on a massive couple of tangents and I’ll try to come back without completely forgetting the question. I have a couple of thoughts. At our conference this year, Kelsey Eichorn from Arup came and spoke about storytelling and thought leadership. One of the nuggets of insight she shared, which was so good. She’s like, “Look,” she’s like, “Words go directly into your short term memory and you can only retain the last seven that your head … visuals go directly into your longterm memory.” Which is why when you think about your ability to retain information from a long time ago, you are way better at retaining a visual construct than you ever are a collection of words. So if you stop and think about this from a thought leadership perspective, the most important product of your thought leadership might not be the article you wrote. It might be the visualization in that article that makes someone somehow remember this article that was so powerful to you. Or it might be the visualization of the framework that you developed, right?
So that’s kind of the first thing you have to realize. So if you want to understand applicability, that’s the first level is that consultants will pour their heart and soul into a point of view that’s expressed as an article. Yet the thing that has the highest likelihood of memorability is whatever illustration was paired with that article. That’s just brain science. That’s not anything new. That’s sort of comment number one. Comment number two is our director we had years ago taught me about this guy named Helmut Krone and Helmut Krone … Have you ever heard of Helmut Krone?
Jeff McKay: Yes. He does the data visualization, right?
Jason Mlicki: No. Helmut Krone, and I don’t know that much about them, so I should be careful about this. My understanding was Helmut Krone was a German designer that led a lot of the Volkswagen advertising back in the ’70s and ’80s I think it was. A lot of his belief set was that … He was working with ads and that was his media. The more information I put in this ad, the less likelihood you have of remembering what I have to say. He basically would just break down an ad into all of its component parts and he’d say, “Well, you have a headline, you have a photo, you have a logo, you have a body copy, you have T’s and C’s.” He would make a list of the seven or eight things that every ad has. Then says, “Well, how in the world is anybody going to remember anything that you have in front of them?”
His lifelong quest was basically to produce an ad that had a single asset. It’s only one thing. His whole goal was I’m going to strip away everything. I’ll strip away everything and force the client to basically make me bring it back to the point where he would even strip away logos and say, “Well why do you need your logo here? What’s that do?” And you see his influence ultimately is I think what drove a lot of the culture on advertising and that led to a lot of that sort of brilliant work that you saw Apple do.
Now, yeah, I was afraid I was going to go off and I did, the central question was what? How does this apply?
Jeff McKay: Yes. Because like what you just described, Volkswagen is a product and I can see that Beetle on that white background of a magazine ad. The professional services that don’t have a tangible [crosstalk 00:15:06].
Jason Mlicki: There is an instance it’s even more important to have that great design because think about it, you have nothing tangible to point to. All you literally have is an idea. So the visual expression of that idea is the one thing you have, maybe the only thing you have to create a memorability of that idea. Unless you come up with some catchy coined phrase that people could can gravitate to, the challenge or sale, re-engineering the corporation. This the simple phrase that’s memorable, less than seven words obviously, use your title with the visual.
There’s a documentary series out right now, it’s maybe a few years old now, I don’t know, that Netflix did that I started to watch a while ago and I picked it back up the other day in preparation for this podcast because I was like, “I never did finish that.” It’s called Abstract and it’s basically they feature designers of all different types, illustrators, product designers, graphic designers. They just sort of walk through with them and kind of try to understand how they work and how they think. There’s an illustrator they feature, this guy by the name of Christopher Neiman who’s done tons and tons of New Yorker covers.
I actually think that’s a really good example of what I’m talking about because you think about, and he makes the point of this, so frequently the cover of the New Yorker magazine is there’s no headline. It’s literally just a visual illustration that carries the day and gets you to try to think about what it is they want you to read. Tell me that’s where the applicability lies. How do you strip away noise, and how do you get to the essence of something that’s visually highly memorable that can be essentially the asset that the thought leadership conveys, that people will say, “I can’t really necessarily remember that article or exactly what the author wrote, but boy I do remember that framework. Boy, I do remember that illustration that carried the day.”
That to me is where the application of it is. It’s obviously not an advertising. There was very few firms that advertise except for maybe Accenture with any consistency. But that’s to me where I think you want to lean in is getting your visual people more involved in the process of figuring out how you’re going to tell the story of the thought leadership you’re trying to get in the marketplace.
Jeff McKay: I love that. Boy, I’ve said that a couple of times on this.
Jason Mlicki: [inaudible 00:17:16].
Jeff McKay: We’ll have to have post production edit that out.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, divergent thoughts on growing your professional services firm. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki, principal of Rattleback, the marketing agency for professional services firms and Jeff McKay, former CMO and founder of Strategy Consultancy Prudent Pedal. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us by telling a friend and rating us on iTunes. Thank you. Now back to Jason and Jeff.
Jeff McKay: Man, you just got me all fired up. I want to go design some models and some four squares and come up with some cool names for solutions. Which sounds crazy, right?
Jason Mlicki: That sounds crazy. [crosstalk 00:18:09].
Jeff McKay: Here’s the pragmatic part of Jeff jumping in. Everything you just said is spot on, but you have to have balance. In most firms in my experience tend to swing out of balance. They want to name everything because they think that’s the way you break through, or they have these overly elaborate models or they try to be too much. I’m just thinking of my Wall Street Journal, the weekend journal, it has the journal magazine in it. It’s kind of like GQ or Vogue. 90% of it is just high end ads where there’s a product and a model and that’s about it. All the money was spent on photography. There is a balance.
Going back to what you said at the beginning, there’s a business value that has to be derived from it, and it’s how do you visually communicate the story? When we say story, the value, the urgency, the potential of a given solution to your ideal client. When you take your eye off of that, I think that’s when you start to get out of balance and it becomes design for design sake or you assume like so many do that we have to tell them everything otherwise they won’t understand what we’re saying. When the fact of the matter is right visual gets you where you need to be.
Jason Mlicki: Where you want to be. Yeah. A couple of things jump out. So yeah, if you look at the illustrations that accompany a lot of the blog posts on our site, I’ve never put any direction on any of those ever. We would write an article and the illustrator or the designer would sort of take it and interpret it the way that they saw fit. Usually if you look at what they would do, they would look for some indicator in the article, something that’s a hook, that’s a story that the reader could relate to. Then they try to exploit that, right? They try to exploit that very narrow concrete concept that’s a simile or a metaphor and then make it highly visual.
I think that’s sort of one of the key aspects of this is trying to … And you said it, I mean I wrote this down kind of towards the end is that to me, if you’re trying to define what great design is, I mean a great design tells the story in the absence of words. That’s really the essence of it. I mean, if you can deliver the story visually without any words at all, that’s when you know you’ve accomplished something phenomenal. Does that happen all the time? No, no. Of course not. But that’s what you’re striving for.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. That’s why the creative is so important is they make it understandable. You get the story. Your way of saying that is much more poetic than mine. The other thing that I think is a hurdle for great design in professional services firms is the fact that so much of the design gets run through committee. You can start out with a great design, and this partner and that partner and this manager and this sales guy all have to weigh in on the design. It ends up adding back in all the stuff that gets stripped. It tends to create a confusing story. It’s so hard to address for marketing teams in professional services firms, when you have a partner who says, “I want it in there, put it in there.” Because they either think that the client wants it or they need it to remind themselves in a presentation or communication or whatever the case may be. But when you’re working with firms, do you see that? And if you do, how do you deal with it?
Jason Mlicki: Do we see what? What part of that? I’m sorry.
Jeff McKay: Design running through committee.
Jason Mlicki: I mean, certainly that’s existed in every company that we’ve ever dealt with on some level. Right? There’s always some level of committee decision making that hampers things and damages things. Usually what I recommend clients do is, and this applies to sort of everything, if you’re thinking about brand work or you’re thinking about thought leadership work, you have to basically enable someone in the firm to have decision making authority and the partners [inaudible 00:22:40] he didn’t trust that person to make those decisions on behalf of the firm. That’s usually what we tell them and say, “Look, there’s no problem getting input from other people, but ultimately it needs to be your call and you need to both have the guts and the cultural responsibility and permission to ignore some inputs.” That’s critical to success in any sort of marketing endeavor.
That’s usually what we say. That means if they don’t have that permission, then whoever that is, it doesn’t matter really who it is, but someone has to have that. Because the biggest challenge I think as an external resource, and I think this applies to internal resources as well, to your point, you produced this great piece of thought leadership. You’re working on practice messaging, whatever you’re working on, doesn’t matter. You put it in front of all these people and now they all come back with input. Some of the input conflicts with the other input and then you just pass it along. Well your job as the lead is to basically take some input, say, “Yeah, that’s good input. I’ll take it.” So I can look at other inputs and say, “That’s bad input. Push it away.” And then make your own decisions and then hand it off to whoever’s responsible to taking it on to the next level.
That’s how you get from a good working first draft to a great final output versus starting with maybe a good working first draft and making it worse, whatever that might be. So that’s generally how we recommend handling it. It’s an explicit decision making right inside the firm. Be very clear on what I’m asking of the partners or whoever you’re asking of input. I’m asking you for your input, but it doesn’t mean you have decision making authority on this necessarily.
Jeff McKay: I like that. So how do you make sure that you get usable feedback? Because when it comes to design, so much of it is subjective. I like it, I don’t. It’s not objective. Do you have some kind of decision criteria where these are the subjective criteria, here’s kind of your range. Here are objective criteria. This is the analytical in me. I’m just curious if you have some kind of framework like that or it just comes down to negotiation.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. There’s a couple of things. A couple of things come to mind. The first thing is it is the responsibility of the creative leader to extract out the subjective information at the earliest stages of the game possible. I’ll tell a quick story. One of our competitor agencies was hired by an engineering firm to do a brand project. They were very deep into this project. In fact, they were at like rev 14 of identity system. At rev 14 they find out that the CEO of the firm hates the color purple. That is information that needs to be sussed out before you ever even design anything, right?
So that you have to have a process that enables you to kind of extract some of that subjective information from the decision makers early so that it doesn’t end up creating rev cycle 14 late. So we ended up getting hired to basically fix the mess. What our creative director did is he just went in there, he’s like, “Okay guys, let’s look at both the input you’ve given the agency, and then let’s look at what they’ve brought back and you’re kind of both at fault and let’s kind of look at how you give better input and how we move this thing forward.” We were able to basically take them to conclusion very quickly.
That’s the core of it is you try to extract the subjective stuff as early as you can and then you try to insert objective things into the discussion. One of the things we’ve used for years are different elements, different types of mood boarding processes that force business leaders to make decisions about things they do and don’t like, colors, textures, fonts, typography, photos, illustrations. As they weed through that type of information, it gives you a better handle on the things they do and don’t like. Then you have something to work from. You can say, “Well, okay, objectively you said you liked these things but not these things. So now when I give you an output, you can’t suddenly insert new information and say, ‘Oh well I would like to see something more like this.’ No, no, no, you sit over here. You didn’t want to see things like that. So recognize if we’re going to go that path, you are going against the objective criteria we set out early.” That’s a process we’ve used over the years to take things that are subjective and make them more objective.
Those are probably the two best pieces of advice that I have. But it’s also, I will say real quick before we wrap, creative people do not work linearly and they do not work inside process well. Any process you design to try to mitigate the backside risk of the subjectivity coming in to blow things up risks damaging the creative input in the first place. So you have to figure out how to make your process flexible to enable the creative exploration to happen. And that has taken me 20 years to figure it out.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, that’s a hard lesson to learn. But I find the best designers do like working within the walls. Give me your brand identity and let me work within those and let me work. So that way you know where the boundaries are.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, but that’s also different. You’re talking about where there are some boundaries that exist. I guess I’m talking in situations where you’re being asked to create the boundaries. Those are two different things. They’re two different types of design with two different types of designers as well.
Jeff McKay: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. All right. Here, I’m going to lead us to wrap. We started out talking about great design has to lead to business value. That’s the point of great design in the context of business design. If you want to just appreciate art for art’s sake, you go outside of this. Money is being invested to build brand, drive revenue, what have you, and you need to recognize that there needs to be some result that comes with that. So was design good or bad? Did it work or did it not work? Did it balance form or function. It really comes down to did it produce the result?
This kind of dovetails with something that you say regularly, Jason, and that’s balancing the art and science of marketing and that we can now measure the impact of this type of design. Was it understandable? Did it engage people? Did they lead to pipeline or revenue? But we need to get to the data of the result. And to the degree that you marketers and designers start building a track record around producing the objective result, the business result that you want to achieve, you begin to earn the trust of the partners. So when you start throwing out more radical types of design or simplified design, beautiful design that may be outside of a normal analytical consultant’s comfort zone, you can lean on those results and start to expand the type of value that you’re adding without all of these problems that we just described in the professional services world. And that takes time. But it all starts with pushing the envelope and managing your partners and internal customers, if you call them, internal clients.
But that’s my take on it. If you want to do great design, you’ve got to prove that the designs that you’ve produced so far are producing results.
Jason Mlicki: I totally agree. The only comment I’ll make and then we’ll wrap is that results can be broadly defined. I’ve seen our brand work that we’ve done over the years. Oftentimes the result is just a level of confidence inside the firm that catapults their future success. Basically, they feel like a real put together professional high end firm for the first time maybe ever. Suddenly, everybody in the firm feels so much better about coming to work every day and going out into the marketplace and saying where they work and opening doors and opening new business, that the return is as much more qualitative things. So just gauge return broadly. It’s not always a hard ROI revenue number. Sometimes it’s something else that influences the revenue number in a meaningful way.
Jeff McKay: That’s a great way to wrap. I like that.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. There you go.
Jeff McKay: Look at that. Normally you kick off, but boy you finished that one well.
Jason Mlicki: Every once in a while I go the distance.
Jeff McKay: All right. I’m going to hang up and I’m going to go watch some episodes of Abstract.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. That’s good.
Jeff McKay: It’s a great show. Watch it.
Jason Mlicki: Worth your time. Cool.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, that New York one was really good.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. See you.
Jeff McKay: See you buddy.
Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to Rattle and Pedal divergent thoughts on marketing and growing professional services firms. Find content related to this episode at RattleandPedal.com. Rattle and Pedal is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.