I have a confession to make: I kill houseplants. Never on purpose, of course, but that probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference to them. I invariably forget to water them, or I water them too much, or I neglect to fertilize them or repot them or a hundred other things you’re apparently supposed to do to plants. Then they wither away and die, cursing my name. As a result, the collection of houseplants my wife and I have at home has dwindled to a cutting of bamboo (somewhat sickly), a pair of succulents (very hardy) and a handful of spider plants (seemingly impossible to kill). I’m undoubtedly on some kind of most wanted list, if the Plant Kingdom has such things.
Given my obvious disregard for the lives of potted plants, it’s frankly a bit odd that I’m in charge of keeping the plants alive at Black Lake Studio. We only have two, admittedly, and I think persistent watering has solved the problem of the tree’s leaves turning brown and falling off. I hope.
Then there’s the fern. It’s pathetic, really. No amount of watering has changed its yellowed, patchy appearance. It just sort of mopes in the corner, the plant equivalent of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, looking like death itself, yet stubbornly refusing to get it over with and kick the bucket. Yesterday, I finally took pity on the poor thing and did some cursory googling to find out what I could do for it. My research revealed that I should 1) keep the soil damp, 2) move it out of direct sunlight, and 3) prune away any dead or diseased foliage.
Steps 1 and 2 were simple enough, but step 3 was going to take a bit more work. More than half of the fronds displayed unhealthy-looking brown spots, and there was a great deal of dead or dying plant material to pry out. However, after only a few minutes of surgery with a pair of scissors, the dilapidated old thing was already looking perkier. It’s a lot smaller now, but also less cluttered. The remaining fronds are actually green, and they are no longer being choked out by stalks that will never regain their vitality. For now the fern still looks a bit sad, kind of like a plucked chicken, but with any luck it’s on the road to recovery.
So, why have I subjected you to this story? There is actually a point: the principle of pruning applies far more broadly than just feeble office ferns. Creative and business processes also require regular maintenance and decluttering. Over months and years, unproductive processes build up. Workflow habits, client interaction protocols, teamwork methods, organizational policies, brainstorming techniques, management structures, and more can be effected. Not everything we try works, and we often forget to dispose of failed processes, allowing them to take up space and siphon off our effort. Even when they just sit there, demanding no work from us to maintain them, vestiges of old processes have a way of choking out new, productive processes, just like dead foliage chokes a plant’s growth. Keeping them means you can’t put something better in their place, or that you’ll bump into obstacles if you try.
We don’t do this on purpose, as if taking aim to shoot ourselves in the foot, just as I don’t kill plants deliberately. I kill them slowly through neglect while my focus is on other things. Likewise, process clutter accumulates and threatens to kill our productivity whether we notice it or not, and all we can do is fight back. As William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In physics terms, entropy will be the end of us unless we regularly put energy into the system. Removing unproductive processes is the only way to make way for growth and renewed productivity in the future. And it has to be done regularly, or else entropy will silently undo our best efforts.
As a fern must be pruned to thrive, so too our processes must be pruned from time to time. As the new year began, we at Black Lake reviewed how we craft ideas, create deliverables, and manage projects. We pinpointed processes that weren’t working and either modified them or threw them out in favor of something better. When necessary, we brainstormed or did research on how to improve our processes. Going forward, we decided to devote one day a month exclusively to building our own brand, including our marketing and professional development efforts. We determined that we would start sending out a monthly newsletter, which you’ll be seeing in the weeks to come. We figured out how to clean up our files and project management software. We even considered how we use our physical space, eliminating detritus and rearranging furniture to maximize output. Sometimes, this means throwing things out and having fewer processes in total, but the goal is more effective processes, not just more processes. There’s no point in paying the opportunity cost on a process that isn’t producing as it should.
Pruning well requires vigilance, wisdom, and perseverance. We can all learn to be better process pruners, just as I still have a long way to go as an indoor gardener. First, recognize the problem, like I did when I saw that the fern was pathetic. Then figure out how best to prune, whether by researching or brainstorming or consulting an expert. Finally, follow through in the long run. Keep watering and pruning, strategically adding and subtracting. Preliminary steps will help (the fern already looks a bit better), but unless you’re consistent, your initial efforts will be for naught.
So, I’ll keep trying to prevent this fern from falling back into a state of squalor, and I trust you’ll do even better pruning your own processes.
The Black Lake staff often interacts face-to-face with our clients, but it’s not every day that we get to talk to their clients. This week, we got a chance to sit down with several long-standing clients of one of our local clients and pick their brains about the company’s brand. Our goal was to find out how they felt about the firm and why, and what they thought about the preliminary branding and messaging work we had done.
The results of the focus group were positive and productive, and they also got me thinking about best practices for conducting focus groups in general. How do you weed out unhelpful comments and get the most out of insightful ones? How do you construct questions and activities to maximize the productivity of the meeting? Upon further reflection, I devised the following recommendations:
1. Phrase questions and statements positively.
In our focus group, we gave the clients slips of paper with a variety of different phrases that could describe their feelings about the company. We asked them to sort the statements into three piles: Agree, Disagree, and Neutral. We designed this activity to give us insight into their perceptions of the brand, and to help us find out if they were aligned with our perceptions. To do so, we had to include statements that aligned with our ideas, neutral statements, and statements that portrayed the opposite perspective.
However, we didn’t want to make it obvious which statements we hoped the clients would disagree with. That would probably only make them biased in favor of agreeing with us. For example, if you hoped that people would agree with the statement, “The company genuinely cares about my family’s best interests,” it would be silly to pair it with this statement: “The company doesn’t care at all about my family.” Who would want to agree with that? It’s bitter and negative, and after all, these are satisfied customers you’re talking to. Instead, craft a positive statement that someone would be comfortable agreeing with, and that would tell you something about the clients’ thoughts and feelings. In this case, the statement “They are one of several professionals I use to get the job done” would imply that the client doesn’t place a lot of importance on an intimate, familial connection with the company, but rather values their utility.
2. Include a wide range of clients.
Most companies have a wide range of different types of clients. Clients may be men or women, old or young, new or long-standing, employers or employees, etc. Different life experiences lead to different perspectives, and therefore different perceptions of a business. If you don’t want your results to be skewed by selection bias, make sure you take this diversity into account when you form your focus group.
Be aware of generational differences. Some generations are more familiar with digital communications, while others will tend to prefer print materials. Think about what demographic segment the company most wants to target in the future, and be sure to include current clients who fit that description. But don’t neglect to include people further from the center of the target, too!
3. Their first reaction is their honest reaction.
Showing clients messaging or visual treatments is like telling them a joke—if you have to explain it, it didn’t work. Encourage clients to share their immediate, knee-jerk reactions to the material you’re showing them. If it strikes a chord with them right off the bat, to mix my metaphors, it probably has something going for it. If it throws them off before they have a chance to think about it, that might be a sign that you need to head back to the drawing board.
4. Distinguish between execution and concept.
Though a person’s first reaction is their most honest reaction, you should still dig deeper. In our focus group, we found that there were some key differences between their perceptions of the surface characteristics of the verbal and visual messaging (specific words, phrases, colors, fonts, and design elements) and the concept we were actually trying to get across through them. Identifying this disconnect is good, because it will help you pick the right vocabulary and visuals to communicate the brand narrative accurately. Connotations are perceived differently by different people, and examining clients’ reactions can show you how to speak their language.
While verbal and visual precision are necessary, and you shouldn’t disregard the clients’ feedback in this area, focus more on the concept and narrative you’re trying to incarnate. If the clients buy into that, then you’ll know you’re on the right track. Once you have the concept right, it will be much easier to nail the execution.
5. Remove outliers.
Finally, be alert for outliers, responses that are idiosyncratic and do not represent the opinions of a significant portion of the client base. These can pop up when clients are giving you their gut reactions, but they may also appear when you dive deeper. Sometimes, clients get hung up on picky little details—a color they don’t like, a word that bugs them, something that reminds them of a negative interaction they had with another company, etc.—and won’t be able to get past it to give more constructive feedback. Respect these clients and their ideas, but don’t feel beholden to them, as if you need to change the whole brand because one client hates the color red. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll be able to figure out which comments are relevant and which should be set aside.
Focus groups are not an exact science, but if you follow these tips, they can be valuable, productive additions to your creative process.
As a recent graduate of Ferris State University, I have experienced many different types of team dynamics. As a designer, I enjoy collaborating and working with a team for great solutions. I have often stepped up to lead groups of various shapes, sizes, and levels of dedication. Here are a few best practices I’ve learned from working with unpredictable teams.
1. Keep Communication Open
Amongst Team Members
Clear communication is a must among team members. This is not only for honest critique, but also for different project tasks that need to be completed. If you’re not sure what you need to do for a project, find out from your colleague or leader! As the Joseph Addison-inspired quote states, “He who hesitates is lost.” Such would a project be if the members weren’t collectively on top of things!
Always keep management apprised of project status and issues. I don’t mean you should tattle on your teammates (“Hey, Suzie isn’t helping!”); try to solve issues internally first. Communication with management alerts them to the situation and gives them the opportunity to intervene as necessary.
2. Be Willing
To Fill Various Roles
If the group dynamic isn’t working, don’t be afraid to shuffle roles around. Get outside your comfort zone; dive into that new app platform, and research some new UX trends while you’re at it!
To Teach Others
If a dedicated team member needs assistance, guide them through the part of the project on which they need input. When designers were added to my group project late in the game, I trusted them to deliver project aspects that were not only visually but also conceptually on target. It was nerve-wracking, but the results were great! I also learned a lot about project management along the way.
3. Delegate Accordingly
Give Team Members Their Favorite Work
In order to get the maximum output from each team member, try to give each of them project tasks they enjoy doing. If people like what they’re doing, they tend to be more productive.
Workload vs. Dedication
I am all for equal participation and dedication to project work. Unfortunately, there are some cases that involve a “stinker” who just won’t give you those few prototypes you asked for. In that case, alert management and work through the solution together for the benefit of the entire team.
4. Be Honest
Sometimes You Can Fix The Problem
If you have an issue with a team member, confront them about it without attacking them. Be honest and share the opportunity for change. Sometimes, the team member isn’t aware of the situation (or that you noticed it), and they will fix the issue before you have to alert management.
There’s a fine line between constructive and negative criticism. When you’re collaborating with your team to go over prototypes or concepts, be open to ideas. Share ways an idea or visual could be improved, instead of saying “It’s not working!” and making your fellow team members feel devalued. Offer praise for what’s done well.
5. Keep Extensive Records
Lists, Lists, Lists!
Extensive listing helped me get through many large-scope projects. I made to-do lists with dates, delegation lists, researching lists, (grocery lists), and any type of list to help organize the project and the steps to complete it. Often, my to-do lists were translated into a large sticky-note collage on my wall, always in my least-favorite color (pink). I couldn’t wait to remove the unsightly blemish from my wall!
Have a Copy of Everything
You may come across the unfortunate incident in which a person leaves your group and forgets the “dumping” portion of his or her “dump and run.” I even lost Dropbox copies of project pieces, and had to recover documents from other team members. My advice? Keep a local and external copy of any files from all team members.
6. Stay Positive
If your project isn’t going well, being negative won’t help the situation. A positive attitude goes a long way. Putting a brighter spin on the situation can uplift your team as well. Before long, you’ll be out of the situation and on to bigger and better things.
I’ve learned from various teams that I love collaboration and truly believe that leadership roles introduce the opportunity for learning. I know I will take everything I’ve gained from my education and personal experiences and do my best to apply it in the future, including here at Black Lake. I want my eyes and mind open so I can drink in the working world of design and technology and its interaction with user needs!