by Dan Woychick

Close up photo of pen book on field of leaves. We All Have Stories to Tell. the earliest days of civilization, human beings have told stories to explain the unexplainable. The desire to make complex things simpler and more understandable has produced an abundance of myths, aphorisms, and rules of thumb that remain cultural touchstones to this day. For example:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Don’t go in the pool after you eat.
  • You need a college degree to get a good job.

The enduring appeal of tales like these owes as much to the familiar comfort they bring as to any kernels of truth they may contain.

Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories explain how things work, how we make and justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we create our identities, and how we understand our place in the world. – Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Critical mass
With WiFi and mobile networks reaching ever more broadly, the ability to share knowledge and shape opinions has never been easier. With such accessible broadcast platforms, I’ve noticed a growing number of self-appointed “thought leaders” make it a habit to point out – often quite eloquently and convincingly – the many ways that prevailing wisdom is misguided.

However, unlike the curious band of misfits on the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters – an entertaining mash-up of pop culture and science experiments – many writers are long on sweeping opinions and woefully short when it comes to offering alternatives to the myths they’re busting.

It’s one thing to observe and document a problem and quite another to create a new solution. Or, as I once heard a director observe – critics are to motion pictures as ornithologists are to birds.

Learning to fly
Having the ability to discern good from bad – or true from false – is only the beginning when there is the need to replace a familiar story with something better. Moving people and organizations to action – achieving behavior change and positive outcomes – requires more than exposing dusty myths to the light of day.

Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…” – Peter Guber

People need stories. To transcend the current state of things, we need to be myth builders, not myth busters.

Spinning yarns
If we treat marketing and communications as a concerted effort to engage people around a compelling narrative – if, like, we really have “ideas worth spreading” – we may need to rethink how and with whom we work. Some key threads to consider:

  • Stay curious. The most certain path to understanding and reaching an audience is to vigilantly resist thinking you know more about them than you really do. Just remember that the child who repeatedly asks “Why?” – tiresome though it may be – is learning a lot more than you are. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.
  • Collaborate. As a way to multiply our curiosity and skills, we need to get used to the idea of expanding our personal networks. The problems that desperately need solutions require stories and audiences on a far greater scale. We must combine forces, bringing new voices and ideas to the table, to increase our effectiveness.
  • Make small bets. Start thinking of your office as a laboratory where experiments are ongoing. Reaching the big milestone is a misguided mindset. Use prototypes or pilot projects to fail early, fail fast, and learn faster.
  • Take the long view. Next year matters more than next week. This is not a recipe for procrastinating, but an acknowledgment that coordinating complex systems is an effort that bears fruit over time. The best way to rally people to your cause – to share stories on an epic scale – is to keep the big picture clearly in sight.

Creating value
Revealing the truth is undeniably a form of storytelling. We all benefit by living with our eyes wide open. But if we want people to listen to our stories, to care, and to act, we can’t simply point out that the emperor has no clothes, we must also provide a new wardrobe. Because, as Ira Glass noted, great stories happen to those who can tell them.

Related content:
Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon
Social Proof, or Why We Pick Crowded Restaurants Over Empty Ones

Serious Play

by Dan Woychick

Slow - Children at PlayFew would argue we live in a time of almost unprecedented change. We watch uncomfortably as one problem after another grows in scale and urgency, our efforts to address them largely ineffective.

This growing rift between the size and complexity of our problems and the effectiveness of existing approaches to address them – termed “the ingenuity gap” by futurist Thomas Homer-Dixon in his 2002 book – calls out for new alternatives, new ideas. And yet one of our best weapons for generating new ideas and increasing creativity from everyone is routinely discouraged or dismissed.

No fun allowed
Research has repeatedly shown that children at play are not wasting time, they are engaging in an activity that is vital to their physical, social, and emotional development. Playing stimulates curiosity and imagination and encourages exploration of new ideas and behaviors in a relatively risk-free environment – conditions that are ripe for creativity.

As we become adults, we play less and less – and only in certain settings – undermined by our own self-consciousness. We grow embarrassed about sharing our ideas, fearing the judgment of our peers, and avoid any behavior considered outside the norm. This fear leads to more conservative thinking and behavior.

The problem-solving orthodoxies taught in school and the “best practices” of the business world routinely suppress ingenuity. We sacrifice play – and creativity – at the altar of efficiency.

Even in everyday language, play is stigmatized by society. We condemn the deceitful business owner who is “gaming the system,” or raise our eyebrows at the lothario and label him a “player.”

A powerful force
Despite discouragement at every turn, our basic human needs and desires don’t change as we age. We want to play. Based on the phenomenal growth of the gaming industry – measured by video game consoles, online games, and mobile apps – we will play.

In a good game, we play on the edge of our skill level, receive regular feedback and rewards, and live in a heightened state of energy and attentiveness. This sort of practiced improvisation mimics the mindset and neurochemistry of our most creative state. It’s exhilarating.

But it’s not as if we need any of that on the job, do we?

In his research, psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith argues that play is both misunderstood and vital to the well being of children and adults: “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

Unleashing our playful nature
It’s commonly asserted that we learn from our mistakes, and yet every societal, educational, and workplace signal discourages us from making any. Mistakes could cost you respect, influence, or your job. If you make a mistake, someone might criticize or correct you. Mistakes cause people to feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Someone once asked Thomas Edison if he was discouraged by his numerous failed attempts to invent the light bulb. He responded by saying that he hadn’t failed, he just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Most of us don’t work in an environment that supports that kind of unbridled experimentation. A perception exists that there is simply too much at stake. Time is money, as they say.

However, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, noted in a recent essay that “you increasingly hear large corporations and institutions now wish to act more like start-up companies, in order to innovate and become more agile.”

To encourage innovation, we must create environments where people feel secure in taking risks. When we can act as if there is nothing (or little) to lose, we are more willing to try new things. In making mistakes, we continue to learn, uncovering fresh approaches that expand our ability to solve problems. In other words, we are free to play.

Making play work
Trying to instill an innovative workplace culture, it’s easy to get lost in the trappings of “creativity” – installing a foosball table in the conference room and ordering everyone to wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays – but it’s more important to understand what drives our enjoyment of playing games.

Play is a rewarding activity because it fulfills a basic human need to feel productive. In the context of a game, we enjoy our ability to make something happen. In order to translate those same feelings to workplace activities, you must have:

  • An environment that eliminates (or reduces) the fear of failure.
  • A clear goal.
  • Actionable next steps.
  • A more direct correlation between actions taken and their impact.

Feedback is key. Playing a good game is engaging because we receive nearly instantaneous feedback and rewards. We know what we’re trying to accomplish, we know what to do next, and even our failures fill us with optimism that we are getting closer to winning.

If we want to make work more meaningful – even fun – it’s time to get serious about play.

Related content:
Why is Play Important?
Tales of Creativity and Play
Reality is Broken

Favorite Links: July 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

The Slow Death of the Homepage

Tell a Four-Word Story

Have You Asked Them What They Need?
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Can Four Economists Build the Most Economically Efficient Charity Ever?
The Atlantic

Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

by Dan Woychick

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.

Are You in the Mood?

by Dan Woychick

I like watching home renovation shows – it beats doing renovation projects myself! The culminating moment of this television genre occurs when the designer reveals the makeover to the appreciative homeowners. Ta-da! Remarkably, no one ever hates it … or maybe they just edit that out in post-production.

Every designer has experienced that sound – an unmistakable, albeit brief, silence that signals a presentation is about to go horribly wrong. Weeks of work will be discarded. An entirely new direction will be requested.

From the client’s perspective, that very same moment is when a bit of trust is eroded: Wasn’t she listening when we spent all that time discussing this project? Why doesn’t he understand what I need? Did I hire the wrong designer?

A cure for the big reveal
Truthfully, many designers feed off the adrenaline rush of presenting their many awesome ideas – conjured out of thin air – to an appreciative audience. Clients are complicit in this process, often preferring to bypass information gathering and get right to the mockups with assurances that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Except when they don’t.

We’ve found one of the best ways to eliminate that awkward presentation moment – and improve designer/client collaboration – is to include a mood board in the creative process.

The mood board foreshadows our vision of the overall look and feel of a brand campaign, publication, or other large marketing communications initiative. It encourages conversation that allows us to acquire insights, uncover stylistic pet peeves, and confirm or adjust strategic points of emphasis. This intervention, early in the process, represents a small investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return. Think of it as rapid visual prototyping that makes the design of all subsequent materials more efficient and predictable.

Most importantly, a mood board bridges the gap between the thinking (strategy) and the doing (tactics).

First things first
Before we begin playing with pencils or pixels, each project must be grounded in a sound communications strategy. We begin by reviewing all existing research, marketing plans, resources, and other relevant background materials.

In a series of conversations, we aim to familiarize ourselves with the project’s stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities. Our goal is to form recommendations based on identifying the gaps between current and desired audience perceptions and behaviors.

At the completion of this phase, we summarize the project in a creative brief. This document outlines the project goals, the findings of our initial meetings and discussions, and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Making ideas visible
Initially, clients may have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of a mood board: “Exactly what are we looking at here?” The mood board isn’t intended to look like an ad or a website or a two-page magazine spread.

As we begin the conversation, first we set the context by reviewing the agreed upon communications strategy. The mood board is a visual reflection of that strategy and uses color, typography, imagery, key themes or messages, and other graphic elements to signal the tone and creative direction for the project. This allows our discussion to focus more revealingly on the big picture – does it feel right – rather than fixate on specific tactics or minor details.

The reason mood board presentations are so productive is that the designer and client are reviewing an unfinished product. There’s room for interpretation. This early peek allows time to incorporate feedback and, along with the creative brief, provides a tangible touchstone for evaluating everything that follows.

A natural progression
Life may be full of surprises, but if I’ve done my job well, a presentation of a full-blown campaign should be greeted with comments like “Of course!” or “You nailed it.” I prefer to find drama on television, not in boardrooms.

By using mood boards, you can help your clients see what you’re thinking, enable them to participate in the creative process, and produce more effective design. That should put everyone in a good mood!

Favorite Links: May 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

The Studio is the World: Educating Tomorrow’s Designers

UNICEF Tells Slacktivists: Give Money, Not Facebook Likes
The Atlantic

Figure It Out
Harvard Business Review

Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care
On Being

Think Like a Human

by Dan Woychick

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit