Tag Archives: Dan Woychick

Twas the Night Before Deadline

Santa sleigh over blue forest with snow falling at night


Twas the night before deadline, when all through the office
Everybody was stirring, so nervous and cautious.
The layouts were hung on display in the hall,
In hopes that the boss would soon make a call.

Designers were huddled around glowing Macs,
Writers were bleary buoyed by coffee and snacks.
To reach their objectives, they toiled and strained,
But uncertainty dogged them and questions remained.
When down by the front desk there arose such a clatter,
They sprang from their cubes to see what was the matter.

Arms full of trinkets brought home for his friends,
Out tumbled coffee mugs, tote bags, and pens;
The boss had returned from an industry conference.
He tossed out new jargon that seemed to be nonsense.

More rapid than FedEx his big ideas came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Curation of content, engagement will spiral,
“Go leverage our channels, make sure it goes viral!
“On Facebook! On Pinterest! On Tumblr and Twitter!
“Optimize! ROI! There’s a lot to consider.”

His minions were puzzled. Was this a direction?
Should they blindly take action or risk insurrection?
Chasing marketing trends, they’d seen this before,
Yet the lack of success was hard to ignore.

And then, in the back, sitting calmly without blinking,
The web guy asked softly what all had been thinking:
“What’s our primary objective? What are we doing?
“What do we know about the audience we’re pursuing?”
We all turned to face him, intrigued by his candor.
Would we find clarity and wisdom, or enrage our commander?

“By the skin of our teeth, by the seat of our pants,
“It’s no way to work. We leave everything to chance.
“Employing random tactics does not count as strategy.
“It’s not ‘integrated.’ It’s a marketing tragedy.”

The boss smiled wanly, his confidence waning,
He wasn’t used to his colleagues complaining.
Then he straightened his tie and tapped on his phone,
“He’s tweeting!” an intern exclaimed with a groan.
Next seen by his followers, the privileged few?
“We can’t all be leaders #sotrue”

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon filled us with that familiar dread.
The launch date was nigh; it was business as usual:
Adrift, yet hopeful, almost inexcusable.

We sprung back to work, just like Santa’s elves.
We laughed at our fate in spite of ourselves.
This lack of a plan would be quite ironic,
If industry-wide it wasn’t so chronic.

Then we heard in the distance, could it be so?
The sound of sleigh bells o’er the fresh-fallen snow.
Would our wishes be granted? We were good girls and boys.
A research-based plan would be better than toys.
Santa laughed as he rode through the cold winter night:
May your customers be merry and your strategy bright!

by Dan Woychick

Light a Candle

Photo of yellow candles and candle lightby Dan Woychick

There’s not a single designer I know who, upon receiving a freshly printed copy of a new publication or clicking on a just-launched website that they designed, doesn’t immediately spot something that they wish could be fixed or improved. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, this tendency to fixate on details. But in an effort to hew to the adage “it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the things that make working in nonprofit design and marketing worthy of thanks.

More than in the private sector, where passions tend to favor profits over people, most people who work for nonprofit organizations do so because they care – about the mission, about doing good, about helping others, about making the world a better place. Life is too short – and we spend too much of it at work – to spend it on things we don’t care about. I’m thankful for people who follow their heart.

We live in a time of nearly unprecedented disruption and upheaval. Changes to the way we communicate, raise funds, learn, travel, and consume everything from movies to medications can cause uncertainty and anxiety, but these changes also represent tremendous opportunities. I’m thankful for living in a time when the status quo is being questioned relentlessly, and conditions are ripe for change.

The phone that I have in my pocket is more powerful than the computer that was on my desktop twenty years ago. From file sharing to Facebook to Photoshop, from gigabytes to Google, our remarkable advances in technology are a great equalizer. Tools and software that were once non-existent or cost-prohibitive to nonprofit organizations are now essential and readily available. I’m thankful that technology makes it ever easier to do previously unimaginable things.

Nonprofit organizations tend to take the long view. When you’re tackling some of humanity’s most challenging problems – poverty, education, abuse, hunger – it’s probably wise not to rely on quarterly reports to boost your self-esteem. Persistence in the face of long odds and slow progress is a requirement both to one’s sanity and developing innovative solutions. I’m thankful for both the patience required to dream big, and the impatience necessary to avoid settling.

In addition to the reasons above, I like working with people who work in the nonprofit sector because they tend to be bright, collegial, and generally good humored. It’s not like it’s a laugh-a-minute trying to advance the human condition, but in my experience tough problems often call for a lighter touch. I’m thankful for people who don’t check their humanity at the office door.

Americans are remarkably generous. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I think that deep down we maintain an unwavering belief in our responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. As one of my clients once said, “People don’t give you money because you need it. They give you money because they feel they can make a difference.” I’m thankful for all the people who donate time and money to make our world better, and our nonprofit organizations possible.

Often, it’s the little things that make working in the nonprofit world a gratifying experience. I’m thankful for wonderful collaborators, audacious dreamers, and enough candles to light the way.

What are you thankful for?

Too Much vs. Too Little

by Dan Woychick

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one at right, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.
In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?


by Dan Woychick

Close up photo of pen book on field of leaves. We All Have Stories to Tell. http://favim.com/image/263830/From 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 TED.com, 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

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!