Creating a theme to align your project team
And maybe, IDK, transform your entire organization!
No problems whatsoever and no missing pieces at all
Recently, visual designer Tyler and I sat down with our CEO, Lori. She’d asked for an update on a web redesign project he and I had been blissfully working on. I had done weeks of discovery full of interviews and visits and had filled a wireframe with content design. Tyler had collaborated with our client on everything from palette to header styles, and we were nearing our final design deadline, to begin development immediately. Our client was happy and we were happy.
“So what’s the theme?” Lori asked.
Cue record scratch. The… theme?
How do we make sure the content and design are speaking the same language? How do we make sure our clients are truly understanding the direction? How do we ensure we’re creating impact? How do we align development and content teams? How do we inspire one another with the vision for the work we’re doing?
Uh, theme. Sure, sure, no problem. I was familiar with the word. So I read from the content strategy findings. I pointed Lori to the target audiences. I handed her the core content strategy. Tyler pulled up the design mockups, gut test, and style tiles. Desperate, I opened documents from the discovery phase — look, we did interviews! We did the legwork! Witness us!
The work we’d done was all good, she said. But there was a piece missing.
At this point, Tyler and I were groaning. By most standards, the project was going great. We hadn’t hit any roadblocks. The client loved the progress so far. We enjoyed working on the project. Nobody had complaints! WHY WAS SHE BULLYING US?
Of course, Lori wasn’t picking on us (unless this is all an extreeeemely long con, in which case, props to her). She was pushing us.
She knew the power of a project theme.
What a project theme is, and why it matters
A project theme is an agreed-upon, easy-to-remember motto that encompasses the spirit we’re bringing to the site content and design. It’s a phrase that summarizes both where the organization is right now and where they hope to go. It isn’t a marketing phrase created for the public. Instead, it’s an internal compass, for all internal teams as we design and develop the site, and for our clients as they maintain the site in the future.
Why is the theme important? Because it’s deceptively simple. Because it’s easy to remember and reference. Because it’s exciting and inspiring.
How we created our project theme
How else? With a whiteboard. Tyler and I got together with Lori and Mel, our Director of Consulting, and started sharing our ideas. Bad ideas first, always. We talked about what we knew. We brainstormed on Post-Its. We cringed and hemmed and hawed and reworked. Since a project theme is meant to be brief, every word counts. We threw out anything that didn’t totally resonate, and anything that didn’t excite us.
The client was an esteemed research institution, and the discovery phase had revealed a big breakdown in public image — community members had no idea what kind of life-changing work was happening there. Likewise, the organization’s director had indicated hopes that the institute would become friendlier and more community-oriented in the near future. We wanted to highlight the research and destroy the intimidating mystery.
After an hour or so, we arrived at our project theme:
An open door to innovation.
How a project theme leads to good friction
As we continued working over the next few weeks, we constantly asked ourselves and each other “Does this say ‘open door to innovation?’”
Having an agreed-upon touchpoint made it much easier to create, give, and hear critical feedback. And as we worked, we saw the effects of the project theme on the organization itself. We shared designs that embodied the theme, and some people beamed while other people got nervous. The concepts we’d heard in the discovery phase still sounded good, but now the stakeholders had to decide what it meant for their actual organization. How open would that door be? Open to whom, and why? All the time, or occasionally? What priority did they really want to place on the ideas they’d shared?
Ultimately, just as a website is more than a bunch of pixels and code, the project theme acted as much more than a handful of words. It led to major shifts in both graphic and content design, and fruitful conversations with, and within, the organization. (The website is in development now, and we can’t wait until we can share it!)
But… my precious feelings!
Deciding on the perfect theme wasn’t easy, and understanding the need for it was hard at first, too. When Lori started poking at the work we’d done, I was defensive and hurt, horrified by how defensive and hurt I felt, and upset that I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt that way.
“I want you to know that I really appreciate the critical feedback,” I said again and again, through tears.
After some reflection, I realized: I keep waiting for a day when I’ll be “good enough,” and experienced enough, to do it all on my own. To ask only the right questions, to see the clearest insights, to draw the most concise and insightful conclusions, to see both the big picture and the details, and to express this all seamlessly, both in person and on the web.
But being “good enough” to do it all alone is a fantasy. In reality, doing it “all on my own” sounds lonely and hard. And we don’t value silos, pride, or toughness at Pixo — we value vulnerability, critique, and collaboration.
One of the major benefits of working on the project theme was doing it together, and creating a shared language in that way. It reminded me that my real goal is to be humble, open, and knowledgeable enough to work with others in a way that makes transformative work possible.