illustration by metagramme

Creating consensus

Let’s demystify the creative process for clients.

Most of the articles I’ve written here have been focused on the marketing and communication challenges our clients experience. To that end, we’ve discussed the whys and wherefores of these issues, but haven’t spent much time on how Metagramme solves these problems in our design process. If you’re a client, or someone who is thinking about working with us, you might not care about the path we take to a solution. Most of our clients are interested primarily in the impact our work has on their business. Out of respect for you, dear reader, I decided a while back that I’d avoid in-depth discussions around process in this space. But there’s a step we added in early 2012, which delivers such tremendous value to our clients that it would be selfish for me to keep it under my hat any longer.

For many of our clients, building internal consensus around a branding or design problem can be an arduous process. Every ambitious marketing director knows what I’m talking about. Even the most charismatic CEOs struggle with rallying the troops. For most of our clients, there are multiple stakeholders in the organization whose opinions must be considered when it comes to big communication challenges. Not only is it hard to bring officers to agreement on whether or how to address a problem, but It’s also easy to overlook the dark horses, the less-senior people who have some level of influence that could throw a wrench in the process after you’ve hired a design firm.

It’s our clients’ job to build unity before hiring us, but to a large degree it’s our job to maintain it during the creative process after we’re hired. I’m about to describe a simple but powerful tool that practically guarantees consensus. But first, let me be crystal on what I’m not saying: we don’t do design by committee. Our business runs at maximum efficiency (and sanity) when we work with a single client contact who is also the chief decision-maker. This is one reason why I love working directly with CEOs or executive directors. But the reality is that such scenarios are untenable with many clients. It goes without saying that the smaller the stakeholder group, the better. Having one point person for most communication throughout a client engagement is a requirement for us. But sometimes the decision-making group cannot be pared down to fewer than 3–6 people, even if some are only present for critical milestones.

When Metagramme begins any project of strategic significance – be it a brand identity, interface, book, or other important business tool – we begin the creative process with a discovery phase. This work is done up close and in person with our clients. Nearly every firm conducts discovery work in some way, but I don’t know of anyone who does it quite like us. I’m not sure why, because it’s simple and makes life a lot easier.

Central to our discovery is a workshop. We ask clients to spend a few hours gathering visual artifacts that inspire them as it relates to the project at hand. Jason and I go further. We dig deep in search of the right visual artifacts as well, spending anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks depending on the scope of work.

For instance, when preparing for a brand identity workshop, we look at case studies of how a visual identity is applied across mediums. We wade through mountains of logos, of course, but more important we look at how the visual program functions as a whole for various companies. We also look at fonts in use; color palettes; patterns, icons and imagery – really anything that seems relevant to what the client needs to communicate. These days, just about anything can be found online. But we also grab magazine clippings, scan books, and dig through our archive of printed ephemera.

We ask every key person on the client team to not only attend the workshop, but to engage in preliminary research as well. I find that getting people out of their daily environment stimulates creativity, so we usually host the workshop at our studio. In a pinch, we’ve done this work remotely via Skype, but nothing beats face-to-face. Either way, everyone must leave their expectations and egos at the door.

The process takes a full day, sometimes two or more. We talk through every image and/or case study, evaluating its merits and shortcomings. Everyone in the room has the opportunity to weigh in. We find this is a very low-risk and fun way to create alongside our clients. Everything that passes muster gets taped on a wall. Over the course of time, we create a large collage or mood board. The mood board serves as a visual creative brief that steers everything that follows. We also record these conversations, so everyone has access to the visual and verbal results of our work.

Through these workshops, we create a shared pool of visual meaning. We build consensus, clarity and trust before setting pencil to paper. This is tremendously helpful. I find that people misunderstand each other more often than not. But when we create together and document the work, nothing falls through the cracks. No valid opinion goes unnoticed. It’s never a fight to finish the workshop; rather, I’ve found it very easy to lead the process. It’s a joy to watch things unfold.

Some of my colleagues might question what we’re doing here. Are we looking for things to copy? Is this an elaborate way to shirk obligations and pastiche something from what others have done? The answer is a resounding no. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Nothing is new under the sun. The artist must therefore embrace influence, or forever be frustrated in his unadorned cell. No one this side of deity can create ex nihilo. By embracing a broad and deep range of influence, we’re able to find a unique solution to the client’s design challenge.

These workshops also demystify the creative process. Nobody thinks we’re brewing potions in dark corners or having 2 am scotch-fueled brainstorming sessions anymore. Gone are the Mad Men days of the big reveal. I love watching Don Draper command a room, but I get hives just thinking about the way they punish themselves and their poor clients in every single campaign. Since we started conducting workshops, clients are never surprised when they see our design direction for the first time. I don’t walk into those meetings with butterflies anymore. Clients have less anxiety while waiting to see what we come up with. They trust us because they’ve already created with us, and everyone is on the same page – with evidence to boot. The client immediately sees how we got from A to B (and yes, all key team members are present for the design presentation). Finally, this has a dramatic effect on the rest of the design process. Sure, we make changes after the first presentation. But they are usually minor. In my experience thus far, at least 80% of what we show in the initial design direction makes it to the very end. We never go back to the drawing board anymore. This allows everyone to work in a much more efficient and relaxed manner.

Our workshops aren’t exorbitant, but neither are they cheap. That’s because the value they provide to clients is high, and it reduces time and money that would otherwise be spent in rounds of revisions. You get much more than good research and a day or two of our undivided attention. You get an efficiently crafted creative direction that is right on target. No more guesswork. You get clarity, focus, and consensus among even the rowdiest of stakeholders. You get to play (remember show-and-tell?) and flex creative muscles that might have gone unnoticed or underdeveloped. After all, why on earth would you hire a design firm if working with them wasn’t fun?

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