Informed Simplicity

A significant part of the work I do these days is focused on creating simplicity. The kind of simplicity I’m talking about may be different from what you have in your mind. The type I’m referring to is informed simplicity.

Let me explain.

Ask any child to draw a picture of their home and you’ll get a simple picture. My four-year-old, Matthew, did one the other day. The page was colored with green crayon for the grass, a yellow circle with lines coming out of it for the sun, and a brown box with a triangle on top for a house. Oh, and there were five stick figures in the yard. Two big ones (me and Sherry), two small ones (he and his brother), and our dog. It’s a simple drawing. But it’s simple because that’s all he knows and all he can do.

Now, look at Piet Mondrian. He’s one of my favorite modern artists. His most famous paintings are simple. But unlike Matthew’s drawing, he applies informed simplicity. It’s by choice. Piet takes the complex and subtracts all the parts that don’t work or get in the way. What’s interesting is Mondrian was an impressionist early in his career and later on developed the clear abstract style called De Stijl or “the style”.

Coco Chanel’s famous quote comes to mind.

Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.

This applies to software features, design, marketing and especially copywriting. It also applies to relationships and strategies.

The hard part is knowing what is the right thing to remove. This is a big part of my job and a lesson I’ll always be learning.

Stubborn & Flexible

The last week or so has me pondering a quote from Jeff Bezos I’d like to share with you. I found it again going through old notebooks during the holidays. Here goes:

Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details

The ethos of this statement is a great way to approach marketing and building products. It encourages tenacity while maintaining adaptability. I believe “lean” methodologies when done right, have that message at its core.

Also, the best entrepreneurs, executives and leaders I’ve met simultaneously possess stubbornness and flexibility. The great ones know when to be which at the right times.

One of my focuses this year is to keep this top of mind on every project. My hope is it will foster greater unity (stubborn around the same vision) and less ego and fear (flexible details) across my teams.

We Need More Bridge Builders

A year ago today I wrote this post about the main challenges with website redesign projects.

Since then, I’ve worked on nine website or app projects in various roles (content strategist, information architect, UX lead, project manager and copywriter) and guess what?

Website redesigns are still difficult.

One recurring challenge for a website reboot is that for the first time, or the first time in a long time, ALL departments have to get in the same room and accomplish a goal together. The key word being together. Departments like IT often feel defensive, since they no longer “own” the website. Others, like marketing, sales and operations, have their own expectations for what the new site will do for them.

These internal dynamics and politics seem to be the biggest hurdle and present the most risk for web projects to fail. This is the reason more companies should invest in better facilitators and product managers. The most successful web projects I’ve worked on had someone who ensured good collaboration and managed expectations.

My last job, before I went out on my own, was at a software QA and testing company. One of the services they provided was as an independent validation and verification resource (called IV&V). This role worked outside the vendor(s) and the company to make sure each party had what they needed to make the project successful.

This should be an essential role on all larger projects in software or marketing. It may be considered “overhead”, but isn’t it worth it to reduce risk and ensure a greater ROI? I’ve fought to bring this “bridge building” role into the projects I’ve worked on this year and it’s made a huge difference.

Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in utilizing engagement and project managers with these skills on your projects.

The Other Side of Inertia

I’ve been heads down in several big projects of late. We’re at a point where we’re in sync with the client and everyone is focused on working the plan. Like a crew team tuned-in to the coxswain’s voice, everyone is in the rhythm. I’m fortunate to have an incredible engagement manager partnering with me who knows how to keep the momentum going (Thanks, Marty!).

Momentum is the only thing that matters when deadlines are tight and expectations are high. It’s momentum that enables clients to not get hung up on small details and creative teams not to get sidetracked by distractions.

At this stage of the project, you want as few “new ideas” introduced as possible. None is best. When you’re in create and build mode, all brilliant innovations and improvements should be placed on a backlog to address later.

Coming up with simpler solutions and fresher creative concepts during the process is expected. This is another reason “launch is the beginning” and why continual improvement and optimization are important. But try not to sacrifice present momentum for future enhancement. You don’t need to discard your ideas, just save them for later.

To tie a bow around this point, I’ll leave you with this great quote from Ben Chestnut, founder of Mailchimp.

Never sacrifice momentum. I might know a better path, but if we’ve got a lot of momentum, if everyone’s united and they’re marching together and the path is O.K., just go with the flow. I may eventually nudge them down a new path, but never stop the troops mid march.

Three Questions

Last week, the PGA Tour stopped in my resident city of Greensboro, North Carolina. Unlike most years it passes through town, I made time to walk the fairways and spend time around my old profession. It’s odd seeing people I played with for years inside the ropes while I remain outside.

Of course, I was never a PGA Tour member. I was barely a professional.
Hopping around the mini-tours, staying in small hotels, in even smaller cities and grinding to make the cut, is not the picture of a “pro”. Nevertheless, there I was, fourteen clubs and a dream.

It’s been so long since that life, it feels more like a story I read, not one I lived. I digress.

One of the players I enjoy watching on tour is Ben Crane. He’s not the fastest player, nor does he have the most power. What I like about watching Ben play, is he seems to do everything with intent and purpose. Nothing is happenstance.

This hypothesis was confirmed recently as I listened to Don Miller’s podcast where he was a guest.The podcast, called The StoryBrand Podcast, is about business and marketing so it was intriguing to see a golfer on the ticket as the interviewee.

Ben didn’t disappoint. He was fantastic. He talked about goals, work ethic, planning and success principles he uses that work in any endeavor. I don’t want to ruin it for you. You should listen to it here.

Ok, one practice he talks about that I’m implementing I’ll leave you with too.

After each round, he asks himself three questions.

  1. What went well today?
  2. What did I learn today?
  3. What am I going to do with what I learned?

I hope you’ll join me in the practice of answering those three questions at the end of each day or week.

 

This originally appeared in Notes from the Field.

An Evening with Makoto Fujimura

Last week I went to New York City for 99U Conference. While there, I had the opportunity to attend a private art show and book release for Makoto Fujimura. His new work, Silence and Beauty, was on display at the famed Waterfall Mansion located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The carriage-house turned residence, turned art gallery was five floors of contemporary exploration, including a 20-foot waterfall at the end of the main hall. Featured throughout was Makoto’s new collection as well as various sculptures, paintings, photography, mixed media, installations, ceramics and video arts. It was magnificent.

Great art doesn’t have to match your sofa.

 

Those words came to mind as I wandered from room to room taking it all in. That saying is one I heard a lot growing up as my mom took me through homes, shops and galleries in various towns on the east coast. She always made it a point to show me good art, fashion, literature, architecture and design. One day it might be furniture, the next a painting or novel. The following week it was a house under construction that we’d “sneak” into and critique the layout or fixtures.

Over the course of my childhood, we spent hours together developing my eye for line, shape, color, tone, form, pattern and texture. Because of this, I’ve relished the wonder of the world around me.

After the Makoto Fujimura show, I walked back through Central Park towards the apartment where I was staying. Even though it was exceptionally cold for May, I felt the warmth of gratitude.

I’m thankful my mom taught me about good taste. She showed me form and function, pushing me to experience the aesthetic outside what was comfortable. My mother gave me the gift of art and planted the seeds for a career I never knew I wanted.

It’s now my responsibility to pass this gift to my sons. My hope is they will never drive by a Phillip Johnson building without taking it in; or that they will never sit in an Eames chair without feeling its form; or that they will never walk by a Monet, Benson or Monderin without marvel; or that they will never listen to The Beatles or read Shakespeare without feeling it shift their mood.

Art adds to our quality of life. As we were made in the image of our Creator, a perfect work of art, we are drawn to it.

Art defines what makes us human; and fully human, we will be making things. – Makoto Fujimura

ThirtyEight

Last week I turned 38. A friend said I should write one of those “things I’ve learned in how old you are lists”. So here goes…

(disclaimer: I’m not proclaiming any major wisdom here, just a quick reflection)

In no particular order:

  • Relationships are living and have to be nourished.
  • Good taste can be developed.
  • Being selfish is at the root of most of my challenges.
  • I hope I never stop loving to learn.
  • Cherish the gap between starting and mastering.
  • Give yourself deadlines.
  • Learn to write well.
  • I love going to the movies by myself.
  • I used to be a morning person.
  • Living life is a collaboration.
  • Value your values.
  • You can only control your actions and attitudes.
  • Carry a notebook with you everywhere.
  • God then wife then kids then friends.
  • Staying curious is the greatest thing I’ve done for my career.
  • Success is a planned event.
  • Anyone can go stupid (at any time).
  • We can disagree and still be friends.
  • Discipline is a muscle. I feel like mine has atrophied.
  • Most decisions you make aren’t good or bad until later.
  • There is no heart bigger than a mother’s.
  • “Man mornings” with my boys are invaluable.
  • “Mini moons” with my wife are irreplaceable.
  • Create more. Consume less.
  • The healthcare system is laughable.
  • Sometimes owning your own business isn’t fun.
  • Whenever I slow down, I’m overcome with thankfulness.
  • I’m more aware that I don’t know what I don’t know. And that it’s a lot.
  • Learning to think for yourself on your own is one of the most important things to learn.
  • Gaining a love for math is essential.
  • My ego is the most expensive thing I own.
  • Aim small. miss small.
  • I’m convinced golf is more than a game.
  • Dealing with your parents getting older is hard.
  • I care less about the things I used to care for, and more about the things I used to care less about.
  • I’m pretty good at trivia.
  • I’m pretty horrible with cars, lawns and politics.
  • I forget that I’m almost 40 until I play soccer.

Until next time.

Honestly,

David

This letter originally appeared in my newsletter: Notes from the Field.