Graphic designers are often stereotyped as emotional artists, waiting for inspiration to strike to fuel brilliant ideas. For many, I suppose it’s accurate, otherwise the stereotype would not have come to be. Most times, however, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Instead we have strategy development and design processes that manifest inspiration seemingly at will.
People ask, ‘What inspires you?’ Many things inspire me. Fractals, photosynthesis, children, animal nature, reading, thoughts, dreams, people.
People ask me how I developed my strategic process? Mostly, I developed it by listening to people. Hillman Curtis wrote a great piece about strategy in his MTIV book some years back. I recall seeing how similar it was to my own process. He put a visual to it that made sense, so I added that.
Listening to people talk about their vision reveals patterns over time, from which I’ve devised strategy development processes. I try tweaking them slightly once every year or two, and always change them on the fly to meet the needs of each client. Strategy is my most inspiring tool.
Without the people, though, I would have no need for strategy. You can’t use one without the other. Fortunately, people often come equipped with a sense of purpose, and strategy is the first step on the way to fulfilling that purpose. Once we do a session, we can begin writing and designing something great that helps them reach their goals.
If I had to wait for inspiration to clobber me in order to proceed on any given project, I would have long ago croaked from the waiting. Instead, I employ strategy to manifest inspiration.
Graphic design is driven by inspiration, but inspiration driven by artistic sense has little value in business. Graphic design has the power to infuse marketing with a visually compelling sense of purpose. But business can’t wait for inspiration to strike. We have to manifest inspiration to keep pace with business needs.
Waiting for inspiration inspires, well, waiting. Strategy, on the other hand, inspires great work. What inspires you?
David Ogilvy once said, “Why have a dog and bark yourself?” I love this question.
Think about it. Do you tell your surgeon or dentist how to perform her work? Do you tell the chef how to prepare the meal? How about your attorney—Do you tell him the law precedents? Or do you let them do their jobs, so they can deliver their best work?
One of my clients shared with me how he manages his employees: “I hire great people, then I let them do their thing.” That’s smart strategy.
Countless times, I’ve listened to owners and managers back away from that critical point at which they must begin making strategic commitments. It’s usually when they reach that point of discovery in their project which reveals to them that insisting on skipping strategy was a critical mistake, leaving a gaping hole in their creative marketing efforts.
This happened about a month ago when a client sidestepped all of our strategy questions, instead pointing us to a brand style guide for a yet-to-be-launched brand. I should have red-flagged the project as soon as the sidestepping began, but always the optimist, I kept the project moving forward by filling in the style guide’s holes.
I’ve become quite skilled at quickly routing out the weak points and shoring them up for clients, but there can be some initial backpedaling, where the client feels out of control. What they sometimes don’t realize is that out of control feeling is the best thing that could possibly happen at that moment because it forces us to address important issues before moving productively forward. It also lays groundwork for a smoother process next time. For their part, answering strategy questions, and for our part red-flagging instead of moving forward.
It’s beneficial to understand that forcing a team member to skip a critical step such as strategy is a mistake that undermines team connection, messaging consistency and creative. (Strategy reinforces marketing’s three C’s.)
The resulting clarity of direction is often profound, opening the door to project success.
Knowing what you want isn’t always black and white. If you start out in a grey zone, not knowing the specific end-goal, then add strategy, you will often wind up in no man’s land.
If you skip strategy, moving straight to initiatives, you start out in no man’s land, which is even worse because at the end you will discover that you have nothing useful. Creative that is lacking a strategic foundation is simply art.
If you begin with a specific goal, devise a solid strategy, then get creative with graphic design, art direction and copywriting, the end-product (website/brand/design/ad campaign), will meet your goals and staff will get behind the effort. Everybody wins.
Have you ever chosen a work of art in an art show opening, frame shop, or *gasp* online catalog? Do you recall glazing over all of the choices until you came to the one that shined like a beacon to some part of your mind, practically screaming out to you, ‘Pick me! I’m the one! I was made just for you!’? Think about that feeling for a second. It’s a special one. And it has nothing at all to do with strategy, graphic design or marketing.
So why mention it?
Well, it goes like this: Design or advertising without strategy is essentially nothing more than art. Art is wonderful stuff, but it has little practical application or value in marketing communications. Strategy, on the other hand, allows your company to exceed expectations in its marketing efforts.
What makes art a valuable part of your marketing? Strategy.
What is design and advertising’s best friend? Strategy.
What’s the number one thing clients try to avoid in their marketing? Come on, take a guess — Why it’s Strategy!
Strategy turns mediocre into mega-successful, so why do people run, kick and scream to avoid it? Well, first off, making art is a heckuva lot easier. Strategy punches holes in weak concepts. It forces you to take your marketing seriously. Probably its worst offense is appearing to take the fun out of art. But honestly, strategy is incredibly fun. You may need to adjust your idea of fun, but as a benefit, you also get to raise your aspirations to an all-time high.
Strategy at its best
Let’s take a look at Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France titles. People say that his dominance wasn’t fun. He turned winning the Tour into a science, methodically attacking absolutely every aspect of the race, from weighing out each meal on a scale, to his training, attack strategies, playing off the media to gain advantages, and surrounding himself with some of the sport’s top riders as lieutenants. After he did all that (and more), he rode his heart out to claim the victories.
Now, Mr. Armstrong has been gifted with exceptional physiology, and many claim that’s why he wins. While this may be true, it is advantageous for people to think that way. When you discard something great to prove you are not worthy, you are in fact employing a kill-strategy to avoid doing the one thing that can help you succeed. Why do that? It’s easier.
If you need proof to accept this, take a look at Armstrong’s competitors. During his reign as Tour champion, he released a book with his coach and even had a tv program detailing his training methods and life. What did his competitors and other people say then? Impossible. No one can train that hard and be so self-disciplined. Why would they say that? Simple, it’s easier.
What success takes
Everyone knows that it takes hard work to succeed. It takes a few other things too, such as calculated risk-taking, preparation, dedication, self-discipline, and strategy.
Big businesses have a sometimes not-so-obvious advantage here because they have the larger budgets and people to examine concepts from more angles. And sometimes, they do it. Those are the companies that live, thrive and dominate a market.
Small businesses, on the other hand, rarely have the people or organizational structure to even think about strategy. They are usually too close to their work to have the objectivity needed to succeed. The result is marketing that often falls on its face. Oddly, they are ok with that because it justifies not putting in the key efforts it takes to succeed. Of course, it also gives business owners justification to not budget for strong marketing efforts.
People get to go home early, there’s less to manage, less to spend, less outsider involvement, less less, less. And less profits.
Why would anyone sabotage their own business like that? Well, honestly, it’s easier to make just enough money to be profitable than it is to be wildly profitable. It’s not nearly as much fun though.
Strategy is so much fun!
In spite of Lance Armstrong’s methodical approach to winning the Tour de France, I would be willing to place a level bet that he was having fun. And so was everyone around him. Were there hard times and tough moments? Of course. Everyone had to rise to the occasion, with the benefit being greater success for nearly anyone willing to work alongside him.
It’s the same for business. When you get a high response to a measured effort, you feel awesome. Big smiles abound, everyone feels happy, and you increase profits.
Where there’s a leader there is success, and people will follow. If you own a business, you’re a leader, whether you like it or not. If you share your plan with your employees, they will follow you. The more detail you provide, the more personally invested they become. (If you fail to show a clear vision, you have a higher turnover rate.)
Now, apply purpose, vision, and strategy to your branding and marketing, and what have you got? You have the means to develop strategic plans for success. You have an identity that your employees can relate to. You have a brand that people can believe in. You have marketing that is wildly successful. You have increased sales.
First things first
It doesn’t work the other way around. You cannot show people a business that doesn’t believe in itself, and expect them to believe in you. You cannot passively market to prospective clients, and turn them into believers.
It has to start from within. You believe in yourself, and others will believe in you. Your employees believe in the company, and your prospective customers believe in what you are selling. You market to them with strategy, they buy, and you exceed your sales goals.
Do you think Lance Armstrong’s lieutenants, staff, and entourage went into his first Tour de France thinking he would win seven of them? Nope. But they came to believe in him. He built a following by first believing in himself, then he strategically attacked the race he wanted to dominate. And it worked.
What are you trying to win?
Lance Armstrong used strategy to make an art of winning the Tour de France. Whether you’re trying to win more clients, repeat business, a warmer feeling in your heart, or the front spot in the water cooler line, you can do the same.