Birthday Cake and Marshmallows

Birthday cake before and after
Happy birthday to our President, Tate Linden! To keep our brand consistent across all mediums, we presented him with a cake fit for a pyro. (That’s the Stokefire logo in matches, in case you couldn’t tell from our artistic interpretation.)

If you’re a fellow pyro in spirit, be sure to watch our video of glorious flames engulfing the sugar-fest.

Look at yourself. If you can.

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Yep. Look at yourself. Closely.

But not yet.

I’ve got three very simple questions for you to answer, and a single simple restriction. Here are the questions you’ll answer:

  1. Based on what you see now with your own eyes, How many more creases appear on your forehead when you change from slightly raised eyebrows to raising them as high as you can?
  2. Based on what you see now with your own eyes, do you think that you’ve got an attractive face?
  3. Based on what you see now with your own eyes, do other people think you’ve got an attractive face?

And here’s the simple restriction:

  • You cannot use anything other than your own eyes to determine the answers to the questions. So, no reflective surfaces, cameras, objects of any kind, or other people to aid you in your task.
Alright. Now you can look.
…Great. Now let’s review our answers.
First Question: What’s my crease differential?
I’m guessing that your answer (if you have one) was a guess based on what you remember from the last time you raised your eyebrows in the mirror or an estimate you arrived at by using your hand to search out creases – which would be cheating. The answer, best I can tell, is unknowable. Though it may be possible to guess, it cannot be confirmed without breaking the rules in some way. Reliance on something other than your own sight at that moment is a requirement. (Readers who are blind, use Botox, don’t have eyebrows, or are somehow able to remove their own eyeballs from their sockets to look at their own face are disqualified due to my lack of foresight in formulating this question and my unwillingness to spend time coming up with a better example.)
First Insight: You can’t see yourself without external assistance
Second Question: Is my face attractive?
The only things you’re likely to see on your own face with your own eyes are your nose, eyelashes, lips (if you pooch them out,) cheeks or facial hair if you’ve got any. With this very limited set of information, most of which is out of focus due to extreme proximity, and which doesn’t give you a sense of how the pieces actually work together, is it actually possible to make a reasonable judgement as to attractiveness? Using your own eyes, you can see other faces and judge their attractiveness, but when you turn those same eyes on yourself you don’t have the perspective and distance you need to make an informed judgement.
Second Insight: The parts of yourself that you can see are too close to make sense of.
Third Question: Do others find my face attractive?
Well, if someone was there to look at your face and you were to look at them you might get an inkling, but that’s against the rules. We know from the previous question that we have the ability to see and judge others attractiveness, so it stands to reason that they can judge the same for us. So, it’s possible that others could find it attractive, but in our restricted question environment we don’t know whether they actually do.
Third Insight – Part One: Others can see you better than you can see yourself
But there’s more to the question here. Once we establish that others see us better than we see ourselves, how do we get to know what they actually think? It’s harder than you might imagine. They have the ability to see us and to determine for themselves whether or not we are attractive, but there’s no verifiable way to get at that information. We could end the hypothetical restrictions and ask them, cajole them, or torture them for the answer and still we wouldn’t actually have proof. There are countless reasons why someone would think one thing and say something else, and there’s no way to be absolutely sure when one of those reasons in play. They could easily be trying to spare your feelings, trying to make themselves look good, trying to hide the fact that they’re attracted to you, or trying to give you the answer they think you want.
Complicating matters further, those who offer you their insights may not even know their own intent. Neuroscientists have shown that intent forms after we have begun execution of an action, so the person telling you whether or not you’re attractive A) may intentionally not be telling you the truth, and B) may be unintentionally not telling you the truth because they haven’t figured out why they’re doing what they’re doing yet.
Third Insight – Part Two: You’ll never truly understand what others see or think by asking them directly. 
Now let’s take these insights and see if they apply to organisms larger than ourselves, like, say, an organization.
One: Organizations can’t see themselves without external assistance.
Two: The parts of themselves that organizations can see are too close to make sense of.
Three.1: Those outside the organization are better able to evaluate the organization than those within it.
Three.2: The thoughts of those outside the organization cannot be understood by asking for them directly.
End result? We can’t see ourselves, and we can’t be sure if what others tell us is true.
I’d argue that these hold true for every entity in which the evaluators are an integral part of the thing being evaluated. They can’t see it well enough to figure out how it relates to the rest of the world, and they can’t trust the responses of others when they ask for opinions.
Anyone out there think they know how to solve the problem? (We’ve got an answer, but I’d love to know what others have come up with.)

Industry specialization: Great! Until maybe it isn’t.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
–Eric Hoffer 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

We’re frequently asked by prospective clients whether or not we’re specialists in particular industries such as healthcare or technology. The answer is that we’re not. And we don’t ever intend to be. While this sort of specialization was intriguing to us in the early days at Stokefire’s, we ultimately decided it would be better for our clients (and thus our long-term success) to go in a different direction.

I acknowledge that this decision seems to run counter to the traditional wisdom given to businesses of all types. And I’m good with that.

I can’t argue that industry specialization is universally bad. Far from it. It’s a critical ingredient in successful financially oriented businesses, such as auditing and investment banking. Even if the entire organization doesn’t specialize, employers retain industry experts that lend credence to an organization’s findings. Similarly, Stokefire employs or contracts with specialists to handle behind-the-scenes jobs that require specific training and experience, such as certain illustration styles, animation, or programming. Each of these is an industry of sorts. (No one, least of all me, wants to see what would happen if I tried to do this stuff by myself.)

I’ll also grant that, for the vast majority of organizations, industry specialization may actually be a good plan. But my reasons are something you probably won’t like.

As Jean Marie Caragher suggests in her article for AICPA, industry specialization includes benefits like high profitability, economical marketing, easily identified prospects and competition, fewer geographical barriers, prestige, increased knowledge of clients, and more. Studies (including this one by Craswell, Francis, and Taylor in 1995) find a link between industry specialization and the ability to charge more for the same services.

With a list like that, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t jump on board.

Put yourself in a client’s shoes for a moment and reread the list from their perspective. How many of the benefits help them? One could argue that industry experience helps projects run more smoothly, allows for common tasks to be done very quickly, and increases confidence that the work will meet industry standards. For accounting or other services that aren’t traditionally visible to the client’s target market it makes a lot of sense.

But what happens when the industry specialist’s work is front-and-center rather than hidden under layers of organizational process? What happens when it’s a branding, marketing, or advertising organization that decides to focus on a single industry? What happens when it’s the essence of who you are and what makes you the best in your industry that is crafted by an industry specialist?

Put on the client’s shoes again, if you would (this time as a client of an agency.) All the stuff that was desirable in the back-office is now questionable at best. Sure, the agency knows your competition, and may have even worked for them. But what does it say about the quality and importance of that work (or the ethics of the organization’s leaders) that they’re willing to immediately sell the same services to you? How could they avoid contaminating the guidance they give you with information gained from private meetings with your competitors? And if they share this information with you (overtly or not,) what would stop them from sharing your secrets?

Regardless of how they may position themselves, industry specialists serving most audiences are limited in the concepts that they can bring to you, since if they were to propose a concept that actually pulled market share from another client they might be liable for damages. An agency that gets a reputation for selling out its clients is an agency that won’t have that problem for long.

So, to my way of thinking, a creative agency that farms a single industry either doesn’t believe their work has the ability to materially change the fortunes of its clients (and thus can sell to direct competitors without worrying about conflicts of interest), or they don’t care that each new contract they get in their industry is likely to devalue the work they’ve done for others.

That’s why Stokefire doesn’t go in for industry specialization. When given the freedom to do great work for our clients we’ve enabled new industries and reshuffled old ones. To then go back to all the competitors our work has marginalized or impeded and say, “See what we did for XYZ Co? If you want to stand a chance against them then you’d better hire us.” is lacking in scruples even if it might make short-term business sense. (It’s not all about morality, though. Another reason we don’t do it is that many of our larger or more strategically-minded clients pay a premium to ensure we won’t work in their field for a period of time following our project on their behalf.)

I’ll again grant you that industry specialists may work faster or more efficiently, and that these qualities have the potential to result in lower over-all costs since they’re not billing as many research and administrative hours. I’ll even grant you that it’s a helluva lot easier to run a profitable agency that specializes in one industry. But I can’t seem to connect either of these with the sorts of outcomes creative work is capable of achieving or that clients actually need.

To those consultants who espouse industry specialization for creative agencies, and to those agencies that farm single industries for profit, I ask you this: How does your industry focus tangibly improve outcomes for your stable of competitive clients?

Anyone willing to venture in and share their contrasting views?

Tutorial: How to Win April Fool’s Day

Step 1. 

Determine your victim. 

Step 2.

Acquire large amounts of aluminum foil and surreptitiously pack it in your briefcase. Slink into the office early and unnoticed.  

Step 3.

Cover your victim’s workspace in aluminum foil. Be thorough. You will be sure to get a raise or even a promotion if you demonstrate extensive attention to detail by covering every paper clip, pencil, and individual post it note.  Extra credit if you cover the individual leaves on the potted plant or any dirty dishes left haphazardly lying around.

Step 4. 

Write an “official” note from the “management” that demonstrates that this is a company sanctioned procedure so that the victim will be appreciative of the time and expense exerted on their behalf. This is as method proven to elevate company morale and they will most certainly comply with a chuckle.

 Step 5. 

#Winning!

Step 6.  

Watch your back.

Problem Resolved

April Fools attention to detail

Design Alexandria Recap

This post was written by our lead designer, Lindsay Benson Garrett. 

Design Alexandria

We had a great time last night hosting the Design Alexandria meet up. It was wonderful to connect with local designers and developers who are passionate about creating, growing, and networking.

Some of the things that were discussed included Tate’s experience redesigning the DARPA brand. The project goal was to communicate DARPA’s dual mission of developing technology that defends America and scares enemies, modernizing the mark while also going unnoticed. Tate discussed how success was achieved on all accounts, which funneled into a wildly different project with a shared goal. We showed our work in progress on a preschool identity kit, which is a logo refresh that adds in an element of play.

Juancarlo shared a pro-bono project that he did for the Chilean-American Foundation and the things he learned while working with the non-profit. We examined the web designs before and after and discussed what he learned in the process.

Anna, a co-host, shared her process for building a website for a recently published e-book. Her process was very thorough from the start, where they mapped out every kind of site visitor with their motivations and goals, to how the site would develop a community and add new features systematically.

Joe, the author of the e-book, was actually in attendance. After celebrating his new acquired status of “published author” we had a group brainstorm on methods he can use to market his work.

Stokefire enjoyed hosting the meet up and we look forward to hosting more in the future. Stay tuned for the next one!

Steve Jobs and the Wrong Kind of Dent

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden (@Thingnamer)

Following on my previous post about Steve Jobs’s phantom “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” quote, I can’t help but wonder if the sentiment behind it is actually a good representation of what Jobs tried to do with his life.

There’s not much point in arguing that Jobs never said anything about denting the universe. I do, however, wonder why he said it.

First, putting a dent in something is typically associated with an act of brute strength.

He may have led with a sledgehammer in his back pocket, but hope for all our sakes that bending others forcibly to his will was not his end-game.If we consider Jobs’s leadership style there’s at least a little connection. He was seen as a “high maintenance co-worker” who was blunt with criticism. He dismissed people who didn’t impress him as “bozos”. If the universe he was trying to dent was made up of the psyches of the people who reported to him then this might apply. But it would also be a pretty shallow and callous goal.

Second, dents tend to make things harder to use and less efficient.

When I think of the products that came out of Jobs’s Apple I picture clean and easy-to-use designs, not duct-tape and Bondo. The work done under his watch seems to have done the opposite of denting the universe.

I know, I know. In theory we all love the character that stuff gets as it picks up the scratches and dings of our lives. But we still go out to buy the shiny new stuff that is easier to use than the perfectly working but slightly older equipment Jobs convinced us to buy a few months earlier.

Third, the only way that “denting the universe” actually fits didn’t apply until he was no longer a part of it.

There’s a difference between leaving a legacy and changing the way the universe works. Jobs helped us to understand that great design matters, and that capability and simplicity aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s his legacy.

Jobs was brilliant. He was able to conceive of or recognize concepts and guide the development and execution of them in ways that were virtually irresistible. That’s also his legacy.

The dent in the universe that he made, though? I really hope it isn’t something he wanted to leave. Two quotes from  Rob LeFebvre’s article from cultofmac highlight it pretty well:

“Steve Jobs, however, saw their potential and, with a characteristic mixture of blind faith, naiveté, and ruthlessness, refined them until they met his own exacting standards.”

and…

“Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide.”

The dent he was trying to make was something that only he seemed able to understand.

Is the dent Jobs made in the universe is the one left by the space he occupied so powerfully? While his legacy will live on, his exacting standards and the intuition that built the legacy are gone.

Now we’re left with a dent we have no idea how to buff out, and no knowledge of what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. The decisions made by Apple since Jobs’s passing – at least as viewed from the outside – are looking more traditional than “insanely great”.

I miss the guy and I never even knew him.

And I’m more than a little pissed that he appears not to have taught anyone else how to use his gift. If he’d done it then wouldn’t we have something other than bigger iPhones and smaller iPads by now?

Anyone else out there hoping that Jony and the team are secretly working on some Jobsian creation and are just working out the kinks before they set the universe wobbling again? Color me hopeful, but not optimistic.

 

Event: Design Alexandria at Stokefire HQ

Hey locals!

Just a quick note to say that as of a couple days ago we’re hosting Design Alexandria‘s events at our Del Ray HQ. In addition to the usual great chats you’ve been having with other designers and technologists, attendees will get a glimpse inside the doors of our little shop and meet a member or two from our team.

As of this moment there are a handful of seats left at next week’s November Meetup, and you’ll need to reserve a spot, since space is pretty limited. Derrick Douglas will be giving a presentation on using InDesign to create an interactive wireframe document, and attendees will be discussing the various things we’ve been working on.

RSVP: http://www.meetup.com/
Date: Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Time: 7 PM to 9 PM
Location: 2016 Mt. Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA #300 (top floor)

The Stokefire crew will be there, but probably won’t be presenting anything at this event. Still, should anyone want our guidance, opinions, or some nifty drink coasters, we’re game.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

Awards and Offenses

I’ve just been notified that we won the 2013 Platinum MarCom Award for a poster I designed to promote our summer open house. If you missed the roof-top shindig, you missed a good time, but don’t worry we didn’t drink all the booze and we’ll be hosting more events in the future on our penthouse deck.

When I showed the first draft, Tate asked why I had chosen that stock image. I calmly took a sip from my extra large coffee, and then (maybe not so calmly) told him it was in fact not stock, and that I had spent eight long hours hand-gluing over 1,000 matches with rubber cement that had been allowed to air dry to just the right texture so that the matchsticks would stand upright perfectly and I still had cramps in my right hand from holding them while they dried and then I took pictures myself, thank you very much.

And then I took a breath.

Really, I just didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted when my photography was accused of being stock. Tate says, “Probably both, just to be safe.”

Anyhow, I took offense because traditionally your brand is best represented by you, not an image you found online that may or may not pass for you. And you’re not (for instance) the wide grinning girl that represents the bank, the dentist, the printer, the lawyer, and everyone else in town. Stock photography has a time and a place where it can be used, but when given the choice, one should always opt for original images.

Images collected from http://overexposedmodel.tumblr.com/

If your customers see that same stock photo on a different website or poster, you are basically tying your own brand to a completely unrelated company, even if you’re an optometrist and they sell super detox smoothies, adult diapers, or are found guilty of collapsing the US economy.

Graphics are usually meant to get noticed. By using original imagery you have the opportunity to show what you’re really about and establish trust with your clients. People are good at sniffing out stock photography and if you use it exclusively it becomes evident very quickly that you’re hiding your true identity.

Why would you want to do that, unless you’re trying to pretend you’re something you’re not?

Don’t be a scammer. Be real. Use your own artwork.

Taking a swing at a different kind of event – January 8th, 2014

Commercial design is broken, and (for the most part) we practitioners are doing a pretty crappy job of fixing it.

Years ago I wrote, “Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just sum everything up.” And while I’ve heard from many designers who have embraced the sentiment, the industry as a whole remains focused on aesthetics and summation. While these qualities may make clients happy, they don’t do much to help clients make better decisions, move the design industry forward, or do much of anything other than ensure that clients are willing to write checks. On January 8, 2014 I’m looking to begin changing all but the last bit by hosting our first “Designers on Deck” event.

What is Designers on Deck?

Well, I’m working on that, but here’s what I have so far:

We’ll be turning the traditional “let someone brag while everyone else takes notes” networking event on its head. From my experience those events typically result in learning someone else’s singular solution to a problem you don’t have, rather than learning how to develop your own solution for issues you’re likely to encounter. The best way to do create value here, I figure, is to learn from someone who hasn’t been able to overcome their challenge. And lest you think no one will step up and where the “I’m with stupid” shirt with the arrow pointing up, I’m perfectly willing to be the test case. More than once, if necessary.

A few more potential details:

  1. We’ll be on a deck, or (as will likely be the case in early January) be deck-adjacent.
  2. We’ll have a limited number of guests from across creative (and related) professions with varied levels of experience. Probably enough to cover all the positions on a baseball field.
  3. We’ll start with around-the-group greetings, and anyone facing their specific un-solved problem can share it. Anyone interested in helping to resolve can connect after the main event.
  4. We’ll have a featured speaker or case study that quickly illuminates an unresolved issue with the commercial application of creativity or creative strategy; showing the impact of the issue and covering any attempts that have already been made to resolve it. Possible topics include consensus building challenges, inability to speak with decision-makers, failed brand launches, or something related to stories in the news or suggested by a guest previously.
  5. Following the presentation we’ll have an active discussion amongst guests and presenters, and will work to clarify the issue and propose methods of resolution. The presenter will commit to an update by a specific date if applicable.
  6. To close out the structured part of the event, we’ll have smaller chats around the issues guests identified at the start.

We’ll kick this off at our own HQ in Alexandria on January 8th and see how it goes. I’m guessing it’ll take a few tries to get it humming, but initial feedback from those I’ve spoken to is promising.

Interested in participating? I’d love to get a sense of the potential participant pool. Send me a note or drop a comment and we’ll try to keep you informed as this thing firms up. (And before you ask, the time is still TBD.)

__Tate

Chart junk, Sparklines & Edward Tufte

3D graphs possess the power to make any and all data more credible because it looks complicated. Hooray!
Is the infographic craze over yet? Can we move on now? We progressed from vague intrigue to rapidly hitting the “x” button to get the marketing gibberish shouting meaningless numbers off the screen as quickly as humanly possible.

“Chart junk” is a term coined by Edward Tufte, the leading expert in data visualization and information design. I had the pleasure of participating in his one day course, which was a sold out seminar packed to the brim with about 500 people.

The class started with an hour of assigned reading from his four books, which together comprise one of the most successful self publishing stints in history. He shared with us how people can read two to three times faster than you can talk. Even if you’re a trained auctioneer, its best to start your meetings with 5-10 minutes of reading a white paper or report. That way everyone starts fully briefed and the rest of the time can be used to elaborate, discuss or brainstorm. Don’t be tempted to send the paper to your coworkers prior, they are busy just like you and have already dedicated meeting time to your issue – take advantage of this undivided attention. This is the best way to cut the length of any meeting by at least 20%.

Mr. Tufte has great respect for people, definitely more than any Powerpoint presenter has ever displayed. Audiences are smart and capable of absorbing huge amounts of information at once. With this in mind, it is best to make your designs as streamlined and flat as possible. Not flat as in the latest design trend, but vigilant in avoiding breaking out or hiding information. Nobody wants to search for figure 1.7 on page 3.

Say you have a table of universities with their associated math test scores – it is worthless to arrange them in alphabetical order. With every chart you create an opportunity is present to display the information meaningfully, e.g: ranking the schools from best to worst. People will quickly scan to find the school they’re interested in but they have also learned something new in the process.

The thing that struck me most was how much information Mr. Tufte could fit in the space of one line of words. He is the inventor of sparklines, which are tiny charts conveying huge amounts of data displayed inline with text. They display general trends of (usually time based) information quickly and efficiently without breaking the flow of a sentence. The benefit this snapshot provides is that the general trend of the previously collected information gives context to the current measurement. Mr. Tufte describes sparklines as “data words: data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics.” They have already been adopted by financial, sports, and technology institutions, and I hope that I start seeing my medical charts looking like this sooner than later.

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
- John Mayhand

No chart junk here!



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