Pets In The Design Studio: Designing North Studios

Pets and Their Designers

From a cheerful Golden Retriever named Lily, to a more stoic Australian Bearded Dragon called Mokee-Djimba, The success of Designing North Studios is an extension of the good company we keep at work. Here in the studio we love pets and welcome them into our daily lives, no matter where that take us. This often results in lunch at the dog park but what better place to take a break than a dog park?

Morale, stress, productivity; these are all valid reasons for inviting a pet into the studio, but none are as important as the love we feel from their presence. It’s safe to say, the personalities and behaviors of our furry friends provide the perfect relief for long hours in front of the screen . And since our pets contribute to our daily success, we think it’s important to give them the proper introduction they deserve. When we say, “meet the team,” we want you to meet the ‘whole’ team. Without further ado, let us introduce some of the four-legged stars of Designing North Studios:

Golden Retriever

As the Managing Director of Designing North Studios, Lisa Peacock shares her workspace with a glowing-Golden Retriever named Lily. When asked, ‘Why do you enjoy working alongside your pets?’, Lisa made it clear that her day in the studio wouldn’t be complete without a dog: “She knows what I need, and never fails me. She always reminds me when it’s time to get up and take a break (paw on knee). But funny enough, she always waits until I’m off the phone.” Now that can’t be said for most coworkers.

Golden Retriever in the grass

Golden retriever

Australian Bearded Dragon

v:shal kanwar is a creative director at Designing North Studios who also shows creativity in his choice of pets. With the name Mokee-Djimba, it’s not just the appearance of his Australian Bearded Dragon that demands attention. And no matter how complex the design problems get, or how fickle a client can be, Mokee-Djimba never gets flustered. Additionally, they share a passion for a vegetarian diet. To our surprise, v:shal’s bearded dragon is quite the calming presence in the studio. In fact, he often spends the day just chillin on the shoulder of his owner while he works — scaly weaponry and all!

Australian Bearded Dragon

Black Labrador Retriever

Heading up content strategy at the studio is Dan Salcius. It’s been a dream of his to share his work day with his Labrador Retriever Gracie and cat Keystone — yes, he’s named after a beer commonly found on college campuses. His two furry friends keep him company day after day no matter the circumstances. But what he enjoys most is their ability to shed humor on any situation. They have a candid approach to reminding Dan that life doesn’t always need to be so serious — the world of content marketing needs more dogs and cats. He also appreciates their forceful nature when it’s time to go for a walk or roll around outside in the sun. They don’t take no for an answer.

Hiking with a black lab

House cat in the backyard

Traditional Persian Cat

Chris Mohler heads up many creative projects at Designing North, but she doesn’t do it alone. And as a gifted graphic designer she also happens to spend hours on end in front of the screen. Fortunately she has her cat Lucy to keep her company. Lucy is a Traditional Persian whose biggest contribution to the day is showing up for repeated coffee breaks — a true shoulder to lean on.



Grant Klein also leads the charge for creative projects at Designing North. He too has a trusty sidekick to share the day with, as long as that day doesn’t involve contact with anyone or anything. Unfortunately Grant’s Maltese-Poodle, Truman, hasn’t quite learned when is not an appropriate time to bark… queue the conference call. Although Truman can’t spend everyday in the studio, he is always thrilled to greet Grant at the door after a long day of solitude.

Maltese Poodle portrait

Black Labrador Retrievers

Julie Farrell is the Head of Marketing at Designing North Studios. She has spent many years working alongside her sister/brother duo of Black Labrador Retrievers Molly and Ranger. Not long ago, brother Ranger became ill due to old age and passed at the age of 13 — that’s 79 in dog years, according to the AVMA. Only days later, sister Molly passed from what’s best described as a broken heart. Although tragic, this bond proves that our pets are far more connected to the world than we give them credit for; affirmation that they could be the most loyal coworkers around.

Black lab on the couch

Black lab on the couch

Sir Dave Mason – The Cat

Straight from Designing North’s Head of Technology himself, Dave Mason is an excellent co-worker. “He says “hi” in the morning and get’s on with his own agenda during the course of the day (mostly sleeping). Occasionally he’ll wake up and stroll over to my monitor to assess the mouse activity. A moment of virtual small creature murder (the mouse) is usually enough to keep him satisfied, then he’ll wander over to one of the other computers and sleep on the warmest part, the keyboard. This cozy slumber has previously resulted in emails being sent to a client who questioned the prolific use of “ffffffffffffffffffff” in the message text. Sadly, unlike his namesake, Dave Mason does not play guitar. In fact he makes no noise at all, no meow, no purring, just a silent bump against the leg to demand attention, which can be somewhat unnerving when sat in a darkened office at night, only to feel an involuntary leg movement. He’s just cool.”

Dave Keeping my notes warm

We have learned that cats often spend the time required to think through complex problems. Just take these design thinking cats for example.

Pet’s lower stress levels at work. Enough said. Whether you agree with this or not, we’re sticking with it — Purina published their Pets at Work Report in June that supports our belief, and even went far enough to claim many other health benefits related to their presence: reduce blood pressure, decrease loneliness, help lower cholesterol levels and encourage physical activity. So next time you are at work while your four-legged fiend is at home think about how much healthier you could be, and pioneer a new pet policy at work.


Five Ways Technology Will Change Our Lives By 2022

Whether you plan for it or not, your life will change in five years due to information technology breakthroughs. “5 in 5” as it’s called, is an annual series of imaginative predictions revealed by IBM, that aim to change the lives of humans through the implementation of ground-breaking technology. These predictions transparently serve to foreshadow the advanced  innovations that we can expect see in the near future. If the theme is artificial intelligence, you may just find your professional career intersecting with these advanced technologies sooner rather than later; are you ready for change?

AI Mental Health Tools

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness in their lifetime, with combined treatment costs being in the trillions – an alarming statistic to say the least. IBM predicts that their breakthrough implementation of AI will change the world for many people living with mental illness, and it’s how they plan on accomplishing this that’s most intriguing.

With the goal of early detection for developmental disorders, mental illness and degenerative neurological diseases, IBM plans on using a mix of automated cognitive systems — “simulation of human thought — to analyze a person’s speech and writing.” We find this advancement to be incredibly exciting; we are talking about cognitive computers here… whoa. Big data is finally ready to make an impact in our daily lives, not just sales numbers.

The use of AI is only in its early stages . IBM plans on using data points in combination with modern wearable devices — watches, monitors, earbuds — and imaging equipment to create a more complete picture of a person’s health than ever before; without the need for an office or specialized tools. Signs that were once invisible will now be transparent and manageable to the patient through wearable devices — this greatly reduces the barriers that healthcare presents to many people. AI technology of this form will alter healthcare as we know it. How many professional fields can lay claim to a statement like that?

Hyper-imaging With AI

The next five years will also reveal a change in how we interact with the environment, but not in the way you might predict. The self-driving car has been a hot topic of late for the sheer fact that human hands no longer need to control the steering wheel — still weird to imagine. Even before most of us see one of these on the road, IBM is already developing cognitive computers that will further enhance their reliability and safety through hyper-imaging — seeing beyond the domain of visible light. The concept of millimeter-wave imaging paired with sensors is making much of the invisible world now visible. Black ice, fog, and distant objects will no longer be out-of-sight; they may remain out-of-mind for us humans but our vehicles will certainly be aware.

In five years this eye-opening technology won’t be limited to our cars, it will translate to our health. Imagine taking an image of your food to determine its exact nutritional value — or lack thereof. Or what about imaging your meds to ensure that you know exactly what you are ingesting. Better yet, what if your video game could pair with augmented reality to physically see through solid objects? Like our own body? Crazy, right?

AI technology through connected devices

Digitizing the Physical World

Data is all around us; every second that ticks away mass amounts of data are being recorded, we just can’t see it. The data that we speak of is commonly used to educate us on our ecosystem although it’s often outdated since it takes so long to organize after collection. Researchers have revealed that data scientists spend nearly 80 percent of their time scrubbing data before analyzing it. IBM is confident that this will change within five years. Real time is going to bring real meaning.

Our human lives are connected with our possessions: watches, phones, computers, appliances, thermostats… the list goes on for days. According to IBM, there are already more than 6 billion connected devices relaying data on a monthly basis — we are truly living in a matrix. Through this digitization of the physical world, macroscope technology will reveal insights on the fundamental issues that affect every single one of us living on earth.

In theory, algorithms and software will soon aggregate, organize, and analyze data on anything we choose, including soil, water, food and even space. And yes, this data will be searchable by all, likely from your phone — if those still exist in five years.

Medical Labs on a Chip

In five years, wearable technology will determine when a person should see a doctor. The guesswork of being human will slowly vanish as nanotechnology advances. With the use of hyper imaging, computer chips will see (read) bodily signs and fluids that are invisible to the naked eye. The way IBM puts it, “The goal is to shrink down, to a single silicon chip, all of the processes necessary to analyze a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab.” Take a minute to visualize that — an entire lab fitting into a silicone chip.

In five years, you and I will have access to handheld devices that can read biomarkers — thousands of times smaller than a human hair — while sending it to a secure cloud without lifting a finger. In combination with other real-time data from devices such as a sleep monitor or fitness watch, AI software can quickly analyze an individual’s health for immediate detection of problems. But will this be fast enough to fill our insatious appetite for immediate satisfaction?

Think about this technology as a liquid biopsy. It’s goal, to revolutionize the traditional tissue biopsy, making it more comfortable, accessible and convenient. Large populations may soon have the ability to detect disease before it even forms. That is, if your healthcare is generous enough to cover it — did we just go there?

Speed of Light Pollution Detection

Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye; unfortunately their devastating effects are not. Methane — the primary component of natural gas — is said to be the second largest contributor to atmospheric warming — yes this is a real ‘thing’ outside of China. In the U.S. alone, emissions from the industrial oil and gas sector account for the largest source of methane output into the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that natural gas systems leaked more than nine million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2014 alone — a number so large that it’s incomprehensible.

In five years affordable sensors will line natural gas pipelines, wells and storage facilities; monitoring for any signs of a leak. The detection process will soon take minutes rather than weeks, drastically decreasing the overall environmental impact. IBM predicts that this sensor technology will do more than detection, it will also reveal the path that harmful gas travels before entering the atmosphere.

Maybe the environment isn’t your first priority, but let’s talk about how sensors can enhance your personal life in five years. This real-time sensor detection process can work on your breath as well; diagnosing respiratory disease will likely become a quick and convenient process. The days of expensive and invasive respiratory testing will soon be behind us.

Does all of this technology have your head spinning? If IBM’s predictions are accurate — their track record being  pretty darn good — the next five years will reveal scientific tools that enhance the way humans live and interact. The invisible world will become clearly visible, opening the door to breakthroughs in health, medicine, and the environment. Maybe then the validity of so many accusations wouldn’t require years of discussion. In five short years these five innovations just might become ordinary.

We happen to have a few predictions of our own when it comes to Technology and human interaction; let us show you what we are working on here at Designing North Studios.

2017: Out with the Old and In with the Why


Some ideas are worth revisiting.

At the beginning of every new year, we all love the idea of a clean slate; starting brand new. Reinvention, exhilarated innovation, new message, new mantra, new you! Hmm. The design world is constantly evolving to solve an array of seemingly new problems — some are new, but honestly, most are the same old same old. Our head of technology always likes to say “There are no new problems, just new solutions.” And like many other design-thinkers who manage to stay ahead of their time with the ideas, discoveries, and theories; Simon Sinek’s “The Golden Circle” theory hailed earlier mid-decade seems to have reason to sparkle again. As a theory it is by no means bulletproof (or new), but as a brand building exercise this concept could prove useful for many of today’s companies. With 2017 underway, Simon’s concept is quickly resurfacing as a strong tool to answer many of the challenges that current brands face when connecting with their more values-driven, authentic-seeking, transparency-embracing customers — or – let’s just call them what they are; millennials. How to connect with a new generation is not a new problem, and this generation might not even need a new solution.

The Why

At the core of every action we take lies a reason to why we took that action. Similarly, brands that experience long-term success understand why they were capable of such success. When relating this thinking to a business — big or small — it’s easy to neglect the ‘WHY’ and focus on the ‘WHAT’. The Golden Circle reinforces that brands, companies and people alike should focus on why they do what they do as the foundation of their business. In other words, communicating from the inside out rather than the outside in, presents the opportunity to connect with individuals on a much more personal level. Here at Designing North Studios, we predict that this simple concept will play a large role in how successful both young and experienced brands will be in 2017. As the Designing North Studios brand mantra says, ‘It’s not a location, it’s a mindset” — our mindset is our WHY; our fundamental reason for doing what we do.

Here’s an interesting way to demonstrate the importance of operating from the inside out on a personal level. Think about the job interviews of your past and try to remember how each one played out. Chances are good that you don’t remember the majority of them since they didn’t connect with you emotionally. Each one likely began with a ‘what’ formatted question and didn’t excite a response that tapped into your creativity or emotion. Now imagine if every interview began like this: Why do you do this profession and why are you here today? It’s transparent that you could relay your core message much sooner and with much less words; The Golden Circle drives this point home. As soon as the ‘why’ becomes more than an income or sales driver, a true purpose can be identified; your brand’s purpose for being.

The How

From the core of The Golden Circle we move outward one layer which represents the ‘HOW’. Still less obvious than what a brand does, how they do it reveals their differentiation amongst the competition. When a brand can accurately and consistently identify how they do what they do, they will likely be able to replicate and further strengthen the how factor. As 2016 has foreshadowed, the coming year will challenge brands to transform the ‘how’ into visual content that’s strategically created with purpose (reflecting the why factor) and uniquely shared across social media channels. Simply ‘knowing’ how a brand creates value isn’t personal enough for individuals to form a lasting connection. It needs to be experienced. This is why content truly is king and will continue to be the foundation of personal and professional bonds between brands and real people; not just those termed consumers. The ‘how’, or value proposition, is still just as important as ever but will require a bit more creativity to convey and bring to life in 2017.

The What

The outside of the Golden Circle is comprised of the ‘what’ layer and refers to a brand’s or individual’s ability to communicate what they do. Of the three layers it’s the easiest to identify which is why brands commonly rely on it to define their business. Unfortunately the best things in life don’t come easy – but you already know this. As history has shown us, there once was a time when answering a simple question – what do you do? – was enough to connect with like-minded consumers and possibly spark a person’s interest, enough so to draw them to your brand. We believe those days are gone. With technology we see innovation, and with innovation we see change which is why the ‘what’ no longer suffices as a credible factor for brands to be accepted as a part of one’s life. Now, more than ever, human beings need more than ‘what’ to make a purchase, they want to personally connect with the ‘why’.

How is it that only a few brands have achieved unthinkable success when the vast majority remain average given the same resources? How is it that an even playing field can appear to be so one-sided? The explanation may lie in the ability to create value from the inside out rather than the outside in. The Golden Circle could play an integral role in revisiting, reinventing, and rethinking the success of both current and new brands in 2017.

Designing North Studios’ strategiests and designers know a good theory and when to revive it.

When you are ready to take a look at your brand from the inside out, get in touch.

What We Do at Designing North Studios

Designing North Studios

At DNS, our goal is to always deliver a hover above. To deliver what was asked for, but with that little extra – something just “north” of good. This approach, this mindset traverses our people and our three main service offerings: Digital Design & Development, Brand Strategy, and something we like to call: Rent-a-Star.

Digital Design & Development

Web design has come a long way since ‘Al Gore invented the world wide web a couple decades ago’. Think of it, when was the last time you used the Yellow Pages? For some of you, the answer is never. Now, web design has evolved from “hanging a shingle” to “creating an experience.”   A digital experience that should develop, complement, and pave the way to brand loyalty and ultimately conversion. A website, web or mobile app has to compete for eyeballs. For attention. It must captivate, be experiential, and then convert. Convert from a user, to a participant, a subscriber, a buyer, a champion.

At Designing North Studios, we know this. Whether we are engaged in a pure branding gig, a website redesign, a new digital product idea, developing content, or engaging in strategic initiatives around your product or social media landscape, all roads lead to experience. That it be aligned with your brand promise and values, be purpose driven, memorable, and make it easy for your peeps to return. Again and again. Face it: when any experience is good – people like you. They want to hang out, come back, hear more – they trust you. And so they should. If what you’re selling, saying, pitching, or bitching about is true – it’s only a matter of time before your friends become influencers. So we help you get real about your digital product: what it is, who it’s for, and what will make it successful.

Brand Strategy

The most important part of getting to the heart of of being the brand that you are, and delivering on that promise, is spending time (and money) on the discovery phase. This is when, through listening, questioning, interviewing, brainstorming, (and even sometimes stick drawing), people like us come to understand your organization, and what that currently looks like to an end user, customer, or prospect. The best free advice we can give you: never skip this phase – no matter what firm you select to help you with your next project. Discover who you are currently, and see if that aligns with who you really want to be. And then reflect on all the ways that can get you there: change your product, pivot your service, re-evaulate your audience, re-position your message, or perhaps, stay the course.

We’re here, and would love to start listening.


Sometimes you just need a hand (or at least think that’s all you need). We see this frequently after the start of the New Year. All of that marvelous planning for the upcoming calendar year includes projects that require staff skill sets that you ultimately realized: you don’t have. Oh, and there was nothing in the budget for additional headcount either.

If this sounds too familiar (too real) – we might be able to help. Designing North Studios is an amalgam of designers, developers, and project leaders who have worked either remotely or directly with one another over the years. Most of us, with exception of a few pay-rolled diehards, freelance for DN. But we’re still a family.

That said – our model can be very beneficial to organizations that operate on a human-asset-light basis. If your organization finds itself in need of a designer, developer, or project leader for stints of less than a year, we can likely supply you with a vetted professional. Are our people good? We think so. Every one that’s part of the team first works for DN directly before client work is even an option. We learn a newbie’s skill set and their mindset – and if it fits: they are deemed fit to move on to play with clients. Our reputation is on the line. But we also know that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. We’re not harsh – we just uncover the best in people and nurture it. So if they sit with you for a while, instead of us, they are ready. Our team aligns on work-ethic and soul – producing Designing North Stars – together making each other brighter.

Words Matter

Understand your target audience before you dive into a website redesign


“Grab my stock! Hey, that’s my stock!” “He dropped his stock!”

When I finally figured out what they were saying through my helmeted ears and their thick Australian accents, I was still confused.

“What were you saying?” I asked the three skiers with whom I was sharing the chair lift.

“My stock. I dropped my stock,” one said as he raised his remaining ski pole and shook it.

“Oh! We call those ski poles here in the states. Just wait after you get off the lift at the top. They’ll send it up with one of the chairs behind us. But…make sure you listen for them to yell ski pole, not stock. Never heard that before,” I said.

We then had a great conversation about the ski odyssey they were on in Utah and the void of skiing opportunities in Australia.

My friends and family had all returned to the cabin, and I was on my last run. As I skied down, I reflected on how important words are. Even though we speak the same language, none of us Americans had a clue what the Australians were hollering.

At Designing North Studios,

we perform a variety of services for our customers. Among other things, we develop websites or website redesigns, we conduct rebranding or new branding initiatives, and we provide content. Our favorite approach is of course to do all three. Why? Because it allows us to take a holistic approach to both design and content. Regardless of how we’re engaged though, we always insist on developing a clear understanding of our end-user before we get started. It’s called discovery.

word-stock-designing-north-studiosWithout discovery, if we were building a website for a multi-national sporting goods company with a strong presence in Australia, we might drone on and on about the merits of a set of featured ski poles. This would tell the end customer that A) the company doesn’t care enough to speak to them using their own local language – their colloquialisms; and B) they may not know what the heck we’re talking about and subsequently abandon the website.

Getting messaging right is a big deal.

Skiing makes for a good example. I’m an intermediate skier with four knee surgeries under my belt I’m basically just happy I can still ski. I don’t want to be on crowded slopes with crazy teen-age snow-boarders, and they probably don’t want to be on the slopes with me either. So I tend to patronize ski resorts that don’t allow snowboarding, that groom the slopes daily, and that limit the number of tickets sold.

The messaging of my target resort is going to be very different from one that is catering to snowboarders and hard-core alpine skiers. They might use words like the “ultimate powder shredding experience”, when I want to hear “peaceful well-groomed slopes.” Yet both are ski resorts.

If you’re about to dive into a new website development initiative or a website redesign or branding update, make sure your project plans allow for thoughtful discovery. Yes, it adds both cost and time to the project. But it saves cost and time on the backend in the way of fewer iterations and revisions. Ensuring that your designers have a clear understanding of your target audience is paramount to your project’s success. Sometimes the slightest nuances make all the difference.

Just imagine how surprised the Aussies would have been if the next skier getting off the lift had produced a paper stock certificate for a share of Deer Valley Resort to them.


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My, How Design Has Changed


That sounds a bit like a grandma or a too-doting-an-aunt remark. But now and then I’m overwhelmed with conflicting feelings about the current state of digital design. When I started some two decades ago, it was a holistic, all-consuming affair. I studied media arts & graphic design at the University of Arizona, and web design & usability at UCLA when they were embryonic topics. I led Ernst & Young’s bicoastal design team for its Center for Technology Enablement group when email was just beginning to replace the interoffice memo.

Sure I’ve evolved. I no longer write HTML from scratch. We employ BaseCamp, Asana, Pre.Vue, Slack, and Skype to communicate and manage projects instead of the hand-built HTML project sites I used to craft. I rarely sit in person with a hefty laptop to present design concepts or wires to our clients – we meet virtually with Google Hangout, GoToMeeting,, or BlueJeans.

The scheduled photo shoots with a lighting guy, a stylist, and an assistant to nab the right shot for brand, web, and print pieces has morphed into the hunting, decision, and purchasing process from sites like Stocksy, CreativeMarket, VisualHeirarchy, et al. Designers can combine hi-resolution photography with well-designed themes, PSD smart objects, and helpful vector layout kits (not to mention Sketch). Laboring for hours over code to produce clickable user experiences is over – InVision, Solidify, and Axure have deftly allowed our team to provide UX prototypes for our clients that already look real. This ensures a collaborative, iterative design process that’s both quick and cost-effective.

As a firm, we still insist that clients do not skimp on brand development. But the basement competition allows you to flash a five-dollar bill on Fiverr or a couple hundred bucks on 99 designs – presenting a logo as a *brand* to the unwitting. Even websites can be quickly produced by the layman with SquareSpace, Wix, and the forthcoming phenomenon of The Grid.

And yet, as much as it sometimes feels as if a once respectable vocation has turned into a used-car business, I must say, I relish the change. Now small businesses that could not have afforded design studio contracts can have a relatively professional looking digital presence and take advantage of our increasingly digital economy. For these smaller clients, design studios might now be able to play a more strategic role, offering direction, consultation, and best practices.

In a sense, this evolution has sculpted the brand identity of our virtual team at Designing North Studios. We’ve been able to aggregate a team of stars who have the deep knowledge to both consult and implement. The digital revolution has permitted us to bring so many stars together because we’re not shackled to a single zip code. And due to the extraordinary volume of noise in the digital landscape, having a team who can make a business audible above the cacophony does add value. We can take our years of experience in listening, researching, strategizing, and finally designing to re-imagine user experiences and create strong brand identities that are intrinsically tied to clear business goals.

I guess it’s okay that I’m no longer slogging through HTML in every nook and cranny of our projects. It doesn’t make me less of a designer. In fact, it allows me to focus more deeply on the creative elements that add that hover above – that provide authentic differentiation. In the end, it’s great design if it successfully accomplishes what your business set out to do. Period.

Thanks for the therapy session. I’m cool now.

Note: I still love and prefer meeting clients in person whenever it works for them!


How about you?  What do you miss? Do you agree that the evolution is a net positive?

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Top 10 Things to Consider Before You Hire a Digital Design Agency, or…

(The 10 Things Your Best Friend would Tell You if She Owned a Design Agency)

You know the drill.  When you have a big decision to make that’s outside your knowledge wheelhouse, you check-in with a trusted friend for advice.

You twist your knee playing tennis, so you call your old college pal the orthopedic surgeon for advice.

“I’ll make a few calls and get you a couple of names. Make sure you insist on an MRI. And take your old x-rays in – explain your past trauma to that knee – still can’t believe you fell off that table sophomore year. Ask about insurance coverage – a lot of the best surgeons are independent now, and you don’t want any surprises. Your doc should have a go-to physical therapy team – it’s one thing to have a successful surgery, but what happens afterwards is equally important.”

So you’ve decided it’s time for a new website. When you type in your website address on your iPhone, it loads at a glacial pace and the text is microscopic. You’re ticked because you just spent $75K building a new one four years ago. Of course you’ve had two other iPhones since then –  Why does this stuff keep changing so fast?!

No, it’s not fair, but the digital landscape is changing at an exponential pace and you have to keep up if you want to remain competitive and frankly, relevant.

As managing director of a Bay Area digital design firm, here is the advice I give to my best friends when they call me:

  1. DEFINE YOUR GOALS – CLARITY IS QUEEN. As with all strategic planning, understanding your clarity of purpose is paramount. If it’s not clear why you’re taking on this project, you certainly are not going to be able to adequately convey your vision to a design team. If you don’t? No one will be happy in the end. You think you need a new website? Ask yourself and your internal team why. “Because this one stinks” is insufficient data. Why does it stink? “It takes too many steps for someone to place an order.” “It’s terrible on mobile.” “It makes us look old-school – our digital image doesn’t match our edgy physical image.” “Our competition is doing 25% more eCommerce business than we are.” “It’s just not who we are anymore.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
  2. DO THEY CONDUCT RESEARCH? Your prospective design firm should insist on interviewing current customers, partners, employees, and target customers/clients. They need to understand your culture from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Digesting how others perceive what you do well and what you do poorly is key to a successful project. If your prospective agency isn’t asking for clarity and doing a deep-dive in discovery, you’ve picked the wrong pony.
  3. ENSURE IT’S RESPONSIVE. Without going totally geeky on you, put simply:: responsive web design means your website will be experienced and look great on all three of the major digital platforms: desktop, tablet, smartphone. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Industry data shows smartphone access of the Internet is skyrocketing [add charts here]. Google announced that they’re now penalizing websites that are not ‘mobile friendly’ in search rankings (see #8 below). Friends don’t let friends build non-responsive websites.
  4. ESTABLISH A SUSTAINING BUDGET. You’ll need to write compelling content via blog posts and/or new product descriptions. You’ll want your social channels pointing to your flossy new site. You’ll want to keep it fresh with new photos and new hire bios. You’ll need to have your provider update to the latest platform, plug-in, and widget versions, as well as periodically back-up your site.
  5. ASSESS YOUR IN-HOUSE TALENT. Do you have internal personnel who can adequately address the needs of your on-going web support? If not, will you hire someone, or does the digital agency your considering offer such services?
  6. DO YOU LIKE THESE PEOPLE? Developing a new website or app takes time and substantial communication. And more than likely, you will have some form of relationship with your digital design agency after the product launches. Do you like the people presenting the proposal? Do you trust them? If you’ve got that crummy feeling inside as you walk or login to another meeting with them, think twice before hiring them. This can be fun, you know.
  7. PICK AN INTERNAL POINT PERSON. Make someone responsible for this project. If you’re the owner/founder or president/CEO, you’re probably going to get distracted. Select a highly organized person whom you trust, and let them run with it. Make sure they’re giving you regular updates, and make sure that you give them your undistracted attention. The reason a project misses deadlines is usually due to A) The client taking too long to review work-in-progress (WIP); B) The client not spending enough time in their own discovery stage to clearly define goals and requirements, resulting in a circuitous path to the finish line; C) The true decision-maker is only partially engaged, and when it comes down to final revisions, decides he/she wants fundamental changes.
  8. INSIST ON ANALYTICS BEING INSTALLED AND TRANSFERRED TO YOU. You know the old adage, “If you’re not measuring, you’re just practicing.” None of us have time or money to waste. For perhaps the first time in history, your marketing dollars can be accurately measured against performance.  You need to know what’s working and what isn’t. Google Analytics is free, and will go a long way to help you understand where your web traffic is coming from and which of your pages are performing and which aren’t. Make sure your developer has included analytics in the proposal, as well as submitting your new website to the top search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo). The agency should set-up a Google webmaster account for you and hand over the keys to someone in your organization. Alternatively, you could hire them to provide you with monthly reports.
  9. INQUIRE AND LEARN ABOUT SEO. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. SEO stands for search engine optimization. When you type in a search phrase on your computer or mobile device, the search engine (e.g. Google) looks at what you’ve typed, and using a highly sophisticated set of algorithms, serves you the websites links it believes best fits your search criteria. You want your new website optimized for SEO so that people find you when they type in phrases that match the products or services that your company provides. If your prospective digital design agency doesn’t address this topic with you, it’s a signal that they do not have your best interests in mind.
  10. ASK FOR A TEST PLAN. Your digital design agency should be making faux purchases through your eCommerce, complete with credit cards. They need to test the new site’s functionality on desktops, tablets, smartphones, browsers (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Safari) and operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, etc.).  What are your expectations for how many versions back they’ll test for?
  11. CHECK REFERENCES. Okay – I had to add just one more. After all, you are hiring people. Call a couple of their recent clients and see what the agency was like to work with. I asked the CEO of a billion dollar company recently how he liked working with a particular high-flying ad agency. On a scale of 1 to 10 he gave the creative product a 9. He gave his personal contact a 2. Was months of consternation worth it? We all have our own thresholds.  What are yours?

CONCLUSION. Jumping in bed with a digital design agency takes some reflection. Be armed with knowledge going into the relationship, and clarify roles – you’ll have a much more successful marriage as a result.

How about you – had any good or bad experiences lately?  Which of our Top 10 is the most important to you?

The Tool Builders

We humans are ever the tool-makers, the most opportunistic of animals who unceasingly seize upon possibilities and transform them into useful things. Archeology teaches us that our earliest attempts at creating tools proceeded slowly with long intervals between harnessing fire, creating the wheel, and shaping crude implements from stone. But as we gained confidence we gained speed, shaping new tools from existing ones.

How many tools do you think are created every day in our modern world? Perhaps we cannot even know.


Internally, we do not always keep pace with our tool-building. Our minds, our emotions, our goals, our impulses to act – these and other internal attributes are not always lined up with our choice and application of tools. Sometimes our actions are inconsistent with what we say we want to achieve. Often new tools, such as mobile and social technologies, require new things of us, yet internally we have not kept pace. This explains why we can be attracted to a particular instrument, only to misapply it. While initially we might blame the tool, usually we come around to realize that we simply misused it. The lesson is: We apply tools best and act most effectively when inner and outer are squared up.

So it goes with a brand. Your brand is a tool – optimally an impactful instrument that communicates, conveys value, and evokes feelings and responses in close alignment with who you are and what you stand for in the world. Like other tools, your brand is only effective when it authentically reflects you and your organization – when it and your inner drivers are in alignment.

Misalignment arises with the incongruence between identity and action. For example, I’ve observed the headlong rush into mobile by individuals and institutions who apply hard-won lessons from their administrative, IT, or ERP backgrounds. I’m sure these lessons are valuable in those contexts. But are they equally applicable in mobile? Because mobile requires a quite different mindset – one that understands and values most the end-user perspective. And how much do same pre-mobile perspectives take into account the crucial element of conveying a powerful brand to the end user? Inner understanding and commitment congruent with good mobile are essential to creating successful mobile experiences.

Our model and our promise

At Designing North, helping you make this alignment is our passion. We have a model and a methodology to help you align who you are with your brand to create the optimal outcome for you and your clients.

Our model, stated briefly, is this: We begin with the inner – be – your identity. Who are you? What is your mission? What are your values? What promises do you make to your customers? We help you build a brand to reflect this. Your identity determines what you do (your actions, coupled with the way you undertake them). We help you understand, perhaps even disclose new aspects of, yourself and we help you select, develop, and apply the right tools to execute upon your brand. The resultant actions you take will determine what you have as a result, or the outcomes you get. All of this is strongly reinforcing. Perhaps you realize you have an identity that needs to change. We help you determine the nature of the change and how to get there from here. If you have a team environment, we can help build collective agreement and commitment.

This is our brand promise to you: We care deeply about this alignment, understand the challenge of matching inner with outer, and know how to help you to achieve powerful results.

Yes, we shape our tools. But our tools also shape us.

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