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What can Flash do for you?

One of the more common questions we get from clients when starting on a new website design is: “Should I use Flash?”

People come to the design process with all sorts of preconceived notions about what Flash can and cannot do for them. A lot of the time, this is because people get all sorts of conflicting advice from friends, peers and even other designers.

For most websites, we do not recommend using Flash. Flash is a great tool, and it can do some really fun and interactive things. Most of these things, however, are best used in games, instructional videos or tutorials and kept off of websites. (Unless, of course, your site is dedicated to gaming or another interactive purpose in which case Flash may be more useful to you.)

Flash has several downfalls. It requires users to have the fight plugin installed. Although this isn’t a big issue, there are people out there who intentionally do not install such plugins. If the important thing you wanted your user’s to see is stuck in a Flash movie, some people might be missing it.

Search engines do not index flash content. If your site is programmed primarily in Flash, it is going to be pretty much invisible to Google. Search engines need to see text, text and more text. Good, quality content writing is often a better investment than Flash.

Having read all of that, you may think it is a wonder that Flash gets used at all. Flash is a powerful tool, and it does have it’s place. However, that place should be limited in modern web design to maximize the value of the site to both you and your users.

Brand promise

One of the most common misconceptions about branding is the idea that a brand is simply a logo. As a graphic design company, we support the development of strong, memorable logos. But the branding process does not stop with having a logo that can be stamped on a few items. Branding is a promise. A promise of performance.

The brands we all know, brands that dominate our market landscape, all have a well-known promise of performance. We recognize, for example, the FedEx logo. That recognition goes far beyond a simple acknowledgement we’ve seen the graphic mark before. We understand the promise of fast, reliable delivery. Nike doesn’t even have to print their name with their swoosh. That simple mark sparks a recognition of the brand and their core promise of performance – performance.

In order to develop this kind of brand recognition, a good brand has to be more than just a logo or a website. It is a unique personality, a whole story that encompasses everything a business does. It involves the totality of a consumer’s experience with a company, from name recognition to personal interaction to purchasing.

The brand promise has to be repeated in multiple ways in order to be turned into a real competitive advantage. Every opportunity a company has, from the personal branding of its employees, to customer service, to graphic development and advertising and everything in between must reinforce that promise. Unfortunately, a company does not have complete control over the perception of its brand promise. A disenchanted customer can quickly spread poor word of mouth across multiple channels, which is why it is so important to be consistent.

When a company truly understands its promise of performance, then brainstorming and planning sessions can focus on how to achieve an emotional connection with consumers that cements that promise into their minds. That deeper level of brand recognition, beyond just knowing a logo, is what all great brands aim for.

Choose the right black for the job

Black vs. Black

In print applications, the color black can be a tricky animal. It seems straightforward enough; black is black, right? Well, not necessarily. While the final result, black on the page, looks consistent, the combination of inks used to produce the color black may vary depending on the printed piece. < Anything that is printed using ink on paper is printed in the CMYK color space. Black, in CMYK, is the presence of all colors. We tend to think of black as the absence of color since, in terms of the visible spectrum of light, black is exactly that. But not so in print. Therefore, to achieve a rich black, designers will often mix inks so that the black is actually a combination of black, cyan, magenta and yellow.

Mixing inks to achieve a rich black works very well for advertisements or other items that have larger areas of black such as a background, call-out area or large, bold font. In fact, using 100% black ink in pieces that contain larger areas of black can result in a washed-out, gray-black. Still a black, but not the deep, rich black that the design calls for.

However, nice a rich multi-ink black does not always work. When dealing with smaller areas, particularly text, using multiple inks in a black can result in muddled, blurry, hard to ready copy. Thin lines, and especially serifs on small text are require too much detail for multiple inks. It is too hard to register different colors exactly. It is always a good idea to use a single-ink 100% black in detail situations.

That crazy dog blog

We know how it start. First you write one article about what your dog can teach you about creativity. Then another. And then one day you wake up to find you’re that crazy dog blog on the corner yelling at people to get off your lawn.

So, we’ll try to keep all of that under control. But we’re still going to write another post about the office dog. Because it turns out, she’s an excellent little (well, not so little anymore) learning tool.

If you don’t know Maple, which of course you don’t, the most important thing to understand about her is that she is impossible to wear out. Yes, she’s a puppy – about a year and three months – and anyone who has ever had a puppy knows how overwhelming puppy energy can be. But this is something new and special. This is a puppy who can play “fetch” all morning, go on a four mile run at lunch and after all that still be chasing her tail all afternoon. While we love having her around the office, in the interest of getting things done, we’ve started sending her to doggy day care a few days out of the week so she can wear other dogs out instead of us.

Maple’s energy, intelligence and enthusiasm have emphasized to us one basic and important aspect of good branding. Focus.

We do a disservice to both Maple and ourselves if we just let her run wild around the office with no direction or discipline. She needs to know what is expected of her to lessen her stress, make her a happier dog and prevent her from from forming costly furniture chewing habits.

Some days, this seems impossible. Some days, we just want to give up and let her get away with barking or scratching at the window when someone walks by or going into rooms she knows she’s not allowed into. We all have a lot on our plates and a lot on our minds and summoning up the energy to handle an indefatigable dog is hard.

But no matter what else is going on in the office, focus and consistency are critical. If we only tell Maple what we want her to do some of the time, or if we only mean it some of the time, or if we aren’t really focused and paying attention when we do, then all we are doing is confusing her and promoting bad behavior. When we give a focused command and back it with the right emotional frame of mind, Maple follows our lead.

The same holds true for your branding efforts. Your brand is the sum of everything that you do, and if you are not focused on your goals and consistent in your message, then the result is confusing and jumbled. Your potential customers may or may not know what you want them to do. They may or may not have the right emotional reaction to your branding efforts.

In order to get the most you can out of an extremely frustrating market, you must be uniquely focused on your goals and consistent in your delivery. Focus and consistency are not easy. Especially in this economy. Some days, we all want to throw our hands up in the air. But being focused and consistent will make your brand memorable. With a good, consistent brand story, you will be able to evoke the right emotional response in your audience that turns the casual observer into the loyal brand user.

White space: feel the love

White space. Let us just say it again and revel in its beauty. White space. Look at it. Take it in. Love it. Let it speak to you. Use it.

White space can be frightening for both designers and clients. We are here to to tell you, and any of you we may do work for, to stop the cycle of fear. It doesn’t need to be  frightening. White space (really all negative space – it doesn’t have to be white) can speak volumes through its elegance and simplicity. In fact, sometimes you don’t just want to use it, you want to create it. You can use it to speak with precision and accuracy because you are not saying too much.

The best way to overcome your fear and use white space wisely is to understand how it works for you. And always remember, it does work for you.White space creates emphasis. When you surround elegant type or a surprising image by negative space, people have to pay attention to it. When you place a crisp white page in the middle of a dark brochure, it calls out for you to look at it. So don’t be afraid of using it to drive home your core message.

White space also creates simplicity (rest and peace for the eyes) and organization. Think of all of the visual stimuli that we are all confronted with every day. The TV is yelling, irritating flashing online ads are yelling, billboards are yelling, and so on all day long. If your advertising or branding materials can cut through that noise and offer the consumer a sense of peace, then you have become memorable. You have beat the clutter with simplicity and focus. So, see, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

These are the times that try brands' souls

(Our apologies to Thomas Paine. We aren’t actually making to  literal comparison between the plight of marketers  and that of revolutionary fighters.)

The truth is that branding, graphic design, identity development, creating a brand personality that speaks to your customers… none of this is easy, even in a good market. Sticking to your branding and marketing goals during an economic crunch is even harder. Your brand must be more focused than ever on the emotions and needs of your audience so that your prospects will choose to spend their limited resources on you.

Knowing who you are, who your audience is and developing your brand story takes effort.
Being different is not easy. Creating concepts that don’t mirror (or directly copy, for that matter) your competition takes thought. Every article you read on branding will say something about how “Your brand is your promise…” or “Your brand is your unique offering…” or “Your brand should represent your company’s core values…” and, of course, “Your brand should be memorable and distinct.” All of this is true, and it is also good advice.

It is one thing to hear this advice and another thing entirely to put it to practical use in the real world. Our markets tend to focus on the short term, looking at quarterly earnings and monthly sales figures. But real building a brand takes time. The temptation to take what appears to be a successful formula from someone else – say a competitor – and try to replicate it may be strong. But it is, in the long term, a losing strategy.

No matter how hard you may try, you are not the company you are trying to “emulate.” You are your own brand with your own message, and trying to incorporate another company’s design into your brand will most likely make your materials look thrown together and unprofessional. Doing the same thing as everyone else will do nothing to make your brand memorable and nothing to appeal specifically to your customers. If your message and presentation is not unique then your prospects have no motivation to choose you over anyone else.

This is why it is so critical to take a deep breath and do some real brand soul searching. Look for real ways to distinguish yourself and create the right impression on the market, be it developing a new logo or tagline, updating your imagery and colors or investing in a well-focused ad campaign. There are always new ways to distinguish your brand.

Yes, we know the cocoon feels warm, comforting and safe, but to survive you must break out of it. You must step out of your comfort zone and take action. Interview your customers so you can understand how you are perceived and how you might be able to change to better meed their needs. Review your branded materials. Did you pick your colors and graphics out of a strategic understanding of their emotional impact on consumers or just because you kind of liked them?

Set realistic goals, have realistic expectations.
Good design takes work and collaboration. Establishing realistic expectations with your designer from the start will save a lot of headaches. A lot of strategic thought, sketching, more sketching and brainstorming go into the creation of logos, ads and marketing materials. All of these things are necessary steps in creating effective graphics that speak to customers. Knowing that, within reason, good design takes time will ease tension between you and your design team.

Creating custom graphics that tell your brand story, create a point of difference and position you as unique in your industry takes time. Paring down your copy, making your website and other materials clean, being direct and succinct and purposeful is a challenge. Throwing everything you have at your audience without taking the time to really pare down and hone your message is easy. Unfortunately, easy is not effective.

A graphic design company wouldn't engage in schadenfreude would they?

Well, maybe schadenfreude is not the perfect word for the occasion, but it works. What is this graphic design company doing engaging in such a practice? Call it having a little fun, call it a learning exercise. It is our list, as voted on by our employees, of the top 4 worst branding moves in recent history.

Sometimes well established companies start to believe they can do it all, regardless of what their brand actually stands for. And that can lead to some mistakes and poor brand extensions worthy of some discussion.

1. New Coke
Remember when Coke had the best tagline in the beverage industry? “Coke is it.” It. How can you argue with that? Three succinct words that sum up their brand position and leave no room for argument – you don’t need anything else, “Coke is it.”

Then, in a stroke of utter marketing thoughtlessness, Coke decided to change its formula. If Coke was “it” then why the need for the New Coke? The move went against their brand story and position, and, apparently, also their customers’ wishes. Ultimately, Coke had to switch back to “Coke Classic,” but not after their brand took some hits and their brilliant tagline was lost.

2. Maxim Hair Color for Men
Maxim’s experiment in hair color began in 2002 and has since been discontinued. The men’s magazine dedicated to offering a “macho” tableau of sex, sports, beer, and fitness, tried to take that feeling into their hair dyes offering colors like “Jack Black” and “Red Rum.”

Not surprisingly, the idea didn’t take off. Somehow the thought of staying at home and dyeing hair did not coincide with the brand image of strong, on-the-go, masculine men.

3. Hooters Energy Drink
Hooters earned the distinction of being named “most questionable food extension” in TippingSprung’s 2007 survey of worst brand extensions. Hooters has a strong brand, which they decided to completely throw aside in their foray into the energy drink market – a market that has no relation to the Hooters brand at all.

Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries brand consultancy, summed this non-starter of a brand extension up perfectly:

“Hooters doesn’t stand for energy. It stands for boobs and chicken.”

4. Precious Moments Caskets
Here is another (we believe horrifying) example of an inappropriate brand extension. We say horrifying because the figurines, symbols of youth and childhood, look a little creepy when printed on the silk lining of a coffin.

But, creepy factor aside, the biggest problem with Precious Moments Caskets is that coffins have nothing to do with the brand’s core values. In fact, they are the antithesis of the innocent, youthful figurines dedicated to marking important childhood landmarks. If your brand is about innocence and youth, it’s a good idea to try and keep death out of it.

Leverage social networking sites

This is a post that honestly I thought I would never write. That is because – confession time – I hate myspace. I, since I can remember hearing of its existence, have at the very least not been able to get into it and on some days developed an active dislike for it. Perhaps it is because the age of its target audience is well below mine, or because, even with a good knowledge of css, their unattractive design is frustratingly not that easy to customize. This problem has been compounded by the abundance of horrible, cheesy templates available from both myspace and third party sources.

But I digress. This is not about my borderline unhealthy distaste for myspace. Here, I want to talk about how social networks have grown up into worthwhile branding tools.

The first, most obvious benefit to using social networking sites to enhance brand awareness is that aside from a time commitment, it’s free marketing. On one hand, it gives you a wider network of exposure for your brand. Who knows, you may get yourself some new customers, or get new people talking about you.

Beyond that, and this is the real point that makes the time commitment worthwhile, every link back to your site counts. Most of the business social networking sites like FastCompany, IncBiz and Entrepreneur Connect let you post articles, and IncBiz lets you post press releases as well. So, you can created targeted links with your keyphrases in every one of your articles. If you keep this up on a weekly basis, your links just keep multiplying without the use of link exchanges, a practice that Google admonishes. Not only that, but if any of the articles you’ve posted on a business networking site gets picked up and syndicated, you’ve just gotten yourself more exposure without doing any extra work.

In a down economy, it is more important than ever not to give up on your branding and marketing. You need to get your brand out to wary consumers and convince them to spend their newly limited budgets on you. Using business social networks to increase awareness of your brand is one cost-effective way to stick to your brand development.

Is it time to freelance?

Sometimes a downturn in the economy is just the push people need to branch out on their own, stop working for someone else and start their own business. Designers, maybe it is time to consider building up your client base as an independent freelancer.

Even without an extra push, at some point in your professional career, you may find yourself in a place where you feel like you have learned all you can by working for someone else. Or, that your career has become stagnant. Perhaps you’ve just become tired of working toward a set of goals or creative standards that don’t mesh with your own. Because let’s face it, doing the same repetitive tasks or producing work you wouldn’t want to show to other people is just not rewarding. We don’t become creative professionals only to lose ourselves in a daily Photoshopping black hole.

Whatever the reason, the temptation to strike out on your own and freelance finally catches up with you. If you go into this process with a clear understanding of the risk (and the reward) and make a plan that you can (realistically) stick to, then the next six months to a year of your life will go much more smoothly.

By the way, we think that “freelancing” is a term who’s time has come and gone. You don’t want to be one of the hundreds of freelancers that potential clients run into every day. Think through your new business like the design professional and entrepreneur you are, and use language appropriate for your new title. Learn to love your thesaurus, and come up with a better way to say “freelancer.” You can be a creative specialist or a branding expert and give yourself some added value just through the way you identify and introduce yourself to others.

Ok, so you’ve made your decision and come up with your cool new way of presenting yourself to the world. What now? Well, we were going to write a list of things to consider when setting up your design business, but then we found a great list already out there. Speckyboy’s list of 53 (yes 53) steps to follow if you want to become a freelance designer.

We’ll give you the top five here:
1. Set a realistic date for starting officially as a Freelance Designer.

2. Write out a plan-of action for your new business.
(Always remember it is a business you are building).

3. Save as much money as you can in that six months.
(You’ll need money for stationery, lawyers, accountants, hardware, software…).

4. Make an appointment at your local bank to discuss a business account.
(If you can try to avoid asking for an overdraft, do that. Same with a Credit Card).

5. Familiarize yourself with what your and your clients legal obligations are, then speak to a lawyer about a Contract Draft.
(When it comes to legalities you can’t afford any mistakes,the expense is worth it).

Use the right tools to make your website work for you.

In a difficult market where most companies are facing some tough financial decisions, it is more important than ever to make sure your more cost-efficient investments, like your web presence, are working as hard as they can for you. Here are some things to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of your site and its tools.

Are visitors taking the desired action?

What do you want your visitors to do? Fill out a quote form? Buy a product or service? Request information? Contact you? Become a member of your community? Sign up for a newsletter?

There are many different reasons for establishing a web presence, and yes, just being there for the sake of establishing legitimacy is one of them. But beyond that, if you are really using the tools at your disposal effectively, your users should be prompted to do something.

If you are tracking your branding initiatives (as you should be), then you should know what kind of success rate you have in convincing your visitors to take the intended action. If your success rate is low, ask yourself why. Sometimes it is a matter of usability or design. Just because you see your site all the time and know how it works does not mean it is intuitive for your users. Site design and navigation structure should emphasize the important aspects of your site and guide your users to them easily.

Is your site using the tools at your disposal wisely?

For those of you who watch The Office, you may be reminded here last season’s failure of the new Dunder Mifflin website. For those of you who do not, a brief explanation. Dunder Mifflin sells paper. Straightforward, no frills, office paper. They therefore needed a site that made it easy and cost effective for customers to buy paper. Regardless of this simple goal, the new Vice President was trying to build a “hip” social networking site that provided a complete online paper community experience.

This idea, not surprisingly, did not take off. While social networks are popular, one that is focused around office paper is not really exciting or useful.

When looking at your own site, do a little brainstorming on how you can best put to use the technology at your disposal. Would your business be helped if you create a portal for customer interaction and community building? If so, would a simple blog do, or should you invest time in building something more intricate? Online community building tools have become extremely affordable and are one option, but only if they actually add value to the brand/site experience.

You may find that your energy is better focused on perfecting a design that is memorable, functional, easy to navigate and prompts action from your users. Understand your goals and your message first, and make sure you are not wasting money on a site that is not working for you.

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