Why Designers Need to Act Like Narrators

I love documentaries. I watch them all the time. Really great documentaries usually have a great narrator. Morgan Freeman can make a bunch of penguins marching across the frozen tundra exciting. March of the Penguins is boring with the sound turned off. Sure the little tuxedoed creatures look cute, but after a while you just feel like you’re at the Pittsburgh Zoo. It’s the narrative that drives a documentary forward. Morgan Freeman is such a great VO talent because he knows how to keep his voice soothing while still implying danger, excitement, opportunity or whatever other emotion suddenly jumps out of the penguins through his narrative.

But does Freeman really deserve a lot of credit for making the film a success? He wasn’t even on the screen. I think he does. Narrators are important to a documentary because their voice—its cadence, pitch and presence—are really what draws us in to the screen. Without Morgan telling the story, there is no reason to consume penguins for 90 minutes. I think designers need to understand that they too are “narrators” when they design, even if the end product is a simple brochure.

As designers, we are story tellers. That sounds like a cliché, but many creatives don’t really take this to heart. Their brochure cover, or website home page, is like the opening title sequence. We need to draw people into what we design, never assuming that just because our work is colorful it will be consumed. Whether it’s an interactive presentation, a website or even just a postcard, every design has a narrative. The big question is: Are you controlling the story?

Copy gets dumped on your lap. Images get slid across your desk on a disk. The copy’s drones on too long, and the images are boring and need tons of color correction. What’s new? You start plugging the assets in, and it looks like crap. You start making text bold here, and text larger there, hoping that somehow you’ll start to enjoy what you’re working on. This moment never happens. In your heart, you hate the piece. You want it to go away because it sucks. You don’t even know why anyone would read it. You’re just doing your part of the process, hoping someone else might pull the plug on this monstrosity. When you get to this point, understand that you are fundamentally failing at being a designer. You are not controlling the narrative to ensure that all your hard work results in a page turn, an inquiry or a click through for your client.

Even if you’re not the writer, you need to control the narrative. You should want to control how someone reads through your work. The words in a design are just as much a reflection of your capabilities as your actual graphic design. If you let something get printed with a f*cked up headline, the design has failed, period. Don’t be a failure by using these tips.

  • Mock up your design with all greeking, and ask the writer to write to fit. You have a better understanding of how long copy should be in a design that a writer. Include places where you’d like to include callouts, sidebars, headings and introductory paragraphs. Adjust the greeking length until the amount of copy feels appropriate (ex: headings are rarely more than 1 line long) and digestible (the subjects of the page can be understood simply by scanning the page).
  • Make sure there are introductions to new thoughts. Sometimes less experienced writers don’t understand that new thoughts or changes of the subject require an intro paragraph that clearly indicates, “We’re moving on”. If you see nine paragraphs in a row in the content, ask the writer to break up the story with some suggesting headings. If the copy has no nice, short introduction, ask for one. Something I constantly see is designers who are given the actual content for a design, but no introduction to that content. Every communication or information design job as one or more introductions, even if you need to force them to be crafted. 
  • Never just invent callouts or headings. It’s understandable that you need to break up gobs of text with a pull quote, larger type or a callout, but don’t invent these things from basic copy (unless you’re a skilled writer yourself). When you bold things, or make them bigger, you are saying, “This is more important.” Just randomly selecting things to enlarge so you have a more dynamic layout results in confusion. Instead, work with the writer to identify what are the key points being made in the copy, and then pull those points out. Be sure that you feel the points being pulled out actually help someone better understand the purpose of the all the tiny text around it. Magazines do a great job of this.
  • Summarize the very specific goal of each page or screen, and verify your design achieves that goal. An example of a great goal for a single page is, “Introduce the reader to the concept of Hiring is a Hassle, validate it with some text the reader can agree with, then introduce The Resumator and explain this brochure will highlight key features.” You can almost imagine the top to bottom layout with such a specific goal. On the flip side, simply having the goal, “Introduce The Resumator” leaves a lot to the imagination.
  • Hack away at copy in your sketches until it fits. You’re just sketching, so if a paragraph is too long, hack of the bottom until it fits and add a period. Screw rewriting it—you don’t have time. Later you’ll show the writer how many lines you need edited from that paragraph. Except maybe in cases of annual reports, I feel design drives copy length, and not vice versa. Things are usually said in more words than necessary. Hack away knowing you’re not jamming up your writer.
  • Call out crappy copy. Read what you are pasting into InDesign and ask yourself if your intended audience would sit through ready this. If your gut tells you something is wrong, you should speak up. Writers often wonder if they’re setting the right tone and length for their copy. The feedback usually is appreciated when you use a more polite word than crap.
  • Take a guess at copy. If you’re gut tells you a specific phrase makes sense somewhere, speak up! If you consider yourself a good designer, then you should respect your gut and throw your idea into the ring.

I think great designers care about the narrative flow of a design, never allowing  crappy story to be told. It may cause a rift with a writer, but remember simply being a design is not your goal. You want to be a great, and great designers don’t reflect on a design and say, “yeah, it looks good…but the copy kind of sucks.”

My Correlation Between Results in a Startup and Results on a Basketball Court

The easiest way for me to articulate the importance of building a results-driven company it is thinking back to my days when I regularly played basketball. I hooped at both the suburban YMCA and the city courts. These two experiences were totally different. One experience did not motivate me to work harder and achieve greater results, and the other experience taught me how important it is to surround yourself with motivated people who are concerned more about their results than they do their efforts. I might even say it’s the #1 reason so many professional basketball players are from the rough courts of the inner-city.

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A Startup Community Grows In Pittsburgh

Everyone refers to my home city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as the “Steel City.” This nickname paints an image of glowing steel mills busily cranking out America’s infrastructure. It’s true that Pittsburgh deserves much credit for helping build our skylines and railroads during the industrial boom, but behind our contemporary nickname is a hidden, dirty little secret: We don’t produce much steel anymore.

The steel mills are gone. Our national image is more a reflection of history and the popularity of our beloved football team than anything else.

But Pittsburgh has completed its wonderful transformation from a smoky, industrial city into not only one of America’s most livable cities, but also one of the best cities for new entrepreneurs to blossom. With the help and mentoring of other entrepreneurs, business veterans and, most importantly, the AlphaLab startup accelerator program, my company–The Resumator–was able to blossom as well.

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When Raising Money, Never “Give Up”

Originally published for American Express OPEN Forum

I have been offered some pretty bad deals for equity in my company. The worst one offered monthly advice for 10 percent of my company. Then there was $100,000 for 25 percent of my company, but paid as services. And who can forget the 51 percent I was offered to leave my CEO role at The Resumator, but still essentially do all the day-to-day work. The sad truth is I actually considered every single one of these deals because I had no clue how to identify them as bad early. Only by luck and a last minute voice in my head did I walk away from these deals years ago.

I don’t want to paint the impression that deals for equity in your company are always bad deals, but many are horrible for new, inexperienced entrepreneurs. We get excited because someone wants to invest in us, or a seasoned employee wants to join our team. Some of these folks have good deals to offer, and others are trying to get the whole kit and kaboodle. New entrepreneurs don’t know how to discern between the two, so we use defensive posturing during negotiations as a disguise for our insecurity. We’re determined to not give up too much of our company, even though we don’t really know what “too much” is.

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What Furnishing an Empty Apartment Teaches Us About Feature Requests

I’ve had the privilege for two years of being part of an AlphaLab alumni panel that takes questions from the newly selected class. One of the questions I hear over and over again is about product features. First-time entrepreneurs and “I can build basically anything” hackers both struggle with identifying and prioritizing features in order to deliver something substantial within the small pocket of time between now and Demo Day. The answer has always been the same: Listen to your users. But entrepreneurs often cite Henry Ford as saying, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Well, let’s come back to Earth and realize that we’re building online software and not the future of transportation. Most of us have a practical problem we are trying to solve, full of just enough innovation to potentially be a success (a lucky few are creating something truly amazing). Innovation does come from individual thinking (the “aha” moment), but listening to customers is the only way you can understand what they need in the first place. We’ll never know, but perhaps if Ford never heard someone complain about the inefficiency of buying horses, watching them get old and slow, and then dying, we’d be trotting to the grocery store today.

While I’ve written about this subject in the past, the focus of that article was more on prioritizing features, and not how to use customer feedback to drive early product development. This article focuses on uncovering essential product features by leveraging the intelligence of your customers. So, when you have no product, and just a dream of the solution, how do you pull back from that dream and leverage your early users to help you identify what’s essential?

My answer is you treat early feature requests as if you’re furnishing an empty apartment.

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How to Create a Great Startup Office Space on a Bootstrap Budget

Four weeks ago The Resumator outgrew my home office and “forced” me to look for office space. I am beginning to bring on part-time help and needed an office space so we could collaborate, plus the business needed to feel more “real”—this is a hard concept to explain but what happens in your house can sometimes feel more like a hobby. Now let me tell you, I do not have some big VC investment to dole out for Aeron chairs and a sheet metal version of our logo for the wall. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to spend that kind of money even if I had it. This all said, I come from a design background, and that means I am used to energetic work spaces that fly in the face of the conventional cubed world that corrals so many corporate employees worthy of our sympathy. A great space is a great recruiting tool. Here’s how I created what I feel is an energetic office space for basically no cost at all.

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