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3D Modeling and Animation – Asian Temple project

June 25, 2013

My latest 3DS Max project is an imaginary Asian temple, designed primarily from Cambodian motifs. The challenge was to deliver a convincing level of detail, even in closeups, while not overloading memory. It was made using some advanced modeling, texturing and lighting techniques I have been learning, including modeling foliage and creating a moving water channel and waterfall. This is an example of the type of detailed environment that can be created and animated using 3DS Max.

Should You Treat Your Graphic Designer Like an Artist? Maybe not…

May 21, 2013

Hugo NavarroClear, concise communication between a client and their graphic designer is the most essential ingredient to that client getting what they need and want and to the designer’s understanding of what the client’s vision is. But a client’s understanding of what his designer actually does and what his function actual is, seems to be where that communication breaks down, as we’ve found out in the many years we’ve been in the graphic design biz. So what’s the deal? Well…

Designers always have to deal with practicality and functionality, where an artist does not. It’s like the difference between a sculptor and an architect. A building may look beautiful, but if it does not fulfill its function, it’s a failure. Same with a website or a brochure.

We came across this fabulous article by HubSpot writer Keith Frankel that just about sums it up. We’ve quoted it here in full. We think it’s that important!

Your Designers Are Not Artists, and You Need to Stop Thinking That Way

by Keith Frankel

As head of HubSpot’s creative and design team, I spend nearly every day acting as the translator between my designers and the rest of the company, particularly executives, marketers, and salespeople, (i.e. those folks whose jobs are often held to more formal or quantitative metrics). Obviously, it should come as no surprise that there is always at least some disconnect between designers and non-designers, especially considering the vast differences in both the day-to-day work and the success metrics of each group.

However, having spent the last several years basically being the translator between the two, one thing has really surprised me: the vast majority of non-designers don’t actually understand what a designer’s real role is.

Fortunately, this divide usually has nothing at all to do with a lack of appreciation for the work designers do. In fact, non-designers are often very complimentary in describing how “pretty” or “sexy” a designer’s work is (These descriptions alone highlight the problem, but that’s a story for another day). Instead, the disconnect revolves around a simple misunderstanding of exactly what role designers play in an organization. If there was one thing I could convey to non-designers, it is this: designers are not artists, and the fact that you view them as such is hurting not only your working relationship, but the quality of the work you receive from them, as well.

Artist vs. Designer — What’s the Difference?

Before you grimace at that statement, just take a moment to hear me out. I promise, I’m not insulting designers by denying their status as artists; in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, you can appreciate and respect design in the same way you do works of art. And yes, many designers are artists in their spare time. In the end though, design serves a very distinct and altogether different role. Rather than focusing primarily on form or expression (as is often the case with art), the primary purpose of design is the exact opposite — to support function.

Design is first and foremost a job of solving problems. Designers see (or are tasked with responding to) a need. They must brainstorm how to best satisfy that need, create the solution, and then send the result out into the world for others to enjoy. In such a way, design is all about making someone’s life easier. While it is absolutely true that designers are uniquely skilled at taking something from rough concept to beautiful completion, that final deliverable must — at its most fundamental level — successfully address whatever shortcomings it suffered from in the beginning. Everything on top of that is (aesthetically pleasing) icing on the cake.

The quicker non-designers can begin to understand that design is about user experience over artistic output, the more effective they will be at working with designers to achieve the most successful deliverables possible, and the happier both parties will be.

Does This Really Matter?

The distinction between designer and artist is much more than just a discussion of semantics. The fact is, the perception non-designers have of designers directly affects the way in which they communicate with them, as well as their expectations of the deliverables they will eventually receive from them. Acknowledging the distinction is vital in ensuring that you’re able to get the most out of your designers.

For the sake of including a real world example of how this misunderstanding negatively affects the relationship between non-designers and designers, consider one of the most frequent requests designers receive from non-designers: “Could you send me a few different versions?”

This is one of the most frustrating requests a designer can receive and is a clear example of when viewing designers as artists leads to erroneous expectations, and eventually tension. Yes, artists can create several different works of art, all of which are capable of expressing emotion in differing ways. But remember: a designer’s first job is to solve problems. Any designer worth his weight, when being tasked with responding to some need, will have invested his most thoughtful work into the first idea. Asking for additional versions amounts to nothing more than ideas of diminishing quality. It’s like responding to a doctor who has just recommended diet and exercise as your best chance for losing weight with: “What else ya got?”

Now, this is not to say that designers will “nail it” the first time every time, or that a designer’s work can’t be improved with thoughtful review and feedback. Feedback is absolutely necessary, and no good designer thinks s/he is above it. However, in order to ensure that you get the most successful design out of your designers, don’t start by asking them to create multiple versions of the same deliverable. Instead, work better with them up front by providing them with all of the necessary information they will need to knock the first version out of the park. When it comes time to review later, you will thank yourself.

There’s another positive to this more-up-front approach: the formality of it allows for clearer assessment of fault later in the process. If a proper exploratory is conducted up front, but the project misses the mark or falls short, it is normally the result of one of two things: 1) You did not give the designer all of the necessary information, or 2) The designer failed to either respond to all of your needs, or successfully answer all of the problems you discussed at the beginning of the project.

Either way, if the solution fails, you will at least have a clear understanding of the root of the shortcomings.

So What Should I Take From This?

Unfortunately, there is a terrible misconception that good design is flashy or ornate. Even worse, that it should be loud or “eye-catching.” This misunderstanding has directly contributed to the designer vs. artist dilemma, and couldn’t be further from the truth. The most successful designs satisfy presenting and highlighting your content without calling attention to the highlight itself. Good design isn’t necessarily loud or ornate. In fact, it is often completely invisible.

Having said that, always keep in mind that the goal of design is, first and foremost, to support the function of your content by providing thoughtful solutions to your problems. In such a way, designers are ultimately responsible for improving the overall quality of a consumer’s experience with your content. To that end, trust your designers not as artists, but as problem solvers. They are here to help you create the most successful – not necessarily the prettiest — solutions to your needs. Additionally, any straggling designers out there that view themselves as artists need to embrace this shift in mentality; you may be an artist in your free time, but when working in a business capacity, you’re a problem solver. The quicker we all understand the difference, the happier we’ll all be.

P.S. If you’re a designer reading this, you may be interested in designing templates for the HubSpot Template Marketplace. If that sounds up your alley, you can learn how to sign up here.

7 Startup Business Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

May 10, 2013

Store closing - startup mistakesBob had a great idea for a t-shirt business. His design ideas were killer; he just knew the kids would love them. The stores would be clamoring to take them. He was ready to go into mass production, right now!  Well, I hate to rain on anyone’s parade or dampen their enthusiasm, but it seemed he hadn’t thought it through. We started asking him some routine questions about his research, his target audience, his profit margins and so on, and he realized he didn’t have a lot of the answers.  He went off to do a bit more research – and we never heard anything further about the t-shirts.

A sad story? Sure. But not as sad as if he had invested thousands, or even tens of thousands, in a business that just wasn’t thought through.

Many of our clients are startup businesses, and we love dealing with them. Their enthusiasm and optimism are infectious, and we enjoy helping them to develop a unique brand image, websites, and promotional items. Many enjoy great success, but unfortunately, some of them fail, and it’s always heartbreaking to see, particularly when they’ve put so much effort and passion into it.

More than half of new startups fail in the first four years often due to easily avoidable pitfalls. Here are a few of the things we’ve noticed over the years that are critical to the success or failure of any new venture.

1. You love your product, but will anyone else?  One client had a wonderful family recipe and was ready to mass-produce it and get it into supermarkets. Her family and friends all loved the recipe, so how could it fail? Well, it might be the most amazing product ever to come along, but you won’t know its appeal for sure until you test it – beyond your immediate circle. There’s no substitute for hands-on research and testing. Take some samples to local stores and see if they are interested. Take samples to a local street fair or market and see if anyone wants to buy.  Test market it at a store or two before you get into a national launch.

The author William Faulkner advised writers to “kill your darlings.” Don’t be so in love with your own ideas that you fail to see the flaws. It’s fine to be passionate and enthusiastic about your ideas, but be ready to turn around and look at them critically and objectively. And be ready to hit the street and do a lot of talking, selling, surveying, and listening before you decide that your idea has “legs.”

Pat Flynn has some great suggestions on simple, inexpensive product research.

2. Your target audience – who are you trying to reach? Too many neophyte marketers don’t pay enough attention to this factor, yet it’s one of the most basic and far-reaching factors in selling anything.  You have to know exactly what type of people you are trying to sell to and you have to know that target consumer very well – age, gender, education level, income, location and so on. Any product has specific types of people that are most likely to need or want it.

And once you’ve determined your target public, well, do you know anything about them? Let’s say it’s teenagers. Have you actually talked to teenagers? Have you shown them your product? Do they like it? What changes would they make in it? There’s no substitute for hard-boiled research. Your product has to solve a problem or fill a need for your target audience.  You may find that what you thought was a great idea for teenagers, is nothing a teenager actually would buy!

3. Pricing – can you make a profit? Sales volume alone doesn’t equate to profit. One business we worked with was making over $20,000 a week in sales, yet was losing money and headed for bankruptcy.  A basic profit and loss workout showed that they would have to drastically cut their overhead to actually be profitable, which they did, and they were able to move into the black.

In another case, an artist was selling her work for ridiculously low prices despite a popular demand for her work. When she added up her expenses and how many hours spent on each piece of artwork, it became obvious that she’d have to charge more to avoid being a “starving artist.”

4. Thinking it through.  Take the time to think through your business idea in all of its details. Have you added up all the costs of getting your idea off the ground? Have you worked out how long it will take? Have you worked out all of the sales or distribution points you will need? Have you talked to people in that business and gotten their input? Have you detailed out every step so you know exactly what you have to do, step by step, with no fuzzy or grey areas?

One of our now long-time loyal clients originally contacted us for a full branding package for a new product: logo, website, label, packaging, brochure…the works. During our initial phone call, we asked some pointed questions: “Do you have a business plan we can look at?” “Have you done any market research?” “Have you done any product testing?” “Who is your target public?” The client realized she didn’t have the answers. So instead of selling her an expensive branding package and promotional items, we gave her the number of the local Small Business Administration, suggested she contact a competent attorney, and made some suggestions for product testing. Sure, it took some months, but when we did hear back, she was now on firm footing – and we had made a client for life.

It doesn’t hurt to do a proper business plan. There are plenty of online tutorials that walk you through the process, and your local Small Business Administration has people that can advise you, often for free. Going through the steps of a business plan can help you to clarify your goals and fine-tune your approach – and make sure you haven’t missed anything.

5. Start small and build it up. It’s fine to dream big, but to avoid wasting a lot of money and time, start small.  Let’s say you have a great idea for a gadget that’s going to take the world by storm. Your impulse may be to set up a gadget manufacturing facility, print up a lot of literature, produce a big trade show booth and a complex e-commerce website. Well. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t – and if it doesn’t, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money.

Why not start small and build it up? Take your gadget around to some shops and see if there’s a demand for it. Rent a small booth at a trade show and test it out. Set up a simple website and test out ways to drive business to it. There are many ways, particularly in the internet age, to test out your product offering on a smaller scale.

6. Invest in what matters. A fancy office with a big desk and a receptionist might not be a smart investment for a startup.  A full image branding package or a complex website might not be the first things you’d invest in. But certainly you should take care to present a professional public face. It might make sense to have a decent logo and business card. If you’re offering a retail product, it might pay off to put some attention on your packaging.

There are many things you can change and adjust later, but people’s first impressions can be critical.

7. Test, review, adjust. There is much to be said for following your vision, sticking to your guns and not compromising. But there is also a time for humility if your original idea doesn’t work. Be willing to constantly test and adjust your idea as time goes on to improve it. You can never know all of the factors when you’re starting out. You learn as you go, and you have to be willing to adjust your ideas, your product and your sales approach to meet new conditions.

What have your experiences been with startup businesses?

How to Get Your Website Back Under Your Control

March 20, 2013

Man confused about website

Tired of paying your webmaster for every update to your website??

Here’s a complaint we hear all too often: “I know our website is out of date. But it’s such a hassle to change anything. My web developer charges me $100 just to change a comma.”

For too many executives, “the website” is a sort of mysterious black box that exists somewhere in cyberspace, God knows where, and is controlled by a mysterious technical guru called a web developer. Making any sort of change in the website could mean a lot of time and a lot of money. All too often, it is just too much bother. I knew one manager who could not even remember who had originally created the company website.

And that’s exactly why the biggest website cost is often not the initial design and development, but the ongoing support and maintenance.  Because every time you want to make even the smallest change, you have to call your web developer and he or she has to make the change. And you can’t even shop around, because a lot of the time, only your web developer knows how your site is programmed.

But take heart, the cavalry has arrived.

Enter the Content Management Systemwebsite code

If the above describes your website, then it was probably made with static web pages.  A static page is one that is built using complex computer code (HTML, Javascript, or Flash).  It’s called static because it’s impossible to edit or change without special software and programmer training. So it just sits there. And while you might want to change something, you don’t. Because you know it’s going to involve your web developer and it’s going to cost you money.

To solve this, a new technology was developed called a Content Management System (CMS).  A CMS is a website maintenance tool for non-technical administrators. With a CMS, you can edit your own website without knowing any code or having to depend on a programmer.  How does it work? Well, in the simplest terms, the content of your website is stored in a database independent of the coding, so you can change the content without having to edit code.

How can a CMS help me?

Updates: You, or a non-technical member of your staff, can change or update your website content any time. You don’t need to know any code. All you need is a computer and a web browser. The CMS interface is very simple and user-friendly and can be mastered by a non-technical person in a few hours at most. That means you can keep your staff lists, event listings, product lists or details up-to-the-minute. And multiple staff can be easily trained to update the site – your events manager can update the event listings, HR can update the staff list, and so on

You are not tied to a single web developer or programmer: The leading Content Management Systems are open-source software, broadly understood by many thousands of users and developers. So even if you do need to hire a web programmer for a more complex task, you can shop around.

Core functionality: A Content Management System comes with all of the core functionality of a website already built in. You don’t have to “reinvent the wheel.” As soon as you’ve installed the CMS, you have a functional website that you can immediately start adding content to. The pages and navigation are already there, so you can concentrate on content.

Saves you money: Using a CMS makes it more cost-effective both for the initial site building and for site maintenance. Because a CMS already contains a lot of core functionality, it is easier (and therefore less costly) for a developer to put your site together. . And forget about those costly “maintenance fees” that many developers charge to maintain and upgrade your site. You can do your own routine updates.

Easy to design: Many CMS provide ready-made templates which govern the look and feel of your site. You can either use these “out of the box” or have them customized by a web designer to create a unique look for your company. With hundreds of available templates, there are a lot to choose from. For a majority of our clients, we start with a basic WordPress template, then customize it to create a one-of-a-kind website that forwards their branding, logo, colors and images. And any new page you create automatically has the look of the rest of the website.

Better security: The most widely used Content Management Systems are up to date on the latest and best security practices. Because the software is open source, it is constantly being rigorously tested by hundreds, or even thousands, of developers and users.

Search engine friendly:  There is a lot to know about Search Engine Optimization, but a CMS gives you a big head start. A CMS ensures that all of your pages will be optimized for the most common search engines. And the most popular Content Management Systems have plugins available which allow you to edit the meta-information (the information that search engines look for) using a simple interface. You can make your pages search engine friendly without knowing any code.

Scalability – Since you can add pages any time you want, a CMS is perfect for a growing company. And if you want to add additional functions to your website, a CMS comes with a large variety of plugins, or modules, which allow you to add specific functions and applications as you need them.

Longevity: You may want to upgrade your design in the future, but your CMS stays up to date. Because you can always update your CMS to the latest version. That means you won’t have to discard your old website as “out of date” because it will always be running on the latest CMS.

Which CMS should I use?

Wordpress Admin ScreenThere are many Content management Systems available. The three most popular, WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, are open source software, which means that they are available for free, without licensing fees. Open source software tends to be more cutting-edge, flexible, and reliable enough to be used by organizations of any size.

We have used WordPress CMS exclusively for the last three years. We have been very happy with its performance, and our clients love it. WordPress is far and away the most popular CMS in use today, with over 60,000,000 sites using it. It has an extensive user community and is constantly being updated and improved.

We’ve found WordPress to be the easiest and most user-friendly of all of the Content Management Systems. We can train the average non-technical employee to use the WordPress interface in a couple of hours at most. Once they know the basics, they will be able to update content, add or delete photographs, create or delete pages. Most routine updates can be done in a few moments by non-technical staff.

So isn’t it time you moved your website to a CMS?

Seven Simple Web Design Tips That Can Lower Your Bounce Rate

February 8, 2013

Why is the bounce rate on your website so high?

Are people bouncing off of your website home page? Do they leave your home page without clicking through to other content? If so, your website may be violating some simple, time-tested design basics.

This isn’t a new problem for graphic designers. Even in the far distant Dark Ages of magazine and newspaper advertising, designers had to figure out how to lead viewers through Attention-Interest-Desire-Action, the old AIDA formula. The most effective layouts are those that direct the viewer’s attention from start to finish. In graphic design parlance, we call this the “eye trail” – a series of visual clues that lead a viewer through an ad layout – or through a web page – to Action (the click-through).

Here are a few simple tips to improving your website’s “eye trail.”

Simplify1. Keep it simple:  Yes, I know, there’s a lot you want on your home page – your special offers, your photographs, your video, your Twitter feed. But if you try to do too much, your website ends up looking cluttered and cheap. Relax. Take a deep breath. Then try to boil down what you want to say and show. What are potential customers most likely to respond to? What makes your company unique? What’s your main customer benefit? Make that your main element and de-emphasize or omit everything else.

Direct Attention2. Direct Attention: There are many ways to visually focus attention. When someone lands on your site, don’t greet them with four or five competing elements, all clamoring for attention. Pick ONE thing and make it the main element. You can call attention to an element using contrast (make it different from the other elements), size (make it larger), color, even position (where it is on the page).

EyeTrail3. Direct the eye: Use visual cues to direct the viewer’s attention from start to finish. Make it obvious where you want the eye to travel. This is what we call the “eye trail.” Readers’ eyes, in this society at least, naturally travel from left to right, top to bottom. Guide them along the path you want them to travel.

4. Use headlines: The old-time adman knew that the effectiveness of his ad depended on a brilliant headline. Well, so does the effectiveness of your website. You have to attract the viewer, interest them, intrigue them, promise them a benefit. Give them a reason to explore what you have to say. And, for the sake of search engines, make sure your headlines are relevant and describe your actual content.

Break up type5. Break up your text: Long, solid blocks of text will put readers off. It looks daunting. As they say, TLDR (too long, didn’t read). Break text up with headlines, subheads, bullet points, indented paragraphs. Make the text look interesting and easy to read. Use these text devices to point up key information.

Action6. Make the action obvious: Don’t hide your “call to action.” Make it obvious what you want them to do. Use color, size and placement to draw the eye to your key action links.

7. Content, content, content: Reward your viewers with interesting things to look at, to read, to do, to download. Ultimately, viewers will stay on your site if they see something interesting there. And remember, interesting content isn’t about you or your company, it’s about them. It’s not “We take pride in our superior widgets,” it’s “Here’s how our widgets can improve your life.”

What other tips can you offer that have helped  prevent visitors from bouncing off your website?

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