A Designer’s Guide to Finding Great Images

Much of our print and digital design work is complimented by compelling images. Great campaigns might only need one, while a set of brochures is helped by a few dozen. They can add a touch of real life to abstract concepts or evoke a visual feeling about the subject.

Like any other part of the project, we work with parameters allowed: time, budget, authenticity and quality.

How can you find the best photos for your project? Here’s a designer’s perspective on where to go.

Search Engine Results

Search Engine Results

Where do you go when you need something quick and free? Not here. Google images, Bing images, Facebook, Pinterest are places to visit when searching for inspiration, but will rarely yield an image you can legally use. Taking someone else’s image is copyright infringement (Learn the basics here). The only time it’s okay to use a search engine to find photos is when compiling ideas. Even then, it’s important to remember to replace the ones you found in a basic search with a photo you have a license to use before your project is published or shared.

Free Stock Photo Websites

There are a few places to find licensed quality photos for free online. These can be great for background photos and for social media posts if you have a limited budget. You may not find exactly what you’re looking for, however, and other people may be using the same photos.

  • Pexels: Pexels provides a wide variety of photos and is simple to search. The quality and selection of photos continues to grow. The downside? The secret is out and you may find other businesses using the same photos for different purposes. There are no advanced search options, so it may be tough to find exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Unsplash: Warning! These photos need attribution and may not be the best option for your project. Unsplash was a reaction to obviously staged stock photos. (You know, the ones featuring someone in a business suit in an unlikely and totally staged situation. You’ve seen them, you know.) But now it’s created a new kind of cliché: the hipster stock photo of woodsy landscapes and moody vibes. Background images are abundant here and it might be a good place to find ideas.
  • Death to the Stock Photo: They take a similar approach to Pexels and Unsplash, but instead curate photos into themed packs for free users and emails them out in a newsletter or subscription-esque model. These photos are always interesting but pop up frequently in other people’s work.
  • Flickr commons: Anyone can contribute to the growing nebula of the photo stockpile that is Flickr. Use this platform with caution! Only photos listed with a “Creative Commons” license can be used without attribution. While the photo selection is wide, the quality varies greatly from professional photography to archaic digital camera photos. We have been able to take advantage of some of the vintage artwork (posters, illustrations and books) that can become part of a larger classic look or feel.

Paid Stock Photo Websites

Most paid sites offer the best advanced search options and perhaps the largest photo selection. Want a photo with one Asian man in his 60s on a fishing trip? You got it. Want a photo of a group of people camping in the wintertime? Done. When a project calls for specifics (i.e. a man old enough to have cataracts enjoying his daughter’s wedding without glasses because his cataract surgery eliminated their need), paid stock photo sites are the fastest and most cost-effective way to get the job done. They all have advanced search options that let you choose whether you want a photo with people, how many people, plus their age, gender, even ethnicity. Most sites also allow you to search by hex color code so you can find a photo that has elements that match your brand colors perfectly.

A license for this photo has been purchased and it’s ready for use!

Stock photo sites also make it easy to test out an image by downloading it with a watermark. Many early drafts contain watermarked images until they get approved. Using a watermarked image in final artwork is a huge faux pas.

There are some drawbacks to paid stock photo sites. Many have criticized stock photo sites for perpetuating stereotypes or lacking options for various ethnic groups. They also pose questions about transparency. When flipping through pages of stock photos, designers have to ask: “Does this photo help illustrate true information for this company? Is it sending the right message even if it’s staged or not from this business?”

This photo uses a spot-color effect so that it can feel like part of a set. Other photos in the set of brochures where this one was used have a similar red pop.

Some stock photo models are more successful than others at portraying a natural look and end up all over. The same woman in your ad might end up getting used to advertise hand soap or athletic apparel or a prescription medication. Stock model Ariane, for example, is so popular that someone created a Facebook page to collect examples of her photos as people came across them all over the world.

I provided just a few examples; there are many places to buy stock photos online. Prices vary based on the number of photos you purchase at a time, the quality of photos, and whether you want to buy exclusive rights to a photo. You can spend anywhere from around $10 to hundreds on one photo.

  • (owned by Getty Images)

Smart Phone Photos

  • …work great for social media post or email newsletters. In fact, they may be more interesting to your audience than stock photos. Cameras on smart phones have improved greatly in the last few years. If you can capture a photo with good lighting that’s social media or newsletter appropriate, it will nearly always beat out a stock image. Examples: Your office holiday decorations, a staff birthday celebration, your company-wide service or community event. These photos need to feel real and this is the fastest, easiest way to produce digital sharing-ready photos. Someone on your team might already have a repertoire of good phone photography skills. Check their Instagram and see if they’re willing to be on-call when something post-worthy happens.
  • …do not work for most print publications. While you may have captured a great candid of your company’s founder interacting with a new employee, it may not be the thing for your brochure cover. Photo quality—both in content and file size—are important here. Phone photos may not have a high enough resolution to make it beyond Facebook and usually have no business on a postcard, brochure or banner. There may be an obvious difference between a phone photo sitting next to a stock image or the resolution may simply make the image pixelated on a paper. Either way, the quality of the materials that promote your work should match the quality of the work you are doing.
  • So, when is the real thing better than a good photo? It all depends on what your audience needs and expects! An ophthalmic surgery center might share a phone photo of a surgeon using a brand new technology but needs a professional photo for their brochure about it. A non-profit that helps local kids is better off sacrificing photo quality for authentic images of their experience (with permission of course!).

Custom Photo Shoot

Custom Photo Shoot

An employee of Vance Thompson Vision sits in as a cataract patient model. The photo was used for a presentation by Dr. Thompson and it was important for the photos to feature their clinic.

Perhaps the best way to help patients or customers understand what their experience will be like with your business is to create your own custom photos. With a custom photo shoot you get to feature images of your actual business. (Crazy, right?) Instead of showing an image of a clean, empty reception area, why not feature a photo of your reception area? The familiarity helps build trust and confidence with a patient or customer’s first encounter at your facility by evoking a, “hey, I’ve seen this before,” reaction.

The same rules apply for shots of your doctors or employees. They may feel static and posed in a headshot, so creating a scene with a patient or customer interaction not only helps puts them in their element it also creates a more realistic image to put online or in a brochure. As a bonus, you won’t be using a stock photo model in place of your professionals and the whole set will have the same tone and feel. For obvious reasons, you should not use real patients in these photo. You’ll need to have everyone’s permission (with model release forms) to pull this off successfully.

Bridal Veil Falls Paul Schiller Photography

You may not need to invest in a photo shoot to be able to use excellent, local photography. Many professional photographers have already invested time in capturing the surrounding landscape and local landmarks.Vance Thompson Vision, for example, uses photos of South Dakota taken by local photographer Paul Schiller. His landscape photography features popular natural landmarks like Lake Sylvan and Bridal Veil Falls. They help unify a series of brochures on the various eye procedure categories available at Vance Thompson Vision.

While there are many ways to do it, finding the right photo shouldn’t be overwhelming. Like most design projects, it starts with identifying the image’s purpose, the available budget and time, and how it fits with the existing brand. Photography tells a huge part of a brand’s story. Used well, it reinforces your message and catches the eye. Happy photo hunting.

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Good Reads from 2017

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Happy National Coffee Day!

How do you take your coffee? Steaming hot, black, with cream, sweetened, over ice? Whatever your preference, coffee is a powerful and delicious, tool for building relationships.

Sharing a pot of coffee is a morning ritual at the office. We enjoy beans roasted down the road by our friends at The Breaks. So is meeting over a cup at Queen City Bakery or Coffea. We even map out the progression of economic value using coffee beans from their raw, harvested form through a full concierge-like coffee experience.

We think coffee is pretty great, but it’s even better with you (and donuts). Download our original Coffee Coloring Page. Color it in, take a photo, tag us and we might just have to have coffee with you sometime.



Can You Read Me Now: Choosing Fonts for Cataract Patients

All over the country, doctors and their teams work hard to restore vision for their patients. The ophthalmologist’s toolbox is outfitted with trusted, life-changing procedures and techniques like advanced cataract surgery with lenses that help patients rely less on their glasses. Eye care professionals help change their patients’ perspective by making the world brighter and clearer.

At MJM, we help provide clinics with educational tools, brochures, ads and websites that cater to people with cataracts. One of the tools in the designer’s toolbox is typography. From signage and directions to brochure and website fonts, legible type can set the tone for a patient’s experience.

Here are a few things we keep in mind when we make typography decisions for audiences with limited vision:

1. Choose high-contrast colors

Cataracts prevent some light from reaching parts of the eye that create an image. When text color is too similar to background color, letters and words may become muddled and difficult to distinguish. Black or very dark text on a white background is most legible.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - choose high contrast colors

2. Choose full-bodied letters

Fonts with a tall x-height, wide letters and long descenders and ascenders are easier to discern because they take up more space and create shapes that are easily recognizable.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - choose full-bodied letters

3. Used mixed-case type

ALL CAPS not only appears to shout, but it also can make text harder to read. So can italics. Our brains read words as shapes rather than identifying individual letters. And since we are more used to reading in sentence case, our minds can process those words more quickly.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - use mixed-case type

4. Choose moderate stroke contrast

Find a happy medium between uniform thickness (like Futura and other trendy sans serif fonts) and super high contrast. To someone with blurred vision, an ultra-thin stem can virtually disappear from the page.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - choose moderate stroke contrast

5. Avoid condensed fonts

They narrow the natural shape of letter forms to take up less space. But, this also means that they are more difficult to read.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - avoid condensed fonts

6. Use serifs for paragraphs

Serifs are like little signposts telling our eyes where a letter begins and ends. In a paragraph, they direct our eye traffic as we dig into longer copy.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - use serifs for paragraphs

7. Stay positive

Negative text (white on a dark background) gives the illusion that the letters are thinner than they actually are, making them more difficult to read.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - stay positive

8. Size matters

Twelve-point font looks different for Futura than it does for Brandon Grotesque. Printing an example proof can help tell if the font is going to be large enough.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - size matters

9. Embrace space

Without enough space between lines, letters and around the text block, legibility is compromised. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Increase leading (space between lines) to about 1.5 times the normal amount.
  • Increase tracking (space between letters) so letters are less likely to visually run into one another.
  • Increase the margins to appropriately frame the text.
  • Write concise copy. Adding content to a limited space can compromise legibility. Shorter copy can be compelling, especially when it gets read.

Graphic about choosing fonts for cataract patients - embrace space

Like most rules in design, there are always exceptions. A font with uniform line thickness and low x-height like Brandon Grotesque compensates by increasing the leading (space between lines) without manual adjustment. The font that populates a brochure may not be the best for an outdoor parking lot sign.



The Art of Making Cookies

What got you into cookie decorating?

My mom and I have collaborated on cookie projects for years.

Frosted sugar cookies are a classic Christmas tradition in my family (like many others!). From the beginning, I embraced it: rolling out dough, selecting shapes, working elbows deep in flour, covering each cookie with a little lake of frosting, and placing sprinkles precisely where I wanted them. And even when they looked bad, they tasted like buttery-sweet heaven. What’s not to love?

Once, someone gave my mom a Halloween cookie with frosting that had been piped with a piping bag and tip rather than spread clumsily with a knife. It was a detailed design with three different colors and we were impressed. My mom and I thought, “We could do that.” We had the supplies, the recipe and were only a few YouTube videos away from sinking into cookie world.

Our first big project was part of a fundraiser for a family friend with breast cancer. We made dozens of ribbon cookies with pink royal icing. Some had tiny, hand-piped messages of thanks. People were delighted by them and I think it’s that kind of response that motivated us to keep going. We have created cookies for themed parties, baby and bridal showers, graduations, birthday parties, and of course, holidays.

Decorated cookie

What is the favorite cookie you’ve ever decorated?

One. You want me to pick just one cookie?

This is cheesy, I know. I got married last July and my mom and I made cookies for all of our reception guests. We didn’t count the sticks of butter or the hours it took to finish it all, but there were many. After a day and a half of piping flourishes onto cookies, I made one for Casey. While it’s not as clever as the margarita glasses with sugar rim cookies or elegant as an all-white wedding dress cookie, it was a privilege to give him something homemade with love. Plus, he’s my biggest fan and offers to taste-test for me. Win-win.

Decorated cookie

How is decorating cookies like graphic design?

  • Both are creative processes. Every step involves small decisions that contribute to a complete end product. There’s also a lot of ongoing incremental refinement to the process. In cookie world, we’ve edited the sugar cookie recipe so it holds its shape during baking and still tastes good. I’ve tried most types of cookie cutters available and have learned that metal work the best.
  • Principals of design matter. What makes something beautiful and functional? Contrast, color, balance, rhythm, etc.
  • The process is messy! The kitchen, my desktop, even my Illustrator pasteboard can be a mess in the middle of a project.
  • In every batch there’s a sad failure. Broken cookies, poor quality photos, a botched idea. Mistakes happen and it’s part of learning and getting to a great final product. (Note: Cookie mistakes are tastier than design ones.)
  • Beauty and function work together. A brochure about cataracts can look great and incorporate interesting images and illustrations, but the true test is when it’s in the hands of a patient, learning about cataract surgery. Cookies are the same. I’ve been told “It’s too pretty to eat!” which is beyond flattering, but the cookie’s real purpose is to be eaten. And to be delicious.
  • It’s about people. I love being able to bring something beautiful into someone’s day or help them do so for others.

Decorated cookies
How is it different?

  • Ctrl+Z (the shortcut for delete) is so helpful in design work. It does not, however, translate to spilling an entire bottle of sprinkles. Physical mistakes cannot be undone.
  • Iteration is much faster in digital design. With a few clicks, I can try out options before making a decision. Cookies take much, much longer.
  • Cookies have a clear purpose: look good, taste great. As a graphic designer, someone poses a problem and I have to design the solution. For example, the problem might be that potential LASIK patients are dissuaded by the cost of surgery. The solution might look like a brochure, a digital campaign about HSAs or a video testimony from a patient who thinks LASIK was totally worth it. I have not yet pursued cookie decoration with the intent to educate, but perhaps I’ll give it a shot.
  • Cookies are perishable; design may last long after the project is complete. The lasting power of a logo or video that hits the mark might make the difference for a client. Because of that, the work we do has to be good.

A Vitalizing Peel Experience

This summer, I took the plunge and had a Vitalize Peel at Artisan 57. Being in the chair myself (instead of observing or photographing the experience) gave me fresh perspective on several notions I had about aesthetics and why they were not true. It also gave me a glimpse at the subtle ways a customer experience can be elevated.

The appointment was quick and so simple. An Artisan applied two applications of three different chemicals over my face. When my skin began to tingle and I experienced a burning sensation, there was a cooling fan to help manage comfort. Throughout the appointment, the Artisan aesthetician helped me feel in control of what was happening by explaining the steps as we walked through them, allowing me to adjust the cooling fan, and answering any questions that this nervous first-timer had.

I left and returned to the office right after with the last chemical still applied. It gave my skin a slight yellow tint and I was instructed to wash it off at the end of the day. While my skin felt itchy immediately after, the sensation went away abruptly and I was ready for some peeling action.

The full effect of the peel took about a week (seven days) to manifest. It was fascinating to watch my skin be carefully agitated into healing itself. I was wrong about some things though.

4 misconceptions (and what I learned instead)

“25 is too young to need skin treatments.”

Who is the audience for most aesthetics centers? I naively assumed I had at least another 20 years before becoming the target market. But by that age, aesthetics clients want restorative treatments to undo years of damage. At this stage, I can push off wrinkles, spots and poor texture. Skin care is a workout now to avoid poor skin health later.

Artisan 57 focuses on education emphasizing prevention-oriented skin care. I learned that even at age 25, I am a great candidate for more than just their skin care product lines. Alone, I may not have considered a chemical peel, but after my skin consultation, the Artisans told me that it would fit well into a skin care treatment plan for my skin. They took the time to explain how and why it works so making the decision to follow their expert advice was simple for me, a now-educated client.

“All my skin problems will disappear after one treatment.”

I’m going to paraphrase Dr. Tendler’s intro to aesthetics presentation for this one: skin care is maintenance and there are no one-time fixes. That means someone who wants to lose their double chin may need several treatments of Kybella to get their perfect “after” face. Of course I wanted perfectly smooth, blemish-free skin after one chemical peel. What I got instead, was progress. Artisan 57 communicates this point at every conversation beginning with the initial skin consultation through the appointment to manage their clients’ expectations: this treatment is only one step in a larger plan.

“A peel is fine any time.”

Scheduling my vitalize peel took more thought than I imagined. 48 hours after a chemical peel, the top layer of skin often begins to slough off and looks like a bad sunburn for 2-5 days. This meant I wanted to avoid having it done within a week of any major life events, like getting married in July. I was already worried how losing a layer of skin would look sitting at my desk or out grocery shopping. Parmesan cheese jokes with my husband aside, no one even mentioned it!

After a peel, I also needed to avoid pools and lakes, too much sun exposure and vigorous exercise.* Because the Artisans took the time to explain the process ask extra questions about my life, they found a date for my peel that would give me the most success. Their attention to detail and understanding of the product goes beyond average reception desk duties. I planned the peel right after our honeymoon when I was not expecting any outdoor adventures thus avoiding any “Oh no, my skin is still flaking off” moments at my wedding.

“Skin health is about how I look.”

This was the biggest revelation I experienced along the way. Externally, my skin didn’t look all that different after my peel was complete. But the way my new skin felt was incredible! It was like a tiny burden being lifted from my cheeks, or like I hit a reset button on my skin. Both the experience of having a peel and the experience orchestrated by Artisan 57 made me feel empowered to recommend their product to other people.

Artisan 57 created a customer experience for me that felt tailored and empowering. Before I went in for the peel, they successfully educated me on their approach to skin care and how the vitalize peel works to manage my expectations and increase the probability that I saw the treatment as a success. They told me in short, “Based on what we saw in your skin consultation, a chemical peel will most likely give you good results. Want to give it a try?” and they handed me the steering wheel. Artisan 57 also carefully considered factors about their space that sets the tone: natural lighting, privacy, comfortable seating. Throughout the process, they quietly built a relationship with me. At this stage in our new relationship, I’m waiting for a call back with another great suggestion and chance to see them again.

*No, they weren’t kidding about the exercise one! I hit the gym before my skin completely healed and felt the burn in more than just my muscles—oops.

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A Hand Lettered Alphabet GIF

GIF of a hand lettered alphabet

I drew one letter every day for 26 days last December. The alphabet. Alpha through Zed. The ABCs. I completed the hand-lettered alphabet project just for me. I made a gif of it just for you.

Some letters took a few tries before I came to something I liked. “F” was a fantastic failure if I remember correctly. “X” is all over the place.

None of them would function well in a font. Still, every time I put pen, pencil, or marker to paper, I faced decisions about line, movement, dominance, value, and balance. These design element decisions are important to practice. Letter forms are the perfect tool for rapid iteration, once you get to know them.

Characters are purely symbolic. They have no meaning until people come along and give them something. Still, anyone using the Latin alphabet recognizes that an A is an A; it has a sound, a name, and looks like an angle with a crossbar.

Because an “A” already has a form structure, I have the freedom to add flourish and dimension. “B” forms of the world add curved elements to the challenge. “C”s abandon straight lines altogether. Their personalities are curious and demand attention. When I do it again, they will be different, but never perfect.


A Great Gingerbread Build

This winter, MJM is proud to unveil a new item to our list of services: award-winning gingerbread architecture and construction.*

The project started with a challenge hosted by the Sioux Falls Design Center and Downtown Sioux Falls, Inc.: build the mightiest house East of the Missouri River. Inspiration for our design came from ever-dropping temperatures in the Sioux Falls area and ancient Norwegian Architecture. We assembled what little gingerbread construction experience we had, and, with heaping portions of sweet supplies, built the Nordic Nook.

The Nordic Nook

Supplies: pretzel rods, honey pretzel twists, waffle pretzels, licorice, chocolate graham crackers, ice cream cones, vanilla wafer cookies, rock-shaped chocolate candies, peppermint candies, sugar sprinkles, almond slivers, almond bark and royal icing.

Supplies not used: gingerbread.

Our Norwegian Nook survived the trek from the MJM space to downtown Sioux Falls, where we ultimately were awarded the Judges Choice Award in the Business/Organization category. We’d like to assume it would perform just as well against a harrowing South Dakota winter.

*Due to consumption of leftover resources by MJMers, gingerbread building services are suspended until further notice.

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Stories Give Us Access to the Senses

If I asked you to tell me about your day would you give me the number of breaths you took? Would you inform me that the number of steps you took was 23% higher than yesterday? Would you tell me about how many ounces of coffee you drank or the minutes you waited to get your coffee served? You might. But you’re more likely to tell me about the old friend you met at a cafe and how you spent the noon hour on a walk to catch up.

Numbers can show great leaps of progress or small measures of change. They can articulate a problem and stun. They can represent chilling or inspiring statistics. But are they powerful enough to evoke action? Are they human enough?

Founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison, presented on the scarcity of clean water for people in developing countries at the 2014 OTA conference. He outlined the problems these people faced and the solutions charity: water was providing using numbers and stories. Guess which would stick?

  • He gave the audience a fact: 800 million people are living without access to clean water in the world today.
  • He told the audience a story: A teenage girl living in a remote village spent most of her days walking to a natural well, waiting in line to collect water and walking back with a heavy pot full of water. One day her pot fell from her hands, breaking on the dry ground. From the pieces of broken ceramic, she pulled the rope that held it to her body. She used it to end her life.

What is more memorable? (I’ll give you a hint: I had to look up the number.)

  • Another fact: charity: water has been able to supply more than three million people get access to clean water
  • Another story: charity: water helped build a well in a community where mothers and daughters were responsible for collecting water. After it had been installed, one woman told the organization that not only did she have extra time in her day and enough water to care for her family, she could care for herself. She felt beautiful.

The statistics might wow, but numbers so large are unimaginable. The problems that each person faces are simplified when they become a lump of 800 million. The people are simplified. When we invite narrative to the discussion, however, we have a mnemonic device for something so enormous and unreachable.

Stories give us access to the senses and can lodge these things into our memories. It’s no wonder that we teach children about numbers in units of cheerios, tricycles and pumpkins—things they can touch, smell and taste—instead of an abstract symbol.

Numbers give us important reference points, too. We can say 800 million people are without access to clean drinking water, and we can give it a scope by saying that’s 1 in 9 people on the planet. Nine is a number I can comprehend and 1 in 9 is a perspective I can count on my fingers—a perspective that just might give me a story to tell.

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Risky Business: A Social Media Warning Label

In a virtual world where social media puts customers on the same plane as CEOs, branding can get pretty interactive—which is helpful when there’s a whole community of supporters behind your cause and your brand. The approach can work one of two ways:

  1. Start a following and count on customer feedback to organically spread your brand or,
  2. Regulate feedback into positive (but predictable) channels.

Here’s how it looks:

A ridiculous request

One hotel hit the virtual jackpot when a story shared by one of its customers went viral. When a guest booked a room using an online form, he jokingly requested that the hotel staff place three red M&Ms on the counter and a photo of bacon on the bed. The hotel fulfilled his ridiculous request, much to his amusement and surprise. The photos he posted of their customer service went viral, giving the hotel national coverage.

Customer voices matter more with a social media megaphone

The gamble? Social networks have just as much volatile potential as they do a positive one (remember the national outcry when Twinkies went away?). Recently, a national coffee chain saw an outcry from customers about its rewards program policies. When certain members started seeing emails about losing points, they took to Twitter with 140-character complaints. Surrounded by immediate responses, these customers expected open communication from their favorite brand. When they began to distrust their store, unhappy customers sent up virtual warning flares for all of their followers to see.

Unhappy customers sent up virtual warning flares for all of their followers to see.

Instead of trying to let their winnings ride, some organizations have intentionally shaped their social connectivity to enhance positive feedback channels from users. Individual companies or collaborative apps give users the option to favorite or share what they see and like—and then make a purchase almost instantly. Shoppers happily spend their time and money without thinking about the virtual apparatus they use. As a result, shopping becomes social as shoppers interact and browse each others’ virtual closets.

A small worthwhile risk

Happy customers and bigger followers happen when high customer service standards work with a virtual experience that focuses on positive feedback. It’s a gamble worth testing out.