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Thoughts on Design Camp 2018

Our content team voyaged north to Design Camp for inspiration from leading creatives, technique sharing and time together. Here were some takeaways from the team:

The theme of this year’s Design Camp was “Inside Out” and the goal was for everyone to put it all on the table—personally, professionally and creatively. As a classic reserved Midwesterner, my first reaction when I heard this was, “No, thank you.” But as I listened to the speakers and presenters share their stories, the more I started to think that maybe I do have a story of my own to tell. I have always shied away from doing personal work, believing that my purpose as a designer could only be derived by creating things for other people. But the presentations left me questioning the assumption that creating something for myself is inherently incompatible with creating things for other people.

This idea culminated in the final keynote from illustrator Andy J. Pizza who talked about how looking at gig posters had helped him dig himself out of a depression. Something that was meant to be functional and ephemeral had become someone’s lifeline. As designers, we have very little control over what happens to our work once it has been released into the world. Most often, we worry about people misunderstanding or even ruining our work, but isn’t magical to think that our work could be thing to turn someone’s life around?

So, still being a Midwesterner, I of course did not voice any of the ideas that were running around in my head during the actual weekend, but it has got me thinking about how I can use design to tell my own story. Because, maybe, there is someone out there who needs to hear it.

– Kirstie

Design Team in Brainerd, MN

Plaidurday 2018

Design Camp 2018 was a great opportunity to glean new techniques and meet skilled designers, but the most important takeaway I had from the experience was that even the most veteran designers out there undergo the same brief moments of doubt and near-burnout that all creatives do. Not only do they have these moments, but their experiences have taught them how to systematically push through these obstacles and return to creating their best work. We able to hear these and learn from these stories thanks to the vulnerability the keynote speakers were willing to show us, so I think we can all agree that we’re endlessly thankful.

– Joel

Design Camp was a fantastic weekend of fellowship and learning for our design team. We studied and discussed the creative process, inspiration, and collaboration and came home with some great tools to improve our work. One teaching theme emerged for me from a number of the speakers, and reflects a comment from a famous athlete:

”It seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

A number of speakers reflected on how they fought through low periods of creativity or dead periods of work. For those that found their way through these periods, a common theme was ”just keep working.“ Work projects, personal projects, passion projects—find a way to keep working and producing. It was often this work borne in low periods that created the exposure or inspiration for future successful work. This kind of ”luck,” obviously, is created through dedication and intentional focus, and all creatives need to find a way to fight through their low periods and breakthrough. At MJM, having a great team of creatives around to work with and create with definitely helps support each individual creative as they work hard and create more luck!

– Logan

I have one core or foundational belief about creativity. It’s that new ideas are simply new combinations of familiar things. This concept of combinatorial creativity is only reinforced by conferences like Design Camp. It’s incredibly invigorating to spend a weekend retreat with like-minded designers and thinkers, getting inspired by the journey others have taken and the things they’ve learned along the way.

One of the workshops outlined a technique for ”Bulletproof Ideation” by combining ideas in a methodical fashion. We learned about the Bedno Diagram – a tool invented by designer and educator Ed Bedno—which provides a framework for seeing and exploring the intersection of multiple ideas. The process was very familiar, but I had never seen it implemented so thoroughly and methodically. And I was inspired by the suggestion to use the technique to reverse engineer ideas that have inspired me, to understand how their creator may have arrived at that solution. It was a good reminder that good ideas don’t come out of thin air, delivered by a muse in a ”eureka” moment. They are intentionally crafted and combined, and are accessible to all who are willing to work rigorously for them.

That last point connects back to the final keynote speaker, Andy J. Pizza. He shared the highs and lows of his creative journey, and wisdom he gained along the way, with the ultimate conclusion that there are no shortcuts for a fulfilling creative career. You have to do the work. And sometimes you have to struggle for it. That struggle might look like an exhaustive Bedno diagram, or piles of discarded concepts on the way to one workable solution. Learning to enjoy the process and to see it as intrinsically valuable is the key to going far.

– Brady

No matter what you want to learn, most skills and ideas are available to anyone who is interested through YouTube tutorials and Skillshare classes. You don’t need to drive halfway to Canada to find inspirational speakers or to learn interesting new techniques, but our design team does exactly that every year.

AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp is a yearly retreat just outside Brainerd, MN. Each fall the MJM design team makes the trek up to northern Minnesota, and while the workshops and the speakers’ portfolios are interesting, to my mind they are not the most valuable part of the experience. The reward that compels me to make the trip is perspective.

This year that perspective had less to do with design methodology, new paper options, or printing techniques—it was something deeper. I felt like I heard two different answers to the question, “What is your work for?” Some of the speakers I heard and the designers I met talked about the scope of their portfolio and the size of their audience; they spoke about their personal brand and their career path. Good work equals more glory. Other people focused on the lives they had touched, the students they had taught, and the relationships they had formed with clients and colleagues over the course of their career. Good work means better relationships with people.

“What is your work for?”

Looking at my own past work, some of it has held up well, but much of it has not. Projects I worked on even 6 months ago can sometimes cause me to cringe. But the relationships I’ve developed with coworkers, students and clients are evergreen. Last year’s projects are getting stale; last year’s relationships are still a source of joy. Do the work, and enjoy the process, but don’t look to your work to make you happy. The work (whatever it is) is valuable, but it’s really only a backdrop to the things that matter most.

– Tim

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Designers Tackle the 36 Days of Type 2018

#36DaysofType

Each day a new character, and in our case, a new designer as we passed around the alphabet to explore type, animation, illustration, storytelling and more. Designers and illustrators around the world participated in 36 Days of Type by posting to instagram and connected with the #36DaysOfType hashtags. We decided to tackle the challenge as a team this April and May. Repetition invites creativity and crafting. We also invited the opportunity to try new techniques. We stuck (somewhat) to our original color palette and prescribed dimensions and dove in.

Each designer chose their favorite letter and gave some background. (Check out this reference for a quick guide on technical type terms.)

C

Joel

I always appreciate projects like 36 Days of Type for creating opportunities to try new tools and solutions in a design setting. I used much of that opportunity to explore computer-generated three-dimensional design and animation. While there are quite a few examples of this in the library of type we created, this “Inflatable C” is one of my favorite results of that exploration. While it’s quite minimal, it shows off some of the new options that the third dimension can create for designers like convincing depth in the subject and a more robust use of simulated physics. Along with all of that, this piece just makes me think of summer.

G

Kirstie

The double-story (or looptail) “g” is one of my all-time favorite letterforms. Even though it’s mostly superfluous, difficult to write and unrecognizable to the majority of population, I love how it seems to capture all of the personality of a typeface and its designer. For this illustration, I wanted to take full advantage of the letterform and do something playful to link the two counters. The shapes reminded me of pools of water, so I turned them into little ponds and, in the name of the letter “g,” added a goldfish leaping between the two. It’s a quirky little fish at home in a quirky little letter.

J

Alison

I think the most interesting part of a capitalized J is its arm. Many sans serif fonts do away with it for simplicity’s sake, but I like the way it can balance the otherwise asymmetrical form. I started with a grid paper sketch to articulate my idea. On paper I could visualize how to fit the two scoops of each J shape together and experiment with softly curved terminals. Then I moved to the Procreate app for iPad. I used a chalky brush to give body to the letter, and then used the eraser tool to define the edges and corners. Procreate allows layers so I could add illustrated florals between the tall, narrow J and the more squat, overreaching J tucked in where I wanted—and still have each piece editable. I fit organic shapes and ornaments in and around the ribbons to complete the bright composition.

K

Tim

One of my favorite aspects of the 36 Days of Type project was that it gave us freedom within a rigid structure. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s not—the project was completely open-ended, with no direction or client feedback, but at the same time, the content was inflexible (the letter of the day), the timeframe was limited (one letter each day) and as a team we also chose to limit ourselves to a common color palette. Freedom within constraints can lead to remarkably creative solutions.

For some of my letters I tried to build a formal letter shape, conforming to typographic traditions and crafted for legibility and grace. This K is an example. After looking at other K shapes in a variety of fonts and calligraphy I identified some of the geometric “bones” that I wanted to build my K around.

In other letter explorations, I chose a more conceptual approach. I thought it would be fun to build the letter P shape out of large, oversized pixels. In the animated version of this “P is for Pixels” composition, I created a digital sort of shimmer by slowly fading each block between a few different values of blue.

X

Brady

I love projects that require a series of explorations around the same prompt. Eventually your typical approach to the problem starts to feel tired and uninspired and you are forced to try something you might not normally consider. 36 Days of Type was that sort of project for me (even in just the 7 or so iterations I completed as part of our team approach).

Part way through my initial explorations began to lose their initial spark and I started looking around my environment at home for inspiration. We have a variety of patterned fabrics and other materials around the house, from curtains to coasters, and while studying them one evening I started to imagine how those patterns would look in motion. One pattern in particular happens to feel very much like a grid of geometric letter X’s.

Once I tested the idea with X, I wondered about the same concept applied to a different pattern-letter combination. It was interesting approaching the problem from the other direction the second time around, starting with a particular letter or number and trying to discover it in an already existing pattern.

You can see the whole set from the MJM design team on our Instagram account or by watching the video below!

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Brand Identity Guidelines: Consistency Is King

Or at least kind of a big deal.

When we collaborate with our clients to help them refine, reimagine or build a new brand identity from the ground up, we always recommend codifying the good thinking that occurs into a set of identity guidelines. These guidelines spell out the essential elements that an organization uses to consistently communicate its identity, story and messages.

So… what’s a brand?

Consider that a brand is a collection of expectations, experiences and relationships that a customer feels towards an organization. As Marty Neumeier defines it in his book The Brand Flip (a recent favorite addition to our shared library), this collection is like a gut feeling that a customer has. It’s their immediate impression when they hear the name or see the logo.

A brand derives its value from the impression or trust that its customers identify with it and the values that they share together. When a brand works hard to deliver a positive and compelling experience, it needs a strong identity for its customers to tie that impression or gut feeling to. That identity comes to symbolize the shared values between the brand and its customers, and the good work that the brand carries out on their behalf. The value is not in the logo or name, but in the good work and relationship it symbolizes. It’s important to apply and live out a brand identity consistently to reinforce that relationship and good gut feeling.

What do brand identity guidelines consist of?

There are many components. Some are related to belief and purpose: name and logo, story or narrative, taglines and messaging. Other components help define the tone or personality of the brand and its visual vocabulary. These include colors, typographic style, imagery and illustrations. The combination of these elements helps to create a unique identity—an identity that communicates purpose and a set of shared values that click on a gut level.

Finding the right combination of these elements takes time and hard work. And yet the process is rewarding. We’ll outline that process in the coming weeks, and why it is one of the favorite experiences we share with our clients.

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Work Is Theatre at Design Week 2016

GIF of a curtain opening and the text "The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre"

The 3rd annual Sioux Falls Design Week has wrapped up! MJM hosted some of Sioux Falls’ curious minds for an interactive workshop and presentation. We explored key ideas behind the Experience Economy and the Freytag Pyramid, and how they inform the work MJM does on behalf of our clients. And in a twist nobody saw coming, we pulled back the curtain and revealed our intentional design of the evening’s activities.

GIF of the Freytag Pyramid

In the Experience Economy, businesses no longer seek to make products or deliver services, but rather stage meaningful experiences. Those experiences are made up of smaller interactions called touchpoints. Touchpoints take place over the narrative arc of an experience and each one affects the customer’s overall impression of the experience. At MJM, we believe each one is an opportunity to intentionally create moments of delight.

We shared an exercise called Customer Experience Mapping that helps identify key touchpoints. Some may be negative moments in an interaction and ripe for improvement—others may have gone unnoticed and unconsidered in the past.

Following the exercise, MJM demonstrated how we mapped the touchpoints of our Design Week presentation in advance to create a compelling experience. We built both positive and negative experiences into the event to demonstrate some of the key ideas. For example, as attendees entered they received a very poorly designed survey for them to fill out. The poor design was intentional, and it was pointed out later to demonstrate a negative touchpoint. While they were engaged in the presentation, our team was behind the scenes plugging in email addresses from the forms. As we ended the discussion, attendees had an email waiting in their inbox with further resources and an invitation to join us at another event later that evening—hopefully flipping the frustration of wrestling with a counterintuitive form into a moment of delight and surprise.

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Mapping the Customer Experience

We often think of interactions with customers in terms of one key moment (usually the point of sale) rather than a narrative. In reality there are many moments, or touchpoints, that customers experience in anticipation of that interaction, during the interaction, and in recalling it afterwards. These moments reflect positively and negatively on your brand, and each moment is an opportunity to design more intentional experiences. We’ve created a worksheet that you can use to think through this process for your own company or organization. Download the worksheet here:

Graphic to download MJM Customer Experience Mapping exercise

How to use the Customer Experience Mapping worksheet

  • For each stage (Anticipate, Enter, Engage, Exit and Extend), brainstorm the touchpoints your customers experience.
  • Write these touchpoints on the cards below, and indicate whether the impression is positive or negative.
  • Cut out the cards along the dotted lines.
  • Assemble the cards in chronological order, and then move them up or down to indicate how positive or negative the experience was.
  • Identify key touchpoints that can be improved, and note touchpoints that have not been intentionally designed.

Let us know how it goes!

We hope you find this customer experience mapping exercise helpful, and we’d love to hear how you use it to create compelling experiences for your customers or clients. Contact us here or on Twitter or Facebook to tell us about your own experience design.

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How Curiosity Inspired a Generative Music System

I have a music problem.

I enjoy working to the sound of instrumental and ambient music, but sometimes I don’t want or don’t have the time to search through my music library to find the right album to listen to. I also worry that consuming music as background “filler” at work means I won’t appreciate an album I’d otherwise delight in listening to actively.

So an idea was born, and I became curious if I could create a musical system that would generate ambient and instrumental sounds indefinitely. It would be a soundscape that had enough sonic interest and depth, but without worry of devaluing the creative work of another. Ableton Live provided all the tools needed to achieve just that. I picked a selection of instruments I enjoy and began using plugins to generate a stream of MIDI notes at various rates. The whole system is constrained to a minor pentatonic scale, to ensure nothing sounds dissonant. Some instruments would play more frequently, while others would enter randomly and more infrequently to serve as a bit of sonic accent.

Ableton screenshot

It was the accent instruments that led me to a fun discovery about the tools I use to create music, and I learned a new method for building instrument racks that has sparked an interest in further musical exploration.

Curiosity has a compelling effect on your productivity. I’d been in a bit of a creative drought when it comes to my music production. This music system wasn’t aimed at ending that drought, but I think it has, in a roundabout way. What had been missing was curiosity. I’d been writing music in the exact same way for a year, using the same techniques and instruments, and that spark of discovery was gone.

Curiosity is an essential element of creativity. Psychologist and creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that, “Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting ” Having an interesting problem to wrestle with is something we all desire. It touches on Csikszentmihalyi’s other concept of flow, or being “in the zone.” When you have a challenge that matches your level of skill, you are more fully engaged in the task at hand—and that engagement often relates to enjoyment of the work as well. As we search for good work, and good causes to work for, our guiding value of curiosity serves us well.

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Critique: Invitation to Collaboration

Why Critique?

We often have a romantic idea of how the design process works—that designers emerge from their creative place with an idea fully formed. In the early stages of any new project, a designer has to make a large number of rapid decisions that will inform the final state and success of the project. The blank canvas necessitates early exploration and trials, but looming deadlines raise the stakes. The ticking clock often means we designers resort to techniques and styles that are familiar and comfortable. It’s a lot of pressure to place all of those decisions on one back. Enter the design critique.

Critique as Collaboration

Critique is an opportunity to test new ideas and a checkpoint to ensure the design solution meets the objectives the client laid out in the beginning. Critique is an invitation into the design process, extended to your team, to help you refine and improve upon your work. The introduction of other perspectives into the process often brings breakthroughs and eureka moments, a result of the intersection of new ideas. Your colleagues will also be valuable navigators who can help you correct course when the project wanders away from the stated objectives.

Facilitating an effective design critique with your team takes some careful thought, especially if you want to feel that collaborative glow rather than a process train wreck. To those ends, it’s helpful to establish a few roles at the beginning. You’ll want to identify the designer in charge of the project—the designer who will be responsible for taking the feedback received and implementing it. This designer will also likely be the person best equipped to introduce the project. Secondly, you’ll want someone in charge of facilitating the critique process. It will be very tempting to run off on creative tangents and the facilitator will have to reign those in when they do happen. They’ll need to keep everyone on task, and make sure feedback is delivered objectively and in a helpful format.

Here’s a basic outline of how a critique could be run.

Briefing:

The designer or owner of the project should briefly introduce the project. This should include client needs, communication goals, limitations and intended use of the design. The goal is to ensure the group understands the problem and the initial approach to developing a solution. The facilitator should keep things moving, and ensure the conversation does not wander. Don’t let the designer explain every little detail—it will eat up a lot of time, and might color the feedback others give later in the critique.

Review:

The team should be given time to consider the design solution and ask questions of the project owner. The facilitator should encourage group members to write down their notes and suggestions, but save them for later in the critique process. The goal at this stage is to simply become acquainted with the project and gather information before assessing the design’s effectiveness.

Reflect:

At this stage, it’s helpful to take some time for team members to silently assess their notes and suggestions and remove any subjective reactions to the work. It may be helpful to consider the following:

  • Does the solution presented address the problem stated in the briefing?
  • Is anything missing from the solution that could still be implemented?
  • Avoid getting caught up on small aesthetic details, unless the designer/owner has specifically requested feedback in that area.

Collaborate:

Finally, it’s time to get vocal. Having created notes and reactions in relation to the goals of the project, they are ready to be shared with the team. It’s helpful to share both positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback is especially useful because it helps identify parts of the design that are working well and ensures these parts don’t accidentally get scrapped. At this time, the designer should take notes and generate a task list of things to tackle once the critique ends.

Critique is a skill that develops with practice. Your team will continue to provide better feedback when you continue to include them in your creative process. As a team, you’ll come to develop a common vocabulary and criteria for assessing the work that you do. And as a team you’ll see greater ownership and investment in good process and good work.

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The Clever Design of the Isomorphic Keyboard

As a lover of musical instruments, I have started to accrue a number of instruments that I can barely play. I fall in love with the sound and want to make those sounds myself, but often get stuck in the early stages of learning the proper technique to play them. One instrument I recently discovered has changed all of that through a design decision that significantly lowers the barrier to musical exploration.

The isomorphic keyboard has one incredibly brilliant idea at its core: any interval of notes or any chord that you play will always have the exact same shape, no matter what key you play that chord in. A major or minor triad will be played in the same way in the key of B minor as it would be played in C major. Inverted voicings of those chords would utilize the same pattern, no matter the key. The isomorphic keyboard illustrates the concept in music theory known as transpositional invariance.

As a visual person, what I most appreciate about this type of keyboard is that it makes the structure of music visible to the eye, and does so in a constant manner. Compare it with the traditional layout of a piano keyboard, which places keys in a linear fashion, left to right increasing in pitch. The isomorphic keyboard is a grid, or plane. You can move left to right and increase in pitch, but you can also move up and down as well. It adds a new dimension to your music performance. Seeing how melodies and chord progressions evolve through space in such a manner makes them so much more memorable. Some isomorphic keyboards, such as the Ableton Push, feature a grid that can be adjusted from a chromatic scale to one which only features notes within the scale you are playing in.

Again, the magic of this is the ability to move between musical keys while utilizing the same patterns for chords and intervals. The time needed to learn all 12 major and 12 minor keys and their associated chords with a traditional keyboard is extremely time-consuming, and maybe impractical for a hobbyist such as myself. An isomorphic keyboard solves this issue through its design.

Does an isomorphic keyboard replace the traditional keyboard? I don’t think so, and I certainly don’t have the experience with the piano to make such a claim. But for a generation of musicians who are learning music in the paradigm of music production, a tool that helps them move seamlessly between scales is extremely valuable for quickly exploring new ideas.

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Ditch the Sales Pitch: Social Media as the Gallery Wall

One of my favorite experiences is walking into a new gallery opening to view a collection of art. Especially one in which a rich context is given for the work being viewed–one in which you can trace a little golden thread weaved throughout the conceptual space. Those ideas will follow you when you leave, provoking thought and conversation days and weeks afterwards. Recently some of my favorite gallery spaces have been online – on social media.

I subscribe to the model of social media as a platform for content curation–a gallery wall on which to hang relevant and related information to inspire curiosity and build connections. This certainly isn’t the only viable use for social media, but I think it is a powerful idea that is being underutilized. And I feel strongly that a sales pitch doesn’t belong on social media, so I’d love to suggest an alternative. The big trend right now is content creation, but content curation should be just as important to your business strategy. This is particularly true of platforms like Twitter and Pinterest. The limited character count and space isn’t particularly well suited to original content, but is most powerful when you offer short insight into what a reader will find on the other end of a link. In that sense, there is a little bit of creation involved in the process as well–you’ll have to create a framework for your audience to interpret the information you are sharing for it to be truly valuable. The idea of curation as authorship is worth exploring further–and for that I’ll point you to Maria Popova’s thoughts on the matter.

Content curation is valuable to all parties involved. Your audience will be grateful that you’ve taken the time to wade through the massive amount of information available to find the most pertinent and intriguing content that meets their interests and needs. Do a good job of curating and you’ll build trust among your audience and develop credibility within your industry, all while developing a rich community. That should be a sufficient number of buzzwords to grab your attention. Remember, the key is to provide some context for why the information you are collecting and sharing is valuable. If you can’t draw any insight from it yourself, your throwing it out there for everyone else will only contribute to the clutter.

Here are a few simple tactics to help jumpstart your curation career:

  1. Only share information that you find valuable yourself.
  2. Offer some brief but insightful context for the information.
  3. Be sure to attribute information properly. For a great primer, check out The Curator’s Code.
  4. Don’t collect everything! Make sure the information is pertinent to your audience. Be focused and filter out the garbage.
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A Haunted Art Gallery, for Kids

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo commissioned an art gallery space with an unconventional feature: it’s haunted!

It’s a brilliant idea that transforms young patrons’ ideas about art being stuffy and boring into a fun and memorable experience. Instead of the typical museum rules prohibiting the very things kids are best at, the haunted art gallery encourages children to interact with the art on the walls. Yes, they can touch the artwork. The eyes of portrait subjects will dart back and forth, and Mona Lisa’s smile is contorted by ghostly hands. Via secret passages, kids can find their way behind the walls and manipulate the artwork themselves, to the delight of viewers on the other side. Makes you want to be a kid again, doesn’t it?

This haunted art gallery is a prime example of the power of experience design. How can you utilize surprise and delight to engage with your clients in a more meaningful way? What can you do to provide a transformative experience that will turn banal expectations on their head?

  • Integrate new technology
  • Make it more human
  • Pinpoint the audience’s dreams and desires
  • Enhance the social aspect, or create one