MozCon is an annual conference for the search engine optimization (SEO) community organized by Moz, a Seattle-based SEO software company. Thinkso senior project manager Jess Mackta and I attended this year. Here is some of what we took away.
Alright, so the title definitely sounds more scandalous than it actually is. This isn’t really an exposé of the LDS Church. But I had to do something so that the search engines would pick up the story.
While the majority of you know what you know about Mormon missionary service from having seen a certain Tony Award-winning Broadway play, I’m here to tell you that the real thing is about half as musical and twice as eventful as what’s portrayed on stage. The time I spent as a missionary was the most exciting, difficult, and enlightening of my life. This is just an interesting side note, really, but it provides an interesting, entertaining commentary on the value of design and the importance of protecting intellectual property. More…
In our “Designer at Large” series, Thinkso designers address design issues they’ve come across while out and about.
Confusing signage is endemic to the New York subway system, especially during track maintenance. The “Planned Service Changes” sign is a nightmare for commuters and tourists alike—particularly cryptic cases like this one.
It doesn’t have to be. Several members of the Thinkso team have been itching to redesign the subway signs, including senior designer Tyler Fortney. A Park Slope resident who commutes to Thinkso’s Manhattan offices each morning via the F train, Tyler is the perfect man for the job.
Read on for an interview with Tyler to learn what he’d do and see the big reveal.
What are the problems with the existing subway signs?
1. Lack of Good Information Architecture. If the first thing you see is “no trains at this station,” or “no trains between X and Y stations,” you might immediately freak out. The message is not connected with the dates and times, which are wordy and small, and therefore hard to read. In the case of these signs, the rider needs to know the “when” before the “what,” so the “when” needs to be featured more prominently.
2. Clutter. There are simply too many things going on at once. The dates are completely buried; the bullet points are too wordy; and the information doesn’t tell you how to get to where you need to.
3. Redundancy. The clutter exists because a lot of the information is redundant. For instance, the “Planned Service Changes” headline is unnecessary because if you see one of these posters, you immediately know that something’s up. The moon icon, which appears on a lot of these posters, isn’t really necessary either, especially because the service changes apply to weekends too—not only nights.
4. Visual Aesthetics. There are several problems with the layout and design of the poster. Each train line has a designated color—so why use black icons when we can use colored ink? (I’m assuming they’re doing this to save on cost, but they are using some color—perhaps a pre-printed master sheet. Technology is such that it would be just as cost-effective to do away with the pre-printed masters and instead run these off on a color copier.) Moreover, the fact that some headings are in all caps (and others in bold) distracts readers from the actual information about the train.
How does your redesign address these problems?
The MTA posters are not supposed to be promotional; they’re supposed to be informational. To make these posters easier to understand and use, I had to first strip out unnecessary information and confusing graphics.
I created a red backdrop for the date and time and eliminated the “Planned Service Changes” heading. The bold red color identifies the sign as an alert—eliminating the need for explanatory text. Putting the date and time up top links it directly to the service change copy (set in the same font and point size) right below it.
Next, I modified the “Weekend” heading. Rather than bold or capitalize certain headings, I tried to state the essentials—the time and date, the train line(s) and stations affected, and travel alternatives—in a clear and consistent manner.
Finally, I wanted to make sure it was clear to the viewer which trains were affected and how they were being affected. Because the trains follow a linear journey, I didn’t think it was necessary to include the whole map of New York. Instead, I added a few touches to simplify the map:
- A linear map of the train line(s) being affected
- An ellipsis system to denote standard service between stations
- Greyed-out stations to signify inactive/bypassed stations
- Colored icons and corresponding colored train lines
- Clear visual demarcations between Queens and Brooklyn
If you read the reimagined signs in one pass, I think you would know what was happening.
What is the design concept behind these designs? Could you elaborate on your formatting and use of spacing?
I referred to the 1970 MTA subway style guide for the original typography, icons, and arrow styles.
In the new designs, the big headlines are four times the size of the body copy. The “Weekend” header is three times the size of the body copy. I used different proportions so that nothing looks too confusing. And I made the spacing consistent throughout.
Our designer friend Christa Bianchi of Bianchi Design in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently interviewed Thinkso partner Elizabeth Amorose for a post on her blog.
When you think back to what you were designing in 2003, what trends/changes had real legs since then (in any market sector)?
Let’s see. 2003 was when the Internet—the real Internet—came alive. The “bubble” had burst, and so many people were saying the Internet wasn’t going to be any big thing, that there wasn’t a good way to monetize it. But that clearly wasn’t true and things started to turn around in 2003. Companies were getting serious about their web presence, and started to really invest in it, so our web practice really took off. Today at least 50% of our projects are purely digital and just about every print or branding project has some web component.Content creation was in its early stages back then. (Side rant: I hate that term “content,” because it’s so generic and people throw it around without understanding what it means. A media buyer recently handed us a “strategy” that basically said we needed to put content into ads and tweets of the client campaign we were working on. “Content” is a big category—like “branding” or “advertising.” It isn’t a strategy unto itself. You first have to understand what the target audience wants and what the client is able to give them in order to begin to formulate a content strategy. But I digress.)
Ten years ago, businesses and marketers were starting to realize that the value of the Internet was its vast library-like ability to inform and entertain, and part of monetizing their web activities meant providing this content. Luckily, this is such a natural fit for Thinkso. Our mantra from Day 1 has been to give the content as much thought as we do the strategy and design. We’ve always written (we have full-time writers on staff) nearly every project we work on. I think this is what kept our agency humming along in 2008 and 2009 when so many were suffering.
A more general trend—very closely tied to the interwebs—is the sophistication of projects. Across the board, from consumers to clients, everyone expects more from a brand. Consumers are surrounded by a lot of great design and innovation, delivered to their desktop. (Mind you, they are still subject to a lot of really bad design too, but it creates context for the good design.) This translates into consumer expectations being way higher than they were 10 or even 5 years ago. An organization has to have all of its marketing and design “Ts” crossed and “Is” dotted to impress and retain a “loyal” customer. For us, as a creative agency, this means that the work we do has to be more creative, more sophisticated, and utilize more channels than ever before. Our clients’ needs are great; therefore, we have to deliver more. (The only thing that hasn’t gone up are the budgets. Wah wah.) I remember a time when we were designing sites without even thinking about a CMS. Now our website projects require responsive design using an open-source CMS integrated with social media and with Google Analytics baked in.
Read the full interview here.
“Tighten Your Writing” is an ongoing series dedicated to writing tips and best practices.
If you want really professional, buttoned-up content, you not only need to engage your readers with clear, clean prose and pay extra-close attention to sentence structure; you also need to have a rigorous fact-checking process in place. Nothing will derail great content and a solid strategy faster than a misspelled name, erroneous date, or embarrassing typo. Those kinds of careless errors suggest that your company doesn’t pay close enough attention to detail, which tends to make a poor impression on prospective partners, clients, and employees. That’s where fact checking comes in. After all your content is decided upon and every single person has weighed in on the draft you’re going to press with, you should do a round of fact checking. At Thinkso, we use a fact-checking checklist on everything we write. Feel free to download our checklist and use it in your own office.
☐ Check the name of every single proper noun.
- Verify each organization’s name.
- Verify each person’s name and/or title.
- Verify the spelling of any street, county, town, or country names.
- Verify any other proper nouns (laws, holidays, etc.)
- Make sure each name is used consistently throughout the document.
A note about names: When in doubt, defer to the “official” spelling preference—the one that appears on the company website, on formal documents, etc.
Over the last ten years, user experience and web design in general have grown and improved exponentially. We’ve come a long way since the “flame GIF footer” and Flash-based sites. But although technology has changed, some things haven’t: A well-designed site is still as functional as it is beautiful, built to strategically advance the client’s business goals.
That’s important to keep in mind because as designers, we can very easily get hung up on nit-picky design decisions, both internally and with clients. And then we forget to keep our focus on the ultimate end-goal—functionality.
The most helpful question you can ask yourself during a web-design project is simply: “Does it still work?” Yes, the awesome parallax scrolling feature you just implemented looks great, but more importantly: Is it helping or hindering the desired goal—whether it’s to convince a shopper to buy a product, communicate pertinent information, or engage the users so that they perceive an intangible brand value?
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure you build a strong, functional website. Let’s take a look at five major web-design mistakes and how you can avoid them. More…
For the same reason I don’t cut my own hair or fix my own car, I generally discourage do-it-yourself design and branding. It’s a job best left to a professional. But then again I do, on occasion, cut my own hair. So I shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a barber somewhere designing himself a logo or using an old copy of PageMaker to lay out one of those snazzy hair-do selector catalogs.
It’s for that barber, or anyone else in this generally poorly designed world we live in, that I post the first in a series of basic principles and practical approaches to design called “Design Minded.”
No matter who you are or what your business is, there are a couple things that you can do right off the bat to bring a semblance of order to your visual identity. More…
For those of you who couldn’t make it out to Minneapolis this week for the third annual Confab: The Content Strategy Conference, here’s a round-up of the best things we heard.
Let’s Make Content Useful—or Hit Delete
One of our favorite quotes of the conference was: “If people can’t get to your content, it basically doesn’t exist.” You might be thinking, “Thanks, Captain Obvious,” but we can’t tell you how many times we’ve looked at the Google Analytics for a website that we were about to redesign only to find that half of the organization’s 3,000 pages got less than five hits a year. If that’s the case, either the content is useless or your users aren’t finding it. It’s a waste of money to produce and maintain content on your site that isn’t used.
When Designing Your Website, Don’t Rely on Universal Search
“Search is always plan B,” said UX guru Jared Spool, and we couldn’t agree more. With the exception of big online retailers like Amazon or Zappos, websites can provide much better experiences for their users with smart, intuitive navigation rather than a universal search function. More…
Working with a designer to create a new logo can be a fun, exciting chance to affirm your company’s identity and clarify its core values and message. It can also be stressful. For organizations big and small, an identity change represents a considerable investment. And because it’s something that a marketing manager may only be involved with once or twice in the course of his or her career, it’s important to be well-informed.
To help, we’ve deconstructed five common myths about logo design. More…
“Tighten Your Writing” is an ongoing series dedicated to writing tips and best practices.
People value grammar for many different reasons. Some are purists: They think rules are rules, and they must be adhered to on principle. Others (like yours truly) are driven more by practicality: Many sentences that are grammatically incorrect are either misleading or confusing.
One mistake that really confuses readers is a misplaced modifier. Verbs and phrases need to be close to the nouns they modify for a reader to follow a sentence’s action. When they’re not, the meaning of the sentence changes completely.
There are many kinds of misplaced modifiers, but they all share one trait: They obscure a sentence’s meaning. For example, take the following real-life business situation.
Say you work for a business that’s a leader in the technology sector. You’re reviewing a press release, annual report, blog post, or some other copy about your firm’s success and thought leadership.
Here’s one sentence that could be written about your company, “Tech Company X”: More…
“In the Beginning” is an ongoing series dedicated to providing snapshots of how various designers were inspired to enter the creative industry. Melissa Jun is a Brooklyn-based freelance graphic designer.
1. What was your earliest design inspiration/impression?
When I was in college, I serendipitously met a designer by the name of Jan Gaunder. She was the art director for a magazine called Jacksonville Woman, and she took the time to show me what she did to make that happen. She gave me my first job out of college and I basically will always owe her, forever. More…
I just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and, along with eight thousand other bloggers and journalists, I’m going to put in my two cents.
This book is going to be the seminal book of our generation—the way The Feminine Mystique was for the last generation. It articulates the internal and external barriers facing those of us who have chosen to have both careers and children. It exposes massive sexism in our society’s cultural views, workplaces and homes. It’s a book that women can commiserate with and men can learn from.
Sound like nothing new? A couple things set this one apart:
- In a world where there’s very little vetting of “experts,” this book was written by someone whose credentials and experience cannot be denied. Sandberg was a long-time Google executive and is now COO of Facebook. She has kids (and actually gets home in time to have dinner with them) and a marriage that’s an equal partnership. Unfortunately, it takes a woman with this kind of cred to get people to listen. Fortunately, Sandberg delivers.
- Clearly the PR investment behind this book was monumental. A month before it was even released, I heard about it on NPR, read Sandberg’s Time magazine article, and couldn’t visit a news site, blog, or social network without seeing the buzz. With more than 300,000 books published each year in the U.S., it takes a really strategic (and well funded) publicity campaign to get this kind of coverage. This tells me that Sandberg is serious about using this book to create real change. With the book hitting #1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List (and staying there) just a week after it hit the shelves, she has at least succeeded in getting our attention. More…
In literature, it’s fine if a writer adds flowery language, ornate details, and other flourishes. That’s because when you sit down to read a book, you’re already interested in reading the text—or you wouldn’t have purchased it or picked it up off the shelf.
Marketing writing is different. Marketing and advertising copy needs to disrupt and engage; it needs to pull a reluctant reader in. And it needs to be efficient: You don’t have a lot of time to capture a reader’s attention.
That’s why Thinkso takes content—editorial concepts and written text—just as seriously as we take design. And although we believe everyone should strive to write well, good writing is critical to marketing-related communications.
How do we define “good writing”? We think it’s clean (error- and typo-free), clear, and engaging. It’s direct and grammatically sound. It’s integrated with a product’s visual components. It accomplishes (or conveys) identified business goals. If writing has all these qualities, we say it’s “tight.” More…
“In the Beginning” is an ongoing series dedicated to providing snapshots of how various designers were inspired to enter the creative industry. Kerrie Powell is a founding partner at Powell Allen in London.
1. What was your earliest design inspiration/impression?
I was camping in Australia with my family (I’m guessing I was 6 – 8 years old), when I had an epiphany. A family friend presented her life drawing portfolio to me—spreading it from one end of their caravan annex to the other. Unfazed by its content, I remember questioning the budding artist about her broader studies. She (a fleeting mentor with no name!) was studying to be a commercial artist. Around this time, I obsessed over the way my school projects were presented—painstakingly crafting ornate borders and hand-drawn titles (with little feet and all). I even offered my services to my best buddies, who were far more academically minded.
The answer to a lot of the challenges they face is good design—smart, creative solutions that make the most of materials at hand. Some very clever, simple, functional approaches to solving big problems around the world include:
I don’t know about you, but my brain doesn’t have a lot of room for storing things like Twitter shorthand. If you feel the same, download our Tweet Sheet to your phone for quick reference:
- Pull up this post on your iPhone (if you’re not already using it).
- Touch and hold your finger on the Tweet Sheet image.
- When prompted, touch “Save Image”. The Tweet Sheet is now stored in your Photos app.
Mobile applications become bigger and better every single year, fueling start-ups to develop ideas that improve our lives. And as the line between our personal and professional lives become more and more blurred, apps have trended toward bringing efficiency to both simultaneously. Here are five applications that are must downloads in my book:
This application allows you to search and request car services in seconds. It especially comes in handy when visiting a city that you are unfamiliar with or at times when taxis are scarce. Currently operating in 23 major cities around the globe, Uber automatically bills the ride to your credit card account on file. So even paying is a snap.
Con: As of right now, Uber is purely on-demand service. They do not accept advanced reservations so you’ll want to request your ride close to the time you’d like to be picked up.
For anyone in charge of a website, usage data is power. Google Analytics will track site traffic over specific time periods, give you insight into where that traffic is coming from, and help you identify keywords that lead users to your site. But the real power of GA comes when you use its custom features to track very specific actions you hope that users are taking on your site. Unfortunately, setting up these custom features is not as intuitive as one would hope, and using them can be intimidating.
There are three custom features in GA that will lead to more detailed, useful analytics:
Events – Tracking non-page view interactions on your website.
When to Use: You can set an “Event” to track anything that requires a click on your website. For example, use it to find out how many users watched a video—or even if they started watching and then abandoned it. Track if they clicked on a slideshow or a photo album. These results will help you evaluate what’s popular, what’s useful, what videos are too long, etc.
The Details: Tracking an Event requires that you (or more likely your IT team or web agency) place tracking code generated by GA into your website code. It’s fairly simple, but talk to your Webmaster about implementing the extra code on your website. More…
Process and organization are important ingredients in a successful professional services firm—and essential to being set up for future growth. In one of my favorite business books, The E-Myth Revisited, author Michael E. Gerber states, “A Mature [sic] company is founded on a broader perspective…a more intelligent point of view. About building a business that works not because of you but without you.” Thus, it’s been Thinkso’s mission from day one to put processes in place that 1) institutionalize individual knowledge and 2) ensure consistency and best practices for every aspect of our projects.
I’d like to share one small example with you in the hope that it’s helpful to your web marketing process and, more specifically, taking the first step toward SEO.
The Thinkso Website Meta Data Template (which you can download here) is a simple form that we use to ensure our designers, developers and clients are all on the same page with nomenclature, URL naming, title tags, and all the other meta data associated with each page of a website. We’ve put examples and guidelines for writing each of these items right on the spreadsheet so that no matter who in our studio is tasked with the assignment, as well as clients reviewing the form, understand and follow our methodology.
A note about this data and SEO: The page title tag, URL and meta description tag are important to SEO. Meta keyword tags are less so. But having the keywords in your page code puts them in a handy place to reference when creating content for that page; keyword use in page content is important to SEO.
Interested in other SEO info? Check out my post from the Confab Conference in May.
Early this spring, we decided that instead of spending our annual self-promotional budget on gifts and giveaways, we’d try something new: bring the extreme makeover concept to branding and do it for charity.
We dubbed the project “Give a Brand!” and reviewed a variety of nonprofits that might be a good fit. We eventually narrowed them down to three that we thought had the right mix of inspirational stories, commitment to the project and boots on the ground. After a month of public online voting, we had a winner! In the last week of voting, AIDS Orphans Rising—an organization run by the Religious Teachers Filippini in Morristown, NJ—pulled ahead by just a handful of votes. It was exciting seeing the votes roll in each day and to watch our combined social networks light up with support for the initiative.
On August 16, we set our client work aside and dedicated the day to the orphans. We weren’t completely sure how things would turn out or how far we’d actually get, given our one-day deadline. As we would normally do, we read, researched and consumed everything we could with regards to their work and mission—but at a pace different from anything we’d experienced before. It was all hands on deck, and we were very fortunate to have the help of good partners like Matthew Septimus Photography, Finlay Printing, Premier NYC, Skillcrush and MyCity4Her.com. We live-streamed the whole production with six cameras positioned in the studio and conference room, on designers’ screens, and even at the after party outside on the terrace. More…