in Design

Two years on the other side – from making stuff to sell stuff, to making stuff that just works

I’m not one to generalise, but let me do some generalising. My career in design has has been unplanned and random at best, and my life as a designer has been varied – there have been some common themes but the biggest shift was a couple of years ago when I joined Semantico, and the world of digital publishing.

Before Semantico I had a stint for a small agency that mostly made games with the purpose of selling stuff, and before that I had a longer stint at a strategic comms agency which made all sorts of different kinds of stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Back then I was the creative lead for our publishing clients – Faber & Faber, Hachette Livre and Dorling Kindersley, one of the reasons I’m enjoying working with publishers again now). And before that I spent quite a few years freelancing at various advertising agencies large and small, making stuff with the purpose of selling stuff  (Mother London and Mccann Erickson being two of note). So that’s knocking on 17 years designing to push product, shift units or somehow facilitate ‘engagement’ (because engagement somehow means stuff will sell).

‘Clickthroughs’ used to be the currency, soon followed by the zeitgeist of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ – that was the ROI, the bottom line, how work was judged (I will avoid mentioning ‘awareness’  - unquantifiable but seemingly keeping the internet in banners).

So what’s changed? I still work for a paymaster, a business with clients to satisfy, clients that need to make a profit, have ‘brand values’ to communicate, who want a return of investment, and who need to sell product, shift units. But there is a difference.

In the main, the differences are in the product’s lifecycle, its longevity or life expectancy. Often (but not always) in the world of advertising the work is campaign work, and those campaigns can be short sharp affairs, designed to burn brightly but quickly, just like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. The emphasis is on the message, the comms, the impact.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Semantico make products that hang around for a while. They have to be robust. The product our users interact with isn’t just for a few three minute bursts but for hours and hours. They are not used for entertainment, distraction or sociality, but for work, for research and study.

And our clients don’t just sell stuff, they also have to do a ton of other stuff really well too. They need to add value around their content, find new relevant ways to get their content to new audiences. A student or researcher will use this product for years. A single purchase by one institution will serve a multitude of people. Not everyone has a bought the product they are using, or even directly paid for it.

In the world of advertising, knowing your demographic, your target audience is a huge part of the creative process. You need to speak the same language as your audience, communicate in the same way, resonate. Be their friend, part of the same pack, the same tribe.

Within publishing, understanding your audience is just as important, but there is a change of emphasis. I am now designing tools, and designing a service, for different wants and needs.

Full Circle

At Semantico we very user centric. Our whole design methodology and philosophy is based on user insight. So my design life has come a little circular in fashion – The agency where I learnt most of my game was, for the time, particularly user-centric. When I joined them in the early noughties it was standard process to produce wireframes and user journeys and use these as tools for insight and production. We actually had an information architect and producers who ‘got’ UX. And as I was reminded by my old strategy director the last time we hooked up in London, we often profiled archetypical users, and created stories and narratives around those archetypes – designed to get under our audiences skin and help us deliver effective solutions for our clients. We wanted to understand our users so we could offer them the aspirational experiences our clients expected us to deliver.

Now I have the need to understand our users so we can design a better service, better tools. User research is now a task absorbed into all our design activity and all our design choices are informed by real users and the user insight we gain from research.

I can’t say I miss working on stuff that just disappears into the internet abyss once a short term goal is reached (or not), but what I find most rewarding is that I am designing useful stuff – stuff to help people educate themselves, learn about new stuff and answer problems. And in the case of the online clinical procedures tool we launched earlier in the year, stuff that might help save lives too.