Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Preschool Web Lessons

I run into a problem every now and again. Like many of you with kids, despite an incalculable amount of toys, every so often my children sit among the puzzles, dolls, balls, trucks, beads, books, and art supplies and complain that they have nothing to do. At my worst, I tell them if they don't think they've got enough stuff, I can make space for new stuff simply by throwing out or selling the current crop. But at my best, I call in my wife who changes out the baskets of "things" for toys, games, paper and markers, etc. that have been hiding in closets for months, just waiting for their big moment in the rotation to come out and be used again. The idea is so simple, but it comes from watching our kids' preschool teacher put out new and interesting things for the kids to come up and play with on a daily basis. Each day, a new set of interesting things to touch, consider, explore, try, and engage with.

You see where this is going, right?

Today, in discussing a next wave scope of work, a client of ours laid out clear objectives of: getting people to return to our site multiple times and to increase the amount of time they spend on the site with each visit. There's certainly nothing remotely wrong with that goal on the surface. Who wouldn't want to strive for that? It's a cool, informative side married to a fun idea and campaign. But it wasn't designed with Preschool Considerations, if you know what I mean. Which is to say, it was conceived to entertain and inform not to change shape on a daily basis.

But the truth is, if the hope is to get users to come, stay, and return, we must concept the work with that teacher mentality - introducing new pieces, featuring engaging content, creating unexpected and exceptional experiences and tools, etc. I know this is old news in this here digital world, but I find myself fascinated by the overlap of how people create engaging content and contexts for a specific target simply by bringing the shiny stuff out of the closet with some consistency and frequency. It doesn't matter if your world is hi-tech or analog, if you want someone to come back and stay, you've got to give them something new.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Drawing Inspiration

My family ordered pizza and watched "Up" last night. And yes, I continue to marvel at Pixar's technical innovation (how did they light that girl's room up like a kaleidoscope as the balloon-house rose above it?). I can't believe what I watched is animation. I simply refuse to believe it. My theory is that in addition to computer wizardry, there is a healthy dose of magic that is added in post-production and that is how the film turns out the way it does. It's just a theory.

But amazingly, I am more astonished by the aspect of this film that has nothing to do with computer animation or RenderMan technology. I think the true genius of this film (and, most of Pixar's offerings) comes through the storytelling.

"Up" is a clinic in taking a basic story idea and developing richness around it. The basic outline couldn't be simpler: From childhood, a man finds his perfect match. They love each other. They live a long, beautiful life together. But she dies before they can ever do the one big adventure they'd planned since they were children. In her absence, he feels the weight of her death at every moment. How does he move on?

That's where the genius of imagination creates depth and nuance and metaphor. It is the moment in the process in which the author stops thinking solely in linear waves, but in the abstract, in analogies and symbols, in the "what if" and limitless possibility. And in this part of the creative process, in which the expected and the familiar are gently set aside, true creation is allowed to play and breathe and lead and expand.

In "Up", the protagonist Carl's problem is the heaviness of age and adulthood, and so ironically his backstory is that he sells helium balloons - a lighter than air occupation that is entirely connected to the emotional nature of childhood. 

The writers have his dying wife giving him her “Adventure Book”. At a page labeled “Stuff I’ve done”, Carl (and the viewer) think that the rest of the book must be blank, because Carl has never had the courage to turn the page. And yet, at the critical moment toward the end, he turns the page only to discover that Ellie had placed pictures of their whole life together in that section – it wasn’t empty after all. The truth is that life with Carl was the adventure. That the “Stuff” they’d done together was the stuff of their own adventure. Their journey together was the story.

And, of course, there's the beautiful twist that our protagonist must literally let go of his house and possessions in order to move on living in the future. 

But I didn't intend this post to be about plot recap. More about taking a simply truthful story and allowing imagination and potential take it to places elaborate and undiscovered and unexpected. I am inspired to apply this to everything I touch. The question is: how? I see how this is the expectation for artists and writers, but can this be done in the planning world? Is there room for imaginative layer and abstract discovery and promoting the unexpected? What forms does that take? Is it in the brief? At the briefing? In a presentation? Pitching new business? Or only when a creative team shows the desire to go there? When is it appropriate? When is it not? Would a client go for the ride? Would a creative team? How is creative license and the spirit of inventiveness used for constructive positive outcomes vs distracting cleverness?

Inspiration can be a tricky proposition that comes with a lot of questions when a person seeks practical applications for it. But at the end of the day, if I'm not trying to tell a story that's never been told, I guess I think...what's the point? I think the gang at Pixar would agree.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Ear for Passion

I watched and listened to our Director of Design, Steve Cullen, walk through a wall of thoughtful design for a client today. And although the client was mostly reacting to the offerings from what I perceived to be a place of gut-level reaction (much like the way an untrained eye such as mine reacts to art in a museum), I was fascinated by the depth of thinking and the absolute conviction with which Steve was describing every facet and detail of the work as he moved from typeface to iconography to palette.

What I realized is this: if you're talking passionately about something you love, I don't care what the topic, I will listen to you go on and on for hours on end. I might not agree with your point of view. I might not share your passion for the subject matter. But it doesn't matter if it's the history of salt, or why legs bend, or how a kite works, or the creation of a neon sign above Broadway, I will sit and listen and you will amaze me.

Sadly, I think the converse is also true. Which is to say, if you're talking about something I am drawn to from the deepest, most authentic place in my soul, and you're simply mumbling your way through your thoughts, you will lose me in the first five minutes. And odds are if it's something I really care about, you'll not only lose me, you'll upset me.

The bottom line is this: the world needs passion. It needs people who get excited about soap suds, and numbers, and produce, and design. And those people's voices need to be encouraged and heard. Many of us are ready to listen.
the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)