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The Ongoing Blog Debate

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Most of us, by now, either visit, write or know of at least one blog. Blogs fill the void between websites and social networking by providing an open forum for anyone and everyone to discuss just about any topic that interests them. And that’s how they started – as open forums for the expression of opinions and discussion. With the dynamic nature of a blog’s content, it didn’t take long for search engines to take notice and begin to give blogs the same, if not at times better, rankings than their web counterparts. Of course over-saturation can change any market, and that’s where this blog picks up.

The New York Times recently published an interesting article, “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter,” examining the relevance of blogs in today’s market. Although the article focuses on blogs in a social context, I consider the data and points to be equally relevant to business blogging. After all, the line between social and business is very thin where the web is considered.

Targeting an audience is one of the biggest steps of marketing, and the divide between age groups is a key component. The article focuses on this, pointing out that blogging on a whole has decreased in the 18-33 age group. One of the main reasons cited was that social networking accomplished what a blog used to in less time and more efficiently. On the flip side, the article pointed out that blogging has increased in the age groups over 33.

Instead of continuing down the data analysis path, I’m interested in looking at the “why” of blogs. Why are blogs created? For businesses, the answers vary, but the desired outcome is the same; to increase internet traffic and attract new customers. Now the bigger question: is it working?

It’s easy to watch the analytics and track the performance of a blog. But the breakdown begins to occur is whether or not those visitations translate into serious potential customers or casually interested passer-by’s. In my professional experience with the blogs I have been a part of creating, maintaining and tracking, I have yet to see a single financial transaction occur on a bog (outside of those with ecommerce components, of course.) So I don’t believe in the potential of blogging, right? Wrong.

Simply put, a blog, on a professional level, is a component of an overall marketing effort, and should be viewed as a method of illustrating the knowledge and expertise that a individual or entity possesses. On top of that, it is also a way to connect a consumer to a business on a more personal level. After all, isn’t that what consumers want – to feel secure in knowing that the product or service they are purchasing is done so through a knowledgeable, reliable, and expert source?

And that’s the key…a business that publishes a blog can’t simply post a few times a month and ignore it. Efforts must be given to stay relevant and personal, which means putting thought into what is written and investing time into comments and feedback. Post snippets of a blog on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Make sure the website links back to the blog. Ensure that the blog is noticed in as many ways as possible. By doing so, over time, a company will begin to see the pieces come together, and their relevancy and potency online increase.

As my own blog comes to an end, I’m forced to look at my own hypocrisy…after all, my last blog entry was back in July, so how good a job am I doing staying relevant and visible?!  But that’s my point; easy and quick is easily forgotten. It’s the efforts we take that define our businesses, so make your time, and words, count.

Social Media and the Elephant in the Room

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I have been sitting on an article (link at the bottom) for a few days, wondering if I should give my 2 cents, or if I should bite my tongue. It’s controversial, because it’s not a popular subject. It sheds a negative the biggest fad in business marketing since…well…marketing! I’m talking about social media for business, and how it is NOT producing the desired results.

WHAT?! Say it ain’t so?! And what the heck am I doing talking about something like that? I must be an idiot…after all, social media services is part of what my company offers. The reality, though, is that it’s the elephant in the room, and needs to be discussed. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away. Instead, figure out what to do, and move forward.

Here’s the skinny, people; social media has yet to be proven as a solid method of new business leads for the average business. I’m not talking about the mega-corps that overrun the ‘net with viral marketing and social media onslaughts. No, I mean everyone else. The small-to-midsize businesses that are working hard every day to generate leads. And the buzz is social media – it’s cheap, reaches a broad audience, and can be highly infectious among users. So why isn’t it working?

There isn’t enough time to discuss all the reasons why. The point is we are still figuring out the right formula to make social media a viable source of new business leads.

Let’s keep one major point in mind; by new business and leads, I’m not talking about keeping customers and clients informed, or providing regular updates about your product or service. The article addresses this as well. Social media is a very efficient and inexpensive way to stay in touch with your client base, and is invaluable for that purpose. But getting the new leads to respond, well…

Here’s the bottom line; much the same as any branch of advertising or marketing, all your eggs should never be in one basket. Diversify your marketing portfolio. Put a little strategy behind your efforts. Use a combination of tactics to support and enhance overall effectiveness. You may not be the first shop on the block with the latest and greatest in marketing tools, but keep in mind that supply and demand has existed for a VERY long time. Spend a little time thinking about what makes the most sense for your business and your customers, and I promise the effort will be worth it.

And of course, I’m always ready and willing to brainstorm with you, should you want a little expert help!

THE Article:

©2010 Bryan Lester

Nuk-Nuks and Modern Art: An Examination of Comfort

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Today was a monumental occasion. At 6:04pm, CST, my 2-year-old daughter willingly parted with ALL of her Nuk-Nuks (a brand of pacifier). In ceremonial fashion, she “fed” them to the dinosaur at her favorite playground (author’s note: the “dinosaur” is actually a large dragon-like structure that snakes its way around a local playground.) For a toddler, this is a very big occasion, and only now, at bedtime, is she realizing that she gave up one of her security objects for good. This, of course, is necessary for kids her age, and shouldn’t be traumatic for too long, considering that she has napped without a pacifier at her daycare for well over a year.

Andy Warhol GunTravel back in time one week – my team and I take a company field trip to the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art to recharge our creative batteries. A Warhol exhibit is showing, which we didn’t know until after the trip was planned, which is an added bonus. The exhibit is titled “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” and is a collection of 55 works that include the Marilyn prints, “Gun” (my personal favorite,) and “The Last Supper.” Seeing Warhol’s work up-close and personal is amazing – the details in each piece, the colors, the variations in each repetition… I’m no Warhol expert, but I admire his intentions and technique.

As we were leaving, and I was reviewing the works I had seen, I came to a realization – every artist that has found some measure of fame and/or recognition (whether in life or death,) has done so with a signature style. If I say Pollack, what comes to mind? Now Warhol (soup, anyone?) Picasso, Duchamp, Mondrian…each artist created a style that defined their career. As an artist, a consistent aesthetic is regarded as a style. However, for many, a style can become a crutch. A safety blanket, if you will. And once an artist establishes that style, it can be very hard to deviate from the habit.

Fast-forward to present-day, my toddler now sleeping soundly. I guess the pacifier wasn’t crucial to her survival as her wailing once indicated. She has survived, and will probably sleep just fine. What about Warhol? Would he have survived as an artist without popular culture as his muse?

Thus brings me to the eternal question – does artistic style limit, or define, and artist? Both concepts seem separate, I know. However, let’s examine the details. Limitation prevents exploration beyond predetermined boundaries. In this case, boundaries set by the artist through his or her own habit of style. And it’s through that style that an artist is defined, hence one begats the other. So, by creating a style, an artist becomes identified by it, and thus is personally defined by the viewer as his or her style.

starry-nightPicasso is arguably the most well-known post-Renaissance artist ever. To art history buffs, he is the co-founder of the Cubist movement. To the average Joe, he’s that guy that painted those weird abstract pictures. Either way, he is unmistakable and immortal, all because of the style he helped invent. But before Pablo Picasso painted Starry Night, he was accomplished in Realism, a style that aspires to mimic real life. If he was so good at Realism, why isn’t that what he’s known for? Simple – because everyone else during the same time period was attempting to master the exact same technique.

It was his influences and choices that took him to the level of success he later achieved with an art form that no one had ever seen before. But that was his style – a method that was all his own.

Warhol did the same thing by helping pave the way for Pop Art. But again, his style is what defined him. And if he ever adopted a style different than his Pop Art pieces, chances are few people would know about them. Why? Because, again, his style limited him to what he had become defined by, and what he had become acclaimed for through commercial success.

And thus it became his Nuk-Nuk – a safe place that ultimately defined him, and became his legacy.

As my daughter sleeps, and I think about all those pacifiers randomly strewn about the ground at the dinosaur playground, I take comfort in knowing that those Nuk-Nuks will not be her childhood legacy. She will not be known as the little girl that always needs a pacifier. She is growing up, and hopefully now realizes she no longer needs them.

And that’s the point for us artists that aren’t modern masters… if any of us are lucky enough to gain commercial success through our style, we should embrace it. But it can’t define us. An artistic style will only serve to limit our exploration. And you’ll never stop learning or growing if you find too much comfort at one place in life.

My daughter taught me that – she is far more capable of change than I am. I only hope that I can find the courage to break out of my cycles too.

©2010 Bryan Lester

Is Gutenberg Rolling in his Grave?

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Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible – image credit to The University of Texas Harry Ransom Center

Technology is an amazing thing. I think about it on a daily basis, and how many of these advancements we take for granted. For instance, a trip from New York to Los Angeles in 1850 would take MONTHS, not hours, to accomplish. Yet every single day hundreds of people make that exact trip via the wonder of air travel, and only in a matter of hours. Or how about a letter, traveling by horseback, in 1850 – you think the USPS changed a few things?

Then there’s the year 1438, one year before Johannes Gutenberg printed the world’s first EVER mass-produced book, The Gutenberg Bible. Well, let me clarify…he invented movable type (an early version of the printing press,) which facilitated the production of multiple copies of the same manuscript. Before his creation, only the wealthiest could afford actual books, and most people were illiterate. Communication was done verbally, and those who could read, and afford to own books, were the writers of modern history. That’s power.

The Book of Eli movie posterThe Book of Eli, a recent movie with Denzel Washington, is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. In the movie, the post-apocalyptic world spawned a new generation of people who couldn’t read or write – books were useless to them. Think of the absolute power a person could have if they not only could read, but possessed a religious text like the Bible. Absolutely incredible.

Gutenberg’s invention didn’t change the world overnight. The availability of a printed book didn’t create literacy. And owning one of these books was still extremely expensive. However is was the catalyst for aggressive progress. Take the computer…the world’s first version was a big-ole calculator. Now look at us. In 64 short years we’re now in a 3G, smart phone, touch screen, social networking, flash drive, online data storage society. It all starts somewhere.

Being a grad of The University of Texas at Austin (Hook ‘Em!), I had the distinct privilege of seeing one of only 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin purchased copy #39 in 1978 for $2.4 million. Only 11 copies exist in America, and of those 11 copies only 5 are classified as complete – the copy at UT is one of those. No offense to the Constitution of the United States, but I believe that those 11 books are the most valuable pieces of paper our country did, does, or will EVER own.

And for the record, it is gorgeous. The craftsmanship, typography, color, illustrations…everything is impeccable, even after almost 600 years. What an honor to have seen it.

early printing press

An early version of the printing press, possibly close to Gutenberg’s version.

Back to the lecture at hand…the Gutenberg printing press changed everything. And up until about a decade ago, there wasn’t any threat to the legacy, power, and influence of the written word. Then 9-11, and an eventual US economic slump happened. I’m no historian, so I won’t pontificate about all of the influences that lead to hundreds and thousands of newspapers and magazines going under. I do know that consumer and commercial money belts were tightened, and that meant ad budgets declined and subscription rates dropped. Major US cities that once had 3, 4 even 5 newspapers were now down to 1 or 2, sometimes zero. The world began changing…it was cheaper and faster to publish online.

But change didn’t wash away the past. Not everyone likes the idea of the death of print. After all, an e-reader or iPad simply don’t have the same ease of use, aesthetic quality, or nostalgia of a paperback book or newspaper. When you’re done with an iPad, can you use it to pack dishes for a move? Can you use it to start a fire? Can you clip parts of it out for friends, family, or personal scrap books? Does a paperback book require brightness and contrast settings to read? Does it need to be recharged? Can you read an e-reader during take-off on an airplane?

Here’s where I stop the soapbox blabbering and get to my perspective. I love print. It’s what I do. While in college, I fell in love with it. The UT College of Fine Arts owns an actual 19th century letterpress, and I used it for a few projects. Through the Design program curriculum, I made actual books by hand. I learned where all of this technology that we take for granted originated from. And believe you me, after learning the ins-and-outs of the letterpress, you have no idea how massive an undertaking it was for Gutenberg to produce his Bibles.

The current state of print hangs in a delicate balance. The resurgence of the American economy is beginning, so more than likely ad revenue and consumer subscriptions will pick up again. But will the American people, or even the world, for that matter, re-embrace print?

My love for paper, ink, and the offset printing process will never die. But I also realize that I am in the minority of people who not only understand the technology, but care enough to rant about it. For those of you who aren’t like me, I ask you this…can you remember the last time you received a printed piece that stood out to you? A wedding invitation, perhaps? Or a really nice hardback book? Did you keep it? My guess is yes, but not for the reason you think you did. Most of you would say it is a keepsake to remember a moment in time, or that the book was $24.95. But I disagree… that invitation, or that book, are still with you because they are more than messages or words on paper. They are pieces of artwork. They are worthy of being kept, being displayed. And without you fully realizing it, you have an attachment to those items because of the aesthetic quality they possess. That’s the power of paper and ink.

When you are at home tonight (assuming you are reading this during the work day…shame on you, but thanks!), I’ll ask you to spend a moment and grab the most memorable piece of printed material you can think of. Apply your senses of touch, smell, and hearing. Feel the texture of that paper. Smell it…sounds weird, but it will take you somewhere, I promise. Now listen as you turn the pages or touch it with your fingers. The human interaction with ink on paper is a bond that modern technology will never break. And wouldn’t you miss it? If the world went completely digital over the next decade, you’d be telling stories of printed text. How a library smells. The feel of a nice piece of paper. The sound of tearing open an envelope.

I, for one, pray that day will never come.

©2010 Bryan Lester

Designers Make Terrible Road Warriors

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I watched Up In The Air last night, and this morning I find myself replaying scenes from that movie in my head as I sit on a plane to Boston for a business trip. I am also remembering my Dad, who was a travelling salesman for most of his life, and had plenty of his own experiences to share from his air travels. He was a pro, just like Clooney.

The life of a travelling businessman, or woman, is not for everyone. In fact, I believe it takes a rare breed of person to endure the rigors of such a lifestyle. But instead of observing that type of personality, I’d rather apply it to what I know, and talk about designers as business travelers.

Air travel is very familiar to me. Between the age of 3 and 18, I flew on a plane at least 3 times every two years. Then, after 18, college, weddings, funerals, vacations, etcetera turned that average into more like two to three flights a year. I’d say that’s probably more than 50% of the American population, however not staggering by any means. Now, I’m not mentioning all of this to brag, but rather to illustrate my flying history so that I can eliminate that as a variable. I know how to fly, I’m comfortable with it, and I love that technology allows us to travel cross-country within hours. And most of the flights I have taken in my life are 3+ hours, so I know how to sit in coach for those trips.

bag of cricketsDesigners on a whole, I believe, share common traits. Our inability to sit still for extended periods of time without day-dreaming, doodling, or fidgeting is a near impossibility. We thrive on stimulus, and our minds are like a plastic bag full of crickets. Some of us are more sedate than others, but make no mistake we all share in these characteristics in one form or another. In fact, I’ve seen an alarming amount of ADHD in younger designers – I’m not sure if this is a new development, or the result of an over-stimulated youth. But that discussion is for another day.

I can hear it now – “So what, Bryan? I’m all of those things too, and I’m not a designer. Why does that make me any different from designers?” Easy. We’re paid to be this way. It’s our profession in life to be creative and to tap into those traits that used to drive our parents crazy. So the idea of suppressing those urges to get up and down, doodle and wander off (in mind and body) is ridiculous. Try telling the Olympic 100 yard sprinters that they have to speed walk for a medal. Talk about torture.

There are things we can do to help ourselves, I know. We can bring stuff on the plane to keep occupied, like I’m doing now. But then there’s the time surrounding the actual flight: travel to and from the airport, security lines, waiting in the terminal, hotel rooms, and so on. All of these are things the average road warrior has mastered. But designers aren’t road warriors. Some of us travel more than others, however I’ve never heard or known of a job that required weekly or monthly travel for a professional designer. I believe there are a few particular reasons for this:

We can’t exactly take our tools with us. Laptops will suffice for certain things, but can’t do everything. Brainstorming, for one, is a pain (at least for me) on a computer. Even then, there is a familiarity and ease of use with Apple towers over laptops, not to mention how much faster they are.

Then there are the little idiosyncratic things we do while working, many of which require things we can’t always travel with. One example is my business partner Ivy – she has a bamboo plant that has been with her for years. I’m certain it provides a certain level of subconscious comfort for her. As for me, I chew gum like crazy, and I am VERY picky about my keyboard and mouse set-up. I need a huge mousepad to the right, keyboard, slightly at an angle, to my left, and my chair that tilts just right.

Sure, with a little time and some ingenuity, we might be able to reproduce a mini-version of our cubes and offices for the road, But for the most part, I just don’t see it happening any time soon.

… and any designer out there that denies this needs to look in the mirror. Don’t be embarrassed by it, embrace it! Being weird doesn’t mean people don’t like you, or you’re messed up in some psychological way. No, your oddness makes you who you are. Me, I’m a dork. I fit in pretty well with the normal dredges of society, but there’s no escaping the fact that I am a dork.

Does that mean I make a terrible business traveler? Of course not. What it does mean, though, is that we’re a bit segmented in the business world. Art departments are isolated because those “normal” folks don’t get us. Our jobs don’t revolve around our ability to schmooze clients on the road, because that’s not what all of us are good at. The limitations I have as a designer allow me to be better at that sort of stuff, hence being a business owner. I’m not nearly as creative as some designers out there, and that’s OK. Regardless of who each of us are personally, we still have the “flighty creative type” scarlet letter on our chests, and we’re rarely the first pick of people to be sent to close a big business deal.

Now I do have to admit that this point may well apply to more than just designers, but it’s still worth mentioning. Vacations, trips to see family and friends, and random getaways are fun and exciting; we get to see people we haven’t in a while, check out new places and things… it’s all leisure time. But business travel is surrounded by monotony. For example, how many variations really exist with rental cars? Or hotels… there are some pretty cool ones out there, but most expense accounts don’t have room in the budget for “cool.” Clothes must be professional – not the usual trendy, usually casual, attire that we love. Food, while probably the most flexible, still can be limiting. There may not be enough time in the day to check out that great joint you heard about across town.

As I said, this probably applies to more than designers. But remember back to our personality traits: constant stimulus. Have you ever seen a designer’s home? We change things around because we get bored. We’re creatures of habit, too, but part of that habit revolves around mixing our lives up to keep it interesting. It’s just our nature.

So should designers never be allowed to travel? Heck no! Business travel gets employees out of the office, allows them to experience more than the four walls around them every day. And breaking out of a personal comfort zone can be very healthy. Talk to new people, experience new places, change the day up.

George Clooney with a puppySitting here, on flight American Airlines flight to Boston, does make me a bit jealous of George Clooney in Up In The Air. That sweet 10 million mile card he got at the end probably has some cool perks. And I’ve been in the Admiral’s Club – pretty swanky! But alas, my company’s expense budget won’t allow such luxuries. So, for now, I will enjoy the simple pleasure of not having anyone in the middle seat back in coach, a warm cup of watered down coffee (I’m a dark roast snob,) and my Apple Powerbook.

But dang, I can’t stop shaking my leg and chewing on this straw. I need to get out of this chair. Sigh.

©2010 Bryan Lester, The DesL Group

Dallas Snow: An Exercise in Whitespace

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Yesterday, February 11, 2010 marked a historic day in Dallas / Fort Worth – it was the snowiest day in recorded history for our part of North Texas. I have been a resident of Dallas for just about my entire life, and although we’ve had our share of winter weather, I can’t remember a snowfall like this. By that, I mean the fluffy, crunchy, fresh powder type of snow that I have only experienced in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado on annual family ski trips. We Texans usually receive sleet and freezing rain, or the big fat wet snow that either melts within a day or turns to straight ice overnight.

My point of mentioning that fact is precisely why I write this article. Ice and sleet don’t tend to inspire the creative mind. It messes up traffic, crashes cars, and closes schools, but it doesn’t inspire. This…this 12.5 inches of crunchy, fluffy, marshmallowy white snow that we are experiencing…takes me on a dorky artistic adventure that I just have to share.

Tonka DogLast night, at around 10:00pm, I was out walking my black lab, Tonka. A light flurry of snow was still dusting the neighborhood, and his antelope leaps and my Sasquatch steps (my size 12 boots leave quite an imprint) were making the first tracks in most of the places we travelled. Our neighborhood has large sections of empty land scattered throughout, so fields of fresh snow were easy finds. And we took full advantage.

And as we were walking / bouncing, I began to take note of all the changes in the scenery – more so all of the scenery that was seemingly erased. 12.5 inches of snow can do that to well-manicured lawns and sporadic trees, especially in a place as flat as Texas. It’s literally like that old Daffy Duck cartoon where the artist begins to erase and redraw Daffy, each time with a different outcome.

Then I began to think about design, and the single word that polarizes most designers: whitespace. It is either the bane of a designer’s existence, or their lifeline. Rarely, if ever, is it treated with apathy. No, whitespace is a hot topic, and not one that I wish to draw a line on in this blog entry. There just isn’t enough time.

What I can say is this: whitespace, as an artistic notion, can hold something very powerful for us designers. It is easy for us to get static in our work – the demands of the modern advertising world require quick thinking, light switch creativity, and immediate results. So there usually isn’t much room to experiment, play, or simply sketch. But when it comes time to experiment, to create something new, it can be a challenge. And that’s when whitespace, and snow, have something in common.

snow-ccovered-treeTake a tree, for example. A tree with leaves, or without, is still a tree. But cover it in snow, and somehow it becomes so much more. In certain lights, it becomes a striking example of positive versus negative space – a sketch artist’s core exercise. And then there are the snow-covered houses, with stark white roofs and sidewalks that blend with the grass. All of the sudden the architectural lines become more pronounced; the contrast of brick, stone, glass and wood. You get the picture.

So where am I going with this? Simple: as designers, sometimes it is necessary to erase what we know. Take preconceived notions, and throw them out the proverbial window. Much like the neighborhood I live in, and the path I walk every night with Tonka, my voice and approach as a designer can get caught up in the dangerous spiral of comfort and safety. And before I know it, I am producing the same thing over and over, without even realizing it.

How do we just erase what we know, you ask? Well, that’s a question I can’t answer right now. Every designer is different. Much like our creative process, there is no right or wrong answer. The point, though, is to try. Don’t get comfortable for too long. An artistic voice is nothing to be ashamed of. But creative complacency is. It is our jobs, as designers, to keep our ideas fresh. Challenge ourselves to do more, learn more, experience more. And in so doing, we will be benefiting not only ourselves, but our clients and fellow artists alike.

So as I sit here and look out the window at a Dallas I wasn’t sure I’d ever see, I am inspired. Inspired by something so simple as frozen rain, something that northern residents of our country see more than they may like to. But for me, for us Texans, it’s magical. And although I’ll be sad to see it go, I’ve learned something that will hopefully energize a new idea or approach that I may never have tried before.

©2010 Bryan Lester