Design That Makes People Give a Damn

For years I’ve been designing logos, brands, and engagement campaigns for a brand strategy and creative agency called Black Sheep. We’re called Black Sheep for all the reasons you might guess: We do things differently. We’re ahead of the curve. We break the rules. Blah, blah, blah, insert predictable design agency phrase here. 

But here’s the thing: We DO do things in an unexpected way. Because when you build an engagement campaign, you have to differentiate your clients from everyone else or it won’t work. You won’t actually engage anyone. No one will connect with what you’re doing. And you won’t be able to stay in business long enough to employ the same person for eight years.

Black Sheep’s tagline is “We activate people around things that matter.” Believe me when I say I’ve got a ton of talking points around the second half of that sentence. We’re a social impact company and a B corp (B for benefit), so of course I can talk about the “things that matter.” But you’re a designer; you’ve probably got social good in your DNA and a whole lot of other people you can talk to about making a dent in the world. So today we’re talking about the first half of the tagline, because I think the “activating people” part is harder to do. Making people care about something they had no knowledge of previously is really difficult. Especially when you need a whole bunch of them to care for your client’s cause, or product, or service, or whatever, to succeed.

I’ll get to how we do that in a moment. But first, there’s a short list of should-go-without-sayings that we’re going to look at, and it goes a little something like this:

Write a brief. There’s been a lot of hullabaloo about creative briefs in recent years, but if you’ve not been paying attention, allow me to reiterate: Get on board with your team and your client about the goals, considerations, responsibilities, and outcomes of your work by generating a brief that outlines all these things and anything else useful to include. This is how we’ll all agree on the right direction later when we forget what our goals are in the midst of disagreements about the color blue.

Know your audience. You are not them. Your client is not them. You cannot possibly presume that your attitudes, experiences, exposures, likes, dislikes, or dialogues are the same as anyone else’s. If you want this campaign to be accessible for those who need it (and accessibility is a big deal), you must know what they care about and why. Engagement campaigns differ from a lot of other design work largely for this reason: We need people to take an action, to care about something they previously didn’t to the extent that they shift their perception, their thinking, or even better, their behavior. It’s not good enough for them to see our work and say, “Oooh, that’s cool design.” It doesn’t matter if a path is paved with all the goldleaf of trendy window lettering. No one will walk down that path if they don’t see something they care about at the other end.

Know your resources. You can’t set realistic goals for your campaign without knowing your limitations, and that means budget, time, and team members, both on your side and the client’s. It’s a bummer to launch an amazing campaign and then find its success is limited because your contact on the client’s side is responsible for event planning, fundraising, board meetings, graphic design, and social media. They don’t even have time to email you back, much less help implement your campaign. Black Sheep works with a lot of nonprofits, and we hustle and problem-solve, but we have to know all this stuff up front.

Once you’ve checked all these totally-necessary-but-way-less-interesting boxes, we can move on to the ideation around “activating people,” the amazing thing that we as designers get to do. We’re going to do this by embracing the unexpected. Not all of our clients are black sheep, but when they’re doing something outside the norm—for them or for their particular industry—that’s when people take notice. They start to become aware. They start to connect. They start to care.

The absolutely wonderful thing about being unexpected is that anyone willing to be a little bit brave can do it. Consider this: On a very human level, there’s always someone smarter than you. Always someone more good-looking. Always someone more talented or more successful. But, when it comes to being unexpected, we’re each in our own lane. We can all be successfully unexpected in ways of our own choosing. We can wear head-to-toe hot pink on the daily. We can travel everywhere on a unicycle. We can have a zillion weird hobbies that make us THE MOST FUN at parties. Anyone can do it. Any business or organization can do it, and it doesn’t always have to be as weird as head-to-toe hot pink. All it really takes is to look at what everyone else in an industry is doing…and then avoid doing that.

In fact, that’s rule one for engagement campaigns, insofar as any creative really has rules:

ONE: Look at what everyone else is doing. Then, do not do that thing.

I love using this as a jumping-off point for creative work. It leaves things so wide open that any person in a brainstorm can take it somewhere interesting. It’s also just really literal and obvious, which I think often yields the best ideas.

Recently we were engaged by Downtown Houston to build a new creative campaign for what is essentially the heart of our city. We started looking at what Downtown Houston and other cities had been doing, and everything was about sunrise-green-space yoga and condos with granite countertops, and all the photography was properly diverse and devoid of panhandlers, and all the design was really clean and a little corporate-looking. And so we literally just sat down and looked at all of it and were like, okay, so…we’re going with insanity, imperfection, and a bazillion colors, right? Yes! And then we got this:

Downtown Houston is a microcosm of all the things Houstonians love about of Houston—the heart, the hustle, the imperfection. Downtown does not need to sell itself; it just needs to be a force of personality that draws you to it. That’s what no one else was doing, so that’s what we did.

TWO: Ideas do not live on the internet. Go find them elsewhere.

Designers tend to flock together when it comes to the media we consume. (Was that a sheep pun? Gosh, I hope not.) We subscribe to the same magazines and blogs, buy the same books, follow similar Instagrams, and watch the same big-name agencies and individuals on social media and in the press. The internet has made it really, really easy for trends and groupthink to pervade our field, and sometimes our stuff starts to look the same. Similar inputs yield similar outputs, you know?

I’ve written previously about my love of estate sales as a way to buck trends and fill your head with unusual ideas, so if you care to read the whole shebang you can, but I’ll paraphrase:

Great creative ideas are not squeezed out of your head during a brainstorm like toothpaste. They are uncovered—revived from memories you didn’t know you had and experiences you didn’t know you’d need. Ideas aren’t epiphanies; they’re connections made in an instant when what you have meets what you’re looking for. If you take away one thing from this entire how-to on engagement campaigns, let it be this. The more information you have bouncing around in your head to begin with, the more likely it is to be something you need. And it does not have to have anything to do with design.

Ensure you’re looking at different things, road tripping to different places, and following different people on social media than everyone else so your ideas are inspired by things only you are seeing in ways only you are seeing them. That’s how you build memorable creative.

THREE: Take what you know and forget it all.

I used to run a pie shop. The woman who owned the shop was named Georgia Goggans, and she is one of the most ingenious and creative people I know. She’s also a grandmother, and at least early on, she was pretty unfamiliar with social media. But she had heard about Facebook from her grandchildren, and it’s wall you could post on, and how people could “like” and respond to things that were said. So she decided to make an IRL Facebook wall. She just took a large whiteboard, wrote “Facebook Wall” at the top of it, and then would write her thoughts on there throughout the day. Visitors to the pie shop totally embraced it. They began to add checkmarks for a like, or comment on her initial post, and people took photos of it and posted it on their actual (virtual) Facebook walls. It was a delight for everyone, and people loved her and loved pie and loved the pie shop.

Forgetting what the marketing-branding-designer-strategist in you knows is a surefire way to make your work delightfully relatable for lots of people. Georgia’s Facebook wall enabled everybody to participate, even people who didn’t know what Facebook was or how to use it. It was simple. It was unworried about what Facebook actually was, and it may have even worked better than Facebook. (At least no one used it as a political soapbox.)

When you forget what you know, or you ask someone who doesn’t know for input, you release all your personal biases, all your preconceived notions, all the well-worn paths your mind has been trained to travel down, and you can come up with something unexpected.

FOUR: Make it interesting…three years from now.

Almost anyone can come up with an idea for a single poster. But that’s not what we’re building. Over the lifespan of your campaign, your creative will appear in tons of places and contexts and will be seen by all kinds of people. It should have something interesting to say to ALL of them, EVERY time. Your campaign idea should be able to live in the real world—reacting to current events, integrating itself into cultural phenomena, and flexing to connect with the different ways people use social media or print materials or some digital something that hasn’t been invented yet.

When you activate communities around things that matter, you can’t just resize the same ad eighteen ways and call it a day. Your creative concept has to take on different nuances for different audiences. Why do students care about this? Why do office workers care about this? What are we asking each of them to do, and why will they be motivated to do it? The same headline in ten places is not robust enough to engage the size of audience we need to engage to make change. A shift in context should shift your creative—a train wrap moves through the city while a billboard has a city moving past it. These are considerations creative should be able to adapt to, either for the sake of cleverness and variety or functionality.

FIVE: Make engagement appealing and simple.

We’ve all seen an opportunity to “win a free vacation to somewhere tropical,” only to discover on further inspection that the entry to this vacation giveaway involves snail mail, posting on social platforms you’ve never heard of, your social security number, and five of your own teeth. And right around then we decide we’re more into snow anyway, and who the heck needs a tropical vacation. My point is this: Although you and your client may lovelovelove your cause and creative campaign, other people aren’t so committed.

Your campaign has to give people ways to interact with it that they will ACTUALLY use. Sure, they can visit the website or hashtag whatever, but just because you offer the opportunity doesn’t mean they’ll take it. Your campaign has to offer ways to interact that are both straightforward AND compelling. There should be a payoff for interacting: The opportunity to vent. The opportunity to be seen doing/saying something positive, online or off. The opportunity to share an opinion, learn something new, or connect to somebody. The opportunity to get something cool. The opportunity to become part of the campaign itself. The opportunity to exert influence.

People are busy. They have jobs and families and hobbies and a whole bunch of Netflix competing for the same time and/or headspace you are. So make it easy, and make it worthwhile.

That’s how your concept walks among communities of people. And, perhaps, that community should be YOUR community. Those people should be YOUR people.

View more Black Sheep design work here

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Jo Layne Skillman