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August 31, 2004

Playing With The Bigwigs //

I’ve been busy at work preparing for a fairly large-scale re-branding and have been working with one of the more highly regarded and respected design/branding agencies in Canada (at this time I can’t name names and will attempt to keep this as anonymous as possible). They’ve been busy working with management to help redefine the company culture which has unfortunately been somewhat misrepresented by the current identity which is very corporate and kind of bland (at least from an identity standpoint).

Start With The Good Stuff

The current brand is not representative of the employees who are mostly younger (late twenties to mid-thirties types) and of an artistic temperment. The identity mark is also nearly ten years old and showing its age. The plus side for the designers is that they’ve done a good job it seems in developing an updated company identity; one that is younger, somewhat hip, and better targeted towards the company’s primary markets now and in the future.

They’ve put together some nice promotional pieces, advertising and packaging that make good use of the new identity and that I think will go over well and should result in an increase of traffic to the website. Some of this should start appearing very soon in magazines and design-related publications.

The Downside

On the downside though (and getting more to the point) is that their understanding of web design and web application design is sadly disappointing, though not terribly surprising. “Typical print designer” comes to mind.

You have to understand that these are primarily print designers. They understand branding, identity, advertising and package design. Pixels are a different language to them, at least in terms of the web. They are clearly more experienced in Flash-style sites where pixel perfect layout is a realistic expectation and where the sky’s the limit in terms of possibilities. They also apparently like to mock up web designs in Adobe InDesign. Odd, IMHO.

The interesting problem, besides trying to explain the ideas of usability, visual hierarchy and importance has been the idea of not doing any harm to the site on the whole. A simple but interesting equation was pointed out to me by my manager which makes a good statement for our overall design/development process.

The equation comes from Ole Eichhorn’s Critical Section site and goes like this:

W=UH

Where, W=wrongness, U=ugliness and H=hardness. In plain English, this means: “if something is ugly or hard, it is wrong”. In the world of web design or software development, we should all hold this to be true. The success of Apple’s iApps, and Apple software in general is a perfect illustration of this point.

Unfortunately, this is where our (initial) disappointment in working with the supposed bigwig designers kicked in. We knew up front that they liked the site and didn’t want to change much. We thought that sounded good and it gave us the warm and fuzzy. We were expecting more of a re-skinning of the site rather than a major undertaking such as a redesign.

In reality what’s happened is that we’ve ended up somewhere in between due to the proposed requirements and overall usability needs along with small feature changes we’d like to implement to improve the site. Remember that equation? It was doubtful the designers had seen that before or had enough understanding of the needs of web applications compared to those of marketing-oriented sites.

What was initially presented to us we discovered later was a first iteration but was immediately accepted by upper management with no questions asked. I guess if you’re paying the bigwigs the big bucks you assume they know what they’re doing. Maybe they do sometimes, and maybe in the case of the site changes they’re a little off. Now I’m not saying they haven’t done good work in the past on other sites — it’s just that at least to this point, it’s been less than spectacular.

Why You Can’t Trust Printouts From Designers

The printouts we were given to look at looked Ok. Not spectacular, but Ok. They had obvious problems such as the pixel perfect precision of everything and an overall heaviness which troubled us. The site has been there before and there was no cause to go back without fear of harming the user experience. Visual hierarchy and importance were the big issues here.

Based on the branding, Helvetica was being advocated as the primary font of choice in the CSS for everything. Sorry, been there, done that. We just got away from that and are not interested in going back. We’re pretty happy with the font stack in the CSS file currently. We are considering it for some larger image-based headings, but the overall font selection in place currently will likely not change since we’ve improved readability of the content quite a bit since the last major functionality update a little over a month ago.

The biggest problem discovered with the printouts provided by the designers — the only thing the managers had seen to this point — was that they were nowhere near colour accurate. This actually made things worse. Once we found out just how much heavier the pages looked with the real colours, I think we all were even more disheartened with the experience. Seriously — these are bigtime, expensive designers who were being paid for crap work and seemed to be missing the mark completely with the website changes.

Rebranding Teaser
Rebranding teaser screenshot

There have been numerous opportunities where concerns have been expressed, ideas shared. Things are starting to get cleared up but considering the schedule indicates tht we’re launching this in less than 3 weeks… I’m still nervous. There’s still a lot to decide and even more work to actually do along with technical hurdles to overcome.

We’ve got our CVS branch setup for maintaining the existing site while we work on the re-branding, as well as our tasks database for keeping track of everything along with an extensive inventory of what needs to be added, deleted or changed as part of this exercise. It’s complicated and I hope it goes smoothly. The CVS stuff worries me a little, but more from people being lazy and not taking their time when doing updates and testing. One wrong commit and we could have bits of the re-branding mixed up with the current live site. That would not be pretty.

In the time since this was all revealed, there have still been obvious disconnects between our team and the designers. They do not understand the differences between static marketing sites versus application-based sites. You can get away with more on Flash-based sites than you can in HTML-based sites.

We’ve since taken our own path and reworked the design keeping in mind what we knew about the overall intentions for the changes being proposed.

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