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16 Feb 2022

The Hidden Benefits of a Design Project

By Scott Smith

Consider this scenario: You’re the director of communications and/or marketing at a complex company or organization. It’s time to redo your branding or website, and you have executive sponsorship of the project. You know you’ll need to consider a lot of external audiences, including customers, donors, partners, vendors, and more.

You’ve been around the block enough times to know, however, that the stakeholders who are actually going to make or break the project are the internal ones: your leadership, the board of directors, and staff across multiple departments. And everyone has a different perspective and opinions. Who do these people think they are, with their emotions and ideas? The nerve.

At a lot of organizations, people fall out of sync with the big picture and the Why, especially if there has been significant growth or change in direction. Often, it’s been a long time since there’s been a big conversation about vision or mission or how audiences are experiencing the organization. Even after a strategic planning process, people are often not sure how this is going to translate into language and visuals that make it easy to connect with people consistently, across the entire organization.

And yes, at the end of the brand or website project, you know you’ll get something beautiful that will convey your story. But what we see is that it’s the process that’s the most transformative thing for organizations. We cheekily call it design therapy because we put our clients on the couch and make them tell us about their childhoods — metaphorically speaking. Just like with personal therapy, the benefits of this process run deep.

 

A photograph of paper cut into the shape of talk bubbles overlapping each other.

Getting People Talking

Workshops bring disparate people around the table (virtual, these days) to have conversations they might otherwise never have. Outsiders like us can push and ask what — to internal folks who know the organization well — might seem like truly basic questions, such as: How do people find you? What do you do best? Or, simply, explain what you do.

But that’s why we like to work with organizations that do wildly different things. Having “beginner’s mind” and not being afraid to approach a problem with a fresh perspective will force people to take another look at something they know so intimately. Asking simply “Please explain why this is how this is” can get into nuances and corners that people often don’t take time to explore. Don’t assume anything. There’s a huge power in this for internal teams because it often reveals something that seems obvious but in practice is not: Everyone’s got a different understanding and perspective. This process uncovers the plain and simple fact that everyone sees their own truth; and it opens up the question naturally: what is our collective truth?


What we see is that it’s the process that’s the most transformative thing for organizations.


Don’t Let the Boss In

Usually, these high-level conversations are exclusively mediated by leadership, as that’s their domain and responsibility. What we find, though, is that all staff, board members, and people in satellite offices have valuable perspectives, and speaking to them away from leadership’s ears can be liberating. It’s not that we unleash vitriol or criticism. It’s more that people can say what they might have been thinking for a long time, and nobody ever asked them in such fundamental terms.

Of course, the boss will always be an important part of the conversation — it’s more about opening some spaces where candid conversations can happen for the greater benefit of the organization. They might never have heard these ideas or opinions before.

First Principles and Full Synthesis

With an overarching brand or website, especially, you’re telling the whole story of the organization, so you’ve got to be able to create a map. The only effective way to do this, as we say, is to start with first principles. You have to think holistically about your value proposition to different kinds of people. You have to think almost like you’re dropped into an unfamiliar landscape and have to explain yourself.

Someone’s got to pull it all together — for other people. It’s really difficult to do for yourself (trust me, we’ve had to do it for ourselves several times, and it’s painful). Going through a project like this forces you to wrangle with what might be wrong with the map.

 

A photograph of paper cut into the shape of a hand pulling on a knotted bundle.

Audience–First Mindset

Going through this process is perhaps most valuable because it makes internal stakeholders think carefully about their audiences. We get so wrapped up in our own jobs and perspective about who we are that we don’t think about what others might need, from a communications perspective. What feelings and needs are people coming to you with? What’s going through their heads and hearts? Centering audiences in a very focused way is one of the most powerful ways to help an organization really get clear about their purpose and brand. This has to be a drumbeat behind the entire process that helps test and validate any strategy or execution.

We’ve heard it again and again, that these projects help our clients unify around a singular vision and story that they can tell easily again and again. When they’re telling that story, they’re also telling themselves the story, and solidifying it, in a way that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t gone through the process — which, roughly speaking, is how therapy works. It’s work we love to do because it has long-lasting effects. And maybe you’ll call your mother more.

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