The Cork's been pulled

Everything I’ve written in the past few weeks has used the word constipation at one point in its draft. I didn’t realize that until just tonight. I’d become mentally constipated.

_Why_ isn’t so revolutionary: exhaustion, stress. You know, the standard silent killers. I’ve been aware of it for some time, but I hadn’t been able to shut myself up enough to hear anything new to say. Well I have, and I heard was to start to write about my bikes again.

See, there’s a long story there with bikes. A lot of hopes attained, and a lot of dreams shattered. Dramatic stuff. Cathartic stuff. Not all of which has been exercised.

So why write about it on a blog? Isn’t that kind of personal? It is, but I believe I can write about it without descending to smarmy sentimentality. We’ll see. If I feel like I’ll regret a post a few years from now, I won’t post it. Simple enough.

I’ve also decided to fire up my own mini-network again. “Bicilog”:http://www.bicilog.com (pronounced BICHI-log) will get a makeover and be my _personal_ personal site. “Dadlog”:http://www.dadlog.com will be what it’s always been. “The Blog Studio Blog”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog has a couple of interesting series about business blogging and design coming up. An this site will continue to be my spot to write about 97th monkey stuff, including branding, design, making a buck, business, etc.

What I’d like to do is create a meta-site that pulls the headlines and excerpts from each of my other sites. That meta-site would have its own feed, so one could theoretically subscribe to all my blather. Anyone have any tips on creating something like this?

The Cyclical Nature of Inspiration

I’ve been struggling a bit with this site lately. Generating content has become a chore where recently it was a joy.

Examining the situation, I realize that there are a number of contributing factors: workload, oppressive heat, boredom with the design, and the cyclical nature of inspiration. It’s this last that I want to address.

Turning in my chair to look at my shelf full of journals and half written essays, I realize that I’m no stranger to this. It’s a cycle that begins in a pique of interest, followed by a period of information uptake, culminating in a painfully brief period of acutely beautiful creative bliss. A slow denoument is proceeds an all too lengthy period of mental apathy.

Luckily, I’ve been through this many times, and I realize that there’s no need to panic or fret.

From my position as “97th monkey”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/index.php?id=73, I can see that I am not alone in this cycle. As more and more of us stake out territory on the blog-o-thingy, and more and more of us take up regular writing as a means of attracting business, the market for tips, tools, and tricks to shorten (or flatten) the cycle will only grow.

This is not exactly news. Witness the insane popularity of “43folders”:http://www.43folders.com. “To-Done”:http://www.to-done.com, et al. Still, it’s always nice to know one is in good company. Especially when facing the long lonely march from inspiration to inspiration.

What do you do when stuck in the rut of quotidian apathy? I’m not talking about tips to break writer’s block, but tips to re-light your inquisitive spark.

Two new client sites launched

It’s a good day when you can launch two client sites. The first site is “Two Way Hard Three”:http://www.twowayhardthree.com, a casino design commentary site. Even if you have no interest in gambling, it’s a glimpse into a fabulous world of glitz. The amount of work (and money) that goes into these mega casinos is hard to fathom.

The site has two skins that the owner can swap at will to keep things fresh.

The second site is a perfect example of why I love Textpattern. Try and build something like this on wordpress! I didn’t write a whit of php for this, and used only two plugins.

The site belongs to “PCmdOnCall”:http://www.pcmdoncall.com. They are a home service computer shop. Their success is based on the incredible level of service they provide. Have a look at the testimonials, and you’ll see what I mean.

A Strategy for Growth? Your feedback wanted.

Trying to grow your business is tough. Making the jump from a single player with outsourced contractors to a business with in-house staff is a significant risk, especially for a startup without debt.

“The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com and its brother, “Flashlight Design”:http://www.flashlightdesign.com have reached the level where bringing in another full-time designer makes sense.

The design business is one with awkward cash flow though. So in an effort to ease the bumps while we grow, I’m considering offering a greatly reduced, fixed-price blog design package on TBS.

The package will include

* a consultation to determine client needs
* 2 rough design concepts
* 1 polished design comp
* 1 round of changes
* standards compliant code
* install and setup of a blogging platform
* an instruction manual for the blogging software
* very quick turn-around

Cost will be $199US. Hosting and domain registration is available for an additional $50 per year. Design quality will be on par with work you’re used to seeing from me.

This will differ from my standard design service in that its A) a limited time offer, B) limited to one round of changes, and C) my hand isn’t directly in it.

Long term, I’m in the quality, not quantity business. I see this as a short-term tool to help TBS grow, and to help spread its name.

I’m very keen to get your feedback on this. It’s not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. I’m aware of the risk to my own brand by devaluing my work. On the other hand, it may be a way to grow my business without taking on debt. Has anyone out there successfully made the jump from freelancer to boss? Care to share your stories?

How Far They Have Fallen, or Proof of The Power of Brand

Today, via “ProBlogger”:http://www.problogger.net/archives/2005/07/16/blogging-tools-compared/ I found a link to an impressive looking chart comparing blog software/service functionality. The “chart”:http://www.ojr.org/ojr/images/blog_software_comparison.cfm accompanies an article titled “Time to check: Are you using the right blogging tool?”:http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050714gardner/. The article and chart are posted at the University of Southern California’s Online Journalism Review.

The article and chart claim to serve the would-be blogging public by illustrating which tool is best for their needs. A worthy and impressive task, to be sure. This article and chart fails though, in a fairly important and spectacular way.

Allow me to post here a copy of my comment left on ProBlogger:

bq. While it is at first glance an impressive piece of work, it fails to mention several important and popular software options, and ignores simple plugin functionality. It misleads the reader by implying that the options listed are the “right blogging tool”, and its scholarly appearance and banner gives false authority to a marginal piece.

Drupal, as mentioned above, and Textpattern are both missing. I know it’s impossible to include every CMS, but imo, passing over Textpattern is a significant oversight. There is a very large base of users, a very healthy library of plugins, and hundreds of tutorials available. And its free. And a heck of a lot easier to install than some of the listed options.

Not including plugin capabilities on the chart is a huge oversight. I’m at a loss as to why the writer chose to include the API (which only a tiny fraction of the population cares about) and not whether the software supports third party functionality. The three CMSs that I am familiar with (Textpattern, WordPress, and MT) make heavy use of plugins. If one were to go by the chart alone, one would be left with the impression that MT lacks the ability to blacklist commentors (a fact that would likely dissuade most users). In fact, adding blacklist ability is a simple matter of installing a plugin. Plugins are given a short sentence in the body of the article, but leaving their mention off the chart is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty.

In all, while this is at first glance an impressive accomplishment, it falls quite short of being a useful tool. No mention is made as to what criteria were used to select the programs, nor is any mention made of the plethora of other choices available. The fact that this article is posted at a major University’s Online Journalism Review shows just how far behind the time journalists and academia have fallen.

By simply including a statement as to *why* these services and software were included, the article would have maintained its credibility. Instead, one is left with the impression that the author merely chose the first 8 options at random, or worse, off the top of her head.

Also, by not including a disclaimer regarding plugins _on the chart itself_, the author does a great disservice to the programmers who created the software, and to the users who select an inappropriate or lesser tool as a result.

h2. Proof of the Power of a Brand

It’s particularly interesting to me to note the effect of _where_ the article was posted. Because this is posted at a University, I expect it to be credible. Because it’s posted at a journalism review, I expect it to be well researched. In other words, the “brand”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=110 connotes a level of authority and respectability.

A review of the article and chart by an average reader (or even a quick review by a specialist – sorry Darren, I’m calling you on this) will lead that reader to believe that the information contained in the piece is accurate, complete, and *trustworthy*. The USC and OJR logos practically guarantee it.

This same piece, posted at livejournal would not carry the same weight, correct?

h2. Content can kill a brand. Fast.

So this is a case of branding in action. It’s also a showcase for how quickly a brand can fall apart. My esteem for both USC and its Online Journalism Review has plummeted. Just like that, all the work the designers put into building a platform of authority and respectability has been significantly damaged.

Sometimes we designers and marketers can get a bit carried away with our ability to influence. Its certainly true that we can set the stage. But we’re beholden to the actors to make it come alive. A humbling fact…

My brain has melted

We are in the midst of a BRUTAL heat wave here in Toronto. The city hall has been designated as a *cooling zone*, and is open 24 hours for those without access to air conditioning.

To make matters worse, I’m out of beer!

I had Scott from “WishinglineDS”:http://www.wishingline.com and Adam from “Thody Consulting”:http://www.thodyconsulting.com over for lunch today. Being the gentleman that I am, I offered each fellow a cold, refreshing malt beverage…

*I was out.* All I had was diet pepsi. Ouch.

Despite that, we had an interesting chat. It’s *waaaayyyyyyy* premature, but watch this space in the coming months for some potentially interesting news.

That’s all my head addled brain can manage at the moment. I hope its cooler where you are.

PS: Congratulations to the new 9rulers! If you haven’t yet, check out Sara White, my fellow canuck, at “Opinionated”:http://blog.splashdesigngroup.com/index.php, Paul Davidson at “Words for My Enjoyment”:http://www.pauldavidson.net/, Shawn Grimes at “Sporadic Nonsense”:http://www.sporadicnonsense.com/, and Nathan Smith at “Sonspring”:http://www.sonspring.com/

Scrivs keeps saying design doesn’t matter, yet these are all absolutely top-notch designs. The old wicked worn look at almost cool is starting to just look worn…

Who owns a brand?

Over at “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com, I’m running a series discussing the ongoing process of redesigning Toby Bloomberg’s “Diva Marketing Blog”:http://www.divamarketingblog.com. So far, its been an very successful endeavour, with lots of comments and emails flying. (See the post “here”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blogarticle/the-divas-design-takes-form as a starting point)

It’s incredibly interesting to note how passionate people are about making sure the new look match’s Toby’s brand. What’s so interesting about it is that Toby hasn’t done very much specific branding at all. And yet her readers know exactly what her brand is. *The problem is, many see her brand in completely different ways.*

Letting your audience design your brand is an interesting experiment. Note that I’m not talking about a logo or a colour scheme, but rather a “brand as an experience”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/?id=110, much like I talked about in an earlier article. There are some significant benefits (a sense of ownership), and some significant pitfalls (misinterpretation, a resistance to change).

Ever try to rent a movie with a group of people? Disagreements, right? Now imagine if you had to choose your flick based solely on the rental store’s boxes – no movie art, no action shots, just a few lines describing the film. How difficult would it be to get a consensus then?

As an example of how differently Toby’s brand is viewed, some of the comments ask for more “girlie” elements to be added, some ask that they be taken away. Some find the colour palette too fashion-oriented for a Diva, some find it too playful. Some readers have taken the word “Diva” to mean *fah-bulous* and some have taken it to mean *difficult*. That’s a pretty significant difference.

That there are differences isn’t so surprising. What is surprising is how reasoned the arguments are. The reasoning ultimately ties back to what the individual perceives the Diva brand to be. And there is obviously some disagreement about that!

h2. So who owns the Diva Marketing brand? Is it Toby, or is it her readers?

This line of questioning is pretty important for anyone in the early stages of business blogging. Most successful blogs have become that way organically. My personal site, for example, started as a design experiment, yet along the way it became my primary point of contact with my work world.

Because I’m a designer with a keen interest in how branding works at a brain-function level, I built this site with the hope that it would become associated with the kind of work that I do. That is to say that I controlled the visual and non-verbal aspects of my brand from the outset.

My bet is that many business blogs (and again, I’d consider this site a business blog) begin without much of a thought as to how (or if) the brand is being supported.

This does not mean that you have to spend a ton to hire a “designer”:http://www.theblogstudio.com (of course I’d be quite alright with it if you did!), but it does mean that you need to be aware that your audience will be developing their own brand around you.

h2. Is this good or is this bad?

I think you can make a case for both. It’s good to have your audience invest in your message. The act of brand building may give them a deeper sense of ownership of you. This is good.

On the other hand, unless you’ve made some very specific, well researched decisions, your audience may interpret your brand in ways you never intended. An example of this is the various ways *Diva* has been interpreted. Does Diva mean fabulous or high-strung and difficult?

Offering some visual clues can help your audience have a more uniform view of your true intentions. Using the Diva example again, we could use colour to help make the point. For example, cool pastels with hits of chocolate and teal scream “fab darling, absolutely fab”, while rich reds and opulent greens say “bring me another scarf, I can’t possibly be expected to perform in this weather!”.

As I’ve written “elsewhere”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blogarticle/why-is-a-blog-so-good-for-your-brand, blogging is an incredibly important and effective branding tool. This exercise has shown me how vital it is to use that tool properly. Whether you know if or not, your audience is creating your brand. Every time they are exposed to your site or your message their mental model of is reinforced.

Ever try to rent a movie with a group of people? Disagreements, right? Now imagine if you had to choose your flick based solely on the rental store’s boxes – no movie art, no action shots, just a few lines describing the film. How difficult would it be to get a consensus then?

Ownership of your brand is vital. You brand exists as a mental model in the minds of your audience (no where else!). As it is, you have only limited control as to what goes into that model. Personally, I think there’s too much time and effort at stake to leave so much of it to chance.

An insight into the design process

Those of you who are interested in either the design process or the process of working with a designer may enjoy the series I’m running at “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blog on the redesign of Toby Bloomberg’s “Diva Marketing Blog”:http://www.divamarketing.com

We’re at the actual visualization stage, and I’ve just posted the first couple of design comps. It’s early going yet, but if you’d like to play along, you can watch the site evolve. The post can be found “here”:http://www.theblogstudio.com/blogarticle/the-divas-design-takes-form