6 Steps To Good Art Direction & Design

Last month, two of our designers – Lewis and Mihkel – attended the Art Directors’ masterclass at the Estonian Design Centre hosted by a celebrated British art director, Alexandra Taylor. Famed in the world of advertising for her work on award winning campaigns for the British Army, Silk Cut cigarettes and Parkinsons UK, Alexandra rose to be the joint head Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi and was later nominated into the D&AD executive board.

Amongst her influences, and in Alexandra’s own prodigious work, there is a clear sense of designing from the user’s point of view. Take the work of one of her greatest exemplars, Helmut Krone, on the Avis car rental campaigns of the early 1960s. Those adverts dare the readers (and potential Avis customers) to complain and encourage the rental company to provide a better service.


Or, take for example Taylor’s own work on Parkinson’s UK Everyday campaign. A series of billboard adverts, presenting a jumbled up distorted world, as if seen from the Parkinson’s sufferer’s point of view.


These works and influences, amongst others, treat design as something created for end users and customers. As service designers we feel a strong resonance with that idea.

So, without further ado, here is a service designers’ rendition of the lessons learned packaged into a six-step guide to good art direction and design practice.


1. Simplicity knows why

This is a quintessential part of our work – always asking “why?” Ask it five times. Boil it down until you have a simple answer to the problem. If you understand the answer and the reasons behind the answer, communicating to both your client and their customers will be simple and easy. Otherwise you might end with an answer like ‘42‘.


2. Don’t sacrifice functionality for art

Treat things like body copy as a part of the whole. Headlines and logos might the biggest thing on the page, but it’s the details like the body copy which the audience need. The most beautiful gig poster in the world is pointless if the design and band names cover up (or don’t make noticeable) the time and location of the gig. Treat your content as a whole to be digested one piece at a time. Lead the users eye through the information.



Get away from the computer. Digital software can do amazing things for production and post-production, but it is no substitute for ideas. Adobe Concepts™ is still in the works so use your head and your hands before touching a mouse or keyboard. Sketch it, scribble it, draw up the walls. Your wireframe scheme, customer journey map, logo (or whatever) will be twenty times quicker realised if you can draw it before digitalising it. Honestly, this can’t be said enough – humans don’t think in Bézier curves, rasterized layers and bitmaps. The highest quality resolution invented is ink. And the quickest most efficient connection between your thoughts and the real world is through a simple thing like a pencil.


4. Don’t over embellish

This wastes a lot of time and can lead you into creative dead-ends. And if the foundations of your idea aren’t clear don’t keep building on it! Hack dirty. Fail fast to see what works. For instance try  the Pareto Principle, more widely known as the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the work. Or, if you have 20 hours for a client, limit yourself to spending 4 hours each on developing 5 concepts. Maybe only 3 will be presentable but they will be fresh and much better than 1 or 2 laboured ideas. This does not only apply to the design process but the final deliverable as well.


5. Know where you’re from

Basically if you ain’t Dutch, don’t pretend to be. Celebrate your people, place and time. Beyond faddish localism and treacly nostalgia, being true to yourself as an Estonian (or English or Afrikaans or Ukrainian – whatever) designer will create more meaning for you and your clients. Good design, lead by good art direction, is emotional and touches people’s hearts. Keep it real and celebrate your difference.


6. Everything can be solved by looking back at the brief

This one speaks for itself, right? Problems with creative direction, intended meaning, who the audience is, what it is you are actually making – all these can be solved by going back to the original formula for the project. That being said, the formula needs to be a good one.

The first brief, more often than not, is an insight into the clients’ world. As designers you have to find the underlying need behind the wishes and wants. Only after reflecting the findings back to the client and having reached a deep understanding, can you get going. A good brief is a road map. There could be a lot of ways to reach your intended destination, but by going off road and ignoring the map, you’ll get stuck in a muddy field surrounded by angry cows.

Simplify and ask whyAlexandra Taylor Art of Art Direction brand manualAlexandra Taylor Workshop Winners brand manual

Companies in the process of creating their web presence often get confused about the cost involved in creating quality content for their homepage. Custom made is expensive. And of course there are more affordable substitutes around. Some of them are even free. But cutting the corners of content creation eventually shows. Here is an example that we came across on the website of a very respectful company.

The embarrassing story of a smiling lady from Markko Karu

Företag som vill synas och skapa närvaro på webben blir ofta förvånade över priset. Ett ärligt och skräddarsytt innehåll kostar. Självklart finns det billigare alternativ, och vissa av dem är till och med gratis. Men att spara in på sin egen hemsida kan visa sig vara ganska dumt. Här är ett exempel som vi råkade ramla över hos ett stort och respekterat företag…

This article was originally published in Estonian, August 2013 in the annual salary review by Palgainfo Agentuur.

The customer is king, they say. As a rule, however, the customer only interacts with the lowest paid employee of the company. Rarely is it the company’s president or chairman of the board – the only worthy representative to greet the king.

“Where’s the ketchup?” is a common question to the guy stalking the store aisles, dressed in the company uniform. The multiple choice answers are, “I don’t know, all you see is all there is!” or “I just work here!” or “Can’t you see that I have a customer!?”. None of the above helps solve the customer’s problem.

The Cleveland Clinic in the United States researched how satisfied patients were with its service. As it became apparent, not at all. Although their professionalism and health care service are the best rated in the US, it isn’t only the doctor that the patient meets. In fact, the patient interacts with up to 100 people in some cases, all of whom wear similar clothes and each one represents the hospital in the eyes of the patient. When the patient asks, “How am I doing?” she would be very happy to receive a comprehensible answer. Often, however, hospital staff responds with medical jargon or simply don’t know the answer, or in some cases, don’t even know the name of the attending physician, while doctor’s treat the disease rather than the patient. All of this led to patients not knowing how they were doing, leading to mistrust and misunderstandings. Dissatisfaction.

Who builds the image of the company in the eyes of the customer? The marketing department or the actual service representative? Clearly the image is built in interactions between the customer and the product or service at every point of contact. This is true also for partners and suppliers. What the boss does affects the attitude of employees towards the company. What does it say about the product, if the boss doesn’t use it? How should the employee sell it convincingly, if he doesn’t believe it himself?


We’ve entered the information age. The social information age. 90% of transactions are motivated by word-of-mouth recommendations. WOM is trustworthy. It’s based on somebody’s experience. Somebody’s actually tried a product and came away satisfied. The companies that sell their products at full price, that don’t have image problems, that have loyal employees are as a rule, also the companies where it’s fun to work, where you grow professionally and where employees have the authority to make decisions, not just responsibilities.

Imagine the company as a pyramid with the boss on top and employees on the bottom. If decision making is delegated, then the bottom of the pyramid can make decisions and solve problems quickly, at the point-of-contact with the customer. If the right to make decisions is only at the top of the pyramid then a bottle-neck is guaranteed. Management will quickly become disillusioned with employees (because they don’t take responsibility). On the other hand, employees will be completely dissatisfied with management, because nothing happens, nobody makes any decisions and its impossible to serve customers. Only responsibility and process are communicated from above, to ensure service quality, which can’t be delivered because every little decision requires process, which guarantees customer dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, employees are stupid, churn is high, salaries stay low since no one sticks around and even more procedures are required, to make anything at all happen.

To visit the bike shop, where you are served by an enthusiastic biker, is fun. He knows what he’s talking about, knows what he’s selling and is morally responsible, not just legally. In the sport’s store in the big huge mall it’s often not possible to buy, for example, running shoes because the staff doesn’t know anything about it. Why is that? Same job. Same product, basically. The difference is in the organization. And in the attitude and values of the management towards staff, customers and people in general. This attitude is what creates the image of the store, how the staff acts and behaves and in the end, how satisfied customers are.

What should you do, so that your staff loves working in your company? (Yes, loves.) The Harvard Business Review just researched this question and found out the following:

No stupid rules
Illogical rules are incomprehensible. We don’t imagine that the world is really safer because the drink that we buy before the safety check at the airport is confiscated while the drink we buy after being x-rayd is allowed on board. Nobody has explained it. If you ask the security guard, he’ll say that its the rule.

Everyone in the company must understand the rules and why they are necessary. There should be as few rules as possible. The rest is regulated by culture.

Information about the company reaches everyone
Everyone should know how it is really going. Managers want to know what is not going well. Nobody should be punished for delivering bad news. People must feel confident to sign off on their opinions. It’s a lot more fun to work when management appreciates what you do instead of being treated as a resource to be used or discarded.

People are themselves
At work you should be able to be the same person you are at home. No one should be forced to think and act alike. Political correctness and the need to be similar takes away the motivation to be extraordinary. The grey mass does what the grey mass does – becomes unnoticable. Personality is what sticks out and draws attention to oneself. To do that, the people in the company, while sticking to the rules, can still be themselves. Personalities. Team’s work efficiently when everyone has a defined role and understand the goal.

In this context work must be meaningful and tasks justified. 
Working towards a common goal. 
Being proud of where they work.

Inside out

Brands are built from the inside out. The first step is moulding a business plan into a company. From there on in, if every person joining the company is indoctrinated into what the idea is, how it is expressed then every staff member can translate this idea into actions through the product or service. Presuming that the business idea is also important to customers, then the company grows. Often, however, people forget the initial business idea. Compromises are made to be faster or cheaper or bigger. Decisions are made in board meetings and delegated through orders to be brought to life. Why decisions were made isn’t communicated in-house. Instead an ad campaign proclaims it to the world, where also staff finds out.

Research clearly demonstrates, that while 80% of companies believe that they have a unique product or service, only 8% of customers agree. Similar research shows that although 90% of managers understand the company’s strategy, then according to Robert Kaplan and David Norton only 5% of employees do. But if the customer asks, “why are you doing this”, then he’ll ask the front line employee! Instead of having effective and consistent internal communication, which ensures that staff understands and believes in the company’s product or service, massmedia ads are published, which promise qualities which the employee may have a hard time believing.

The company brand is in reality created by the company’s culture. With what logo is of little importance. People appreciate authenticity. This doesn’t mean expensive or cheap or fast or slow. Just authentic. That the offer isn’t made just to earn greater profit, but that the company has a sincere desire to do something better than the competition. If this is true and it works, then profit will come anyway. If the product or service is memorable, either virtual or real, and the price and quality is in balance then a real brand will grow out of it.

This isn’t rocket science. Building a company is like raising children. The basics need to be repeated every day not just on the first day and nevermore. A newborn won’t remember everything.
Neither will a new employee.

As a service designer, I’m often asked to develop new service models. The new service models have to provide more value to the end user. They do this by automating tasks currently performed by humans. Machines compute fast, have no “human” flaws and most importantly, cost less. Consequently, I’ve started asking where do the people go that have been replaced by machines?

Recently a book was published by Jaron Lanier called “Who owns the future?” which directly addressed the same problem: the middle class is becoming obsolete because of automation. It stated that “at the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140 thousand people and was worth $28 billion. Kodak even invented the first digital camera. Today Kodak is bankrupt and the face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear to? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

Step back and think. Once the only way to get something done faster was by force: someone ordered someone else to perform a task. By introducing tools the work became more efficient and that brought an additional element into the mix. Ownership. Wealth allowed owners to acquire better tools and the efficiency this enabled started to accumulate. More efficient technologies increased the difference between the cost of production and making things by hand. Yes, we still value so called hand-made goods, but these are often not necessities but luxury items. But what happened to the people who lost jobs because of the machines?

Today’s machine is the computer. At first a cumbersome computational machine, the computer is now omnipresent. Faster and more accurate than people, they already operate most tools. We no longer use the tools directly, but instead give orders to computers that use the tools instead. Production lines are fed with 3D models and coded messages and no one is physically touching anything anymore. As a result we need even more money and even less people to make anything. Automated plants outperform workshops and products have become even cheaper.

Once making things required people. Until machines made things better. Then came the rise of services, where humans were considered an asset until they were replaced by computers. But everything that is made and all the services provided are still there for people, who pay for them. With what if they’ve got no money because their job was replaced by a computer?

Jobs that require people are dissapearing at a time when the planet’s population is expanding. Technological innovation is accelerating. While prices are falling the amount of goods and services are growing and limited natural resources, especially for technology products, is creating opposite forces driving prices up again. Environmental impact considerations are also driving prices up while the financial crisis is still destroying jobs and opportunity in numerous countries around the world.

In this context, it seems that in order to maintain social harmony, we need to create a new social contract that seeks not greater efficiency, but rather greater value for society at large. In Dancing with Robots, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, from MIT and Harvard respectively, make a compelling case that the hollowing out of middle class jobs…has as much to do with the technology revolution and computerization of tasks as with global pressures like China…The collapse of the once substantial middle class job picture has begun a robust debate among those who argue that it has its roots in policy versus those who argue that it has its roots in structural changes in the economy.

The authors make a strong case that in the future “the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information and carrying out non-routine manual tasks. The bulk of the rest of the work will be done by computers.” In order to make this transition for people, business and government must start planning not only for greater efficiency, but also to create jobs that computers cannot do.

While it is clear that machines don’t eat, it isn’t clear at all what people will eat if they are replaced by machines that do what people did before.

a.k.a Lewis sharing his first impressions after joining Brand Manual Tallinn team

“Arriving without any knowledge of the language, I lived in a world without words, where, almost like a baby, I had to learn everything from scratch. I think the experience of being illiterate and then slowly growing back into society has made me a better designer. When you can’t read or write and you need to interpret everything you encounter by deciphering visual clues, you begin to understand how things and people function behind the words…it was a magnificent training in basic interface phenomenology.”
— Oliver Reichenstein (on arriving Japan)

One of my first thoughts of Estonia was that it was a very new country. Very new. That perhaps, in the 90s, a governmental/business delegation had travelled to the west and taken extensive notes on how a country should look and be. Except the delegation had forgotten to take pens with them, and could only find somewhere to buy disposable cameras. And so this emerging country of Estonia became a nation based on piles of fuzzy disposable camera pics. What I mean by this—and it surely says more of being an alien than a native—is that more often than not things didn’t quite work for me. In shops, why were the baskets stacked over there? Why did the automatic doors only half open? Why did the Elektriraudtee train timetable keep changing? Why were the plastic forks not right next to the salad bar? And who the hell thought putting six logos on a business card was a good idea?

When I joined Brand Manual I found out they had the same questions, I knew I was on to something special. Working here is about making the world make sense. Whether it be organising information or helping someone realise their business plans, Brand Manual’s style of service design is not only about looking good but about intelligibility and efficiency in everyday life. Which is something in my experience design agencies can lack. Pretty brochures are nice, but they aren’t always the answer!

I should mention that I am first and only non-Estonian/Russian speaker (potentially a disadvantage) in the BM team and the only member with English as their first language (a significant advantage – translation: I know where to use definitive and not definitive articles). Before joining I had worried whether the force majeure of English be welcomed? How would basic meetings go? Would clients mind that they would be required to speak a little English in my presence? Who would know the most English curse words in order to properly reprimand me when I did something stupid? A few of these questions have been answered. A few remain to be seen.

But one thing I know for sure is that the office life and the working ethos of BM is built on empathy and clarity of thought. And that I’ve found myself very welcome here. Brand Manual practise what they preach. Things work here and problems get solved.

And not fully speaking Estonian? (In my defence my vocabulary is reasonable, I understand most of what is going on now) Well … I could blame the difficulty in the pronunciation, the fourteen grammatical cases or that most Tallinners seem to relish the opportunity to speak English with anglo-foreigners … whatever it may be, not speaking the local language has undoubtedly benefited me as a designer. It has given me, as Oliver Reichenstein notes (above quote), a far more developed visual and semiotic language. Every colour, symbol and non-alphabetical marking carries a far deeper wealth of meaning for me now. It has also taught me to not rely on English idioms when conversing, and to communicate with more clarity and effect than I ever would have thought necessary in the UK. All things which continue to benefit me and my work here.

Not to sound trite, but I can happily say the world makes more sense when you spend some of it in a ‘language vacuum’. And working with Brand Manual, it’s about making the world make sense. And when it all gets too much, I’ve got Google translate bookmarked.

Lewis McGuffie

Thank you, Slothrops, for so kindly sharing one of the photos