smARThistory…there’s more that’s smart, than just the ART

Pardon me while I take a minute to gush about a new site that takes a fresh approach to art history online… smARThistory.org.

smARThistory.org features a fresh open approach to both the design and the content, with great reproductions of artwork arranged by time-period, style or artist. The site is very approachable and explorable with an intuitive layout that makes it quick and easy just jump in and start clicking and exploring. The UI lets you look at lots of art very quickly, and it presents it in a way that you can quickly and intuitively see the connections and influences from one period to the next.

All this is well and good, but the intuitive UI is just the teaser… the insidious “little heroin packet”, if you will, that gets you browsing long enough to reel you in with it’s key differentiator, which is it’s content. See if this was just a well-designed site I would have probably just bookmarked it and been on my way, adding it to my long list of other sites that I appreciate but don’t visit very often. But it’s the content and the philosophy that takes this site to another level.

The site features 275 artworks and 214 informative video clips spanning 11 historical periods from Ancient Cultures to  Post Colonialism. The videos are compelling and really well done; featuring candid and sometimes spirited conversations between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Stephen Zucker, art historians and founders of the site. They’re shot on location in museums across the world and are of a very high production value, as are all of the images on the site.

To quote from the site’s About page:

“Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker began smARThistory in 2005 by creating a blog featuring free audio guides in the form of podcasts for use in The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Soon after, we embedded the audio files in our online survey courses. The response from our students was so positive that we decided to create a multi-media survey of art history web-book. We created audios and videos about works of art found in standard art history survey texts, organized the files stylistically and chronologically, and added text and still images.

We are interested in delivering the narratives of art history using the read-write web’s interactivity and capacity for authoring and remixing. … We believe that Smarthistory is broadly applicable to our discipline and is a first step toward understanding how art history can fit into the new collaborative culture created by web 2.0 technologies.”

It’s Art History with an entertaining 2.0 spirit and an NPR feel, where you’re even encouraged to submit your own additions to the site material wiki style, with tutorials that show you how to make your own rich media submissions. It stands out as an awesome example of  how the web can make materials and information interesting, interactive, and compelling. So what are you waiting for? Go there…now.

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What History (and My 12 Year Old Son), Has Taught Me About Today’s iPad Announcement

My 12 year old son Josh has been counting the days up to today, with an anticipation I haven’t seen since, … well, since last month. Every day he would run up to me or call me at work, gushing the latest rumor of what Apple’s tablet announcement would contain. “It’s gonna run two OS’s dad, and it’ll be priced at $400.” On and on he would gush, soaking up every digital tidbit he could get his hands on.

As someone who cut their teeth on the Mac Plus and was present for the announcements of such momentous products as the Outback Laptop (The first Mac laptop), the Newton MessagePad, and most recently, Apple TV, I was a bit more reserved. Not jaded, just reserved. My advice to Josh was just to be patient…see what they announce, and more importantly, see what (and when) they ship.

And now, after sitting through the streaming broadcast of the announcement, monitoring the Tweets, and listening and reading the blogosphere’s reaction, I’m sitting here on my couch trying to think through what all of this means. Was this a watershed event, living up to the iPhone and Job’s comment that this was the most important thing he’s ever done, or was it just a rollicking hype-fest?

Polarized Viewpoints

What I find most striking is that it’s hard to find a review that’s balanced AND technical. Sure lifestyle reporters put on a happy consumer-facing demeanor as they talked about how the iPad doubles as a digital picture frame, but anyone in a position to really look under the hood of this thing seems to be easily distracted by their own agenda.

Sam Axon over at Mashable calls the iPad a disappointment, and proceeds to dismantle the iPad feature by feature, in a way that ignores context and the holistic sum of all of iPad’s parts. He creates a straw man that focuses on individual features, which he then compares to one of the iPad’s competitors, whom he argues does it better. It felt like the car commercials where Hyundai compares itself to BMW on an obscure singular statistic they found in their favor and imply dominance at a cheaper price.

Ars Technica ran a story on how Apple is a closed system that “forces” people to use only their software and assets, calling it “the golden calf of DRM”. Macworld ran the obligatory speeds & feeds articles, as well as their Five iPad Disappointments and iPad’s Pitfalls for the Enterprise. Heck, one commenter at Engadget quipped, “This thing sucks. Anyone who buys it is a moron,” I could go on and on with the bashing, but you get the idea.

On the other side, there’s no end to the fanboy gushing from sites such as Cult of Mac, Mac Central, and others, who seem more focused on fighting back against their open system, PC adversaries than taking a good close look at the product.

To their credit, The New York Times, The New Media Journal, and Walt Mossberg seemed to get it right, presenting balanced and thoughtful insights on what limited data we have so far. Kudos also go out to the team at MacBreak Weekly, who did an impressive job at laying out the new features and providing a balanced perspective.

So What Do I Tell Josh? He called me at work at least three times today, and met me at the door, asking “what do YOU think Dad? Is it a game-changer?” Here’s what I think right now:

It’s All About Distribution

During the announcement, Steve Jobs made a point of talking about the multiple Billions of songs, apps, and other media morsels Apple had sold and distributed in the past few years. His very next slide showed how many publishers were on-board and how amazing iBook distribution would be. I heard several comments today that the iPad is a truly new content publishing platform that publishers will embrace because new revenue streams in publishing come along like once every decade. To that end, the ultimate success of this unit will be how ubiquitous the software and available media turn out to be. Can I read anything on it… even art books and my geeky magazines?” If the answer turns out to be ‘yes’, and if developers embrace it with anywhere near the passion of iPhone app developers, this will change our lives.

Distribution Impacts the Hardware as Well

The flipside of the equation is that Apple needs to put enough devices into the hands of users to build a base that developers will want to sell to. Thus, price point is critical. This means that all the pundits moaning about the lack of things like a wide aspect ratio screen, 1080p HD, and a camera, miss the point that the $499 price tag means that zillions of people will buy one. A large installed base will speed the development of all of these missing features, as well as others we haven’t even thought of yet.

To illustrate the point, I earlier alluded to being at Macworld Boston when Apple announced the Newton, their first hand-held device.  There was lots of anticipation leading up to the event, and Apple rented out all of Symphony Hall just to house the Newton product demos and such (This was in addition to the Prudential Center and Bayside Expo halls for the rest of Macworld). I was sitting in the back of one of the shuttle buses heading to Bayside, and the bus was full of people chatting amongst themselves. A guy in the front of the bus raised a box up over his head…a box containing one of the few Newton units you could actually buy at the show. The entire bus literally EXPLODED with cheers and applause. I was amazed and convinced this was going to be the next big thing.

Of course, it wasn’t meant to be, and my Newton is in a box downstairs, a victim of price-point and lack of software. But still, it represented the best effort of what was possible at the time, embodying for at least a short time, the hopes and dreams of our digital future.

One last comment on the hardware is that the people who have gone hands on with the device  report that it’s well built and very tight…fast, and supple. They said that it really felt like you were turning the pages of a book. That’s important cuz Jobs is not simply making another computer, he’s making a next gen print publishing platform, and he had to get THAT aspect of it right. It brought to mind something Nicholas Negroponte said in his book Being Digital. Speaking of his Virtual Reality studies at the MIT Media Lab,  he said that a successful VR experience was not about photo realistic models and rendering…rather, a simple stick figure that really felt like it was a part of you was what ruled the day. Apple has created much more than a simple stick figure, but you get my point that they seem to have struck a balance between functionality and price, while nurturing the content publishing aspect which is where their real success will lie.

So my answer to Josh is that we need to wait and see. I mean, for all the spouting off, no one has spent any time with this thing. We don’t even know what the most annoying issues will be yet. And, we also don’t know the most delightful and gratifying ones. It makes me smile just to think about it.

When it comes down to it, the Giordans are an Apple family, and we’ll end up getting a few units cuz that’s just what we do.  And if they all end up in a box in 10 years, I’ll have no regrets, and I’ll probably send a “Hyperfire G7mail” to Josh,  reminding him not to loose his hope and enthusiam, while encouraging that it’s better to have loved and lost…

3 things to consider in the pursuit for SEO nirvana

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good SEO looks like and how to make sure organizations are doing all they can to connect with their audience within the proper context. The SEO waters are more muddled than ever now that many aspects of social media have begun creeping into the SEO discussion. This overlap has made some people uncomfortable, given that the two areas seem to be founded on divergent principals. I mean, social is such an open, user empowering medium, while SEO is often approached in a very manipulative and even coercive manner. Here are three basic steps to reconcile these polarities while putting the customer’s needs at the top of your priority list.

1- It’s not about chasing algorithms
Fundamentally, SEO is about understanding the user; from their mindset and brand perceptions, to their habits, behaviors, and biases. Good SEO is an extension of good UX and design in that it understands and anticipates, it delivers value to both the consumer and the company, and it carries an honesty and transparency that garners the trust of the audience (and the industry as a whole). Good SEO starts with the right content, which includes the right product set, as well as focused and perceptive copy that describes the relevant F&Bs that will appeal to the consumer. The products, and the content that describes them, should then be presented in a way that connects with the online community through the customary channels of keyword indexing, cross linking, social networking, paid advertising, and a number of off line and near line touch points. The most important point to remember is that chasing alchemic search engine formulas is a waste of time and bad for the brand…it’s about having what the customers want, connecting it to the world, and making it accessible. Any actions that do not directly create content for the customer’s consumptions are detrimental… we should all be wearing nice white hats.

2- It IS about crafting the right message
The right message is a relevant message that carries the appropriate context necesary to make a purchase decision. Mapping out these contexts across the internal site, related affiliate sites, social blogs and Facebook/Myspace pages will have a huge impact on cross linking content. Done properly this will increase search engine rankings, but more importantly, it will create a sense of confidence in the brand and result in higher conversion numbers. What stage of the buying cycle are they in and how does our keywording and messaging support that? How critical is price vs quality, and how do our search results reflect this context? Make the content reflect the right context, and direct the user down the appropriate funnel.

3- All you need is love
Social networking can offset a reliance on paid search in many instances, but the path to monetization is not a necessarily a direct one. The first step in the social sphere is to get the user to identify with the brand…internalize it and making it a part of who they are. Social networks are the ultimate “self-expression operating system”. They offer a growing array of tools that allow people to express who they are, what they represent, and what they believe in. SNs are NOT the same thing as an MCI Friends and Family program where people can be coerced into becoming a conduit for a product or service just because they get a little extra discount. We need to meet them where they live, in discussions that matter to them. Once we’ve got a dialog going, the traffic and ultimate conversion will be organic and steady, like a well performing annuity. These relationships will be deep, and they will assist us not only in sales and revenue, but in deep customer insights that are both reliable and affordable.

How to leverage and engage In-house creative teams

Part 2- “We’re all in this together…”

In my last article I wrote about how in-house creative teams often struggled with a lack of respect from their business counterparts, comparing their struggles to those of Quint and Mr Hooper from the movie Jaws. Much of the emphasis from that article was on how design professionals need to take the initiative and align themselves with the business in order to gain trust and ensure that their activities were relevant to the goals of the business. This article considers the responsibilities of the business to motivate and empower designers on their own terms, and in ways that resonate with this unique and influential group.

Acknowledge the differences

The first thing for a business manager to do is to admit that the things that motivate a design team are probably not the same things that motivate a business person…at least on the surface. I’ve seen a lot of managers make the false assumption that monetary incentives are the universal panacea that will get people moving and engaged. While cash is good, it’s not always the best carrot to dangle, at least not until other table stakes have been addressed. Start by focusing on the work to be done, delineating quality expectations, deadline requirements, and any other relevant details. Let them know that addressing the work requirements is top priority no matter what. This may sound obvious,but I’m taking the time to emphasize it as a prerequisite for the next step… loosen up your expectations for a 9 to 5 work schedule.

Designers don’t think in terms of 9 to 5…they gather inspiration and ideas around the clock, and most of them will jump in and apply them when the epiphany strikes. If your rock star designer naturally comes in around 10, and he’s willing to log at least 8 hours, you’re better off letting him have a flexible schedule. Besides, the fact is that if you lean on him too hard about things like that, he’s probably off to another design team with a better culture. Let everyone know that the work has to get done well and on time, make sure they show up on time for all meetings (even the 7am ones with the client on the other coast), and give them enough room to do their jobs without micro-managing them. As long as everyone has a clear understanding that the work get’s done no matter what, this approach works quite well. The designers police themselves an do what’s necessary. One thing to watch out for is designers who mismanage their time and deliver something on time, but the result is uninspired and flat. Make sure designers know you can spot a design that was thrown together at the last minute, and that you expect more than that. But I digress…the main point is to emphasize the work as the main thing and empower the designer.

Ask, listen, and throw out a challenge

Everyone knows it’s important to listen to the team and solicit feedback, but it’s important to emphasize this point here… because there are few collective groups who feel more ignored or misunderstood as the in-house designers. If you’re a designer, be sure to share new trends or ideas you’ve been reading about, ,asking how to integrate them into the current work flow. If you’re not a designer, ask what trends they’re seeing, and empower them to share new ideas with the team on a weekly basis. Along the same lines, look for opportunities to throw out “what if” scenarios that go beyond accepted norms. “What if we did have a bigger budget, what do you guys think we could accomplish then?” “What if the deadline were two weeks longer, how would that change our approach?” The answers you receive just might lead you to insights that break things open or lead in a new direction. Perhaps you can’t change the deadline, but the suggestion just might be workable on a smaller scale…It’s not about the individual solution per se…it’s more about changing the thought patterns and making people receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Instill optimism and hope… Habitually

Building a creative culture and instilling aa sense of wonder and curiosity in a design team takes work. The team needs to trust its leaders and know that management really walks the talk. Too often an oppressive and callous manager will jump up and try to cheerlead to innovation and then get frustrated when his ovations are met with less than full enthusiasm. It’s no different than if you jumped up as said “Let’s go run a 6K race.” People need to be trained and conditioned to be creative…they need to know it’s safe and that the organization values them, and THEN they need to have heads and hearts that are nimble, playful, and able to embrace and run with an idea.

A good way to start is to simply purge the team from any and all preemptive thinking. It’s so easy for an in-house tea to start throwing out statements like “That’ll never work, we tried that three years ago and got shot down”…Don’t use purple, the CEO HATES that color”…”Management will never (fill in the blank). When a team works for the same management team for a long period of time, they begin to anticipate their responses and roll over without thinking. Yes, you should try to please your boss, and make sure you’re in lock-step with the brand, but you should feel comfortable with advancing new ideas, even if they’re old ideas who’s time has come.

The thing I like about the Jaws analogy is that Hooper and Quint clearly had the skill and experience to defeat the shark, had they only learned to work together. And as I said last time, it wasn’t until the boat was sinking and the fish was circling that Quint asked “Mr. Hooper, what exactly can you do with these toys of yours.” It was too late at that point..they needed to have establish a history of collaboration to avoid the tragedy. And even though Mr Hooper jumped up as was eager to pump 50cc’s of sodium nitrate into the shark’s eye, they were all backed into a corner that they could not escape from. Hoop should have found a way to get his point across sooner and Quint should have set his ego and rigid thinking aside and focused on the work, which meant killing the stupid fish.

Find a way to connect with your organization, learn to embrace the cultural differences, and go kill a big fish.

Why are In-house Creative Teams so Uninspired?

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Part 1- “Take the initiative, Mr. Hooper!”

In this world of social media, modular web applets, and distributed corporate messaging, it’s getting harder for agencies to step into the client’s shoes and develop cohesive solutions. Their ability to address pieces of the puzzle still makes them valuable, especially in these days of restricted budgets and restrained internal resources. Yet at the same time, it underscores the growing necessity to have a motivated internal team that embodies the essence of the brand while forging meaningful customer relationships. Agencies get the audience piece really well, but are more likely to fall short in their ability to embrace the internal culture and brand essence.

The funny thing is that the same things that undermine an agency’s effectiveness conspire against building an effective internal team. Nigel Colin lists some of these dynamics in his recent post on 6 Ways To Frustrate Creative People, and while it’s important to recognize them, it’s even more critical to understand how to counteract them within the unique confines of a corporate culture. He correctly identifies the frustration points as micromanaging, too much process, too much structure (especially time restrictions), too little freedom to explore, and a lack of respect. Now…anyone who has EVER worked in a corporate environment has experienced all of these pain points, (perhaps even in their first week on the job), so we need to acknowledge that it’s nothing personal against the creative teams… they’re just in an environment where creative expression is naturally absent.

The point on Nigel’s list that stands out the most for me is the issue of respect. Most in-house creative people don’t feel respected or acknowledged for what they do. To me this is a core reason why in-house teams struggle, and I’m convinced that both sides are to blame for it. But rather than sit back and wait for the non-creative boss to suddenly realize how brilliant and valuable you are, the onus is on you to take the first step in showing your respect and allegiance to the business.

Don’t wait for respect, earn it!

It reminds me of the dynamic between Quint and Mr. Hooper in the movie Jaws, with Quint representing business leaders and Hooper acting as the creative department. Quint is on an important and dangerous mission, he knows how to be successful, and is empowered and paid to achieve a result. Along comes this young pup who thinks differently and is undermining Quint’s world view with new ideas and process. Animosity ensues.

Quint was a jerk but Hooper was arrogant…neither made much of an effort to understand the other when in reality their differences could have made them unbeatable. Many creatives refuse to understand the needs of the business… they don’t value the same things the business values and they just want to do their thing. Most managers and directors can sniff out an ivory tower mentality that defines success as winning awards or boosting your portfolio site. They can discern pretty quickly that you either don’t understand their needs, or that you just don’t care about them. The best in-house creatives are those who demonstrate a natural curiosity for the needs of the business, and they frame the strengths or weaknesses of their work within that context.  We should say things like: “This layout will drive more conversion because…and we should A/B test to see which design drives better results.” rather than talking about the innovative effects of Papervision or the cool things the competition is doing. We still think those things are cool (and so do our non-creative directors or VPs), we just don’t make coolness the justification for our recommendations.

When you’re presented with an impossible deadline for a project that should take much longer and requires significant ideation, most in-house creatives will follow one of two routes: they either scramble and grumble, eventually giving up in despair, or they push back, raise a fuss, are forced to do it anyway, and eventually give up in despair. Either way they don’t do their best work, and they end up feeling undervalued and disrespected.

An alternative approach is to understand what’s driving the urgency of the deadline and what the specific outcome needs to be. Do we need to demonstrate progress to the president, hit a date for the shareholders and the street, or perhaps impress a potential client who’s in town for just that day? Creative serves the business and not vice versa, we need to ask what we can reasonably accomplish in the time frame, and how do we right-size our efforts to the deadline and the importance of the moment? Finally, we need to present multiple options that outline the risks and advantages, emphasizing that our primary objective is to support the business and to make our bosses look good.

That last comment will ruffle feathers in the “artist as free spirit” community. We see art as a democracy where the most creative and inspired voice always wins. That’s not business. Business is a dictatorship, starting from the top. Think of it more like the military. There are campaigns and assaults that seek to gain market share and profits, taking no prisoners and spilling blood along the way. Agencies tend to function more like mercenaries who are paid to fight certain battles but never take sides. But if you’re in-house, you’re drafted brother, and you need to understand that your job is to support your commanding officer and make him look good. If he’s misguided he will be discovered in time (or bitten in half, in Quints case), but rebelling or “checking out” creatively almost never works.

When talking to non-creative execs I tend to say things like: “I’ve got your back”, “We’re here to make you look good”, or “We’ll do whatever it takes/whatever the business needs.”. This only sounds like sucking up if you don’t mean it, in which case you belong in the mercenary agency world. But on the battlefield of corporate business, a manager needs to know that the guy next to him has got his back. This also becomes an opportunity to build a bridge where the creative team can be seen as a true resource rather than a necessity that needs to be kept in line. It’s kind of like the scene in Jaws where the boat is sinking, the shark is circling, and Quint is out of ideas. He sheepishly asks Hooper “just exactly what can you do with this fancy equipment of yours?”

Our goal is to demonstrate that value before there’s a crisis, and to be central in the business plan. That’s where the responsibility of the business comes in….but I’ll address that in the next installment where I’ll discuss how an organization needs to motivate, empower, and inspire their creatives.

Creative Decisions by Committee…

I was working in my studio this week and began thinking about the series I’m currently exploring, including common themes between individual paintings and new areas for exploration. It’s always a bit perilous, not unlike walking through a mine field where one wrong step could end up blowing your legs off. OK, It’s really not THAT bad, but it DOES make you second guess yourself and take a circuitous path through the creative process. And in the end, it gets me thinking about what, and why, I make the art that I do.

The ideas that surface are diverse, and it’s interesting to consider where they come from. I find my thoughts bouncing between considering the subject matter, emotional impact, personal messaging, technique, current trends, format and media types, and overt vs intuitive content.  I ask myself random questions such as ‘why my color palette is so dark and muted’,  ‘does it matter how big I’m working?’, and am I hurting my career to be focusing on photographs as much as I am, when painting is viewed as being much more substantial?’. This collection of divergent voices begins to resemble a large stakeholders meeting in a business settings where multiple factions lobby for their individual interests; “What about the revenue deficit?” “Are we focusing on our core audience”, “Are we being too myopic/global in our approach?” In the end, if there’s not a strong leader with vision, the group will always pull the ship off course.

The ideas raised by my “group” tend to align themselves around a series of “if / then” statements:

  • IF self expression is central to art, then emotional impact and personal messaging are paramount concerns.
  • IF it’s important to be noticed and recognized for what you do, THEN trends, techniques, and media formats will be more important.
  • IF telling a story and delivering a message are important, THEN subject matter and an emphasis that’s more overt than intuitive will carry the day.

The problem of course is that most of us would identify with several of these statements, and they do tend to conflict with each other. When I was young I used to think that a great artist was someone who could deliver meaning on multiple levels, encompassing as many of these IF / THEN statements as possible. As I’m getting older, I’m starting to think that the recognized artists of our day are simply adept at ignoring entire areas of thought and aesthetic criticism, while focusing on a single thread.

I’m not sure everyone goes through this ‘creation by committee’ deluge, but I’ve come to accept it as part of my creative process. As the visionary leader, as well as the source of the divergent voices, I find I’m the self-imposed arbiter of myself.

To organize and facilitate this process I try to keep stacks of a few dozen smaller canvases at the ready to serve as sketchbooks, allowing me to quickly paint a phrase, image, or symbol that I can reconsider at a later time. The canvases range in size from 4″ x 4″ t0 8″ x 10″ and are an easy way to document fleeting ideas, as well as to keep me focused on core concepts and objectives.

I have a shelf that’s currently littered with paints sketched from drawings, small objects that have caught my eye, and words, such as “humble” and “cry”. Two days ago I sat down and painted the phrase:

What does it mean

to be true to yourself ?

…and I can’t stop thinking about it. This phrase resonates on so many levels that it’s almost unsettling. It’s helping me to focus on the core issues in my work, while deemphasizing or excluding the areas that are less important. (which assumes that focusing on core issues is important). I’m not going to elaborate on what the phrase might mean, as that would be different for everyone, but I will say that it’s given me a very clear focus this week.

erasure4