Friday, September 23, 2011

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner - 5 Things Setting The Table Can Teach You About Design

We’ve all been invited to a fancy meal at someone’s house. Or at least we’ve seen it happen on TV. When people entertain, they tend to bring out their very best tricks to put on the poshest evening they can. My mom, for example (and probably your mom too), has an entire set of dishes that she uses *just* for dinner parties. Nothing else is allowed to grace their pristine surfaces. I find that astounding, when I really think about it. But party planners - and designers - do the same thing every day, when they create a special experience for their guests. Here’s the thing, though: using the “good china” - your very best ideas, designs, and practices - doesn’t have to be a once or twice-a-year thing. You can do your best work all the time for maximum results for your freelance business. Here are some simple rules you designers can learn from your mom, your friends, or anyone you know who throws the meanest dinner party on the block.

Plan The Evening

Any good party planner knows that the evening doesn’t just “come together” magically on its own. Planning is the key to any successful venture, whether it’s a dinner party, an album cover, a website, or a marketing campaign. Figuring out the number of guests who will attend your event is key, as is figuring out what kind of crowd you’re going to be entertaining. What do they like? What don’t they like? What kind of appetizers should you serve? What kind of music will be the least offensive? Should you use formal place settings, or are plastic mats and foam drink coasters enough? When you’re designing a website, you have to think about much the same thing. Who’s coming to your site? How many of them are there? Will they tell their friends? Do they have to “BYO” something (money, membership, referrals)?

Dress To Impress

I’m not telling you to use a bunch of useless bells and whistles in your design. But while Steve Jobs was on to something when he said “design is about how it works,” let’s be honest. We don’t all buy Macs because they work well. We buy them because they’re pretty. If we all went for things that merely “worked” properly, that would cut out the need for a lot of sexy design prestidigitation that, come on, let’s face it: we all love. Why would we be in this business otherwise? So, as important as it is to recognize and implement web standards and optimize user experience, it’s also important to make sure that a site is visually appealing.

Don’t Hold Back

Use the good china. When you’re planning out your designs, go the extra mile and push your imagination to new heights. This is similar to dressing to impress, as it’s all about putting your best foot forward for everything you do - even if it’s your aunt Myrtle’s family photos site. Don’t crap out on a project if it’s less than ideal; it’s your less than ideal projects which pave the way for more ideal ones in the future. If a prospective client sees your past work and finds it to be average - or worse, below average - he or she will be less likely to hire you in the first place, or to trust you with more challenging projects if you do manage to get hired. But if your stuff is stellar from the get-go, and it’s obvious to everyone that you put your best effort into all your work, word will get around and you’ll find yourself in much higher demand as a designer of awesome stuff.

Create the Fantasy

When your guests come to dinner, they want to be dazzled. If you invite people to a dinner party and you make them wait outside for 10 minutes before answering the door, the tablecloth clashes with the napkins, no one knows where to sit, and someone’s wine glass has a crack in it, guess what? You’re not going to be talked about kindly in your social circle. On a similar note, if your website design takes 10 minutes to load, is too complicated to navigate quickly, and looks rushed and sloppy with broken links everywhere, you’re going to get a whole lot of visitors who’ll never come back a second time.

Be A Good Host

Make sure your guests are comfortable and know exactly what to do and how to behave by taking the initiative. If you’re designing a website, for example, make sure your visitors know where and how to navigate to exactly were you want them to go. Creating a fantasy for your visitors is about more than just design. The success of your party - your website, flyer, poster, or marketing campaign - depends entirely on your willingness to serve people and serve them well. Let me say that again: the success of any design project you touch depends entirely on your willingness to serve people and serve them well. As the host, you’re in charge. But you’re also in the service of your guests. If they aren’t getting what they want from you, they’re going to travel elsewhere to get it. Learn from the mistakes of your competitors and create an experience your visitors will never forget.

Don’t be afraid to do your best work for every one of your projects. The more great work you do, the better you’ll become at doing it, and the more you’ll be inspired to do even bigger and better things. Stay sharp, impress your guests, and your designs will be the rockinest party online, offline, on the planet, or on the moon!

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