Upgrading the Virtual Water Cooler

Telecommuting and remote working are popular cost-saving measures, but the benefits can extend far beyond the bottom line. Many companies are choosing to make remote working a core part of their organizational structure, capitalizing on the productivity gains of distraction-free environments and the lack of overhead that comes from working in already existing spaces. Thanks to a slew of new technology, this approach has numerous benefits, from being able to meet customer demands in multiple time zones to assembling a team quickly to deal with an emergency.

But remote working has a few key drawbacks, as anyone who’s worked from home can attest. Isolation, exclusion from important meetings and social outings, and endless conference calls can make working from home a disaster if it’s not managed successfully. How do the pros make it work? By using solid team management practices to cultivate community intentionally, regardless of where team members are located. And they don’t wait until problems arise; many companies that successfully employ a remote workforce find that solid team building starts from the very beginning.

Recruiting and On-Boarding

Although some companies transition well from an on-premise community to a partial or fully remote team, training employees for remote working is best done early. Candidates need to be able to manage time well, show initiative, and have enough patience to put up with the occasional frustrations of working with partners in multiple locations. It’s also important to hire (or train) good communicators and writers if much of their brainstorming will be done over email, video conference, or chat.

Perhaps most importantly, managing employees remotely requires trust. Hiring people who can be trusted to do their jobs well and contribute to the company’s culture from afar is crucial, as is continuing to trust them once they’re hired. Nothing breaks an employee’s spirit more than micromanaging, draconian check-ins and snooping software, so it’s important to hire people who can be relied on—and then allow them to do their jobs with personal, appropriate oversight. Trustworthy team players who will take the extra step to ask questions, get to know their teammates, and invest in people they don’t see every day are the key to making remote working a success.

Day-to-Day Communication

There are many tools available that will reduce the endless flow of emails and conference calls that consume many a remote worker’s time. Communication tools like Slack or Basecamp can organize multiple streams of conversation and even make space for virtual “water cooler” conversations.

Many companies also find it helpful to have a procedure or hierarchy in place for various kinds of messages. Quick questions that need immediate answers are often best sent through chats, instant messages, or texts, while longer questions that can wait may be more appropriate through email. Face-to-face conversations over Skype or other video conferencing software can be helpful for partners or small-group check-ins, while an occasional conference call can work well to disseminate updates or information to large groups of people.

Innovation and Collaboration

One of the main things remote workers miss out on is the opportunity for spontaneous idea-swapping and brainstorming. New research suggests diverse teams that offer a variety of social and industry-related perspectives can boost innovation, but even a highly diverse team still needs space to share and explore ideas in constructive ways.

Sometimes, distance can be an asset in this case. Introverted team members may feel more confident sharing their ideas when they have time to think them through and compose an email or post a comment on a shared project page rather than being put on the spot in a meeting, as long as intentional space is made for constructive collaboration.

Training employees to work in pairs, a popular option in programming and software development, can also promote this ideological cross-pollination. It requires some finesse to assign suitable teams and resolve conflicts, but done properly, this approach combats isolation, cuts the workload, and strengthens the cohesion and loyalty of the entire team.


Although trust plays a big role in remote company relationships, appropriate accountability can keep team members on the same page and catch any problems early. It can also reduce isolation and ensure that all perspectives are given voice.

Time and activity tracking software can be useful tools, but team check-ins, quick reports, and planning meetings can also help everyone see how different individuals are contributing to overall progress and help team members get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

For best results, these meetings should be short, focused, and positive, highlighting good work and setting the stage for a successful week. One-on-one check-ins can also help managers keep tabs on how different parts of a project are developing.

Pros vs. Cons

Remote working is a viable business structure and can even lead to new breakthroughs for companies, but it’s not a cure-all for overhead and expenses. Individual people are still the ones that make a company work, whether they’re working on-site or remotely, and investing in resources to help those people become more successful is not something to skimp on, regardless of employee location.

Photo by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

Slaying the Slideshow Dragon

We’ve all been there, shuffling into an early-morning meeting, hoping that this time, things will be different. The presenter will be engaging. The slides, compelling. The room, awake! And then… the dreaded bullet points appear, and the morning becomes a painful offering to the Slideshow Dragon.

Nobody wants meetings to be boring or presentations to fail. But even the most engaging presenter will find it difficult to reclaim the audience once their attention has been devoured by black-and-white text or slides that could have been emailed out.

But what exactly is wrong with traditional presentations? Do you have to use newer tools like Prezi to save the early-morning meeting? Let’s break it down with some basic design thinking.

Who are the end users?

In a presentation, the end users are the audience, whether they are colleagues, employees, or clients, and success can generally defined by whether they engage with and remember your quarterly report/new marketing pitch/project update.

Because people like connecting with other people, warm, engaging, enthusiastic presenters can do a lot of this work themselves, so why use visual aids at all? Unfortunately, most people remember only a small percentage of information they hear.

Organizing that information visually can increase retention considerably, as well as make the presentation more interesting—thus the allure of the Slidshow Dragon. But this is where many presentations go wrong and the dragon shows his ugly side.

Here Be Dragons

(Creative Commons)
Photo by Milos Milosevic (Creative Commons 2.0)

In order to communicate information, the presenter can use words (spoken or written), images, colors, media, and sounds. Problems tend to arise when those elements are out of balance. If a presenter is spending most of the time talking (i.e. it’s not a discussion or roundtable), then the words are already taken care of.

It may be tempting to highlight key words or phrases with bullet points, but the brain can only handle so many words at once—and most people would rather read than listen, especially if they think they’ll get the information faster.

Some people try to combine words with cool animations to help keep people engaged. Prezi is built on the idea that flying back and forth across a giant canvas and zooming in on important points is more visually interesting than flipping slides.

But visuals that are too interesting (or dizzying) can backfire, keeping the audience’s attention even more firmly planted on the screen, not the presenter. And if the visuals are that engaging, then they might be better off on their own with a voiceover and posted online, rather than upstaging (or consuming) a live presenter.

Define the Need

Photo by Jan Tik (Creative Commons)
Photo by Jan Tik (Creative Commons 2.0)

The answer is to use slides that aid the presentation visually. That means focusing on images, symbols, colors, and movement to support your message.

  • Convert words to images, symbols, or metaphors. Did something decrease? Use a picture of down arrow with the topic at hand and then talk about what happened. Is there a logical flow of information? Use a flow diagram. Make your information beautiful, or give people a memorable picture to latch onto. Only use words that can be integrated into the image).
  • Use the right tool for the job. Is the information you need to present spatially related (like a map, landscape, or 2D diagram)? Then Prezi might be your best choice. But if your information is hierarchical or linear (A à B à C), stick with something like PowerPoint or Keynote to avoid distracting or unnecessary movement.
  • Make any movement part of the message. If you’re flipping to a new slide, start a new thought. If you’re zooming in on an object, zoom in to the details of the topic. If you have a big, dramatic transition to a new image, transition to a new topic or thought as well.
  • Choose visuals you (or the audience) can interact with. Pick images that you can envision someone asking you to zoom in on or that change based on audience participation.
  • Keep it simple. People are there for your content, not a feature film. Choose simple, clear, relevant images, and don’t overdo them, or the Dragon of Excess Clip-Art may yet devour your masterpiece.
clip art dragon
Beware the clip-art dragon! Image by Clarissa Ridney (Creative Commons 2.0)

In the end, good presentations are like any other form of communication. They connect the speaker and listeners and result in the mutual sharing of information. They increase engagement and generate new ideas. Don’t be the Slideshow Dragon’s next victim—regardless of which presentation software you use!

Featured Photo by Richard Fisher (Creative Commons 2.0)

Julie Anixter Selected As AIGI Executive Director

We’re thrilled to announce that Julie Anixter, a longtime friend and mentor to Maga and our Chief Innovation Officer, has been selected to serve as the next executive director of AIGA, the professional institute for design.

Julie Anixter

Julie will help represent and lead AIGA’s 25,000 individual members and 70 volunteer chapters around the country when she takes over in January.

She’ll come to AIGA after years serving as a principal at Think Remarkable consultancy, and as a managing partner at Innovation Excellence, the largest crowd-sourced innovation learning community. She co-founded both endeavors.

AIGA has been promoting design as a professional craft and fundamental cultural touchpoint for more than a century.

They were looking for an individual with a proven ability to manage complex teams, project a strong image, and have a deep understanding of the professional design world. Julie certainly fit the bill.

“In Julie, we found a leader who can be a connective thread across our increasingly diverse community of designers, innovators, educators, and advocates,” said Su Mathews Hale, the president of AIGA’s national board of directors.

An 8-member search team had been looking for a national executive since the fall of 2014.

So what is Julie’s mission at AIGA?

“Continue to amplify our thought leadership and influence on the profession of design and society-at-large, so that design is recognized as the force for good that it is; ensuring that the craft of design is valued, the discipline is taught more broadly, and the expert use of design helps us all navigate our information-laden world with greater ease.”

Our simple reply: Amen.

How to Host Frustration-Free Virtual Meetings

Meetings are not known for being the favorite pastime of the modern employee, even though everyone seems to be spending more time in them. But virtual meetings—now wildly popular thanks to telecommuting, globalization, and improving technology—have an even worse reputation.

If the video above feels familiar to you, you’re used to the frustrations of conference calls and communications platforms:

  • Tech that doesn’t work (or people that don’t know how to use it)
  • Boring, voice-only meetings that drag on and on, losing sight of the original goal
  • Off-topic rambling or inside jokes that only part of the team knows
  • Feeling ignored when you’re the only one not in the room—or the loudest one on the line
  • Lack of body language to gauge participants’ engagement and feelings

Virtual meetings do have some advantages, like reducing travel time and expenses as well as convenient document sharing, recording, and whiteboard features. It can also help unite teams that usually work in different geographical areas. But without some careful thought, the downsides can quickly destroy any potential gains.

Fixing the virtual meeting takes more than just getting everyone up to speed on the software. It requires a few simple, humanizing touches that help bring out the best in every member of the team. Remember, meetings need to help participants do their jobs better. So design the meeting around the job and the people, not the other way around.

Virtual Meeting Design Tips

In order to design human-centric virtual meetings, it’s important to ask these five questions:

  1. How can we make this meeting shorter?

Long meetings and virtual tech don’t go well together. It’s too easy for participants to multitask or lose the flow of the conversation. Once they’re no longer engaged, it’s even harder to generate good ideas and stay on track. If you need to have a six-hour brainstorming session, try to get everyone in the same room or break up the meeting into clearly-defined segments.

Better yet, try to figure out what’s taking the most time and consider ways to do some of that work outside the meeting. Can you post a project in a private workroom for people to comment on beforehand? Can presentations be uploaded centrally so people can view them ahead of time, allowing the meeting to focus on discussion? Could an emailed agenda take the place of some of the information-sharing?

  1. Is this meeting scheduled fairly?

If different timezones are involved, try to make sure that the burden of waking up early or staying late is shared by all participants. If someone is waking up in the middle of the night to join, respect their time and keep things on point. Listen to their input and offer to let them go as soon as possible—and then switch which team gets the awkward meeting time.

  1. What’s the goal?

Is there a clear agenda? Is everyone aware of it? Keep everyone on the same page with a central, organizing document shared multiple times before the event. Refer to it often so no one gets lost.

  1. Does the tech work? Can you control the audio?

Test equipment and send out meeting codes early and often. Try to equip your team with good headsets and mics as well as decent lighting if video is involved. Also, unmuted microphones are the bane of the virtual meeting. Find a platform that allows you to control the mic in case one of your team members forgets to mute theirs.

  1. Do you have a facilitator in palce?

Remember, not everyone knows good virtual meeting etiquette, like introducing yourself before you speak. Work with your team on good protocols and choose a facilitator who will make sure everyone is included. This person can call on others, either in order by name or by their area of expertise, to make sure everyone is sharing. The facilitator can also set aside time for silent brainstorming and get people back on track if the conversation wanders.

Make the People Matter

Most importantly, try to solicit a significant contribution from every team member. This humanizes the conversation and gives people a reason to be invested. Remember that all those phone numbers, screen names, or camera boxes represent real people. Design your meeting around those people, and your virtual meeting can become the center of connection and innovation instead of a dreaded chore.

What 5 famous logos teach us about design

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But these five images are worth millions… of dollars.

In today’s crowded digital and physical marketplace, a strong logo is like a brand’s signature—it’s a key way to set a company apart or identify a brand. But designing one that “feels right” can be a challenge, as even Google found out back in September when designers and consumers showed up to criticize its visual updates.

But some logos stand the test of time and form a unique part of a company’s history. A few factors can make all the difference, as illustrated by these five well-known logos.

  1. Personality: Coca-Cola

From ice-skating polar bears to hippies singing in a field, Coca-Cola has a very clear personality. Although it’s done much to update its brand with hip stars and upbeat associations, it remains a classic. And that’s exactly what this scripted “wordmark” evokes. It’s not formal or stuffy, but it makes you think of wholesome soda shops and 50s-era nostalgia, even though its iconic logo was designed all the way back in 1887.

  1. Symbolism: Microsoft

In 2012, Microsoft capitalized on its most recognizable product for its new logo design. The new logo modified the previous lettering and added the iconic colored squares.

The new symbol is colorful and easily recognizable as an avatar on small screens, a key factor in modern logo design. Symbols and words must be visible and identifiable regardless of the screen they’re viewed on, whether it’s a 72-inch high-definition television or a 4-inch phone screen.

Now that many companies use their logo as an avatar on social media, it’s even more important to have clear, seamless designs that are instantly recognizable—perhaps part of the motive behind Google’s sans-serif shift.

  1. Simplicity: Apple.

Apple_2003_logoOver the years, Apple’s logo changed from the rainbow-hued apple of the 80s to a much simpler image as the company’s brand became more streamlined. The symbol reflects the name, not the product, but it’s easily identified (the reason a bite was taken out of the apple was to differentiate the image from a cherry) and makes you think of the company’s name using a symbol alone.

  1. Competition: Ford

Part of the purpose of a logo is to differentiate a brand from its competitors. Ford does this by appealing to the same classic ethos Coca-Cola does. Where many of its competitors have gone the symbolic or single-letter route, Ford differentiates itself every time the logo is printed and conjures up images of tradition, stability, and quality. The icon is also in the shape of an oval to accommodate the “Ford” name, which differentiates it from the round logos of car companies like BMW and Volkswagon.

  1. Patience: Nike

200px-Logo_NIKESometimes, it simply takes time for a logo to take hold. When Nike’s logo was designed for $35 by a design student named Carolyn Davidson in 1971, the company’s founder was ambivalent. Today, it’s one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. The company even removed its name, preferring to let the “swoosh” speak for itself.

Of course, it helps that it was well designed. The swoosh implies motion, which makes it perfect for a sports-shoe company, and it is simple enough to almost have predicted the modern preference for unfussy branding. Sometimes, it just takes a little time for good design to be recognized—and with time, a mark comes to be accepted. Try to design for the long term and not jump ship when the next trend comes along.

If these logos tell us anything, it’s that good design can weather changes in pop culture, design trends, and even technology. Will yours make the list?