Learn to think like a designer

Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0
Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Designers of all stripes—software designers, graphic designers, and even interior designers—have a unique way of thinking that can solve a whole host of business and marketing problems. It’s more of a process than a business plan, but it creates an environment that fosters creative solutions, innovative ideas, and the opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes. How can you empower your team using design thinking? Consider planning your next project using the following steps.

Big-Picture Planning

Most design thinking processes start with the big picture. What do we have? What do we need? What steps can we take to get there? These steps can go by many different names, but they usually include things like customer/audience research, leveraging available assets, and planning out the whole process from the beginning, paying careful attention to detail.

Design thinking is emphatically human-centered, so it relies on a thorough understanding of the people the product will serve. What are their needs? What are their pain points? How can this product or idea simplify their lives? How can we make their jobs or lives more interactive and engaging? By keeping the intended audience front and center throughout the process, design thinking provides built-in values that streamline decision making. If it doesn’t benefit the end user, it doesn’t get included. Period.

At this stage, it’s also vital to take stock of the assets and limitations you and your team have to work with. This includes manpower, funding, timeline, and specific requests from your client or team. Design thinking is meant to be holistic, balancing the needs of the business, team members, and clients throughout the process, creating a supportive environment that promotes teamwork and motivation. Making this list now also allows for better decision-making later on.

Brainstorming

Once the process is laid out, it’s time to start generating solutions. This can happen in several formal sessions or informally over a longer period of time and usually involves a fair amount of research, interdisciplinary teams, discussions, and focus groups, and prototyping of the most promising options. Many teams also incorporate “refresher” activities into this phase of the process that boost creativity and prevent burnout. This can include attending conferences, participating in enrichment projects like visits to art galleries or film showings, and anything else that feeds creativity and introduces new ideas into the mix. This keeps people’s minds fresh, sharp, and engaged during the most creative part of the process.

In order to generate the broadest variety of options, it is vital to make space for brainstorming and to use it exclusively for idea generation, not idea critique. This protected space promotes new ideas, encourages lateral thinking, and enables creative solutions by making team members feel free to propose unique or even radical solutions without fear of criticism. If you’re working on your own, separate brainstorming from critique to give you the space to explore all possibilities.

Once a list of ideas has been researched and generated, prototypes can be built based on the most promising ideas and evaluated by focus groups and interdisciplinary teams. This step highlights potential issues both on the user/client side and in the production process. If multiple teams will be involved in the implementation of the product (like marketing and tech support, for instance), it’s important to ask for insights from representatives from all of them to red flag any potential issues.

At the same time, when making the final decisions, guiding principles should remain focused on solving problems for end users. This means prioritizing aspects like functionality, aesthetics, experience, and simplicity, even if it requires a little more work in development (within the limitations of available resources).

Launch

The final stage of the process sees the production and implementation of the product. But it doesn’t stop there! Design thinking is iterative, so this part of the process involves collecting user feedback and refining the product as well as taking any lessons learned into account for the next project. This can also be a good time to review all the ideas generated during brainstorming and seeing whether any of them should be applied to other problems before restarting the process.

A “post-mortem” with the design team can also be helpful in order to review any mistakes or difficulties and resolve any outstanding issues before the next project begins.

This structure may be a little different from what your team is used to, so it’s OK to implement it slowly. But if you need an injection of creative ideas, start by focusing on the needs of users and making space for brainstorming, and you’ll quickly begin to see the benefits of design thinking.

Beyond Data Visualization: Using Interactivity to Engage Your Audience

"Building Blocks," by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses scale to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US.
“Building Blocks,” by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses alphabet blocks to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US (click for the full image).

Numbers and statistics are a vital part of any modern data-driven business—or personal life. But unfortunately, simply shouting numbers from the rooftop doesn’t tend to change peoples’ minds.

There are too many alternative stories and interpretations (not to mention distractions) competing for an audience’s attention to allow one little piece of information to reshape a worldview.

There are lots of ways to overcome the problem of distraction: using engaging visuals and good design, finding a catchy “hook,” and answering an interesting question are all good places to start.

But once you’ve figured out how to overcome the distractions that may prevent your viewers from thinking about your data, it’s time to go deeper and find ways to connect with your audience. If they feel a connection with your data, they’ll be much more likely to integrate it into their thinking.

Theater of the Mind

The human mind is extremely powerful. It can impose structure, stories, and patterns on seemingly unconnected things, resulting in new insights. If your data supports a conclusion your audience already believes, you’re in luck!

The brain’s natural systems will sort the data into its rightful place. But if your audience is predisposed to disagree with your data, the brain will work overtime to resolve this “cognitive dissonance”—usually by dismissing the new, uncomfortable information.

It’s important to ease your audience in if you’re proposing a new or controversial idea. Letting your audience connect the dots themselves is an easy way to engage their pattern-finding specialties, so that the brain’s power works for you.

If you seem to be having trouble “getting through” with your data, especially if you’re pretty sure it has a clear message, invite your audience to participate in the interpretation of your data using things like interactivity, guesswork, the five senses, and rewards for engagement.

Interactivity

Scroll Down

See the “scroll down” instruction at the bottom? Click to visit the site and see what happens!

Interactivity is much more than a buzzword. It’s a way to involve viewers in the story, letting them fill in the pieces and take ownership of the information. Data on its own can feel preachy or high-handed, but if you let your audience tell the story and then suggest ways to fill in the gaps, they will be much more willing to process the information.

Good forms of interactivity make the user feel in control.

This site, which proposes “an alternative view of London,” tells the viewer to “scroll down,” which seems like a simple, common request. But in this case, scrolling triggers animations, drawings, and photos instead of a simple “page down,” and this surprising response to a common action piques viewer interest because their actions had a clear, interesting impact on what they saw on the screen.

Interactive presentations like the Gapminder World graph accomplish the same thing by encouraging viewers to ask and answer their own questions by comparing axes, making the audience feel in control.

Guesswork

If you really want your viewers to think about a problem, ask them to guess what the data will look like before you give it to them. Suddenly, they have a vested interest in an abstract problem, because they want to know how close they got to the “right” answer.

As this New York Times article illustrated, guesswork can be a good, friendly way to invite your audience to reconsider their assumptions, especially if many people make the same mistakes.

Encourage your audience to brainstorm reasons they might have missed the mark together, rather than telling them the answer right away. People are much more willing to listen to ideas they came up with themselves!

Speak to the Senses

If your data will be viewed on a computer, it’s easier than ever to engage viewer senses. Sound (make sure it’s optional!), movement (especially animation and video), and even engagement through touch are all possible using today’s technology.

Birds

This art piece depicts the number of birds killed by agricultural products every day in the United States. It zooms out on the website to show the scale of the problem (click to view the full image).

If you have a chance to put together a presentation in the real world, the options are endless. You can play with scale to make a big impact as in the artwork by Chris Jordan, or have viewers physically participate in a display.

Reward Engagement

Whatever route you take to increase engagement, remember that if you want repeat visits, you need to reward that engagement.

Every click, every scroll of the mouse wheel, every action taken by the viewer should correspond to a clear and obvious reward—more information, an interesting sound byte, or an unexpected animation.

How you tie it to your message is up to you!

5 Ways to Let Your Data Tell the Story

People love stories. It’s the way our brains are wired. That’s why anecdotes are such powerful tools of persuasion.

If I tell you a story about a friend who got mugged a few years ago in a big city, all the statistics in the world about how crime rates are falling probably won’t convince you it’s safe.

Personal experience matters more to our brains than numbers.

Data is about facts, not stories, and that often makes it seem boring (and, ironically, unconvincing). Our brains just aren’t very good at handling large amounts of data to evaluate things like risk. They need a narrative to hold all the pieces together.

If you want your data to be convincing, you have to let it tell a story. Of course, it’s important that the data guides the story and not the other way around.

But if you want the numbers to stick, you have to weave them into a framework that will anchor all the pieces together and make them persuasive.

Here are five places to start when you’re looking for the story in your data (examples from this post on creativebloq).

  1. Make a Comparison

1aClick to see the full infographic.

Isolated data is boring—it’s comparisons that tell the story. Are sales up compared to last month? Are there spiders on planet earth than people? Put the comparison front-and-center if you want it to stand out, whether you’re preparing a slide deck, a presentation, or an infographic.

Comparisons also help people engage because most people already have an opinion. Setting up a comparison brings peoples’ existing opinions into play and invites them to take a position and then see if it’s backed up by the data.

  1. Encourage Curiosity

Data is beginning to answer questions we never even used to ask. Questions are a natural hook for people’s attention and feed into existing stories by offering additional information.

Think about all the questions wearables have started making people ask. What is my heartrate when I’m running rather than sitting? How many steps am I taking each day?

1bFitbit started this infographic with an interesting question—at least, interesting to fitness buffs.

Encourage questioning before you get to the answer, and explain why the question matters if it’s one people may not have considered before.

Pique their curiosity before explaining the answer, because once you’ve got people thinking and wondering, the data will start to make sense before you’ve even presented a single number.

  1. Draw Conclusions

1cWhich format is better for web and which for print? If you read to the end, this infographic spells it out.

Don’t make viewers hunt for your point. Conclusions should emerge naturally from the data, but they should also be clearly present. Data is only as useful as the conclusions we draw from it.

You don’t have to hit your audience over the head with it, but if the data strongly lends itself to a point of view (our current policy isn’t working; there’s a big opportunity emerging in a new sector; we are headed for catastrophe), say it!

1dMake sure the conclusion follows the data, but don’t be afraid to draw that conclusion!

  1. Track the History

Showing changes over time can be a powerful way to organize your data and allow for breakthrough insights. It puts information in context and tells a linear story, the same way we experience everyday life.

It’s an easy narrative structure for people to grasp.

1eThis chart is a bit complicated, but it follows an easily-deciphered logical structure and guides the viewer through the map using elegant lines.

  1. Find the Missing Piece (or Bring the Pieces Together)

1fThis infographic puts all the pieces together when it comes to energy efficiency.

If your data fills a gap in existing knowledge, it’s like putting the last puzzle piece in place—a very satisfying feeling. Set the stage with the existing data, and then show the missing component.

Explain why that piece of information was so difficult to obtain. Alternatively, for complicated topics, break them down into easily-digestible pieces that bring individual pieces into a cohesive whole.

Whatever your data, finding engaging ways to turn it into a story will make it more memorable, easily digestible, and even more convincing.

Use This Simple Technique to Upgrade Any PowerPoint Presentation

PowerPoint is an unavoidable element of the working world. And for us young professionals, PowerPoint has been a part of our presentation-filled lives since elementary school!

As most of us have grown older, we’ve strayed away from the crazy animations and distracting WordArt that dominated the slideshows of our early years.

But it can probably be said that a lot of us have yet to kick an old and more subtle presentation habit: the traditional linear PowerPoint style.

See also: 7 Presentations That Will Renew Your Faith In PowerPoint

If that term sounds unfamiliar to you, it at least will look familiar. Almost every PowerPoint style you’ve seen has followed a linear style, where the slides progress in sequential order.

(If you cannot navigate through your presentation without pressing the back and forward arrow keys, the presentation almost certainly adheres to a linear style.)

Here’s how a linear presentation is set up:

Linear presentation

Although this format can be very useful and does indeed serve its purpose, it is actually hindering us from using PowerPoint to its full potential. The human mind does not work in a linear manner, so why should we present information to humans through PowerPoint that way?

The example below shows a non-linear style. By making the presentation non-linear, we are giving options to both the presenter and crowd.

Maybe your audience is most curious about predators or how dolphins give birth. Instead of dragging them through the other slides, give them what they want first by incorporating some type of menu with hotspots.

Non linear presentation

While non-linear presentations can be created in alternative tools like Prezi and Speakflow, you can also create them with trusty PowerPoint. In fact, PowerPoint has tons of native capabilities that can seamlessly incorporate navigation control—you just need to know where to find them!

Here are some tips that will help you break away from the constraints you thought PowerPoint had—and help you wow your audience along the way.

1. Treat Your Slide As a Blank Canvas

You open up a new document. What do you see first? A bunch of presets and bullets. Don’t feel the need to use them just because they’re there! It helps to look at a plain white slide and imagine the information organized on it.

If that’s hard, draw your layout using paper and pencil, then apply it in PowerPoint. **Helpful hint: The size for a PowerPoint slide is 1024×768 pixels.

2. Get to Know Your Tools

There’s an inner artist in everyone, and if you are familiar with the right tools, you just might be able to unleash it.

Action buttons (slide show options), quick styles (format options), and animations (slide show options) are a few tools we recommend to check out. They might help add the pizazz you need for your next presentation!

3. Organize Your Puzzle of Slides With Navigation Control

As crazy as this might sound, some PowerPoint presentations can go up to 80 slides. When this is the case, consider having a navigation menu present on all slides so that you and your users can move through the information, just like a website.

This will make it hassle-free if someone would like to go back to a slide when he or she is waist-deep into the presentation.

Pro Tip: Check out this tutorial on master slides to learn an easy way to show recurring elements across slides without having to copy and paste each time:

Seriously, master slides will change your life!

4. Bond Pieces of Information

Avoid presenting steps or branches of common information in sequential order if you don’t have to. Let’s say we want to share a brief report of sales for every month in the past year.

Going through each slide one by one with your audience can get tiresome. Creating one slide with links to all the different months can be one way to add structure and a level of engagement to your presentation. And, in turn, both you and your audience gain some control within the PowerPoint.

5. Use Buttons to Encourage Engagement and Play

Think of creative ways to display your information. Instead of listing bullets, maybe add hotspots to a graphic that will reveal information when clicked.

Adding buttons that link to other slides in the deck is a great way to make your PowerPoint non-linear. Establish a mindset that prevents you from using the back and forward keys as much as possible.

6. Get Cool With Animations Again

For some of us, animations bring to mind our silly PowerPoint presentations from when we were younger. But if you give careful attention to the intended experience, you can use them in a sophisticated yet seamless manner.

Start out by incorporating fades and floats. Test how purposeful animations can be in a few slides before you go crazy!

Try it Out

Well, there you have it! We hope we have persuaded you enough to fight your slideshow demons and create something new and amazing in PowerPoint.

Beyond Graphic Design: Maga Design on The Tech Life Podcast

It’s better to show than to tell. Most people have had the experience of trying to explain something in words, but couldn’t. “It’s just easier if I show you.”

And that’s true. But how do you show someone something they can’t see? An idea, a vision of where you want to go, something you want to accomplish that has never been done. You’d need some sort of magic.

Listen to the following podcast with CEO and Founder of Maga, Scott Williams and Rachel Link, Director of Client Services, as they chat with Rich Conte of the Tech Life podcast about:

  • The meaning of “Maga” means magician
  • How we support organizations that are facing communication challenges
  • Why businesses today, more than ever, need to clearly communicate with engaging content to an ever-growing variety of people.

This isn’t an easy task. And effective solutions aren’t by accident, they’re by design.

Maga’s in-house team of designers, UX/UI experts, and strategists are a creative powerhouse of innovative solutions, applying the power of visualization to communication methods across the board– maps, point-of-sale kits, interactive displays, apps, whatever the situation calls for.

And people are taking notice, from the U.S Navy and multi-national tech companies to local start-ups and the Lowcountry Food Bank. Check out the conversation right here!