Introduction: The Beginning is a Good Place to Start
AIGA had a 100th birthday coming up in 2014, and wanted to celebrate their brand by looking to the future. Their numbers were strong, with 23,000 members countrywide in 67 chapters, but they knew the landscape for all professional organizations was changing. AIGA was concerned its existing platforms weren't relevant enough to drive the kind of participation and engagement needed, especially from younger designers. Born in the late 1970's and 80's, and now in the prime of their careers, these designers understand their work differently; it's interdisciplinary to the bone. AIGA's reputation of strength in graphic design, while not the whole picture, was overshadowing their efforts to expand and represent today's entire design profession. (There are a few new ways to connect with colleagues and professional acquaintances digitally today, too—hat tip to LinkedIn, Coroflot and Dribbble.)
AIGA needed to find out what its members really valued, and what the organization should offer going forward. This is the first of three How-To installments on designing research projects; we'll look along the way at how AIGA got the information they needed, and what they did with the things they learned.
How (and Why) To Brand a Research Project, in Four Easy Steps:
1. Do Your Homework; Know Your Limits
Delivering any branded experience takes time, effort and money. Do it well, though, and the expenses are justified. Pull in the right people, engage them, then keep them coming back, and your venture, project, or what have you succeeds. Attract the wrong people, or fumble the engagement, and you'll fail. Before setting out to brand a research project, you'll have to do some research. What's the backstory behind the questions you're seeking to answer? What tools will best access the audience you're trying to reach? Wait, back up: do you really know who you're trying to reach? That's really, really important. Depending on how easily you can answer these preliminary questions, it might be the case that a strategic partnership is in order.
AIGA felt Ziba could help with their investigation, because our design work is interdisciplinary day in and day out, and we're well experienced working with brands trying to reach Millennials. This reflects where we think design is headed, too—our competitors are interdisciplinary designers, and so are a good proportion of AIGA members. So we knew AIGA needed just the right outreach in order to find out what their next 100 years should look like. Knowing our audience—it was us, in part—meant we could be sure to activate the right touchpoints without dismissing AIGA's history. Think of the how Ace Hotels reuse old buildings, leveraging their best characteristics and improving what's outdated. Using heritage proactively, as an asset, is very different from simply starting over.
2. Once You Know Your Audience, Use the Right Tools for the Job
The information that primary research provides is valuable, but the process can be a bit dry. We knew our audience was allergic to old-fashioned, but the same might not be true for yours. Even if a research effort's top-level question seems obvious—i.e. "What do you want from AIGA?"—who you're asking and how you ask needs to be taken into account. Considered as one big participatory touchpoint, AIGA's entire outreach had to be gripping to every chapter member, and inspire younger members in particular to really dive in. Tuned engagement tools get rich responses, surfacing higher-order emotional wants and needs.
Cale Thompson, Senior Service Designer at Ziba, said "Imagine a research project could be a party... some hot event everyone wants to be invited to." That's not a bad target for any membership-based organization to aim for. We decided the best way to make this outreach feel like a party was to give it an identity—a brand—which was quickly designed to be hyper-savvy DIY wrapped in awesome (for several non-trivial reasons we'll get into in just a moment.) Project Medusa! We were willing to gamble our audience wanted less Trivial Pursuit and more Atmosfear, which was the inspiration for the interactivity of Project Medusa's workshop.
3. Take (Good) Risks
With your objectives and methodology understood, it may be time to show a little leg. For Ziba's team, Project Medusa was a bit of a dream come true: in order to brand a research project, we'd get to talk explicitly about our process. Design research almost always happens under a cloak of extreme secrecy (to the point of code names for projects: hence Medusa) and can never be talked about afterwards. We made a calculated choice and exposed the inner workings of Project Medusa to participants every step of the way. This was risky, but it was right for our creative, judgmental audience. Exposing the slightly messy process behind Medusa helped get more meaningful engagement.
The circumstances of your design research project might mean "good risks" look and feel entirely different. Our practical limitations (read: small budget, limited time) made it necessary to play, experiment and push the research tools we use every day to their most extreme: harder, better, faster, stronger. Oh, and Medusa could be fun, too! Deadly seriousness was definitely out the window.
4. Learn to Love the Bias: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em
Your presence affects the outcome of whatever you're observing: that's science. (Remember? The observer effect?) We decided to use this to our advantage. Established out of necessity, Medusa's lo-fi aesthetic meaningfully informed the interactive portions of the project. The intentionally raw, unpolished and prototype-y look and tone of the outreach encouraged direct, honest responses from participants. This was about thinking out loud, not worrying about mistakes, and letting go of preciousness.
The presentation was also intended to insulate the effort, at least somewhat, from the aesthetic criticism of roomsful of designers. That's why Project Medusa itself is structured as a How-To, guiding each individual AIGA chapter to host their own workshop and find out what members really want from the larger organization. It's also a subtle opportunity to re-engage with the national AIGA organization, paving the way for ongoing participation. This branded research project would establish a new baseline relationship and get the facts needed for continued improvement.
Going Forward: How-To 2 and How-To 3
Two further installments will follow, as mentioned at the outset: next we'll look in detail how Ziba produced Project Medusa, and explain more about how to create the right tools for your research job. In Part 3, we'll explain how to synthesize masses of information, resulting in our case from dozens of AIGA chapter's workshops. Lots of interesting things still need to be distilled down to what's most relevant to AIGA. Welcome to Project Medusa!