This is my 100th Post! To celebrate this rite of passage, I interviewed David Armano, creator of the very popular Logic + Emotion blog, to find out what makes him tick.
David is my "blogfather." Here's the background: In September, 2006, I saw his name mentioned in BusinessWeek as a rising opinion-maker. I called him out of the blue and we chatted for twenty minutes. He made blogging sound so easy and fun that he motivated me to do it myself. He's given me a lot of pointers ("go comment on other blogs . . . do it now and do it often"), introductions (Mack Collier, Paul McEnany, Ann Handley), and advice ("as much as you like serif fonts in print, sans serif is easier to read on-line"). Since then, we've become friends and typically talk on the phone every other week to share stories and opinions. I'm delighted that my 100th post features David! I hope you enjoy this Q & A.
RvO: You went to Pratt ('95). What design lessons did you learn there?
DA: I had great teachers, and they made me bring my “A-game” to class. Students competed with each other for the praise of our fickle instructors. If you put something on the wall that was crap — it was called crap and you were encouraged to do better. This experience helped me to develop a thick skin and take criticism. I also learned how beneficial (and fun) healthy competition can be. More professional environments should be like this. From this experience I developed my design mantra which borrows from Pratt's motto: “Be true to your work and your work will be true to you.”
RvO: What do you wish you'd done differently at Pratt?
DA: My major was Computer Graphics. Computer aided design was pretty new back in the early 90s and while I got a lot out of some interesting computer animation classes, the desktop publishing classes were a snoozefest. We learned to use stuff like Quark and Illustrator. Big deal! At first I thought this would give me an edge since many designers didn’t know these programs — but I would have been better off taking more traditional design classes and learning the technology on my own. That said, my overall experience there was fantastic.
RvO: What jobs have you had since Pratt?
DA: My first job was a graphic designer for Columbia House. I designed spreads for their alternative music catalogs. From there I moved into broadcast design and helped Fox News Channel launch the network back in ‘96. I moved to Chicago in ‘97 and cut my teeth in the interactive space doing what we called “interactive storytelling” at the Chicago Tribune. I then decided to go agency side in 1999 leading up the interactive deparment for a small ad agency. In 2000 I moved to Agency.com where I made my home for nearly six years doing all things Web. I came to Digitas in October of 2005 and started my blog in February of 2006.
RvO: You’re a VP at Digitas. What do they do?
DA: Digitas is a digital marketing agency. We create what we call “active branding” which means that we believe in experiencing a brand vs. passively receiving marketing messages. It’s a combination of art and science, mixing insight, creativity, technology, and analytics.
Here’s a metaphor: if Digitas were a kid in high school, it would be the kid in class who was both kind of geeky yet cool at the same time. And I would be the guy sitting next to him poking fun at him — but secretly wanting to be him.
RvO: You manage creatives. What are your specific techniques for getting them to 1) do really good work that 2) pleases the client, and 3) meets the deadline.
DA: I view my role as a “persuader.” I can’t force my teams to do great work. I also can’t force clients accept our ideas and executions at face value. I need to convince my teams and clients that pursuing the right kinds of solutions is a worthy effort.
Sometimes I succeed and sometimes it’s not that simple. But my secret weapon is being hyper-engaged at the “defining moments” in a project. There are times when the client or someone on my team is willing to settle for “just OK.” This is where I’ll kick in high gear. I make the case for “more than OK”. I’ll do whatever it takes — searching for examples to aspire to, telling stories or using metaphors to get everyone on the same page. But I don’t make the horse drink—I can only lead them to the water as best I can. As far as deadlines — they are a simple fact in this business. I’ve never not met a deadline and I encourage my teams not to over think or “overcook” their work.
RvO: What are you really good at in your job?
DA: I once received an endorsement from a peer which said that my energy is both “boundless and contagious.” I think I’m good at keeping my teams motivated. I challenge my teams, and I also expect them to challenge me. If someone on my team feels strongly about something — I’ll expect them to “sell” me on why we should do it. But in a nutshell, I think I’m good at taking an idea and seeing in through to something tangible. Whether it’s a site that goes live or conceptual prototype—I enjoy “making things.” I can’t do this alone, and this is why team dynamics are so important.
RvO: What are the two biggest mistakes you’ve made in your profession?
DA: Not giving my teams enough “space,” and not managing peer relationships effectively. An effective creative director should excel as a facilitator. I wasn’t very good at this early on in my career and I’ve had to work on it. The mistake I made was using my teams as a production crew to execute my own ideas vs. cultivating an environment where they could come up with the idea while I helped refine them. I’ve learned that though project success is important—it’s also just as important that your team grow during the project.
I have a better track record of managing both down and up vs. sideways. However, if you want to have influence your organization, you need to manage at all three levels. I’ve learned this throughout my career, but still find it doesn’t come naturally for me. So it’s a work in progress.
RvO: Let’s suppose Digitas says, “David, we’ll pay you to take off two months to write a 200 page book about marketing, creativity, and new media.” What would your “take” be?
DA: The title of my book would be: “The Relationship Renaissance: How design, social media and technology have created an explosion in creativity, and communication.” And the premise:
Some have called it a revolution. Others evolution. But are we really living in an age of digitally fueled invention and re-discovery? Enabled by technology, architected through experience and supported with an “open source” thought democracy—we are living in a relationship renaissance which is forcing us to re-think the definition of brands, marketing and how we think about “consumers.”
RvO: You recently celebrated your one year anniversary as a blogger. How has blogging changed how you design, both for the better, and also for the worse?
DA: Without hesitation, blogging has made me better at what I do. It keeps me informed, and helps me validate ideas. I’ve used the blog several times this way and what it does is force you out of your personal mental limitations. The key however, is to have a qualified “following” on your blog. I’m fortunate to have access to people like you who follow Logic + Emotion. You make what I do better, and this is the key. It’s also why comments are so critical. It’s not about turning them on or off—it’s about cultivating, facilitating and sharing ideas. Doing this on my blog has also helped me be a better creative director. That’s what direction is ultimately—it’s facilitating.
Now, here’s the dark side of blogging — and I’m only speaking for myself here —but I have a hunch some of you may relate. Having a successful blog can turn into a “soft addiction.” You begin to crave the intellectual stimulation. It can tempt you to throw your priorities out of whack. You get a thought provoking comment and your mental gears go into overdrive. My head is not naturally wired this way — to always be thinking. I need to give it rest. I need to be with my family and not be thinking about what someone just said about something I wrote. Like any good thing in life, blogging can have a downside if discipline is not applied to it. I’m working my way through this and trying to strike a healthy balance. I’m not too far off —but I think the more I get the hang of it, the better I get. Boundries are good — we need them.
RvO: What blogs do you read?
DA: In total I probably follow about 75 blogs more or less. And While I have a great deal of admiration for bloggers like Kathy Sierra, Guy Kawasaki and Steve Rubel — I find that I visit blogs like Hee Haw Marketing, Servant of Chaos, Experience Curve, Nussbaum on Design, Organic’s Three Minds, The Viral Garden, and Creative Think on a more regular basis. It’s really hard to narrow down blogs to a few favorites — you can also see my blogroll for an extended list of what I like.
RvO: What will social media tools be like in 2012?
DA: In 2012 there will be mobile devices that support most any kind of digital social interaction we can think of including audio and video. We’ll be able to instantly connect with each other in ways that move well beyond text or audio. But this connectivity will have a price—some of us will be having conversations of our choosing when we really need to be engaged in the here and now. Come to think of it—I think I just described the present. So maybe the future is simply more of the present with a few more bells and whistles.
RvO: What’s with those “bathroom people" you use in many of your designs?
DA: What’s up with those quirky illustrations in your Creative Whack Pack? Seriously, the “bathroom people” stem from the original Olympic symbols done in the 60’s-70’s. What I like about them is that they're a symbol of my philosophy which is to make complex things simple. What’s more complex than a human being and what’s more simple than a basic, flat icon of one?
I’ve also been a fan of information design for a while, keeping an eye on the masters such a Tufte. I worked as a broadcast designer for Fox News and also as an interactive designer for the Chicago Tribune. Both positions required the simplification of information in visual communication. I also do this at Digitas with the help of my teams. We create “artifacts” such as personas and customer lifecycles which really help bring our clients along to making better decisions. All of these activities include iconography and information design—or in other words, making the complex simple.
RvO: You were a wrestler in high school. What lessons did you pick there that you can apply to design?
DA: What wrestling taught me most was that you could win if you had heart. And even if you didn’t win—if you gave it your all, you could walk away feeling good about yourself. I once made it to the second round of a tournament once after pinning my first opponent. My second opponent was better and stronger than me. I went at him hard and he came back harder. He elbowed me square in the eye and nearly knocked me out. I lost the match but fought like hell not to get pinned. I will never forget what my coach said to the team the very next day: “Armano went out there and busted his ass . . . and his eye!” I approach my work in the same way I approached wrestling. I’m not a naturally gifted designer or anything. I’ve worked really hard and put my heart into it—even when taking elbows to the face along the way.
RvO: I’m really lucky because ___________!
DA: I have a wife who puts up with me and has enough energy to stay at home with two active boys. I live in a city with a gorgeous waterfront and good laid back people. I’m privileged to work in a profession that I actually enjoy. And, I’ve always wanted to be a Superhero, and my kids think I am one. [Note: Duck/Whacks sculpture at left by six-year-old Max Armano.]
RvO: Thanks for your time and ideas!
DA: It was my pleasure! Happy 100th!