The Importance of Service

Life, and especially the day job have been extremely busy lately, hence the non-posts for several months. But an interesting thing has happened with some new clients we’ve taken on lately that all center on the quality of service, which is one of the things we excel at at TCS.

Client one responded to a direct mail piece and signed on with us primarily because they couldn’t manage content on their current site themselves, had to pay the provider to do the most minor changes, and didn’t get prompt response.

Client two also responded to the same direct mail piece as client one. They were using a complex, outdated CMS and still couldn’t manage their content the way they wanted to. Their domain name was registered under their current provider, but luckily were able to get that changed to their name. They then suddenly received a bill from their current provider totaling several thousand dollars, saying that they inadvertently undercharged the client the last few years and were looking to now collect the difference. Then a week later, fortunately the day before we were scheduling to launch the new site, the provider turned off their site unannounced.

Client three’s site was hacked and hijacked by a porn site. Their provider was recently bought out by another company, and all but one person from the old staff was fired. They could not get the new company to respond to any customer service at all.

Finally, client four was using a Joomla site, got hacked and had all of their databases completely wiped out. The provider didn’t have  a backup anywhere, and basically told the client that its their problem. That was two months ago.

What do all four of these clients have in common? The problem that a lot of organizations and small businesses have — poor customer service from their provider. This is a strong suit of TCS. Not only do we have a great product and produce excellent, creative work, but our customer service is some of the best out there. It also shows that the cheapest price does not necessarily mean the best value.

I’ve also seen this with some of my freelance clients. I’ve worked on several projects where the initial provider/designer/developer dropped the ball, vanished from the face of the earth, or did a piss-poor job. All because the client was looking for the cheapest price instead of the best value. In the end it cost them more.

How can you avoid this painful experience? Here’s a few tips.

  1. Own your domain. This is one of the biggest headaches clients run into when switching providers. Provider A promises to take care of all the logistics, but registers the domain in their own name. Then, when the client wants to go to Provider B, they run into a legal mess trying to procure their domain, or pay through the nose. If you have your provider purchase your domain, get it in writing that its registered in your, or your company’s name, instead of the providers.
  2. Check references and seek referrals. There’s no better salesman than a satisfied customer. Check with other organizations and businesses who they use, and what they like and don’t like about their provider. If you scout out a potential provider from their site, look for a portfolio or a list of clients. Then contact a handful of those clients. Find out if they still use them, how long they’ve been a client, and what they like and don’t like about them. If you can’t find any recent and/or active clients, there’s a warning sign for you to avoid them.
  3. Compare prices. We compare prices when shopping for cars, computers, and even groceries. Do the same with a web provider/designer. Get a list of services and what you get for your money. Find out what’s one-time fees and what, if anything, is recurring.

Hopefully those tips will save you a lot of headache, time and money.

Five for Friday: 12.26.2008

Obama logos that weren’t chosen

Interesting look into the process that created the highly-recognizable Obama Campaign logo.

Design contest debate

Steve Douglas, founder of The Logo Factory, responds to some issues brought u[ about the legitimacy of logo design contests. On the other side of the ring, George Ryan, who made the original post Steve responds to, offers his rebuttal in the comments.

Content. Content. Content.

What’s the most important part of a web site? Content. A List Apart @274 focues on that verytopic.

Font Conference

Hillarious clip, especially if you’re a typeface geek like me.

Recession Tips For Web Designers

Great tips from Jeffrey Zeldman and 24 Ways.

Five Questions for Kristen Harris, Portfolio Creative Staffing

This is the kick-off of what hopes to be a regular series of short interviews with other professionals regarding a variety of topics. For the first one, I start with a person I’ve know for a number of years, Kristen Harris of Portfolio Staffing.

photo of Kristen HarrisKristen Harris is the co-founder and Director of Associate Services for Portfolio Creative Staffing, based in Columbus, Ohio. Portfolio fulfills client needs on a freelance, contract or full-time basis from their specialized network of top creative talent. Her previous experience includes 12+ years of art direction and design experience in the Columbus area.

Five Questions Kristen Harris

White Boxer (WB):
One of the big stories this past year has been the state of the economy. As co-owner of Portfolio Creative Staffing, and working as a designer before that in the Columbus area, what is the market like for creative professionals in Central Ohio?
Kristen Harris:
It’s no secret that the national economy is “sluggish”, in a “downturn”, a “recession”…whatever term you like, it’s not as strong as it was. And the Central Ohio area has been especially hard-hit, particularly with housing issues. The effect that we’re seeing at Portfolio is mainly a sense of caution. While there are a few local companies that have had lay-offs or other staff reductions, generally it seems that employers are maintaining current staff and proceeding with hiring plans. However, we are seeing three trends in how staff and workloads are being managed.

  • Longer time frames: Companies may take longer to fill a position, may not always fill open positions, or may not fill them as quickly as they would have a year ago.
  • Seeking more flexibility: We also are seeing more companies use freelancers, contractors and other types of temporary staff as an alternative to hiring fulltime staff, at least initially. If it’s a great fit and the need continues, then it may convert it into a fulltime position. This really is a continuation of the “freelance nation” trend that has been happening for quite some time, especially in creative industries.
  • Tight budgets: Businesses are very budget-conscious. While they are still hiring or bringing in the help needed to get the work done, they are keeping a very close eye on rates, salaries and expenses. Hiring managers are often presented the challenge of getting everything they need, while staying within the smallest possible budget.

The current climate feels a lot like the 2001 market when there were a lot of converging factors. The dot com bust hurt some businesses, there were several large mergers and buy-outs among local agencies, and of course 9/11 affected the national economy as a whole. However, at this point I’m not seeing the drastic number of people looking for work that we saw at that time. There is definitely opportunity out there, but it is indeed competitive. People looking for new opportunities need to make sure their skills are up-to-date, their presentation is top-notch, they’re networking and committing as much effort as possible to their search, and they are seeking work through a variety of resources.

So what are seeing as the “hot” skills or jobs companies are looking for, whether as freelancers or full-time staff?
Interactive design is very much in demand, it’s definitely an area that still is seeing a lot of growth and potential. Clients are always interested in Flash (Action Script is a bonus), Dreamweaver, basic HTML coupled with strong design skills is a great combination. We also are seeing more interest in other interactive work, such as high-end Powerpoint presentations  and incorporating video or audio into sites. Print designers who want to expand their options may want to consider learning more of the interactive side. On the development side clients are looking for knowledge of all the main languages and platforms, and expect these people to constantly be on the cutting edge of what’s next. They’re looking for database work, e-commerce, blogging, social networks, incorporating video, and other features that push a site beyond the typical. They don’t necessarily expect this to be the same person who does the creative design.
Print design isn’t going away, there is a steady amount of demand for that work as well. Of course Adobe CS is the standard now, anyone who isn’t using InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop needs to update their skills. It’s easy enough for an experienced Quark user to pick up InDesign, but our clients generally aren’t interested in on-the-job training. If it’s not on your resume, you may get passed over for someone who does know it.
Really detailed production designers who understand print and pre-press processes, prepare impeccable final art, and genuinely like doing that kind of work are very valuable. Being able to hand off a concept to someone like this and knowing that it will be executed to perfection is great. But unless really enjoy this kind of work, don’t say that you do…you’ll be bored to tears in no time and your employer will know it. Our clients request a range of levels of experience and backgrounds. Strong conceptual creative people are necessary in some situations, and detailed efficient production designers are key in others. You can’t be everything for everyone, at least not all at once. Knowing your unique strengths, and being able to present and communicate them well is key. However, the more skills, experience and knowledge you gain, the more you have to offer your current and future employers or clients.
Where do you see the balance between being multi-skilled and having a particular area of strength? Is it better to be the proverbial “jack-of-all-trades” or to have one or two areas you really excel in?

You really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.

Great question. There is delicate balance between being multi-skilled and appearing to be unfocused. While you don’t necessarily want to do just one very specific thing, or have people think that’s all you do, I am not a fan of the “jack of all trades” approach either. The rest of that phrase is “master of none”, which is how it often comes across. I find that generally people really are best at or most interested in a few key categories of work, so it’s really a matter of how that information is presented. Creative people often have a variety of experiences and can do a lot of different types of things, but you really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.
The reality is that hiring managers, HR recruiters, potential clients and the other people you interact with about work need to clearly understand what you do and (more importantly) what you can do for them. Generally they are looking for an expert, the expectation is not for one person to be able to do everything and do it all equally well. Even when a position appears to be asking for everything under the sun, there are always some skills that are absolutely required and others that would be a plus. Focus on what you’re best at, everything else is ancillary or a bonus. For example, you may have done print design, web design, programming and development, illustration, multimedia presentations, project management, copy writing, marketing strategy, product styling for photography, and product development. If you throw all of that at someone at once, they’ll be overwhelmed and confused about what you’re really best at. It would be more effective to say that you’re a designer focused on print and web, with an illustration background and strong project management skills. If any of those other areas are important or relevant you can bring them up in conversation, or include them secondarily on your resume.
Consider creating your own personal “elevator pitch”, where you are able to give an clear and concise overview of what you do in the time span of an elevator ride (thirty seconds or 100-150 words). The idea is to get your point across quickly so it is easily understandable to your listener. This same definition of yourself can be used very effectively as a summary on a resume. It works as a snapshot of your background and strengths, with everything else on the resume is as support materials and further detail.
Outside the technical and design skills, what other areas do designers need to stand out to become more marketable?
Hard skills are the technical expertise needed to get the job done. Soft skills are everything else—personality traits, social graces, good command of the language, personal habits, overall attitude, and much much more. It’s the difference between being able to do the job, and doing it really well.With all other factors being equal, soft skills can be the difference between getting the job, being promoted, succeeding in your work, growing your business, or not. Most soft skills can and should be continuously developed, they are not inherent in your personality. These skills are consistently found in successful people in any industry, transferable to any position, and are often a key factor in promotion and leadership opportunities.Here are some traits that I often see in successful people, and look for in candidates:

  • Passionate and dedicated to their work or the job at hand
  • Positive attitude, optimistic, energetic
  • Makes decisions, willing to take appropriate risks
  • Integrity, strong work ethic, reliable
  • Strives to continuously learn, handles constructive criticism well
  • Good written and verbal communications skills, listens, asks questions
  • Attention to detail, organized, makes plans
  • Focused, committed, works well under pressure
  • Flexible, creative thinking
  • Motivational, respects and inspires others
  • Self-directed, manages own career
  • Poised, self confident, professional appearance (appropriate for the situation)

Given the choice between two candidates with equal technical and design skills, would you rather work with the upbeat, passionate, focused, organized person or the pessimistic, unorganized, disrespectful, unreliable person? Yeah, me too. Soft skills can be developed, sometimes it’s just a matter of projecting the right image or changing your own inner thinking.

With the boom of the internet over the last decade, how important is it for designers, whether freelancing or job hunting, to establish an online presence (personal website and/or blog, online portfolio, online networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)?
There are really two pieces to this puzzle, the personal website/online portfolio and online networking/blogging. Keep in mind that new graduates are coming out of school with their own website and a tremendous grasp of the social networking world, it’s practically second nature to them. Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy. So you need some online presence, but what? Really the best choice depends upon the work you do and your goals. If you’re a freelance web designer or are looking for a web design position, you need to have your own site. People look there for links or examples of your work, and they consider your own site an example of what you’d do given complete creative freedom. It’s your chance to blow them away! Freelance designers that want to keep building up that business should seriously consider having their own site too.
Potential clients might find you online, but more likely they’ll hear of you through a referral or meet you somewhere, and go online to find out more. A website can make you seem more like a business, truly committed to freelance work, and often larger than just a team of one. You can showcase samples of your work, highlight capabilities, show your client list, post recommendations, link to associations, and take advantages of other features that will make you appear very professional. Adding a blog to your site can increase your online presence, help you connect to other resources, and keep you top-of-mind for your contacts.

Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy.

Print designers who don’t do interactive work and are seeking a position rather than establishing a business have a few options. Having your work available online can be a convenient way to share samples. But you don’t necessarily need to build your own site from scratch, there are several existing sites where you can upload your work and resume. You’ll have a link to put on your resume and share with potential employers, without all of the time/expense/angst of designing your own site. Sites like,, and are a few options, these industry sites are also places recruiters look for candidates. If you want your own site, you might set up something simple through your email/internet host (mac, aol, etc) or a blog site (like WordPress).
Regardless of the type of work you do and your goal, social networking sites can do a lot of positive things for you. Whether you have your own business or are looking for a job, these sites can be a great way to connect with potential clients or employers, get inside information, ask for referrals, and be found by others. Recruiters use sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace to find connections and candidates, as well as niche sites (like creativehotlist and coroflot). Freelance designers can make connections with potential clients, get referrals, and establish more of a professional online presence through sites like LinkedIn, Sologig and FreelanceNation (honestly there are quite a few of those freelance sites, some are better than others). When deciding which sites to get involved with, it helps to figure out where the people you want to reach may be looking…that’s where you want to be! One caution, especially with social networking sites and blogs, is that companies and clients feel it’s entirely fair game to judge you by what they find online. There are horror stories of people not getting jobs because of something an HR person found online. While you may consider it personal and separate from your professional life, they don’t. And they probably won’t tell you what they found or why you didn’t get the job. So be totally comfortable with anyone anywhere seeing what’s out there, at least while you’re job hunting or trying to develop new client relationships.

Determination Reaps Rewards

This past Saturday in the business section, The Columbus Dispatch ran an article about troubled tanning-salon chain under fire. I have very little interest in the legal issues of the Hottie Body franchise, but something did catch my eye. The article began talking about a woman who wanted to open a franchise and ran into problems:

Cindi Colley was on track to open her first business this spring, a Hottie Body tanning salon franchise. She had retail space arranged in a prime location in the South Campus Gateway development and had invested thousands, including a $25,000 franchise fee to the parent company of Hottie Body, a Columbus-based tanning salon owner and franchiser. But midway through construction on the site, “it became apparent that the parent company wasn’t going to keep their end of the bargain,” Colley said, leaving her unable to open her salon.

The article then preceeds to describe the Hottie Body legal issues. But like good writing, the article comes back to our “heroine”:

Colley, who had planned to open a Hottie Body location on N. High Street near the Ohio State University campus, has since made arrangements to open a tanning salon there under a different name, said Steve Sterrett, spokesman for Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, developer of the South Campus Gateway. Her salon, No Tan Lines, opened yesterday.

If you’ve seen my previous post, you probably now know why this article caught my eye, and I am blogging about it. About two months ago, I was introduced to Cyndi and learned not only of her dilemma with Hottie Body, but also her determination to open her business under her own name. I have had the fortunate pleasure to put together for her new tanning salon, No Tan Lines, a simple, one-page web site, business cards, and promotional flyers over these last few months.

However, the biggest pleasure was to meet Cyndi and help her dream come to fruition. Congratulations on the grand opening, Cyndi! I know No Tan Lines will be successful based on your determination and hard work alone. And if anyone is in the Ohio State area, stop by No Tan Lines and say hi. To celebrate their grand opening, No Tan Lines is offering one free tan with any purchase (see store for details and restrictions).

Inspired or Stolen?

The online design community has been in an uproar this week (and rightly so) over the apparent thievery of Dan Cederholm’s logo design for his design studio, Simplebits. There are several opinions on the matter, and I felt compelled to share mine.

Innocent coincidence?

Was the Simplebits logo stolen, or was it pure coincidence that the company in question, LogoMaid, happened to have a logo very similar? This is the same question that software giant, Quark, was asked over a year ago about their new logo design. Not long after it was unveiled, the creative community uncovered a number of similar designs. The public reaction to Quark was similar to the reaction LogoMaid is receiving. Did Quark, or more specifically the agency that designed the logo, steal the idea from someone else?

I think this is a good spot to examine the business model of LogoMaid. LogoMaid offers pre-designed logos to businesses for a modest price. The selling point is that you can save a lot of money by getting a premade logo as opposed tousually spending more with a design studio or advertising agency to custom-design one for you. Their parent company, Vilords Media Network, operates another company with the same principle, Design Galaxy, but with the slant on web template design.

LogoWorks, another mass-produced logo manufacturer, has run into similar accusationsover the years of stealing ideas from established logos. Their mantra is to pay freelance designers a small fee to design company logos that they resell at modest prices as well. It begs the question, is it coincidence or theft? If theft, who’s to blame, the company itself or the actual designer?

Let’s face reality. The number of self-proclaimed graphic designers in the world are staggering. People will seek out other professional work to get inspired. Some will even go so far as to steal a design from another as a quick solution to a cheap buck. Companies like LogoWorks (and I assume LogoMaid) use a large number of designers to do their work. Can you honestly expect them to know if each and every design they buy is legitimately original?

Who to hold accountable

They say the true character of a person is shown when faced with diverse circumstances. With that in mind, let’s compare the responses between the Quark and LogoMaid situations:

Within six months after the logo contraversy, Quark unveiled a new logo. According to Glen Turpin, the company’s director of corporate communications:

“Quark listened to the feedback we received from the design community in relation to our re-branding initiative in September and decided to create a new logo that is both an evolution of our visual identity and a strong representation of the new Quark… Changing the mark to avoid any perception of similarity enables us to further define our unique identity.”

Compare that response to that of Paul Viluda of LogoMaid:

“The main shape according to our designer is a font symbol and you do not have the rights to claim ownership to freeware font symbols. Other than the actual shape, I see no relevance. Our logo was registered at c-site, the registration has been approved. According to c-site, we own the copyrights to that actual logo. We do not need to steal anyones ideas.”

And this:

“According to (Simplebits) website, you did the rebrand in December, correct? Please check the screenshot for RH Restyling (company from Holland) we did in October I believe. Hmm, I am just currious how it would be possible to “copy” your logo when your “rebranding” was done in mid December. You’ll find out the logo we sell at is one of the concepts the customer didn’t choose to use. We are strongly considering a lawsuit against simplebits not only because of the logo, but also the fact that you are harming our goodwill.”

Designer Nathan Smith, who has a similar issue with LogoMaid wrote that he received “a series of rude emails from Jan Kalvan and Peter Olexa of LogoMaid.” I don’t presume to know exactly what the people at LogoMaid are thinking or how they conduct their business, but the words and tone of their response in this matter casue me to be very suspicious of the legitimacy of the work they sell. Quark, in my opinion, had no intent of stealing someone’s logo design, and wanted to salvage their reputation and credibility with the very people they serve. This is evident by their willingness to redesign their logo without slinging mud at anyone else.

The reaction to companies like LogoMaid would have been completely different if their response was similar to Quark’s … apolgize for the coincidence and remove the logo under question. What would it have hurt them? Certainly removing a handful of questionable logos would not have hurt their bottom line and their “amazing collection of 3700 pre-designed logos” would it? To respond in such a defensive and threatening way questions their desire to be viewed as a legitimate design resource.

The solution

Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer to design thievery. Regardless of how much the design community tries to regulate it, there will be people out there trying to profit off the hard work of others. I also, don’t think that lawsuits, as appealing as they seem, will solve the answer either. Copyright violations are difficult and extremely expensive to prosecute. The reason large corporations like Apple can do it effectively is because they have the resources to make it possible. Small studios and individuals like Simplebits, quite frankly, don’t have the time or resources to carry it through. And with the global nature of the internet, international enforcement of copyright is next to impossible. So what can we do?

I was asked last year about my thoughts on gas prices reaching $3.00 per gallon and what I felt should be done about it, especially when oil companies reported record billion-dollar profits. As much as I believe that the prices were the result of corporate greed, those prices were also being dictated by demand. As long as consumers would not change their driving habits (more fuel-efficient vehicles and public transportation), things would not change. Why should they? Consumers need to collectively bring the change against corporate injustice. Only then will companies truly listen.

I feel the same way about dealing with shady companies like LogoMaid. When businesses refuse to work with a company that has questionable ethics and practices, then they will either change or go out of business. Paul Viluda of LogoMaid said it himself:

“It’s about the market…if people wouldn’t be interested in our products, we wouldn’t provide it…as simple as that.”

This call is to all businesses out there that seem intrigued by companies like LogoMaid. Do your research. If they have a reputation of questionable business practices like this, avoid them. If you do buy stolen work, your company can be held liable as well if it would ever get to that point. Why would you want to risk your company’s reputation to something like that?