Guest Post – Bernadette Jiwa » Why Are Designers Hiding?

November 1st, 2011 by Mat Dolphin

When we meet clients for the first time they’re often quite surprised to find out how long we’ve been established and how many people actually work here. It happens all the time, and even comes from other agencies within the industry too. “Really???” is a common reaction. People’s perception of Mat Dolphin is based on a number of factors. Our creative work, the brands we’ve been fortunate to work with, the exposure we’ve had, our twitter presence, this very blog etc. all go together to paint a picture, and one that is apparently bigger and louder than we are. So why don’t we just be more open about it all? The vast majority of design agencies these days share what they want to be heard or seen. Like well oiled PR companies, they carefully control what the world finds out about them. But that’s kind of missing the point. What makes agencies unique is the people that work there. Designers constantly encourage brands to be open and honest, yet hide behind the typical designer ‘cool wall’.

We’ve been talking about this topic for a while, but the original train of thought came from Bernadette Jiwa ‘brand and business catalyst and verbal designer’ who we regularly chat with on Twitter. She questioned why we at MDHQ portray ourselves in the way we do and it got us thinking. We were going to write a blog post about it but thought who better to write a post than Bernadette herself.

Why are designers hiding?
As a designer and creative, you spend your life making other people look and sound compelling. Making an impact with your originality is your legacy. You tell amazing, original stories of brands, businesses, products and services and yet you somehow forget to tell your own. You differentiate your clients every single day. So why do you make yourself sound just like everyone else? Why are you hiding?

When I ask my design clients and colleagues this question they inevitably give me the same answer. Our work speaks for itself. Or I let my portfolio do the talking. Of course it’s important that you can do what you do well, but you are designing to reach out and touch human beings. Long before you do that, you get the opportunity to make an impact and connect with them on your website about page and most of you blow it.

Do you recognise this bio?
We are a (even if it’s just you), a [insert place] based design agency, established in [insert year], with a reputation for design excellence, innovation and simplicity, committed to delivering and creating consistently beautiful, engaging, effective, creative [and so on], solutions. We work in partnership with ambitious, bold, innovative, [or insert the appropriate flattering adjective here], clients, to create compelling design, and to ensure that their brand makes the impact it deserves. We are experienced and work across all media, print, packaging, typography, illustration and web design.

You’ve read this a thousand times in some form or other. Somehow it seems to have become the industry standard. I’ve got no idea why. 
The last thing a designer wants to be is generic, a carbon copy or pale imitation of someone else, so what’s with the boring bios?

You design for humans so don’t be afraid to show your humanity
People, your prospective clients, choose to work with people they like and trust.
 In his book Enchantment Guy Kawasaki says that the final step of likability and trust is to craft a great description of your organisation. Your bio should reflect your values, help people to understand why you do what you do and reveal some of the real you.

About pages are an opportunity to tell your story, they are often one of the most visited pages on a website, and interestingly have some of the lowest bounce and exit rates.

Here are some examples of designer about pages that give a sense of the real person behind the business:

David Airey
www.davidairey.com/about
David establishes trust as a design thought leader by linking to his blogs, portfolio and testimonials from clients.

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Christopher Doyle

www.christopherdoyle.com/About
Chris keeps his bio short and sweet, but adds a couple of quirky details to let us know he thinks outside the box. Like the line about how he found a piece of cereal that looked like E.T and sold it on eBay for $1,000.

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Eric Karjaluoto

www.erickarjaluoto.com/bio
Eric includes lots of links to his writing and awards which establishes his authority, then adds a killer line about his family; “He speaks to his Mom and Dad almost every day.” Ten words that give us a sense of the kind of guy he is.


*TIPS FOR WRITING YOUR ABOUT PAGE*


1. Know who you’re talking to.

This is the most overlooked aspect of brand and business communication. Every message you craft should begin by understanding the audience it’s intended for. If you don’t know who you’re talking to how can you tell them what they want and need to hear? Start with why (www.startwithwhy.com), but don’t forget who.

2. Don’t just lead with the facts.
People need to know more about the real you. Facts alone don’t persuade.

3. Share your values.
Tell people who you are and what you believe.

4. Show yourself.
Build trust by adding a well-shot photo to your bio and about page. Your potential clients like to look into your eyes.

5. Tell the story of your professional journey.
Explain how you got to where you are today. This doesn’t have to be a chronological list. Make it interesting. Enable people to understand how you know what you know.

6. Tell people how you can help them.
Be specific; add links to products and services.

7. Demonstrate how you’ve provided solutions for others.
Link to your portfolio, list projects you’ve worked on and awards you’ve won.

8. Give a sense of what it’s like to work with you and show people why they can trust you.
Add client testimonials and stories about how you work.

9. Add a contact link.
Your about page should not only provide information and build trust, it must also encourage potential clients to get in touch.

10. Don’t make it all about you.
Share some insights about what you have in common with your audience.

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Make your website a window not a wall
Your job is not to show people that you are the next Sagi Haviv. Shine a light on what’s great about you and beyond what you do. People do care about why and how you go about doing it too.

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“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Dr Seuss

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Tell your own story, before someone fills in the blanks and makes one up for you.

Bernadette Jiwa is a brand and business catalyst and verbal designer. She specialises in showing entrepreneurs how to amplify their passion, be compelling to their market and make their ideas matter.
Bernadette is author of the award winning book, You Are The Map Maker.

Make sure you check out her site www.thestoryoftelling.com and follow @bernadettejiwa on twitter.
Also check out www.thestoryoftelling.com/10-rules-for-writing-about-me-page/

Big thanks to Bernadette for taking time out to write a guest blog. It’s certainly given us food for thought and hopefully Version 3 of our MD site will embody all this advice. Do you agree with her though? Should the work still remain what’s important and speak for itself? We’d love to know what you think…

Mat

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17 Responses to “Guest Post – Bernadette Jiwa » Why Are Designers Hiding?”

  1. I’m not so sure its that clear cut.

    I think approach, manifesto, strengths and clients are far more important than how the “main character” is perceived.

    Horses for course but you don’t see some of the leading lights in the design industry having an about page in this format / detail and I know which end of the spectrum I would like to be. Adding too many details of your personal life feels a tad needful?

    Nothing wrong if you have an about.me, or personal site and you want to chat about yourself but for business I’ll give it a miss.

    Oh and no offense to those 3 examples listed but I really don’t want to be seen as quirky, ‘chatty’ or seen sat down reading a book.

    Comment by Mike Sullivan — November 1st, 2011 @ 12:19 pm |
  2. I want to read this post, but the leading is just so close. I’ll try again tomorrow.

    Comment by Mike — November 1st, 2011 @ 12:34 pm |
  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I think what you’re saying is that you want to emulate the ‘leading lights’ in the design industry. How does not giving people some insight about why you do the work you do serve you in achieving that?

    My point isn’t that you should be the main character, or spill gory details about your private life, but that you should consider the needs of the audience when developing your brand story. This is one of the first things you would suggest a client do when providing branding services to them.

    Seems that sometimes we forget that we aren’t actually just talking to ourselves, or our peers on our websites. Our copy is actually the interface with our clients.

    I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want to be seen reading one of the most popular books on graphic design, which I had authored, on my about page. I think this is clever positioning.

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 1:05 pm |
  4. I’ll have to agree with Mike Sullivan on this one.

    As an agency, the about page should describe the values of that agency as a collective. While it may or may not provide details or bios on the individuals behind the company, that’s not what it’s about. We’re not “hiding,” we’re just representing the persona of the agency rather than ourselves.

    The three samples shown are for individuals, and as such, the about pages share the history and values of those individuals.

    I think there’s a difference between the two, and as a designer sets up his agency or freelance website, he needs to make that distinction.

    Comment by Kenny Isidoro — November 1st, 2011 @ 1:08 pm |
  5. Hi Kenny,

    Thanks for your comment, what’s interesting is that many ‘agencies’ do follow this trend and end up sounding exactly like everyone else. Surely great agencies are augmented by the personas of their founders and employees.

    The history and values of any organisation, however big or small is shaped by the individuals who work within it.

    Cover the header of an agency website or two and you might find that the descriptions of the values you read there are often interchangeable with the next one.

    This doesn’t do much to differentiate a brand.

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 1:25 pm |
  6. First, thanks again, Bernadette, for the kind mention.

    Second, regardless of whether you’re in business as an individual or a collective, the “tips for writing your about page” still apply.

    For instance, by showing yourself (something many designers fail to do), it could be a “company biographies” page like those of johnson banks or 300million.

    http://www.johnsonbanks.co.uk/company-blurb-biogs/
    http://www.300million.com/who/

    Noted from the 300million “about” page:

    “Nigel is a prolific music collector, gig attendee, and an occasional seven-inch-vinyl-only DJ.”

    People deal with people, and often without ever meeting face-to-face. The more you can build rapport with overseas clients through your website, the more likely you are to be successful.

    NB/ As well as being a graphic designer, I’m also a struggling amateur photographer, so please excuse the self-portrait shot.

    Comment by David Airey — November 1st, 2011 @ 1:36 pm |
  7. Hi David,

    Thanks for the links to 300million and johnson banks, who might be described as ‘leading lights’ in the industry.

    As I mentioned the photo is great positioning.

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 1:47 pm |
  8. Two top studios, no doubt.

    Interestingly, on the 300million “What we do” page, they also talk about what they’re not, and what they don’t do.

    By the way, it’s not my own book in the shot, but Bob Gill’s “Graphic Design as a Second Language” — a favourite.

    Comment by David Airey — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:04 pm |
  9. Maybe you should take a new shot of you reading your book then David :) .

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:08 pm |
  10. I think this is when it’s done well, for someone who’s clearly a great verbal communicator and public speaker. http://www.startwithwhy.com/About.aspx

    I think it’s a different proposition for designers who don’t really have a out-there public persona. It’s all about being a bit more creative with your opening gambit, like an elevator pitch of yourself. It needn’t ramble on too much, but just as an opening statement it’s ok. There’s a very fine line between looking like a bit of a dick and just trying to sell ability and confidence on a client facing ‘about me’ page.

    Good article, food for thought.

    Comment by Clem — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:11 pm |
  11. Hi Clem,

    Thanks for adding your thoughts.

    I know from working with lots of creatives that they don’t find talking about themselves easy, and you’re right, it doesn’t need to be War and Peace. Knowing what you stand for and what’s unique about what you do and why you do it is a great start.

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:16 pm |
  12. I work on packaging research for innocent drinks, rude health and moma foods. A question I nearly always ask of consumers in research is: “What would this pack be like if it came to life and walked in the room?” With innocent, who have never hidden their entrepreneurial origins, that personality comes zinging off the pack, so people find it an easy exercise to fill in the dots about the company and its values and personality. If they can do it with the limited space on a pack, how much easier is it to do it with an ABOUT page? Where you can do so much more to differentiate yourself.

    Comment by Tessa Stuart — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:50 pm |
  13. The trick is to act without being constrained by fear. It’s easy to take a bold approach with a personal site (like the ones above), but many organizations freeze up when it comes time to present themselves.

    The thing to remember is that the more memorable, unique, and “you” that you can make your organization’s presentation, the better the odds that you’ll find others that fit with your goals and methods of working.

    Comment by Eric Karjaluoto — November 1st, 2011 @ 6:07 pm |
  14. Hi Tessa,

    Great point, a huge part of a designers role is communicating everything about the brand in limited space. I don’t think it’s a case of can’t, but perhaps as Eric points out that maybe fear gets in the way.

    Hi Eric,

    So true, attracting the kind of clients we will work best with is the side effect of insightful, well written copy. It’s a case of turning up the volume and giving people enough clues about you and your business, to enable the right ones to make a choice and the wrong ones to look elsewhere.

    I wonder if fear of turning business away is what makes it difficult for some agencies to show more of their personality?

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 1st, 2011 @ 9:32 pm |
  15. I’m glad this article came up on my Twitter feed.

    I’ve just finished my personal site and will continue to upload work to it from my previous projects until its up-to-date.

    I refer to it as my personal site, rather than simply a portfolio site, and although I’m still debating with other creatives about it I’ve gone with the decision to lead with what makes me, before putting emphasis on my work.

    I feel that defining what is important as a company/organisation/community or as a person (in this case) makes more sense to people than simply joining a long list of portfolio sites.

    If you don’t stand out as some form of representation of an ideal or cause then you become simply a service provider, rather than somebody who can connect to your clients’ values and goals.

    Comment by Raymond D. Murphy — November 2nd, 2011 @ 3:26 am |
  16. Great article Bernadette.

    We’re a small design and marketing agency. There are 7 of us in total but at the core of the business there are only 2 of us full-time… me handling the design side and one of my MD’s handling the marketing.

    I’ve recently rebuilt our website and our ‘About Us’ page is pretty much a carbon copy of the one from your article but I took it upon myself to ensure that as well as the professional design agency facade we also needed to incorporate the human factor and show that we’re also real people.

    Each of us has our own profile page (featuring a non-professional headshot to show our smiley faces) with a brief bio and how to get in touch, if you so wish.

    I believe this helps to show what our agency is capable of as a whole, while highlighting the individual parts that make it all possible.

    Comment by Paul Andrew — November 2nd, 2011 @ 5:47 pm |
  17. Hi Raymond,

    Glad that the timing was just right for you.

    Thanks Paul,

    Sounds like you’ve found the perfect balance.

    Comment by Bernadette Jiwa — November 3rd, 2011 @ 12:52 pm |

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