Dear Air France – It’s not my fault.

Having spent a lot of my adult life traveling and working abroad, I’ve usually make an effort to try different airlines when I can. And because of that I’ve been on some interesting, stressful and adventurous flights… but the worse experience in recent memory has been the service I received on Air France.

You’d think that in normal circumstances, especially for transcontinental/international flights, airlines make an effort to provide a relaxing and enjoyable experience. I usually try to avoid low-cost airlines for this reason… I want to enjoy the experience. Having taken Air France a few times, the quality of service and food is decent, so I was quite shocked last month when I received one of the worst experiences ever.

Knowing that I had to mentally and physically prepare myself for a trip to Canada from France with my 2-year old daughter, I’d made every preparation I could think of to make sure the flight would go smoothly. Getting rest before the flight. Check. Headphones and toys for the flight. Check. Mid-plane seats for the both of us. Check.

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So as we got on the plane for a 13-hour flight which included a change-over in Amsterdam, I was ready. What I wasn’t ready for was the on-board service I received from a flight attendant before taking off on the first-leg of our flight from Marseille to Amsterdam. I made sure to buy a seat for both of us because having my daughter, who had just turned 2 a day before the flight, sitting on my lap for the trip wasn’t going to happen… and travelers are allowed to reserve seats for an infant.

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And as it goes with any child, no matter how much you prepare, things just don’t go according to plan. Théa normally travels well, but when we had to wake up at 5am to drive an hour to get to the airport to catch our flight, you’d expect any child to be grumpy. And so she was as we found our seats and were getting ready for the departure… that meant a lot of crying and frustration. Basically she didn’t want to sit in her seat and be buckled in.

I had already asked one of the head flight attendant to keep our stroller (Dear all airlines, the Babyzen Yoyo stroller isn’t the only stroller made for traveling – see the Mountain Buggy Nano!) so I could have it for the transfer in Amsterdam. She was more than accommodating so I thought “Great, I’ll be able to ask for help if/when I need it for this trip.” Oh, was I wrong…

The second we got to our seats, Théa wouldn’t sit still and she started to get frustrated and cry. Since I had to get her to use her seat belt before taking off, it made the situation even more tense. I was given a warning by the second flight attendant that she had to be strapped in. As the plane was leaving the gate to take off, this same flight attendant came back again and told me, in the most obnoxious and least courteous tone, that the flight would not take off without Théa being buckled in. So I asked to get the child seat belt so she could sit on my lap for take off. Here’s where it gets worse…

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No, you can’t have a child seat belt. It’s your fault.

She said, “No, you can’t have a child seat belt. It’s your fault.” implying that it was somehow my fault that I had bought a seat for Théa and that she had to use it even though she was crying and unwilling to sit in the seat. After that she walked away. As I struggled to calm Théa, both the guy sitting beside me and I looked at each other and wondered what just happened.

Within a minute the head flight attendant came to see what was going on. After a bit of discussion, she quickly made an assessment of the situation and came back with the child seat belt and a couple small muffins for Théa. This dramatically reduce not only my stress but also Théa’s stress as she calmed down, sat on my lap and allowed to be buckled in, and happily enjoyed her snacks… she fell asleep soon after and only woke up just before we landed in Amsterdam.

It’s better to be gentle and show some empathy rather than to be aggressive.

Inter-personal communication is so underrated yet so important especially in stressful moments like I experienced on this flight. As my neighbor, who looked like he was a father of two boys, told the head flight attendant, “It’s better to be gentle and show some empathy rather than to be aggressive.”

Whether it’s about parenting or the challenges in life, this reaction of putting blame or faulting others does not help and can create more animosity and negativity that we as individuals and as a society don’t need.

The characteristics of a ‘design thinker’

I normally see lots of emails asking to “beautify” things at work. It’s one of the biggest insults to designers, a profession that looks to not only make things aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately functional and useful whether it’s in technology or communication. It’s a discipline that spans all areas because at its essence is not so much tools or platforms, but a strategic way of thinking that creates value. Back in 2008, Tim Brown, the CEO and President of IDEO and author of the blog ‘Design Thinking’, wrote a detailed article in the Harvard Business Review of how the thinking that goes into designing products or things can actually be used for all sorts of industries.

Simply put, design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity… Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.

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The October 2014 issue of Wired magazine was all about design and editor Scott Dadich’s fascination and interest in design and the way design thinking can be used for innovation while making mistakes along the way, or what he considers “Wrong Theory“. While designers are often known or asked to ‘make things pretty’, it’s this process of making something pretty that holds the most value – the insight that comes from this process is what gets designers to take notice of what works and doesn’t work. But in order to do this, as Dadich writes, “You need to know the rules, really master their nuance and application, before you can break them.” By getting things wrong or off-balanced, a designer’s perspective of a challenge or problem helps him/her learn how imperfection can lead to perfection.

Designers touch and shape every single part of your day; they are a constant presence in your life. Your smartphone, glasses, activity tracker – someone made them, worrying over the details that turned those things into indispensable companions.

Lucky to be working with Sarah (http://sarahroxas.ch), a talented designer who really loves her work!
Lucky to be working with Sarah Roxas, a talented designer who really loves her work!

I’ve found that sometimes the best ideas and thinking comes from people who don’t consider themselves designers. Again, thinking design isn’t so much a thing as much as a way of seeing a problem and finding a solution. So what does a “design thinker” look like? In his Harvard Business Review article, Brown highlights five characteristics to look for in a design thinker:

  1. Empathy. They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.
  2. Integrative thinking. They not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all of the salient—and sometimes contradictory—aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives.
  3. Optimism. They assume that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem, at least one potential solution is better than the existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism. Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.
  5. Collaboration. The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator. The best design thinkers don’t simply work alongside other disciplines; many of them have significant experience in more than one.

OCHA hosts UN Designers Group in Geneva

A few months back, I wrote about how Geneva is a melting pot of communication professionals with plenty of active groups meeting to exchange ideas, challenges, and solutions to a constantly evolving field of work. I’m proud that ITU brought together the UN (graphic) designers group late last year with an inaugural meeting in November. Among the UN participants, it seemed that OCHA was ahead of the curve in integrating design into their work and so we were asked to host the second meeting. In May, we were finally able to get our butts in gear to host the meeting. While the first meeting was informal and over lunch, this time around lunch was still on the table, but we also wanted to put a little bit more structure and decided to focus on a key element of how design is used in OCHA’s work, particularly in times of emergencies. This usually means turning lots and lots of data and information from natural or complex disasters into easily accessible and understandable formats that can be used for advocacy, awareness-raising, planning and decision-making.

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We explained how design is integrated into the humanitarian response process and how more and more visual design and communication is becoming an area in which other technicians (i.e. information managers and communication generalists) need to understand and be involved in despite the lack of knowledge and know-how. The basic idea is that there’s now so much information that comes through in times of disasters and emergency, it’s hard to make sense of it all and for it to tell a story that can help people understand the severity of the situation or to use this information to make the best decisions possible.

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Not only is timing, data-reliability and access a challenge, but so is the issue of standardization and consistency. This means being able to do quick designs based on templates and standards because different people get involve in the design process at difference times during an emergency. But this also has an impact on the branding and consistent communication by the organization. One of the main challenges is to ensure that products meet a certain standard to ensure that an organization’s ‘brand’ is upheld and that people can trust the source of information because, in addition to the quality of the content, the visual identity and look/feel is also what provides value to the reader/user.

Thanks to the OCHA team for a great presentation, and to all the ones who attended the second lunch / meeting!

Posted by UN Geneva Graphic Design Community on Friday, May 22, 2015

There’s also always the constant challenge of “making things pretty”, which is what most people think of designers in this field, vs. “making things useful” – why would you take a 20-page document and turn it into something “pretty” only to have people read it… does that mean if it wasn’t pretty then people wouldn’t read it – what does that say about the document? An interesting discussion point around this was the fact that designers are always asked to help on ‘formatting’ which is actually different for ‘designing’ something. If you’re interested on the influence design (not formatting) has on our lives, “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is a must read…

There is no need to sacrifice beauty for usability or, for that matter, usability for beauty.

The most interesting part of the meeting was still over lunch where we talked about how people got into design (a lot of people didn’t come strictly from a design education), the challenges/stigma designers face in and outside of the office, and how visual communication is now part of ‘mainstream’ communication and what that means for designers. Like the Facebook page to get info on the next meeting and to stay in touch with the group and get news about design stuff.

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Pamplona: the centre of infographics and pintxos

Last month I was in Pamplona, Spain where the world-famous running of the bulls takes place. While the bull running doesn’t show up until mid-July, the city becomes host to Malofiej, an infographics world gathering, in March. It wasn’t a surprise that infographics weren’t the first thing on the tip of people’s tongues when I arrived. Instead it was pintxos, the local name of the bite-size Spanish snacks that are commonly known as tapas. Yet, what I found was that there were a lot of similarities between infographics and pintxos and was happy to share my thoughts when Visualoop asked if I could be a guest blogger.

I had heard of and visited the popular website that started out on Tumblr in 2010. Since then Visualoop evolved into its own digital environment and is a place that is dedicated to anything and all things visual and related to data visualization.

We try to bring together experts from fields such as information design, cartography or visual journalism, with students and others interested in expanding their knowledge about data visualization.

What I didn’t realize was that its now run out of Brazil by a very charismatic and friendly Portuguese guy named Tiago. He was quite the busy bee during the conference – networking with participants, blogging everyday, and setting up interviews with people. Here he is with the very talented and respected illustrator Adolfo Arranz at Malofiej23.

Talking with @visualoop at #23malofiej

A photo posted by Adolfo Arranz (@adolfux) on

Here’s how I see the link between infographics and pintxos/tapas:

  • Pintxos are popular because it comes down to a simple idea. The clarity and simplicity of an idea is also what can make an infographic great in communicating information visually.
  • What makes (some) pintxos taste great is the ingredients and how they’re used. This goes the same for infographics – the basic building blocks and ingredients are data and information.
  • Pintxos taste much better when shared with others. Infographic design isn’t (or shouldn’t) be an individual activity, but one where ideas and interests can be shared.

Read the full post on Visualoop and also have a look around as there’s plenty to see especially if you like infographics… no pintxos unfortunately!

Charts don’t explain themselves

It’s a scary fact of life these days that people take figures and numbers at face value, and consider them authoritative when it comes from the “source” or by the media, yet a lot of times they are taken out of context to serve a purpose like selling an idea or a service. Maybe it’s the way we’ve learned things in school, but when numbers and figures are put into charts and graphs it becomes more “scientific” or trustworthy. They are also easy ways to visualize information – this is misleading. I’m a big fan of data visualization and information design, and have made a living out of it. At the same time, I also understand their limitations and biases because of how numbers can be manipulated or emphasized to serve a purpose. Communication isn’t just about exposing numbers – it’s about being able to explain them in a meaningful way.

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This below video from Veritasium which demystifies 13 misconceptions about global warming (i.e. climate change) is a great example of why charts and graphs don’t explain themselves. The presenter flashes lots of scientific graphs and charts that have also been used by climate-deniers to support their arguments. The key thing is that he supports the numbers with clear explanations backed by research rather than just focusing on the numbers or trends shown by the charts.

Smart yet simple messaging works every time

Finally got through another annual from Communication Arts –  what I really like about the 2013 advertising annual is that the ads featured in the magazine are simple yet engaging. There’s nothing better (and harder to do) than an idea that is smart and makes you think about what’s being communicated. Rather than skimming through these ads, I have to stop and think about not only the message, but also the creative way that the message is being communicated (i.e. design). Some of my favorites are below – all with a subtle yet intriguing thing about each of them.

"ACE Scholarships is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that raises money to provide partial tuition scholarships to low-income children in grades K-12. To highlight the relationship between high school dropout and incarceration rates, we wrapped a school bus to look like a prison bus. The message is simple: better education leads to less incarceration."
ACE Scholarships is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that raises money to provide partial tuition scholarships to low-income children in grades K-12. To highlight the relationship between high school dropout and incarceration rates, we wrapped a school bus to look like a prison bus. The message is simple: better education leads to less incarceration.”
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Transit series for Fiat
Transit series for Fiat
General Mills, Cheerios
General Mills, Cheerios
“This is the classic approach of showing the problem while offering a solution. Having a problem like avalanches just happened to add some visual interest to this guerrilla campaign we did for Island Alpine Guides. Dummy arms were placed in snowbanks, holding brochures for Island Alpine Guides Avalanche Skills Training.”

 

Geneva’s network of communication professionals

Geneva’s international community is a big network filled with various organizations, of different sizes, working on issues from environment, technology, social justice, to humanitarian relief. With so many actors trying to work together, it’s a no-brainer that there are tons of meetings and networking opportunities to collaborate and cooperate. While some people might think meetings might be a waste of time, the fact that there are so many cultural differences, languages, and perspectives at play, it’s a necessity to come together to share ideas, resources, and, in general, find a way to work together… and this particularly goes for the communication industry.

You're on the air

Working in communications and in such an international place like Geneva, it’s pretty common to come across networking opportunities and groups focused on various aspects of communications. There’s the main UN Communications Group managed and run by the UN Information Service that looks at ‘big-picture’ stuff that the UN as a family is working on. As part of this group, there’s a more focused group on social media (managed by avid tweep Gisella) that share resources and discusses the latest news and updates from this online channel.

Outside the UN is the broader Geneva Communicators Network which includes a growing list of communication professionals in and around Geneva. In addition to website which hosts all the latest news and info from the network, the group is also on LinkedIn and has an active community of over 2000 members. They also post jobs on their website and regularly organize interesting lunchtime events on the latest thinking in strategy, public relations, media, etc. For example, the last event I went to was understanding the communication challenges of urban planning. The presenter Vincent Lusser said communications was a key part of making sure people are aware of and can contribute to the discussion on changes to Geneva’s urban plan.

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There’s also a technical group, set up and run entirely by volunteers and people passionate about online communications, called the “Geneva Web Group”. While the group is also on LinkedIn, I find the internal Google Group much more active and interesting where jobs are posted, ideas are discussed, and plenty of opportunity to get answers to any web-related question. Even though the group is for Geneva, many of the members are from around the world with various backgrounds on not only web issues, but also information architecture, content management, and design.

In a previous post I wrote about how communication professionals don’t consider design in their plans until the last minute, yet design is essential in any kind of communication. So it was great to hear that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) took the initiative to set up a group for designers working in international organizations in Geneva. Organized by a designer named Jesus (yes, seriously!), the first meeting took place in October at ITU’s headquarters over an informal lunch that included creative people from UNICEF, SICPA, OCHA, and WHO. While there wasn’t much of an agenda for the first meeting, the networking opportunity allowed us to talk about key challenges and issues that every organization faced. This included:

  • The politics at play when trying to establish and implement a corporate identity
  • How organizations can empower designers to ensure that corporate guidelines and styles are followed via internal communication, training, and building relationships with staff
  • Designers play an important role in communications as they understand the content and tools to produce communication and find the channels to deliver them
  • Designers don’t only design but also are in charge with maintaining the visual brand of an organization.

It’s pretty special to have all this happening in Geneva where these networks are accessible and welcoming to anyone interested in different aspects of communication. If I missed any networks or groups, let me know by leaving a comment below.

Media: Thanks for the news about Ebola – now what do I do?

In the last few months, Ebola has been on people’s minds especially those who are working to curb the spread of the virus and providing humanitarian relief to the millions of people that could be exposed in the three main countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

At the same time, the media has gone in full overdrive on reporting on what’s been happening, where the disease is likely to spread, and who’s been responding. Thanks media for letting us know what’s going on, but what should we do with headlines and articles like this?

Ebola-infected nurse ‘followed regulations’, husband says

or this…

Don’t sacrifice our dog! Husband of Spanish nurse infected with Ebola attacks Madrid health chiefs for threatening to have their family pet put down

At the same time, the overwhelming amount of information about how Ebola is now spreading to the United States or in large parts of Europe in the near future also makes me wonder what’s all this suppose to do for the public.

For example, this recent news about how “High risk Ebola could reach France and UK by end-Oct” is good info to have but if the UK and France have a 15% and 25% chance of importing the virus by the end of the month, what should I do with this info other than get depressed about it? If a crazy and somewhat unstoppable virus is heading my way, and if every article focuses on how Armageddon might be coming, am I suppose to leave my home/city/country? Should I be scared of anyone that gets on the bus sneezing? Should I be telling the authorities to quarantine anyone who “looks” sick?

And when the media emphasize quotes like the one below, how is this actually helping the public?

“It’s really a lottery,” said Derek Gatherer of Britain’s Lancaster University, an expert in viruses who has been tracking the epidemic – the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

Aren’t lotteries normally a nice surprise? I’m not sure Ebola is a good thing unless this academic is hoping for a generous contribution to his research. Graphics like the one below from the US Centre for Disease Control can help ease any fears with simple language and illustration – could the media do more of this?

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The media has a responsibility to report the news, but at the same time it shouldn’t make people feel helpless. Using scare tactics and focusing on the negatives might be great to sell newspapers, ad space, and TV time… Perhaps it’s now the time to focus on solutions and add value to help people do something (ex. preparedness or prevention) rather than just keep sharing news that may only cause hysteria and panic. This ScienceInsider article, “How to talk to the public about Ebola: Five tips from risk communication experts“, highlights that there’s still hope for the media to turn itself around by educating and teaching the public what the numbers mean and what will happen if action (or inaction) happens.

However, if the main role of journalism is only about content curation and aggregation of information, then maybe its time for the public step up and help each other find, share, and promote solutions.

The first unified theory of branding

There’s a lot of talk in the business, marketing, and communications world about branding, strategy, and design but not always (well, most of time) in the same breath. There seems to be rift between the right and left side of the brain so it was a such a surprise to find a book that bridges this gap between strategy and design.

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The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier, from Liquid Agency, is not only a quick read, but a deeply insightful book presenting the first unified theory of branding – a set of five disciplines to help companies bridge the gap between brand strategy and execution. There are plenty of powerful statements Neumeier sets out from the start to the end of the book. It seems that he wanted to make it perfectly clear that you can’t have strategy without design, communication without dialogue, and brands without focus.

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The five disciplines of branding

  • Differentiate
  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Validate
  • Cultivate

Think you know what your business is all about and think you have a great marketing strategy? Try to find unambiguous answers to these three little questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?

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Working in visual communication, I found it also to be a great example of also linking business content (normally boring and stale) with visually stimulating typography, graphics, and layout. It actually makes you want to read this book, which is categorized as “marketing and management”.

Your time is valuable, so my first goal is to give you a book you can finish in a short plane ride. My second goal is to give you powerful principles that will last a career.

oldcom

If anyone works in communication, branding, or strategy, this book should be the first thing to be read. In addition to the book, you can download for free a PDF that summarizes the concepts and ideas from The Brand Gap in a nice visual storytelling presentation – the images from this post are from the presentation.

newcom