how to plan your year-end retreat

parlato design studio year-end retreat

whether you’re a small business owner or part of an in-house team, taking time at the end of the year to step back and reflect is an important part of maintaining healthy progress. i plan one every year, and i always surprised by what comes out of it.

i planned my first retreat somewhat by accident: i had a good amount of downtime in my first year of business, and i’d been trying to find an excuse to visit this boutique hotel i found in desert hot springs, hope springs resort. to me, it was the perfect picture of relaxation, and once i got there i found out i was right!

that first year i was mostly looking forward and taking a break, but as i built my business up, the next year i actually had some news to report. in the year that followed, i’d taken the initiative to branch out in a few directions, so listing new adventures and possibilities was kind of mind-blowing. this year topped that one by far, so i’m really excited to write it all out and look at everything on paper.

if you’re part of a group, taking time together outside the office in a neutral space is a great way to connect with the people you work with on a different level. allow everyone to contribute, compliment each person’s great moments of the year, ask them what inspires them, what would they do if they could make the rules? your co-workers and employees know their jobs best, and sometimes their unique perspective can inform a direction you wouldn’t have thought of without input.

how to plan your retreat:

first, stop waiting for some “free time” to open up. pick the least likely busy time months in advance, before any other conflicting events will allow you to change your mind. block it out and commit to it! even if you can’t spare more than 1 day, get away from your office or workplace so you can think clearly.

second, research your ideal setting. treat it like a vacation for your mind, a place with inspiring surroundings that also offer quiet for reflection. look for your favorite natural setting, maybe mountains, beaches, countrysides, or cool winter deserts landscapes with quaint small town B&B’s within driving distance? these are the places you’re looking for. you can actually do this step first, and eliminate the time between making the commitment and booking the reservation, so you’re locked in before you have a chance to second-guess.

third, book it! make apologies for your absence by beaming “i’m sorry, I’ll be away for my annual year-end retreat!” feel good about your decision! in addition to your favorite travel accessories, add your favorite pens and a blank notebook, and when the big day rolls around, away you go!

if your business has a few employees or you’re part of a department, you can plan a group retreat as well. if you can’t get out of town, at least get out of the office! back when i worked at natpe, our department head, beth, planned a creative brainstorming day at the getty. we left the office, took the morning to look at art, change our mindset and get inspired, and then we picked a spot among the sculptures to get our brainstorming on.

how i structure my retreats:

i leave early so i can enjoy my wind-down day, which is what I do on day 1. unwind! on day 2, i get up and enjoy breakfast, followed by some light exercise to get the blood flowing, maybe a walk or a swim or some yoga.

to get started, i review last year’s notes and analyze how everything played out. then, i sit down with my notebook and bullet out every new thing i did in the past year that i hadn’t done before. i like to make note of compound progresses, things i built on from something i did previously. we often think we’re aware of everything we’ve done, but i am always surprised by how much more i remember in this process. i get all kinds of ideas for the future at this stage, and note them for brainstorming later.

i buffer my reflection on the past with a break of physical activity or even a night’s sleep before i work on the future, giving my brain time to digest everything. when i’m ready, i look at my list of accomplishments and think of ways to build on them. free-association, daydreaming and hair-brained scheming comes in handy here! this is where letting curiosity and wonderment can help you strive for that next level you would normally think impossible or out-of-reach. once i’m done, i like to break these into easy actions, goals to strive for, and big ideas i can contribute to in the long term.

all of this helps me get my priorities in order and approach the new year with confidence. when i get home, i can tackle those easy actions, and i’m energized to break out the baby steps toward my new goals. with all of that organized, the long range plans get their periodic attention too. how about you, anyone planning a year-end retreat for 2010?

7 ways to have fun at work

7 ways to have fun at work

following a theme around labor day, the LA area chamber asked me to present to the bimonthly referral breakfast on taking the labor out of labor and making work fun. i’ve heard a lot of talk from friends about workplaces blocking social networking sites or banning other non-work activities in an effort to get employees focused on spending more of their day working. i have always found this to be a silly idea. people need breaks, they’re not machines, so if it’s not facebook, it’s going to be something else. why not accept breaks and non-work activities as part of the workday and take them back so people are happily contributing in a variety of activities?

creative brainstorming: set aside some time to work on upcoming projects in a freeform brainstorming session. if you work in a big company, take your department or some crossover folks from related departments. if you’re a small studio, select the team assigned to a certain project. if you work on your own, set up a group of other independent professionals in your industry. get everyone out of their offices and start some open creative discussions on how best to approach the next assignment or project. bouncing ideas off others can help refine them before work is done, or inform you on a new direction you hadn’t considered. in many cases, ideas are the most valuable thing we sell, so giving people an open space where they can play and cultivate them helps everyone get to better ideas.

improvement strategies: this is going to sound meta, but i think it’s important to get outside of work and then talk about work and ways to improve workflow. rather than assume you have a finished system, treat it like an evolving creature that’s best managed by allowing for change and improvement by the people running the workflow systems. take your department or compose a group of people from related departments. if you’re in a small company, include everyone. if you’re on your own, compose a group from within your industry with similar challenges and systems. for each meeting, pick one system, talk about how it’s going and let the people directly involved contribute their thoughts on improvement. allowing people to contribute improvements on the way they work makes them feel valued and engaged. they know what they do best, let them help make it better.

net-walking: why settle for the same old status meetings in the conference room or around the boss’ desk? get your blood circulating and get outside for a walk & talk meeting or department check-in. or if you work on your own, set up a net-walking group where you talk about how things are going, and set out your goals for the next week. this kind of outing takes the same amount of time as a sit-down meeting, but it gets people energized and makes everyone feel good that the idea they need to do everything work-related inside is a myth.

plan a field trip to a relevant site or exhibit: support professional development on the job with periodic group trips to places relevant to your industry. if you’re a design team, visit a design-related museum exhibit every other month and alternate with visits to print vendors or lunch with your web development team. if you work on your own, set up a professional development group with meetup or your local AIGA chapter and go to events together or set up vendor tours as a group. when you learn about the systems that affect your own workday, you can better plan around how those systems work, and work with your vendors more effectively. and if you’re just going to look at really cool stuff, well, that’s inspiring for the times when you get to make really cool stuff!

research & presentation group: rather than expecting employees to do research on their own time, make it part of the workday. whether you work for a company or on your own, compose a group that does 1 hour of research on relevant topics to work or the industry, and meets once per week to bring their favorite item to share and present. everybody benefits from each persons unique perspective, and you can actively build a collection of great resources.

networking lunches: the concept is pretty simple, but usually doesn’t get organized as a team building experience. choose a group of main contacts from a few departments, or a list of cross-disciplinary solopreneurs [2 print designers, 2 web developers, 2 illustrators, 2 photographers] , and have lunch on a biweekly or monthly basis to build relationships, learn about what each person does and expand your own horizons. you can let them be freeform networking, or pick a theme or discussion topic and address something new each time. giving people who have a working relationship a chance to know each other better outside work allows them to see the bigger picture of each person’s workday, and they work together more harmoniously in the future.

team building outreach: one great way to focus on relationships and team building outside the office is to organize outreach efforts. pick an organization you’d like to support, and assemble a team to participate on behalf of your company or industry. you can walk or run for a fundraising charity, get a group of green thumbs to help with organizations that replant green spaces, or take time out of the holidays to work at your local soup kitchen. what does this do for work? it gives people a chance to get outside their roles and work together outside structure, solving problems as a matter of consensus, and getting to know each other better as part of the process.

aside from the benefits we try to quantify when justifying indirectly productive activities, these things are fun and engaging, and make for motivated people who feel valued beyond simply their contributions to work. support and appreciation for professional development leads to self-motivation, which is invaluable in the workplace, but it starts by making room for it and letting go of the false work ethic dictating that any time spent away from a desk is time lost. rather, it’s time invested.

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creative co-working

ben thompson & heather parlato co-working at fetch! creative
[image: stuart silverstein]

a few weeks ago, at the end of my 4th of july wrap-up i mentioned that i was starting a new work schedule involving co-working with a group of designers. from the minute we all got on board, we were excited about coming into a social workspace where we could maintain our independence as self-employed designers, but still get the support of working with other creatives. it’s been 3 weeks since my first day and it’s been a very welcome shake-up to my routine.

the backstory
thanks to our awesome friend, spencer cross, who started the kernspiracy listserv for designers to connect, share advice & referrals, review software & hardware, and generally discuss our industry, i met all these great designers through ongoing comments on this list and was familiar with them for years before we decided to work together. 2 designers from this group, stuart silverstein of fetch! creative and ben thompson of studiofluid have taken on a partnership to combine and multiply the efficacy of their services in e-commerce design and branding. they got an office space that had plenty more room than they needed, so they decided to ask a few design colleagues if we’d like to set up a co-working arrangement, whereby we rent desks and access to office services, bring our own workstations, and work together. at first i thought i don’t really need to do this, i have an office at home, but the more beth goldfarb and i talked about it, the more we thought it could be a great thing to help us get on track with everything we wanted to implement from the creative freelancer conference, help each other, network more regularly, and add a social aspect to our work we hadn’t had before. so, we decided to do it on a part time schedule. stuart & ben filled the other part time slots with melanie orndorff and dave waite for a really well balanced set of expertise in the room.

beth goldfarb, melanie orndorff & dave waite, co-working at fetch! creative

what’s it like?
we all have a basic schedule, but on any given day you could be working alone [though stuart and ben are usually in the office] or with 2 other people. when someone has a technical question, just shout it out and you’ll probably get it solved in a few minutes. if someone wants feedback on an upcoming project, there are usually a few people to ask about composition, usability & first impressions. we started out having lunch as a group on fridays, but we’re already talking about doing much more.

at least once a week, in the middle of a conversation, someone will say “that gives me a great idea!” and run off to write it down. someone else will need to partner with a compliment to their skill set and pair off to work together. or sometimes, one person is busy and checks with the group to see if anyone can take on extra work. i’m also surprised with how self-directed we are. we take breaks to talk, but we also have hours of headphone-fueled clicking & typing where we’re all cranking out work. it’s a really great environment of creative support with fantastic people.

also, there are dogs. dog-friendly office!

beth goldfarb, melanie orndorff & dave waite, co-working at fetch! creative

there are ways to make this happen in your own group as well. while i think it would be really cool if design firms or often-partnered vendors made room for a few extra desks and offered them up to independent designers, if an arrangement like that is hard to come by, there are ways to do it yourself. you can always put out feelers in your network for like-minded designers and sign on with a co-working space like blankspaces and arrange to meet there on the same days and work together. if you’re more into a collaborative startup environment, idyllic nerd commune might be more your thing. and hey, if you don’t need office equipment and are happy in a coffee shop with wifi, maybe see about one with a bigger table in the back and take a group mobile day.

however you might want to work it, with freelancing and small businesses on the rise in the current economy, i think picking your co-workers for a more supportive & collaborative environment is a great way to work. for me, the perk is that this is on a part-time schedule, where i still get the refuge of the home office for the more quiet, more intense, more cats & pajamas days i still need.

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5 things you can do to build your business this summer

5 things you can do to build your business this summer

if you’re in an industry that experiences a slower summer season, it’s a great time to invest in your business so it’s extra-fresh for the next time you get busy. if you’re not sure where to start, here are 5 ideas to build on.

rethink your services
we all concentrate on our areas of specialty, but have you thought about related activities and services you could be offering that wouldn’t shift your focus too far? maybe you’ve been offering a couple services that would make sense to package and target a different sector of the market. perhaps you’re getting a lot of questions on similar subjects and an introductory consulting service makes sense. better yet, give your clients and prospects a little taste of your expertise and personality in a white paper or e-book. if you’re spending some of your extra time on education or professional development, maybe you’re able to branch out and offer a new product or service you hadn’t considered developing yet.

brainstorm: write out a list of all the services you currently offer. think about each one, and try to write one related service you’d like to add, or that could be included by someone who has the same expertise. google some of your favorites—what appears with these products and services that you hadn’t considered before? if you’re up to the task, consider adding the most viable to your repertoire. if you can’t incorporate it now, take a few days to see if one of your ideas appeals to you as a future goal to shoot for.

refresh your site content
building your web site is often the biggest project we work on in self-promotion, and once it’s done, it’s really easy to set it aside and let it do its work undisturbed. we may not be looking at it every day, but possible clients and customers are, and when they have new & interesting things to look at, they stay longer and engage more. additionally, search engines are regularly indexing sites on the web, but if it finds yours and you haven’t updated in awhile, they’ll pass you over for sites with more frequent content changes. you may want to consider an online editorial calendar, so you have a framework for adding new content regularly in different areas of your site [this can work in conjunction with social media, where you tell people about your new content and ask them to take a look].

brainstorm: chart out all the pages on your site and list what content is on each page. read through the content you have currently and see if it’s still 100% relevant or could use some improvement. decide on areas that just need a refresh once for the year, and other pages that could possibly have revolving content, such as announcements, new offers, or archived newsletters you’re sending monthly. if you can’t find current pages for revolving content, think of what you might add that is updated elsewhere, like a twitter stream or facebook business page. then chart out a rough calendar by month and see if you can commit to a schedule of regular updates, whether they’re quarterly or daily.

reconnect with your network
remember the last time someone caught you with a surprise phone call or a nice card just to say hi or catch up? it’s always a good feeling when friends and colleagues reach out, so why not be that person this time around? figure out your preferred method of contact and then do it up proper! if you like calling people, start with your favorite clients and vendors and call to say hello! if you’re more of an email person, write some thoughtful words personalized to the people in your network. as an alternative, you can use your newsletter service to send a graphic email to a larger list. if you prefer cards that arrive by post, pick up a set that appeals to the message you want to convey [or consider having some designed—just sayin!], get out your favorite pen, and author some nice notes. work your way out from your inner circle to those you speak to less frequently. get social media involved for the people you connect with online.

brainstorm: sometimes reaching out takes several forms of delivery. in fact, maybe it’s time to update your contact database with some of those cards you’ve picked up in your travels that are piled on your desk. you can use contact management software to note which mode of contact different friends prefer, and split them up by how you might contact them. then, get creative and make it happen!

revisit your brand touchpoints
you can get some great help identifying and brainstorming on all the possibilities for brand touchpoints here. once you have a solid list, take some time with each one, ask yourself if they’re reaching your clients and prospects in the way you want them to. maybe you’ve been working with some new niches or personalities that interact with different items or information sources. evaluate which efforts you want to stick with and which are ready for hiatus. take notes when you’re out and about, what catches your eye, how have other businesses decided to interact with you in ways you thought was clever or well-placed? are you missing some cool twist in the lifestyles of the people you work with?

brainstorm: list out the brand touchpoints you’re currently using, then write as many possibilities for interaction you can think of next to each one. do these modes of interaction give you any ideas on similar items or resources you could use in the future? have you asked clients how they’ve found you or do they report on anything you’ve been doing that got their attention? is it time to start asking those questions to settle any doubts about your efforts?

reward yourself for a job well done
every time you spend time improving your business services and communications, you’re investing in yourself, so set some of this summer fun time aside to celebrate with a reward. we all work better and smarter when there is balance in our lives. give yourself that afternoon hike, take a night of overtime off, get yourself or your business a gift, or take yourself out for ice cream or soda.

brainstorm: aside from the pure rewards for a job well done, find ways to infuse fun into your business. can you go analog for the day and review paperwork or resource material at the park or the beach? do it! are there wifi hotspots or cafes with free wireless where you can go mobile for a change of scenery? try it out!

me? i take breaks for walks, bike rides, or a run on different days, but my new goal is to find a public pool i like and jump in a few times per week. and i’m a big believer in homemade fruit pops on hot days. nothing like an icy blended fruit pop!

how to kick up your customer service

my breakfast at the LA area chamber this morning had a brainstorming session about how to enhance customer service. it got me thinking about how running a business is more about customer service than even the service i’m selling. so much of success is about just showing up, listening to our customers and doing what we say we’re going to do, that i thought i’d share some of the things we talked about.

little things mean a lot
when i read the e-myth revisited by michael e. gerber, many of his examples were about nice little touches that various businesses had written into their operation manuals as a mark of customer service. making the experience of working with you rewarding and fun to your clients means showing them you care about them beyond the work they bring you. use your discovery sessions with each new client to take note of personal preferences so you can speak to these over the course of your relationship. add personalized notes when you send written correspondence. once you get into a working relationship, treat your alliance like a team and use “we” statements rather than “you” or “i” so they are assured everyone’s equally invested. people always say to smile on the telephone because the listener can hear the change in your voice. i’d say take it a step further, if you are like me and have to dedicate a certain time to making calls, ramp up for it with a favorite song, get relaxed, confident and happy, and then go into your call sessions. i used to do this before job interviews, now i do it before calls, meetings & presentations. it’s a great way to really get your game face on.

be there for your clients
showing up, being on time and responding to communications in a timely manner is a given we all trip up on sometimes, but a mark of good service to prioritize. beyond the literal interpretation of timeliness is listening, focusing, making the time that serves your client about them. i love tom peters‘ books and advice, and he repeatedly stresses that truly listening to clients is the most important service you can provide. we are often spinning our wheels trying to figure out how to impress them or solve the next problem, but the more we project of our own ideas, the less we have truly heard what they need. schedule some time each week to check in with clients you’re not in regular contact with, drop them a note or give a call. set up a google alert for each of your clients so you can be delivered any mention of them online and stay abreast of what they’re up to so you can send them due congratulations on their accomplishments. catherine chevalier of not maurice added that making sure clients know you’re there as a support partner is very important. in a discovery session, i like to ask potential clients to define success for the particular project we’re working on so i can find out what’s important to them, what their expectations are going in and help manage them, and make sure the money they’re spending will get them where they want to go. finally, everyone agrees that the thank you card will never go out of style. take the time to personally thank your clients for choosing you and being great people to work with.

mind the details
clients like to know they’ve got someone looking out for them. i’ve had them send me copy with errors a simple spell check could catch, so now i run it on all their documents [as a designer, i can’t make the changes automatically on official copy, but i can ask the client about them instead]. if you liaise between clients and vendors, be sure to communicate important information clearly and explain processes to your clients so they understand the decisions they’re making. think about your services from an outsider’s perspective and try to streamline your processes to include relevant information the client needs while editing down technical stuff that might overwhelm them—make it easy to do business with you. similarly, make it easy to get in touch. respond to emails within an hour, even if it’s just to confirm receipt and give an eta on when a client will hear back. marketing mentor advises to put your business phone number in your email name field after your name as well as in your signature so clients don’t have to look far your number. i recently read the best invoice terms to get you paid faster which mentioned that thanking clients for their business on your invoice increases the likelihood of payment by 5% [there’s more good advice there as well, read up!]. in short, try to use automated systems that can help add value to your services and keep your clients happy.

prevent problems whenever you can
sometimes miscommunications and misunderstandings can happen in your professional relationships, and there are a few ways to deal with them. i like to do as much preventative medicine as i can in a discovery meeting as part of learning about my clients and their goals. when expectations seem out of line with what i’m able to deliver, i have that conversation upfront to prevent a mismatch. success is ultimately about defining what a client wants and delivering it, so i try to make sure we have a good match of expectations and commitment going in, and tackle any misconceptions before they become an uncomfortable reality. of course, we can’t anticipate the scope of what these will be sometimes, so when a miscommunication does happen, hear your client out, empathize with any frustration they express, offer a sincere apology and come up with a workable solution. if a valued client is particularly upset, you may want to make an exception and offer a special make-good tailored to the situation at hand. a fellow chamber member talked about an upsetting experience with a business and how they worked to resolve the situation which so impressed him, he still talks about it and recommends them to this day. how you handle a situation with a client can entirely turn bad circumstances around. however, there are times when perhaps the fit was never meant to be, and you choose to cut ties. while this is an alternative, i’d caution anyone against arguing with a client. nancy friedman, the telephone doctor says “don’t ever argue with a customer. you’ll lose every single time. don’t even get into the ring with them.” if you’ve identified the point where you think it’s best to make an exit, state it simply and move on.

build your brand touchpoints

brand touchpoints

in brand design language, your brand touchpoints are a complete list of every opportunity the public at large has to interact with, or “touch,” your brand, from your identity, to your marketing & advertising, to the experience of working with you. it’s a much longer list than you could probably write off the top of your head, and for that reason, it’s a good idea to compile all the possible brand touchpoints your business might have so you can give attention to each one and plan how they will work together in the grand scheme of your brand strategy. this article gives a good overview of what a brand is and defines the major common touchpoints most businesses can use to communicate their brand message.

identity touchpoints
first off, all the pieces that make up your identity are also brand touchpoints [your identity is the nucleus of your brand]. building from the print matter area, add in every printed item your business produces: ads, newsletters & publications, business forms, proposals, signage & packaging, direct mail and special event collateral [if, say, you exhibit at trade shows]. these materials should all look like they’re saying what the business says it’s going to do in its mission statement to keep the message consistent each time a customer looks at your materials. what if clients look at your invoices and smile at the familiarity of someone they like working with? that’s the idea!

communications touchpoints
on the less-tangible side, starting with communication devices: emails, voice mails, public speaking, networking, public relations, presentations, phone etiquette and corporate voice. how you decide to use language to reinforce the type of company you are speaks volumes in very subtle ways, and when it’s consistent from your emails to the copy on your web site to the way you and your employees interact in person, that gives your target market reliable evidence that you are who you say you are and you deliver on what you say you will.

experiential touchpoints
all these printed words aside, experience plays a huge role in brand communications. every time a client or customer has a chance to experience working with you is also a touchpoint. sometimes we think of this as a closed sale and forget that the experience itself is what makes them keep coming back as well as give referrals and rave reviews. aside from the communication devices listed above, a company’s approach to process and service comes in to play here. what special approach can you take that sets your brand apart from others in your field? are your employees given an internal brand launch so they have brand confidence such that they are brand merchants in the field? if you have an office or store, how does the environment work toward your brand message [and more importantly, is there anything that detracts from it that can be improved]? what are your company’s affiliations? do you use green products, associate with a favorite non-profit, work with a preferred political party or initiative? your business associations say a lot about what you’re doing behind the scenes. what is your approach to customer service? how do you create confidence and trust between your business and your clients while you’re working with them? business philosophy can inform as many tangible touchpoints as experiential—think of as many opportunities you have to do things the best way possible and implement the ones you think will make the biggest difference with your target markets. the way we get clients to smile at our invoices is by giving them a great experience.

industry & lifestyle touchpoints
now that you have the main touchpoints in mind, the wild card category is anything that is specific to your business, your industry, or your target market. if you can create something helpful or useful as a gift to your clients, that is a great promotional touchpoint. think of your own experience in your industry: what is that one thing you’ve been doing yourself that would be so convenient if it were a form or a guide or information you could compile and share? you study your target market, you know them best, so what lifestyle choices are they making that might inform an item you could use as a promotional touchpoint? whether you create it yourself or partner with a gift company that simply puts your logo on something your clients will appreciate, the key is to make sure it’s useful and endearing to your target market so they use it, keep it and appreciate it. i can’t tell you how much swag i’ve tossed because it was a useless item that was simply an excuse to distribute a logo. think hard, choose wisely, get in the minds of your clients. better yet–ask your clients!

here’s my own example: i’m a designer with a long background in print design. one way i can showcase my work while being helpful to clients is in giving them complimentary communication devices they might otherwise buy. this month, i’ve created a set of valentines for clients, friends, and anyone who will get on my contact form and request a free set. that’s right A FREE SET, request yours today so i can mail it to you in time for valentine’s day!

what it comes down to is, your brand is in everything you do. leave no stone unturned, for there may be an overlooked opportunity to make a better impression. take none of them for granted, sometimes reworking the simple things to align with your brand strategy are details people notice and appreciate. if you haven’t in awhile, sit down with your mission statement and look at each touchpoint you’re currently using individually and ask yourself “how does this piece help communicate this statement?” brainstorm on it, sleep on it, think about how all of them might work together. compile a short list of sure shots and put them in action, adding any along the way that make sense. if you need ideas, advice or have questions, contact me, i’m always happy to answer!

how to save money on your next design project

how to save on your next design project

smart spending and saving is one of my favorite topics, so i figured i’d kick off the year by pairing it with my area of expertise in design to deliver an insider’s view of where to look for savings in your design projects. in the current economic climate, i’m hearing a lot of requests to keep things as cost-effective as possible, which is something i do with every project i get, come feast or famine. the fact of the matter is there is a lot that can be done on the client’s end, and knowing those things ahead of time puts you in a lot more control of how much you’ll spend. in my 15+ years doing design, both in-house and freelance, here are the most common areas where clients can control their savings.

plan ahead
sounds like a vague no-brainer, but there’s a lot that goes into getting the most out of your next project, and that starts with putting a plan together. source your designer down to a few favorite choices before you have a project on your calendar. ask them about how long it will take to produce a project like yours so nobody is rushed and charging rush charges for it. if you have an idea of the scope of your year’s projects, talk to your designer about how they might be combined, produced and printed together to save money. if you’re not sure what your year will entail, plan that out with your marketing specialist so you can tell your designer your goals and they can advise you on the best approach [clue: many designers are also marketing specialists]. it might mean working harder to plan a campaign all at once rather than 1 piece at a time, but it saves work, time & money down the road. we’re always happy to save you money when it’s a true savings of time and effort as well.

proofread first
it happens all the time, i get “final” copy for a project, and as i’m putting it into the layout, i’m catching typos that would have been caught by a simple run of spell check. i include 2 rounds of revisions with every project, but there have been many times where clients exceed these and end up paying for 3rd and 4th rounds. other designers don’t include them and simply charge individually for every round, which rewards the organized client and charges the one who says “i just need to see it in the layout.” if that’s you and you’re looking to save money, take the extra time to proofread your copy. run the free spell check in your word processor. trade free favors with a colleague and proofread for each other. compare the cost of hiring a copyeditor with an additional round of revisions from your designer, and consider hiring the copyeditor, who can make smart editorial suggestions to improve your copy. when you’re distracted by catching spelling and grammar, you don’t catch other things you’d like to change, generating extra revisions and additional costs. and at its worst, you don’t catch it all, and end up with the wrong information in your printed piece, and that’s a sad, sad day.

ask about processes and materials
once your project is ready to go to press, there are a few options of what print process to use, and what paper to print on. printers will store a selection of standard papers, called “house stocks” on site, and using one of these always costs less than ordering something specific. many clients think the quantity of output is the main determinant factor in the cost, but it’s actually the cost of the setup fee [converting your digital layout to printing plates], press time, and cost of the paper stock, running an extra thousand pieces is often negligible next to the difference between a house stock and a high-end specialty paper. i love specialty papers, and it’s any client’s choice on where they want to save and where they prefer to spend, so my advice on paper is, ask your designer to help you choose what is appropriate to the piece, and ask if it’s a house stock or special order. as for printing, based on your quantity needed, a printer can choose between a digital press for shorter runs, or offset lithography for longer runs [and web presses for really huge runs]. as i mentioned in the plan ahead section, if you’re able to combine projects and print them together, you can turn several short runs into a single cost-effective long run, which not only saves money, but in some cases can allow you to use a process that would have been otherwise unaffordable. there is also the option of gang printing, which uses offset lithography, but rather than dedicating the sheet of paper to your job alone, the printer gangs several together and keeps the press running constantly. this process is often cheaper than the alternatives, but the quality you sacrifice is that you only get to choose from among a couple papers, and you don’t get to approve the color, so it can be slightly off. if these factors aren’t a problem for you, gang printing can be another way to save.

when not to go cheap
i think there’s always a line that should be drawn to avoid the penny wise pound foolish scenario. one thing i’d advise against is trying to find the cheapest designer possible to do your project. the lowest priced designers on the market are also the least experienced, and that often costs more down the line. this lack of experience usually also means they can’t advise you on all the factors and processes that might be best for your project or your bottom line. i also advise against using print processes that are wasteful, excessively toxic, or using a shop whose practices allow them to get around the cost of compliance with environmental standards. being sustainable does imply higher costs, but the benefits are important enough that i think other cost-cutting strategies are in order.

what it comes down to is plan, proof & ask questions about the cost factors that affect your budget. instead of thinking along the lines of “how can you make this cheaper for me” think more about “what can i do to bring the cost of this work down?” sometimes, the little things you do add up in a big way, not only for your wallet, but you’ll have a great relationship with your designer, who will appreciate a client that understands the process.

plan your annual marketing calendar

2010 calendar

i’ll try not to add to the chorus of disbelief that the year is practically over and instead say: congratulations, we all made it another year! since the calendar allows us this time to regroup over the holidays and start fresh in the new year, i like to take a couple days sometime in december to do a year-end retreat. whether you get out of town to a new location to clear your head, or take a stay-cation right in your living room, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year, list out any new goals you’d like to incorporate, and chart out a marketing plan for the coming year. this not only allows you to take more control of your schedule, but you save money when you plan ahead, strategize on how best to attack these projects, and avoid rush charges.

if you’re not sure where to start in planning a marketing calendar, use these questions to get the basic framework going: does your business have any fixed dates for events or promotions you already know you’ll be working with? does your industry have any events your business participates in [or would like to]? are there holidays that you can use as a good excuse to reach out with a personalized communication? and alternately, where are the stretches where none of these things happen, and what can you do with them?

once you have these dates & events to work with, ask yourself what type of communication would work best in each case. a postcard? a promotional piece? email newsletter? a combination of a few of these? for promoting your own events, you’ll want to sketch out a specific promotion strategy, but for periodic points of contact, you can pick the best format for the occasion and try to switch it up so your market gets used to seeing the flexibility of your brand. for example, as a designer, sending my own cards on major card holidays is a given. i also commit to a monthly email newsletter, and i like celebrating seasons, so for me, that’s a good time to use a postcard. this means, aside from my monthly newsletter, my contacts are seeing something from me most months of the year.

for the stretches when you don’t really have anything planned is a good time to make something up! while my work is always accessible online & linked in my newsletter, i like to send out a little “what’s new” package of print samples every so often since most of my work is print matter. if you were thinking of offering a promotion, creating a unique piece that announces it and slating it for one of these months where you don’t have anything else going out is a good way to stay in touch. don’t be afraid to share something not related to business–share info on things you like, cool tools of the trade, or send a personal email inviting your colleagues to meet in person.

once you chart these out on a calendar, it should be pretty easy to balance your communications over a few media formats and evenly space them through the year. then the tough part comes: commitment! the surest way to get all these things out the door is to create production schedules at least 6 weeks out for each. but don’t fret–if you got to this point, you can plan certain pieces together and get them done early, consolidate projects and put a little more effort upfront and save time down the line. if you have questions about how to strategize your production schedule, drop me an email and i’ll show you where you can combine & conquer!

how to plan your holiday mailing

earthlink holiday card

it may seem that the last heat wave just left, but the change of the season is upon us and it’s time to start planning holiday gifts & mailings. The year-end holidays are a great time to take a minute out of the daily grind to show your appreciation and send something special to your partners, vendors and clients to acknowledge how much you appreciate working with them. in the grand scheme of your brand, client appreciation is an opportunity to expand your brand personality and strengthen relationships by showing people that you value them beyond the work you do together.

the best way to make sure this all goes off without a hitch is to plan ahead so you can strategize what you want to send, work with the designers and vendors you want, and avoid rush charges with vendors that are overloaded with the holiday onslaught. to make it easy, use this guide to consider your approach, decide what to send and source people who can make it happen.

1: define your recipient list
since the number of recipients will determine which items or print processes make the most sense, the first thing to do is sit down with your client & vendor list and determine how many pieces you’ll be sending. some of us have 20, while others will have 2000 and beyond. you’ll also want to determine if there are tiered groups within your list, such as clients and partners above a certain dollar amount or who comprise a majority of your business and time vs. contacts you wish to keep in touch with. if you have a long list of names, this will help you decide how to break it down and find solutions for each group of recipients at each level.

2. give yourself enough time
consider that printing and mailing alone will take about 3 weeks on a standard turnaround, and that you’ll want to beat the rush and mail by the first week of december. if you’re working with a designer on a print piece, you’ll want to allow at least a month for the design process [this is a rough estimate, but to insure you can get the results you want with the designer of your choice, over-estimate here]. similarly, if you are ordering cards or branded gifts, you’ll want to build in time to research the ideal gift and time to have it customized. the turnaround will vary from vendor to vendor, but again, plan on about a month. that means, yes, it’s time to get the ball rolling in early october.

3: consider the type of communication best suited to your brand
i’ll get it out of the way upfront: a few options i’m not going to focus on here are pre-packaged gift baskets or branded gifts that involve putting your logo on a gift item. there are endless resources for going that route, and if those are avenues you want to take, my only advice is to customize it as much as possible. send your baskets with a personalized card, and if you brand a gift with a logo, make it a useful & relevant item to your target market. there is also the choice to donate to a the charity of your choice, which is what earthlink did in the sample above, detailing the contribution in an insert with the card. since there are so many worthwhile organizations out there, my advice is to choose the one that’s right for you and send a little information about them to your recipients to raise awareness.

there are a few levels of personalized communications that i think are key for holiday mailings. the most universal is a designed card that shows your branding with a thoughtful message, something that can be sent to all levels of clients & contacts. if it isn’t in your budget to hire a designer and print a card, or if your quantity of recipients makes printing cost-prohibitive, before you run off to a big card company, consider shopping around in your design community or on a craft site like etsy for designers who do packs of original art for screen-printed or letter press cards in the quantity you need. look for something you identify with that will also communicate well to your clients.

if a holiday card was already in the budget and you want to go a bit bigger with a branded gift, consider some sort of holiday kit that will be useful, helpful & memorable with your clients. i have seen some really nice packages where companies partner to create joint gifts they can send to both company’s holiday lists. a great example was something we received from the department of graphic sciences last year, which included a branded coffee mug, a set of illustrated cards by the designers, and a pack of artisan brittle by morning glory confections. this gift was a great combination of something we could use with their logo, artistic objects we could send to our own colleagues, and some really unique sweets to enjoy, all of which promoted & introduced each partner in the process [and here i am talking about it nearly a year later]. check with your favorite neighborhood shops, local farmer’s market vendors, or contacts in your chamber or industry organization for artisan food or specialty item vendors you might click with. or leave it to us–your designer will be able to come up with some great suggestions.

this is really the branding part of the project, considering your constituents and finding that special mix of what sends the right message from your company and what hits your recipients in a way they’ll remember and appreciate. if you’re stuck on how to brainstorm on this, ask your employees. they often have relationships with your clients that you don’t, and can have great insight about gift ideas. if you want a more strategic approach, talk to your designer or brand strategist about how to extend your brand to your holiday gifts. we’ll be able to take your goals and corporate voice and personal connection to your clients, and create a memorable communication with everyone on your list.

4: get to work
if you have your list together and have some idea of where you’re ready to start, it’s time to get moving. if you have a designer on staff or on hand for these projects, make the call and put a production schedule on the calendar. if you need help finding the right designer, i have helpful information on how to find the right one for your business. or hey, you’re talking to one right now, ask away!