Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.

The Agency Model

I’ve been working in-house for almost nine years now. There is a perception among management that being in-house means you’re not as creative as the people out in the agency world and therefore are not capable of doing the utterly amazing things agencies do.

There is not an ounce of truth in that last statement.

I’ve now run into this problem a second time. First at Schlumberger and now at Sysco. From management’s perspective, the key to unlocking this puzzle, is the much revered “agency model”. If only we worked more like an agency, then we would get work done faster, better and, being in-house, cheaper. The holy trifecta.

The thing I do not think people understand is that the agency model is not a process, rather it is about economics. It’s financial.

All agencies and most in-house organizations have their own variations on the process, but they are in essence all the same. There are a few different ways to skin a cat, but at the end of the day you’re stilling skinning a cat.

Agencies do indeed attract very talented and creative people. That is for sure. But these days, big corporations do, too. The main difference between the two is mindset between in-house and agency folks. Agencies will do damned near anything to make something happen. if they don’t, they’re out of business.

That’s quite the motivation to get things done.

Being in-house, you are a protected class. There are rules out the wahzoo protecting employees from the kind of lengths agencies are willing to go to. Perhaps the issue is that being in-houses, people are not incentivized enough. Not properly motivated (or improperly) to do amazing work. To push beyond.

There are other issues at play here, too.

But a lack of creativity is not one of them.

Re: Measuring a Graphic Artist’s Performance

Below is my response to a discussion that started over the weekend on LinkedIn:

This is a problem I have been struggling with for more than a year. A couple of review cycles ago, my boss challenged me with trying to assign criteria for the creative staff’s annual reviews that would measure quality. We had spent about a year shoring up our project management and intelligence gathering systems as well as refining our processes to make our group more efficient. That’s all swell and dandy when capturing hard metrics, like volume of work, total number of hours on a project, and other data points, but it leaves out quality altogether. So he asked me: How do we measure quality?

Particularly in a large corporation, this is next to impossible. Or, at least I still have not found the answer. The How article mentioned above listed some suggestions, but my problem is that things like reputation and aesthetic appeal are both subjective. Incredibly subjective in fact. So much so that I do not feel comfortable putting these sorts of requirements into a person’s annual objectives because what looks and works for me might not work for someone else.

Unfortunately, it can get even murkier. One of our segment marketing managers initiated a project that should have been able to generate enough quantifiable and qualifiable data points that this would be a slam dunk for the creative team. But, the strategy was pushed to them but the segment and they were simply asked to contribute to the functionally and the graphic design. The look and feel. They did an outstanding job but the project is a huge failure because the strategy was flawed.

The only way I have been able to objectively evaluate the creative team has been when they truly push the envelope on a project. Did something from out of left field. One of my GCDs took a lead on creating a virtual tour of a well site, then created a campaign to promote it and show it off to customers at a trade event. His strategy drove the design and execution. The project was a huge hit and his annual review reflects that success. He used many of the same people and tools to execute the project that the above mentioned team used, but because he was driving the bus it worked like a dream. But how would have I assigned that as an annual goal the year before?

I read a really interesting article at The Atlantic on Google X last week and it got me to thinking about this subject. As an organization, all they are about it coming up with innovative ideas. I got a good sense of how they determine success — whether the project gets funded or not, then whether it performs in the market. But I wonder how a group like that measures success of the individual contributors?

Not sure if any of this helps, but know that you’re not alone.


I’ve been asked about my management style, how I work and how I get things done. My stock answer is the plain truth: I make all this shit up as I go along. 

It really doesn’t matter if I’m designing a logo, working through a positioning exercise, developing a career development plan, pitching new business, getting a handle on the annual budget, I always use the same process I learned in college. 

My mentor in school, Frank, said if you can learn to design you can do anything. That simple axiom has not only been true, but has been the guiding principle in my life. This philosophy doesn’t necessarily make life an easier; it’s just a great tool to help me move forward. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel like a fraud. 

The day I first heard about “Imposter Syndrome” a couple of years ago and I felt better about life. The article let me know that few others in the world are actually the real deal. Most everyone else is just like me, trying to find our way through the world. 

Seth Godin made me think about it again this week.

I think as life grows increasingly more complicated, more and more of us will be imposters. There is no way one person can be an expert at everything. Just look at the expectations of job descriptions posted on the online boards. There is no way any one person can handle most of the responsibilities and qualifications listed.

My wife’s advice has always been “fake it ’til you feel it.” She unknowingly provided the secret weapon against Imposter Syndrome. 

It’s fine to be an imposter. The same can be said of being an amateur. Or a child for that matter. It’s how you handle that discomfort and uncertainty that matters most.  


Everything I know about art direction & hiring I learned from DJ Stout

That’s DJ on the right.

I met DJ Stout in 1988, about a year after he had taken over art directing Texas Monthly. His first cover (above) became the biggest selling issue of the magazine to date. His second issue was the worst selling issue to date. There’s a lesson there, too. Maybe in another post.

He was invited to speak to the students in the Design Comm program at Texas Tech, his alma mater, by our guru, Frank Cheatham. DJ was very inspiring, sparking the imaginations of young and impressional students. A great guy, very generous with his time and insights. Had beers with him later that evening after the talk at 14th Street.

I met DJ again a couple of years later when he spoke at the Art Director’s Club of Houston. (Let’s be clear… we’re not fiends, or even acquaintances. I’m pretty sure if asked he could not pick me out of a police line-up.)

By this time DJ had already won a number of national and international awards for his work at Texas Monthly. Someone in the crowd asked him how he got to be such a great art director. He said:

Hire the best people possible and let them do their thing.

Simple advice. It is hard to argue his methods when you look at his track record.

But isn’t this good advice for hiring in general as well? And managing people, too. Work with the best people you can find and give them the space to be their best.

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