Hacking the Creative Process: The Design Blitz


For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2016 Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Jose, CA March 23-25. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

Cut-out people and their great ideas

Fact: Visual elements make up 90 percent of information transmitted to your brain, which processes images 60,000 times faster than text. The message may be the medium for engaging online audiences with your organization’s mission, but visuals are most certainly its currency.

When it comes to designing the look and feel of your digital channels (websites, emails, social graphics, etc.), the process often feels shrouded in mystery. Additionally, managing multiple stakeholder opinions (and expectations) can be a struggle and sometimes the project drags on until no one remembers what the goals were in the first place.

This is where our story begins.

Changing The Rules

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking
we used when we created them. 
— Albert Einstein

It’s ridiculously easy to Monday morning quarterback all of your “shoulda coulda woulda” project decisions. Mistakes (and bad habits) are glaringly obvious after the fact, tempting you to reverse engineer how they marred your performance. But any coach knows that it takes more than looking back to change up your game. Sometimes you need to throw out the rulebook.

That’s exactly how we birthed a new digital creative process—the Design Blitz —here at Beaconfire RedEngine. Faced with a long-time client’s immovable project deadline, five opinionated client stakeholders who couldn’t agree on anything, and a less-than-healthy budget, the design work had to be done drastically differently.

It was time for a Hail Mary. “We’re going to park our creative team in your conference room to design, review, and iterate the site with your team; and no one leaves until you all approve it. Cool?” And they agreed.

The client was not only thrilled with the final product, but our relationship with them deepened further. The trust we built during the Design Blitz turned the client’s accountability into a fierce personal commitment to the success of the project, well beyond the design. Touchdown.

While the co-creation process isn’t a new idea in the tech industry, the success of this one project got us thinking. Could we scale a design approach like this with more of our nonprofit clients, knowing that many organizations are averse to changing “how it’s always done?”

Two years and several award-winning websites later, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Collaboration, Not Committees

If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have
said a faster horse.
— Henry Ford

So how does a Design Blitz actually work?

Lovechild of a discovery workshop, an agile sprint, and a hackathon, the Design Blitz disrupts the usual creative process by working with project stakeholders differently. Starting with an approved concept (either for a website or a digital campaign), designers and stakeholders come together in an intensive 2-day design/critique/revision experience. The goal: Get it done beautifully, quickly, and purposefully.

Rather than disappearing behind closed doors for days (or even weeks), designers work collaboratively with the actual decision-makers in real time. There are several presentations each day for stakeholders to provide clear and focused feedback, between which the design team iterates. The catch? The creative team has to complete the work by the end of day two, and stakeholders must commit to approving it.

To be very clear, the Design Blitz is neither design by committee nor creativity on demand. The creative team does a great deal of prep ahead of time—both visual and strategic—in order to start the two-day process with several design directions that meet a client’s goals. And while it may seem like fleshing out the rest of the design under a 16-hour time constraint minimizes the impact of the creative process, the opposite is actually true. With less available time, everyone must be accountable, prioritize, and articulate the rationale for their choices.

To be honest, the Design Blitz may not be the right choice for every project. It requires comfort with risk and offers the promise of immense reward. But for the clients who have taken this leap with us, outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive: better use of time and money, better interpersonal relationships, and honest-to-gosh better design. The takeaway? Never underestimate the combination of strategic thinking, open communication, expert creative leadership, and a ticking clock.

Eating Our Own Dog Food

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
— Frank Zappa

I know you’re thinking, “Sure, that all sounds great, but you have no idea how hard it is to change old processes within an organization.” So we decided to find out.

As planning began for the Beaconfire RedEngine website redesign over the summer, we initially considered squeezing design work in between our client projects. We’re web experts! We do this every day for other people! Piece of cake!

But thinking about how successful the Design Blitz has been for our clients (and remembering the pitfalls of our past redesigns), we saw this as an opportunity to really walk our own talk. We broke up staff (including our CEO) into “Project team” and “Client,” followed all the same rules, and dove in headfirst.

Sure it was challenging. Sure it required us to do things differently. But we learned more about our voice and brand than we even expected to. Seeing both sides of the Design Blitz really cemented how powerful this creative process is and its potential to change “how we’ve always done it.” Even for people who don’t think they can.

Want to know how it turned out? Wondering how you can do a Design Blitz at your organization? Come to my “Hacking the Creative Process: The Design Blitz and Other Disruptions” session at the #16NTC and find out.

Eve Simon
A lapsed Philosophy major with an MFA in theatrical lighting design and 22 years’ experience in the web industry, Eve is both an experienced designer and a quirky addition to your next dinner party. As Beaconfire RED's Creative Director since 2007, she has created award winning digital experiences for a variety of clients including The Nature Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity, League of Women Voters, ALS Association, Ad Council, National Audubon Society, Feeding America, and Human Rights Watch. When not making the world a better place one design at a time, Eve blogs for the Huffington Post, is a frequent conference speaker about design communication (including 3 previous NTC's!), and has an unusual attachment to ampersands. Follow her on Twitter @naieve.