Introducing #designedbythemva

I drove over to Zach’s house for our weekly meeting with one concern: how do we get attention? (Well, two concerns really—attention and money but they tend to be intertwined.) It turned out that Zach wanted to talk about the same thing. Its amazing how quickly a company in financial distress with 2 young families dependent on it can get all the partners on the same page.

We know this: we need to get the attention of art directors at publishers and magazines to commission us for book designs and illustrations. So what we need to do is quite simple—we need to get on their collective radars. The challenge is how to do this in a way that is free, effective, and doesn’t jeopardize our long-term strategy of relationship building. Free is easy, right? We can use social media or blogging. Effective is more difficult. We don’t believe that social media leaves as much of a mark as something physical whether it be a face to face meeting or a gift of some kind. And we wanted the gift we make to be overwhelming, not just another “look at me” self-promotion. All of the sudden, free becomes a bit harder to achieve. And there’s our long-term strategy—we don’t want to ask anyone for a commission that we don’t have a relationship with already. Which means that there are a ton of people that we want to meet and that will take a long time. 

Oh, and there’s one more consideration: we need to make a ruckus NOW. Clearly that has the potential to conflict with our “build relationships first” credo.

Some obvious and good ideas that won’t work:

  • Postcard mailings (boring and expected)
  • Travel to meet people (we’re broke)
  • Social media (hard to stand out without picking fights)
  • Mailings of current work (ooh, here’s some books somebody made 3 years ago! Boring.)

Zach mentions that if we put all our work—book design, photography and illustration—into one package that we are effectively saying to an art director “We can solve all aspects of your problem.” This is a great idea. We can make a substantial physical object that will make an impact on the recipient.

But there’s a couple problems with this concept. First, It will take too much time. No matter what, it will take us awhile to design it so even if it makes some noise for us that’s months away. Second, It’s self-serving. Yes, we want to get attention and work but we also want to make something that brings value to the person we send it to. 

I’ve wanted to make a non-promo promo book called 5 Ways to Design a Book for a few years now. The idea was to discuss in detail how we designed each of the major books in our portfolio. It would show how we design books and have the potential be helpful to other designers. I never could commit to it because, again, it would take a long time but also because we had evolved our process since those books were made and if we were to do them today I can’t say that we’d approach them in the same way.

That said, we haven’t designed a book since 2010 and I recognize that we need to make a new one to showcase both our new approach and our dedication to book design. I had been tossing around a few ideas—produce a book of Kim’s photography or redesign an existing photo book—but it wasn’t giving me that “Oh shit, I need to go make this NOW” feeling.

It was apparent to us making a book was important. But we had to figure out how to reconcile these two other issues—How do we make the book valuable to the designers we would be sending it to, and how do we make it work for us right this minute?

So we started riffing on this: 

“Maybe we could extract content from this project for blog posts?” 

“We could share the new illustrations on Instagram or Tumblr as we finish them.” 

“What if we designed the whole book in public? That way the project has a life beyond the small group of people we send them to.” 

“What if we were to open-source the entire design process from start to finish on the web and fold it into the book? The book then expands from A Cool Book By The MVA About Our Work to a manual that shows our process in action (a process that we believe other designers should adopt and adapt to their own needs just like we adopted ideas from Jan Jancourt and 37signals and adapted them to our needs). 

“What if we go beyond design to explain how we try to think about marketing and PR right from the start?” 

“Has anybody done this before?” 

“This seems compelling enough that we could potentially create a situation where the 25 or so people who receive the book might actually have seen it already.” 

“It would be awesome if an art director received the book and then gave it to a Junior Designer or marketing person to read.”

Whoa, this just got interesting.

This may or may not be the preface to the #DesignedByTheMVA book but it is a preface to this project. 

Over the next 5 months (we’re thinking an August release date) we’re going to share our design philosophy as completely as we can manage. We’ll show production timelines, how we come up with ideas and the research that gives them form, our sketching process, the decisions that determine which pieces should have illustrations, and lay-outs and images as we produce them (and kill them as the case may be), and its very likely that there will be a constantly revised “beta”-version of the book available for download. 

But we’re not just designing a pretty book, we’re writing something that we hope will be useful to other designers. So the content will be here first along with the strategy behind it. If we write a piece that can be syndicated in some other form we’ll share why we thought it had the potential for a life outside the book. 

In the end what we hope to create is a living case-study of our own methodology where business problems, content, marketing and design are all interdependent and that we can paint it in a clear enough picture that you can steal ideas from it to use in your own work regardless of whether you’re a designer, marketer or content producer of some kind.

And we should get a pretty kick-ass promo piece out of it.

See you next week with a production schedule.