Every student who has taken a math class has had the phrase “show your work” drilled into them for better or worse. As a kid that enjoyed my creative classes and loathed the more traditional studies, I remember specifically developing a twitch (not unlike a puppy with a heavy handed master) that occurred with every utterance of the the phrase. The point wasn’t the extra work or that I wasn’t able to show my work but rather I didn’t feel like I needed to. “Hey... I know what X is.. lay off me, Teach!” In hindsight, I understand why my teachers were going for an explanation and defense of the end result. Without showing what it took to get to ‘X’, I couldn’t prove I had actually thought through the problem and solved it.
There was a moment in early 2012 when Jay and I were reflecting on a few recent projects that had end products that didn’t seem to match up with our expected end result. Mind you, none of the projects were epic burnout failures or ended with frustrated clients, we just didn’t feel like we were fully able to execute on our ideas for various reasons. One of the causes that we landed on was that we felt that our processes didn’t have enough built in time for sitting in front of our client(s) to explain the things we were presenting and how the creative was working towards the goals stated at the kickoff meeting. In short, we didn’t have a discipline of showing our work.
The old way we did things was largely a product of ignorance. We would have a great kick off meeting with a client, we’d leave excited and work feverishly on creative we were excited about. We’d then put all that work into a PDF deck of the options we developed, email the client, and wait for their feedback. The next step of our process always tended to be an attempt to salvage the work we were once excited about and rescuing it from what we felt was uninformed feedback from left field. We felt that way about the feedback because it WAS uninformed and out of left field. The thing we realized after banging our heads against the wall is that it was a problem with us, and not with our clients. For non-creative industry folks, just know that a designer always hates realizing that he’s the problem. It’s much easier to place blame elsewhere (clients).
After realizing this issue, we committed to experiment with having more face to face time with the very next client that hired us. A few weeks later a branding gig came in and it was time to pull the trigger on this hair-brained idea. There was a problem: this client didn’t live in our town but rather a two hour drive away. We had to make the conscious decision to act on our convictions and drive ourselves out to the client’s office not once but twice. Once for the kick off and once for the presentation - a total of eight hours in the car (16 between the two of us) of time we could spend on other work. It was a tough deciding to sacrifice those hours for the sake of the experiment. I’m glad we did.
When it came time to present our work, we got in the car and drove out to show what we had been working on. When we arrived, we were confronted with the surprise of about five additional people than we initially expected. One of these additional attendants was the company’s outspoken CEO. It was easy to tell he was the guy in charge because he so naturally commanded the room from the moment he walked in the door. You could tell his team respected his leadership and that his demeanor was a barometer for how the rest of the team should feel. I don’t mean any of these observations to sound negative by any means. I was impressed and simultaneously knew he was our target to please.
To our great satisfaction what ensued was, to that point in our careers, the most positive reaction to our work yet. We presented our directional comps for the company’s brand, gave reasons for why we had made the decisions and guided the team through the items we had prepared. In the course of our presentation, we were able to field questions and diminish unproductive topics of conversation (i.e. I think the logo should be bigger or have more pop). It wasn’t a perfect presentation and we made plenty of rookie mistakes but we left the room with a direction chosen on the spot (again, if you don’t work in the creative services industry, you don’t know how big of a feat that is). We were on a high and felt like we had won a victory or unlocked a secret. Imagine how different the reaction to our work could / would have been if it was passed around by email in a pdf.
The thing is, it wasn’t a secret unlocked but rather taking the time to be thoughtful and human. This client was paying us and, more importantly, trusting us to build their brand. We took the time to hear them out and process their feedback in real time and it payed off in a way we didn’t think was possible. In many ways, that experience has shaped how we operate on every single job we do no matter what the billing looks like. We've discovered that you just can’t do this job well without showing your work.