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Posts About ZURB

We're Jazzed to Introduce Our Newest Marketer

Shawna wrote this on November 25, 2014 in . Share this Post

Our newest marketer hit the right note when we first met him. Not only did he impress us with his marketing skills, but his musical talents were off the charts. So without further ado, let's introduce you to ...

Daniel Codella, Marketer

Daniel spent his high school years traversing the globe, learning about different cultures. Most of all, he learned about his passion — music. You see, Daniel is the son of two musicians, so you could say music is in his blood. He's released several indie albums and singles, and had a chance to work with Jason Slater, a former member of Third Eye Blind.

Daniel was also a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Career wise, he thought he become a writer, but music kept calling his name so he pursued that instead.

However, the music industry changed with the arrival of MP3s and streaming services. So instead of the sitting on the sidelines, he put on an event — "Sound Advice: Making a Living in the Music Industry" — to help him and his friends find a place in a changing musical landscape. At that event, Daniel met his future boss, president of Sonoma Wire Works, an audio software/hardware company. Soon after that, Daniel joined Sonoma's marketing team. As he says:

Connecting with people, and more specifically, connecting different groups of people, is something I really enjoyed and seemed to have a talent for.

Marketing seemed like a perfect fit for Daniel because he was able to combine a love of music and technology, as well as connecting different groups of people at the same time. Now he's pushing his love of technology and connecting with people even further as ZURB's marketer! And he's looking forward to learning more in the days to come:

Even though I have only been around the ZURBians a short time. I am already in awe of how dedicated the team is to being efficient. Everyone seems to be in love with learning, sharing and discovering new information.

We've Lost the Guts to Think

Bryan wrote this on November 12, 2014 in . It has 170 reactions

brain and lightbulb

Last week, we wrote about the the conundrum design agencies and in-house design teams face in growing successful design teams. While it paints a rather doom-and-gloom picture, the reality is that these are company problems. The role of being a designer is flush with opportunity. The challenge for designers, however, is picking a direction that provides the most professional growth and fulfillment. But there's a catch.

While design opportunities are plentiful, most jobs don't provide designers with a way to shape design problems and create enough value in an organization. Companies are struggling to utilize the talents of designers in a meaningful way. But it's not every company's fault. Companies need to trust their designers to make decisions. Designers, for their part, will have to think. Gut-think.

The Stupidfication of Design

Solving 'user experience' problems won't be solved by narrowly focusing designers around production work. There's only so much companies can do to productionalize a design process without causing huge problems to the overall quality and delight of a product. The trend of educational bootcamps and online learning has become a way to close a talent gap by thousands, but it's exposing a need for design leaders who can inject thinking and emotion into design work.

As an industry, we've been told people don't read. That people don't have time to do X. To make it simple. And designers have bought into this logic, which does not help them learn to synthesize ideas that actually make it easier and more enjoyable for people to use products. Simple is actually very complex to design when it comes to interactions. We're stuck designing around press releases, despite the goal of two pizza teams creating more value. When you couple this with "always on" internet products, designers are asked to work in an industrial revolution-like production line to quickly solve problems. It's not the future, though. It's making us stupid.

Although we've moved past the idea of magic Photoshop buttons that solve design problems, we've also introduced new problems of putting bodies on design work that requires nuanced thought and presentation. Corporate hierarchies, agile pressures and MVP products all but rob us of a chance to create real impact.

We Need a Better Approach

We're about two decades into this whole commercial internet thing. Design as a profession has progressed significantly, but we're going to have to change our tactics if we want to break free from the unnecessary burdens of company structures. Evolution is inevitable. Let's not get overly frustrated though — we get to shape that evolution in a way that creates momentum and satisfaction, especially if we invest our efforts right. It takes time for industries to find clarity and it will require different approaches than the ones we use today.

Today's digital knowledge workers are no longer efficient or effective when working in a production-line model, which takes the emotion out of producing design work. The future depends on a practical approach to design thinking that enables designers to make decisions based on synthesizing rational thinking with emotions. Product designers need to work through the entire product lifecycle, shaping decisions that have big implications on the technology, business goals and customer needs.

Product Design Requires Gut-Thinking

brain and guts

If we're to succeed in dismantling production lines then we need to prepare designers to think through user and business decisions. We've talked in the past about the dribbblefication of design and the need to work through feedback. Making this problem more complicated is that online products don't shut off and the process of producing product updates is a race against time. Designers must learn to fail fast and make adjustments. Whipping out Photoshop or pushing code to Github is a great start to get the muscles working, but ultimately we need to make adjustments with our whole mind and body.

Product design requires making a ton of decisions and often works best with a bottom-up strategy. It's not a production role; however, the greatest design leaders stay close to the medium. Our history is full of designers who have used the hero design method — Eames, Loewy and Starck have shown great design work happens when emotion and thinking become part of the equation. They worked from the gut. Today's product designers should embrace this approach and use their techniques for inspiration, as the results are undeniable. Companies will need methods and processes for incorporating these ideas.

Designers need to get better at articulating their ideas through direct business communication so they can think from the gut. Producing beautiful imagery and soft emotional rationale isn't going to cut it — thinking from the gut requires quick decision making to persuade teams to move forward through rational decision making. Gut-thinking is the same fight or fleet thinking that happens when a speeding car is heading in your direction. Your body takes over and quickly reacts by moving out of the way.

Designers need to perform under similar duress in businesses where executives can often feel like speeding cars. Learning to quickly absorb and synthesize harsh feedback starts in the gut. It should push designers to take action. This effort requires significant and purposeful practice because businesses and organizational structures aren't constructed with empathy in mind. Designers and companies need to find common ground to move forward as an industry. Businesses must acknowledge that this type of thinking is good for product design. Designers, for their part, need to show that gut-thinking is grounded in logic and produces results. Thinking from the gut can be systematized and learned.

What Happens in Vagus, Shouldn't Stay in Vagus

vagus nerve

Here's where science comes in — it just so happens that there's a nerve that connects the brain to your guts. It's called the vagus nerve, it's over 9 meters long and there are over 100 million neurons that act as a second brain. As a designer, there's a real and tangible connection to our guts that helps us react to situations and come up with quick design solutions. This shouldn't be overlooked in the design process.

Designers must learn to sell complex ideas to marketers, customer service people, engineers and the suit-and-ties, all while shipping code. Being data focused can be helpful, but it's got its limitations to help push through big ideas as Doug Bowman steadfastly declared (companies have since wised up ' even Google has a mandate to make things beautiful). Communicating product ideas must come from confident decision making and solid emotional grounding. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute, makes the case:

Rather than being opposed, emotion and reason are deeply interrelated: if you're going to make sound and rational decisions, [Damasio] contends, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions accelerate your decision-making — in the form of intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings.

If gut-thinking is so important to design, where are designers learning to work through their ideas and emotions? Companies aren't opening themselves up and designers are not practicing enough. So which is it? Are companies too stuck in their ways or are designers too scared to think from the gut? We need a process to support design thinking and decision making.

Gut-Thinking in Progressive Design

Designers need simple tools for organizing their thoughts to drive design problems within a team. Gut-thinking produces positive feelings. With a positive attitude, designers can create momentum for the team. At the heart of this problem is learning to communicate and facilitate decisions on behalf of product teams. Progressive Design is an effective way to build momentum and harness the power of gut-thinking while providing a structure for teams to feel confident.

We've worked for the past decade and applied these learnings to our design work across startups and large companies. Using a progressive design process has enabled us to reduce the design synthesizing and processing time, and enabled our designers to help companies make solid design decisions from the gut. Gut-thinking has been shown to create better results, is faster for us and has more momentum and satisfaction for our designers.

We'll continue to share our ideas and get more into how designers can learn to get better at gut-thinking through specific techniques and progressive design.


Silicon Valley Killed the Design Agency

Bryan wrote this on October 31, 2014 in . It has 1018 reactions

Illustration depicting how the valley killed the design agency

The design agency world has turned upside down with the recent news of Adaptive Path finding synergy with a bank, Smart Design calling it quits in Silicon Valley, and [insert design shop here] getting scooped up by the Faceoogleboxes. Silicon Valley, which is known for putting whole industries on notice, has quietly killed the design agency. Or have they? While Silicon Valley isn't afraid to eat its children, it's also thinking an internet generation ahead as it produces hit after hit. So with chaos comes clarity, then chaos. It's a cycle. Until the next innovation.

The Design Industry is not immune to this fact. Silicon Valley wants to scoop up all the star design talent. But it's not as easy as hiring design talent in-house. You need a way to scale and bring purpose to the work at hand.

The Traditional Agency Model for Product Design Won't Survive

ZURB is a product design company. We've learned quite a bit over the years providing services by avoiding the traditional model of handing stuff over the "agency wall." Product design doesn't work well in a typical agency model because creating great products is more than 50% operational. Great products require investment across many different parts of a business, so we put a bigger effort on collaborating with our customers.

Will "web" agencies exist? Sure, but if they want to create a high-margin business, they won't be able to provide services in the same way. However, chop shops will continue to exist. There will be plenty of work out there, just not the type of low-margin business most agencies desire. IDEO went through this transition 15 years ago with physical products. I briefly worked there when they acquired the startup I worked for. The writing was on the wall — that they couldn't sustain their business with only huge amounts of engineering work.

The traditional agency model is a transfer of bloat and processes into what is perceived to be a short-term consulting cost for the business instead of hiring. And because this model is flawed from the outset, it doesn't change the organizational dynamics or shift the way people think about building great products. It's a costly "butts on seats" strategy, where projects with more people convey importance to the larger organization.

Getting Their Design House in Order

Illustrating of getting one's house in order

Facebook and Google went on a design/product buying spree specifically because they needed to figure out how to own design thinking on their team. It's too important to their businesses, as Eric Schmidt recently shared in a presentation titled, "How Google Works." Other tech companies have followed. Traditional firms will follow as well, though this will take awhile. Companies WILL figure this out. Great companies WILL create environments that creative people want to work in. If design is a strategic part of their business, they're going to work really hard to figure it out.

Does this mean agencies won't exist? No, but the nature of the services provided will change. When most of the design work has been commoditized, why would a company want to pay three times more for a specialist? That's where differentiation comes into play. It's also a wake up call for agencies that think their commodity services, void of training and education, will be enough to keep them going.

When will companies get a clue? Well, it's already happening, though it's going to take some time to get right. Companies are recruiting highly-specialized talent to do a waterfall process, passing work from one person to another, leaving the designers to work in silos and create relatively low value for their cost. Meanwhile, startups are building very small teams of product designers who do the whole stack. These startup designers get domain expertise, which agencies can't quite match, but they tend to focus designers on feature sets rather than bigger vision goals.

Companies seek us out to understand it through more collaborative engagements where knowledge sharing happens at a high level. It might take a long time for this to completely shift an industry, but it's going to happen. We saw what was happening in the mid-2000s and I committed ZURB in a blog post, titled "The Dreadful Mission Statement," to what I believed would be the next generation of design companies. As a learning organization, we've always prioritized learning as a key part of our customer interactions and it made complete sense.

20 Years in the Valley Will Harden Your Soul

I can distinctly remember sitting in my one-bedroom apartment in the early days of the the first Dot Com Boom turning down work as a consultant. The person on the the phone was desperate to get me onboard for her consulting project at a large agency. It was a name-your-price opportunity that had to start in a day, but also had vague goals that needed to get done ASAP — all the red flags of a consulting gig trap. I was so busy at the time, I had to turn the opportunity down, but I remember the 10,000-person company closing its doors soon after.

Then BAM! 2001 was an amazing swing of events and suddenly the internet world was not flying so high anymore. The internet now had a bad sting to it and Silicon Valley suddenly shed everyone who couldn't find an opportunity to learn how to web. The 101 became a string of ghost towns connected by a freeway. I focused on my craft by finding ways to create real value in the web product cycle. This meant taking more time to educate, explain tactics and train companies. It was energizing and it had me reinvested back into why I loved the web in the first place.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Illustration of diversity among companies

Companies in the Valley were pretty quick to rebound, but what became clear is that they needed something more to sustain growth than just being an "internet" company. Over the last decade and a half, Apple created a new design awakening with their cool iPods and iMacs. One out of every two clients I worked with wanted to be like Apple. 'Make it like Apple,' they said. Most of this thinking was surface level, but over the last decade companies started to grasp that there was more to the problem than just glossing things up at the end of a product cycle.

As an industry, we've slowly moved past digital brochures. The Apple fetish has turned to interactive discussions about what people actually want. Companies flashed "UX" in their organizations to say, 'We get it.' In our ZURB work, we started to overlap with internal design teams. While there was harmony in the need for design thinking, there was something also horribly wrong with the approach companies were taking. UX design is completely misguided.

UX Design Isn't a Department

Illustration of one company standing out with a UX dept

UX Design dept/agency as a concept isn't a model that will last. UX design was an opportunity to change design management — something that has existed for many decades, but rarely executed in way that shapes organizations around the user problem. Most designers, however, don't have the management skills to do this kind of work. Wireframing and dreaming new flows are great, but that's not a department. It's a skill.

Google tried this model, but disbanded the notion of a centralized group. This might have changed, but I don't believe setting up a UX group is the way of the future. It's certainly not a way to drive design innovation in an organization. And the problem with UX teams is about the lack of need for "UX design" not about companies setting them up right or using agencies to outsource this effort. It's a siloed activity on its own that doesn't create momentum across the product life cycle.

Agencies, Design Thinking and the Need for Progressive Design

Just last week we were writing about design thinking and the immense pressure companies are facing to make design a focus of their business. Ten years ago, this was the bread-and-butter of agency life, but companies aren't really sure if they want an agency experience. Agencies have been promising the fruits of design thinking for years now and companies are trying to figure it out, but it's still a mess. Many companies have decided to take on the burden of just dealing with the mess rather than spend money on outside help.

At ZURB, we were well aware of what was happening, and committed to an approach we've been using for 15 years that provides huge value to our clients by keeping the bloat of a traditional agency out of our engagements. Typical agencies have project managers, account managers, and specialized front-end people to provide services with segmented, specialized skills sets. Our approach is more nimble — we remove project managers, invest clients into the work and focus on smaller deliverables to create momentum. We invest a small group across the entire product development cycle, thus providing value beyond just wireframe flows.

Progressive Design is a collaborative approach that works for companies that need the expertise of a design specialist, and provides a structured approach so that they too can drive design in their organization. We even augmented our business strategy by releasing tools, open source software and training to help shape this new reality for companies trying to harness design capabilities. And it's working. Foundation is an example of how our own learnings have been packaged into an open-source responsive front-end framework.

All Hail Progressive Design, Death to the Agency

Illustration of an environment reinvigorated by progressive design

I won't lie to you that it's a rewarding feeling to have seen ahead, past the initial UX trend a decade ago. We've found harmony in a sustainable, actionable way to create design momentum in a company.

"Innovate or die" goes the saying here in Silicon Valley. Typical agencies need to heed the calling and differentiate. There's too much noise in the market now for companies to simply slide in under the guise of bringing design thinking to a company. Companies in turn will need to adopt an operational approach that focuses their money and approach not just on 'UX' wireframes, but the entire product life cycle. This requires spending on higher-value work and a knowledge transfer across their organization.

I'm just guessing that companies' need for design help won't disappear, but their expectations will be bigger and their eyes wide open instead of just throwing bodies at problems. We've been successful building a design company since 1998 and we're excited to share our knowledge, culture and design approach with the world. Progressive design is amazing and we're pumped to help companies figure it out.


A New ZURBian Comes Aboard to Learn the Ropes

Shawna wrote this on October 29, 2014 in . It has 16 reactions

We looked high and low, and after a long search (OK, maybe not too long) we found her: a fantastic Operations Administrator to keep the engines of our HQ purring so our team can focus on designing. So without further ado, say hello to …

Nathalie Smith, Operations Administrator

Photo of Nathalie Smith

Our newest ZURBian was originally from nearby Los Gatos, and then Carmel, but spent most of her early years growing up in mysterious (and hot) Las Vegas. There she watched movies, went bowling, hiked through mountains, watched movies again — there's only so much a minor can do in "Sin City."

Yep, she's our youngest ZURBian to date — fresh out of high school, class of 2014, which she said was an amazing experience. She wishes she could go back — except that she found ZURB.

The chance of expanding her skills in a real office environment was too good to pass up, and now she's helping to make ZURBians' lives a little easier. Soon, we hope, she'll earn her driver's license and be able to run errands. Meanwhile she's learning what makes a company tick — not just their services, but the important (if unsung) administrative tasks. Although office admin might not be her career — she's studying both business and communications at West Valley College — she said ZURB ought to give her experience that no college class can.

I want to learn how a business runs from an operational point of view. If I ever start my own business, I want to know what makes a business work daily.

Nathalie had been in the Bay Area for two months — collecting sea glass and sand dollars, and starting college — when someone she knew suggested she apply for our Operations Administrator job. She applied, we hired her, and now she's with us three days a week getting the "real world" experience she wants. The story of Nathalie Smith has just begun.


How to Be Amazing in Less Than 10 Seconds

Shawna wrote this on October 28, 2014 in . It has 127 reactions

ticking clocks

You're a designer ready for the next big thing in your life. Maybe you just finished school or a boutique training course, or maybe you're ready to move on to a new adventure. Whatever your reason you're fresh on the market and you're ready to crush it! That's all well and good, potential employers like people who are excited. The problem is that excitement alone doesn't always get you very far.

We've learned something from 16 years of hiring designers. And we have a few tips for you to amaze a person looking to hire their next designer. After all, you're just one drop in a sea of drops. You have to stand out! Let's take a look at a few ways you can do that and what we tend to look for in a candidate.

Wow Them at the Start

Your email/cover letter has to be unique for every place you're applying to. It doesn't have to be amazingly complicated. The reality is, less can be more. We have a great formula for your first steps to get noticed:

Catchy Subject Line

This screams "LOOK AT ME!" But don't be obnoxious. Why? Because you don't want to appear to be too arrogant. HR people are privy to physiological cues, stating "I am the Droid You're Looking For" may not get you the result you want. Remember you want to join the team, not necessarily the other way around. Be humble.

Let's take a look at an example from Brandon, who knew us for a long time, coming to our events and using our stuff. He was hired as a designer sometime back and is now one of our design leads. When Brandon applied for the designer position, he sent us a letter that caught our eye. His catchy subject line: "Let's make the web simple."

The subject line is specific and gives us a sense of what Brandon hopes to accomplish with us. He followed that up with a short introduction: "Hi, I'm Brandon. I'm looking for a career as a designer at ZURB."

Your Top Three Skills

What are you good at? Is it your ability to code? Are you awesome at coming up with lots and lots of ideas? What can you bring to the team you're trying to join? Whether it be an actual skill requested in the job post or that little something extra, let us know. Be focused, don't make blanket statements. If you're 'Great at talking to people,' what does that even mean? Teams will appreciate that you're an awesome conversationalist at lunch but won't be too enthused with you if you're not comfortable talking to customers.

Back to our example. Brandon outlined his top three skills right after his introduction, and highlighted things we were looking for:

  • "I come Foundation ready" — It was important to know that he was familiar with our responsive framework, Foundation, and had used it on a variety of projects.
  • "I work for humans" — This was important to know because our motto is "Design for People," and we look for people who are like-minded.
  • "People skillz that make people feelz" — In this section, Brandon lets us know his skills at working with others as well as representing his work with clients.

Your Best Teamwork Tactic

The way this question is answered gives us HR Wizards some insight on how you solve problems and the role you take in a group. Depending on how this question is answered we figure out if you take charge in a group, go with the flow and follow along, consider other teammates suggestions to solve problems or are capable of solving the problem on your own and guiding the group to that conclusion. And there are no 'wrong answers' here.

Back to Brandon. He stated his teamwork tactic as one thing: "Yes, and — " Which is an improv technique that helps focus build on ideas, very important in collaborative work.

Why Do You Want to Work for X

OK, Jeopardy question. Did you do your homework? This is the part of the cover letter that isn't necessarily all about you. It's telling the story of the company you want to work for and how you fit into their story. It's the difference between doing a book report after reading the whole book or just reading the cover. You won't fool anyone by repurposing some of the companies catch phrases/mantras and stringing them together in paragraph. Also, there's no love for convenience either. Companies don't get excited that they are within walking distance of your house. We want to see your value, not how we can make your commute more enjoyable.

One last look at Brandon's letter. Here's how he ends it:

You guys have taken the process of web design and turned it into product design. I'm looking forward to prototyping ideas, testing them, and then improving upon them. Simply put, ZURB doesn't just make the lives of consumers easier, but the lives of designers and developers easier as well. I'd love to be a part of it.

And that's what got him his job. :)

Impress With Your Personality and Your Work Too

So your catchy subject line and email got you noticed! Awesome. Now it's your time to shine. Your resume will most likely be viewed next and you have less then 10 seconds to impress. Yep, we're fast. Because we know what we're looking for in a resume. And if it doesn't have the right things, we put it aside.

10 seconds

The Resume

Your resume should be readable. Let us say that again: your resume must be readable. Use visual hierarchy and keep in mind you have less then 10 seconds. If your resume isn't easily scannable that may be the end of the road for you. So what is it that we're looking for? Let us show you.

We're looking for:

  • Your Personal Info — Your name, address, phone number, email address and portfolio link.
  • Employment History — Your most recent or current employer and the dates and previous employment.
  • Education or Skills — Depending on the company, they'll look at your highest level of education, especially if it's listed in the job post or your skills.

Avoid visual styling or pictures, save it for your portfolio. You want to avoid any chance that your resume will be discarded. And make sure you provide the information we're looking for and ask for in our job listing. For example, people have become reluctant to provide phone numbers on their resumes. The reality is, if we can't easily call you, we're not going to. Fact.

Once we've scanned your resume for all the vitals, we'll actually digest the contents. The truth is: how you word things is really important, and honesty is key. Again, no blanket statements. If you 'oversaw the launch of a new product,' briefly explain what that entailed. Give the recruiter something they'll want to ask you more about during a phone interview. We love that stuff.

Don't be negative in your tone either. Don't say things like you "dealt with customers." That's negative. Keep things positive, such as you "assisted customers do x."

The Portfolio

Finally, your portfolio. As a designer, you need a portfolio and you should build it yourself. This is where we want to get a sense of who you are and what you're about. I want to be able to work with you and be excited about the things you get excited about. Your portfolio puts you as well as your work on display. And if you don't have a lot of work to show, put some extra work in and create something. You can't hide behind an NDA because there is a wealth of talent here (in Silicon Valley) and we can be selective.

Alex skills

Alex, who got a job at ZURB as a designer, lists his skills in a nice clear way on his portfolio site.

Here's what we're looking for in a portfolio site.

  • Can you build on opportunity? Do you seek out how to solve problems, do you try something new and take risks? We want to know what you've tried to do. Show us a project that was hard for you. Tell us what you did to solve it.
  • Can you stay open-minded? Are you open to trying new things? Can tackle a problem that you don't have the answer for?
  • Can you fail? Remember that thing you tried. Did it work out? We want to know if it didn't and want to know what you did differently. Tell us how something didn't work. Show it to us, then show me what you changed and tell me what you learned.
  • Can you be a coach? Have you ever worked in a group? Like a hackathon what was your role? How did you contribute?

Geoff's site

Geoff, who also got a job here as a designer, gives us site a little personality while telling us who he is and what he does on his site.

Your portfolio tells the world who you are. Please don't just show us the pretty end results to projects with three-sentence blurbs about the tools you used. We want the nitty gritty. We want to hear about the struggle. Give us your story. Please don't just link to your social networks for us to get a sense of who you are. Don't just tell us you have a passion for design. Show us.

Give Yourself the Edge

Interview processes are hard, and can feel like gauntlets. The best thing to do is to give yourself an edge on the competition and don't get discouraged if an opportunity doesn't pan out. Have a reason for applying, find a few things that get you genuinely excited about each potential employer and take notes. If you're ever asked 'Why do you want to work here?' Please don't ever say 'Why not?' and leave it at that. Now all you have to do is practice and it just so happens that we have a few opportunities available. And we look forward to learning more about you ;) .

Get a Job, Nerd!


The Problem With Design Thinking Is That I Still Don't Know What Design Thinking Is

Bryan wrote this on October 21, 2014 in . It has 423 reactions

Illustration of a person reaching for abstract tools

Design is hot. Design executives are being tasked with being design-driven, but don't have the tools or processes to sustain this effort. They embrace design thinking, but it's unclear how their companies will embrace its ideas. VC's are telling founders to hire a design leader, but it's not clear who this mythical, unicorn person is who will drive the design approach across the company. It's entirely possible to grow this person in an organization, but not likely to be someone who comes in with magical fairy dust to make everything Apple-esque.

Design thinking is a broad term with no specific directives. It's open to a lot of interpretation. It's too big and too lofty for most businesses to embrace. Throw in a couple inexperienced designers who are students of the idea and you've got yourself a mess. Most designers don't have the authority (nor desire?) to take on all the crap necessary to change an organization to be more design-centric. That's a shame because design can truly transform the way companies solve big problems.

The Problem with Design Thinking

Design thinking has its detractors for a good reason. We've all been in lamestorming meetings looking for aha moments that suddenly produce a clear path forward. Businesses struggle to function with 'sorta' answers — they need clarity to build confidence, which can be found in spreadsheets, science and engineering. PRDs and MRDs are great for covering your ass, but won't produce a great result without a build and test model that brings in the best practices and knowledge of a cross-disciplinary group. The processes and methods of design thinking cannot easily produce the straightforward answers that businesses want, even if those same answers are not what they need.

In some ways, designers and design managers have shot themselves in the foot — design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for smart designers doing the work. And because design thinking has many paths through parallel phases, it seems fuzzy compared to the process of creating code. Compared to analytical thinking or science, our industry still doesn't have a consensus on what design thinking means. Most designers couldn't tell you what it means.

It's been 20 years since I was ingrained with the concept that the designer mind could think much differently than a marketer, engineer or the guy in a suit-and-tie. Yet, for all its power and inspiration, I still don't completely understand the meaning of design thinking. Should we abandon the concept? Absolutely not. I use the methods and ideas that it espouses daily. I believe we just lack some of the tools necessary for the practical application of these methods to stick within organizations.

What I Know About Design Thinking

A significant portion of the term "design thinking" can be traced back to Stanford. I was fortunate to study and work with two of its biggest proponents in the Stanford product design department. Ralph Faste, who was my adviser, taught and expanded on Robert McKim's ideas as a method of creative action. David Kelly, who was an adviser and also my boss when I taught in the program, expanded the commercial opportunities through IDEO (where I also briefly worked). David went on to start the dSchool at Stanford, which has truly created an opportunity for fertile, cross-disciplinary studies.

At ZURB, we embraced design thinking very early on in our web work when most people were still trying to create digital brochures in 1998. It made for many awkward meetings and arguments with clients — some of which still happen today :). Yet, it's helped our company create an identity around problem solving by using design as a business tool. Our approach makes us ZURB. It's unique to us. However, design thinking is not a panacea for every company as many people have discovered.

Most recently you've seen us write about, "What Are You Even Designing?", "Designers, You've Made It to the Table. Don't Screw It Up" and "How Designers Do Dumb Design and Why Design Presentation is Your Deliverance." These ideas stem from our desire to seek design truth, to understand why what we do works for ZURB. Hopefully our thoughts illicit a strong reaction and a desire to also explore the fringe of design. If you've taken our class on Mastering Design Feedback, many of these ideas have been synthesized into a process. Our approach utilizes the concepts of design thinking, but it's still ZURB.

Looking for a Practical Starting Place

Design Thinking is actually less about thinking and more about doing. It's not something you have, it's something you do. With digital development life cycles moving faster than ever, it's incredibly important to put an emphasis on output. But that output needs to address the endless array of devices and contexts that come with designing products in a digital environment. At ZURB, we have a five-step process that addresses many important aspects of design thinking.

Diagram of the ZURB design process

Yet, 250 startups later, our Studios group has taught us that it's not just our process that produces the magical results, it's the combination of our methods and culture that propel companies forward. Our work wasn't easily 'summed up' into a replicable design thinking process.

That left us with an opportunity. We asked ourselves, what if we could simplify and condense the most practical aspects of our process, methods and culture? Instead of defining design thinking, we've identified the core components of our work that resonated with practitioners of design work. We're excited to introduce progressive design.

Progressive Design Defined

Progressive design uses the principles of design thinking while providing a simple and robust design feedback loop that drives work forward. It places an emphasis on doing and driving work forward. Progressive design is making a lot of small decisions that together move people-centered design work forward. It's active participation and iteration with a goal. This isn't lean, or agile, or some magical customer exercise. Progressive design optimizes for results, not production sprints or a MVP product. Iterations don't need to be time-based or feature constrained. It can move fast or slow or varied. It's a user-focused approach that embraces business goals while addressing the technical feasibility.

Diagram of the progressive design loop

Progressive design incorporates a design feedback loop that's practical and easy for an entire team to participate in. It requires the expertise of a design practitioner, but it becomes easier for non-designers to drive design work forward because the steps are well defined and it utilizes a simple feedback loop. It amplifies the work that team members produce. It works for a small project, but works just as well for a larger project that requires hundreds of iterations.

It's meant to create design momentum. Here's how it works:

  • Design work: The foundation of a solid design process is high-level execution of design work. This could be need-finding, wireframing, prototyping, coding, etc.
  • Design presentation: In a traditional business presentation, we might just throw work into a PowerPoint presentation, but in design thinking we need ways to carry conversations toward possibilities. Linear presentations are often too stiff to illicit the type of feedback that is necessary to create something truly amazing.
  • Design feedback: The collection of feedback can be exciting or belaboring. But it needs to happen and designers are in a position to drive this across in the design process. Soliciting and giving feedback can happen across your team, customers and users and your target audience.
  • Design iteration: Driving design work forward happens when ideas are synthesized. If overlooked, the entire loop completely falls apart. When all parties are happy with the result of the design work (or some other constraint limits time), it's then possible to move on to another phase or method.

Making Design Thinking Actionable

Design thinking is a great concept. It's full of potential, but it also lacks the foundational pieces that make it something that can be easily reproduced in an organization. We're suggesting an approach that makes it easier to get started with more clarity.

Progressive design is a design thinking building block to drive design in your organization. Based on our experience, teams need to believe in an approach that they can get buy in from across an organization. Progressive design provides an easier tactical approach to problem solving instead of shifting an entire organization. It's easier to train teams of people to work together with tangible tools and it has a lower cost/downside of trying to change an organization.

Over the next few months, we're going to release services and products that support this vision so teams can reach their potential and embrace design to build better products for their customers.


A Top Chef and a Top Gear Join Our Team to Rev Our Apps

Shawna wrote this on October 06, 2014 in . It has 12 reactions

We're experiencing yet another growth spurt here at ZURB. This month we're boosting our Design Apps team with not one, but two new ZURBians — one engineer and one customer advocate! So without further ado, let's meet…

Bill Tran, Rails Engineer

photo of Bill Tran

Bill grew up copying comic books because he wanted to draw like a comic book artist. Yes, he was that kid who who drew Bart Simpson and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles everywhere he could find a place wide enough to fit "kowabunga!" As a teenager he taught himself how to breakdance, draw graffiti art and, best of all, to customize cars. That's when he found his calling.

Bill's interest in cars, especially building custom vehicles, revved his career in prototyping. He fell in love with industrial and automotive design, dreaming up ideas, iterating through designs and building the real thing. So he spent the last 10 years chopping things up, machining raw metal and plastic, designing 3D parts with SOLIDWORKS, and painting the final objects with aesthetic flair. He spent a few years building prototype cars with Honda, and a few more with 5 Axis Models who built concept cars for Toyota Scion and Lexus.

But computers, it seems, were inevitable. Bill had been around them since the old Mac Classics in elementary school, and he'd built a few of his own custom PCs for fun. And as the auto industry began to lag in 2008, he decided to trade aerodynamics for streamlined user workflows, and began to teach himself Ruby on Rails.

But it's not all cars and code. Bill is also a family man: husband for eight years before joining ZURB, and the proud father of two girls, both under ten, both makers in the making.

Bill's career steered him to join ZURB as a Rails Engineer shortly after his first ZURB Wired event — one of the fastest prototypes he's ever been involved with.

Nic Edwards, Customer Advocate

photo of Nic Edwards

Nic has a history of escaping to foreign lands and picking up new languages, including French and Japanese. He also loves cooking so much that he graduated from the Professional Culinary Institute. Nowadays he's fairly adept at cooking large pieces of delicious pork.

In 2013, Nic took a General Assembly design crash course — and got hooked. When he learned about ZURB through Louis, his predecessor here and high school friend, he knew working here would be a great learning opportunity. So far, he says, he was right. "It's the perfect place" to achieve his ultimate goal of designing great products.

According to Netflix, he's a daily binge watcher. And while he hasn't sportsballed, he's handy with a fencing sabre. Sometimes you'll find him rowing or pushing his limits in CrossFit. To that end he's taken on a weekly role — a cinnamon roll, that is — to get swoll in all the wrong ways.

His travels have brought him almost full circle back to Campbell, just a few miles away from his home town of Los Gatos, CA.

Everyone please give a warm welcome to our new ZURBians!


All Heart and No Sleep: Mobilizing Nonprofit Sacred Heart in 24 Hours

Ryan wrote this on September 24, 2014 in . It has 61 reactions

With the clock ticking last Thursday on our seventh ZURB Wired, the day began with intense brainstorms. It ended with a visual direction, print materials and a tone for a website. During the night, we toiled in code, creating a brand-spanking new site for nonprofit Sacred Heart in 24 hours. Today, we're officially launching that site redesign — the culmination of our work to mobilize the nonprofit for its upcoming holiday campaign.

We worked alongside Sacred Heart in a coffee-fueled 24 hour frenzy — and snapped 500 photos of our time together — to create an entire marketing push for their campaign that provides food for individuals and gifts for children during the holidays.

We guided Sacred Heart through the same design process and methods we use in our Studios work. Our goal with Wired: to help nonprofits, such as Sacred Heart, learn how to do more with less and mobilize in shorter bursts. When you work in smaller teams and in short bursts, you can accomplish amazing things. Which is exactly what happened during Wired.

We had smaller teams — web, print, engineering and content — all working in concert through the day and throughout the night. At the end of it all, we were able to accomplish a staggering amount of work.

Here's a complete look at we created in that 24 hour time crunch.

Posters, Brochures and Cards ... Oh My!

thank you cards

Our focus in the first half of the day was print. We had a tight deadline and our print team hustled to get the brochures, posters and thank you cards designed. Along the way, we got feedback from Sacred Heart, quickly iterating on our designs.

Here's what the design team produced:

  • A 8.5 X 11 poster
  • A 12 X 18 poster
  • A trifold brochure
  • A 'thank you' card
  • Postcards


But once the print deadline was met, the team didn't stop. Over the course of the night, they also designed a few other items, which we handed over as digital files. Here's the additional material we created:

  • A poster for their donation barrels
  • A drive kit for corporations
  • A promotional building banner
  • A sponsorship brochure

A Brand-Spanking New Website Sacred Heart site

The web team drew from the visual inspiration of the print team. While the print team was focused on their deadline, the web team created sketches and wireframes, before they moved into code. During the night, they coded furiously to get the site shipshape. Their work included:

  • A comprehensive content overhaul
  • A new custom WordPress theme
  • Custom fields for page headlines specific to their design
  • A calendar/events manager

A New Promotional Video


As if we didn't have enough to do, we also did put together a new promotional video for Sacred Heart. The two-minute video promotes the upcoming holiday drive — calling on folks to volunteer or donate food. All of this centered around the story of Erica, who works for Sacred Heart and whose own family was once helped by the organization.

Lasting Change

ZURB and Sacred Heart teams

The changes aren't just for this holiday campaign. Sacred Heart hopes to use what they learned for many years to come. As Jay Pecot, Director of Development and Communications says:

Even with an improved economy, more people than ever before are seeking Sacred Heart's help. That is why Wired was such a tremendous experience for us. This year, because of ZURB's help, we are ready for our holiday fundraising campaign celebrating our 50th birthday with a comprehensive set of paper and electronic communications.

During Wired, we watched carefully how ZURB's staff took us through the design process. We are going to do the same for our next big campaign. And most importantly, we will set aside time to build the campaign together, rather than fitting it in-between other tasks.

Thank you, ZURB.

Thank you, Sacred Heart, from all of us at ZURB. We can't wait to see what Sacred Heart creates in the future.

See the New Sacred Heart Site


ZURB Wired 2014 is Near! Announcing Sacred Heart as This Year's Nonprofit

Ryan wrote this on September 17, 2014 in . It has 54 reactions

sacred heart logo

We're counting down the hours to tomorrow's ZURBwired event, our yearly design sprint to help a nonprofit through a marketing campaign. And we couldn't be more excited to work with Sacred Heart, this year's nonprofit! We want to thank all the nonprofits who sent in so many excellent proposals!

The timing couldn't be more right for Sacred Heart. This year, they're celebrating 50 years of their mission — to help struggling families get food and gifts for their children they need during the holidays.

Not only did the folks at Sacred Heart have a strong mission, but their team had the magic mix of energy and clear goals we look for in a nonprofit. And they're willing to lose an entire night's sleep to get things done.

We're impressed with Sacred Heart's overall mission: end poverty in the community they serve. They help more than 75,000 people and families that struggle to make ends meet. They have a small staff and an army of volunteers, so they know how to work together to get results. And they're ready to get to work on this year's Wired:

We are psyched and ready to work with ZURB for Wired this year. Thousands of families will turn to Sacred Heart Community Service this year in order to celebrate the holidays with food and toys. Redesigning our holiday campaign will mean we can reach throughout Silicon Valley and engage the community in this effort.

—Jay Pecot, Director of Development and Communications

sacred heart volunteers

Sacred Heart volunteers organizing holiday food boxes.

We'll help them with the marketing campaign for their holiday push and 50th anniversary. We'll work on a brand strategy and designs for their holiday campaign, including a website, brochures, posters and other goodies.

All of this will be done in a tight 24-hour timebox using our our design process and goal-oriented teamwork. Our goal with Wired is to educate nonprofits to do more with less resources. And we'll work closely with Sacred Heart so that they can continue building great things for years to come long after Wired is done.

Wired gets underway tomorrow, Sept. 18 at 8 AM and goes until Sept. 19 at 8 AM.

Follow Our Progress


Calling All Nonprofits: We're Taking Applications for This Year's ZURB Wired

Ryan wrote this on August 27, 2014 in . It has 54 reactions

ZURB Wired — our yearly design sprint to help one nonprofit though a marketing campaign — is around the corner. This year's event is on September 18th. And we're ready to take applications from interested nonprofits.

photo of people sketching ideas during ZURB wired 2014

Just as we gear up for this year's event, we want to give a special shoutout to our friends at Rebekah Children's Services, who just redid their site on Foundation for Sites. They were 2011's Wired nonprofit and they took what they learned from working with us, and used that knowledge when it came to their website refresh.

In every Wired event we work alongside the nonprofit's team, teaching them how do more with less using Design Thinking and a feedback loop. And it's satisfying to see that our previous nonprofits continue to take what they learned and keep winning.

(Design) Thinking It Through

When we first helped Rebekah Children's Services, we built their site on Foundation 2. It was one of the earliest sites built on our framework. So it was understandable that they'd need a refresh on the site.

screenshots of the new Rebekah Children Services Site, its sketch, prototype and wireframe

From prototype to page: our original RCS site.

Director of IT Scott Olsen told us that ZURB's Design Process came in handy when doing the redesign. He said they were able to think thoroughly through this update. They used the process to identify key areas — such as typography, top visited pages, use cases and calls to action — to optimize.

screenshot of the new Rebekah Children Services site

RCS's new site.

They also used Foundation for Sites to prototype layouts and menu options, which came in handy for their A/B testing. According to Scott, off-canvas was the clear favorite so that's what they implemented. But they weren't satisfied with testing only. As Scott said:

Along the way, we gathered feedback from people to ensure the design was on the right track and adjusted accordingly.

But implementation wasn't the only thing RCS learned from Wired. The first website taught them a lot about the usefulness of analytics, the potential of social media and the importance of responsive design, said Scott. And, of course, keeping their audience in mind.

A Design Process Makes Nonprofits Think Strategically

Last year, we helped Rebuilding Together Peninsula, to create a marketing campaign that celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2014. The Design Process got them all on the same page as to the exact look and feel they wanted to represent their organization.

screenshot of the new Rebuilding Together Peninsula site

The site we built for RTP's Anniversary.

More than that, the Design Process really pushed RTP to think more strategically about what the message they were trying to convey, said Associate Director Carilee Peng Chan. As she said:

Conceptually, it makes sense, but living it for 24 hours with the ZURB team really drove the message home with our core team. By working with us to redesign our core communication and marketing assets, I feel like ZURB really gave us an incredible foundation to build on.

RTP has continued to refer to the material we created for them. Cari said that those materials continue to be their starting point when evaluating what and how they need to communicate their message. Executive Director Seana O'Shaughnessy added:

We were really inspired by the entire process and have used it as a touchstone in our decision-making throughout the year.

Become This Year's Wired Nonprofit

We are now accepting application for this year's Wired. The deadline is . If you're a nonprofit that's interested, here's what your proposal needs to have:

If you're a nonprofit that needs help getting over a hump, here's what your proposal needs to include:

  1. Inspire us with your organization's mission.
  2. Name three teamwork tactics that will make your organization a perfect fit for ZURBwired!
  3. Describe a clear goal that your entire organization wants to accomplish.
  4. Say which team members will be committed to participating all day and night.
  5. Name one or two people from the team who are capable of making executive decisions on the organization's behalf — there's no time to consult with the board at two in the morning!

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be reviewing submissions and picking one nonprofit to work with. So what are you waiting for?

Submit Your Nonprofit's Proposal



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