My first professional client meeting and the beginning of my career as a creative leader.
In 2002, I graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in the Time Arts program. Time Arts was the study of design interaction.
The curriculum was a compilation of web, multimedia, video and was closely tied to the Visual Communication program. It wasn’t until recently that I realized this was my first introduction to user experience. I spent two years working for the Northern Star, a student-run collegiate newspaper with a daily distribution of over 20,000 spanning all of DeKalb County. I was the design manager, leading a team of 6 student designers. Every night we produced a 30-page newspaper before the 3 AM printer deadline. The Northern Star provided the confidence in my design abilities needed to take the next step. My senior year, I took an internship as a web designer with NELiX, Inc and was hired on immediately after graduation. With limited HTML experience, I was learning as much as I could, as fast as I could. Afterall, people were paying for the creative work I produced. Then came the first opportunity to meet with a client one-on-one.
How it all went down
My first project was with a company that produced heating elements. Fast Heat needed a catalog website that showcased products and provided maintenance support. Nelix leadership decided to let me take this small project and run with it.
I was ready. I had some nice mock-ups to show. I read through their current website and marketing materials in detail. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.
I arrived on-site and this place was huge. I can only imagine that I look every bit of 22 years old. As I waited in the foyer pretending to read all the industry accolades displayed on the walls, my contact finally came to get me. He says the meeting will take place in the conference room but we are waiting for a few people. I remember asking who all is going to join us? He said one plane was delayed but the CEO, CFO, CMO, VP of Sales and IT director will all be here soon.
We enter a large, U-shaped conference room that had a white board at the front. One by one, executives entered the room. Remember I was 22 years old and hadn’t quit developed the skills of small talk. Our worlds were so different. I kept quiet trying to mask the sound of my heart trying to jump out of my chest.
Finally, my guy stood up and introduced everyone.
“Tim, you can take it from here.”
It felt like an out of body experience. I didn’t have a plan. Nelix didn’t have a process for delivering work. I couldn’t have been more unprepared. I was on an island. I stood up and began to speak. It’s still a blur but I believe I started with a quick review of the project as I understood it.
I knew I couldn’t speak the whole meeting so my best bet was to engage everyone in the room. The more they spoke the less I had to. And the more they participated the more I could validate their ideas. At the time websites were cool. Not every business had a web presence. The ones that did were rarely done well. I knew everyone in the room was at least curious about the process… you know that process that didn’t exist.
The first thing I did was hit that white board. I could draw a few things and buy time to think. My first question… “who is going to use this website and why?” We identified every user and what actions we needed them to take.
My next question “What pages do we need?” and then followed up with “what’s the order of importance for each page?” My background in the newspaper biz taught me the simple principal of hierarchy.
Those core questions spark a great conversation. Everyone in the room contributed. I connected. On the last part of the whiteboard I started to organize the navigation and place each page in a logical flow. By that time, the room was comfortable providing unprompted feedback. Once everyone felt good about what they saw I stepped back and took a picture of the wall and thanked everyone for making my job look easy.
What the hell just happened?
I sat in my car and replayed the meeting. By the time I made it back to the office I had mentally drafted a design methodology. A step-by-step process for delivering websites. I went directly to my boss and told him about my idea. With his support, I spent the next couple days researching and revising the process. The end result were nicely designed handouts that illustrated what we do, when we do it, and why we do it.
- My instincts were right on target. Understanding the end user first and foremost was the most important piece of the puzzle. This still holds true.
- Not all designers have the natural ability to connect. It is a unique skillset that needs to be developed and practiced.
- You can’t prepare for everything. Trust your ability to show up when needed.
- Always listen more and talk less.