A thoughtful process generates thoughtful design
Hi, I’m Lilia. As a member of Great Believer’s accounts team, I get to see and talk to our clients about process and work all the time! And I love doing that. I also know that there’s nothing more fun for our clients than when they get to see Mike Yamagata, our Art Director, present a brand new design. Mike delivers. Every time.
In this video (transcript below, if you’re more into reading), I dive in deep with Mike to learn more about his perspective on our projects and his day to day as an Art Director. This was a wonderful opportunity to peel back the curtain and gain some insight into what drives his creative, thoughtful and outstanding work.
Mike: So once you hit record, what do we say?
Lilia: Well, it’s already recording, so.
Mike: Thank you so, so much for having me on. I’m a long time listener.
Mike: Yeah, this is, this is great. I love your, the GB podcast.
Lilia: The GB podcast that never was sadly. Um, well, for those of you who don’t know us, I’m Lilia. I’m the Accounts Associate at Great Believer. And this is Mike.
Mike: Hi there. I’m Mike.
Lilia: What you do, Mike?
Mike: I am the Art Director at Great Believer.
Lilia: Art Director extraordinaire. And Mike has been with Great Believer for a very long time. How many years has it been?
Lilia: Like my whole life.
Mike: It feels like your whole life and my whole life. So that’s what, five years, four years?
Lilia: But a joyous life, right?
Mike: Joyous, really joyous four years. It’s been, it’s been a blast.
Lilia: Awesome. So can you explain a little bit about what an Art Director is and what your day to day looks like?
Mike: Sure. Yeah. I would say in general an Art Director manages a team of designers on a creative project. So they’re like the bridge between designers and a project manager and a client.
I actually read this really short definition of an art director from another art director. And I thought it was really pretty smart. So basically an art director is someone that works with people more than computers. I think that was a really nice, simple way to describe it.
Lilia: And do you feel like that rings true to your every day?
Mike: Uh, kind of, I think that like the role that I have at Great Believer is one of, kind of a hybrid. So I see the art directing as less of a role and more of like a set of skills. So what’s amazing, the amazing thing about Great Believer is that I get to be both designer and art director.
So that means, you know, being more part of the design process being in front of the computer and being in front of other people. So it’s a great way of, you know, collaborating more, being more part of the actual design process, which is something we can talk about later. And also having all of the benefits of being an art director.
Lilia: So can you explain what a Great Believer project – let’s just take a classic web project, for example – what does that look like from your end from start to finish?
Mike: Sure. Before the actual design starts, there’s a bunch of things that happen. And you know, you’re a part of the, the very like top, top part of the project and you see it all the way through. So at the very beginning, you know, we get that general brief, which means like, who is the client? Where are they about? What’s the objective? And then if I can, I’ll be a part of a kickoff meeting where we kind of learn further into who they are. Kind of like the questions of who, what, why are they doing the things that they are doing? How do they see themselves? How do they see them grow and change? All of those really important questions in a typical kickoff. And then really after that, we have a couple more reviews. We talk some more about it.
And then for Claire and I, we jump right into the research phase. And what that looks like is, you know, we already have a sense of who their peers are. You know, we do a couple of different games and different techniques that we talk through with the clients in our kickoff meeting. So, you know, we know who the peers are. We start looking at, inspiration, just in general. What’s out there, what are the current trends in terms of design, UI, UX. And then we start to mood board things out – that could be as simple as creating a palette, or just creating, gathering, a bunch of visuals that we think would work for whatever objective we’re trying to accomplish.
And then we kind of just dive right into it. If it’s a web project, it’s the UI/UX phase, mostly the UX phase, which is like the structural part. So the wireframing, the site mapping, you know, you guys are heavily involved in that as well. And then after that kind of the fun stuff happens for us.
So that’s concept development, which is all about, you know, exploring different visuals to create a system. And it all kind of revolves around creating something that’s unique, creating something that’s impactful, creating something that’s memorable. We’re trying to distill what they want the client into something that’s digestible and meaningful for everyone, for the audience that we’re trying to hit.
Lilia: Yeah. And obviously this is so important because we work with nonprofits. How do you translate an organization’s mission into a visual aesthetic? Like, for me, my brain just like shorts when I think about that. Cause I’m like, I have no idea, you know, I think in words and narrative and I can’t conceive of how you could then translate that.
So, I guess mood boarding helps. But what else do you do that helps there?
Mike: Well, what’s awesome first and foremost is collaboration. That’s really important for what we do at GB. So Claire and I would really start to think about in our brainstorming phase, how to visually get across the message that they want. Whether that’s a promotion that they’re trying to hit or a campaign or a new branding or new website, you know, what is the ultimate goal?
And like you said, you, you know, you think mostly in words, well, luckily enough, you know, Claire and I, we think in visuals and pictures and moving things and colors and shapes. And we have that, that kind of passion, that drive, to look at what inspires us and kind of use that inspiration and putting that into the project. Does that make sense?
Lilia: Definitely. So once you start designing, when do you feel like you’ve really hit sort of a nice flow in a design? Have you noticed within your process, like, oh, after a couple of days of working on a site, I really feel like I’ve got it down or does it take longer than that?
Mike: It usually takes a few passes. If you sometimes if you get really lucky, you kind of strike gold on their first pass, you’re like, wow, this feels. This feels really good. This feels like I said, really unique, memorable, really clear and concise. And there’s a clear kind of system happening where, you know, you start to visually put the pieces together so it fits in this larger ecosystem that fits within their organizational attributes. It has to match who they are. So I think that it’s sometimes the first pass, usually not. A lot of times you have to sleep on it, revisit it. That’s what’s also great about collaborating is you also have someone to feed off of and bounce ideas off of, and yeah, we go through a lot of internal rounds.
I would say if we can, we want to get more than three internal rounds going. So at the end we have this like large board filled with different ideas. And then from there, you know, we both kind of pick and choose what we like. Yeah, and then we actually show it to the rest of the team. So we show it to you. We show it to Samantha, Mizner, Josh, everyone else, and we want to see what the first impression is because at that point we’ve been staring at it for, you know, days, weeks. So sometimes we kind of get lost in it. So yes, the first impression is really important.
Lilia: You watch our facial reactions on Zoom?
Mike: All the time. Just daggers into everyone’s eyes. And what’s cool is that since you guys also, you know, lean more towards maybe like the analytical side or, you know, you can’t really not appreciate, but you know, you lean more towards the words, right?
Lilia: Right. Like, is it working?
Mike: Is it working? Is it working for you? Because it works for us!
Um, yep. And then from there it’s yeah, it’s either a yes, that’s great, or let’s keep working on it. And eventually we have to show it to the client. Yeah. Cross our fingers and cross our toes…and we see!
Lilia: Yeah. So, obviously when the client first sees it, that’s sort of the beginning of the next phase, because that’s when you have to start thinking about how to incorporate their asks into a really concise and tight design that you’ve created.
So I’m curious to know if over the years, if you’ve noticed any asks that we get a lot from clients, related to designs, that seem to come up a lot and that are challenges that maybe you’re sort of accustomed to working on now.
Mike: Yeah. The pattern that I see is sometimes that their first impression is not what they had in their own minds, even though we’ve talked through it, you know; they’re part of the process.
Um, a lot of times, it’s the first time they’re seeing something very different.
Mike: Sometimes it’s a little scary; sometimes it’s exciting. So it’s in that moment that that’s like the biggest, um, indicator of where we’re going to go from here…
Lilia: For sure.
Mike: Because sometimes we have immediate like, “Oh, this is wonderful.”
Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, there’s too much of this color that I don’t like”, or, you know, “Is this big enough?” Yep. So some typical things are, yeah, “Make it bigger.”, “I’ve seen, I’ve seen something like this before.”, you know, “It’s not, it’s not quite what we were thinking.” And once we get into that territory, then it’s all about how do we kind of rework, revise, get all on the same page and kind of meet in the middle if we can. So that’s, I think, that’s usually how the pattern goes.
Lilia: Yeah. So of course you’ve designed so many websites for Great Believer and for various clients and, it’s funny that it comes up like, “Oh, we’ve seen this before” because you know, I feel like all of the work that you put out is so creative and unique. So, I’m wondering how you keep things new and fresh while also making sure that you’re reflecting the goals of the organization, which for a lot of nonprofits, you know, a lot of the time they’re speaking to sort of similar audience groups or they have similar goals, but something about them is really different. So how do you keep things new?
Mike: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s a great question because that is the biggest challenge for our role. What’s awesome is that each of the nonprofits that we work for, even though they may be one of a few in the same space, for us, it’s a totally unique experience. So we really try to do a nice deep dive into who they are and who they want to be and how they see themselves.
And that kind of defines them, and we use that to try and create something that fits with them. And because of that, it makes every experience, every project different. Even though we primarily do, you know, web, digital, still, each website we do has a potential to be very different. And it usually is.
Lilia: Well, speaking of our clients and the fact of course that they’re nonprofits, what is the best part about designing for nonprofits, and what’s the hardest part about designing for nonprofits?
Mike: Hmm, I think, as I was talking about before, the individuality of each nonprofit is also always really special. But I think in general, the best part is getting to know who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s always something amazing, and I think every single goal for a nonprofit is just to do good. And I think that’s a really cool thing to be a part of in any way, shape, or form. So I think that’s the best part.
The most challenging is I think, like with any other organization, it’s about timelines, you know, a budget, too many cooks in the kitchen. You know, sometimes the organization is so large and complex that it’s hard to pin down, you know, the audience, or it’s hard to pin down what exactly it is that they do because they do 10,000 things. So it’s hard to kind of distill all of that into one kind of really meaningful piece.
Lilia: Definitely. Um, I feel like we skipped over the last part of your process, which is you don’t see the designs for a really long time while they’re in development
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Lilia: And suddenly they appear in front of you as a functional website, and I’d love to know what it’s like as a designer to see your work functional and then what that part of the process looks like once you’re collaborating with the developer and then starting to finish things up.
Mike: Gotcha. Yeah, it’s, it’s a lot like Thanksgiving day and you spend all day making a delicious meal and you make a giant turkey and all the stuffing and the trimmings, and then you stick it in the oven and then you kind of just wait, and you really hope that all of it kind of comes together.
Lilia: And then you have 4PM dinner.
Mike: Yeah, and then the 4PM dinner, which turns into a 10PM dinner. And what’s nice is that while that’s going, you know, you have discussions with the developer beforehand, you’ve talked through a few things, and then when you get it back, you go into this QA process where we check to see how close it matches our designs. We get to test more of the user interface of things and see if that flow feels right. We really get to finetune things and sort of sometimes refigure things out. So it’s a great, little, well, not little, but it’s a great phase right before we show it to the client for the final approval and then, you know, send off the deliverable.
Lilia: Yeah. And then I guess we’ve been focusing on web, but, um, in terms of print, what is, is there a difference in how you think about designing from the get-go? And then the end of that process obviously looks really different because we’re usually sending pieces to a printer rather than to a developer to build out.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, I think print is a very different type of ballgame – everything from legibility to hierarchy, to using certain typefaces, colors, the actual, tangible quality of something printed. It’s very different. I was trained in print, so I was always more comfortable with that.
But as I started to do more and more digital, I started to fall in love with digital, and there’s so much. In a way, there’s more flexibility for digital design, but in a lot of ways, on the other side of that coin, there’s also more limitations. Once we get into, you know, constructing a grid, let’s say for a website, you know, you’re kind of constrained to certain things, certain rules. Then there’s the actual mechanics of creating it, so you have to collaborate with another person, kind of akin to collaborating with a printer, to print out a piece. But yeah, they both had different challenges, but yeah, I love it both. I think if you have a strong foundation in design, you can do, you can do anything, you can do either.
Lilia: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Last question. What is one thing that you wish more people, myself, clients, random people watching this, knew more about your job and your perspective as a designer?
Mike: Hmm. That’s a great question. And I love that you left it for last, because that was the question that I was struggling with as I was thinking about it. And I, I think just in general, something that I want to let everyone know is that working with nonprofits is very rewarding and working with a small team is very rewarding. And working in a culture that you love and you feel like you’re part of a family is really rewarding. So all those three things combined make for a really unique and awesome experience.
And yeah, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t trade it for anything at this point. So yeah, that’s, that’s really about it.
Lilia: All love [puts up a hand heart]
Mike: All love. That’s a great heart.
Lilia: Thank you. I’ve practiced for all of my middle school years.
Well, thanks Mike, for answering all of my questions, and to our viewers, lovely viewers, I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more, getting an inside peek at what goes on in a designer’s brain and his everyday. I know, obviously, Mike is a very hard worker. He’s head-down so much of the time and we’re very lucky to have him on our team, helming, helming our design unit. So thank you, Mike.
Mike: Thanks for having me on.
Lilia: Yay. Great podcast ep.