The word innovation used to terrify me. Whenever a client or colleague expressed the desire to be innovative, my pulse would race, my palms would sweat, and I’d seriously begin to reconsider what I thought to be my occupational calling. For many years, I took innovation in design to mean doing something completely new: breaking new ground, redirecting whole industries, or even inventing new categories of offerings. That’s a tall order, even for experienced designers, and especially when you’ve got a long list of business and technical requirements to meet. Sometimes just getting client teams to agree on a shared vision can be a challenge — not to mention we usually have a deadline looming.

These days, I take the word innovation to mean something a little less scary.

For the design team at mStoner, innovation means:

  • Finding inspiration from disparate sources and imagining new possibilities.
  • Thinking small in order to solve big problems quickly and efficiently.
  • Producing design fearlessly — daring to push against expectations.

In my experience, clients will always pull you back when you’ve gone too far, but they rarely have the courage to really push you. In fact, they hired you to push them. Innovative ideas arrive from the push and pull of process and are generally not preconceived at the outset of a project. We start by defining the problem as succinctly as possible, then iterate obsessively, confidently exploring a range of possible solutions while never forgetting to impart our personalities, our experiences, and our humanity into the work.

Imagining New Possibilities

I’ve worked with many designers and creative people over the past 20 years. The creatives that stand out are the ones not with the best technical or art skills but the ones who can make unexpected associations between seemingly unrelated things. Because of this, designers who are curious, well-read, and experienced across a range of industries and disciplines are more likely to produce innovative work. They are able to synthesize existing and even opposing ideas into totally new ones.

In this spirit, we introduce every creative project with an exploration of ideas outside higher ed. For example, when thinking about a program finder, we research e-commerce. When thinking about the admission process, we explore all the seamless digital services and products users have come to expect in their daily lives. We ask, “How will our website fit into this modern ecosystem?” We encourage everyone  — not just designers — at mStoner to think this way. The more we tap into our team’s varied experience, the more unexpected and imaginative the solution.

Thinking Small

The best way to tackle large projects is to break them down into parts. And we’re more likely to bring an innovative idea to one or two aspects of a project than we are to the project as a whole. There’s no sense in rethinking common design patterns that have proven success in our industry. We definitely don’t want to confuse users by introducing something wholly unexpected. Yet, by thinking about individual components in new ways, we’re able to inject our websites with a feeling of newness and ingenuity that results in increased engagement.

At the outset of a web project, we identify key messages that need to be expressed. Then we determine the experiences we want people to have on the site. Whether that’s scheduling a visit or getting to know faculty, the design of these experiences are manifested in unique website features. Our designers spend most of their time crafting the components that reinforce these messages. In a recent project, we’re introducing audio clips to demonstrate a West Coast institution’s collection of “unique voices”; in another, we’re showcasing a student’s “path to success” with a timeline of student internships, research projects, and career outcomes. By breaking down messages into features, we’re able to work quickly, acknowledging client goals as we go. By working small and making “micro” decisions, we don’t get overwhelmed by the expansive scope of our design work.

Design Fearlessly

The most exciting and potentially frightening aspect of any creative work is in its inception: when you know the goal and you know the client backwards and forwards, but there’s still that empty design file full of potential and possibility staring you in the face. I’m reminded of that scene in Disney’s’ “Tangled” when Rapunzel leaves the tower for the first time. She’s elated one moment, overwhelmed with joy as she swings unafraid through the forest. And then she’s terrified and wracked with guilt the next, burying her head in the ground. That’s exactly what it’s like!

Thankfully, we have a process for getting through the tough parts and bringing joy to our creative work. Weekly critiques get the entire team involved. Along with a constant stream of inspiration flowing on G-Chat and Slack, it’s an opportunity to share projects and get outsider input. Designers at mStoner design in the open (physically in our open office and metaphorically through continuous criticism); we’re unafraid to cross the line of possibility if it means introducing a great idea. Also, knowing that our design will ultimately be put in front of real users during user testing allows us to take some risks. Finally, our clients expect to be a part of the process, and so we allow them the space to be innovative too. We synthesize their ideas and experiences with ours; we design fearlessly together.

We’re designers because we love to solve problems, we love to make things, and we love to play with ideas, testing the limits of our imagination. Clients who love working with us enjoy the process of discovery and innovation embedded in every project, and (of course) they love the finished product, which is the result of research, passion, and exceptional skill.

Ben Bilow

AUTHOR - Ben Bilow

Creative success comes from digging in, getting messy, and making stuff. As a kid in St. Louis, my interest in skateboarding and rock & roll music shaped my work ethic — be resourceful, build community, share. We invented our own fun, designing rock posters and building half-pipes — tearing them down and doing it again.

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