The Invisible, Imperative Aspects of Design

It’s been nearly four(!) years since the launch of the National Audubon Society redesign. We have had success with a lot of fantastic clients over the years, but a project of such complexity and broad appeal met with universal acclaim along with immediate, unambiguously positive metrics is a rare bird.

I don’t like playing favorites, but because it continues to come up years later—often in requests like “Design us an Audubon for X”—I want everyone to be clear on why this particular project went so well. A talented design team is not enough to create something outstanding. The conditions for success also have to be in place, and these are not obvious from finished artifacts, so I am going to lay some of those factors out here.

tl;dr the client was awesome and had the right priorities

Design is not magic. It’s work. And the work is mostly talking.

The business strategy was sorted before the RFP went out

Without clear business goals and priorities and a strong framework for making decisions, it’s impossible to make the right investments in design and technology. When organizations don’t know themselves, they start copying others…badly.

Audubon had hashed out their strategic priorities, and even their org chart, before bringing online communication strategy into the mix. * There is a direct line from strategy to structure to a kick-ass presentation layer.

The CEO came out of journalism, as did several other key people

Good journalists make particularly good design clients because they communicate clearly (duh), are solid critical thinkers, ask the right questions, respect expertise, know how to balance quality and delivery, and refer to an external professional standard. They also know the difference between a good argument and a bad argument. We’ve worked with journalists many times.

You don’t need to be a journalist to have these qualities, but you need to have these qualities to be a good design client or product manager.

The project originated in the right place

We’ve seen design project budgets and RFPs come out of every part of the org chart. The point of origin indicates what sort of problem the organization thinks it has and this will color the whole approach for better or worse. It is highly unlikely that the hardest part of a web design project is the technology or that the technology determines success. But if the project originates with the CTO’s budget, that’s how it will be treated and evaluated. Website is just a material that can be used for any business function. You need to be clear on what you need to make of it.

The Audubon project came out of their (robust and skilled) content team. The design and technology served the content, which served the mission and business goals of the organization. This idea was baked into the engagement at its core.

The project was critical to the future of the organization

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the higher the stakes, the more successful the outcome is likely to be. If jobs are on the line, if member relationships are on the line, if the habitats of birds are on the line, the right people pay the right amount of attention.

Projects that leak out of a slush fund as a fun-time experiment, no matter how well-resourced, are impossible.

The magic dyad was go

We’ve found a strong pattern in our most successful projects—the client team is led by a pair. This is often a VP and a director, depending on how the hierarchy works. One person manages up and holds the vision, the other knows how to get things done and can rally people across the organization. Both capable of thinking strategically and tactically, while having a clear sense of their respective roles.


We’re starting to learn that psychological safety is essential for functioning internal teams. It is just as essential to relationships with external partners. There is nothing more detrimental to a designer’s ability to solve a complex problem than having to spend attention and energy re-earning trust at every meeting. Some clients take their personal status anxiety out on the firms they hire and it just leads to a miserable, unproductive working relationship.

We had the complete trust and support of the Audubon project team from the top down. This allowed us to focus completely on the goals and make strong recommendations. And we had a real partnership in overcoming resistance to change in the wider organization. Of course various things went pear-shaped over the course of the project. They always do. But we had a genuine collaborative relationship that allowed us to get back on track quickly.

Thorough up-front research

Evidence-based design requires much more than user research. You have to understand the organization inside and out, warts and all, to create something really successful. Otherwise you risk creating a shallow pretty thing that fails the very people who funded it. And you have to make sure that understanding is shared by every single decision-maker. (Knowing how an organization makes decisions, for real, is the most important thing for a designer to uncover. Making decisions based on evidence is the most important thing for the leadership to commit to. Otherwise it’s less design and more uncomfortable, expensive role play.

We had weeks and weeks to investigate the organization and its capabilities, the prior work, the existing audiences, the potential new audiences, the overall landscape, and the technical constraints. This meant every one of our recommendations was based on evidence, not wishful thinking. And it meant that decisions were swift and confident, not riddled with politics and guesswork.

Engagement paths

Once we had done the initial research and presented our findings, we sat down with representatives of every department to walk through the intersection between real-world behaviors and interactions with the editorial content, transactional paths, campaigns, calls to action, hand-offs to other sites and systems, social media, signage, print publications, branded products, etc.

This helped everyone in the organization consider interactions in context, rather than a stack of pages to fight over. It’s the best way to resolve territory battles and serve the needs of diverse audiences with limited resources. You want your “ROI of design”? You get it by making sure every choice, every investment of attention or resources, tracks back to customer and business value. Why is the Audubon site not simply beautiful, but also effective? Engagement paths.

Collaboration over documentation

A design project is a series of decisions, not a set of artifacts. They really got this. We had productive conversations and produced only the documentation that served to facilitate and record those decisions. There was no symbolic thunk factor to get buy-in or requests to make shiny artifacts for political purposes.

Good division of labor among the partners

A lot of potential clients express a desire for an all-in-one agency. That risks having all the advantages of a TV-VCR combo. As long as everyone is clear on their roles and good communication protocols are in place, it’s better to find the best people for each piece of the work. Design and back-end development are very different processes that are often best served by different teams. Don’t hire the sort of firm you think you are supposed to hire. Find the best people for the job. (And it really doesn’t matter if they are in another time zone. In fact, it’s often better for reasons. Google calendar can handle it.)

Audubon had a fantastic Drupal partner who was involved from the start.

Amazing content came first

I mean, really. We had tremendous writing and photography to work with. All we had to do was package it and create strong associative pathways that got the right stuff in front of the right people at the right time.

And when we told them they needed to bin all of their existing organizational content and start over, they trusted us and rolled up their sleeves. They didn’t fight to migrate copy that didn’t fit the new structure and strategy. That was huge. Again, their willingness to write new, better stuff and create new beautiful videos and obtain digital rights for illustrations was due to the fact that the project originated with their content team and had the support of an executive who used to run a newspaper. They understood the need and the value. All credit to them for the result.

We had fun!

If you are working on a design project of strategic importance and you aren’t having a good time and enjoying (almost) every moment, something is very wrong. OK, not every domain is as delightful as birds, but if your work is a miserable slog, don’t expect greatness to come out the other side.

We were genuinely bereft when the time for our weekly check-in meetings came to a close. Fortunately, we had something really nice to console ourselves with that did justice to everyone’s effort.

Screenshot of the Audubon website featuring a wood duck

Years later, the site still has big duck energy.