Communicating by design: an introduction

In my years of publishing magazines, one of the things I tried to enforce most with our design was usability. Anyone who has worked with something needing to be designed has been caught in between a rock (beautiful design) and a hard place (more content).

However, if you look beyond each person’s artistic pride (which is also crucial, don’t get me wrong) you get to the most important, and far too often overlooked, aspect of layout and design:


An advert, for example, might look amazing but it will not be effective if it cannot transmit the message required by the client. On the other hand, if you have enough copy to write Bible 2.0 but cannot lay it out in a way which is attractive to your readers you will never reach your targets either.

It might sound obvious, however the best design is ultimately the one that works best in the context. A colourful flyer might attract a number of youths to your parish’s summer barbeque on the beach, but it won’t fill the church if you use the same bright and gleeful colours to advise the older members of the parish about a sombre prayer vigil to remember Christ’s suffering.

So how will you know when you have hit the right balance? There is no single simple solution, but even if you trust your agency or in-house design team blindly you will need to put in a lot of hard work at the brief stage. Skimp on this and you will most likely be throwing valuable money away.

So what is the information you absolutely need to collect before starting off?

- Do you need to communicate? We are constantly being bombarded with so much useless information that there are times when silence is golden. So you should always start off by questioning whether you actually have something to say. Whatever you do never accept an answer like: “because all the others are doing it”.

- What do you aim to achieve? The question before this should have led you to this answer, but if it hasn’t, now’s the time to ask it. Are you looking to increase branding and awareness? Do you need cash flow badly or have stock you need to get rid of? Do you aim to be recognised as an industry expert in the field?

- Who is your audience? Depending on your products or services and the previous answers you should by now have a clear picture of your intended audience. Learn as much as possible about them – what makes them tick, where they hang out (virtually or in real life), what level of education they have, whether they are male or female, whether they take decisions or simply influence them. Learn all you can – every bit of information you can gather is worth its wight in gold (in the right hands).

Once you have this information you can start working on whatever you intend putting out there – be it a blog post, an entire magazine or a 5-second radio advert. Make sure the design is tailored to target the right audience and communicate the right message. How will you do that? Well you’ll just have to wait for my next posts about the subject.

(#5 of 366 X 2012 project)

This post was originally written for LinkedInToMalta.



6 Easy Steps to Success

Photo (cc) Isaías Campbell/ Flickr

Before starting off I would like to make my definition of success clear. In my books success is not defined by the traditional measures – wealth and power. My grandmother, for example, lived a long, happy life but was never wealthy. I deem her life an unquestionable success. So for the intents and purposes of this article, success is whatever can make you really happy.

We are only at the fourth day of the year, and I’m pretty sure most of our new year resolutions have started looking slightly less attractive. The novelty is wearing off and in most cases we just don’t know what is really expected of us. If you promised yourself something vague like that you’d “live healthier in 2012,” now is the time to start making excuses.

So the next time you set out to achieve something, anything at all really, try following these six basic steps and you will find yourself on the path the success in no time at all:

1) Have a clear and defined goal – From my experience, the one secret to being successful in anything you do is having a clear, specific goal. It might sound obvious, however many people fail to realise that a vague goal does not help at all – in fact it can be a hindrance. You can say “I want to be healthier this year”, but with such a vague target it will be impossible to hit. Narrow it down – say, I want to lose 10kg, or reach a BMI of 23. Both are  targets that can be reached and are measurable.

2) Set a deadline – Now that we have a target we need to set ourselves a deadline, otherwise you can postpone taking action on it forever.

3) Set action items – You want to lose weight, good. But turn that into a specific set of actions: I shall exercise three times a week. Be relentless – train yourself to panic if you haven’t done any physical activity by Thursday because you’re running out of time.

4) Set milestones – Going back to that 10kg target – if I just have that in mind then every time I get on my weighing scales all I can think of is how far away I am. Set milestones based on your deadline and celebrate reaching each one as a mini victory.

5) Be realistic – If you expect to lose 10kg in 10 days you are sure to be disappointed. You will fail and it will do you more harm than good because you will break your diet with a vengeance. Be realistic and don’t push yourself too hard. On the other hand don’t make it too easy, because you will lose the fun of the challenge.

6) Tell the people around you – Speak about your challenge and let your family, friends and co-workers know about what you’re doing. Share your goals and milestones and let them know about your progress. You can also find like-minded people to join you on your journey – even if you find none in your social circle you can surely find them online.

Quite naturally, even though I used weight-loss as an example in this post, it can be applied to anything you want to achieve.

(#4 of 366 X 2012 project)

Book review: A Game of Thrones

Rated: ***** 5/5

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

When I first started reading A Game of Thrones I wasn’t too impressed. The story flowed well enough and the writing was good, but something felt slightly amiss. The style in which it was written and the way people thought was too, dare I say, modern for the setting and the story. Two chapters into the story I was past caring. The book is an addictive page-turner which will leave you on the edge of your seat from cover to cover.

George R. R. Martin created a world which is believable because it contains no knight in shining armour, no invincible hero, no Frodo to unerringly take the ring to Mordor throughout the series. There is no single character which is always evil or constantly good. No relationship is sacred, no vow is kept and just when you think a character has the upper hand, someone unearths a new nightmare to dish out on them.

A Game of Thrones is a hybrid between fantasy and an historical novel. Dragons and magic co-exist with great families of nobility, peasants and hunting tribes. It is written in the third person throughout, but you follow a different character in every chapter. George R. R. Martin takes you deep into the psyche of some of the central characters and sets up dilemmas which leave you, the reader, as confused about the direction that has to be taken as the poor soul caught between a rock and a hard place. At times there is no clear path and each option seems as desperate as the other.

Even though I seem to have painted a very bleak picture, I seriously suggest that if you like fantasy or historical novels you just find time to read this book, but make sure you have time to read the rest of the series. One other warning (read: spoiler). Don’t get attached to any of the characters – no one will be spared.

Continue reading Book review: A Game of Thrones

Vida – The Long Kiss Goodbye

A couple of weeks ago I wrote my last editorial for Vida, a magazine I set up in June 2009 and published first in January 2010. Those 30 months were one heck of a roller coaster ride in which I learned a lot from every person I came in contact with.

Vida was an ambitious project by any standard, and the only reason I felt I could leave it peacefully because I had accomplished what I had originally set out to achieve. The brief from my employers in the very beginning seemed simple enough: to create a medium which can be accessed by everyone in the country. 162,000 copies were to be distributed for free to every household monthly – but getting it through the letterbox was the easy bit. We had to make people pick it up, read it and engage. We wanted readers to love it and look forward to the next issue. We had to transcend the (virtual) barriers of age, education, social standing, religion and politics.

In the first year I met a lot of people who told me they thought we were doing a good job. I was always happy to hear praise for the publication, however I always had my doubts about it since all the kind words were coming directly to me. People tend to be too nice that way, and there were issues I could have pointed out myself that few ever commented about.

I was creating a product with which I also had to attract people who do not buy (or read) magazines usually, people I had so very little in common with. Truth be told, by the end of it I was creating a magazine that I wouldn’t have picked up myself. A magazine that even had to captivate the portion of the nation which is usually glued to the TV. This was the hard part.

There is much more to it than choosing the right variety of subject matter. You need to write in a language that will not be missed by casual readers but at the same time it had to be one that would not alienate people who wished to dig deeper.

In the six months I spent researching before coming out with the first issue I looked at a lot  of the more popular magazines out there and analysed what made readers tick. I also tried to imagine what kind of reader would most likely pick our magazine up and did my very best to create a setup that would cater for the main groups of readers we would most likely have.

We did it without selling our souls though, and together with my colleagues I made a promise not to “buy” attention by going down one of the two easy routes. We committed ourselves to avoiding stories which were sensational for the sake of it, and to never cover gossip stories about personalities or celebrities.

Did we really make it interesting? We found out in December that year. We printed the first twelve issues of Vida in Italy because there wasn’t a web-offset printer set up in Malta at the time. December 2010 was the month in which most of Europe froze over, our truck missed the collection of the magazine by a day, which in turn meant we missed the next ship to Malta and received the magazine a week late. We could not handle the phone calls we received that week. People from all over the island were calling us to ask why they had not received Vida. Sometimes you just need a mini-tragedy to realise what a good thing you have going on.

A year later I wrote my farewell editorial. It might seem strange to many that I left my post so quickly, however there were a lot of personal reasons to do so. First of all I had always worked in publishing and it was time for a change. I am now working in marketing with GFI (a US software company).

The number of things I have learned in the past six months has been mind-boggling. I am working in a job where I have quite a few amazing people to look up to for directions, which means I can learn much more in the long run. Working at Vida for the foreseeable future would have been the easy option, but it would have meant that I would eventually get stuck in a rut – something I want to avoid at all costs. In publishing I didn’t have a boss, I learnt everything by trial and error and had no one to refer to when I had a dilemma.

Saying bye is never easy, and the fact that I was leaving something I created from scratch made it even harder, however now I am in a situation where I earn my keep working in a job where I have so much to learn and I can further develop myself in while writing and photographing whatever I feel like in my spare time. I can’t complain.

P.S. I wish the new (acting) editor, Sarah Micallef, the best of luck – Vida is lucky to have such a formidable person replacing me.

(#2 of 366 X 2012 project)

366 X 2012

There are quite a few daily photography challenges going on around the interwebs. I know that there are quite a few writing ones too, but I have never seen a hybrid. This year I want to force myself to publish a photo or a proper blog post/ article at least once a day. Sometimes I might even do both.

Practice, they say, makes perfect – and I need lots of it for my writing and photography if I am ever to be considered decent in any of the fields.

I find it easier to write than take (good) photos, so I am going to have a hard time convincing myself to keep a healthy ratio going. To balance this out I also aim to be stricter on my written contributions than I am on my photography ones.

I earn my keep writing, and have done so for years – so I will need to push myself to improve my grammar and style, but the real challenge is to inject a viral aspect. The target is to write content that is worth sharing and commenting on.

Initially I thought of setting myself a minimum word count, but even though I have a target in mind (around 400w,) I will not commit to it for one simple reason – I want to experiment with more condensed writing too.

Just because I have done so forever, I shall write about anything that comes to mind. There are a few topics that are closer to heart than others, however I have a wide range of interests and like writing about any of them at any given time. I might write tutorials, interviews, opinion pieces and reviews. I have a particular affinity for travel writing, so that will feature quite heavily too.

Photography is a passion that I have had for years. I have had quite a few photos published in print, but that was mainly in publications I was involved in – which, to a certain extent, means I was cheating. I want to take photos that are impressive enough to stand out in their own right – and for them to stand out on Google+ they will need to be truly spectacular. If I manage to get just one amazing truly spectacular photo out of this challenge I will be satisfied.

I can sometimes go through very busy periods, so I am building in a loophole – I don’t need to create something new every day, but instead I will commit to creating something for every day, and every one of them must have been created in the year 2012. I will do my best to publish something every day though, and even when I’m abroad (and with no internet access) I plan on scheduling my blog to publish something daily. Publishing to my blog on schedule does have one drawback – I can’t link the posts to Google+, but it’ll have to do.

I have quite a few other targets for 2012, so let’s hope I can keep up with everything. I know I will give it my best shot.

This post officially counts as the #1 of 366

Photo of myself with the ever-so-lovely wife as we moved into 2012.
Photo of myself with the ever-so-lovely wife as we moved into 2012.