What pushes you to be better?


Fire In My Bones Illustration

Why do you do what you do? Doesn’t matter if you’re an Accountant or an Illustrator, why is it that you keep crunching numbers or making pictures? More importantly, what’s the force behind the drive to do it better?

This past weekend, I was very pleasantly surprised when a project I creatively spearheaded was given gold at the Heartland American Advertising Federations Awards (The Addys). The True Beer Food App was created for a manufacturer client to demonstrate the importance of food and beer pairings and the opportunity for a restaurant that executes them correctly. It does so, through an almost magical augmented reality experience that allows the user to scan a beer coaster after which they are treated to a “deck” of coasters on their mobile device that they can shuffle and swipe to take them deeper into the experience and give them additional information. Simple, right?

What most people who weren’t part of the core project team will never know is what it took to get to this execution. Heck, how it even happened in the first place. So please allow me to escort you to the proverbial Delorean equipped with a brand-new Flux Capacitor, because baked into this tale are some macro truths that guide my decision making that will hopefully inspire something within you as well.

Everything is an opportunity.

Or at least that’s what a creative director told me once at the beginning of my career, mostly to get me to care about creating B2B sellsheets. Although it may not always prove true, there is validity in those simple words that stuck with me, because you just never know where something will lead. Maybe I’m just too dumb to know when to give up.

So it happened one afternoon that I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to get actual food and beer pairings into hotel rooms for a crapload of salespeople attending a major event and I was running into a major problem: food gets cold and beer warm quickly, so consistency on demand isn’t an option. If these pairings are lousy, there’s no way the salesfolk are going to believe in the initiative. My team and I had been trying to solve this problem for a couple days to no effect. I decided to clear my head and take a walk.

This was unsuccessful.

But as I returned to my desk, my Producer (a super sharp lady who’s probably the best I’ve ever worked with) asked me “Hey do you have any interest in Augmented Reality Coasters? I know you like weird things, so I thought I’d ask.”

On every other day, no, I had very little interest at all, but today I was 100% in the market for Augmented Reality Coasters.

Of course she was only asking if I wanted a coaster that would trigger a popup screen with some simple static information on it. Unfortunately for her, my mind was already off to the races with possibilities. This WAS the droid I was looking for!

Here’s the thing: If you’re at the center of an initiative, you’ll get glimpses of things that could be, but it’s up to you to mercilessly chip away at reality until they are.

Be prepared though, because creation is never easy or without a mess.

We secured a vendor, one of the best in the business (from our research) and the copywriter and I began to draft a plan. As I began to think through the user experience I determined that I wanted something that felt magical, so I put a bunch of coasters on my desk and began to play with them. This is where the analogue for a deck of cards came from. After all, a magicians card tricks seem like magic to those watching, but it’s actually the result of discipline and informed practice just like proper food and beer pairing (see what I did there?). As the copy was being written for each coaster, I created the User Interface (which mainly consisted of creating buttons and chrome in a design language that I based on coaster artwork). I drafted the wireframing and functionality documentation accounting for transitions, shadows, ambient lighting, coaster depth, etc. We shipped these off to the vendor who nodded in agreement, and then set ourselves to getting copy approval and create whatever design wouldn’t be live in the app.

We’d planned periodic check-ins on the project and things were understandably slow-going at first. Then as time went on, we started getting nervous. What we kept receiving back from the vendor looked terribly hacked together. The coasters were just flat images with no depth and were also extremely pixelated, even the shuffling animation wasn’t smooth. Worst of all, the app itself took a lot of time to load initially and then again with every swipe a user made. This was evidenced by a spinning wheel animation that appeared on the screen and became an allegory for the project. It didn’t matter how detailed the documentation had been that the vendor had agreed to, how many meetings we called where we explained how things were supposed to work, or how much additional time we gave them, we were all just a spinning wheel animation churning to no real effect.

As the team began considering worst case scenarios, a bold opportunity presented itself. Two of the developers within our own organization wanted a shot at the project and they were willing to gamble nights, weekends, and holidays over the meager timeline we had left to do it. Their approach was remarkably different than the vendors’, opting to utilize a mobile game engine as the foundation to build from instead of creating something from scratch or trying to hack something something together from third party libraries.

They had caught the vision and could see things from a slightly different perspective than anyone else had been able to approach it.

I sat with them in a lengthy meeting and walked them through all of the documentation. They asked all the right questions: what’s the sort order, how should the animation easing work, what will the shuffling do if X, you get the idea…

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Our check-ins became more frequent (including downloading and stress-testing the build WIP whenever one was pushed). They used every bit of the timeline they were given, but what they delivered was spot-on to what I had originally imagined in my head way back when. Probably was even better! They literally saved the day because they could.

This is the app that won the award. It’s the one that delighted the client, wowed the salespeople, and further established the manufacturer as being on the cutting edge of technology as it rolled out from this event to restaurants nationwide.

That is why it was worth it for me and why it always will be.

No matter the hiccups along the way, there’s still fire in my bones to create that which is just beyond the horizon.

How about you?

-Mike, Mindprizm