Behind The Scenes: Working with PBS on Digital TV
(Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Constraints)
"Limitations are the soil from which creativity grows."
- Jeffrey Zeldman, 2000
When I heard PBS wanted us to design their educational site about the Digital TV transition, I was a little nervous. After all, this was PBS, the station I grew up watching — the awesome channel that brought Mr. Rogers and antiques and wild zebras and British comedy into my TV long before I had 90+ cable channels to contend with.
PBS represented so much to so many people that I couldn't pin down any solid ideas. For the week before our first meeting, my head was spinning with concepts, none of which quite seemed worthy of the project or the brand.
But then the meeting came, and, as always, the limitations showed up. It turned out that the site had to appeal to a very specific audience, work with a banner ad, fit into a narrow pixel width, and — most importantly — it had to match an existing (and excellent) print campaign. The PBS team had done a lot of the work for us; they had produced incredibly specific audience profiles, research, and brand guidelines for us to work within. In fact, their direction was so carefully laid-out that they wanted to skip moodboards and go straight to a single comp.
Narrowing Our Focus
Like any designer, I lamented the loss of possibility: What was once a mystical cloud of ideas attempting to be all things to all users had been trimmed to a much more practical project with specific goals. However, we knew from past projects that moodboards are practical: Despite the generally fuzzy nature of moodboards, they jump start the design process and give clients an immediate opportunity to get involved. The team at PBS agreed, and we had a few hours the next day to put together some ideas.
Suddenly, the "limitations" became assets. With color schemes, artwork, and styles already set by PBS's print campaign, we were able to really open up creatively on areas like type and general tone. We picked three directions based on the materials: A "This Old House"-themed look, a workshop-themed direction, and a board that took elements and colors directly from the print campaign.
Such is the power of moodboards: If we'd gone straight to design, each designer would've come out the opposite side with comps that look sort of like their moodboard, the only difference being that full designs would've taken much longer to complete. With moodboards, however, we were able to give the client more options in much less time.
Comping With Constraints
In the end, as often happens, we went with a mix of #2 and #3, bringing in a warmer, more physical tone to the print-campaign-themed board. Moodboards are great for this approach; they allow us to mix ideas easily, giving clients and designers direct access to the tone of a design without haggling over layout and function.
When it was time to ldesign the comp, I realized that a moodboard is just another type of "limitation." By defining a visual style up front, you're removing more decisions and reducing the risk of getting blocked later in the process. PBS's guidelines helped even more; from the start, I knew what kind of header and footer to work with, what kind of connections/computers to design for, and what elements to use throughout the design. We had a comp a just a few days, and we were finishing build-out two weeks later.
For me, the takeaway is that constraints are valuable tools for designing and thinking creatively. Whether imposed by the client, the platform, or myself, constraints allow me to move faster and work with stronger ideas.
View the final PBS Digital TV site here.