Product Storytelling

Product Storytelling

Christopher Murphy · 6 August, 2020

When you're establishing a new creative business it's critical to start with the most important aspect of that business: You.

In these workshop slides – edited from a client workshop – I’ll explore:

  • what you make;
  • why you make it; and
  • who you are.

This should sit at the heart of your brand because it’s the one thing that others can’t replicate.

You are you, and you are what makes your work uniquely yours so building your product storytelling around that is important.

Understanding your who, why and what will impact on everything you do, from your pricing and positioning to the product stories you share in your marketing.

If you'd like me to run this half-day workshop for you or your business, please do get in touch: christopher@mrmurphy.com

Table of Contents

Click on any of the links below and you can fast-forward to the relevant section.

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Product Storytelling: Your Product’s Story Is the Story of You

Our journey starts with a workshop focussed on you, what you make, and why. This sits at the heart of what makes your work uniquely yours and should underpin your product storytelling.

Understanding your why and your who will impact opon everything you do, from pricing to grant applications to your marketing and social media.

Once upon a time…

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Once upon a time there was a graphic designer who wanted to create something more meaningful, something crafted by hand, something to last.

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Ben Edmonds, frustrated with his job, decided to change career direction and pursue a long held passion creating beautifully crafted knives: Blok Knives was born.

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This short video tells a short, but compelling story. It shares the story of the product, but it also shares the story of the designer maker behind the product.

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Whether they’re physical or digital, how you describe your products matters. Crafting stories, to paint a picture of your products in potential customers’ minds, builds deeper and richer connections.

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Storytelling, especially online, is essential.

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In a world saturated with mass market products, often created in conditions that aren’t ethical, customers are crying out for authentic stories. There is a hunger for brands with stories and a deeply held conviction.

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Section 1: Who are you? (What’s your story?)

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Who are you and what do you want to be?

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A little context, so you know that my advice is drawn from considerable real world experience.

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I’ve been working as a designer for 25+ years and as an educator for two decades.

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I’ve worked with clients all over the world, including everyone from companies of one to multinationals with thousands of employees. Here are a handful…

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These are just a few of the folks I’ve worked with.

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Here are some selected projects.

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Once upon a time we sent letters using Her Majesty’s postal system. I designed Northern Ireland’s stamps for the Royal Mail (2001).

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I ran Fällt, an independent record label with international distributors (and a lot of storytelling).

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We featured our mission statement, front and centre at the site’s home page.

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Working under the alias Fehler, I created sound installations as a sound artist, exhibiting in Montreal, Toronto, Lisbon, Brussels, Naples….

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In 2009, following the publication of my first book, I formed a speaking partnership called The Standardistas. This partnership that took me all over the world.

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I got an ‘E’ in my A Level English, so it’s never too late to learn. I’ve written for magazines all over the world.

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I co-founded Get Invited, the startup that did the ticketing for this event.

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In January, 2016 I launched Tiny Books as a publishing company to sell my books. This was a giant fscking mistake, which I will happily explore in our third workshop on pricing and positioning. (There are lessons in mistakes.)

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Over to you… Exercise: Just who are you, exactly?

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In pairs.

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Listen to each other, ~two minutes each. In a few minutes, you’ll ‘be the other person’.

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  1. Tell your partner who you are and what you do.
  2. If money were no object, what would you do with your life?

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Be the other person. Tell us what do they do? (And what would they like to do?)

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Your story may be unclear (in my experience, it usually is). If it is unclear, you have to fix that. We’ll work on that next.

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Exercise: Twitter Bios

This exercise isn’t about Twitter per se, it’s about the distillation of your brand messaging.

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Before we launch into the exercise, who uses these platforms?

It’s important to be on some of these platforms: 1. To market your work; and 2. To discover opportunities.

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Cara Murphy: “I use social media as a networking tool and ‘discovery engine’. It enables me to connect to makers, collectors and galleries, allowing me to find out about exhibitions, competitions and awards. Twitter is filled with opportunity.”

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Let’s look at some individuals and their Twitter bios.

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Jessica Hische is an internationally respected letterer.

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Brendan Dawes is an artist working at the intersection of analogue and digital.

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Giovanni Corvaja is a goldsmith who is, “in love with gold.”

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Let’s look at some businesses and their Twitter bios.

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Hiut Denim are focused on ‘doing one thing well’.

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Kano is a kids’ education platform with an emphasis on making technology accessible.

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I far preferred Sugru’s old bio: “…the mouldable glue that makes fixing and making easy and fun.”

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  1. Write a short Twitter bio: 160 characters, 1–2 sentences.
  2. Focus on the story of you (or your product).

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Show and Tell

Feedback. I’ll help you over the break if needs be.

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This isn’t easy. It takes time.

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Let’s explore Cara Murphy’s.

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This is a piece of Cara’s work, it’s on the desk of the Prime Minister in Downing Street.

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Cara’s work is inspired by the landscape.

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Here’s here bio: “Acclaimed contemporary Irish silversmith, Murphy’s tableware creates a silver landscape for the dining table.”

—@silverlandscape

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Let’s explore mine.

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This was a first attempt at a rethink (in ~2018). The emoji tells you all you need to know. This process – finding the right bio – took me weeks (months, actually).

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The word ‘recovering’ has too many negative connotations.

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This is the first point at which I mentioned the fact that I am a teacher.

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This is getting closer.

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Here’s where I settled, for a while.

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This is an organic process, it takes time and lots of thought.

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I keep a file of all my Twitter bios, which I can then use for speaking engagements.

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This is v3 or v4 of my bio, since I undertook a significant career shift in 2018.

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Once you find a form of words you’re comfortable with, consistency is key. Update it across all of your bios.

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Twitter

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Instagram

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GitHub

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You carry this elevator pitch everywhere.

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This short statement acts as a conversation starter, particularly at networking events.

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“A landscape of silver tableware… that sounds really interesting. What is it that you do, exactly?”

Section 2: Start With Why Who

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• I believe the best companies spend valuable time defining their mission and their purpose.

• The best companies understand their who, they understand their deep drivers.

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• Before we explore the who, I’d like to start with why.

• Ask yourself: Why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s your motivation? What do you hope to change? These are powerful drivers.

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This is best explained in this video: www.j.mp/startwithwhy

As Simon Sinek puts it in his TED talk, Start With Why: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

Identify your why and build towards your what from there.

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“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

—Simon Sinek

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Some companies (and individuals) work from the outside in: What? How? Why?

Let’s say the business’s what is computers (the company might be Dell). It’s why is, often, profit. Driven by the bottom line, the business is focused on the what, not the why.

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Some companies (and individuals) work from the inside out. (As Sinek notes, this is a better approach.)

A business like Apple is founded on challenging what’s gone before, working from the inside out: Why? How? What?

The company’s message is: We believe in thinking differently. We challenge the status quo by creating beautifully designed products that are simple to use and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

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I wholeheartedly believe in Sinek’s thinking. Businesses built on why affect more change than those built on what. However, I believe his model is missing something….

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Everything starts with a who. The who drives the why. Your ‘Why’ will be driven by your values and your story.

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Sinek’s Whys are all strong personalities: Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers.

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I believe a strong business is built on a strong foundation of deeply held core values. The beliefs that make you you.

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What’s your who?

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Once you’ve teased out what you stand for and pinpointed what you believe in, this message needs to be amplified.

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You don’t need to be a conglomerate to be a brand. There are many ‘brands of one’.

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I believe a business built around core values has more chance of success, because it ties back to its founders’ deep sense of purpose.

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This was my original pitch on Propel. 6 March, 2020.

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This is my new pitch. 6 August, 2020.

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What are your values?

I think it’s important to spend some time thinking about your values. It gives you a firm foundation on which to build.

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These are just a handful of core values. Google ‘core values’ and you’ll find hundreds. Here’s one.

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Here are three (a former student, called Marianne).

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Here are three others (a former student, called Lee).

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Neither of these individuals is better (or worse), they’re just driven by different values.

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Values are everywhere…

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Here is Offscreen in 2014.

Offscreen magazine lists its Guiding Values front and centre at its web site.

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And here it is in 2020. The design may have changed – and ‘Guiding Values’ is now ‘Purpose’ – but the content is the same.

A page like this helps others understand what you stand for

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Here’s one example of Offscreen’s value / purpose.

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Here is how it manifests itself in the magazine.

As Kai Brach, Offscreen’s editor, puts it: “Not a week goes by without receiving an email about the way I present sponsors in the magazine.”

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Offscreen’s sponsors are supporters. They passionately believe in – and support – Kai’s values and purpose.

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What are your values?

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Exercise: Core Values

  1. List three values that are important to you.
  2. List three unimportant values that are at the opposite side of the spectrum.

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Here are a handful of values to choose from (there are others, as I’ve noted above).

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Show and Tell

Exercise: Core Values

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The path to success is paved with SMART goals.

Section 3: Product DNA

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Product DNA is a method I use with my students and the businesses an individuals I mentor to help them identify their future direction.

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We all have heroes, Product DNA explores what we can learn from our heroes.

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Who are your heroes?

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Case Study

When I established my record label Fällt, I looked to other record labels for inspiration.When I established my record label Fällt, I looked to other record labels for inspiration.

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We all have heroes, we all aspire.

Ask yourself, “Who are your heroes?” If you had to pick three, who would they be?

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I looked at three labels: 12k, Touch and Mego.

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Touch didn’t limit itself to audio releases – vinyl, cassettes, CDs… – it also released printed materials (booklets, magazines, books).

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I identified with a record label called 12k, because all of their CDs were published in limited editions.

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I identified with a record label called Touch, because they challenged the idea of a record label, publishing non-audio releases, often releasing printed publications.

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Finally, I identified with a record label called Mego, because they were exploring MP3s that – at the time – were a new way of distributing music.

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By drawing from the points of difference, I was able to identify enough Product DNA to find a unique model for my record label.

It was one that acknowledged my heroes, but – importantly – had its own identity.

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Here’s one of my Masters students’ Product DNA.

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Look at the outside.

By drawing from the three areas of difference – the outside part of the Venn diagram – you can establish the DNA of a new business that will have some of the characteristics of the three, but will have its own identity.

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  • Identify three heroes.
  • Pinpoint what you can learn from each.

At this stage, we’re not interested in what your heroes have in common – there will be overlaps, of course – we’re interested in the differences.

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Show and Tell

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With the Product DNA exercise undertaken, the next thing I suggest is to undertake a Content Audit.

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You really had to be at the workshop to understand this, sorry!

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I undertook a Product DNA exercise again, recently, because my career is evolving.

In addition to the Product DNA exercise I undertook a Content Audit, looking at the kind of content each individual was publishing, how their websites were structured and what kind of tone of voice they used. The three individuals I explored were:

  • Alan Moore
  • Mark Shayler
  • Seth Godin

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Alan Moore

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I explored the navigation and structure of Moore’s site to see if there was anything I could learn or identify any aspects of my new site that I may have overlooked.

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It’s important to spend some time identifying your Voice and Tone. Research will help with this.

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I looked for phrases that resonated with me.

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Mark Shayler

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The, “big companies think small and small companies think big,” idea stuck with me. That’s what I do, so I stole this from Mark. (Thanks, Mark!)

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Seth Godin

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Reading this, “Seth Godin is an author, entrepreneur and most of all, a teacher,” I realised that – above all – I’m a teacher, and I hadn’t been mentioning this.

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Over to you

Exercise: Product DNA

  • Analyse your three heroes.
    • How’s their site structured?
    • What kind of language are they using?
    • What’s their positioning?
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Show and Tell

Section 4: Building a Brand Dictionary

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To ensure your message is consistent it’s essential to build a brand dictionary. A list of words and phrases that encapsulate your brand.

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A brand dictionary helps you to clearly and consistently communicate your brand. Spend some time identifying the words that resonate with you and which capture you and your product story.

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Here’s an example.

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smart describe their car as: Agile, Expressive, Dynamic, Fun and Friendly.

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Here’s another example. This is still a car, but it’s positioned differently.

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Mercedes describe their car as: Precision, Luxury, Stylish, Engineered and Efficient.

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These two brands are owned by the same company, Daimler.

Both, however, use very different language that communicates their specific brand messages.

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Spend some time identifying the words that make up the backbone of your brand dictionary.

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Listen to the language in this video. The use of Apple’s key words – incredible, amazing, awesome… – isn’t by accident, it’s by design.

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What’s your: Remarkable, Simple, Beautiful…?

A lot of thought went into this. These words aren’t used by accident, they’re used by design.

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Over to you

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What words would you use to describe your UX School?

Right now you’re probably struggling to think of these, but if you look at others and do some research you’ll find it a lot easier.

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It’s important to spend time finding the right language that fits.

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Show and tell

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I hope you found this deck useful.

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Ask me anything: chris@theschoolofdesign.com