A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Motorcycle Photos and the Art of Branding

We are in the process of redesigning our Brick Factory website.  It has been slow going.  Client work competes for resources and we tend to over think everything when doing work for ourselves.  But we are getting there, and expect to launch our new site before the end of the year.

As we planned the redesign I took a look at the websites of design and development firms from around the world.  It was inspiring.  Lots of firms have taken the time to create unique and beautiful websites.  Browse through some of them here.

However, as I did my research one thing that struck was the sameness of many of them.  In particular, I was bothered by the use of client work as the primary company branding.   Let me explain.

Design Firm X will have a client that has awesome photographic resources – say a company that builds motorcycles.  So when I visit the homepage of Design Firm X, I’ll see giant, sexy, professionally-taken photos of people riding awesome motorcycles.  And that is pretty much it.  The portfolio is the brand.

While sites that take this approach often look great and are likely effective, it sort of bothers me.  It feels like cheating. Your site is one of the few chances you have to do whatever you want.  Make your own brand, and don’t just showcase the brands you’ve helped create for your clients.   Take your own photos.  Create your own art.  Write your own copy.

Make it about you.  Tell me your story.

So as part of our site redesign we are developing supplemental branding elements that will be sprinkled throughout the site.  Below are snippets of two such pieces of art we have created.  The first is a factory illustration that is a primary branding element on our homepage.  The second is a Hunter S. Thompson inspired seal we will be working into a few spots.  Much more to come…




Responsive Design

Screen size diversity and the case for responsive design

The increasing ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has lead to exponential grown in the percentage of visitors accessing the web from mobile devices over the last few years.  In a study of the mobile statistics of Brick Factory clients we found that site visits from tablets and smartphones has doubled every year the last three years.  20% of the visitors to our client websites now come from smartphones and tablets.

Given these figures, the question is no longer “Should I optimize for mobile?” but “How should I optimize for mobile?”.

Traditionally, there have been two main ways to make your website mobile-friendly:

  1. You can create a mobile-specific template that is served to visitors who access your site from smartphones and/or tablets.  Essentially you are designing one site aimed at desktop/laptop users and another aimed at smartphone users.
  2. You can create a responsive design that automatically resizes the content based on the user’s screen size. The result is a website that is optimized for all devices, from desktops to iPads to iPhones. If you visit the website we designed for No Labels and resize your browser you will see the concept in action.

A few years ago option 1 was the most popular approach.  The iPhone was the dominant smartphone for web browsing and the iPad hadn’t really taken off yet, so creating a mobile template tailored for the iPhone made pretty good sense.

While mobile-specific themes are still a popular approach in some sectors, such as the news industry, I think it is safe to say that a consensus has formed around responsive design the last few years.  I think a big part of the reason for the move towards responsive design is the increase in the number of screen sizes you have to deal with now.  Check out this finding from our mobile study:


The number of screen resolutions used to access our average client website doubled from 2012 to 2013.

There are a variety of reasons for the increase, beyond the simple fact that more people are using smartphones and tablets.Android has gained a ton of market share the last few years, and Android-based phones and tablets come in a variety of screen resolutions.   Desktop monitors are getting bigger and bigger – we are now seeing screen sizes as large as 2909*1606. There is more variance in the screen sizes for laptops then there used to be.

The diversity of screen sizes has made building websites much more complicated than it was a few years ago.  Two or three years ago you could design your site for a typical desktop size (say 1024*768) and create a specific theme for mobile.  And you were done.

Now?  You’ve got to account for visitors coming from screens both much smaller and larger than that 1024*768 target.  A site designed for 1024*768 may not look so good on a 1600*900 screen, much less one that is 2909*1606 or 320*568.

The increase in the diversity screen sizes has made creating device-specific themes impractical.  There are just too many resolutions to deal with now to create a specific theme aimed at a few target screen sizes. Responsive design is the most efficient way to deal with the increasing diversity with which people are accessing the web.


New Brick Factory Study: 20% of web traffic now comes from mobile devices

There  has been a lot of hype about the rise of web browsing from smartphones and tablets over the last few years.  The research firm IDC projects that by 2015 more people will access the Internet from mobile devices than from desktops and laptops.

This is all important stuff for us to follow.  But as big of a deal as these overall industry trends are, at the Brick Factory it is more important for us to understand what is going on in our own world of non-profits, advocacy groups and brands.  How is the move towards mobile impacting our clients?

In an effort to answer that question, we took an aggregate look at how mobile usage of the websites we manage (60+ sites) is evolving.  The results are eye opening.

We found that 20% of all web visitors are now accessing the web from smartphones or tablets, and that mobile visitors are doubling every year.


The mobile web isn’t something that will come someday – it is here now.

Check out the full study.


Yahoo! And the Art of Branding Gibberish

As I’ve mentioned more than once, designing logos is an awful way to spend your time. There’s no hiding. You’re out there in front of the client with your brilliant idea on a white sheet of paper as the marketing director and his recent and eager grads wait to ask probing and pointed questions about things they read concerning logo development last night.

I’ve always thought the best way to solve the logo question was to get an honest and trustworthy designer to provide a handful of strong concepts, let he or she present them without interruption and choose one. I’m in the minority with this approach and I know it. Creative types like to let other creative types do their jobs and be left alone. We also would take 6 months to design those logo ideas if you let us, so I understand why I’m in the minority on this. Even so, the more isn’t the merrier in these cases.

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer unveiled the new Yahoo! logo yesterday with more explanation than I thought we might get. Or deserved. Or wanted, really. We also were treated to a really well produced quick video of the creative process, although I believe it’s just an after the fact marketing fluff piece. Cool though.


The new logo is an updated version of the old logo, not a redesign. It’s a good upgrade and needed I suppose after (Google tells me, let’s see…) 18 years. It is beveled though and that’s just weird. Marissa calls it chiseled, but it’s beveled to anyone who’s familiar with Photoshop, which is just about 100% of Yahoo! users. The font bevel is the hard-drinking wingman of the font drop shadow, but Yahoo! didn’t take the bait and double down, thankfully.

Like all modern logo reveals, Yahoo! and Marissa had the uncomfortable job of explaining what we were seeing, because logos are art and art requires some deep background before commoners like us can understand it.
Some highlights include:

  • “We didn’t want to have any straight lines in the logo.  Straight lines don’t exist in the human form”
  • “We preferred letters that had thicker and thinner strokes – conveying the subjective and editorial nature of some of what we do.”
  • “tilt the exclamation point by 9 degrees, just to add a bit of whimsy”

She nailed it. Nothing says whimsy like an exact 9 degree tilt.

So that’s a pretty impressive load of hogwash, and it’s only a small sample of her creative vision. She included this phony little gem as well; as if it was discovered in some darkened conference room on a whiteboard next to other great ideas like talk to Jerry about hygiene issues and casual Friday does not mean you don’t come in.
So congratulations to Marissa Mayer, her new logo and the weekends she spent with her logo team. According to her it was “a ton of fun weighing every minute detail”. Logo team members have not been heard from.

Responsive Design

27% of top college websites utilize responsive design

The last few years has seen a dramatic rise in people using tablets and smart phones to browse the Internet.  This explosion has made building websites more complicated, as web developers now have to make their sites look good on on tiny phone screens, Al Gore-style widescreen monitors, and everything in between.

A few years ago the most common method for dealing with mobile was to create a specific design theme for users accessing your site from mobile phones.  You essentially created a different user experience for mobile users vs. desktop/laptop users.  For a variety of reasons – emergence of tablets, increasing diversity in phone screen sizes, growth of super widescreen monitors, etc. – that strategy no longer really works.   There are simply too many screen sizes to account for.  As a result, the last few years has seen the adoption of responsive design, which causes a site’s design to adjust automatically based on the size of the screen of the visitor.

Earlier this week, we took a look at the websites of the nations 150 best colleges in an effort to identify the schools with the best websites.  Optimizing for mobile seems particularly important for colleges given that two of their primary audiences are prospective and current students. So while doing our research on the best sites we decided to take a look at how colleges were dealing with the rise of the mobile web.

Were colleges ignoring mobile?  Were they implementing responsive designs?  Were they building themes specifically for mobile?   Here is what we found:


I found these results fascinating.  The fact that 27% of colleges are utilizing responsive design is impressive when you consider this has really only become a common practice the last 2-3 years.  I was also surprised that 42% of the sites we looked at were not optimized for mobile at all.  That figured seems really high to me given that the rise of the mobile web isn’t exactly a new trend.  Having said that, redesigning a college website can take years.  I suspect that as colleges enter redesign cycles over the next few years we’ll see a rise in the number of sites that utilize responsive design grow.

We took a similar look at the mobile strategies of the 100 largest newspapers in the U.S. a few months ago.  Since we could, we decided to compare the results for colleges and newspapers.


A few quick observations on this:

  • To state the obvious, newspapers have been quicker to recognize the importance of mobile audiences than colleges.  Only 9% of newspapers haven’t optimized for mobile at all compared to 42% of colleges.
  • Given the focus on disseminating news headlines, it is unsurprising that newspapers are more focused on creating mobile specific themes (81%) than colleges (31%).  A mobile-specific theme is an efficient way to get mobile users quickly to the content they want to read on a newspaper website: the news.
  • Since colleges have more varied content and can’t as easily anticipate why someone is visiting, it is also unsurprising that they are more likely to use responsive design (27%) than newspapers (10%).  Responsive designs usually provide visitors with access to all site content instead of just a subset.  Mobile themes usually simplify things to deliver visitors only the most critical content.

I suspect the coming year will see the number of both newspaper and college sites utilizing responsive design to increase dramatically.