All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

UX 2022

Good website design begins with the user.

Website design is always evolving to keep pace with innovations, devices and applications. 

Knowing when and how to upgrade your website can be confusing. Just because a feature is new or popular doesn’t mean it’s beneficial or even necessary. Like many other design-driven fashions, website features often come and go within a year or two. 

Consider this article announcing the demise of the once “must have” feature. And then this article, a year later, defending and clarifying the use of parallax scrolling.

I remember finding parallax scrolling mesmerizing. But after using it a bit, I didn’t like  the annoying way it controlled my experience. The visual excitement wore off quickly. 

Instead of fashion, let UX (user experience) guide your redesign decisions. 

Human Focused

It’s easy to forget that computers and software are guided by coded machine languages––“1011000101.” They don’t speak human. 

In the 1990s, user-centered design pioneers, like Alan Cooper, opened web developers’ eyes to the human being on the other side of the interface. They created evaluation processes to understand and refine computer/human interfaces, giving us the digital world we live in today.   

UX is the evolution of user-centered design. It’s more comprehensive in its approach. Instead of merely making the machine and human fit together, UX begins with the user’s needs and designs the machine toward the user’s experience. 

UX design looks past the technology (both hardware and software), even past the content, to what is happening with/to the user. Designers interrogate the entire process with questions about:

  • Expectations––What does the user want from the experience?
  • Situation––When and where and on what devices do users access the website?
  • Ergonomics––How does the design maximize or accommodate the human body?
  • Culture––How does the user’s identity, community and experience influence their interactions?
  • Psychology––What does mind/brain science tell us about screen interactions?
  • Environment––How does your site, its processes and output effect the environment? 

Technology’s gravitational pull is toward the machine and away from the human. Good UX resists making people conform to machines. Good UX cares less about what is technically possible than it does about what’s best. Good UX creates a synthesis between users’ needs and the machine’s capabilities. 

UX 2022

In 2022, good UX has become the standard for good website design. It’s front and center in many design publications and design presentations. This is good news.

Conducting an exhaustive UX study, based on highly-researched user data and involve many tiers of modeling, testing and redesign, is very cumbersome and very expensive.

It’s more feasible and realistic to begin with a solid understanding of an organization’s goals and audience. With that understanding as a foundation, we can recommend design features that are proven, tested and will add value to both the user and the organization. Many of the features in use today have been developed using UX principles and they are being constantly refined. 

Over the next few months, we will look more closely at important UX features, learn how they work and how they can improve a website.

Here are other articles in this series:

Core Web Vitals: Google’s three essentials to user experience.

Thumbs Up! The ergonomics of great mobile UX.

Speed: Slow websites are quickly abandoned.

Building a Green Website

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A Cupful of Good Sense

Behavioral science validates an appeal to retirement savings.

We all know (or have used) this useful little bit of wisdom to motivate employees to save more:

This commonsense comparison shows how very small sacrifices can be leveraged into future financial well-being. It uses a popular purchase, straight-forward math and solid financial advice to educate and motivate. But do we know if this argument actually persuades people to save more?

Probably not. Communicators are often not able to be data driven. There are many historic and practical reasons why this is so. Internal budgetary constraints, imprecise measurement tools and the difficulty in pinpointing attribution within any individual’s psyche are substantial challenges to proving the effectiveness of an appeal.

Instead, we know our audiences, their needs and wants, and how to gather and present our facts with reason and wit. We’ve done it this way since ancient Greeks. The usefulness of the coffee-a-day analogy was obvious and brilliant. So it caught on. It turns out, it’s also scientifically provable. 

Bite-size is easier

On a recent episode of Choiceology (a Charles Schwab podcast focused on personal economic choices), Katy Milkman looked at the merits of breaking sometimes overwhelming challenges into smaller more manageable tasks. Whether it be learning a new skill, rehabilitating from an athletic injury, building your business, or saving for retirement, dividing any large task into smaller segments is a winning strategy for creating initiative and staying on task.  

Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA, was a guest on that episode. Hershfield created a study around how reframing the same goal might change a person’s willingness to engage with change. Using a personal finance app (linked to users’ bank accounts), Hershfield presented an automated savings program framed as three distinct offers.

Users were offered one of the following savings plans and responded accordingly:

  1. Contribute $150 a month. (7% signed up for this offering.)
  2. Contribute $35 dollars a week. (11% signed up for this offering.)
  3. Contribute $5 a day. (28% signed up for this offering.)

Four times as many people signed up for the $5-a-day plan, even though the amount of money taken out each month was the same across all three plans. Why?

Hershfield concluded that people likely think about money in distinct “buckets.” The monthly offering competed with the most expensive items in most budgets, like rent and car payments. Whereas the $5-a-day bucket competed with any number of small insignificant purchases, like a cup of coffee. How significant the sacrifice “feels” to the saver is the most important driver. 

This is a useful insight for employee communicators. We offer employees pathways to wellness, health, continuing education, savings and more. Accomplishing these big, life-changing goals usually requires personal sacrifice on the front end and a payoff later. Breaking those goals into bite-sized actions can help employees find the motivation necessary to get started. 

Good to know

It’s good to know that our methods have merit. We understand that carefully framing an organization’s programs in ways that appeal to employees works. And works well.

It’s also good to know more. Employee communicators can benefit from work being done in fields like positive psychology, behavioral economics, and organizational psychology. The more we know, the better we will be at presenting wellness programs, benefits, retirement options, etc. with all the complexities of available choices in ways that both inform and motivate employees.   

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Stop Motion

Action, art and language in Olympic pictograms.

I was delighted to see live performers interpret 50 Olympic pictograms during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The super-imaginative reverse engineering of these uniquely Olympic symbols—from motion to symbol and back to motion—was both thrilling to watch and illustrative of the power of these graphic designs.

In case you missed the original broadcast.

Olympic pictograms

It’s fitting that Tokyo should prominently celebrate Olympic pictograms because this concept was first introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Design lead Katsumi Masaru used ekotoba (pictograms) to deal with a huge language barrier:

“Symbols such as international traffic signs need to be easily understood, accepted by authorities and civil citizens, and be practical. This was achieved in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Few tourists understood Japanese. Other languages were not commonly used. The Olympic committee took this problem seriously, and new designers led by Katsumi Masaru designed game symbols and other signs. I hope that these symbols will be used in the next games so that they will be polished to be the perfect universal visual”

1964 quote from design critic Stanley Mason. Traganou, Jilly. “OLYMPIC DESIGN AND NATIONAL HISTORY: THE CASES OF TOKYO 1964 AND BEIJING 2008.” P. 68
Pictograms from 1964 Tokyo Games

The success of the Tokyo team’s design philosophy carried over into and evolved in the 1968 Mexico City Games. For Mexico City, graphic designer Lance Wyman incorporated elements of indigenous folk art and psychedelia into his pictograms. The legacy of his Mexico City design can be traced throughout the 1970s. Check out more of this revolutionary design work.

Pictograms from 1968 Mexico City Games.

For the Munich Games in 1972, Otl Aicher took pictograms to a new level by placing geometrically complimentary lines within a grid system that provided structure. The Munich design has become the standard system we see at Olympic Games today.

Pictograms from 1972 Olympics

Essentially human

Olympic pictograms facilitate a global audience, gathered together in a foreign locale to enjoy shared experience. A tall order. To do that, they sidestep language altogether. Instead, referencing the root, pictograms look to the reality words represent. They present that reality using the near universally recognized shape of the human body, placed in different positions and contexts to indicate an event.

When you think about the problem, the solution seems so simple, so obvious—the revival of a fundamentally human language.

Our most ancient ancestors used pictograms to record their most important memories and hopes.

Chauvet Cave, over 30,000 years old.

Almost any kindergartener will show you that using small drawings to capture people, places and things is basic to human communication.

Pictograms are as essential as human speech.
photo by Jerry Wang

Archeologists believe modern alphabets evolved from the sounds and shapes associated with hieroglyphs.

Our letter A started with from the shape of an ox’ head which corresponded to the word for ox, Aleph.

Today, pictograms remain ubiquitous in all of our modern landscapes—as much a part of our language as the letters on this screen.

Graffiti, emoji and signage.

Ways we read pictograms

The concept of visual literacy is complex and can be controversial. Though not a subject this article, there is some “grammar” involved in reading pictographs.

Pictograms are designed to transcend written language. They are images that take the place of words. They are for communication, not art. They aren’t open to individual interpretation. If you “interpret” a sign designated for diving is the sign for long jumping, you will end up at the wrong venue.

“Information consists of differences that make a difference.”

Edward R. Tufte—Envisioning Information p.65

Sports are represented symbolically, not precisely, with pictograms. It isn’t important to show precise details of a sport or action. Rather, showing a moment or element that both represents the sport and is distinguishable from related activities is key.

Can you tell the difference in these three separate sports; Judo, Karate and Taekwondo?

Stop action is the most familiar form for an Olympic pictogram. As if illuminated by a strobe light, the pictogram reimagines a singular moment of athletic motion.

Designers take the most iconic and recognizable moment of an athletic movement to create a pictogram.

Context situates the particular pictogram within a specific game and country. Olympic pictograms are not a single form. For each game, the designers imbue the pictograms with elements from their culture, from the history of the games, the tradition of pictograms and the event they are representing. Knowing something about these elements is vital to being able to read pictograms.

If you don’t know about pitching, you might be confused by which sign is for baseball and which is for softball.

Abstraction is also a key element of pictography. For each Olympic Games, the host city redesigns pictograms to add design elements unique to the that city. These are often cultural clues drawn from history or geography.

To fully appreciate the abstract forms of the 2008 Beijing pictograms, you need to know something about Chinese writing.

Learn more

There are so many layers to graphic design. I hope you found something new and intriguing in this short article.

I love this subject because I believe communication is key to being human. Visual communication is complicated because it’s abstract and more subjective to the receiver than are written words. We each see through a lens colored by personal experiences, psychology, culture and more. Unravelling this is kind of mysterious and fascinating.

The I.O.C. has a wonderful history of Olympic pictograms.

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The Global Brand

An appreciation of the Olympic rings.

The world’s finest athletes are currently gathered in Tokyo to compete in the delayed 2020 Olympic games. As a fan of both athletics and design, I want to recognize an easily overlooked champion. The Olympic rings, one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

According to IOC (International Olympic Committee) research, the Olympic logo has reached “global” status, with 95% of the world recognizing the famous five rings. High ideals associated with the rings include “inspirational, excellence, optimism and diversity.” (1) Any global organization aspires to brand associations like these.

Brand recognition this strong doesn’t happen overnight. It takes about 100 years.

Man, mission and mark.

The father of the modern Olympic Movement was Pierre De Coubertin. A scholar in the field of education (particularly the role of physical competition), Coubertin reimagined the ancient Grecian Olympic games as a vehicle for elevating humanity, promoting peace and creating cross-cultural understanding. He was not so much an athlete as a philosopher of sport (although he did win an Olympic gold medal in Literature in 1912, when arts were included in the games).

Statue of Pierre De Coubertin outside National Stadium in Tokyo.

Olympism did not reappear within the context of modern civilisation in order to play a local or temporary role. The mission entrusted to it is universal and timeless. 


De Coubertin envisioned, and tirelessly promoted, the revival of the Olympics as a permanent fixture. He understood that building a movement and brand takes time and commitment. He also understood symbolism. The games themselves, while true competitions, are also symbolic of human ideals, both of character and community.  

Original 1913 Pierre de Coubertin drawing of Olympic rings.

De Coubertin’s idealism and philosophy can clearly be seen through his inspired design of the Olympic rings. In it we find global reach, inclusion and a connected whole built by collaborative competition, all markers of the Olympic ideal. De Coubertin was not a graphic designer. He was a true believer. Passion, vision and imagery empower movements. That he was able to capture this vision in a clean and minimalistic design is also an amazing feat for an amateur. 

Interlaced meaning 

The Olympic logo, (known within the IOC as the “Olympic rings”) consists of five interlocking rings. Originally the five rings stood for the five areas of the globe from which athletes competed: Europe, The Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. 

The Olympic rings contain five colors (from left to right, blue, yellow, black, green and red) against a white background. These do not relate directly to the geographic regions that the five rings represent. Instead, the colors, including the white background, are drawn from the flags of every nation competing in the games. 

IOC official color palette.

Interlocking rings express the unifying vision of the games. Each individual ring maintains its integrity as it links together into a freshly defined and expanded whole. None of the rings is forced to lose its integrity, nor is any ring greater than the collective whole. 

Careful attention is given to the intersection of the rings.

This is an important distinction. In most corporate brand marks, the aim is singularity and distinctiveness. Ford’s logo stands for Ford Motor company, not Ford and all of its suppliers and dealers. Companies strongly defend themselves against any alternative definition. Generally, brand marks never show the underlying and/or tangential assets from which they emerge. 

The Olympic rings, on the other hand, represent and celebrate an open collaboration between people and nations. The brand suggests that the strength is in the coming together of competitors from disparate places and cultures. Without this collaboration there can be no Olympic event. 

When I watch the Olympics, I see an idealistic world event. I see a hopeful gathering that reaches peak goodness when it’s attended by every possible competitor and every country. I see idealism in the games, and I see idealism in the Olympic rings.

Protecting an expanding brand

The IOC maintains strict guidelines for the use of the Olympic rings. These apply to host cities, broadcast partners, sponsors, businesses selling licensed merchandise and even athletes. Some critics feel these restrictions are excessive and negatively affect people’s perceptions of the games. A specific concern involves the IOC vigorously enforcing their brand controls⏤even on casual, non-business-related, usage of Olympic material by fans on social media.   

Professionally, I recognize and support protecting the image, marketability and future of the games. Trademark and brand integrity require huge investments and are central to the IOC’s mandate. Considering the many political and economic upheavals of the last 120 years, I’d say they are savvy stewards of the brand and I believe they’ll find their way through social media mine fields.  

Under tight control, the Olympic rings are still found on everything from the sides of mountains, to licensed swag, to athletes’ tattoos. In our next article, we’ll look at how Olympic design evolved into the immersive experience that accompanies all Olympic games and their host city. 

Whether expressed in medal design, architecture, video games or even Kim Kardashian lounge wear, the unifying anchor of all Olympic design remains the Olympic rings, their history and vision for a better world that they embody. 

(1) OLYMPIC Brand and Activation Guidelines. International Olympic Committee. (2013) p. 33

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