The Chalkboard is a collection of Grain & Mortar news, events, latest work, and helpful advice.

November 16th | News

Designers and developers are master problem-solvers, but it’s also crucial to have a content strategist on your team.

Traditionally, user experience (UX) has been considered the realm of designers and developers, but if a user has a confusing experience on your website, the best design or the fastest load time aren’t going to save you.  If your content is lousy, you can’t design your way around it. If your message is off, no code can save it. A content strategist supplements and enhances a strong UX team by posing questions like “Who is the audience?”, “How can we help our visitors find this?”, “What style or tone of voice are we using?”


What is the role of a content strategist?

Content strategy is defined many ways and is an intersection of many disciplines – communications strategy, information design, copywriting. So, all that aside, here’s how we do it at Grain & Mortar. We use content strategy to plan for the creation of compelling, relevant content – copy, photos, video and more. We strategize our way back from your business goals and the needs of your audience to make sure content:

  • is consistent with your brand message and values,
  • makes you sound credible,
  • helps you stand out from the competition, and
  • delivers according to your objectives.

Ideally, the content strategist and designer work together from the start of a project. The more they discover about your product or company, the better. Both will interpret the information from their unique perspectives, which allows them to support and challenge each other creatively in subsequent stages.


What is the content strategy process?

Our process is built around targeted experimentation. Designers and copywriters can tinker and take chances safely because we have structured parameters built around our exploration.

While the process feels meandering, each stage is “controlled wandering.” There is always a built-in point where the copy gets pulled back to be tested by the design and vice versa. With each iteration, the disciplines improve each other. And as we progress, ideas become more solid, answers emerge, and direction is clear.

Starting with the research and discovery stage, we tear things apart, we veer and zig zag, all in an effort to better understand our client, their objectives, and any obstacles. During this time we may not know the exact answers to things, and that, too, makes everyone queasy. But uncertainty is good at this point. We may not know what the end looks like, but we know how to get there.

In the early stages of website projects, the process can feel messy. It can be uncomfortable for our clients. But the truth is — messiness is good for creativity. Sometimes, it has to get ugly before it can get pretty.



Sometimes, it has to get ugly before it can get pretty.


How do our clients contribute to content strategy?

Our process accommodates for the challenges inherent to content development, but there are steps our clients can take especially regarding copywriting, to ensure success.

1. Allow enough time.
Strategic copywriting includes the initial discovery and research required to understand a company, business, or product. We review original materials — including current web content. We audit the competitive landscape. We create your content so it adheres to web writing best practices (readability, structure, voice/tone, and so on).

We make sure to dedicate ample time for strategy and development as we timeline each project. We suggest our clients perform an initial content survey before beginning a website project. For instance, take stock of what you have that is reusable or needs updating. You can also perform basic tasks such as compiling your company history, gathering staff bios, identifying your company’s mission or vision statement, and creating boilerplate descriptions of your product or company.

2. Assign appropriate resources.
Before our clients begin their website projects, we recommend identifying a “point person” who is knowledgeable about company values, products, services, and internal dynamics. If that person can write or edit copy, that is a huge benefit. After a site launches, resources need to be dedicated to keep the site up to date and manage any social media tie-ins.

The creation of website content requires knowledge, authority, and time. After your site launches, your website will require updates and maintenance. Whether your site will be updated daily, monthly, or annually, you will need a person or a team to address that task.


Content strategy ensures that you “start with the end in mind.” It clarifies a project’s objectives and assures that a website’s messaging is seamless.

| November 16th | News

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November 16th | Work

The big ideas behind Big Omaha’s new brand.

Big Omaha has become synonymous with “midwestern”, “entrepreneurial”, and “community.” Since 2009, the annual conference has brought founders, investors, and emerging entrepreneurial leaders together to build community, have conversations, and get inspired.

And two big changes made 2015 a special year for the seven-year-old conference. Big Omaha was acquired by the AIM Institute and 2014 Big Omaha organizer, Caleb Ulffers, was joined by a co-organizer, Joey Wolfe. In the past, organizers unveiled a unique Big Omaha design each year. Ulffers and Wolfe recognized the time had come for a permanent brand to conduct Big Omaha business the other 51 weeks of the year.


Big_Omaha_Logo_Math Big_Omaha_Cow Big_Omaha_Logo_Cow Big_Omaha_Color


Ulffers and Wolfe brought Grain & Mortar on to develop that permanent conference brand as well as a new website, a video, print materials and environmental design for the 2015 conference. Our goal was to build a highly flexible branded identity for Big Omaha. In addition to reflecting the unique energy of the Big Omaha conference, the logo itself needed to work well on websites, mobile apps, in print, on environmental signage, t-shirts and various products.

Big Omaha had never been branded so that was our first goal–to find a permanent identity that remained true to the event’s creative design history. We carefully considered Big Omaha’s visual past, it’s reputation, and the goals for the conference’s future. We began by creating a logo that reflected Big Omaha’s values and spirit.


Big_Omaha_Collage Big_Omaha_Future_Logos Big_Omaha_Fonts_Pattern


The typeface–Industry–is utilitarian to reflect the unpretentious atmosphere of Big Omaha. The year rests on a background shape that hints at the outline of the state of Nebraska–a nod to the conference’s location. We also stacked the type in a shape that resembles the state of Nebraska.

For seven years, a cow has been incorporated into the Big Omaha design and we felt the brand wouldn’t be the same without it. We chose to integrate it as a secondary logo element and created a permanent cow silhouette. Because the brand itself will now be permanent, the cow serves as a vehicle for annual thematic changes. While its shape is permanent, the colors, patterns and style within the cow will change annually.

The benefit of this approach is built-in flexibility. The Big Omaha organizers now have the ability to convey a unique experience from year to year without compromising the brand, or the larger identity.

Exuberance and fun are integral to the Big Omaha experience. This year we chose colors and graphics to reflect that energy. The cow was filled with geometric shapes based on connecting points that suggested a hint of “tech” but weren’t too far out or esoteric. The pattern which was based on sharp, orange and purple triangular shapes, is antithetical to the stereotype of a cow and created an unexpected but fun tension. Conference t-shirts featured fireworks, crop circles and a cityscape of Omaha.


Big_Omaha_Shirts Big_Omaha_Photobooth_Fun Big_Omaha_Swag


We used scale and different background scenes in this year’s logo iteration to play on the idea of “big.” In one scenario, our cow dwarfs a fence as clouds float by in the background. In another, the oversized words “Big Omaha” are pulled on a banner behind an airplane.

Hands down, we all agree that this was one of the most fun and most challenging projects we’ve worked on in a long time. We’ve managed Barcamp (check out our Barcamp 2012 and 2013 design work) in the past and so it came as no surprise to us how much went into the design and the overall process of hosting this event–from developing the environmental materials, the website and printing, to planning around vendor lead times, ticket sales and marketing. This project gave us the unique opportunity to flex all our muscles–brand strategy, design, illustration, animation, copywriting– plus, we got to tap into our experience from organizing events in the past.

Great conference design, and design thinking in general, goes beyond the identity and awareness for an event. It can impact ticket sales, improve the user experience, and ultimately make for a more memorable event. Our collaborative partnership with Ulffers and Wolfe allowed us to think comprehensively about the Big Omaha experience and we feel the event benefitted from that partnership.


| November 16th | Work

ooh... me Likey

October 28th | News

Do project managers add value or are they just another layer of bureaucracy?

Before you answer, I have to confess that I am the Project Manager at Grain & Mortar, so you can guess how I feel about this topic. I think there are a few common misunderstandings about what project managers do, and I want to shed some light, bring a little clarity, and provide a little shout-out for all the planners and organizers out there. (Everyone with a tidy “to do” list wave your hands in the air!)

I help my colleagues with essentials that may seem tedious (schedules, budgets, timelines) but make our most important product — creativity — possible.

MYTH: Project managers stifle creativity by imposing rigid structure.

Do you know that feeling you get when you are completely in your work zone? You can see it in your mind, can’t you? Now remember a time when someone interrupted you to help with a “really quick favor that won’t take more than five minutes.”

Mm-hmm, five minutes, right.

Stopping in the midst of a creative process to perform an administrative task — no matter how small — and then trying to return to that creative flow is an unnecessary waste of time. Checking emails, reviewing a timeline, inquiring with the client about the budget. Even if the task really does only take five minutes, it’s energy spent in the wrong direction and for the wrong purpose.




Enter PROJECT MANAGER, stage right.

As the project manager, I can focus on those “tedious” details so our creatives don’t have to. And, for the record, project managers like to be in the detail zone. Timelines, checklists, calendars — these all put me in my happy place. With me tending to those efforts, it means no one has to shift gears or get out of their zone.

My goal is to consistently build parameters that allow the team at Grain & Mortar to work with as little distraction as possible. This should never get in the way of creativity, but rather provide the time and tools that are needed for great creative work to happen. Think about it like this: If client emails and budget inquiries were rain, I’d be kind of like the human umbrella.

MYTH: Project managers get in the way of communication.

My goal as the project manager is to make room for great communication between the client and the creative team. In fact, I prefer direct communication between the creative and the client when it comes to discussing ideas, design elements, or technical information. No one can explain a designer’s intent better than the designer him/herself.

A project manager simply takes on the facilitating portions. I’m like the circus barker coming to town early to promote the show — my job is to make sure everyone’s looking in the right direction, on time, and ready to see a lion if that’s what’s up next.

MYTH: After a project gets started, there’s really nothing left for the project manager to do.

In my role, I’m aware of the smaller details of each project as well as the studio’s 30,000-foot view. I essentially manage a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces that are constantly changing size, disappearing, and reappearing. Inevitably, projects get delayed or extended, and we’re forced to ask: What will that do to the schedule?




Having a person on our team that has a high-level view of all the ongoing and upcoming projects gives us the ability to assess the situation efficiently. We can shuffle and re-structure schedules without stealing any energy away from the creative team’s progress. So, once a project is going I’m busy nudging, corralling, and plotting the next steps to make sure we finish on time and on budget. And I try to remove obstacles before they derail further progress.

Project managers use different tools, resources and methods to get their work done. Everyone has their own system and as far as I’m concerned the tools of the job are not what matters. What is most important to me is that I listen to my team and help problem-solve. I don’t think there’s anything more important than helping others.

| October 28th | News

ooh... me Likey

October 16th | News

Last week I attended the Adobe MAX conference in LA.

It was my first time attending MAX, which I’d recommend to anyone who uses Adobe products. The conference and the city of LA made for an inspiring week.



View of the city from the upper deck of the Getty.


I try to go to a conference every year because I value the investment in my professional development but I also look at it as a chance to “wipe the slate clean.” Each time, I make the conscious effort to stay away from my computer. I take all my notes with pen and paper and the only screen interaction I have is taking photos with my phone. The break from electronics is refreshing and gives me the freedom to interact with ideas and art with more focus.



After experiencing the multifaceted and interactive MAX stage (top right), I explored sights around the conference, like The Last Bookstore (left).


The Conference

Some conference highlights for me were meeting up with a few friends I’ve gotten to know through AIGA like Jessica Hische and Aaron Draplin. Aaron’s talk really resonated for me – he’s in the middle of writing a book and spoke in his down-to-earth way about how to remain focused when your mind is going in many directions.



My conference notes (and a valet ticket with great type).


I also got the chance to test drive Project Comet – Adobe’s new start-to-finish UX design and prototype software — which is scheduled to release in 2016. I’m in love with prototyping. It’s like it was created with my process in mind. Instead of trying to force Illustrator into a box it doesn’t fit into, it does everything I need.



The Getty.


Los Angeles

This was also my first time in LA. Whenever I travel to a new place I purposefully try to get lost to figure out what’s going on from an intuitive level. In my spare time last week I found my way to some great museums and excellent food. Here are my top recommendations:



Detail of Haruki Murakami piece (left) at The Broad Museum (right).


The Broad Museum
LA’s newest contemporary art museum had just opened a few days before I arrived. I was lucky to get in–reserved online tickets had sold out weeks ago. The collection is an amazing representation of contemporary artists like the incredible Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons. Everything there challenged my perspective.



Gardens at the Getty.


The Getty and the Getty Villa
The Getty’s architecture is as captivating as the collection it houses. It sits on top of a mountain with breathtaking views. The Villa is a bit of trek but so worth the effort. It’s a peaceful place to view the massive collection of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities.



The Getty Villa courtyard and the Basilica Gallery.


I had a chance to dine at some delicious eateries while I was in DTLA as well. These were a few of my favorite stops:

Industriel Urban Farm Cuisine

Grand Central Market


| October 16th | News

ooh... me Likey

October 9th | Work

Recently, we had the chance to create a website for AOI, a successful Omaha-based company.

AOI builds and furnishes work environments for a variety of industries. As they approached their 30th anniversary, it was an ideal time to update their website. During our initial research phase, we met with AOI’s president and division leaders to understand their business pain points and vision for the company’s future. The insight they provided formed the basis for the creative strategy we developed.

In order to help position the company for the next level of success, AOI’s new website needed to address three problems:

  • State their business more clearly.
  • Promote their services more effectively.
  • Represent their company culture more authentically.


State your business clearly.

AOI was founded by two friends in 1985. Their original and sole focus was on construction. Over time, the company grew and they expanded their services to include furniture and architectural products. Today AOI offers a complete package when it comes to building and furnishing spaces, and their website needed to shine the light equally on their three service areas.

Our goal was to ensure that wherever visitors found themselves on the new AOI site, they would understand the company was comprised of three distinct service areas. We made sure their three services groups were promoted consistently, from the copy to images to navigation.


Promote your services effectively.

AOI’s brand was well-developed and they had the internal resources to promote their services. What they lacked was a website that worked as hard as their in-house team. We built a new site that is mobile-friendly, responsive, and fast.

We coded first for mobile then worked up the device chain to desktops. We focused on delivering only the necessary amount of content for each platform. The result is first-load times of 1-2 seconds on LTE and 8-10 seconds on 3G.


We also boosted performance with responsive images aimed at sending the right image size for the device. Ajax helped load page-specific content while browsing to reduce loading between pages. Animations and interactions — like on the portfolio pages — were made to provide a fast, almost native, experience.

We added schema microdata to boost SEO and Open Graph tags which ensures the portfolio pieces look great when shared on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Houzz. The search feature is additionally enhanced with built-in suggestions and stackable results for easy movement around the site.

Now, wherever an AOI employee is, they can quickly call up information a potential client might be interested in, such as past projects or service areas.


Represent your company culture authentically.

AOI has a strong internal culture, and they are proud of the loyalty and commitment of the team they’ve built. It was important for them to showcase this, and we did so in a couple of ways.

We created a “company” page that provided an overview of AOI’s history and highlighted the company philosophy. Additionally, we integrated employee photos and testimonials throughout the site. When you have employees who are dedicated enough to say things like, “Whether it’s sharing labor or lending a hand on one another’s project after hours, we pull together to do what needs to be done,” you should share that. It speaks volumes about the caliber of your team and by extension, the quality of service you will deliver to your clients.

AOI has a durable reputation and offers high-quality customer experiences. Now that they have a customized website and the CMS to keep it updated, they will be able to promote themselves clearly, effectively, and authentically. There is no limit to where the next 30 years will take them.

Take a look at AOI’s new website. »


| October 9th | Work

ooh... me Likey