Follow Function

In 2005, my friend Steven Schranz and I began discussions regarding a potential business partnership. I had a few ideas about what kind of products I’d like to sell and he had already founded Lighters Direct (check it out if you need high quality lighters and accessories!).

I had earned my BS in Product Design the year before, and I was excited about some of the new, modern designers I had discovered.   Follow Function became an online store for modern goods.  To explain more, I’m going to copy and paste from the “About Us” section I wrote way back in the day:

In the spring of 2005 I (Jeff) was perusing a popular design blog and I saw an article about an incredible product called Automoblox. It was well designed, it was fun, and it was brilliant. Then I read another article, this one about a design firm called Mint. The products erupting from this place were also well designed, fun, and brilliant. I said to myself, “Self, this is the type of stuff you should be spreading across the globe.”

I called up Steven and said “Steven, look at this here stuff. It’s pretty awesome. We should sell it.” Steven was already the proprietor of a successful online store and he said to me: “Jeff, that’s a good idea. Lets put together a massive spreadsheet detailing every product we would like to bring to the people of Earth, and then narrow that list down to a few of our favorites.” So we did.

With my discerning eye and Steven’s business sense, we combined our powers like Voltron and gave birth to Follow Function LLC.

Our criteria for selecting quality products was threefold:

  • Is it well designed? And by “well”, we mean “very, very well”. Can you see the imprint of that designer’s personality on each product? Is it clever? Is that designer exploding with talent?
  • Does it separate itself from others like it? Maybe its because the product ships flat and blossoms into an unbelievable lamp (see MIO culture’s ‘Bendant’). Maybe its because the geometry of the objects interact in such a way that you just have to reach out and touch it (see Mint’s ‘Hug Salt and Pepper Shaker’).
  • Is it reasonably priced? We love good design, but we have a problem paying a ridiculous amount of money for it. We also don’t really like shelling out the dough for shipping charges. If you look around you can find stuff that ships flat, stacks, or is small enough to fit in a reasonably sized box.

But wait, there’s more! As a professional industrial designer, I found that virtually no one outside the design world had any clue what defined the term “industrial design”. Usually, this meant that few people knew what good design was or how to look for it.

So part of our duty here is to educate folks on what exactly is good design. Therefore, it is our pleasure to bring you the story behind each product we sell. We interviewed or studied each designer and their products in order to gain a better understanding of what it is that lives in our homes.

In 2009, we decided Follow Function would have a better chance for growth in someone else’s hands.  This is code for “it was still a side project and we just didn’t have the time to dedicate to it anymore”.  We were happy to sell the company to Wholesale Furniture Brokers.

This is the Follow Function home page as I designed it back in 2005.

I changed out the bottom banner frequently, depending on the season and whatever special offers we were promoting. I eventually developed a style using images of our actual products as repeating graphical elements.

 

A Remarkably Specific List: Surprise, I’m a Monster!

I’m a big fan of beautiful concept art. Some of the best concept art in the world is being produced, for free, within the forums of ConceptArt.org. If you want to hone your skills as a creature concept artist, consider entering the Creature of the Week contest. I was recently perusing the list of Creature of the Week winners and I started to notice a pattern. And then I noticed the pattern in other places, such as t-shirt designs on Threadless.

This version of a Remarkably Specific List contains art featuring creatures who are, aboveground (or above water), seemingly inviting or harmless and at the same time terrible, terrible monsters just below the surface.

[Sidenote: This is in no way a commentary on each artists’ originality. As far as I know, they each came up with their ideas independently. Even if they didn’t, there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other work that impresses one’s self.]

Mockfish by Peppi

Ye Pirate Muncher by Duddlebug

The Earth Grasshopper by Carlos Cabrera

Angler by Stephan Royer

Icebergs Just Wanna Have Fun by Mathijs Vissers

The Stepping Stone by Brian Cook

Flower Feast by Brian Cook

As I discover more of these images on the internet, I’m going to post them on Wookmark.com using this group:

http://www.wookmark.com/group/572/surprise-i-m-a-monster

Wookmark is a super useful image bookmarking site. They offer embeddable slideshows of their groups, so you can scroll through all of the images in this group using the slideshow below:

 

A Remarkably Specific List: Harrison Ford Character Names

I have a theory that states: If you are writing a screenplay, and you’re hoping to land Harrison Ford for a part, your odds of getting him increase up to 400% if you name the character Jack or Henry.  Please see the evidence below.

  • Henry Jones Jr. – The Kingdom of the Crystall Skull – 2008
  • Jack Stanfield – Firewall – 2006
  • Jack Ryan – Clear and Present Danger – 1994
  • Jack Ryan – Patriot Games – 1992
  • Henry Turner – Regarding Henry – 1991
  • Henry Jones Jr – The Last Crusade – 1991
  • Jack Trainer – Working Girl – 1988
  • Henry Jones Jr. – Temple of Doom – 1984
  • Henry Jones Jr. – Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981
 

Banner Advertising: Why Fansites Work and Facebook Fails

This is my first post on banner ads, and as such it is also going to serve as a bit of an introduction into how we use banner ads at eRetailing.  (At eRetailing, customers use our design centers to add text and art to apparel and other products, which we then print on demand. To learn more, ready my post on our flagship site, Customized Girl.)  If you want to skip to the Facebook vs Fansite argument, scroll down a bit.

 

I do a lot of banner advertising on the Google Display Network. I’ve used all kinds of networks over the years, including AdBrite, Chitiqa, and others, but Google has always been the best.  This is because Google has the largest inventory (thanks to Adsense) and the best method of targeting: keyword (aka contextual).

At eRetailing we make sure every ad dollar we spend results in a direct Return On Investment.  Maybe someday we’ll engage in more “brand” advertising, and we’ll use TV or billboards or Yahoo to try to sink into the public subconsciousness, but right now it’s all about making the most money possible with each individual dollar. Luckily for us, the internet exists which makes this super easy.

[Briefly: we’ve tried other forms of targeting. Network targeting (bidding on specific domains) can be just as good as keyword when used correctly. Retargeting is ok.  Not surprisingly, it works better the more specific you get, such as targeting visitors who added something to the shopping cart but never checked out. But beware, retargeting is a terrible idea if you’re paying per conversion and the ad network is counting “view-through” conversions.  In this case, you are essentially paying a third party simply because your company has repeat customers. Behavioral targeting, like the kind Yahoo uses for banners, is simply for not us.  Yahoo wants you to spend a huge sum of money up front so that you can “back in” to your targeting goals. Even once the “backing in” occurs, the ROI probably won’t match up to keyword targeting.]

The key, for us anyway, is using image ads to plant a very clear idea in our viewers’ minds. We prepare our users so that they have a very specific set of expectations and when they click on one of our ads we immediately satisfy these expectations on the landing page.  We do this by featuring the design on the item (often a t-shirt) as largely as possible on the banner. The design (like “Matt’s Tight End” on a pair of hot shorts or “Welcome Home Soldier” on an army wife t-shirt) needs to be simple with big block letters and high contrast.  It needs to be “immediately readable”, which is to say, if someone glances at it out of the corner of their eye, they should immediately understand what it is.

[Briefly, again: in my experience, this is not achievable with text ads on Google’s Display Network. We’ve run many tests with display text ads and have earned a (nearly) zero percent conversion rate. Text ads simply can’t build the perfect expectations in our users’ minds the way an image ad can. I also suspect most clicks on text ads from the display network are accidental.]

Our best results using keyword targeted banner ads, without question, have come from fansites.  By fansites, I mean any site that was built to serve the fans of one particular concept, from fans of running, to fans of the latest video game, to fans of young adult novels about vampires.

[Briefly, for the last time: if we ever decide to advertise on a particular piece of pop culture, we go out of our way to avoid copyright infringement.  We only cater to fan-created ideas, like Team Edward or Team Jacob.  No one owns the copy right to a first name like Edward, right? Right. Unfortunately someone did eventually purchase a “Team Edward” trademark, and at that time we immediately stopped all advertising related to vampires.  I think it’s pretty silly to stop your fans from showing their support for you, but that’s a post for another day.]

It’s great to advertise on fansites because fans go there to completely geek out about a certain topic.  While they are there, they are devouring everything they can about whatever interests them.  If your ad is relevant, it essentially becomes part of the site content. Fans are willing to look at your ad and think “Hey, that’s something I want!”

Interestingly, Facebook offers a similar targeting system. When you create your ad on Facebook, you can say “Okay, I want this to show up for anyone who is interested in running, or the latest video game, or young adult novels about vampires.”  We can reach the same people who are devouring our ads on fansites! It’s great! Except it isn’t.

It’s easy to think that the same surfers would be happy to see your ad wherever they are on the web, but that’s not the case.  People are on Facebook (and formerly MySpace – yes, we tried that too) to communicate with their friends.  They’re planning trips. They’re wishing you a happy birthday.  But they are not geeking out over one of their passions.  And they certainly aren’t shopping.

Here are some examples of banner ads and their corresponding landing pages:

 

Update: June 15, 2016. Well, in May of 2011, this post was pretty accurate. Of course, things have changed since then. Facebook has rolled out all kinds of great tools for advertisers, especially their remarketing pixel and their lookalike audiences. I do a lot more advertising on Facebook these days, but I don’t always enjoy it. There are some major issues with the way they report conversion metrics. Specifically, I think Facebook knows exactly who is about to checkout on your site (because they visited a page with “cart” or “checkout” in the URL) and then they display an ad to that user, and claim “credit” for the view-through conversion. But alas, that’s a post for another day…