Sunday, January 28, 2007

the zen kitchen featured in Branded by Debut Publications

Well, thanks to my fellow HOWie Cal over at Mayhem Studios, I just found out that the zen kitchen's work has been shortlisted to appear in the publication Branded, to be released by D├ębut Publications in the summer. The book, which discusses the power of creating strong brands, will feature work from the zen kitchen as well as 130+ other designers from around the world.

For more info on the book and the artists selected, visit

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thoughts on Designing Identities for Small Companies

This evening, during a visit to the HOW Forum, I was pointed to this terrific post at the Ideas on Ideas blog about designing identities for small companies. As a designer who has been doing a LOT of that kind of work lately, it was great to hear how another studio handles the ultimate challenge of creating identity work for the smaller company, and it gave me a ton of ideas for what I'd like to ultimately provide for the zen kitchen's clients.

A quick excerpt from the post:

Some may argue that the points above are hardly any different from what would be applied to a larger organization. While this may be true, you will find that small companies rarely have marketing and communications experts at hand to implement such efforts; thus, the designer’s role often expands to meet their needs.

Small clients have a particularly hard time remembering that their brand assets play an important role in their growth. As such, you need to reinforce brand-focused thinking. Encourage them to see their identity as more than a “one-off” project. Their brand must remain central in their operations and decision making; likewise, their identity must be implemented consistently in order to reinforce the organization’s nature.

So, so true.

I'll likely have more thoughts on this as time goes on; however, at the moment it's important that I get going.

Finding the work you love

The last couple of weeks, I gotta tell you, have been insane. I don't think I've had this many calls and e-mails from people who want to work with me since I started the zen kitchen a year ago! Mind you, this is all a very Good Thing, but it's definitely been interesting trying to manage all the new-business calls while also trying to keep my marketing machine going, work on projects for my current clients, and try desparately to get the new site up and running (which, I also gotta tell you, has been taking the back-burner a bit lately).

One of the key results of this current influx of come-work-with-me activity is that it's gotten me thinking a lot more about the work I really want to be doing. As any self-employed person can probably tell you, the reasons you go into business for yourself often have more to do with getting to choose the people you work with than just about any other concern (the first time I find myself confronted with a true jerk and get to tell him "no, thanks," is probably the happiest moment I've ever experienced as an entrepreneur), and doing work you truly love and enjoy is probably the other biggest need most of us have. So why do we so often find ourselves taking "whatever comes along" whether or not it truly fulfills us?

I'll be honest, it's fear. You get so used to the security of the weekly paycheck that when you don't have it, or you're having a slow patch and your savings is starting to dwindle, you get afraid that you'll never find work again, and you end up saying "yes" to that project you knew you shouldn't have taken. Within two weeks, you're stressed out, miserable, and wondering why you chose to go into business for yourself if this is what you have to deal wiith.

Not wanting to fall into this trap again, and being confronted by a string of people who just Didn't Get It when it came to my services and the true value I could bring to their business, I decided to develop an action plan for turning things around. I made a list of my 5-6 favorite clients and projects over the last 12 months and wrote down exactly why they were so cool. And I started noticing distinct patterns:

  • All of them trusted in my talent and creativity, and hired me because they loved my work - not just because I was a web designer they met at a networking event;

  • All of them had company values and a corporate culture that were in line with my personal values and interests;

  • All of them paid me well and respected the value I brought to the table;

  • All of my contacts at the organization were people I got along with personally;

  • All of them were businesses that I was helping to succeed.

Armed with this information, I was able to come up with a list of questions to ask myself when I'm interviewing any potential client:

  • Can I get behind what they're doing?

  • Can I really help them succeed, and how?

  • Do I get a good vibe from them? Do they respect me and what I do?

  • What is their budget? Is it reasonable considering what they're looking for, and can they allocate more if it's needed?

  • Can I get really jazzed about this project, or does it give me more of a "yeah, I guess I could do that" feeling?

Having this list on me while chatting with clients has already saved me a ton of time and stress, it's gotten me some really great clients, and helped me realize a few of the relationships I had that weren't quite working out for me. Plus, now that I have a good idea of the TYPE of people and projects that I want to be working with, it gives me even more info to start the search for clients that will be a good fit for the studio as I go into my second year.

Who are your favorite clients?

Friday, January 19, 2007

SEO Made Simple(ish)

Today, while catching up on the Marketing Mix Blog (because every once in a while, I do have time to do such things), I was pointed to a great post on Search Engine Optimization by Joan Damico of Integrated Marketing Minute (a new subscription is in order, methinks). In the post, she goes over some of the basics of writing copy with search engine users in mind, and discusses some great ways to set up blog posts, websites, etc. for maximum Google juice.

A quick excerpt from the post:

it's not just about sprinkling keywords throughout, it's a strategy for placing them effectively in the right places. Search engines crawl a page hierarchy from meta data to header tags to body copy identify keyword matches.

You can read the full post here.

All of this is great advice, but I have a few things to add, from my experience as a web designer. Search engines like Google give a lot of precedence to sites that are built well. Back in 2004, when I switched from old-school table-based layouts to using web standards, I saw the Google ratings for my sites fly up within a week. Part of that is because standards-based layout forces you to separate presentation from content, which means that content flows smoothly for search crawlers without being forced into odd places to satisfy the designer's whim. When you look at the page, you see a beautiful layout, with everything where you want it to be. When you look at the code, you see all the content arranged in a logical order, which makes more sense to the search engines - hence, it looks like a good page and moves up a bit in the rankings.

Another thing I've noticed is that <alt> tags on your images and <title> tags in links make a huge difference; when I changed the tzk site to include appropriate alt and title tags (which mentioned the fact that the work was done by the zen kitchen in Somerville, MA), I noticed an instant jump in my Google ratings.

Adding these tags is easy. If you're creating a link in a post, for example, you'd type the code:
<a href="" target="new"> link text </a>

To add a title to it, you'd just type: <a href="" title="the zen kitchen, Somerville MA: Graphic and Web Design with a Touch of Green" target="new"> link text </a>

and it would look like this:
link text

The same is true with images. For example, if I wanted to put a picture of my cat, Persephone (because why not?) in a post as the tzk mascot, I'd type the code:

<img src="" alt="Persephone, the zen kitchen's mascot" />

and that would look like this:
Persephone, the zen kitchen's mascot

It looks just the same as if you didn't include it, BUT adding the title or alt text adds an extra hit of keywords for the search engine to notice. One quick caveat, however; whatever the title or alt text you insert, it's important that it be relevant to what the link or image actually is. You need to make sure that it represents what you're actually referring to; otherwise, search engines get irritated and knock you down a few pegs.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Agent Roundup podcast: Interview with Dani Nordin

Last week, I got the chance to chat with Kelle Sparta on her weekly podcast, Agent Roundup. Kelle, a business coach that helps real estate professionals create the life and career they love, uses the podcast to discuss a variety of issues important to brokers, from understanding the credit process to better help your clients to getting your own financial life in order. In my interview, I discussed the importance of building a strong personal brand outside the one handed to you by your firm, and the importance of finding and hiring the right design professional for your needs, rather than finding the person with the cheapest price (a habit I've seen bite people back a bit too many times). And, of course, I get to talk a bit about the zen kitchen's favorite subject, green design.

To listen to the podcast, visit Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

the zen kitchen is one year old!

Well, it's true—one year ago today, I made the decision, after almost 2 years of being a freelancer and 10 years of being a designer, to open the zen kitchen. It's been a better year than I possibly could have hoped for, and the coming year looks even better. I'm going to keep this short (mostly because it's been a bit of an insane day and I need to make another quick post), but I just needed to take a moment to celebrate this little path I've chosen. I look forward to seeing where else it will lead me.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Tell your Congressman to say Yes to the Cape Wind Project

The push is on to get Cape Wind up and running. Doing so will help bring renewable energy to Massachusetts, and reduce our dependence on petroleum. I just left a message for my Congressman asking him to support the project; I urge you to do the same by clicking on the link below for more information:


Cape Wind is our energy future, both practically and symbolically. It will provide enough energy to power three quarters of the Cape and Islands. It is a rare energy project that is good for the environment and good for consumers. If we build Cape Wind, we open the door to many more wind and other renewable energy projects. If we reject it, we are choosing our energy past-more fossil and nuclear power, more pollution, more energy dependence.

When wind opponents in Congress nearly killed the project last summer, we had to depend on Congressman Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Senators Domenici and Bingaman of New Mexico to stand up for the project. We can't risk that again. Without real and visible political support in Massachusetts, the project is vulnerable to continued attacks. We need members of our delegation in Congress to come out in support of the project. Congressmen Barney Frank and John Olver are the only two who have.

Thanks so much for your help!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Year, New Goals

Well, after a long cooldown and some time spent catching up with a few projects I had on hold (as well as catching up with some new clients I'll be starting work with soon), I'm finally back from the December holidays. It's been an interesting few weeks - I was finally able to get back on a healthy kick (despite the tremendous amount of food my boyfriend's parents tried to feed me, I was able to commit to twice-daily yoga and a reasonable amount of food, and I'm still keeping it up two weeks later, much to the delight of my clothes, which were starting to feel the pinch.

All that aside, 2006 was a very good year, for me and for the zen kitchen. Despite my nervousness at going off on my own (would I make enough to survive? Would I crash and burn? Can I do this?) and a few moments where I neared burnout, I was able to do a lot of excellent work, and create a number of successful relationships with clients and others in my network. 2007 looks to be even better, with a few new projects already getting ready to start work on, and a renewed energy in the office. I even got some unexpected props this week from AntMan over at cre8Buzz, who appreciated the green message that I and a few of my new friends in the blogosphere have been spreading.

For 2007, I have a few goals in mind. The first is to get the zen kitchen ready for expansion to include another designer. As much as I love the working-from-home gig, it's a lonely road, and I'd really love to have another designer to share the workday/workload with me.

The next is to get and stay healthy. The pressure of running a design studio has taken quite a bit of a toll on my general health, and if I'm going to turn tzk into what I want it to be, it's important to get and stay as healthy as I can be.

The last, and possibly most important, goal, is to find ways to live more simply. I, like so many of us, find myself occasionally trapped in the "must consume" nature of our culture, and it bothers me from both a financial and an environmental standpoint. So this is the year of getting further control of my finances, and learning to live more frugally.

Thanks again for reading these humble notes, and I look forward to chatting with you in the new year!