The benefits of constraints (or, how we finally built our new site)

On February 17, Jason Fried wrote an article announcing 37signals’s intention to hire an outside firm to redesign their blog, Signals vs. Noise. Companies wishing to be considered for the project would be required to have a Pro listing on Sortfolio.com — 37signals’s yellow-pages service for finding web design companies. March 8th was the date earmarked for choosing the winning firm.

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Our small team at Makalu Interactive decided to give it a shot, and tweeted our interest just in time, on March 5th.

March 8th has since come and gone without any news from 37signals, and so it’s likely they’ve chosen someone else. That’s disappointing, of course, as we’re confident we’d have been a great choice. On the other hand, simply going for the project resulted in a surprising number of positive consequences, from which a few lessons can be learned.

A million and one excuses…

Since it launched, we’d been intending to establish a Pro listing at Sortfolio. It’s a well-designed service, and quickly established itself as the place to advertise your web design firm. But we hadn’t done so yet, because we first wanted to redesign our own corporate website at makalumedia.com (its previous design was probably three quarters of a decade old; prehistoric as internet time goes!) What good would it do to have a slick Sortfolio listing, if potential clients ultimately navigated to an archaic corporate site?

Turns out, we’d actually been thinking about redesigning makalumedia.com for the past three years, but hadn’t quite settled on how to proceed, since the company has evolved into two distinct businesses — aerospace (in Germany), and interactive products (in the USA).

It further turns out, that we’ve actually had an interactive design sitting on the shelf for the past half year, but hadn’t yet implemented it for lack of time due to client work, uncertainty on how best to integrate it into WordPress, and reservations about launching it alongside our existing site.

Dependencies. Procrastination. Uncertainty. Nothing getting done.

Get started now! (or, constraints are good.)

To bid on this project, we had to design and setup a Sortfolio presentation, and do it now, regardless of how our corporate site looked. Alex and I set aside a dedicated afternoon, turned off everything, and focused. The tight time constraint forced us to take decisions with little debate, and by 11 PM on Friday night we had our design online. It was “good enough.”

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Later that evening, I got an alert from Chartbeat that makalumedia.com was seeing a whole lot of traffic. Checking Twitter, I got super excited to find that our Sortfolio entry had caught 37signals’s attention — and they liked it!

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On Monday morning we thought, “Right. We have to launch a redesign of the Makalu Interactive site, and we have to do it now.” Again considering the time constraint, we settled on the idea of a simple, focused, one-page site. Alex hunkered down, repurposed our shelved design, and 24-hours later, Makalu Interactive was launched.

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Another 24-hours later, another high traffic alert from Chartbeat. This time, however, it was because the new site had been “FAVd” at CSSMania.

All this activity caught the attention of our colleagues over at Makalu Aerospace (Germany), who of course demanded not to be left behind in aesthetic dust. So another focused burst of inspiration, and a similar one-page design was born.

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(The new Aerospace site isn’t implemented yet, but check back on Monday, and you’ll likely find it is.)

Reflecting on all this…

Alex and I were reflecting on all this over coffee this morning.

Although we didn’t achieve what we set out to do — win the 37signal blog redesign project — it was obvious that going for it brought a lot of benefits, and uncovered some important lessons.

Working within constraints is good. The deadline of March 8 not only forced us into action, but forced us into a highly efficient and effective mode of work. To find time, we had to organize our client work with laser-like precision, so that it wouldn’t suffer as a consequence. To meet the bidding deadline, we had to collaborate and make pragmatic decisions. We had to accept “good enough,” which later proved to be “much better than we thought!”

Finally, achieving so much in such a short period of time created a renewed momentum of motivation and excitement that’s certainly going to benefit us going forward.

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