As the press deadline approached closer and closer, the man became more and more exasperated. Eventually, he wound up pacing in my cubicle, watching me frantically click on things. With the press running in less than an hour, he blurted out something that completely threw me:
Can’t you just use the lawnmower button?
This phrase completely changed how I think about work.
In the beginning
My first design job was making ads for a decent-sized newspaper in my home state. Not quite large enough to be national, but also not quite small enough that you would have not had heard of them if you lived in an adjacent state.
Because of this size, it meant there were two general kinds of design I’d be doing:
- Mindless placement work. This involved taking ads sent from large corporations’ ad departments and fitting them into the right spot on the page. Fun stuff.
- The second kind of work was more interesting. It was translating the requirements specified by local clients into layouts, as described by the local client’s ad rep.
It was the ad rep’s job to drum up business, hitting up area stores to communicate the idea that a newspaper ad meant a chance to gain a customer, with the chance multiplied by the number of people who subscribed to the paper.
Headlines don't sell papes, newsies sell papes
While the internet existed at this point, it still hadn’t quite yet figured out how to disrupt the monopoly held by local printed news. This meant that for a newspaper, selling physical ads was important—if you think subscriptions are what keep the presses running, you’ve been sorely misinformed.
Most of the local customers running ads were regulars. There’d often be a template you could work from. A price change here, a new headline there, and you were good to go.
These edits typically came from the rep in the form of written instructions, sometimes scribbled in marker over a copy of last week’s ad. Email was a surprisingly uncommon communication medium for this process at this point.
Local clients would have a range in level of technical sophistication, from a high degree of literacy to being completely unable to operate a computer. I wasn’t one to judge. Running your own business is a massive undertaking, and at the time, personal computers were still somewhat a novelty—using one simply wasn’t as big a priority then as it is now.
Reps had a range of communication skills, so the game of telephone that was deciphering client intent was all over the place. Throw in press deadlines and you had an environment that could get incredibly stressful incredibly quickly.
I was tasked with creating a full-page grid of different riding lawnmowers that a local dealer was selling. Each lawnmower model had its own accompanying glossy photo shot on the dealer’s disposable camera.
Since this was the earlier days of the internet, you couldn’t grab print resolution-friendly images from a Google Images search. Instead, I had to scan each photo and isolate the lawnmower from its background of a field of grass.
This meant a lot of painstaking production work in Photoshop had to be done before even getting to the layout work in Quark (I’m ancient). This took time.
The ad itself was nothing special, and the design was just as forgettable. However, I’ll never forget the phrase it generated, “Can’t you just use the lawnmower button?”
What you see is what you get
One thing computers do is make drudge work seem invisible.
The design department had an archive of pictures for reuse. You could import a previously showcased car from the archive if a dealership was featuring one car one week, then change it to another on the following week.
From a layperson’s perspective, say the ad rep, we could just press a button on the computer and the image you wanted would appear. What they didn’t see was all the time it took to extract the car from its background and color balance it in Photoshop.
The rep isn’t the villain of the story, the process is. Since the work was siloed, there wasn’t a shared understanding of what it took to translate direction into a printed artifact.
Since there wasn’t good communication between reps and design, there wasn’t a shared understanding of how long something would take if it involved having to hand-scan and isolate multiple photos.
Without transparency into the design process, the rep had to fall back on what they’d observed in passing: importing existing archived art.
The ad was important because it represented revenue and a potentially new stream of income for the paper. The design was important because the business wanted to showcase their inventory in a desirable way. The fixed deadline was the crucible.
There’s only so many corners you can cut to increase production speed. There’s also a minimum threshold of quality that needs to be met. Because of the tight deadline, there was also no opportunity to educate on the particulars of why things were taking so much time. This meant that the problem was liable to repeat itself.
In the short-term, not addressing this issue creates stress and antagonistic working relationships. In the long-term, it will cause missed deadlines, lost clients, and employee attrition.
Identifying lawnmower buttons
These days, I try to be on the lookout for lawnmower buttons: things that impact the bottom line that look easy or magical from the outside, but take a ton of time and effort.
I’m also a lot more transparent and communicative about what I’m working on and how—there’s nothing precious or mystical about what I do. If a client wants to pop into a Figma file or GitHub repo’s commit history, I’ll happily show them, warts and all.
There’s no glamor in suffering in silence. The more I can identify lawnmower buttons and get ahead of them, the better the client/designer relationship gets.
Frequent, open communication gives the client a stronger sense of ownership over the process, and usually a better sense of perceived value. Sometimes, being upfront and honest about heavy production work even means we try something different.
Design is the rendering of intent. For the lawnmower ad, the intent was showing that there were many options available at affordable prices. Had the process been better, we could have tried different approaches that could have communicated the core intention without as much time-consuming production design work.
Skills and growth
Healthy, productive communication is a core part of a successful design engagement. I use Photoshop a lot less than I used to, but I use the skills needed to get ahead of lawnmower button problems nearly every day.
It’s also worth acknowledging that in my current role I have a lot more latitude to practice these kinds of conversations. I’m appreciative of an iterative, collaborative way of working, and understand that it’s (unfortunately) not the industry norm.
It might be worth considering your daily workflows to identify areas where your own personal lawnmower buttons might be present. If it’s something you’ve run into before, or have your own name for, I’d love to hear about it.