How to work with graphic designers and live to tell the tale

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Poor design in marketing and advertising comes as much from poor briefing and client decision-making as is it does shoddy design work.

Graphic designers, as clever as they may be, are not psychic. Well, there might be one somewhere, but designers can’t read your mind. You need to give them some clues.

Picture this. You’re on a date with your new beau (or belle) and it’s your birthday. He asks what you’d like to drink. “Surprise me,” you say, somewhat cruelly. It’s fine, you’ve been out a few times, he knows you’re not a beer drinker, he can tick that off the list. He’s seen you drink wine, but that’s a bit safe for a special occasion. Better be generous on such a big day, he stresses. Mojito? Cosmopolitan?

He plumps for a margarita, not knowing your embarrassing history with tequila and that your ultimate treat is a shimmering glass of birthday bubbles. Poor fella. But how was he to know?

You may think that giving a designer a relatively free rein will result in a creative solution that your target audience will relish. But leaving too much to assumption and guess work can also lead you along the totally wrong path.

If you’re running your business and you’re not used to this kind of process, get help. It can be one of the most exciting things you do in your business, bringing your messages to life in a way that will win you customers, followers or supporters. But, when you’re too close to the detail, you need some objectivity.

In agencies, they often refer to graphic designers as ‘creatives’, for very good reason. They take a brief, use that incredible creatively-wired brain and turn it in to something magical. My absolute favourite part of the process is when designers first share their ideas with you and you see how they’ve turned words on a page – facts, goals, parameters, themes – into something that you just know that your audience will relate to and love.  It can be a totally uplifting moment. I’ve been known to skip around a meeting room or even wipe away a tear.

Another agency term for design folk is ‘fruits’. Not just because they’re often the vibrant and colourful people, but because they’re frequently sensitive, tender souls. But that’s a good thing. It’s what gives them those amazing human insights that we mere mortals can sometimes be lacking. It’s because they have that extra inch of understanding and empathy that they can more easily transport themselves in to the hearts and minds of the person your design needs to resonate with.

Let them make the most of these skills and let them challenge you. Allow yourself to be wowed. Equally, make it clear to them when the brief sits in a place that, for indisputable reasons, the solution needs to be achieved a certain way and when they have to play it safe. There’s nothing worse for a designer than getting fired up about a project that feels like a Ferrari, only to be told it is a Honda Civic. There’s nothing wrong with a Civic, so long as that’s what will appeal to your customers, and your designer should respect the difference.

If they’ve been working with you a long time, it’s only natural that your designers start to think a little bit like you, or the decision-makers in your organisation. Sometimes this is a real advantage – you don’t have to go through hoops to explain everything from scratch every time. But it can also risk complacency. If a designer tries to push exciting new approaches but they are constantly pushed back, you’ll get the same old same old. And that responsibility, I’m afraid, sits with you. Keep them enthused.

Sometimes I look at an advert or marketing piece and can tell where the client has had too strong a hand in the process. “Let’s just add this piece of extra info here”, or “use this photo because it reflects an important project for us even if it doesn’t really fit the original brief”. Or, the ultimate sin, something like “how about a splash of my favourite green”. Designers should debate these decisions but, let’s face it, when push comes to shove, you pay the bills. But the client isn’t always right.  Sometimes you’re too close to it and need to look at life through their lens.

So, to sum up, make it clear what your design needs to achieve and the parameters within which it needs to work. But allow yourself to be challenged. Creative approaches that resonate with your clients will ultimately have you cracking open the champagne, and not just on your birthday.

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About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz