The Secret to Getting Great Graphic Design

EScolor-226x300The E. Starr Associates logo you see is the product of my second go-round with a graphic designer.  The first try was a disaster.

I was new to the process of creating a logo from scratch when I started my business.  A friend who was the art director of a magazine referred me to her friend, a junior designer just starting out.

The lesser expense of a junior designer appealed to my new business frugality.  Eager to start, the designer asked if she could play on the star in my name.  I said yes.

That was the only question she asked me.

Her designs were juvenile and cutesy, with swirls and stars all around.  They would have been lovely on teenage stationery.  When I asked for something more businesslike, she had no idea what I meant.

My attempt to save money backfired.  I paid for her work and stopped the project there.

I felt a little gun shy, but still needed a logo.  Through networking, I found Melissa Surprenant at Melpon Design.  Melissa sent a portfolio with several logos she had done.  We discussed how her clients’ business objectives had led to those designs.

Once I hired Melissa, she asked me about my business, the brand image I wanted to convey and my personal preferences.  Her initial logo designs and the process we followed to arrive at the final design kept my goals front and center.

Over the past 12 years as I have helped launch products, companies, and websites, I have acted as a liaison in many client-graphic designer relationships.  And I know the minefields that each side fears.

Clients fear not getting a design they like.  They worry that the designer will spend too much time on their work, pushing hourly fees over budget.

Graphic designers fear that the client hasn’t thought through what he wants before calling and thus doesn’t really know.  They worry the client will realize what he wants mid-process and will try to push the project beyond the agreed upon scope.

Both sides’ fears are justified.

So what is the secret to getting great design?  I thought you’d never ask.

The secret is to change your mindset and do your homework.

Clients often think of graphic designers as creative types who play around with ideas as they pop into their heads.  Though designers are creative, their true role is visual problem solver.

And you, the client, need to realize that you have a visual problem.

Not a vision problem, but a visual problem.

You have a message, a brand image, and information that you want to convey visually to your target audience.  You are not just looking for a drawing or a layout; you need help solving this problem in a way that boosts your business and justifies your investment.

Once you acknowledge that you have a visual problem, you need to prepare to find a visual problem solver, a.k.a. a graphic designer.

Your preparation should include:

  • A project overview and objectives – describe what you want and your goals for the graphic design work.
  • An audience description – detail your target market(s).
  • A brand profile – describe your business, brand image and the message you want to convey.
  • Any guidelines or tone that you would like to strike with the work (elegant, simple, irreverent, etc.).
  • Your contributions – will you supply copy or photos, if applicable, or do you need help with that?
  • Timeline and budget.

The document that pulls all these items together is known as a creative brief.  Putting the creative brief together, either formally or in notes for reference, will give you a huge advantage in getting great graphic design.

It will save you time and money.  You will need less time to get the designers up to speed and allow them to give you a more focused proposal.  You’ll also reduce the risk of those dreaded mid-process changes which increase costs.

It will make you a more desirable client.  The creative brief will signal to prospective designers that you are serious and know what you want.

It will help you better evaluate graphic designers.  By knowing what you want (logo, brochure, website, packaging), you can focus your search on designers who have relevant experience.  It will also give you an idea of whether you need an individual designer or an agency with a broader range of services.

Now you can begin your search.  Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations.  Search online for graphic designers.

As you search, look at designers’ portfolios.  Do they have experience solving your graphic design need?  Do you like their solutions?

Interview a few designers.  Inquire about their approach.  Ask them to talk about their experience on similar projects and how they met those visual challenges. Request and check references.

Once you have found a designer or agency that you want to work with, give them the creative brief.  A good designer or agency account manager will be interested to learn about your business and what you want to accomplish.

Get a proposal which not only details the work the designer will deliver but also who will own the work when it is completed.  Some designers will retain the rights to the work or ask for separate compensation if you want to own it.

Once you start working together, keep an open mind and trust the designer as the visual expert.  That doesn’t mean just accepting what you get, but it does mean giving feedback in a helpful manner.

Helpful:  I like that direction but feel the visual doesn’t convey my funky brand attribute enough.

Not helpful:  I prefer this font and think you should use royal blue because I like that color.

Use this process and over time you will have a go-to group of designers who know you and your business well and with whom you enjoy working.  The stress of finding graphic design help will disappear, and you will have partners to help you build your business.

Do you have a graphic design war story to tell?  Please comment below!  (Both clients and designers welcome.)

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2 Responses to The Secret to Getting Great Graphic Design

  1. Rochelle Seltzer says:

    I’m happy that you wrote about this important topic, Evelyn. I owned a design firm for many years and we developed many logo identities. The key to success for us and our clients was always doing strategy work at the start of an engagement. The example you gave about the designer who asked you about your business, the brand image you wanted to convey and your preferences was certainly on the right track. In our practice, we went even deeper.

    We conducted an exercise to identify a small set of adjectives that summed up the essential attributes of the client to be conveyed in the logo design (and the website and other components of the eventual system of marketing tools). We interviewed the client team and also spoke to their customers/clients. We researched the client’s industry and competitors. We then set out a strategy before we started the creative development. We reviewed and revised the strategy with the client until we were all in agreement about the visual attributes and more. With that as a roadmap, the creative was on target and the client understood the rationale behind the design options that we presented. The process was smoother and happier all around, and the final work was on-target.

    Full disclosure — I am now an advocate for Design Strategy. I am helping designers to incorporate strategy into their processes. And, I am also working to help businesses understand that design based on strategy is the best investment they can make to build a great brand image in their market. When an organization’s identity truly expresses what they the offer — and resonates with their intended audiences — they will not only be memorable, they’ll more quickly achieve their marketing and sales objectives.

    • evelyn says:

      We agree on the need for marketing strategy before creative work, Rochelle. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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