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How to Maximize Your Investment in Good Design

Getting the most from your investment in good design requires a clear understanding of the roles of both the client and that of the designer or creative agency. Everyone has the same goal of doing what is best for the project at hand, but things can go awry when there is confusion and unclear expectations about each other’s roles.

Contrary to common belief, design is not as subjective as one may think. While everyone may have an opinion and even experts often disagree (don’t they always?), there IS such a thing as good and bad design. There are also rights and wrongs for how to best move the creative process forward.

Good design can be measured against several different benchmarks: how well it solves the marketing problem, how well it communicates the message, how well it functions, clarifies, and sells, not to mention the fundamental aesthetic value of the completed design — and how well the designer uses all the components in their creative toolbox: concept, shape, form, color, texture, scale, and typography all play a part.

Designers don’t leave anything to chance. The way the right side of a paragraph looks (rag), the space between lines of text (leading), as well as the spaces between letters (kerning) is deliberated over — always looking for a pleasing look and balance between positive and negative space. Maybe you can see why I cringe when a client says I can just “dump in the text.” Designers never just “dump” in anything, even something as basic as body text in a document.

Along with all the other considerations designers make during the creative process, the art of design takes time, resulting in an end result that looks and functions as well as it does. A good designer never leaves anything to chance, and will always be able to explain the rationale behind a particular design decision when necessary or if challenged — both aesthetically and businesswise.

The designer anomaly

True design pros are a mix of many different skill sets — they are smart communicators with a keen understanding of marketing strategy, psychology, client relations, technology, project management and the ability to stay focused on the overall goals without getting sidetracked by the many distractions and inevitable hiccups along the way. Successful outcomes are a testament to how well these factors are juggled — and making it all come out on time and on budget.

Designers make order out of chaos. Like chewing gum, rubbing your tummy and walking all at the same time, and still somehow making it all look beautiful, this is no easy feat.

On top of this, good design is often design that goes unnoticed — too much adornment or obtrusive design would get in the way of the communication or functionality. No wonder there is so much confusion about what design is and what designers bring to the table! But let it be known that if something looks simple, fluid and easy, you can be sure it wasn’t easy getting it that way. In the same way that a ballet dancer jumps and moves with incredible beauty and grace on stage, misleading one into thinking it is in someway “easy,” we know it only takes a few seconds of trying it yourself to know that is certainly not the case. Today’s software and endless tools may make it appear that design can be done by anybody, but the results usually speak for themselves.

Is there a design quotient?

Just as people have certain aptitudes for anything — I do think there is such a thing as a DQ, or design quotient — similar to an IQ or an EQ (emotional intelligence). Yet I don’t believe possessing a high DQ is necessary to benefit from good design or to work successfully with designers.

Good designers, through talent, training, practice, experience and instinct, know how to make things communicate better, sell better, work better, conserve better, and yes, look better too. The end result, however, is effective without anyone really needing to know why. The best designers and creative pros have dedicated their lives to mastering visual rhetoric.

While personal tastes will be taken into account when relevant, such as a personal branding project, designers do not need a lot of creative input. Clients do not need to conceive what they want — they don’t need to develop rough sketches and they certainly don’t need to supply the designer with ideas or preconceived notions. In fact, this is where the designer/client relationship can sometimes get strained, because as important as the client role is in successful outcomes, they sometimes unwittingly overstep their bounds during the creative process into areas for which they do not have an “aptitude.” My younger son may like a certain meal after it is served but can’t stand the sight of it being made — if he had his way and changed six of the eight ingredients, he wouldn’t like the end result and neither would anyone else.

The critical role of the client

What a designer requires from the client, and indeed, what the project needs to be successful — is the client focusing on fulfilling their very important role in the client/designer relationship. These things are crucial if the project is going to meet its goals and justify the investment. The most important things a client needs to provide their creative agency in order for them to do their jobs effectively are:

1) Defining what needs to be accomplished from a strategic perspective (marketing/communications goals, audience, objectives, etc.)

2) Outlining any specific project requirements and parameters (including who will be involved, what the timeframe is, the budget, etc.)

3) Supplying timely input and feedback throughout the process in order to keep the project on track.

Please note that a client’s favorite color is not one of these top priorities. Let the designer you chose to trust with your work do their thing — they will select the colors and other things that best solve the problem at hand. Again, color choice is not purely subjective, and the color you recently used to repaint your kitchen may not necessarily be the best choice for your branding/marketing/communications project. If it is a personal branding project or the like, a client’s personal preferences should always be accounted for. But for most other projects, it is the target market that needs to be appealed to and influenced, not the client.

The client/designer partnership

The client/designer relationship is a partnership with clearly defined roles, working together throughout the development process. Both roles are necessary to arrive at a successful solution — and the better this partnership, the better the result for both parties. One without the other won’t get the job done, at least not as effectively as it could be done.

Mutual respect for each other’s roles always leads to the best collaborations. In fact, out of all the creative success I’ve had and awards I have won, I have always seen the client as an integral component of those outcomes:

  • They hired me in the first place
  • They provided me the input I needed to do my job
  • They trusted me and ultimately approved the work, letting good work flourish

I couldn’t have done any of this without a good client.

Yet the basic client responsibilities I outlined are often overlooked while other extraneous things are brought into the equation instead, which can lead to less than desirable results — or at least the project won’t be what it could have been. Everyone wants the same thing — a healthy process that achieves the desired goals, yet a lack of understanding of who is responsible for what so often derails the process, sabotaging the result that everyone is seeking.

Again, clients should not feel pressured to solve the problem for the designer — in fact, that is exactly what is NOT needed. “Make it bigger,” “make the font bolder,” and “make it red” are also examples of clients dictating the solution rather than establishing the communications problem that needs solving. In these examples, the issue is really that something needs to be highlighted in some way — let the designer use their talent, training, experience and intuition to come up with the best answer. Give the professional who was hired the space to create and do their thing. They are the experts.

Client feedback is welcomed and always taken into consideration. Likewise, good ideas can come from anywhere. But preconceived notions and demands are impositions that prevent a healthy creative process.

Designers have their fingers on the pulse and are in the best position to know what will most likely get the reaction you are looking for, and then convert it into that pesky little ROI everyone is looking to achieve. Pigeonholing your designer and dictating design won’t get you there.

It’s a trust thing

The most important thing that clients can do is hire a designer or agency they trust. Based on their previous work, recommendations and familiarity with the people being hired — designers need to be trusted with delivering the results desired. The work they do may not look like what they have done for other clients — that would be defeating the entire purpose of hiring an agency to deliver a custom solution in the first place.

Remember: in today’s competitive business climate, companies need to stand out, not blend in with the rest. So it stands to reason that a successful visual presence should not look like what everybody else is doing.

For this reason, the best creative work can make clients feel uncomfortable, because it may be different from what they have seen before. But trust and good communication will create the climate in which breakout creative can flourish — and there’s a good chance it will do the same for your business.

Looking to maximize your own investment in design?

If you think good design could make a difference in your next project, please contact me — I’d love to speak with you and see how we may partner together and get the most bang for your buck!

Featured photo illustration by Paul Biedermannre:DESIGN.
Images courtesy of Daniela Vladimirovavia via Creative Commons.

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