Maybe you’re a startup company without a logo. Or perhaps you’re looking to push a new product and need a website to promote it. Or you might just be tired of staring at your old business cards and can’t help but think you’re overdue for something fresh. So it’s time to find a designer, right?
Not so fast.
While you definitely will need a designer in the near future, I wouldn’t be so eager to start searching through portfolios or reaching out to someone you’ve worked with in the past. If the designer is anything like me, they’ll hit you up with a lengthy list of questions that you might not be ready to answer yet.
I know, you’re thinking, I need something designed so all I need to do is tell my designer the basics of what I want and let them take it from there. And you could do that; if you’re willing to accept the possibility of work that doesn’t represent you or your brand as well as it should, or work that doesn’t deliver your message to your target demographic effectively enough. The purpose of design is to communicate visually, and no matter how good your designer is, they can’t do that without your active participation.
Let me give you a quick example. Recently I received a lead on a new project for a client who was looking for a brochure design. I first wanted to know why they needed it, and their answer was simple enough. They wanted something to send out to prospective clients to inform them of the services they offer. We were off to a good start! The next questions were production related – was this something that they needed professionally printed, would it sent via email, how many pages, etc. These they were unsure of, almost as if they had never really thought of how they would use this brochure, just that they realized they needed one. Not ideal, but no problem, I thought, we can work through those answers after we get a basic outline of the design.
Logically the next step was for me to ask them for the content for the brochure. If I had that, I could at least assemble a vision for the project and extract the core themes that we could build upon. I would even be better equipped to advise them on the best course of action for printing and distributing the brochures. You might not be surprised to find out that they didn’t even have the basic content ready for me. So to recap, they’ve contacted me to design a brochure for them that we don’t know how it will be produced or distributed, with content that has yet to be determined. Does it sound to you like we basically had nothing?
But the next question they had for me was surprising. They asked me if I could create a “template” of the design, with the belief that after seeing some generic design and placeholder text that they would all of a sudden be able to fill in the blanks with the information about their company. I’ll be honest; I was hesitant to do this. While I feel that there are a lot of great templates out there than can serve as a jumping off point for design projects, I couldn’t quite grasp how seeing something like that would help them figure out what was important to say about their company. They reached out to me to create a custom design for them. As always, I strive to tailor the design to each client. By having the basic content before starting the design process, I can see what’s important. I design around those key points. I know it’s not something that you might think about, but if you had three key points on a page, I’d consider a completely different layout than if we had four key points to include on the page. I’m a firm believer in the best design work coming from the content, and not trying to fit content into a preformed design. But nonetheless, I decided to move forward as they requested. The customer is always right, after all.
Not surprisingly, after their first look at the generic design, the client started to send over bits and pieces of content, with some feedback on some of the design elements and imagery. We went back and forth with a few more revisions, slowly replacing placeholder text with real text. Pages were added, and pages were removed as they decided what was important enough to keep. The stock photos I used as placeholders were swapped out for their photos, which of course all conveniently happened to be the opposite proportions of the ones use in the template design. Even the basic layout had to change. To put a positive spin on it, the whole design evolved as we refined it, improving it with each revision. But the truth is that we spent about twice as much time going back and forth than we would have if we started with the content, and the end result was good, but not spectacular.
We never had a chance to be spectacular though.
No matter how much time and effort we put into the revisions, it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The original layout wasn’t designed for them. It actually wasn’t designed for anybody in particular, and that was problem. As a designer I am here to help you, and I want to help you. But I also want to do great work, for you as the client and for myself. No matter how pretty I make something look, I know in the end that it doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t sleep easy at night just because I like what I did, I sleep easy because you like what I did, and that it meets and exceeds your needs. If we work together to achieve the goals of your project, then I have succeeded. But the most successful projects start with clients who have a clear vision of what they want to say, and who they want to say it to. If you can tell me that, I have no doubt that spectacular design is within our reach, and well within your budget. Oh, I forgot to mention, clear communication before starting a project means it gets done better and faster, and less time means lower costs. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
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