How to get the most out of the design process

Unlike so much in today’s business world, graphic design is not a commodity. It is the highly individualised result of people coming together to do something they couldn’t do alone. When the collaboration is creative, the results usually are too. This guide is about how to get creative results and will give you realistic, useful information about the design process – from selecting a design studio to providing a clear understanding of objectives, evaluating cost and guiding a project to a desired end. The fundamental premise here is that anything worth doing is worth doing well, but if it’s to be done well, it must first be valued.

The value proposition

Good design – is not cheap. You would be better served to spend your money on something else if you don’t place a high value on what it can achieve.

There’s a view in Buddhism that there’s no “good” karma and no “bad” karma, there’s just karma. The same can’t be said for design. Karma is a universal condition. Design is a human act (which often affects conditions) and, therefore, subject to many variables. When the word design is used here, it is always in the context of good design.

The focus here is on how to make the process of design work in the business environment so that the end product lives up to its potential.

We live in a time of sensory assault. Competing for “eyeballs” – which is to say, customers – is more than just an Internet phenomenon. The challenge for companies everywhere is to attract consumers to their products and services and keep them in the face of fickle markets.

The answer to this challenge starts with each company’s people, products and services, but it doesn’t end there. How companies communicate to their markets and constituencies is becoming the primary means of differentiation today. Never has effective communication been more important in business. More often than not, companies that value design lead the pack.

What design is and isn’t

Design often has the properties of good looks, which perhaps is why it’s often confused with style. But design is about the underlying structure of communicating – the idea, not merely the surface qualities.

Ideas give design its weight, its ability to influence audiences positively, negatively or not at all.

The objects of design

Design is about the whole, not the parts. If you wear your £2,500 Armani suit with the wrong pair of shoes, you are apt to be remembered for the shoes and not the suit. Inconsistency raises doubt and doubt makes people wary. This might not matter much if customers didn’t have alternatives, but customers do. And they know it.


So, it isn’t enough for a company to have a great logo if the communications effort isn’t carried out across the full spectrum of the company’s interaction with its marketplaces – from how the telephone is answered to corporate identity, branding, packaging, print materials, advertising and web-related communication.

The “swoosh” didn’t make Nike a successful company. Nike made the “swoosh” an iconic reflection of a carefully orchestrated approach to the marketplace.


Finding the right designer

People with a great deal of experience – both as designers and as clients – will tell you that if you really do your homework in the selection process, the chances are excellent that what follows will bring about the hoped-for results.

What to look for

Locating a designer to interview is a fairly uncomplicated proposition. What to look for among the potential candidates – what makes one or the other the right firm for you – is more complex. It’s not a beauty contest. Seeing work that you like is important and altogether appropriate as a point of departure. But it’s not enough to warrant a business proposal.

The “discovery” process is where you can make that determination. And the more thorough you are, the more likely you are to find a firm with whom you can achieve great – who knows, perhaps even spectacular – results. So ask questions. Lots of them.

What’s the design firm like to work with? What is its culture and how does that match up with your company’s? How flexible is it? Does it want lots of direction? Or lots of latitude? And how much of either are you prepared to give? Who are its clients? And how did it get them? Does it have a thorough understanding of their businesses? What kind of working relationships does it have with them? And with its vendors – from writers to photographers, printers, web consultants and fabricators? Is it a specialist? Or generalist? Does it have the manpower and technical capabilities to do what you need? How does it arrive at design solutions?

Why not check out external references from clients that have been serviced.Get comfortable with the honesty of the firms you are talking to. Find out if their experiences and those of their clients gel. Trust is essential when you are handing over your cash and more importantly, your companies image to someone else.

If you find yourself wondering whether all of this is really necessary, ask yourself how seriously you want to compete in the marketplace. Because that is exactly what a good designer will help you do.


The design brief

A design brief is a written explanation given by the client to the designer at the outset of a project. As the client, you are spelling out your objectives and expectations and defining a scope of work when you issue one.

Why Provide a Design Brief?

The purpose of the brief is to get everyone started with a common understanding of what’s to be accomplished. It gives direction and serves as a benchmark against which to test concepts and execution as you move through a project.


Another benefit of the design brief is the clarity it provides you as the client about why you’re embarking on a project. If you don’t know why, you can’t possibly hope to achieve anything worthwhile. Nor are you likely to get your company behind your project. A brief can be as valuable internally as it is externally.

When you think about it, the last thing you want is for your project to be a test of the designer’s skills. Your responsibility is to help the design firm do the best work it can. That’s why you hired the firm. And why you give it a brief.

How to write one

A brief is not a blueprint. It shouldn’t tell the designer how to do the work. It’s a statement of purpose, a concise declaration of a client’s expectations of what the design should accomplish. And while briefs will differ depending upon the project, there are some general guidelines to direct the process. Among them:

• Provide a clear statement of objectives, with priorities
• Relate the objectives to overall company positioning
• Indicate if and how you’ll measure achievement of your goals
• Define, characterise and prioritise your audiences
• Define budgets and time frames

In the final analysis, design briefs are about paving the way for a successful design effort that reflects well on everyone involved.

To aid with the though process of a design brief download my simple design brief and give consideration to further information that may be useful.


Budgeting and managing the process

If the briefing effort is thorough, budgeting and managing a project is easier. It takes two to budget and manage a design project, the client and the designer. The most successful collaborations are always the ones where all the information is on the table and expectations are in the open from the outset.

Design costs money

As one very seasoned and gifted designer says, “There is always a budget,” whether it is revealed to the design team or not. Clients often are hesitant to announce how much they have to spend for fear that if they do, the designer will design to that number when a different solution for less money might otherwise have been reached. This is a reasonable concern and yet, it’s as risky to design in a budgetary vacuum as it is to design without a goal. If your utility vehicle budget stops at four cylinders, four gears and a radio, there’s no point in looking at Bentley.

If you have £3,000 to spend and you’d really like to dedicate £1,000 of it to something else, giving the design team that knowledge helps everyone. Then you won’t get something that costs £3,500 that you want but cannot pay for. Without trust, there isn’t a basis for working together.

The ideal approach is to bring in your designer as early as you can. The design team can then help you arrive at realistic cost parameters that relate to your objectives in lieu of you budget figure. At this stage it is quite feasible to put together a budget range based upon a broad scope of a project or program. Individual estimates can be provided, for example: design concepts, design development and production, photography, illustration, copywriting and printing estimates and web programming.

The more informed you are as a client about what things cost, the more effective you can be in guiding a project. You should know, for instance, that if your design firm hires outside talent such as writers, photographers and illustrators and pays them, it is standard policy to markup (generally, 20 %) the fees charged by these professionals. You can choose to pay these contributors directly to avoid the markup, but this should be addressed at the time they’re hired. Printing, historically, has been treated the same way.

You should also be aware that photographers, illustrators and writers are generally paid a “kill fee” if a project is cancelled after work has started. That’s because talent is in constant demand and accepting one project often means turning other work away. In the case of photography, expect to pay when a photo shoot is cancelled. And remember that unless you stipulate otherwise, you are buying one-time usage of the photographs – not the work itself – and that copyright laws are in force the moment the shutter trips. If you want unlimited use, you will have to negotiate and pay for it.

Bear in mind with any business there are always terms and conditions and they set out the ground rules of which a trusted relationship will work.


Who leads and who follows?

It is the client’s responsibility to lead a project and the designer’s to design and manage the design process. Don’t confuse leadership with involvement. As the person representing the client, you might want a great deal of involvement, or very little. If you provide leadership, your participation can be whatever you want it to be.

There are countless volumes on the subject of leadership, so we won’t presume to give leadership lessons here. The same general principles apply. In a design project, leadership requires that you give clear direction at the outset. You must be available when needed by the design team and ready to make decisions in a timely manner. You should understand how the design supports your objectives (so you can sell it). You will need to monitor major delivery points and be prepared to get the necessary approvals. On this last point, some designers are excellent presenters, and, in fact, like to present their work to the final authority. But while they can be persuasive, they are not the ones to get the Final sign-off. As the leader of the team, you are the deal-maker, the closer.

If you identify and articulate your objectives, establish your process early, see that the design team has access to what it needs from you, have a detailed budget and schedule to measure progress with, and lead the process from beginning to end, there is no reason that you won’t be able to enjoy the design process as much as the end product.

At least, that’s how many of our members and their clients see it.