Monday, 13 February 2012

Is your designer smiling at you through gritted teeth?

Let's face it ... no matter what your profession, there are times when a client can rub you the wrong way.

They don't mean to, of course. Well ... maybe some do, but for the most part it's due to a lack of understanding rather than a lack of respect.  Nevertheless, every now and then, something may be said or done by your client that brings home to you the fact that the effort and skill that goes into providing your particular service has not been fully appreciated.

We grin and bear it, because to do otherwise would be less than professional, but it's forgivable to air such frustrations in the presence of work colleagues who can empathise and potentially diffuse the tension with a joke or a round of drinks.

"Designing stuff is easy!"
When it comes to being under-appreciated, creative professionals experience their fair share of frustrations.  Just a few days ago, I came across this request for a quote on the following brief (paraphrased, of course, to protect the unwitting offender):

"Corporate logo graphic required for new business, no branding visuals in place as yet, so it's up to you to submit ideas for our consideration.  Please quote for a couple of hours' work."

Now, if you're a seasoned designer or a business person who has developed a mutually respectful relationship with a creative professional, then you'll appreciate the inward reaction that this kind of brief tends to evoke among the design community.

A few years ago, my teeth would be grinding at such a request, since the key ingredient to any responsible and effective design is the proper development of the initial concepts, which requires not only productive input from the client, but a good deal of thoughtful time and energy on the part of the designer. A couple of hours' work based on a brief that contains little or no information from the client will not result in effective design.  In fact, it will most likely delay the sign-off date of an approved design, and end up costing much more that either the client or creative professional has estimated.

Creative work is head work.
Much of the effort that goes into design happens between those erratic spurts of activity, or while the hand is sketching random lines, swishes and swirls with the stylus. The sign of a good designer is not the speed with which initial concepts are whipped up and posted to the client, but in the designer's ability to consult properly with the client and glean as much information as possible before any work is done, to ensure that the initial concepts are as close as possible to resembling the design for which the client will be willing to sign off.

Breaking down a design project to its various stages of development, here's an estimate of time spent on each stage:
• Initial concepts = 50%
• Refinement of approved concept = 30%
• Creation and supply of final work = 20%

Of course, these percentages will vary depending on the designer, but in all cases, where a seasoned professional is hired and allowed to properly develop a design, the greatest amount of time will be necessarily spent in the creation and development of initial concepts.  The concept is the foundation of a functional design.

You can't build a house from the top down.
Just as the foundation of a building needs to be sized, levelled and reinforced with all due consideration to the ground on which it rests and the load to be supported, design can't be rushed. Once the house is up, it's very difficult to repair a shonky foundation. In fact, a total rebuild is a more feasible and cost-effective option.

The same applies for shonky design.

So when I read the brief quoted above, I reacted accordingly. I didn't grind my teeth, however. I'm a little more placid these day and tend to just shrug and smile to myself.

So what do creative professionals do to vent their frustrations?
Well, in the case of UK based designer Anneke Short,  a series of posters was created for circulation within the design community as a somewhat symbolic way for fellow creatives to give an empathetic nod and "share the pain".

Each poster reflects how a designer reacts internally to a common misconception. For a well-heeled designer, the posters are funny on one level, and oh so true on many others!

So, for the more sympathetic readers out there who are about to hire the services of a creative professional for the first time, may I suggest that you take a moment to contemplate these works, and allow their simple lessons to enrich your new relationship with your nominated designer.

Thank you for your attention. And have a nice day!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

An article that every startup manager should read ...

A few weeks ago, I came across this blog article and it occurred to me that, while it was aimed at advising inexperienced designers, its points relate significantly to how design clients can best assist the design process.

Often the success of a project depends as much on the client's willingness to be flexible and receptive as it does on the designer. Many designers already know this, but are understandably loathe to suggest as much to their clients for fear of offending.

By substituting just one word throughout the linked article, you've got yourself a great primer should you ever embark on design contracting.

Just swap the word "designers" for the phrase "design clients", and every point is relevant - including Point 4, by the way.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Logo design: Pay more to get less

A consistent aspect of logos associated with high profile companies and mega-corporations is their utter simplicity. Apple, McDonalds, BHP Billiton, IBM, et al, have all spent fortunes on logo/brand development and have arrived at designs with minimal detail and simple colour combinations.

By contrast, many small companies with limited budgets manage to obtain logos with intricate colour blending, detail, shading and highlight, and even 3D rendering.

By comparison, the IBM logo looks as dull as dishwater.

So who got the better deal?

That depends on how much a business wants to expand in the future while retaining the same logo, but here's a hint: The big corporations aren't stupid. There are a few good reasons to strive for an uncomplicated logo, including the merits of multimedia compatibility and immediate brand recognition/association.

It usually takes an experienced designer to deconstruct what may begin as a grand concept and pare it down to its simplest, most functional form while retaining an aesthetic quality.

That takes talent, and talent is a good investment. You don't need a budget equal to that of the big guns to get an equally effective logo, but you should be prepared to spend a little more for the sake of longterm peace of mind.

Cheap logos are just that. They have their place, but you need to think carefully about whether your brand presence is that place.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Brand Design, and the Power of Perspex

Yesterday morning, I rolled out of bed and stumbled bleary-eyed to the bathroom to "ablute", as one does.

Opening the drawer to grab the toothpaste, I noticed a spare toothbrush in mint condition squirrelled up the back behind the usual bathroom paraphernalia. 

Now, my regular toothbrush was right there at my fingertips.

There was nothing wrong with my regular toothbrush; it was reasonably new and in good condition, and it would have made perfect sense to grab that one instead.

But I didn't.  I bypassed my regular toothbrush and grabbed the new one.

What possessed me to do that?  Simple, really: It made me feel happy.

When I was a kid, we were one of the few families in the neighbourhood to have a backyard swimming pool, and this made us popular with our friends.  It also made me popular with a certain girl on whom I'd had a massive crush since third grade.  Every now and then, this girl would agree to visit with my other friends on the promise of a swim in our pool.  I considered this a perfectly reasonable trade in exchange for the opportunity to see her in a swimsuit, and the chance - as remote as it was - to brush up against her as we swam past each other.

After every blissful session in the pool, my mum would call all of us in to the kitchen for a round of ham sandwiches and a glass of lime soda. Happy times.

Now none of this came to mind when I chose to use that new toothbrush yesterday morning.  All I knew at the time, was that the sight of that toothbrush suddenly made me feel happy.

It took a few moments to realise that it made me happy because its bright green transparent handle had the same light qualities as a glass of lime soda. 

Pretty abstract, eh?

So why am I telling you all of this?  Because it demonstrates a simple fact of human nature:

Despite our ability to engage common sense in every choice we make, we quite often succumb to spontaneous behaviour triggered by a subliminal, abstract feeling that occurs at the sight, sound, smell or touch of a simple object.

And this is the potential power of a logo.

Of course, you can't hope to design a logo that instantly triggers endorphins in all who see it, but you can certainly adopt a strategy of customer relations that ensures your market has a mutually satisfying relationship with your business, and at the same time ensure that your logo is always present during that relationship.  The effect is not immediate, but the longer your business maintains operations, the greater persuasion your logo will have over consumer behaviour due to that emotional recall.

The key is not to try too hard to create the greatest logo in the market, but to ensure that whatever logo you have is always present while your business is engaging that market.

...And, for the record, I hate lime soda.

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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Brand Design: Getting a New Logo? Not So Fast!

As a new business startup, you're not necessarily concerned about what your brand is going to be.  There are far too many grassroots issues to deal with right now.  You need to register your business, set up bank accounts and payment systems, line up suppliers, sort out pricing structures, organise staffing and so on.

But at some point during the initial planning, the question of the business logo will be raised.  The subject will usually be brought up around the same time as the subject of advertising and signage. As far as the issue of business branding is concerned, this can be a good thing and a bad thing…

Your brand is your reputation, and your reputation will transcend the best PR your money can buy.

It's a good strategy to have your brand in mind early on, and the subject of logo design is the most common trigger that brings the issue to mind; "What symbol do I want to represent my business?"

Your logo is the visual transference of your reputation, and it will carry that reputation of its own accord.  It has the power to bring to the mind of whoever sees it, an emotional connection that has already been established via that reputation, and it can trigger a subliminal loyalty in potential customers, or a compulsive choice to purchase, even if no other visual elements accompany it.

And yet, because your logo is such an important element of your brand, it needs to be one of the last elements of brand management that you acquire as part of a new business venture*.  If you rush into commissioning a logo, then you may waste a lot of time and money, and scar the longterm reputation of your business.

[I'll expand on that statement in a later post.]

To be slightly abstract for a moment: In order to get your logo just right, you first need to work out what your business is.

Here's a question: Do you have a polished business plan that you understand and are happy to follow? If you have, then well done. You pretty much know as much as any new business manager can hope to know about what your business will be doing, and where it's heading.  You know what your business is.

The beauty of a business plan is that it forces you to think long and hard about what you, and by default your loved ones, are getting yourselves into. It allows you to gauge whether your vision is feasible, and it allows you to know this before you invest too much money and time.

It also allows you to answer some of the crucial questions that define your brand:
..and many, many more!

So your business plan represents the foundation of brand management, and provided you take your plan seriously, you can begin to implement brand design starting with your logo. With the answers to the questions listed above along with others outlined in your business plan, both you and your nominated graphic designer can collaborate and form a clearer idea as to how your logo should look and where it should feature.

You'll know the customer demographic to whom it should appeal.  You'll have a good idea of the various media with which your logo should be compatible (eg: printed stationery, screenprinted shirts, embroidered caps, website display and so on).

In short, you have the key information that a professional designer needs to know in order to create the ideal logo for your brand.

If you haven't got a business plan or you have a plan that you don't understand, or you've simply decided that drawing up a business plan is either too hard or simply not necessary, then you probably don't know what your business is. As such, you'll have a much harder time working out what your brand is, and consequently any brand design will be hit-and-miss.  In this scenario, the best that a logo designer can do for you is produce what you believe you want, as opposed to what your business needs.  There is a crucial difference.

Let's say you've considered all of this and genuinely believe you don't need a well defined business plan.  Maybe you really are the kind of person who works best flying by the seat of your pants, testing the waters as you go and revising your procedures and goods as required until you settle into an ideal niche.

Well, of course you may want to go ahead and get yourself a new logo anyway.  Because all businesses need a logo, right? Well, actually they don't, and my advice to you would be not to bother. Or if you do bother, get it done cheaply, perhaps by a young designer who needs the experience, because I'm guessing you'll want to dump it later on.

Here's how it could potentially pan out: You'll direct the hired designer to create something that reflects your proposed business as you see it in your head.  You may end up with a brilliant icon that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional, and which visually reflects your current vision.  But what happens two or three years down the line when, through your deliberate seat-of-pants strategy, you realise that you need to change your procedures, go into a different line of goods, or target a different demographic?

If you don't change the lure to attract the right fish, you may not like what ends up on your line.

Will the logo you had designed prior to these changes continue to reflect your business' revised brand? In the case that it doesn't, how much time and money are you willing to spend to have that logo revised, or replaced entirely? Keep in mind, also, that if you follow best business practice and register your logo as a trademark, then you may have just wasted the cost of that registration as well.

You might decide to stick with what you've got. Well, think hard on that...

If your business was in commercial operation during that dubious seat-of-pants phase, how obvious has it been to your early customers that you weren't a well-defined operation?  How has that affected their opinion of your business?

If your logo has already been equated with inadequacy, then its future presence in your publicity and promotional strategies may do you more harm than good.

Regardless of how competent and grounded your business has since become, that first generation of customers may never revise their low opinion, and the sight of that logo will bring that opinion to mind.

Remember: word-of-mouth is still the most influential means of promotion;  a dissatisfied customer only needs to criticise you once, and the viral nature of social media will do the rest.  The person who sees that logo doesn't need to have been a past customer to hold a low opinion of your business; they just need to have seen that post on their Facebook page, and the sight of that logo years later will still trigger a negative vibe.

Committing to a logo too early can be an expensive mistake. As stated earlier, your logo carries your reputation of its own accord.  It transcends the best publicity, the cleverest give-away gimmicks and the most expensive celebrity endorsements.

So stick to a list of priorities while you initiate your venture:

  • Commit to a business plan;
  • Use the business plan to help determine your brand;
  • Commission your logo design based on that brand.  

After that, the pieces of your brand management puzzle will begin to fall into place.

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