10 tips for working with a graphic designer

The TED video above provides some interesting and relevant insight into the strength and focus incorporating relevant graphic design can bring to your project. I encourage you to take a look.

Whether you’re a small business owner or a communications guru it’s often difficult to determine how to work with a graphic designer to produce the results you want.The following are some tips to help you navigate.

  • Graphic Designers of all Kinds: Like any profession, not all graphic designers work the same way or at the same calibre. Some have a particular brand or style that they sell while others may specialize in certain kinds of products like magazines or books. Other designers or their shops are more diverse and can offer a wide range of services.  Think about what you are trying to accomplish with your design and then look for the fit that works best for you. Sometimes local graphic design associations can lend you hand or at least you can see who the local award winners are.
  • Checking the Fit: Look at the graphic designer’s website to see what they have done with other clients. Do they provide bios of their designers? Do they share their design philosophy? Do they have a blog that gives you insight into their professional approach or personality? What does their LinkedIn profile offer? All of these will help you to determine fit.
  • Meet Them: Arrange to speak with them and make sure that if you are working with a firm, you get to meet the designer you will work with. There is no point hitting it off with the owner, only to find that you will be working with their summer student.  Ask them about their project management style, how will they keep you informed of progress? How will they create a schedule?
  • Tell the designer what you want to achieve:  Once you’ve made your choice, clearly state your objectives. By discussing what you want to achieve with the project, you are more likely to have a product that delivers when it’s completed. This doesn’t mean being highly prescriptive about what the design should look like, after all, if you could design it yourself, then you wouldn’t be hiring a graphic designer. Websites differ in size, look, feel and contents, so simply saying you would like a website isn’t going to help. Explain what the site has to deliver, did you have a great product and want to make sure clients appreciate the value? It’s really about giving the designer a clear understanding of what you want to communicate.
  • Be clear about your style and brand: Make sure that your initial planning meeting provides a clear understanding of your organization’s brand and style. If the focus is an event, make sure the designer understands who attends the event and what they get from it.  If the objective is sales, make sure they know who the potential customers are. This is really about making sure that the audience for your product is clearly understood.
  • Ask for two to three initial concepts: Even with the best description in the world, how you imagine a design will look and what the designer is thinking can vary greatly.  By requesting three different concepts (not variations on a single theme and not a full mock up), not only are you charging the designer to use their imagination, but you are giving yourself an opportunity to see the project in a different way from how you might have imagined it. I have often found that the concept that came closest to what I was thinking at the start of a project is not the one that delivers the message best.  Stay open.
  • Timing Matters: At the onset of a project the time frame for final delivery should be clearly established.  It is then up to the designer to work backwards from that date and let you know if they can deliver what you need in that time.  Keep in mind that multiple changes in content and direction will affect timelines.
  • Make Sure You Do Your Part: The best graphic designer in the world will fail if the client is inconsistent or unclear about objectives.  Just as you wanted to meet the designer you would be working with, the designer needs to know who the buck will stop with for the project. Remember, if you have a revelation or change of heart half way through a project because your boss just figured out what you’re doing, you have to let the designer know and expect that you will also have to pay for that change of heart. Their time is valuable and while they want to make you and your project shine, they can only do that by working with you. Don’t be vague and distant and then surprised and angry if the project doesn’t work the way you expected.
  • Pitfalls:  I’ll know what I like when I see it.This sentence comes right before failure. Generally, if you say this, its because you don’t really know what you like. Graphic designers are very talented, but they have not mastered the art of mind reading. Also consider that what you like may not be what your clients need.
  • Graphic designers design: They are not writers or editors, so make sure that the content you send them has been reviewed and edited.  Make sure that you do a final review of the product before it gets to the printer.

Do you have a favorite poster, book, brochure etc that captured your attention because of great design? Have you ever worked with a graphic designer?  Would you like to work with one?

If you like this article, checkout Are You Creating Misinformation?


0 responses to “10 tips for working with a graphic designer

  • Hi Debra: This is a great post. Being a highly visual person, the graphic elements to my book are critical elements to the book. I think they will set it apart from any other chocolate book that has previously been published. And to create an analogy, I think one’s relationship with one’s graphic designer is like having a sexual relationship. If you tell your partner what you want and what you like, you will more likely have a satisfying sexual experience. If you tell your graphic designer what you are trying to achieve in your project and the mood you’d like to create thru it, the designer is much more apt to come up with just the right design to you. Don’t leave them guessing!

    • I have to admit, I started to laugh when I read your analogy for the relationship with a graphic designer. Although I’m married to a graphic designer, I’ve never quite seen it that way. 🙂

  • Barbara Hockley says:
    May 28, 2013 @ 09:38 am

    I can’t agree more! How something looks is absolutely crucial – when I’m on a new site I make instant decisions about whether or not to stay based on the look. It’s very much like working with designers in theatre as well. So many folk will leave the ‘look’ of the show to the last minute. Such a mistake!

    • We are highly visual beings and sometimes the difference between understanding and ignoring is about color and placement. I completely understand your point about set design, I’ve seen shows made or broken based on their set.

      • Barbara Hockley says:
        May 28, 2013 @ 10:12 am

        We run a website business (as well as theatre company) – we do everything but design. Loads of respect for graphic designers! It’s an art I stand in awe of!

  • As a web developer and hobby photographer, I am quite visual. Although I have never had to work directly with a graphic designer, I can certainly understand the importance of it and of being clear in your request (like with any project and outsourced job – far more difficult than most people think and most managers understand). Interested to read of other experiences of your readers.

    • Ashley I can only imagine some of the requests you might receive as a web developer. Whenever the issue of redesigning our corporate website comes up there are usually 50 people with 50 different ideas on how it should look and what it should do. It’s hard to pull together a coherent project with so many diverging ideas. Graphic designers often face the same challenges.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been struggling with how to describe what it takes to design something, anything. Many times it isn’t clear what a person wants because they can’t communicate it or worse yet don’t know themselves.

    I have been toying with offering design services. What do you think?

    • I love it. You obviously understand design (even if you can’t describe it) 🙂 and with your marketing background you would be ideally suited to bringing the two key elements together. Understanding what it takes to deliver a message and having the talent to create the right visual cues and balance to make something appealing.

  • A restaurant I worked at a few years ago had a really great graphic designer for the menus. We ended up with a tomato and pepper as menu mascots. She would change their look for new menus. This was really cool when we were changing the menu every two weeks for the summer plays at a local theater. She would set them up as characters from the play the menu was based on (the one for The Rocky Horror Show was fun).

  • Debra — I agree that working with a graphic designer is like a marriage — it needs to be compatible. Designers — like interior decorators — tend to favor a particular style. One designer I worked with was simply too “dainty” to my liking. I prefer bold and even brassy — I’m in marketing, hey. So if you look at their past work, you’ll get a very good idea of what you can expect. Don’t pick the wrong mate in a marriage and don’t pick the wrong designer.

  • Graphic designs that work are fundamental. Agree with you completely Debra.

    Yesterday I had coffee with a woman who just sold her advertising agency. She told me that today an abundance of companies believe that their 14 year old kid can do the graphic design and their other teenage child can write the texts.

    Another veteran in graphic design told me that anyone who masters Photoshop and In-Design are of the opinion that they are designers.

    Personally believe that those two issues are major reasons why we frequently see such dreadful designs that don’t work. Not all human beings are artistic or have an eye for compositions, for that matter.

    So all of you who read this comment, please don’t hire a “designer” who is not a designer but merely masters Photoshop and In-Design. And if you do, please remember that you made a mistake and refrain from tarring designers who are designers with the same brush:-) There are fantastic designers out there who have a hard time because of all the amateurs pretending to be what they are not.

    • Couldn’t agree more. There has been a real erosion in the quality of the design work that gets done and it comes down to people not understanding the discipline. Design can make things visually appealing or repellant depending on what is required, but it also has to communicate and inform or it fails. Learning how to use a program doesn’t mean you know how to design. Even experienced designers can miss the point and create pieces that don’t do the work that clients need. It is a mutual exchange and it isn’t about making things pretty, it’s about making them work.

      For the record, I have a bias in that I’m married to a graphic designer. In addition to his early training at the OCAD University in design, he worked to establish professional standing for trained Ontario designers(the only place in North America where graphic designers are recognized professionals). He just got his Masters in Design. David puts it best when he says, “Design should never say, “look at me”, it should always say, “look at this”.

  • mkslagel says:
    May 29, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    Growing up I was interested in becoming a graphic designer. I went into my freshman year of college thinking about becoming a journalist which soon changed to a film student and then to a writer. All the time however, I had considered taking graphic design classes, but never felt confident in my creativity and visual eye. I am much better with words on paper but I have a lot of respect for what they do.

    • I’m fascinated by what they can do. I’ve had designers come in and turn what looked and felt like chaos to me into something I was so proud of, I wanted to display it. When I’m forced to put things together myself they always seem so heavy handed. Like you, I’d rather write about it. 🙂

  • Arleen says:
    May 29, 2013 @ 02:58 pm

    Debra,
    In my business the graphic designer is extremely important. I have an interactive website and the designer needs to grab the attention of our clients. The graphic designer can make or break a website. Today people do not have the time to read so the images that are created need to grab the audience. If they are poor, they leave. The graphic designer needs to understand your business and what you want to portray.

    • Absolutely. So much of what we do online professionally is intended to get people to our website. Imagine all that effort going to waste if people get there and the design means it wasn’t worth the effort.

  • I can so tell when work is done by a professional graphic designer. I’ve worked with some excellent ones, and then I’ve seen some work that is sort of so-so. It can make a big difference for a business to have the graphics done well.

    • Every once in a while I’ll come across a logo or a name of an organization that I just can’t make out. I’ll stare and stare at it trying to figure what I’m seeing, “Is that a bird or a foot?” It’s generally at that point that I think, “They should have hired a graphic designer.” 🙂

  • I believe that humans are highly visual creatures and this lends to your post perfectly. Sometimes I am stopped by something that I do not register in my brain immediately. Then I realize it is the look of the design that draws my attention.

    • It’s so true about how reliant we are on visual cues. You can make a new company look like an old and established firm simply by using reserved design, popular colors from a certain time period and traditional fonts. It’s so subtle, yet as a viewer we will form all sorts of conclusions based on those visual messages.

  • Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) says:
    May 30, 2013 @ 02:19 pm

    If I end up self-publishing the novel I am working on, I’ll get to experience working with a graphic designer. I’m already collecting a list of names because of course I would want to work with someone whose approach fits my vision. If there were more hours in a day, I would like to learn more about graphic design. If I was starting over in college, I have considered that graphic design or film and video would appeal to me. I’ve made two of my own eBook covers, but would love to learn more, not to mention work with a professional.

    • Book covers are amazing things. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is a common expression because of how incredibly influential that cover is in decision making. They have to get your attention, intrigue you, tell a story, but not give away the story. That’s a lot of work for a few inches of paper. If you are going to self publish, don’t settle for anyone who doesn’t get you and make sure they know something about cover design explicitly. I find nothing so frustrating as a cover that lies to me. You did a great article on your blog a while back called, “Sexing up the Classics” that explained exactly why you need to think the cover through. Some how I can’t see you making the same mistakes. 🙂

  • Very informative post… It is somewhat comical when you look around and ask yourself, “what was that person/organization thinking”, when it comes to visual messaging. A persons visual message must be a reflection of verbal message they are trying to convey, and not leave room for interpretation.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • I hear you. Nothing quite screams “amateur hour” like having a visual that says one thing and content that says something else. If I were a cruel person I might do a future blog providing some examples. 🙂

  • becc03 says:
    June 2, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

    I have worked with a few graphic designers on different projects. I think this post would have been very helpful. You really do have to do your homework to pick a good one and then there is the factor of good communication skills and their project management skills. I have endured those at the bottom end of the scale (I didn’t have a choice) and had a dream run with the top end of the scale which was truly blissful.

    • I am pleased to say that I have never dealt with a really horrible graphic designer and you have my complete sympathies because you have. I sometimes think the professionals I have worked with have spoiled me, but then I look at what I have accomplished with their help and get over it. 🙂

  • Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article.
    Many thanks for providing this info.

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