All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

How to Give Better Feedback to Graphic Designers

Better graphic design means better communication. So, being able to communicate effectively with the graphic designers on your team can enhance your ability to achieve your goals.

All else being equal, pictures are remembered better than words,1 we learn from images more successfully than from text, and strong visuals can connect with an audience faster — and with more emotion — than words alone.2

In fact, humans have been using images to communicate for about 30,000 years longer than we’ve been using written words.3 You’d think we’d all be really good at giving graphic designers constructive feedback by now. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

At Smith, our creative work is a collaboration between writer and graphic designer. Regardless of who’s leading the project, both communicators have a stake in the project’s success, and both are charged with creating highly effective and creative communications for our clients. One role is not more important than the other and the   blend of these complementary skill sets generally sparks a better outcome than if just one of us were working alone.

I’ve been collaborating with graphic designers for more than two decades, but I’m a writer by trade and training and partnering effectively with graphic designers was something I had to work at. Still, I’m not immune from giving my design colleagues at Smith the kind of feedback that sometimes just isn’t helpful. So, I asked them to help me put together a few basic tips to help those of us who aren’t graphic designers to provide more useful feedback. 

Here goes …

1. Instead of Telling the Designer What; Tell Them Why 

If the designer doesn’t know why something is broken, they can’t properly fix it. Rather than telling a designer what to do, try to explain why you want something done. I’ve found that, when I do this right, the designer is more likely to come back with a solution that is far better than anything I imagined.

Instead of …Try …
Replace the photo with the attached.Can you find a new photo? The brand guidelines ask for natural situations and the people in this image look too posed.
Clean up the sketch I provided.Create an engaging visual that simplifies the data I’ve attached.
Make this brighter.Can you call more attention to this particular element? – OR – Can you confirm these colors align with the brand color palette?

2. Keep it Objective

When it comes to employee communication, good graphic design is not about personal taste. Usually, the aesthetic is determined by the organization’s brand identity system and not about what we like or don’t like. When we approach a project, we put our personal opinions aside and try to execute within the guidelines we’re provided.

Because we work with a wide variety of clients, we work with a wide variety of brand identity systems. But we know our clients don’t enjoy that same variety. Each client has only one brand identity system that they see day after day … project after project … year after year. It’s easy to feel trapped within the confines of the same colors, the same fonts, the same graphics … over and over again.

We also know that some agencies out there don’t always feel obliged to stick with a client’s established brand. They can sometimes find quick favor with a client by “pushing the envelope” or being “fresh,” but going off-brand is not a recipe for success. Sooner or later, the agency or the internal client will find themselves at odds with the marketing and brand teams. They also run the risk of confusing their audiences.

So, when reviewing work that must adhere to an established identity system, it’s important to evaluate it based on how well it aligns with that system, not on how much you may personally like or dislike it. 

Instead of …Try …
I’m tired of [company’s primary color].Can we use more of the secondary colors from the palette to distinguish this campaign?
My boss loves dogs. Can we use a photo of a dog somewhere?On our new Pet Insurance flyer, can you … 
I love this. / I don’t like this. This layout perfectly aligns / doesn’t align with the brand standards.This image perfectly reflects / doesn’t reflect the workforce.This is a great use / misuse of the color palette.

3. Be Concrete

For those of us who aren’t graphic designers or visual artists, graphic design is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. I struggle to find matching socks, so color theory is beyond my comprehension. But, getting color, composition and imagery right is not guesswork. It’s not a hunch and it’s not magic. While creative people have their natural abilities, the craft of design takes study, practice and effort. When you find yourself tempted to say something nebulous like, “It needs something,” “Make it pop” or “Work your magic,” ask for some time to chat with the designer. Feel free to think big and bold, but try to describe as concretely as possible what you want your audience to think, feel and do. Good designers know how to listen, to probe and to understand what you’re struggling with. Give the designer a chance to understand and address the real issue — especially if you’re not sure what it is!

4. Familiarize Yourself With the Tools and Craft of Design

The technology available to graphic designers can make the impossible seem possible, but “photoshopping” isn’t always a solution. Be curious. Ask your designer how they do what they do. Ask them what applications they use. Let them share some of their behind-the-scenes work with you. This will give you a better understanding of the work involved and help you become a better creative director.

Bonus Tip: Make Your Copy Edits Impossible to Misunderstand

The tips above are focused on giving feedback on the design, not the words. When giving copy edits to a graphic designer, keep in mind they are not the writer and making changes to copy is not the same as editing it. Try to leave no room for interpretation in your mark up. For example, rather than describe the edit you want (“insert language from page 2”), copy the exact copy you want into your comment and indicate exactly where it should go. 

Let’s Connect

Do you have any tips or techniques for communicating your vision to a graphic designer? Are you struggling to get your ideas executed? We’d love to hear from you. 

1 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1003125/

https://www.pwc.com.au/the-difference/the-power-of-visual-communication-apr17.pdf

3 The oldest known figurative art 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journey-oldest-cave-paintings-world-180957685/

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Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Editor’s Note: We first published this article in 2016, long before Covid-19 realities pushed so many more of us into remote working.

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.

Sources

¹ http://disneycareers.com/en/about-disney/global-footprint/

² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015

³ http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/511

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Struggling With the “Me” in Social Media

Lessons learned from writing for Smith’s Ideas page

As a communications consultant, I sometimes feel like a rock band roadie. 

My job is to understand what my client is trying to get across to their audience and then figure out how to do that in their voice. I craft the message, set up the equipment, attract a crowd, and crank things up to 11. (And, of course, my clients are all rock stars.)

But, when Smith launched its social media strategy in 2016, I was asked to share my thoughts, my experiences and my knowledge — all in my own voice. The mic was suddenly shoved into my face, and I froze.

It took a year of battling self-doubt before I could stop hiding behind endless revisions and actually publish my first article. That’s a strange thing to admit given that I write all the time and the content I’ve created for clients has been read by millions of people. But writing under a by-line is different than writing under someone else’s logo. When social media is about me, I don’t do so well.

Here are a few things that I did to shake off the stage fright and write articles more regularly. If your goal is to publish more of your own original content online, maybe you’ll find some of these tips helpful. 

Describe Your Audience

Knowing your audience will answer a lot of questions regarding what you write about and how. It will give you clarity and focus. Even if you’re publishing on a platform that gives near global access to your content, you are not writing for everyone. Choose who you’re speaking to. Your audience might be a demographic, a group or just one person. For me, I write like I’m writing to my best client, not my friends and not an anonymous “HR professional.” That puts me in a state of mind from which the words flow more easily.

State Your Goal

For some bloggers, the goal is to keep readers scrolling through ads. For others, it’s to sell a product or service. For others, it’s a form of activism. Know why you’re spending time on your blog — and write it down. Having a clear purpose will prod you forward.

Write from a Place of Authority

Whenever I start typing, this nagging voice in my head asks, “Why would anyone listen to you on this topic?” To silence this inner critic, I focus on things I know about and things that I’ve done. I avoid making unsupported generalizations and back claims with data or links to authoritative sources. This not only sharpens my copy, it builds trust with readers. 

Give Away Something Valuable

That nagging voice I mentioned above has another favorite question: “Why should anyone take the time to read this?”

I think the answer is in one of my previous posts: 

“The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.”

From “People Don’t Read.”

What you give away will depend on your goal, but try to make it tangible and/or practical. It could be product samples, discounts, recipes, tips, checklists, instructions, recommendations, etc. Your readers will appreciate and remember you for it. 

Don’t Not Be You

Finding a unique voice is something many, if not all, writers struggle with. For me, a more authentic voice began to emerge in my posts when I wrote regularly in this format, stuck to things I cared about, and let my personality shine through. 

There is one thing each of us has to offer that no one else does: our unique perspective and life experience. With that in mind I simply do my best to share personal experiences that I think my clients could benefit from. Maybe not everyone sees an obvious link between guitar tablature and employee communication, but I do. And maybe sharing that idea will give a client a different perspective, or at least amuse them intellectually for a few minutes. Your peculiarities will help you hone your voice and find an audience.

Sharing Is Caring

As that big purple dinosaur Barney says, Sharing is caring. That’s a handy way to sum up the advice above. Share what you care about, and care about your audience’s time and needs. Let your content flow from there.

Let’s Connect

Do you have any lessons you’ve learned from writing a blog? Are you looking for help getting your ideas into words? We’d love to hear from you. 

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Constructing Memory

A few tips for making important everyday information more memorable.

Just like your organization tries to attract and retain talent, good communication should attract attention and help the audience retain important information. 

In a previous post, I offered some tips for attracting attention. 

Here, I focus on helping your audience retain the information you send them and then retrieve that information for later use. 

Dual-Process Theory

To design communications that improve the retention and retrieval of information, a little understanding of how memory works can help.

In short, memory relies on two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2. This is known as the dual-process theory.

System 1 is where more routine, unconscious thinking happens. It’s fast, automatic, everyday.

System 2 is more conscious and problem-based. It’s slow, intentional, complex.

When I was learning to play guitar, forming a chord was like a Twister game for my fingers. It required conscious thought, focus and effort. That’s System 2. Once I mastered a chord, playing it became effortless (cognitively speaking). That’s System 1. Once a chord was handled by System 1 thinking, I could weave it naturally into a song or do other intellectually demanding things simultaneously, like read lyrics. 

To make information you deliver today useful in the future, think of that information as though it were a skill, like learning to play guitar or ride a bike. The right information has to be mastered so it can be woven later into the audience’s thoughts and actions.

What Do We Want Where?

If you think across the employee experience, you might be able to pick out which steps or behaviors should be System 1 (what people need to remember) and which should be System 2 (what or how people ought to think).

Here are a few examples. 

 System 1 (automatic, from memory)System 2 (analytical, critical, deliberate)
I need to make changes to my 401(k) account.Knowing what app to use.Selecting investment options. 
I need to complete a performance review.Knowing what website or form to access.Providing constructive feedback. 
I’m stressed out.My company offers mental health services.Reaching out to the appropriate service.

How to Make it Memorable

Knowing certain types of information by rote can help employees be more self-reliant, cutting down on confusion, phone calls and wasted time. This can be measurably valuable to both the employee and the employer. 

Here are some tips for making everyday information more memorable. 

  1. Involve the senses. Clients often ask us to help make their information “more visual.” That’s good. How something looks is important to the way it is perceived, understood and retrieved. But the brain uses all of the body’s senses to gather information, so how something sounds, what it means and how it feels are also important to forming strong, useful memories. (And, don’t forget about our sense of smell.)
  2. Make your audience practice. Our short-term memory can usually hold 5 to 9 things for 15 to 30 seconds. You can help your audience remember something for a longer period of time by making them practice it. For example, if you’re trying to acquaint users with a new website, don’t rely on a single email with a link to do the trick. Parse out information and details over time and give your audience numerous valid and relevant reasons to access that site.
  3. Use consistent verbal and visual cues. According to psychology research, retrieval of information is generally better given similar contextual clues. The context can include the person’s surroundings, mood and emotions. You can provide the right clues by repeatedly presenting the same information in a consistent way. This is why we generally stress the importance of establishing visual and verbal guidelines for communications. They promote recognition and, hence, recall. 
  4. Frame the information. In communication, framing is packaging a message in a way that encourages certain interpretations over others. This can help your audience process information quickly by winnowing the number of possible interpretations they consider before reaching a conclusion. Consider how the following statements, though similar, provide different frames and how these distinct perspectives might influence one’s behaviors.

“We have inherited the earth from our ancestors.”

“We have been loaned the earth by our children.”

Let’s Connect

Are you struggling to create communication that attracts attention and helps your employees retain important information? Maybe we can help. We’d love to hear from you. 

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