Category Archives: Design

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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Building a Green Website

An Earth Day consideration of UX.

Today is Earth Day and a perfect time to publish this last in a series of posts about designing your next website with a focus on User Experience (UX 2022). 

Environmental impact being a critical issue for everyone and every endeavor, it’s good to consider ways to mitigate any negative impact caused by our design choices. 

Digital’s Huge Aggregate Impact

Computers don’t have exhaust pipes. So, sustainability isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when building a website. Yet, the collective impact of communication technology is substantial.

While the aggregate footprint of all computers is huge, an individual organization’s share is likely miniscule. So ignoring the problem may be tempting. Which would be a missed opportunity to be part of the solution and/or raise awareness and engagement on behalf of the environment. 

Tiny and Incremental Steps

It’s true that your individual website generates a tiny negative footprint and any design choices you make will only help on the tiniest of margins. The reverse also is true. The impact of individual web design choices can add up to a substantially positive aggregated impact. 

As a general design principle, eliminating “interaction friction” means fewer steps, smoother transitions and less computation, all leading to using less energy and generating less heat/friction. 

The following are some choices you can make to reduce interaction friction:

Be a Solution Minded Organization

From a cost perspective, building a new, greener website, or replacing the functionality in your current site just to make it more efficient will not save money. Typically, organizations rebuild a site every five years or so.  If cost-saving is the objective, the next scheduled rebuild will be the best time to incorporate more Earth friendly design choices. 

Beyond the material benefits, however, there is goodwill value in a greener website. Your Earth friendly design choices tell customers, employees and other stakeholders that your organization is both aware and part of the solution. 

Just like tiny energy savings add up to a real impact, tiny individual efforts on behalf of the environment can add up to entire communities and societies that value the environment–when everyone does their part.

UX 2022 Series 

In 2022, a good UX has become the standard for good website design. In this series, we’ve looked closely at important UX features, how they work, and how they can improve a website. All articles in this series can be accessed via the links below.

UX 2022 (An introduction.)

Core Web Vitals: Googles three essentials to user experience. 

Thumbs Up! The ergonomics of great mobile UX.

Speed: Slow websites are quickly abandoned.

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Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

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Worth 1000 Words?

Sometimes a heart is a heart.

There is no Valentine’s Day without roses, candy and, especially, hearts. The symbolism is overwhelming and leaves little room for misinterpretation. If you see a heart during the first two weeks of February you know what to think.

What the Heart Wants

Swimming against this rushing romantic river is the American Heart Association who, along with the U.S. government, has designated February as American Heart Month.  When the AHA shows a heart in February they’re being a bit more literal. Carving out visual space for the actual organ this month is a Herculean task.

Maybe the thinking is, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Or, maybe the heart lobby is being ironic. More likely, American Heart Month has been swallowed up by the marketing frenzy that now surrounds every modern holiday. American Heart Month was first proclaimed 1963. A lot has changed in public relations, marketing and advertising in those 55 years, not the least being a proliferation of heart-related images afforded by ubiquitous media.

The efforts of the American Heart Association are laudable and illustrative. They point to a challenging aspect of communication—the use of images in shifting contexts.

Two Weeks Makes a Difference

There is no universal visual literacy. Unlike written language and mathematics, we don’t learn strict grammatical formulations about images. Romance =♥. The heart shape almost universally stands for love in our culture. The shape of that love, the emotion involved, is not so clear. Hearts can be puzzled, incomplete, committed or caged.

There doesn’t need to be a romantic connotation at all. Do the hearts below express affection, whimsy or health? Or, do they point to reading, nature and cooking?

Designer and architect George Nelson identified “social context” as a necessary ingredient to understanding an image or design:

“In visual reading, like verbal reading, the completeness of the reading relates directly to the quality of the reader’s stored information…it uses a code or language which has to be intelligible to the receiver.”

How to See p. 17

An image doesn’t communicate on its own. Without formal grammar, images depend on context to inform their meaning. Context is derived from a myriad of sources. Accompanying words, common uses, cultural symbology, literary references, technology, fashion and more all inform how we “read” an image.

Timing is another element that affects context. An image of a pumpkin signals something different around Halloween than it does around Thanksgiving. Just as the image of the heart means romance in the weeks leading up to St. Valentine’s Day.

Choosing the right image infuses our communication with near instantaneous emotion, identification, interest and other connections that are increasingly difficult to achieve with words. If we want maximum impact, we must keep an eye on the ever-shifting social contexts that inform the images we use.

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