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.
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.
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/