Working effectively with graphic designers

Working effectively with graphic designers

Dana, Margie Gallo

do it yourself

Exciting news! Your boss wants some marketing materials for your company, and you’ve been given the responsibility of hiring and working with a graphic designer to develop them. It’s a high-visibility assignment-to date, the company’s materials consist solely of letterhead and business cards-and the task will be a welcome change to your usual duties.

Then it sinks in. Marketing materials? Graphic designer? How do you find one? What does one cost? Where do a designer’s responsibilities begin and end? Who handles the printing? And how in the world will it all be accomplished in six weeks?!

Working with a designer can be intimidating, but if you’re careful in your selection of, and forthcoming in your discussions with, a graphic designer, you’ll have a much better chance at getting materials you really like. Furthermore, you might find a designer for a long-term business relationship.

Before you begin interviewing candidates, keep a file of printed materials you like and don’t like. If a design, layout, typeface, or particular format gets your attention, save it and jot down what you like and don’t like about it. Share this file with your new designer. Let him or her know your tastes right from the beginning.

The following guidelines will help you succeed in finding, evaluating, and working effectively with a graphic designer.

Finding a graphic designer

If you’ve never worked with a graphic designer before, talk to colleagues for referrals. Ask your friends a few key questions, including the following: How did you like working with this designer? Would you do it again? Was the designer flexible? Did the designer stay within your budget? Was the designer accessible and reliable? Did the designer provide proofreading services? How about print production services? How about designing Websites?

You want a designer with experience in the types of work you need done. Not every designer has experience across all product lines. Common projects include corporate stationery, logos, marketing materials (brochures, fliers, postcards, announcements, sales letters), annual reports, direct mail pieces, advertising materials, presentation materials, Websites, magazines, newsletters, catalogs, and books. Print is still a primary medium, but more and more businesses need materials designed for other media, such as the Internet and CD-ROMs.

Evaluating graphic designers: a three-point test

Every designer is different. Each one has a unique style and pricing strategies. When you’ve received names from trusted colleagues, meet the candidates face-to-face. Your goal is to determine whether they have three critical qualifications:

1. a style you like,

2. the credentials you need, and

3. a personality you can work with.

First, do you like the designer’s style? Here are some helpful guidelines:

Look through the designer’s portfolio. Do you like what you see? Do all of the materials look the same? Although each designer has a particular style, each client is different. The materials need to reflect the client more than the designer. Are there samples of projects like yours in the portfolio?

Second, does the designer have good credentials?

How much professional experience does the designer have? What about a formal degree? Don’t exclude those who don’t, but there’s a big difference between a graphic designer and a desktop publisher. The more complex your project is, the more important it is to work with a fully qualified designer. I tell my clients to get the best designer they can afford for major projects. On the other hand, I’ve seen great letterhead designs from lessexperienced desktop publishers.

If you expect the designer to handle the printing, check out print production experience, particularly with the type of product you need.

Ask each candidate, “What are your capabilities?” Large design firms have larger staffs. Some employ proofreaders, illustrators, and photographers. Some work with copywriters. Will all of your needs be met with this designer? Ask for additional references if you like.

Third, will you like working with this person?

Client/designer relationships have to be close. You need to feel comfortable talking with your designer.

* Do you think this designer will explain things to you during the process?

* Is the designer putting you at ease or making you uncomfortable?

* How accessible will the designer be? Will the designer be doing your work, or will it be delegated to an associate?

Defining your project

(Do you know what you want?)

Okay. You’ve interviewed a few designers and have selected one (or even a few) you really like. The next step is to discuss your project in greater detail so that you and the designer have a mutual understanding of what you need done.

Designer Lee Kreindel of Newton, Mass., recommends clients provide certain key information at this stage so the designer has an accurate sense of the project’s scope. Kreindel’s “wish list” includes a project description, the estimated shelf life of the materials, a budget discussion, and a timeline.

Describe the project in as much detail as you can. Do you want a catalog designed? Letterhead? A corporate logo? A Website?

The designer needs to know your audience too, says Ken Hablow, of KH Graphics in Weston, Mass. “When creating marketing materials that go beyond the basic corporate identity pieces, be sure the designer understands your market, the type of prospect you are trying to reach, your overall corporate marketing objectives, and your corporate culture.” Hablow also stresses that the “same information needs to be presented differently to an engineer than it does to a CEO. The most beautifully designed ad going into an engineering publication is useless if it speaks to the CEO. This becomes even more critical when designing a Website because the designer needs to understand how to ‘talk’ to all potential audiences.”

Discuss the estimated shelf life of your pieces. Will they be permanent or do you need them for a specific event? Will they need to be updated regularly, and if so, by whom? Will they be integrated with existing materials?

Be clear about all your expectations. Do you have a specific deadline for your materials? Do you need the designer’s help in finding a writer? Do you expect the designer to handle the printing? How about the mailing? The more you can articulate now, the better the estimate will be and the smoother the entire project will run.

Beyond print to new media

Though your immediate need may be print materials, chances are you’ll need the same content used (or “repurposed”) for newer media, including the Internet and CD-ROMs.

If you’re hiring a designer for a corporate logo, for example, you need to be sure the logo will work with Internet applications. Ken Hablow goes beyond the basics when designing a logo. Not only does he give clients the original color logo, but he also gives them a black-andwhite file that’s usable on a PC, or an EPS file if they work on a Mac. He also maintains a GIF file in case they need one for a Website down the road. Hablow says he provides this service even if the client doesn’t ask, because eventually they’ll need it.

Discussing costs

It’s tricky knowing when to discuss costs. The more experienced you are in working with designers, the less you have to reveal about your project budget because you’ll have a sense of the “right” price range.

Conversely, the less experienced you are, the more important it is to talk about costs early. Businesspeople with no prior experience are often shocked at the combined costs of graphic design, printing, and mailing. Better to get a sense of the price tag early on, don’t you agree? What if you’re thinking that you can get 15,000 full-color brochures for $2,500, and in reality it will cost you four or five times that? Discuss this “cost expectation” with your designer-candidates before they spend time preparing a proposal. Designer Kreindel says he’ll occasionally “prequalify” a project with the prospective client by asking about the budget, in case the client’s thinking it will cost “X” and he knows it’s likely to cost “10X.”

Every designer charges differently. The very large, full-service design firms are more likely to have higher fees. Large and small firms generally charge by the project, not by the hour.

A designer’s proposal

Now you’re ready to request a written proposal. A good proposal will specify what “deliverables” are and are not included. It will confirm the agreed-upon project scope right at the beginning.

The proposal should divide the work into natural stages with accompanying cost estimates and dates. For instance, it might say the designer will show you three or more initial comps (design ideas) by such and such a date. In this way, the proposal becomes a preliminary schedule, allowing you both to manage the project.

A proposal will also help define who does what. Who’s writing the copy? Who’s taking or supplying photographs? Who’s proofreading? If the designer handles the printing (very likely, unless you have the expertise), how much or how little will you be involved? Will the printer’s invoice come directly to you or will it be channeled through the designer?

Proposals should give you a clear sense of what the designer will do for you, for how much money, and by when. As detail-laden as it seems, it’s smart to spell out the specific steps that will be part of the process and also to assign responsibility. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll assume the designer is taking care of something while he or she is thinking that you are.

Let the fun begin

Once you’ve chosen a designer, the fun can begin. Expect to meet with the designer several times in the beginning stages to talk about concept, layouts, and schedules. Make sure the writer is part of these meetings. Set up a workflow process so the job stays on track.

For my corporate clients, I recommend they have the designer help them-so be flexible, especially when you’re the one holding up deadlines. When dates change, make sure key people are told. Keep in mind it could take weeks to get your materials printed and delivered, so always work backward from the date you need delivery.

Your feedback is vital

Your primary responsibility during the design process is giving constructive feedback to your designer, who expects and needs your approval every step of the way. From comps to layouts, to typefaces, to photographs, to the ink colors and the paper chosen for printing: Your role is to review what the designer has selected and decide if you like it.

Now is not the time to be intimidated! You certainly don’t want to end up with a job you dislike, nor do you want to make design changes at the 11th hour, which is just before the job goes on press. If you don’t tell your designer that you’re not crazy about the colors or the typeface, you’re to blame. The process is truly a collaborative one.

During the design stage, the designer will send you numerous proofs (digital and/or paper). Make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you with each proof. Are you looking at layout? Are you proofreading word for word?

Since the Mac is the industry standard for design and printing, most graphic designers work on Macs as opposed to PCs. Hablow advises all clients to make sure they maintain all the rights to their work and keep copies of their files on floppy disks, Zip disks, CD-ROMs, or other removable storage media.

Trust, respect, and communicate

These guidelines stress the most critical part of working with a graphic designer: communication. Now I recommend you do something just as important: Trust your designer. Don’t interfere with the creative process. If you’ve communicated well with your designer and have developed a mutual understanding, let the designer design!

I’m not suggesting you accept every design without question. After all, you are the client, and you need to be happy with the finished design. It’s your right (and your role) to critique the designs created for you.

What I am recommending is that you avoid micromanaging the designer. I’ve known people who were determined to redesign everything they were shown-and the resulting projects looked like ransom notes, filled with a hodgepodge of disparate elements. It completely destroyed the beauty and the integrity of the design.

The client/designer relationship is not about control. It’s about trust for the creative talent and respect for the designer’s professionalism. As long as you keep this in mind and remember to communicate regularly with your graphic designer, you’ll both be pleased with the result. It should be the start of a great working relationship.

Margie Gallo Dana is an author, public speaker, and president of Dana Consulting in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Her firm helps businesspeople make smart decisions about printing and helps printers market themselves better to businesspeople. She can be reached at 617/730-5951 or

Copyright Quality Publishing, Inc. Apr 2000

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