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Chapter 1:

Laying the foundations

Design is everywhere you look and there are many inspirational examples, like these from the D&AD Awards, that showcase the talent of graphic and digital designers across all types of brand. In modern life, we are constantly bombarded with communications both on and offline, and only the best design will enable your brand to cut through. But how do you get the most out of your design agency and ensure that they produce their best work for you? Every design team has an ambition to thrill and delight their clients, but they won’t achieve this without high quality input from you. The best design is created through a collaborative process, and marketers need to put in the spadework too.

As you prepare to kick-off your design project, do not underestimate the importance of the brief. Designers like to get immersed in your brand’s story and it’s always best to start with a conversation. If you have engaged a new agency, it can be useful to stage ‘creative chemistry’ meetings face to face on your premises so that the team can get a feel for the atmosphere and culture of your organisation.

Creative teams will want to gather as much background as possible so that they can clearly identify the target audience, the overall strategy and the specific objectives for your campaign.

Spending time discussing these can be really helpful and may even help you to clarify the brief in your own mind. This early exercise is vital to clear up any woolly thinking right at the beginning so that everyone is working from the same page.

Producing a written brief is vital, not least because this acts as an informal contract setting out what you have asked your designers to do. You will not be able to assess how well they have met the brief if it only exists as a conversation over coffee and doughnuts. However, drafting the brief does not need to be an onerous task. You should be clear, concise and use Plain English to describe the challenge you wish to address. Include any market research findings or historical data that has informed your strategy along the way.

Make it clear whether you are looking for original photography or stock shots, copywriting, video or illustration. It is also important to talk about budget at the briefing stage. This will influence the choice of merchandise, the types of stock and finishing that are selected, print quantities and production values.

Specifying content is an important element in the briefing process. Make sure you tell your agency whether the content will consist mainly of copy, tables, charts or data as this will influence the use of space within the concept. The more time you spend carefully considering your brief and exposing your design team to the back story, the better work they will produce for you. This will save time and cost by reducing the number of stages you go through to reach final sign-off.

Finally, once you have created the brief, allow your designers enough time to respond. If time is not on your side, make deadlines crystal clear as early as possible to enable the studio to prioritise. Supported by a good brief, our studio is usually able deliver a concept that meets clients’ needs first time, often as one of a selection of options. It is a standing joke amongst designers that clients often demand a response ‘within 17 minutes’. Designers work collaboratively, sharing thoughts amongst themselves and bouncing off each other. They need enough time to filter out the best ideas and present these to you in a way that shows how these could translate into powerful communications. Be realistic in your expectations and you will reap the rewards.

Chapter 2:

Responding to Concepts

You have put in the groundwork and delivered a clear brief. Now for the moment of truth. Your design team is due to present concepts and you are excited to see what they have come up with. Reacting to concepts appropriately is something that many people never get completely right. As a marketer, you need to learn the art of responding in a way that is useful and constructive. It may be helpful to educate internal clients in this skill, but you might have to accept that even some senior managers will only ever be able to say, ‘I don’t like it’, which is never constructive.

It is vital that you can to explain your reactions to initial design concepts. At the first stage, be sure that you are reacting to the concept and not the detail (that comes later). Most concepts include only place-holder imagery and copy, as time will be spent getting that right once the initial idea has been approved. Judging a piece of design on the basis of detail is a bit like deciding whether to buy a house or not based on the colour of the curtains.

Feeding back on concepts is not always easy for marketers and it is a skill worth developing. Practice on design examples that you encounter for other brands and make a mental note of why they would or wouldn’t work for your brand. This is a great exercise to do on a bus or in taxi if you’re sitting in traffic. Or you could always flex your feedback muscles while surfing online.

Arguably the most important aspect of reacting to a concept lies in whether it feels right. Does it chime with your brand values? Does it express the brand’s personality accurately? Does it fit with your overall portfolio or take it in a new direction? The latter may be part of the brief, and if so, you need to decide whether it goes far enough. These high-level reactions will provide the most useful feedback, because it gives your designers something to work with, and sends them back to the studio with a new set of thoughts to develop.

Be honest. Sometimes you might be reluctant to have a difficult conversation, but a good designer welcomes a frank opinion.Design is highly subjective and can generate a range of reactions depending on the perspective of the viewer. Also, if you nod to a concept at the start, it can be very difficult to backtrack later when opinions weigh in..

Once you have provided constructive feedback in as positive a way as possible, allow the designers to take away your thoughts and address them without being too directive. As author Neil Gaiman said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Trust your agency and accept that they are the professionals. The last thing they will expect you to do is come up with design solutions yourself. As marketers, you may sometimes encounter colleagues from other departments who think they know more about marketing than you do, but don’t forget designers have a totally different skill-set too. The amount of space on a page, the layout of typography, the size of headings are all based on a logic of which you might not be fully aware. Listen carefully to your designer’s recommendations and make the most of their expertise. After all, that is what you are paying for.

Chapter 3:

Beyond the screen test

Once the concept has been agreed, the next step is to bring the design to life. While most projects start on a screen, the majority do not remain there. Whether it’s a printed brochure, item of merchandise, exhibition stand or packaging product, there are many elements to consider that will influence the ultimate design direction

One of the most important aspects of delivering a concept through multi-media channels is preserving continuity.Designers specialise in a range of media and will allocate a lead designer depending on whether your project is mainly digital, print based or 3D. The lead designer usually creates the overarching concept, but this process will always be carried out in tandem with experts from other areas. Most designers work best within a team where they can share inspiration and test ideas, particularly where they need a good understanding of a medium other than their own specialism.

If you have a requirement to print your item, it is vital to think about print at the design stage and how it will be used by your target audience. A disposable, single-message item for a sales promotion, for example, can be printed on a lighter weight stock. If you hope your customer will retain a brochure and refer to it repeatedly, think about a heavier weight stock with protective finishing and appropriate lamination. If you’re devising a mailing, be sure that the format, size and weight are not prohibitive for posting. 

For print items, the type of binding you choose will make an impact on the cost and add a new dimension to you brand. Your designers will also advise on finishing effects and recommend how you could use UV varnish, foil blocking or metallic inks to make the design jump off the page. Don’t forget that the materials you use will impact perceptions of your brand through the physical experience of using them. It can help enormously to choose a design agency that has close links with a print management company as they have access to production expertise at their fingertips.

The media you use will vastly affect the type of design that’s appropriate. Have you ever had the experience of signing off the proof for an out-of-home concept and then found yourself driving behind a bus with your advert on it that you can’t read from behind your steering wheel? Less is more in the outdoor market, where information needs to be assimilated very quickly in the blink of an eye.

While a brand refresh can be valuable for your next design project, don’t be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Once you know what works and have the core of your brand expression nailed down, you should aim to deploy consistency through design to build ongoing recognition and trust. To assist with this, the best design studios can offer a digital asset library where you can store your imagery and change it up as you move forward with new creative ideas. This way, you will have all the elements easily to hand for your next campaign.

If your concept needs translating onto packaging, the design studio should create a prototype using the production materials they advise, so that you can really appreciate how the finished item will work. Judgements need to be made about whether the packaging is sufficiently protective while also showcasing your brand.

Exhibition stands and banners may be created for a single specific event or need to be robust enough for multiple use. They are often thrown into the backs of cars or vans and must be able to withstand clumsy handling. Sometimes building a scale model of an exhibition space to demonstrate the recommended size of a banner stand is the best approach.

Once designs have been finalised and artwork prepared, there is no excuse for failing to make those final checks. Production is an expensive process, and nobody wants to waste money on ordering a reprint when an error has been spotted too late. This problem can arise when the checking process at early stages is inadequate. Errors can sometimes be introduced that are then replicated across multiple channels if they are not spotted straight away.

Similarly, don’t assume that final proofs must be correct because you have been attentive throughout the process. Repeatedly reviewing the same copy can lead to ‘word blindness’. Don’t leave it until after your item has been delivered to really start examining it in detail. If you suspect that senior colleagues are flaky on sign-off processes, introduce a compliance system to ensure that everyone takes a proper look. With a firm foundation, your finished item will work hard for your brand and your budget and achieve the right results.

Chapter 4:

The onward journey

Your campaign is live across multiple channels and another project can be ticked off the list. Or can it? There is a school of thought that the optimum running time for a campaign is 45 days based on theories of how much repetition a message requires before it is absorbed. While you would not want your design concept to became stale through repetition, it is worth remembering that your organisation will grow tired of the latest campaign before your customers do, and the only way to assess its longevity is through feedback and measurement.

There are so many ways now to measure campaign effectiveness that there is no excuse not to collect and analyse the data and review the impact of your carefully-crafted design concept. From Google analytics to social media dashboards, and from inbound content to marketing automation, it’s all there to help you with the next steps on your brand’s journey.

It might be useful for your creative agency if you can provide a de-brief on the impact of their work, especially if you foresee a long-term relationship working as part of an ongoing partnership. The greater understanding that designers have about the extent to which your objectives have been met the better, as it will help them to make informed recommendations in the future.

Your designer may also be able to help you in communicating with your internal audience on the objectives and success of their campaign. Internal marketing is just as important as getting through to your target audience, and enables colleagues to relate to the thinking behind campaigns and act as brand ambassadors.

While a brand refresh can be valuable for your next design project, don’t be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Once you know what works and have the core of your brand expression nailed down, you should aim to deploy consistency through design to build ongoing recognition and trust. To assist with this, the best design studios can offer a digital asset library where you can store your imagery and change it up as you move forward with new creative ideas. This way, you will have all the elements easily to hand for your next campaign.

Your agency should work with you to establish firm brand guidelines based on a forward-thinking brand strategy. This might start with a brand audit of all your design items and a review of print and online material to ensure that it all tells the same story. The outcome might prompt you to rationalise your concepts, preventing the necessity to reinvent the wheel each time you start on a new project. In conclusion, don’t be tempted to start from ground zero with every new design. You hold a great deal of knowledge about your brand and this can help prevent you from going back to the drawing board at the start of each campaign. After all, how long have ‘holidays’ been ‘coming’ for Coca-Cola, or has John Lewis been ‘never knowingly undersold’, and how much are McDonald’s ‘lovin’ it’?

If you have enjoyed reading this article, click here to download our free printable version  – How to get the most out of Design as a Marketer.

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our creative toolkit

If you are thinking about starting a new project we have created a few simple items that might help you. Our creative’s guide to getting the best out of your agency is full of helpful advice and our top tips to writing a creative brief is a perfect prompt when completing one of our project briefing sheets. All three are available to download below.

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