Let's Get Visual: Tips for Talking to a Designer

One of the most gratifying experiences a designer can have is working with a client who has never designed anything before. If all goes well, by the end of the project the designer has helped the client discover an entirely new way of thinking about their brand or product -- maybe they've even learned something new about themselves. Designers live for comments like: "Wow, this turned out better than I ever could have imagined!"

Unfortunately, there's another way this situation can go. Clients who are new to working with designers can sometimes feel intimidated by the process. It's unknown territory; the mere idea of working with a creative professional can feel daunting for those in other fields. More than anything, most people simply aren't used to talking about the visual. This sometimes leads to clients providing unhelpful feedback to the designer, which ends in frustration and wasted time for everyone. So how should an entrepreneur describe the ever-evolving ideas of her startup's identity? How can a nonprofit's board of directors come to a consensus on color scheme and accurately communicate that to a design team? What is the language of design, anyway?  

If you're reading this and nodding in recognition: Hi. I'm glad you're here. Working with a designer should be an enjoyable experience -- ideally it will be fun! By nature, designers want to make their clients happy; we aren't here to shame you for not knowing the difference between vector and raster formats. We're here to help, and sometimes that means educating a client on some basics of design in order to establish a shared language. Because like any relationship, communication is the key to happiness.

So if you're thinking about hiring a graphic designer for the first time, we've compiled some tips for giving feedback that will help the process run more smoothly for everyone.

1.  if you can talk about your brand, we can talk about your branding

When entering into a new logo design or rebranding project, clients may feel a lot of pressure to boil down their company or product in a way that encompasses everything they feel about their work. As designers, we want to hear your story, but we also need to focus on the key elements of your brand. For example, your company may embody values that are both traditional and forward-thinking. This is good information to know and both qualities can be expressed through branding. But sometimes clients want to skip right to dictating how they think their logo should look, often using vague or contradictory terms. This can really limit a designer's creativity.

A more constructive approach would be to offer a handful of terms or key words that describe your company's mission, culture, and values. Think of designers as translators for your vision -- not stenographers.

2. Specificity is key

When providing direction on a design, instead of saying something like, "Make it pop" or "Jazz it up," it would be more effective to pinpoint the areas you've identified as needing work. For example, requests such as "Enlarge the Call To Action" or "Let's try a brighter accent color" will give the designer a clearer idea of what you're looking for. If the typography is not working for you, explain why. Does your company's current branding use only sans serifs? Are you trying to avoid the typographical look of your competitor? "My boss isn't a fan of Helvetica" is not usually helpful feedback for narrowing down which typeface will work best on your company's website.

3. Constraints & Context should be considered early

If a client is having a new business card designed and wants it to look "clean, modern and minimal" but then sends a 5-page Word document and requests one-sided printing, their designer will likely take a deep breath, then ask the client to either do some heavy editing or start pricing poster-size paper stocks. Requests that are physically impossible due to space or material constraints can usually be avoided if the client takes a moment to consider the context into which they're placing their content. If a client is unable to visualize these constraints -- that's okay! But they should ask for input from the designer (who may need to check with printers, vendors, web developers, or event coordinators) before delivering final content. 

4. Email is your friend

These days, most design business occurs via email. There are many reasons designers appreciate having a written record of their conversations with clients: designers can refer back to specifics (such as dimensions and quantity), clients can provide links or attachments of visual examples, and if there's any confusion later in the project both parties can check to see what was actually agreed upon. There are, of course, times when a phone call or in-person meeting are preferable, though these are usually at the kick-off or final presentation of a project. But for every step of the process and each line of feedback, a phone call is not only unnecessary but it can be a hindrance to a designer's efficiency.

In today's workplace, an unscheduled phone call is primarily saved for something urgent, so when a designer's phone rings they tend to drop what they're working on to answer it. If the call is simply to request a color change or make a series of text adjustments, this can feel like an inefficient use of the designer's time since they'll have to take notes (leaving room for error or miscommunication), and may even feel pressured to make that change immediately. Instead, if a client simply sends an email clearly outlining their requested changes (bullet points are always nice!), the designer can prioritize this seamlessly into their workflow. It may seem like a small thing, but it can make a major difference in an ongoing designer-client relationship.

5. crowdsourcing creates more problems than it solves

Designers understand that clients want their new brand to be a big hit. We want you to love it, and it would be great if everyone else loved it, too. But how often is something universally popular? (I mean, aside from Betty White, Nutella, and baby turtles.) So when a client comes to a designer with a list of comments from their spouse, fishing buddy, boss' niece, and cab driver, the designer will often feel overloaded with unhelpful information. While it's an understandable impulse to seek the opinions of the people you care about, it's ultimately not the best strategy for your brand. The problem here is that your network is not necessarily your target audience. A design studio can utilize structured survey tools and focus groups to test branding options on your target demographics; this kind of testing will result in much more valuable feedback for your organization.

Remember, you hired a designer for their expertise. Trust in their abilities enough to give them the creative freedom they need; paired with your constructive feedback, you'll find that the design process can be an exciting, rewarding experience.