Good graphic design matter

As a graphic designer, this point of view is of course thoroughly biased, as the profession itself builds upon it. But aside from the argumentative side to it, most people don’t need much time to come up with one or more global companies that can verify it. Good graphic design matter. Period.

I once heard a really great narration of graphic design: ‘Good graphic design sends the same specific message to everyone’. With that in mind we have to assume a few things:

  • Good graphic design is a carrier of a message that can be received
  • Good graphic design sends a coherent, specific message
  • Good graphic design appeals to a mass of potential receivers

A message that can be received

As everyone have noticed since a century back, these assumptions can easily be applied in marketing. In an earlier post regarding core values I explore more detailed what a message can be, and how important it is to the designer and the design process. A good graphic designer must make a message receivable.

First of all, we are surrounded by messages on a constant basis, at least in the urban, modern society. Some say we are bombarded with more than 3000 thousand messages, but that is of course dependent on where you live. Regardless if the number is halved or doubled, no living person can receive that many messages without getting confused or blasé. People, both professional communicators and consumers alike, filter out things uninteresting, irrelevant, incoherent and non-specific.

A professional designer that interpret a client’s core values – or message – in order to make it understandable and communicative, matters for the client. Here the designer’s experience and knowledge plays out its real role, something that often makes it hard for young, talented designers to argue for themselves. I was in that position myself, even though I had studied several art, advertising and design schools for several years in total. A client must pay attention to a designer’s portfolio and the projects in order to get what they need, a phenomena that creates a Catch 22 for the young designer.

A coherent, specific message

Okay, the message is clear, but how is it interpreted into one coherent, specific unit? This is maybe the most important area for the designer to focus on, as he or she must be able to present a design that immediately evokes the understanding and emotional associations of the message. Unless this is made right, the client might never be able to reach the receiver through the massive buzz of our society. Every single detail of the design matters, and an experienced designer can quickly decide if something works or not.

But why can an experienced designer’s decision out-rule a client’s taste? First of all it can’t really, as the client always can take his project elsewhere. But if the designer and the client can sit down and discuss the matter in a constructive and creative manner (and yes, this is a trait from an experienced designer), the designer can, in a way. The first reason is that most design educations (worthy their name) put lots of effort into criticizing students and their work. This have two direct effects; one, the design student learns how to deal with criticism in a constructive way, so that he or she learns how to argue for their analysis, creativity and presented work. Secondly, and most importantly, it separates the designer ego from the essence of the creative work, which makes it more generic, non-personal and to-the-point. A natural follow-up question of that would be, ‘Well, do I want a generic, non-personal design?’ To be honest, you don’t. But as an educational method, this learns the designer to breeds creative thoughts set outside one’s own preferences. And that is definitely something you want! With that in mind (as a client), a designer’s ‘advice’ is often something healthy to consider, as their point of view more often originates from an unbiased (and yes, we could argue that no one is truly objective, but I wont here, sorry. A tip for those that doesn’t buy my argument – consider the concept of ‘Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants’).

A good designer must be able to streamline a message, and make it coherent. This is absolutely crucial to reach the target audience. This is something better done from an objective point of view, without taking too much of a client’s taste into consideration. In most cases, an idea of a message is more often subjective when come from a person from the client’s side, as they are more often in the know and focused on details and specifics, rather than the whole picture (or the things that appeal to a more generic but potential customer). When the message of the graphic design is coherent and distinct, it will matter sooner or later.

Again, there a quite a few global brands that are very good at this. Some of them have even started trends in design and even movements, both in a philosophical and commercial sense.

A message to the mass

How a message is shaped into a design affects how people perceive, deal with and remember it. There are many techniques and theories to use and rely on when outlining a design, such as color theory, legibility, typography, usability and other types of sensory input, or cognition. How well these techniques are used and combined will determine the outcome. A designer without a self-distanced relation to his or her creative work will easier fall for subjective taste. This means the design might never reach the mass audience it is intended for, but rather get stuck on personal preferences. With experience and some healthy criticism a designer can evolve above that, to a more objective – but still to the point – design.

When a message is correctly interpreted, formed by a coherent concept, and finally designed in an objective manner, the designer may well be on his or her way to create great visual communication. Details and specifics will of course decide if it will be a success or not. The chance of creating a communicative closure in the mind of the receiver is far much bigger than before, something most clients are quite interested of. It might even build up that brand loyalty everyone aims for. This is why graphic designers (and other designers as well) shy away from badly interpreted core values, ideas from a client that ‘just will make the logotype more vibrant’ but in reality makes it less coherent, or what have you. Most designers have at one time or another run into problems like this, graphic designers in particular, and there is no magic spell that makes them go away.

Note: When I say receiver and mass I refer to the designated target audience for the message. Diving into the process of finding a specific target audience is something I wont go into here.

Postscript I – ‘I’m a client, how do I spot a good designer?’

It’s simpler than you might think at first. Make sure the portfolio is updated, relevant and appealing to you. If you like it, chances are others will, too. Then initiate a discussion, and ask for an opinion. No professional and serious graphic designer will charge you for an initial discussion regarding the marketing problem surrounding your brand, service or product. Be aware of that there will be costs once a project is initiated.

Also, another thing to keep in mind is that a good designer should be able to communicate their ideas and creativity. Even if you have a specific idea or opinion of a specific part of your on-going project, be open-minded and listen, even if the you don’t agree over something important to you. At the same time, don’t be foolish and buy everything that comes your way. A good graphic designer should be able to present a concept both in words and in the design itself, but even more so, be able to argue over it. Being able to separate personal taste from the project goals is imperative.

One thing you can do to minimize your risk is asking for project tunings along the way. Personally I have always worked with projects in three steps, whereas I continuously coordinate and manage my client’s expectations and wishes. So far I haven’t had a crashed client relationship due to misunderstanding or miscommunication over the design.

Remember that a designer almost always wants to keep a copy of the finished work as a  part of their portfolio, so making the best out of it is important to a designer as well.

Postscript II – ‘I’m a designer – how can I get through to my client?’

Well, first of all – get in the know. Unless you drench yourself in work, studies, tutorials, projects, and so on, you will not become a good, experienced graphic designer. Make sure to get criticism, and a lot of it. There are heaps of design forums and discussion groups on the Internet, free for you to explore. Talent is important, but the willpower to become something great is even more important.

Aside from experience, you must be able to argue for your cause. If an idea is great, it will never be shinier than the presentation of it. By writing down your own thoughts of a design process on a piece of paper and study it from time to time, you will suddenly see things in your thoughts once you get some distance to them. The writing itself repeats the learning process which increases the possibility for you to remember things. This is certainly important when it comes to associations and inspiration and such, and something many clients value (as they can understand you better). With understanding comes acceptance, at least a bit on the way. Also, Google a bit around argument and validity, something that come really into hand when presenting designs for a client.

Sometimes, a client don’t want to understand your point, or is determined to have their way. In such cases the best practice is to either in a very professional way decline the project offering, or to completely swallow your pride and professional experience. It’s really that simple. Do remember, accepting an offer which terms you don’t fully (want or can) comply to, can cause your own brand substantial damage.

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